Diadochi Elephants



217 BC – During the Wars of the Diadochi at the Battle of Raphia, Ptolemy IV Philopator of Egypt with 70,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 73 war elephants fought the army of Antiochus III. The Antiochids suffered just under 10,000 foot dead, about 300 horse and 5 elephants; 4,000 men were taken prisoner. The Ptolemaic losses were 1,500 foot, 700 horse and 16 elephants. Most of the Antiochid elephants were taken by the Ptolemies.

Alexander collected hundreds of elephants, set them around his palace in Babylon, and appointed a military commander to oversee their training. He died before he could use them.

Elephants presented unusual problems for the army. Aside from the vast quantities of fodder required by a division of elephants, the beasts also produced a massive amount of biological waste. The elephants’ primitive alimentary system digests less than half of the food eaten: the rest is deposited unceremoniously on the ground.

Recently, the frequency and amounts of urine and dung excreted by the average elephant were calculated. An elephant urinates every two hours, in the amount of five to ten liters each time. It defecates every one hundred minutes, five to seven boluses (lumps) each time, evacuating a total weight of approximately two hundred and fifty pounds per day. If two hundred elephants maintained an adequate diet and normal rate of secretion, a full twenty-five tons of manure would have to be hauled away from Alexander’s pavilion every day! Presumably, the pack animals assigned to elephant duty were laden with elephant food for the journey into Babylon and were burdened with elephant dung upon their departure. It may well have been sold as fertilizer.

When Alexander died in June of 323 BC, he left behind a bastard son, a retarded half-brother, and two pregnant wives, but no obvious heir. This led his generals to fight a long civil war known as the “War of the Diadochi,” or War of the Successors. The history of these wars becomes quite complex because of the numerous participants and their ever-changing alliances. The author will attempt to avoid less relevant details to focus mainly on the role of the elephants under each general. Trautmann declares that “the wars of the successors inaugurated what might be called the arms race of the fourth and third centuries, which was a struggle to acquire superior forces of elephants.”

Perdiccas had the early advantage because he was Alexander’s second in command. Perdiccas expected the other generals to elect him as sole ruler. Instead, the generals argued that they should just divide up the world between them and not elect a leader. Meanwhile, the Macedonian infantry surrounded the meeting hall, demanding that Alexander’s retarded half-brother, Philip III, be named king. After accepting a compromise, Perdiccas set a trap: he surrounded the soldiers with cavalry and elephants and forced the surrender of the rebellious ring leaders. Between thirty and three hundred Macedonians (the sources vary) were trampled to death by the elephants on the spot.

Without a real agreement, the generals carved up Alexander’s empire. Each of the Diadochi ruled a different region (satrapy) of the conquered world from which to draw money and hire mercenaries.

One striking aspect of the wars of the Diadochi was the speedy incorporation of war elephants into combat formations. In India, the elephants of King Porus had nearly beaten the Macedonian army, leading to a mutiny in the proud Greek infantry. Having seen the impact of war elephants, the generals sought to develop elephant corps of their own. Those who had fought against the Asian elephants alongside Alexander included Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Lysimachus, and Seleucus. Three of these would become generals with war elephants in their armies. According to historian W. W. Tam, “… the impression made on the generals… was that elephants were an arm to be obtained at any price, and after Alexander’s death every one of the contending generals got all the elephants he could.”

Perdiccas, because he controlled Babylon and the elephants, took custody of both “kings,” Philip III and Alexander’s newly born son, Alexander IV. Perdiccas still hoped to consolidate power and to rule the world, in time.

Ptolemy received the rich and easily defended satrapy of Egypt. His descendants would form a long-lasting dynasty to rule Egypt and, within decades, would begin capturing African elephants for warfare.

Perdiccas’ friend Eumenes became satrap of Turkey. A close friend and personal secretary of Alexander, he would soon command dozens of war elephants. This was a slap in the face to Antigonus the One- Eyed (“Monophtalmos”), who had governed Turkey for a decade on Alexander’s behalf. Perdiccas accused Antigonus of treason and summoned him for trial, but the One-Eyed fled west and convinced the ruler of Greece, Antipater, to oppose Perdiccas.

