Did Romans Use War Elephants?

By Antonia Čirjak on June 12 2020 in History

Ancient renaissance sculpture War Elephant and Roman Legionnaire at the famous Parco dei Mostri, also called Sacro Bosco or Giardini di Bomarzo. Monsters park. Lazio, Italy
Ancient renaissance sculpture War Elephant and Roman Legionnaire at the famous Parco dei Mostri, also called Sacro Bosco or Giardini di Bomarzo. Monsters park. Lazio, Italy
  • Throughout ancient times war elephants played large roles in some battles. Once firearms were introduced, their usage declined, and they were limited to non-combat roles.
  • The usage of war elephants in the Mediterranean countries is mostly connected to the wars between Rome and Carthage. However, the Greek kingdom of Epirus was the main cause that introduced elephants to those parts.
  • During the battle of Magnesia, the Greek forces used their 54 elephants to combat the 16 elephants that were a part of the Roman forces.

It is easy to romanticize the past, especially the war conflicts that occurred throughout the centuries. Many movies and books were made and about the periods when large empires ruled the planet and were waging war against each other. Naturally, some of those stories are exaggerated, and one that may seem that way is that the Romans used war elephants.

However, this information is correct, although it may have been exaggerated in various stories throughout history. The Roman army focused more on infantry and discipline, so they did not use war elephants that often. They did adopt them eventually and used them in several wars, but their main purpose was to demoralize the opponents. There was little tactical purpose behind their usage. 

War Elephants

War elephants were used throughout history as specially trained elephants that were used in combat with the guidance of humans. The goal of using these elephants was to charge towards the enemy and break their ranks. Their sheer size and magnitude would instill fear into enemy ranks. Military units that had troops mounted onto elephants were called elephantry.

Throughout ancient times war elephants played large roles in some battles. Once firearms were introduced, their usage declined, and they were limited to non-combat roles. Some parts of Asia, such as Vietnam and Thailand, continued to use them in the 19th century.

War elephants were used throughout history as specially trained elephants that were used in combat with the guidance of humans.
War elephants were used throughout history as specially trained elephants that were used in combat with the guidance of humans.

The usage of war elephants in the Mediterranean countries is mostly connected to the wars between Rome and Carthage. However, the Greek kingdom of Epirus was the main cause that introduced elephants to those parts. King Pyrrhus was the one that brought twenty elephants and used them to attack the Romans. This was in 280 BC, at the battle of Heraclea. The Romans were caught by surprise and lost the battle.

The next time they tried attacking the Romans with elephants, they came prepared. The Romans used flammable weapons and special devices used to frighten and injure elephants. Carthage was inspired by these battles and managed to develop its own way of using the elephants.

Roman Usage Of War Elephants

Near the end of the Pyrrhic war, Romans managed to capture some elephants and used them as a display of triumph. Eventually, they managed to bring back even more war elephants once the Punic Wars ended, and they started to use them in their war campaigns. During the conquest of Greece, Romans used war elephants in many battles.

Some of the more important ones were the invasion of Macedonia in 199 BC and the battle of Thermopylae. One especially noteworthy battle was the battle of Magnesia, where the Greek forces used their 54 elephants to combat the 16 elephants that were a part of the Roman forces.

The usage of elephants played a major role in many battles, and it is easy to see why. Their size played a critical role in instilling fear into the opponent's ranks, and their quick and powerful charges could shatter entire groups of soldiers. While they were not a large part of the Roman military, and their usage fell off with the upcoming years after the initial battles, it is impossible to ignore the importance these animals played in wars throughout human history.

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