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Elephants and Burning Pigs July 26, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A challenge.

Your army is spread across the plain when rumbling into sight come not only two hundred enemy cavalry and a thousand hoplites but, unexpectedly, thirty mounted elephants that seem very, very angry – they have been made drunk before battle according to custom. As your horse begin to neigh and your infantry start to look nervously over their shoulders you have mere seconds to decide – how are you going to stop these behemoths and avoid a complete rout?

Well, Beachcombing has come across several solutions in his reading. These include the straightforward: every archer and slinger aims at the elephants’ riders and eyes. The work-intensive: put down caltrops (sharp spikes buried in the ground) or elephant pits before battle begins. The unbelievable: leave elephant-dung-smeared warriors in overhanging trees and let them drop down the back of the elephants and ham-string them. The fiery: naphtha grenades. And the expensive: train up, over several years, special elephant killing troops with spikes on their armour (so they will not be picked up by trunks) and heavy cutting weapons for ‘the snake like hand’ and the elephants’ delicate feet.

But the naphtha is out, the caltrops are lost, there is not a tree in sight and there is not an archer or elephant killer on the field. What then?

Bring on the burning pigs, of course.

War elephants had a considerable fear of pigs – perhaps because of their squealing. Elephants also didn’t like fire. So you take your ten or twenty swine, cover them in tar and then light them in front of the elephants. The pigs, naturally, resent being burnt alive and charge madly around trying to put the flames out, making an extraordinary racket as they do so. The elephants are faced with their two worst nightmares – squealing pigs and flame. A rout follows. The battle is yours.

The stuff of fantasy?

Perhaps not.

The Romans arguably used this tactic – accounts differ - against the Greek elephants of Pyrrhus in the third century BC (Beneventum) and at Megara, Claudius Aelianus (obit 235 AD) tells us, the citizens of that place used burning swine against the elephants of the general Antipater, again with success, in  266 BC. The best attested example, however, is from Edessa in 544 AD when the city’s inhabitants hung, according to the contemporary writer Procopius, a pig over the city wall and its squeals were enough to terrify the Persian elephants away. They did not, however – ruining forever a good story – burn the pig.

Can any readers offer any further good pig burning references? drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom