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Thread: Ptolemy's War Elephants

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    Ptolemy's War Elephants


    "If you think back to history class, you might remember the tale of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 B.C. to sneak up on Rome during the Punic Wars. It was notable not just because he brought an entire army from Carthage to Rome the long way around, but because that army included elephants.The use of war elephants dates back at least to the fourth century B.C., when Indian kings took Asian elephants into battle. The practice soon spread west to the Persian Empire and then northern Africa, where African elephants were put to military use. There’s only one known case, though, of an African elephant-Asian elephant matchup, at the Battle of Raphia near Gaza on June 22, 217 B.C. The battle, over the sovereignty of Syria, matched the forces of Ptolemy IV, pharaoh of Egypt, against those of Antiochus III, a Greek king whose reign stretched into western Asia.
    Ptolemy won the battle — but not because his elephants were any help, at least according to Greek historian Polybius, who described the encounter in his work The Histories:
    A few only of Ptolemy's elephants ventured to close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead. The way in which these animals fight is as follows. With their tusks firmly interlocked they shove with all their might, each trying to force the other to give ground, until the one who proves strongest pushes aside the other's trunk, and then, when he has once made him turn and has him in the flank, he gores him with his tusks as a bull does with his horns. Most of Ptolemy's elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the Indian elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them.
    This account stumped later historians and naturalists. African elephants tend to be larger than Asian elephants, so what was up with Ptolemy’s elephant soldiers?"

    "One possibility is that Ptolemy’s elephants belonged to an extinct subspecies. Another, proposed by classical scholar Sir William Gowers in 1948, holds that Ptolemy fought with smaller forest elephants (African elephants are actually two species — forest and savanna). That idea has persisted for decades."

    "The natural range for African elephants does not stretch into present-day Egypt. To get elephants, Ptolemy’s army looked to what is now Eritrea....When Adam Brandt of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and colleagues conducted a genetic study of those elephants — by sequencing DNA in elephant poo — they found that Eritrea’s elephants are not forest elephants; they’re savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) with no genetic ties to either the forest or Asian species."

    Non si fa il proprio dovere perchè qualcuno ci dica grazie, lo si fa per principio, per se stessi, per la propria dignità. Oriana Fallaci

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    I had always heard that the elephants of north Africa, those of Carthage at least, were the Atlas elephant, Loxodonta africana pharaohensis, a now extinct species. They were a smaller species and easier to tame than the very wild African elephant. Perhaps they were too small to compete with the larger Indian elephant.

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