Greatest number of war elephants ever used?

Nov 2013
586
Kingdom of Sweden
In the few instances I know of by heart where war elephants played a noteworthy role, they were deployed only in very small numbers: a mere 15 at Gaugamela (compared to up to 42,000 regular cavalry), 40 in Hannibal's march across the Alps (compared to 12,000 regular cavalry) and 80 at Zama (compared to 4,000 regular cavalry). The Battle of the Hydaspes seems to have seen the proportionally largest grouping of war elephants that I know of (85-200 compared to 4,000 regular cavalry and a thousand chariots), making up between 1.7% and 4% of Porus' cavalry, but only a small portion of the army as a whole.

But of course, my knowledge is not absolute, especially not when it comes to Indian history where I know war elephants were frequently employed in battle. So what I wonder is, what is the (numerically and/or proportionally to the rest of the army) largest deployment of war elephants throughout history? And how effective were war elephants in massed numbers, as compared to regular cavalry or chariots?
 
Sep 2012
1,139
Tarkington, Texas
Elephants are very expensive to feed. Ever hear of the expression "White Elephant"? Elephants in North Africa are the smaller 'Forest Elephant' variety. Some Indian elephants were sent West but they were usually rare.

Pruitt
 
Oct 2018
1,688
Sydney
In the few instances I know of by heart where war elephants played a noteworthy role, they were deployed only in very small numbers: a mere 15 at Gaugamela (compared to up to 42,000 regular cavalry), 40 in Hannibal's march across the Alps (compared to 12,000 regular cavalry) and 80 at Zama (compared to 4,000 regular cavalry). The Battle of the Hydaspes seems to have seen the proportionally largest grouping of war elephants that I know of (85-200 compared to 4,000 regular cavalry and a thousand chariots), making up between 1.7% and 4% of Porus' cavalry, but only a small portion of the army as a whole.

But of course, my knowledge is not absolute, especially not when it comes to Indian history where I know war elephants were frequently employed in battle. So what I wonder is, what is the (numerically and/or proportionally to the rest of the army) largest deployment of war elephants throughout history? And how effective were war elephants in massed numbers, as compared to regular cavalry or chariots?
Likewise, my knowledge of Indian history is minimal, so I can only tell you what I know of elephant figures in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The largest use of elephants in 'western' history is the Battle of Ipsus (301 BC). Seleucus used 400 elephants (!) against Antigonus' army, which had 75. Seleucus had received his elephants from Chandraguota Maurya, whereas Antigonus had some of the elephants that had fought under Porus at Hydaspes, among others. Unsurprisingly, Seleucus' elephants played the most decisive role in the battle. They cut off Demetrius' cavalry from the rest of the Antigonid army (horses generally had a lot of trouble dealing with elephants), thus preventing him from assisting his father and the infantry. As a result, Antigonus' infantry were outflanked and defeated. As the below figures show, this was by far the heaviest use of elephants in the Graeco-Roman world. It would have been a truly intimidating thing to behold.

Figures:
Ipsus 301 BC (Seleucus vs Antigonus): 400 vs 75
Hydaspes 326 BC (Indians): 85, 130 or 200
Panormus 250 BC (Carthage): 140
Paraitakene 317 BC (Eumenes vs Antigonus): 125 vs 65
Gabiene 316 BC (Eumenes vs Antigonus): 114 vs 64
Raphia 217 BC (Seleucids vs Ptolemies): 102 vs 73
Bagradas 255 BC (Carthage): 100
Muthal 108 BC (Numidia): 84
Zama 202 BC (Carthage): 80
Bagradas 240 BC (Carthage): 70
Agrigentum 261 BC (Carthage): 60
Thapsus 46 BC (Numidia): 60
Magnesia 190 BC (Seleucids vs Rome): 54 vs 16
Gaza 312 BC (Antigonids): 43
Hannibal in Italy after Cannae 216 BC (Carthage): 40
Hannibal's Crossing of the Alps 218 BC (Carthage): 37
Ilipa 206 BC (Carthage): 32
Beth-Zechariah 162 BC (Seleucids): 30
Sparta 272 BC (Pyrrhus): 24
Pydna 168 BC (Rome): 22
Beth Zur 164 BC (Seleucids): 22
Heraclea 280 BC (Pyrrhus): 20
Dertosa 215 BC (Carthage): 20
Cynoscephalae 197 BC (Rome): 20
Ascalum 279 BC (Pyrrhus): 19
Beneventum 275 BC (Pyrrhus): <19
Antigonus Gonatas vs the Gauls (Antigonids): 16
Gaugamela 331 BC (Persia): 15
Thermopylae 191 BC (Rome vs Seleucids): 15 vs Unknown
Metaurus 207 BC (Carthage): 10

