Hannibal the Great and his elephants (was: Re: some U.S. observations and notes)

From: Amara Graps (amara@amara.com)
Date: Tue Jan 01 2002 - 06:30:42 MST

From: Michael Wiik <mwiik@messagenet.com>, Sat, 29 Dec 2001
>I know how you feel. That's why I'd prefer to carry a nuke

For your New Year's Day amusement, let's replace "nuke" with

A tale of Hannibal the Great and his elephants from:
_The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody_ by Will Cuppy, 1950.


Hamilcar also told Hannibal about elephants and how you must always
have plenty of these animals to scare the enemy. He attibuted much
of his own success to elephants and believed they would have won the
First Punic War for him if things hadn't gone slightly haywire; for
the war had turned into a naval affair. But even when the fighting
was on land, the Romans did not scare nearly so well as expected
(7). The Romans had learned about elephants while fighting Pyrrhus,
whose elephants defeated him in 275 B.C., and even before that, in
Alexander's time, King Porus had been undone by his own elephants.

Thus if history had taught any one thing up to that time, it was
never to use elephants in war. Don't ask me why Hamilcar did not see
this. The Carthaginian elephants were trained to rush forward and
trample the Romans, but only too frequently they would rush backward
and trample the Carthaginians. If this happed to you, wouldn't you
notice it? And wouldn't you do something about it?

Then Hamilcar went to Spain, where he spent eight years in
perfecting his plans and was drowned in 228 B.C. while crossing a
stream with a herd of elephants. Hasdrubal the Handsome, who took
his place, was assassinated a few years later, leaving the command
to Hannibal, now twenty-six and well versed in his father's routine.
Hannibal left Spain in 218 B.C. and crossed the Alps in to Italy in
fifteen days with a large army and thirty-seven elephants, thus
establishing a record for crossing the Alps with elephants, and
starting the Second Punic War. Taking elephants across the Alps is
not as much fun as it sounds. The Alps are difficult enough when
alone, and elephants are peculiarly fitted for not crossing them. If
you must take something over the Alps, try chamois. They're built
for it.

Believe it or not, all the elephants survived the journey, although
about half of the soldiers perished. Historians state that Hannibal
seemed insensible to fatigue throughout the ordeal (9). Nor did he
ever give way to despair. Whenever a thousand or so of his men
would fall off an Alp, he would tell the rest to cheer up, the
elephants were all right. If someone had given him a shove at the
right moment, much painful history might have been avoided. It's the
little things that count (10).

The number of Hannibal's elephants, thirty-seven, is said by
Polybius to have been inscribed by Hannibal's own hand on a brazen
plate in Italy. Polybius read it himself. Yet a modern historian
has recently given the figure as forty, perhaps from a natural
tendency to deal in round numbers. Elephants do not come in round
numbers. You have one elephant, or three, or thirty-seven.

Hannibal expected to get more elephants that he had left in Spain
with his brother Hasdurbal, but the Romans cut the supply line.
During his fifteen years in Italy, Hannibal never had enough
elephants to suit him. Most of the original group succumbed to the
climate, and he was always begging Carthage for more, but the people
at home were stingy. They would ask if he thought they were made of
elephants and what had he done with the elephants they sent before?
Sometimes, when he hadn't an elephant to his name, he would manage
to wrangle a few from somewhere, a feat which strikes me as his
greatest claim to our attention.

Like his father before him, Hannibal never noticed that he made much
more progress without any elephants at all. We hear nothing of them
at the Battle of the Ticino, and there were only a few at Trebia.
The last one died before the Battle of Trasimene, where Hannibal
simply erased the Romans for the time being. Hannibal was again
fresh out of elephants at Cannae, the greatest of his victories in
the first three years of his Italian campaign.

I have a theory about Hannibal's failure to take Rome when he had
the chance after Cannae and his strange inactivity for the next
dozen years, when he only held out and nothing more. He was waiting
for something. His brother Hasdrubal reached Italy with ten
elephants in 207 B.C., but they behaved so badly that they had to be
killed by their own side and Hannibal never saw them. Carthage sent
forty more after a while. They were shipped to Sardinia by mistake.

So Hannibal went back home where he could get what he wanted. At
Zama, the final showdown of the Second Punic War fought near
Carthage in 203 B.C., he had his way at last. He placed eighty
elephants in the front line of battle. They turned on the
Carthaginians, and Scipio Africanus did the rest.

Hannibal never succeeded in his effort to stir up another war. The
Carthaginians were tired of it all. He tried to interest Antiochus
the Great of Syria in a scheme involving elephants and was forced to
flee from Carthage when the Romans demanded his person. He then
wandered through Asia for years, finally taking refuge with Prusias,
King of Bithynia, the only true friend he had left in the world. One
day he discovered that Prusias had notified the Romans to come and
get him. He took poison, dying at the age of sixty-four.

(7) The Romans captured more than a hundred elephants in one battle
in the First Punic War. They sent them to Rome to amuse the populace.
(9) He was riding on an elephant.
(10) Livy informs us that Hannibal split the huge Alpine rocks with
vinegar to break a path for the elephants. Vinegar was a high
explosive in 218 B.C., but not before or since.
Amara Graps, PhD          email: amara@amara.com
Computational Physics     vita:  ftp://ftp.amara.com/pub/resume.txt
Multiplex Answers         URL:   http://www.amara.com/
"Take time to consider. The smallest point may be the most essential."
Sherlock Holmes  (The Adventure of the Red Circle)

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