Harrod Reads Paper at Classics Convention
On November 4, 2006, Richard Harrod, a Classics and History major at Monmouth College read a paper at at the biennial meeting of the Southern Section of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) on November 4, 2006 at the University of Memphis, in Memphis, Tennessee. Harrod paper, entitled War Elephants in the Ancient World,” was one of six undergraduate papers selected anonymously by a committee of Classics professors to be part of a panel entitled “The Next Generation,” sponsored by Eta Sigma Phi, the national Classics honorary society. Other members of this panel included students from Wake Forest University in North Carolina, DePauw University in Indiana, Louisiana State University, and Rhodes College in Tennessee.
The purpose of Harrod’s paper was to examine the elephant’s place in ancient warfare, how it was trapped, how it was used and was it a worthwhile instrument of war. The elephant had many obvious assets, but also many obvious drawbacks. The elephant could be used as an effective shock troop, inflicting terrible damage on massed units and cavalry, but there was no guarantee it would stay under control. If it stampeded there were no ways of knowing which side it would attack.
The first reason the elephant was useful in war was because of its sheer shock value. A unit of men that had to face a unit of elephants would often simply be terrified into retreat. Horses would usually flee from elephants, because they could not stand the smell, which would completely eliminate cavalry. If men or horses did not flee from a war elephant, joining it in battle was far from an easy task. The war elephant could impale men with its tusks, crush them under its hooves or pick them up and dash them with its trunk.
However, the war elephant was not invincible. The Romans devised an anti-elephant battle wagon. It was possible to drive an elephant off with slingers and make it stampede into its own lines. It was also possible, when close, to hamstring the animals or to cut off the trunk. Some armies even used the sound of a squealing pig to frighten the animals.
For years historians have said that the war elephant was not a worthwhile weapon of war. However, many of those historians have overlooked the fact that most of the time that the elephant failed; it was due to poor generalship. When the war elephant was used correctly, there was almost no force that could stand up to it.