Hannibal’s floating elephants

Hannibal took 38 elephants over the Alps and into Italy. How did he transport them across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Spain? And also how many did he take to Spain. Any historical reference would be greatly appreciated.

37 is the more commonly cited number.

Anyway, unknown, but presumably by galley or raft/barge. Pyrrhus of Epirus had landed a force of war elephants ( which probably won him the battle of Heraclea ) in Italy over 60 years earlier, but how he did it nobody knows. To quote:

When Pyrrhus was asked by Tarentum to help fight Rome, he sent a force of 25,000 men and 20 elephants from the Greek peninsula. He was faced with the problem of transporting the beasts to Tarentum. All of the ancient sources are silent on this matter. Clearly, the elephants must have crossed the Adriatic Sea somehow. This problem has baffled scholars for centuries. The shortest distance was forty miles across. When Metellus had to transport his elephants across the Straits of Messina for display in Rome, he constructed a raft made up of large jars which were fastened in such a way that they could not break apart or clash; this framework was then covered with planks; earth and brushwood were placed on top so that the raft looked like a farmyard. On this, the elephants ferried across. This method is the most plausible one for Pyrrhus to have used since the Mediterranean would have been calm during the spring. Also, elephant eyesight is weak in bright sunlight and thus the beasts could have been more easily tricked into entering the disguised barge. Moreover, the Carthaginians were later to transport their elephants from Africa to Sicily by sea. The raft method was used to cross rivers and to travel on the Red Sea by Ptolemy.

From here: http://www.barca.fsnet.co.uk/elephants-war-greek.htm

No firm details there, either. Sorry :). Though the sources do state that the army he left behind with Hasdrubal when he crossed the Ebro in 218 included 21 elephants. So he had brought at least 58 - i.e. 37 + 21. However considering how tricky they were to maintain in sub-optimum conditions, it is likely a larger number were initially brought.

Further when Mago was sent to reinforce Spain in 215 ( before being diverted to aid Hannibal ), his force included a further twenty elephants. In 211 it is estimated that the Carthaginians had 30 elephants available in Spain. Also in 211 a force that included 12 elephants was landed in Sicily.

Hannibal was fond of using elephants and at the climactic battle of Zama in North Africa, he had 80. And he lost. Of course at Cannae he had none and won perhaps the most greatest victory in military history. Go figure :).

  • Tamerlane

Heh. “most greatest.” I guess that is superlative enough :p.

  • Tamerlane

I have this theory:Maybe Carthaginians were breeding Elephanths in conquered lands ie,Greece,Spain and that way they did not have to bring them all the way from N.Africa.

Unlikely, I think. We are not particularly good at it now, wirth all the advantages of modern science and verterinary medicine.

  • Tamerlane

IIRC Hannibal started from the Carthaginian colonies in Spain. His elephants may have been bred there. (Other than that, I got nuthin’.)

Thanks for all the good information. Also I followed the link and found lots more there.

Don’t forget that some breeds of elephants have ears large enough to be used as wings!

Yes I agree, but elephants have long trunks, so they propably walked underwater .

FWIW, the breed of elephant used by Hannibal was a now extinct variety of forest dwelling pachyderm that was a bit smaller than your typical modern Asian elephant. Or so I have read.

4 theories so far;

  1. The elephants walked under water with their trunks extended above the surface to breathe.

  2. They flew by flapping their very large ears.

  3. The elephants were born and raised in Spain, and

  4. As Tamerlane said they were floated across on rafts or barges made to looks like farmyards so that the animals might be kept calm in the rough waters.

Hmmm, I think I can rule out number 3 because it takes so long to raise an elephant to fighting strength and Hannibal would still have to get at least 2 animals there to start with since they were never indigenous to Spain. Although I like option 2 with the vision of a formation of elephants flapping across the Mediterranean, the laws of physics might rule that one out. Number 1 seems very practical if only their trunks could be extended to a length of 500 meters or so.
Using Tamerlane’s information about Pyrrhus’ elephants and how he floated them to Tarentum, I was able to find several other references to the floating barnyard theory so I think that is the most plausible although it must have been a huge task to float 58 elephants across the Mediterranean Sea to Spain.

Thanks for the help.