It is often assumed that the Romans realized the danger of using war elephants as early as their wars with Pyrrhus of Epirus and never employed them in their army. But this is not the case. The Romans first met with war elephants at Heraclea in 280 BC; much of their defeat was on account of Pyrrhus’s elephants. Yet after the battle they scornfully called them ‘Lucanian cows’ (after the district of Lucania where they had first faced elephants). The next year, at Asculum, the Romans brought out carts with hooks and torches against Pyrrhus’s elephants, but the idea failed to work, and again they were defeated because of elephants. In 255 BC the Carthaginians dealt them such a crippling blow, also with the help of elephants, that the Romans chose not to engage the Carthaginians and stay within fortress walls for another several years. It may seem strange that several years later, having seized 140 Carthaginian elephants in the battle of Panormus, they killed all of them in the circus to amuse the public instead of using them for war. Most of the elephants had been captured without drivers, however, and were in fact useless to a Roman army unskilled in how to use an elephant corps effectively.
Victory in the Second Punic War brought the Romans several elephants, which they first used in battle against King Philip V (r. 221-179 BC) of Macedonia in 199 BC What was more important, however, was that in the course of that war the Romans acquired loyal allies in Numidian kings, who provided them with elephants for every major campaign from 198 BC throughout the 2nd century BC, supplying 10-22 elephants at a time. The Romans used elephants in their wars against Macedonia, Antiochus III, Celtiberians in Hispania, the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War, and the Gauls. Elephants were active in nearly all the battles and performed consistently well. For example, the role of elephants in the bat les of Cynoscephalae (197 BC) and Pydna (168 BC) between the Romans and the Macedonian kingdom has been underestimated. The honour of achieving victory is usually ascribed to the superiority of mobile Roman legions over an inert Macedonian phalanx. Yet it is forgotten that none other than elephants gained the Romans victory on the flanks in both battles – without them final victory could not have been achieved. The battle of Magnesia in 190 BC was the only encounter during this period where the Romans did not dare to commit their elephants to action, leaving all the 16 animals in reserve. It was a reasonable decision: Roman elephants were African, while Antioch III had Asian species, considerably outnumbering the Romans’ with 54 versus 16 pachyderms. The Romans were perfectly aware of the fact that ‘the African elephants are no match for the Indian elephants even when the numbers are equal, for the latter are much larger and fight with more determination’ (Livy, 37.39.13 ). They remembered what had happened in the battle of Raphia in 217 BC and decided to take no risk.
Only in the late 2nd century BC, when their relations with Numidi a had deteriorated to open warfare, were the Romans deprived of a depend able source of war elephants. They do not seem to have used them in the first half of the 1st century BC Nevertheless, elephants probably participated in Caesar’s invasion of Britain. Caesar does not acknowledge the fact, rendering all the homage to his legionaries, but Polyaenus (VIII. 23 .5), a Greek living in Rome in the 2nd century AD, tells us that in crossing the Thames River, Caesar scattered the barbarians, awaiting him on the other bank, with a single huge elephant carrying a tower with archers and slingers. The sight of a strange animal apparently sent the barbarians fleeing. Caesar is also known to have been planning to use elephants in his unrealized campaign against the Parthians, the bulk of whose army was cavalry.
Pompey the Great, Caesar’s opponent in the civil wars, had no aversion to using war elephants, either. He had them in his army at Pharsalia, in Greece, although history has not recorded their particular role in this battle. Pompey’s adherents in Africa also had a considerable number of elephants at their disposal, delivered by the allied Numidian king Juba. Before facing them in battle, Caesar acquired several elephants from Italy in order to train his soldiers to fight them. Even though these were probably circus elephants not trained for warfare, he taught five cohorts to oppose elephants, including how to hit vulnerable and unarmoured spots in their bodies.
Caesar was rewarded for his efforts. In the subsequent battle of Thapsus (46 BC), Caesar’s cohorts showered the enemy’s elephants with accurate fire from their bows and slings and put them to flight. It should be noticed that the fire was not lethal, as all the elephants were captured alive, in armour and carrying towers, and were later used to terrify a rebellious town. Seemingly, Juba had delivered untrained animals, which were easily routed . The battle of Thapsus was the last in the Mediterranean area to be fought with a considerable number of elephants. Emperor Claudius (r. AD 41-54) brought several elephants to Britain in AD 44 to suppress an insurrection. He may have repeated Caesar’s exploit on the River Thames, but nothing is known about it. The last man to try to introduce elephants on the battleground was Didius Julianus (r. 193), who had fought for the title of emperor with Septimius Severus (r. 193- 211) in AD 193. Julianus lacked an effective army and sought to strengthen it with elephants from a circus. Not trained for the battlefield, the elephants naturally refused to fight, and only succeeded in adding to the confusion of battle.
An analysis of peace treaties once more proves that the Romans were concerned about the possible threat posed by war elephants. Almost every treaty signed with a defeated foe who had used war elephants contained a clause forbidding them to have this arm of service in future: victorious in the Second Punic War, the Romans demanded that all war elephants be given to them and acquisition of new ones was banned. When the Second Macedonian War was over, Philip V was prohibited to have a single elephant; after Antiochus III was defeated at Magnesia, he was ordered to give away all his war elephants and to keep none in the future. Equipment, armament and crew Numerous sources testify that Roman elephants carried towers and wore armour. It was probably a Numidian tradition, as the Romans were unlikely to have re-equipped elephants received from their allies. Tower-warriors were generally archers and slingers. Caesar’s elephant that frightened the barbarians on the Thames is recorded as having worn armour made from iron scales. Unfortunately, no other details of Roman elephant equipment are known to us.