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Hannibal’s elephants

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Hannibal on an elephant in the Alps
Hannibal on an elephant in the Alps | Photo: Total War

Hannibal became famous not only for his great victories over disciplined Romans during the Second Punic War but also for his surprising march through the Pyrenees and the Alps. During his trip, he had 38 elephants with him – animals that were not used to the cold climate and mountains.

The road of Hannibal’s troops led from Iberia through the Pyrenees and the Alps to Italy. Severe weather conditions and the fact that elephants consume 25 times more energy moving in the mountains than on flat terrain caused most of the Hannibal elephants to die during the crossing of the mountains, and 37 of them did not live to the famous battles of Cannae.

Polybius claimed that only a few of these powerful animals survived the harsh weather in the mountains.

Finally, the last elephant alive was an animal named Surus. When Hannibal contracted an eye infection, he commanded the Arno River crossing from the elephant’s back. According to some historians, it is believed that Hannibal’s elephant did not come from Africa, but was of Indian origin. Apparently, the Ptolemaic dynasty (descendants of Ptolemy, who was one of Alexander the Great’s generals) brought a large population of Indian elephants during the campaign in Syria 1.

According to the records of Plautus, a Roman comedy writer from the 3rd-2nd century BCE, Surus wore red bedspreads, had a red shield attached and a platform for the mahout to sit on.

  1. John Noble Wilford, The mystery of Hannibal's elephants
  • Lancel Serge, Hannibal
  • McKeown J. C., A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire

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