Ausculum Satrianum 279 BC

The introduction of the elephant to the battlefield was quickly followed by the introduction of anti-elephant tactics and techniques to deter, deflect and destroy them. At Ausculum in Apulia, Pyrrhus brought elephants, nineteen of them, onto the front line again, but the Romans had learnt their lesson and responded. They came to the battle equipped with fire and anti-elephant devices and traps: ox-drawn wagons with long spikes to impale the beasts, buckets of fire to terrify them and a squad of troops whose role it was to fire off salvoes of javelins at the elephants. Roman infantrymen would frequently try to cut off their trunks, causing panic so that the animal hurtled back into its own lines. The flank was their Achilles heel, exploited by skirmishers armed with javelins which, when on target, could enrage an elephant. The cavalry sport of tent pegging comes from training exercises in which horsemen injured or repulsed war elephants. The war pig was a particularly popular weapon against the elephant. Pliny the Elder writes that ‘elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig.’ We know from Aelian that, at the siege of Megara during the Diadochi wars, the Megarians poured boiling oil on a herd of pigs, set them on fire, and drove them towards the enemy’s elephants. The elephants ran amok, terrified by the burning, squealing pigs.

The two armies at Ausculum were of similar size, with 40,000 men each. The Romans comprised four legions or so of infantry, plus allies made up of the Dauni. Pyrrhus’ force was something of a motley army, comprising Epirotes, Greeks, allies from Magna Graecia, Etruscans and Umbrians, his own Macedonian infantry and cavalry, Greek mercenaries, war elephants, and Samnite infantry and cavalry. On the second day of the battle, the elephants were to prove decisive, as at Heraclea: the elephants, and light infantry, punctured the Roman line and, despite an attack by anti-elephant Roman chariots, the Romans were overrun by Greek psiloi, lightly armed skirmishers. The elephants charged again; the Romans broke ranks and Pyrrhus, deploying his cavalry, delivered a significant rout.

Roman casualties were in the region of 8,000, while Pyrrhus lost a considerable 3,000, including many officers. The costly victory here gives us the term ‘Pyrrhic victory’ – where casualties are so great in victory that the loss is greater than any gain. Plutarch describes it neatly:

The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.

Pyrrhus, recognizing his dilemma, is reputed to have commented: ‘Another victory like that and I’ll be going back to Epirus without a single soldier,’ and, ‘If we win one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.’ Disaster was not just the preserve of the defeated. Accounts of the battle vary greatly between Plutarch and those of Dionysius, Zonaras, Orosius and Livy. For Orosius it was an overwhelming victory for the Romans.

The advantages of the elephant on the battlfield are obvious: trampling weight, crushing bulk and swirling tusks were formidable weapons. An elephant charged at around 30km/h and, unlike horse cavalry, could be unstoppable; the terror they instilled in the enemy up against them was awesome. Horses panicked just at their smell. The elephant’s thick hide was like armour; some elephants were fitted with armour. Where turrets were used they gave the rider or commander a unique view of the battlefield or else a platform from which to loose fusillades of arrows. But elephants had their disadvantages too.

‘Friendly fire’, as we euphemistically call it, would have been very frequent in the head-on, close-quarter combat fighting of the tightly-knit Roman fighting units. It would have been exacerbated by a number of factors: no distinctive or recognizable uniforms, similar languages yelled out by enemies and allies in the heat of battle, to name but two. The general mayhem and turmoil would only have increased the chances of fighting your own men or raining arrows, spears and sling-shot down on friends and allies. The consternation of the Athenian defeat at the night-time Battle of Epipolae in 413 BC is graphically described by Thucydides – a blueprint for ‘blue-on-blue’ battlefield confusion. He asks how anyone can possibly know what is really going on in the dark: ‘many parts of the enemy ended by falling upon each other, friend against friend, citizen against citizen.’ This nightmare scenario must have been repeated endlessly down the years. Despite attempts to control and direct it effectively against the enemy, the elephant often can only have added to the ‘friendly fire’. Despite its advantage as a psychological and physical instrument of war, the elephant was prone to panic, difficult to control and indiscriminately deadly when on the rampage. Time and time again, when a startled, frightened or injured elephant turned and fled, it trampled over its own soldiers in its blind rush to flee the field of battle.

The Battle of Heraclea was the first battle the Romans lost to a Greek enemy and to an army which deployed elephants as a weapon of war. Ausculum was the second. The Carthaginians observed the strategic advantage that could be gained by the successful deployment of elephants and recruited them for support in the First Punic War. Rome too was seduced and, after the Punic Wars, made significant use of them: the invasion of Macedonia in 199 BC, the battles of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC and Thermopylae and Magnesia in 190 BC when Antiochus III’s fifty-four elephants faced the Romans’ sixteen. The Romans sent out twenty-two elephants at Pydna in 168 BC. They also featured in the Roman campaigns against the Celtiberians in Hispania, against the Gauls and in the invasion of Britannia. Polyaenus tells of Caesar’s use of an elephant to defeat Cassivellaunus’s men at a river crossing:

Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armour and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over.

However, the story is not true, the elephant being deployed in Claudius’ later invasion. The Romans faced the elephant for the last time at the Battle of Thapsus, 46 BC, when Julius Caesar equipped his Vth legion (Alaudae) with axes for hacking the elephants’ legs. The Romans hacked away and survived the charge; the Vth adopted the elephant as its symbol.


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