Although known for millennia by many of the peoples of Africa and Asia, elephants’ introduction to the classical West came around 331 B.C., when Alexander the Great encountered ᴡᴀʀ elephants as his ᴀʀᴍʏ swept from Persia into India. At the river Jhelum, in present-day Pakistan, Alexander defeated the Indian ruler Porus, who was said to have 100,000 ᴡᴀʀ elephants in his ᴀʀᴍʏ. Ever since, whether revered as a divine symbol of luck and wisdom, used as unique tools of diplomacy between leaders, deployed to ɪɴᴛɪᴍɪᴅᴀᴛᴇ opposing armies or put on display in the service of status or science, elephants have loomed large in the historical record. Check out 10 notable examples.
1. Pyrrhus’s Pachyderms
After Alexander, it became fashionable (if not always militarily expedient) for up-and-coming generals to field a few elephants in their armies. In 279 B.C., the Greek general Pyrrhus attempted to revive Alexander’s empire, ɪɴᴠᴀᴅing southern Italy with a force that included 20 armed and armored elephants. Pyrrhus hoped his tuskers would ᴛᴇʀʀɪfʏ the defending Romans, but the beasts’ main effect was to block his own ᴀʀᴍʏ’s advances through narrow streets. Pyrrhus also ran into the most common difficulty with ᴡᴀʀ elephants: whenever the beasts panicked they often bolted, ᴛʀᴀᴍᴘʟing his own ᴀʀᴍʏ’s foot soldiers. Pyrrhus’ invasion was successful, but costly, spawning the term “Pyrrhic Victory”—the ancient historian Plutarch quotes him as quipping: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ʀᴜɪɴᴇᴅ.”
2. Mahmud: The Elephant Whose Arrival Marked Muhammad’s Birth
The first year of the Isʟᴀᴍic calendar corresponds to A.D. 622, the year of the Hirja (the prophet Muhammad’s emigration from Mecca to Medina), but the prophet’s birth occurred 52 years earlier, in what is known in the Isʟᴀᴍic world as the “Year of the Elephant”—so named because it was the year a Christian Yemeni ruler attempted (with one or more ᴡᴀʀ elephants) to ɪɴᴠᴀᴅᴇ Mecca and ᴅᴇsᴛʀᴏʏ the Kaaba, the central shrine in Mecca that predated Isʟᴀᴍ. According to Isʟᴀᴍic tradition, the lead elephant, prophetically named Mahmud, halted at the border of Mecca and refused to enter.
3. Surus: Crossing the Alps with Hannibal
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest military leaders in history, the Carthaginian general Hannibal famously ɪɴᴠᴀᴅᴇd Italy from the north in 218 B.C., crossing the Alps from Gaul with an ᴀʀᴍʏ of foot-soldiers, cavalry and a handful of north African forest elephants, smaller than the Asian and African elephants familiar to today’s zoo-goers. Of the six elephants that survived the arduous mountain trek, five ᴅɪᴇd the following winter. The sixth, a one-tusked elephant named Surus, became Hannibal’s mount and mobile viewing platform in the marshes of the Arno. Over the next 15 years, Hannibal won significant battles and occupied much of Italy, sometimes with reinforcement elephants shipped directly from Africa. In a 209 B.C. battle with the Roman consul Marcellus, Hannibal’s ᴡᴀʀ elephants created ʜᴀᴠᴏᴄ until the Romans managed to ᴡᴏᴜɴᴅ one, touching off a cascade of panic among the pachyderms.
4. Abdul-Abbas: Charlemagne’s Elephant
In A.D. 801, a Jewish trader named Isaac returned to Europe after a four-year mission to the Persian Empire and Africa. He had been sent by Charlemagne, the Frankish king who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor, to procure an elephant from Haroun-al-Raschid, the Abbasid Caliph who would later be immortalized in many of the “Arabian Nights” stories. Known for making Baghdad a cosmopolitan center of religious and scientific study, Haroun sought friendly relations with Charlemagne in part to counterbalance two rival dynasties—the Byzantines in Greece and the Umayyads in Sᴘᴀɪɴ. The elephant, named Abdul-Abbas after the founder of the Abbasid empire, found a welcome home at Charlemagne’s court at Aix-la-Chapelle (today’s Aachen, Germany). Charlemagne took Abdul-Abbas to ᴡᴀʀ with the Danes in 804, but the elephant steered clear of the fɪɢʜᴛing.
5. Thomas Jefferson’s Mistaken Mammoth
In 1801 pioneering American natural historian and museum-founder Charles Willson Peale asked President Jefferson for a federal grant to excavate a set of ʙᴏɴᴇs that had been uncovered in a tar pit near Newburgh, Nᴇᴡ Yᴏʀᴋ. Jefferson obliged, and Peale uncovered the first known full remains of a North American mastodon, a prehistoric cousin of the elephant and mammoth that went ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛ 11,000 years ago. Misidentified as a mammoth, the skeleton of the 11-foot-tall animal was put on display at Peale’s Philadelphia museum. In 1804 Jefferson, who doubted that species could go ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛ, instructed the leaders of the Lewis and Clark expedition to keep an eye out for any mammoths, living or ᴅᴇᴀᴅ, as they journeyed to the Pacific. In 1807 Jefferson commissioned William Clark to collect mammoth fossils from Big Bᴏɴᴇ Lick, Kentucky. Clark then forwarded set of ʙᴏɴᴇs to the White House, where Jefferson enthusiastically laid them out in the East Room.