Clash of the War Elephants


Tuesday, April 08, 2014



Elephants were the tanks of ancient Mediterranean warfare, commonly used for trampling and intimidating enemies. Yet there was only one battle in which African elephants and their Asian cousins are known to have met—the Battle of Raphia, in Gaza, in 217 B.C. According to the historian Polybius, it wasn’t even a contest. He writes that the African pachyderms, under the command of the Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt, panicked and tried to flee at the sight of the larger Asian elephants of the Seleucid army. Yet African savannah elephants are typically bigger and stronger than Asian ones. Had Polybius gotten it wrong? Modern writers have speculated that the Egyptians had African forest elephants, a smaller species than the savannah variety. Later Roman and Carthaginian armies, including Hannibal’s forces, might also have used forest elephants. 


That idea has crept into modern accounts, depictions, and even video games such as Age of Empires, in which war elephants have the rounded ears and dwarfish proportions of the forest dwellers. Now geneticists have found that the species of elephant that the Egyptians had access to came from modern-day Eritrea in East Africa, and share no genetic markers with forest elephants. “The idea that they used forest elephants was not based on evidence, but it got repeated over and over,” says geneticist Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It makes no sense. Forest elephants lived in the Congo basin, thousands of miles from the Mediterranean.” The matter of Polybius’ account remains unsettled.