How many elephants did Hannibal have? How did he feed his army? These were questions swirling in my mind as I put together the last few posts about Hannibal crossing the Alps. (You can find Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here, if you missed them.)
So elephants? Yeah…elephants. To my knowledge, Carthage was the only nation in the ancient Mediterranean world using elephants in battle. Why? Because they scared enemies, frightened opposing cavalry, crushed shield walls of infantry, and made enough noise to scare almost any soldier on the opposite side of the battlefield. (Think ancient world tanks).
I had always supposed the Carthaginians had captured and bred African elephants or had perhaps traded for an initial elephant herd from India. I was surprised to discover that most historians believe the elephants were the African Forest Elephants (now extinct) which were a little smaller even than the Indian elephant. The African Forest Elephants were about 8 feet tall at the shoulder and since there’s no evidence of a breeding program, it’s assumed the Carthaginians captured them from the wild and then trained them. The beasts were trained to obey their “drivers” and when charging into battle would spread their ears and trumpet loudly. Some were trained to snatch enemy soldiers with their trunk and fling them…well…somewhere. (Scary!)
The Carthaginian army in Spain had elephants, thus Hannibal had elephants. According to Roman historians, Hannibal took 37 elephants with him on the long march. It’s not confirmed, but it’s believed that the elephants were transported by boat while the army marched to Gaul (France) and then the animals joined there.
There are a number of legends surrounding the elephants at the crossing of the Rhine River. The Carthaginians had built huge pontoon bridges (take note here, General Burnside – oops…sorry that’s Civil War!) and even covered the structures with dirt so their elephants wouldn’t be frightened. Didn’t work… Someway, somehow, the elephant herd got scared and at least some of them (other accounts say all of them) plunged into the river, walked on the bottom with their trunks in the air, and arrived safely on the other side.
Surprisingly, all 37 elephants survived the march across the Alps! However, by the next year – after several large battles, probably limited food supply, and colder climate – there was only one elephant left. Hannibal rode the lone survivor.
How do you feed 37 elephants? How do you feed an army of thousands and thousands without a supply base? This is a problem. In fact it’s such a large problem it’s surprising Hannibal stayed in Italy as long as he did.
First of all, let’s clarify the numbers. Roman historians claimed large, inflated numbers for the total troops in Hannibal’s army. This may have been because 1) they didn’t know and were guessing or 2) wanted to make the Roman victory story seem more impressive in the end. In a recent biography about Hannibal, the author compared ancient accounts and has proposed “adjusted” numbers for the Carthaginian army: 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry!
Now: the food supply. If we calculate 3 lbs. of food per soldier, this army is going to need 135,000 lbs. of rations per day. (And this isn’t calculating for any camp followers, or the feed for cavalry horses, war elephants, pack horses, or baggage wagon horses).
If each pack horse could carry 150 lbs. of rations, you’re still going to need 900 horses to carry the soldiers’ food. We haven’t even factored food for all the animals; these calculations are for ONE day food supply for the men. YIKES!
Hannibal was a smart general. He’d “counted the cost” of the campaign and would’ve recognized the logistical challenges.
Therefore, while the Carthaginians would undoubtedly have had a baggage wagon and some supplies with them, during the march to the Alps and the campaign in Italy, they were living off the land.
The Logistic Problem
Even though losses during the crossing and Italian battles reduced the size of the Carthaginian army, it was still a massive force…to keep fed. Thus, during the years that Hannibal and his army were in Italy, they were almost constantly moving through the land, trying to convince the Romans to battle…but mostly to search for new food supplies.
One of the major difficulties in the “Italian Years” was: Hannibal never captured a seaport. Therefore, even if Carthage had been inclined to send supplies, they simply couldn’t. In the spring of 215 B.C. some supplies were smuggled into Hannibal (including a few additional elephants). But the lack of the seaport was a severe hardship in the logistical situation of the Carthaginian army.
The war elephants are fascinating. The logistics are mind-boggling.
And Hannibal was one amazing general with a story that still inspires us to “climb great mountains.”
P.S. What was most interesting to you in the overview of Carthage and Hannibal’s Campaign? Please leave a comment.