These figures show just how intimidating it would have been for Antigonus' army when Seleucus showed up with his gargantuan force of 400 pachyderms. However, they also show that it wasn't unusual to have between 50 and 150 elephants. But the fact that we also see multiple instances of elephants in the range of 10 to 50 shows that even small numbers of elephants appear to have been effective. Indeed, Pyrrhus made a considerable impact on the Romans in three different battles with <19-20 elephants (Heraclea, Ascalum, Beneventum). At Heraclea the 20 elephants easily drove away the cavalry of the Romans, thus exposing the flanks of the Roman infantry, which proved decisive. Admittedly, Heraclea was the Romans' first exposure to elephants, but they were sufficiently shaken by this small number of beasts that they sought to deal with the 19 surviving animals by building 300 anti-elephant wagons. This tactic proved a failure in the battle that followed at Ascalum, in which battle the elephants charged the main Roman line. A general as clever as Hannibal saw enough value in elephants that he considered the paltry number of 37 worth taking over the Alps and, after losing these elephants, received a reinforcement of 40 in 216 BC. The Romans also saw value in having a small number of elephants, as evidenced by the 20 at Cynoscephalae (197 BC), the 15 at Thermopylae (191 BC), the 16 at Magnesia (190 BC) and the 22 at Pydna (168 BC).

Elephants also appear to have been rather adaptable. We know that that could be used with success against cavalry, since horses were afraid of them (see e.g. Paraitakene, Ipsus, Heraclea). They could also be used to charge into the flanks of exposed infantry (e.g. Ascalum, Trebia). In both cases they would generally be set up on the flanks of the army. But they could also be deployed as a screen in front of the army and used to disrupt enemy infantry formations from the front (e.g. Hydaspes, Gaza, Bagradas 255 BC, Metaurus, Zama). They could also, of course, be used to deal with enemy elephants (e.g. Gabiene, and most notably Raphia, where the larger Seleucid Asiatic elephants defeated the African forest elephants of the Ptolemaic army). In all of these cases we see both small and large numbers of elephants performing these roles.

The use of elephants in the Graeco-Roman world was at its height in the late fourth and third centuries BC, but declined in the second, where we see only smaller numbers employed. Perhaps their access to elephants was in decline. They eventually reappear in late antiquity in the armies of the Sasanians, who fought with success against the Romans among others, and also in the armies of the Axumites. But of course elephants continued to play a major role in Indian and South-East Asian warfare well into the early modern period. Clearly, at least in the context of Asian warfare, elephants continued to be effective.
 
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MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,966
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
In the few instances I know of by heart where war elephants played a noteworthy role, they were deployed only in very small numbers: a mere 15 at Gaugamela (compared to up to 42,000 regular cavalry), 40 in Hannibal's march across the Alps (compared to 12,000 regular cavalry) and 80 at Zama (compared to 4,000 regular cavalry). The Battle of the Hydaspes seems to have seen the proportionally largest grouping of war elephants that I know of (85-200 compared to 4,000 regular cavalry and a thousand chariots), making up between 1.7% and 4% of Porus' cavalry, but only a small portion of the army as a whole.

But of course, my knowledge is not absolute, especially not when it comes to Indian history where I know war elephants were frequently employed in battle. So what I wonder is, what is the (numerically and/or proportionally to the rest of the army) largest deployment of war elephants throughout history? And how effective were war elephants in massed numbers, as compared to regular cavalry or chariots?
Why do you count elephants as a subdivision of cavalry? I would count camel riders separate from cavalry, and elephants separate from horses and from camels.

Elephants are very expensive to feed. Ever hear of the expression "White Elephant"? Elephants in North Africa are the smaller 'Forest Elephant' variety. Some Indian elephants were sent West but they were usually rare.

Pruitt
Why do you write about war elephants in the ancient Mediterranean region? the OP didn't limit the question to the Mediterranean region. Why do you describe the North African elephants as "forest elephants", implying that they were a population of Loxodonta cyclotis, when there is no proof of which living or extinct species they were a population of?


