War Elephants Were So Scary, They Created War Pigs
Always keen to get a leg up on the enemy, military leaders have often looked to animals to give them a wartime advantage. Horses, naturally, were trained to carry soldiers into battle. The stories of Hannibal taking war elephants over the Alps during the Second Punic War are legendary. But did you know that several other animals were also used in ancient warfare? Monkeys, dogs, rhinoceroses, and even cats were used for military purposes. It was the enormous elephants, however, that proved to be formidable---that is, until clever commanders discovered the best way to disrupt the army of elephants was with their own four-legged troops. This is the story of how war pigs were used to battle war elephants in ancient Rome. Yes, really!
First Came the Elephants
There is an actual term for the use of trained elephants in war: elephantry. Get it? You'd think it would be difficult at best and sheer hubris at worst to attempt to master an elephant-sized animal, but elephants are intelligent and easily trained. When capturing and training elephants as a war technique began in India, the war elephants were almost always captured from the wild because elephants live, like, forever. There was no time to wait for a teenage elephant to get its act together, so in this case, it was actually better to teach an old not-dog new tricks. Ideally, elephants that were around 60 years old were sought out to be used as war elephants because they were at their prime. Like grizzled old generals, older elephants were valued for their experience, intelligence, and discipline in battle. Only male elephants were used in battle, but not because they were stronger and fiercer than the females. It was because the females would stampede away from bull elephants.
War Elephants Came to Europe
Contrary to popular belief, Hannibal was not the first person to use war elephants in Europe. In 318 BC, one of Alexander's best generals, Polyperchon, used a team of 60 elephants when he stormed the city of Megalopolis. This battle ended in Polyperchon’s defeat, and his battle-hardened elephants were captured and used in subsequent battles. A century later, during the Second Punic War, Hannibal marched his men and elephantry over the Alps and into Italy in a show of might and force. From then on, elephants were a common sight in ancient battles.
How to Outwit the Elephantry
The army with elephants on their side was often unbeatable in battle. Clearly, something needed to be done to flip the odds and outwit the animals. Taking a page for the playbooks of Indian military leaders, the ancient Greeks and Romans decided to fight beasts with beasts. Pigs, they learned, emitted a loud, annoying squeal that would so scare the elephants that the pachyderms would flee in fright. They actually won by insufferability.
The Cruelty of Incendiary Pigs
To create as much chaos on enemy lines as possible, soldiers had to get the pigs to run toward the elephants squealing as loudly as possible. One way to accomplish this was by coating the backside of the pigs with pitch, tar, or another highly flammable substance. When close to the enemy's elephants, the poor hogs were set ablaze, leaving them squealing with pain and fear. Now we feel bad for calling them annoying a minute ago.
Historic Accounts of Incendiary Pigs
We have extensive written records of the use of war pigs in battles against war elephants because you'd write it down if you'd seen it, too. Pliny the Elder once wrote that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog." Two different ancient writers, Polyaenus and Aelian, both left behind texts about the war pigs of Antigonus II Gonatas, who only managed to stop the siege of Megara when he ordered his people to douse crude oil onto a handful of pigs and light them on fire. The people of Megara drove the flaming swine toward the impenetrable line of war elephants, causing them to bolt in fear and trample their handlers.
A Squealing Pig Saves the Day
In 544 AD, the Persian king, Khosrau I, attempted to overpower the city of Edessa in Mesopotamia. One of his war elephants and the people of Edessa couldn't drive it out, only watch helplessly as it tore a path of destruction through their city. Then, someone had a brilliant idea. He snatched up a pig and hung it from its hind legs from a tower. Naturally, the pig squealed and thrashed about. The elephant was terrorized by the sound and retreated back outside the city walls.
The Decline of War Pigs
The decline in the use of war pigs directly correlates to the decline in elephantry. Some species of elephants were hunted and captured until their numbers dwindled significantly. Even in antiquity, habitat destruction forced a decline in elephant populations. Since elephants were no longer giving the military advantage over the enemy, generals stopped using them in battle. There was no longer a need to use pigs to defeat the elephants. Eventually, the use of incendiary pigs fell by the wayside.
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