Elephants, Food Supply…Logistics – Oh My!

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.)

Hannibal and Elephant (Painting c. 1626 AD)

Hannibal and Elephant (Painting c. 1626 AD)


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.

Food Supply

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.

Logistics can be as hard as moving and feeding elephants...literally! (Image: Public Domain)

Logistics can be as hard as moving and feeding elephants…literally!
(Image: Public Domain)

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.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What was most interesting to you in the overview of Carthage and Hannibal’s Campaign? Please leave a comment.

Check out the our Facebook Page. I’m going to share some info about another historical event involving war elephants on the Facebook Page.

Over The Mountains, Into The Plains

“Over the Mountains and into the plains, Toward Rome we go; Hannibal knows the way to lead the elephant train through the deep and drifting snow…”

(Okay, that was kind of dumb…but it was one of those silly things a historian thinks of every once and while. If you feel inclined to “sing” it, it’s to the tune of “over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.”)

Anyway, back to subject: Hannibal Crossing the Alps. He was a Carthaginian, fighting the Romans in the 2nd Punic War, and he was originally a colonial general in Spain.

Today, we’re discussing the actual crossing of the Alps. (Part 3 in our series.) What was it like? When was it? What happened before they got there? What happened afterward?

March To the Alps Remember, Hannibal and his army were in Spain, and, if you look at the map, there is quite a distance between Spain and Italy. The Carthaginians first crossed the Pyrenees Mountains, beginning the march sometime in June 218 BC. They crossed the Pyrenees at the end of August. In the months before Hannibal had sent friendly messengers to the native Gaulish tribes along the route, and most, already hating the Romans, agreed not to fight the Carthaginians. (An uprising by the Gauls actually helped Hannibal by distracting the Roman armies). By the time the Carthaginians reached the Rhone River, they were fighting off Roman cavalry attacks and trying to “buy time” to get the army supplies (and those elephants) across the river.

Across the Mountains It was October when the Carthaginians reached the Alps. It’s difficult to know the precise dates of the crossing, but by early November 218 BC the army was in the Roman plains. Unfortunately, the native tribes in the Alps did not get the message that they were supposed to be friendly; these tribes fought Hannibal’s army and the Carthaginians sometimes had to resort to military fighting or tricks just to clear the trail of the warriors. Adding to the difficulty was the weather.

Hannibal Crossing the Alps (Depicted by J.M.W. Turner, Public Domain)

Hannibal Crossing the Alps (Depicted by J.M.W. Turner, Public Domain)

Here’s a quote from “The Young Carthaginian” by G.A. Henty which describes part of the crossing: “The next morning the march was renewed. The snow lay deep on the track [trail], and the soldiers found that, great as had been the difficulties of the ascent, those of the descent were vastly greater… Every step had to be made with care; those who strayed in the slightest from the path found the snow gave way beneath their feet and fell down the precipice beside them… But at last the head of the column found itself at the foot of the steep descent in a ravine with almost perpendicular walls….in it lay a mass of the previous year’s snow which had never entirely melted, but which formed with water of the torrent a sheet of slippery ice…. The troops…as they stepped upon it fell headlong, sliding in their armor down the rapidly sloping bed of ice… The cavalry attempted the passage, but with even less success… The engineers with fire and explosives blasted away the foot of the cliffs…and by morning a path which could be traversed by men on foot, horses, and baggage animals was onstructed for a distance of three hundred yards.” (pages 168-169, Preston Speed Publications)

Fighting Rome Once in Italy, the Carthaginians spent time resting and recovering in the homes and camps of their native allies. In the following years Hannibal’s Carthaginians fought many battles with the Roman legions and were frequently successful. However, because of lack of support from their mother city, the Carthaginians were never able to march directly on Rome and capture the city. Worn down by the fighting and with no reinforcements arriving from Carthage, Hannibal and his army were forced to become inactive in Italy and were recalled to undeserving Carthage in 203 BC. Hannibal and his Carthaginians had remained in enemy territory for 15 years, harassing the Roman armies and costing that Republic many resources which could otherwise have been used to fight the North African city directly.

Conclusion Hannibal successfully crossed the Alps and brought the war into Roman territory. However, because he lacked support from weakening Carthage, he was never able to capture the Roman capital and complete the victory.

Next week will be the last in the “Hannibal’s Alps” series, and we’ll discuss the logistics of the crossing and those fascinating warrior elephants!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you see any valuable military lessons in this incident?