Taxonomic uncertainty[edit]
Given the relatively recent date of its disappearance, the status of this population can probably be resolved through ancient DNA sequence analyses, if specimens of definite North African origin are located and examined.
North African elephant - Wikipedia

... They could also, of course, be used to deal with enemy elephants (e.g. Gabiene, and most notably Raphia, where the larger Seleucid Asiatic elephants defeated the African forest elephants of the Ptolemaic army). I....
And again I say that describing the elephants which the Ptolemies acquired from Eritrea and other places in Africa as "African forest elephants" implies that they were members of the species Loxodonta cyclotis, even though there is considerable controversy about which species the Ptolomaic elephants belonged to.

The present day elephant population in the lands the Ptolemies got their elephants from is Loxodonta africana, the African bush or Savanna elephant. But 2,000 years ago the region might have been populated by Loxodonta cyclotis, or by the North African elephant if that was a separate species.

In the Mediterranean region, the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC saw 73 African elephants in the Ptolemaic army and 102 Asian elephants in the Seleucid army.

Probably the largest number of war elephants in a battle in the Mediterranean region was at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC where the army of Antigonus I had 75 elephants and the the allied army that fought against him had 400 elephants in the forces of Seleucus I - all these elephants were probably Asian elephants.

According to an unreliable history source, Emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 222-235) claimed to have defeated Persian forces that had 700 elephants, although the emperor would probably exaggerate his claims and the source that said he made that claim was very unreliable. Some historians doubt that the Sassanids even had any war elephants yet in that era.

I think that there would be historical records of a number of battles in India and southeast Asia where hundreds or thousands of elephants fought on one side. But I don't remember any names or dates of such battles.
 
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Sep 2012
1,139
Tarkington, Texas
Why do I write about Elephants in the Mediterranean Regions? Because I can! You do raise a good point about the problem of giving them a certain species' name. I call them Forest Elephants because that is the closest species of elephant to the region they were found in (Atlas Region). You can't say they were not, because none are left. It is a lot further to Ethiopia and the Savannahs to the South. The Sahara was once a wetter region and had elephants living there. The desert is still advancing to the North and South. Climate changes in Africa. Some animals survive and are found in regions you do not normally find them in. The Congo has animals in the woods that are normally found on the Savannah.

I have read of these "Atlas Elephants" described as both Forest and Bush types. Until we can do some gene tests we won't get a definite answer. Maybe we need some digs in Algeria and Morocco?

Pruitt
 
Oct 2018
1,688
Sydney
Why do I write about Elephants in the Mediterranean Regions? Because I can! You do raise a good point about the problem of giving them a certain species' name. I call them Forest Elephants because that is the closest species of elephant to the region they were found in (Atlas Region). You can't say they were not, because none are left. It is a lot further to Ethiopia and the Savannahs to the South. The Sahara was once a wetter region and had elephants living there. The desert is still advancing to the North and South. Climate changes in Africa. Some animals survive and are found in regions you do not normally find them in. The Congo has animals in the woods that are normally found on the Savannah.

I have read of these "Atlas Elephants" described as both Forest and Bush types. Until we can do some gene tests we won't get a definite answer. Maybe we need some digs in Algeria and Morocco?

Pruitt
MAGolding is actually referring to the elephants that were captured for the Ptolemaic army in Trogodytae and Ethiopia, for which, I had forgotten, there is indeed debate and uncertainty. See post 218 by @Salaminia in Were the Mauryans vassals of the Seleucids?.
 
Oct 2018
1,688
Sydney
According to an unreliable history source, Emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 222-235) claimed to have defeated Persian forces that had 700 elephants, although the emperor would probably exaggerate his claims and the source that said he made that claim was very unreliable. Some historians doubt that the Sassanids even had any war elephants yet in that era.
Yeah, this comes from the Historia Augusta (Severus Alexander 55.2), which is a work so given to invention that some wonder whether it is a parody or literary exercise. It even lies about when it was written (backdating authorship by ~100 years) and falsely claims to have been written by multiple authors. The relevant passage is: "At last he routed and put to flight this great king, who had come to the war with seven hundred elephants, eighteen hundred scythed chariots, and many thousand horsemen. Thereupon he immediately returned to Antioch and presented to his troops the booty taken from the Persians, commanding the tribunes and generals and even the soldiers to keep for themselves the plunder they had seized in the country." This doesn't accord well with the more reliable historian Herodian, who narrates a rather mixed Roman military performance that did not reflect well on Severus.
 
Sep 2014
957
Texas
On the species of elephants, I once read that the war elephants came from Asia because no one in Africa knew how to tame and control them...that Hannibal got his elephants from the Persians/Parthians. You just can't go into the jumgles of Southern Africa and catch wild elephants, tame them and train them and ride them back north over the Sahara desert. I mean wouldn't it be easier to buy them from Asia.?