The “trigger” for the Successor Wars came through an unusual example of political scheming. General Ptolemy of Egypt became a body snatcher! The Macedonians expected a new ruler to bury his predecessor, and so Perdiccas planned to bury Alexander in Macedon, paving the way to take charge. This made Alexander’s body extremely valuable to ambitious generals! Perdiccas sent the body with a military escort toward the Mediterranean, to send it home by ship. General Ptolemy paid informants to learn the exact route of the convoy and sent an army north to capture Alexander’s body! The corpse temporarily rested in Memphis, Egypt, while Ptolemy fashioned a magnificent tomb in Alexandria.

This theft was a major setback to Perdiccas’ ambitions. He also heard that Antigonus One-Eyed and Antipater would soon invade his lands from Greece. Perdiccas asked his friend Eumenes to delay the Greeks as long as possible. Gathering his own army, and forty elephants, Perdiccas rushed to Egypt. He hoped to quickly crush Ptolemy, regain Alexander’s body, and then return to fight in the north and west.

To guard Babylon during his absence, Perdiccas put his assistant Seleucus in charge. Five years earlier, Seleucus had commanded infantry and personally faced the elephant attack at the battle of the Hydaspes. Seleucus would soon become a major player in the Successor Wars.

Why did Perdiccas take only forty elephants to Egypt and not two hundred? The roads to Egypt passed through desert country, and provisioning even forty elephants with food and water on the journey would be difficult!

In May 321 BC, Perdiccas arrived in Egypt to kill Ptolemy and reclaim Alexander’s corpse. Ptolemy hurried with reinforcements to a fortress near the Nile called Castellum Camelorum, or Fort Camel.

Perdiccas attacked with a force of several thousand infantry, cavalry, and forty elephants. Perdiccas had the best infantry in the world, Alexander’s old corps of Silver Shields. These men were literally in their fifties and sixties, but their experience and camaraderie made up for any loss of youthful vigor.

Elephants, ladder carriers, and infantry led the assault on the Camel’s Fort. The task of the war elephants was to rip up the palisades: fences made of sharpened wooden posts meant to stop the invaders from reaching the fort. By grappling a post with its trunk, an elephant could use its weight and strength to wrench the stake from its moorings, thus clearing paths for the soldiers behind. The elephants made quick work of the palisades and were soon dismantling the parapets along the walls. 15

Showing himself brave, Ptolemy rallied the defenders on the walls. Writes Diodorus:

Ptolemy… wished to encourage the other commanders and friends to face the dangers, taking his long spear and posting himself on the top of the outwork, put out the eyes of the leading elephant, since he occupied a higher position, and wounded its Indian mahout… Following his example, his friends fought boldly and made the next beast in line entirely useless by shooting down the Indian who was directing it.

Ptolemy imitated the orders of Alexander at the Hydaspes: impale the elephant’s eyes or its rider. Disabling the leading beasts caused the rest to panic, and the whole squad of elephants stormed away from Camel’s Fort. Perdiccas’ discouraged army withdrew.

Despite this setback, Perdiccas did not abandon the campaign. Even if he could not capture or kill Ptolemy, Perdiccas needed to retake Alexander’s corpse. The army moved south along the Nile River toward Memphis, where Alexander had been temporarily interred. Although the Nile was not in flood, the river was quite deep, up to the men’s necks. With little or no wood in the region to be cut, his army could not build a bridge or boats.

Perdiccas devised a unique, but risky, plan. The elephants waded into the Nile in a line stretching the full width of the river, standing trunk to tail, to act as a breakwater, slowing the current! As a backup measure, the cavalry horses were placed nose to tail, down river, so that any soldiers swept away by the current could grab onto the horses. This clever idea worked for a short time, but all of the activity stirred up the sand from the bottom and the river became deeper. The biographer Kincaid describes the horror of the deepening water:

This was to send all but the strongest swimmers to certain death… others threw away their arms and armour and tried to swim, but the undertow sucked many of them below the surface. Their corpses were carried down stream and drew to the spot quantities of crocodiles, probably sacred animals fed daily by the Egyptians, and these attacked the swimming soldiers. Before the eyes of their panic-stricken comrades, the horrible beasts pulled down man after man…. No less than two thousand perished in the crossing, of whom one thousand were the prey of the crocodiles.

Later commanders in India, for instance, used elephants as breakwaters in rivers in a more methodical way. They made two strings of elephants: one group upstream to slow the water and another group connected by ropes, downstream, to catch any men or horses being washed away.

These two defeats in the summer of 321 BC, at Camel’s Fort and the Nile, led Perdiccas’ officers to stab him to death in his tent. The assassins made quick peace with Ptolemy, gave him the elephants, and led the remnants of their army back to Babylon.


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