Seleucid Shock Weapons – Elephants

One may ask why to choose Seleucids out of all successors. There are certainly many interesting ones – especially if one looks at the wars between Diadochi. What differs Seleucids from others is their purchase / exchange of large quantity of Indian war elephants. They are not the small variety of african forest elephants that Hannibal imported over alps to amuse Romans, but substantially larger ones. Unlike Hannibal’s variety, they were heavily armored, tough and numerous.

seleucid elephants1

seleucid elephants3War elephants were used as a shock weapon to terrorize and disorder enemy lines. There is no doubt that armored elephants carrying several men in howdahs were sight that put terror in heart of enemies not used to them. However, they were also effective charge weapon that could not be stopped easily – one only have to imagine rampaging animal of immense weight pushing forward with speed of nearly 30km/hour.

seleucid elephants4

War elephants were very expensive, and only major powers could afford their own elephant corps. Elephants were likely first used in India due to obvious abundance of animal stock. Porus alone fielded around hundred against Alexander, and Nanda Empire or Gangaridai could probably field thousands of them, perhaps as many as 6000. Prospect of such powerful enemy forced even Alexander to rethink his Indian advances.

seleucid elephants5In west, use of elephants was more limited, and last battle where they were deployed in any significant number was battle of Thapsus 46 BC. In West, war elephants were seen in the ranks of Carthage, Phyrrus and Rome but in very limited numbers. After effective tactics were developed against them, elephants slowly fell out of favor and remained as viable weapon only in the East. Vietnamese used them still for combat role in 1885 during Sino-French war. After that, they were retained in armed service, but only in non-combat role for their ability to haul heavy loads.

seleucid elephants2These are successor elephants from Baccus, and I like them quite a lot. Since there ought to be two varieties, escorted and non-escorted, I should probably get another pair and have some odd javelin men around them. Additionally, elephants without howdah would probably serve better as Carthaginian / Roman variety so there might be place for some of those as well.seleucid elephants6


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4 Responses to Seleucid Shock Weapons – Elephants

  1. Those turned out beautifully. The designs of the cloth are very neat and give the unit more visual appeal.

    War elephants are one of my favorite troop type (no wonder, as I am playing Later Carthaginians ;)) and the Seleucide variety is truly a sight to behold.

    What is your opinion on the use of Howdah amongst Hannibal’s elephants? It seems they were used mostly without, but there is some (incidental) evidence, that they might have used them, too.

    • Tichy says:

      As far as the sources tell us, African forest elephant (now extinct) that lived in the region around Atlas mountains, was considerably smaller build than Indian ones. Something like their southern cousins that live in the area of Republic of Kongo nowadays.

      I think that size, or relative weakness itself is not really relevant since there are other sources to say that smaller elephants also carried howdah (Juba I elephants almost certainly used them around 50BC). However, I think that Carthaginians would have mixed set of Eastern and North African breed and almost certainly some of them had howdah and some did not – for practicality, it would have probably easier to have two (or even three) men mounting the animal without specific structure.

      Sight, howdah or not, would be fear inducing and turret did not affect the actual charge momentum whatsoever. As firing platform, I am not sure how stable howdah would have been (from experience, riding an elephant is not the most stable business – but that is probably because I am not used to it. I would much prefer camel as firing platform 🙂 ).

      That said, I am inclined to think that howdah made more sense when crew was three or more, and when it was known that opponent also had elephants (in anticipation of sort of jousting match).

      • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree, a mixture of Indian and African Forest elephants is surely possible. same goes for the option to have howdahs or not.

        I could see elephants being used with or without howdah depending on the opponent. Against cavalry a turret with the fear inducing elephant would give one an advantage, while against infantry the force of the animal alone might be enough.

        As you say, as a counter for the opponent’s elephants is also a very likely use.

  2. Tichy says:

    Horses… What a tricky question. We can find some references from ancient historians saying essentially that ‘horses were terrified and panic stricken by elephants’. Not sure about the truthfulness of the statement because it may be a way to justify for example the general doubtful performance of Roman equites. If true, however, it would indicate that for elephant corps, horses may have been least of the problem (incendiary pigs and ranged weapons appear to have been the worst).

    It would be interesting to know to what extend horses feared elephants, and how did they react in close proximity. Surely howdah would protect elephant crew – except the mahout, but curiosity question rises how willing the cavalry would be to charge home if (known) adverse effects were very bad? Or would cavalry simply leave elephants to be someone else’s problem?

    Long way to a point, but if enemy is not familiar with elephants, would it be beneficial to furnish them with additional mass in a form of complex structures and added crew, or would one have same effect with more simple approach. Surely, if opponent is not expected to be caught by surprise, then overall animal armor would be high on the list – since they were known already to exist elsewhere during Hannibal tour of Italy and proven functional.

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