The Epirote War Elephant
by Jeff Jonas

"The Greek shall come against thee,
The conqueror of the East;
Besides him stalks to battle
The huge earth-shaking beast,
The beast on whom the castle
With all its guards doth stand,
The beast who hath between his eyes
The serpent for a hand."

(as related in "The Elephant in Greek and Roman History" page 102, by H.H. Scullard)



Pyrrhus of Epirus took 20 Asian elephants to Italy in 279 BC to confront the Romans.  He was invited by Tarentum, the city on the heel of the Italian boot, which was long associated with Sparta, but during the last fifty years had turned to Epirus for aid.  For many years Tarentum battled with the central Italian tribes of Oscans and Samnites, but now they were involved in war with Rome.   When Pyrrhus arrived at their bequest he brought a veteran army of 25,000 troops and this small force of elephants.  The Romans had not confronted either the Macedonian phalanx, or the elephant before, and Pyrrhus was an excellent tactician.   At Heraclea and Ausculum, Roman armies of increasing size where beaten when the phalanx held, and then Pyrrhus maneuvered the elephants in for the kill. These were the infamous "Pyrrhic" victories.

After Ausculum, Roman resolve wavered as their attempts to solve Pyrrhus' elephants had failed miserably. (The Romans had experimented with war wagons to defeat the elephants, but the Epirote crack light infantry corps had neutralized these deterrents).  Rome sued for peace but the negotiations abruptly ended when Carthage surprisingly joined in alliance with Rome against Pyrrhus. This lead to Pyrrhus holding his gains in Italy and rushing his army and elephants to Sicily. The Carthaginians fled before him, having no answer for the elephants. They clung to cities on the western edge by their fingernails.   Eventually, Pyrrhus wore out his welcome in Sicily and he was forced to fight his way back into Italy*.  He managed to save some of his elephants, and at a last battle near Beneventum he almost succeeded in beating another Roman army, but the elephants panicked at the very walls of the Roman camp when assaulted by missiles and fresh reserves.  Pyrrhus had to settle for bloody draw, which strategically made his position in Italy untenable.

Pyrrhus retreated from Italy and launched a campaign against his rival Antigonos Gonatos in Greece.  A famous assault on Sparta found the elephants bogged down in trenches, and barricades.  These defences were put in place at the direction of the Spartan women, who took up the defensive positions while waiting for reinforcements to arrive.   Pyrrhus gave iup on Sparta and then rushed to Argos to try to sneak in the back door as traitors had opened a gate for him.  To overawe the defenders Pyrrhus planned to use his elephants to clear resistance in his sneak attack.  But when Pyrrhus' commandos rushed the open gate, they found that the towers on his elephants would not allow them in.  These had to be removed, which took some time, and apparently blocked the gates, so that Pyrrhus' commandos were inside the town, while the main force was outside, blocked by the elephants.  The Argive and Macedonian garrison rebounded and overwhelmed Pyrrhus' troops.  Pyrrhus was reputedly hit on the head by roof tile hurled from above. Antigonos' son cleaved Pyrrhus' head from his body and presented it to his father, who shirked at the visage of his most honored foe.
Antigonos rounded up Pyrrhus' troops who defected to him, and he inherited the remaining elephants and incorporated these into his small remaining Macedonian herd.

Pyrrhus is generally credited with the invention of the war tower. Depictions of towers are non-existent before his campaigns in Italy in Sicily, but soon after the tower is commonly shown on artwork.  The plate above is from Capena, in Campenia commemorating an anecdote of Beneventum where the story has it that part of the elephant stampede was caused by a baby elephant being panicked after being hit by missiles, and the whole herd reacted instinctively to rush to protect the baby.  The plate is a famous piece of evidence that certainly proves that Pyrrhus' elephants did indeed have towers.

The Vendel elephant is a very large resin sculpt.   It certainly is a nice piece when finished, but I do prefer the animation of their later elephant models. I added a Foundry crewman to the Vendel crewman, because I wanted two javelinmen as depicted on the plate, instead of a pikeman and archer.  The mahout's goad had to be hand crafted.  I also added the bell with green-glop.... it's a bit thick, but at least it's in the shade! Also the straps on the beast and tower connection needed some work to look convincing. Again green-glop and some metal bits solved the issues. Shields were added and painted with a design gleaned from Duncan Head's "Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars" that is a shield device shown on Epirote coins, which is Pyrrhus' own moniker.

Pyrrhus' elephant tactics were well thought out.   Most Macedonian Successors had used elephants as anti-cavalry screens, especially since they knew first hand the mayhem and confusion caused by pikes at the battle of the Hydaspes.  No early Successor battle involved using elephants to break up the enemy phalanx, but they were mainly used to screen wings.  Pyrrhus, on the other hand, held back his elephants until the decisive moment. He was aided by the fact that his enemies had no experience against them.  This is usually the case, when elephants are new to the enemy, then they are effective (as they were when Antiochus I used his to break the Galatians in 273).  The Romans innovations did not work at first, but in the end they learned that having a final reserve to attack the elephants in flank was good enough.

The final legacy of Pyrrhus' elephants is that shortly after the Sicilian war, Carthage began to procure their own elephants from the horn of Africa.   These smaller forest elephants were the ones who followed Hannibal over the Alps 50 odd years later, and became famous, and synonymous with the image of the War elephant.  But in reality it was Pyrrhus' elephants that were the real terror of Rome.

* the longer winded discourse on Pyrrhus' Sicilian campaign can be found here:


               "But on the Roman left, Pyrrhus' right, the elephants produced their usual effect; neither Roman horse nor Roman foot could stand against them.  Manius Curius' men were driven right to walls of their camp.   At this point there was revealed something that would have been as much of a surprise to any commander of the age as it was to Pyrrhus.   Manius Curius had held out a large reserve of legionaries within the camp; as the battle moved down on the stockade, this reserve issued from the side gate and, all in beautiful order, counterattacked the flank of the Epirote movement.  The cavalry were cut to pieces by the swarm of Roman javelin spears and driven off; the infantry supports collapsed; the elephants, attacked from flank and rear, were driven into a wooded ravine, where two of them were killed and the remaining eight captured.  Rome was victorious all along the line."

Fletcher Pratt- The Red King at Beneventum






Elephants and pigs?

Some believe the aes signatum above represents the victory at Benevetum.  An short passage of Aelian denotes that squeals of pigs and rams defeated someof Pyrrhus' elephants, but at which battle. H.H. Scullard goes to some detail about this in his work cited above.  Beneventum is the only battle where the elephants were turned back, so it is possible that a number of differing anecdotes were remembered (or created) about this famous victory. The elephant is surely a reference to Pyrrhus' Asian elephants, but the pig may be coincidence, but it is such a compelling coincidence.  On the other hand, there is a story that pigs were also used at Megara (and set alight) to ward off Antigonos' elephants, so there are at least two stories about pigs as an anti-elephant device.

So the defeat at Benevetum could possibly be conjectured as:

"the beasts were halted at the gates when a flock of pigs were loosed upon them... as this was happening a bolt struck a calf, and it's mother panicked and ran to its aid, the other elephants pulled around her in cover (as they do in nature.. and I have even seen it at the Wild Animal Park), as this was happening  the triarii debouched from a side gate and charged the elephants, setting the beasts once again into panic where they got stuck in the wooded hollow...."

Duncan Head was gracious enough to add these words:

"The flaming pigs are Ailian I.38 see*.html for a Latin version, don't know about the original Greek. Scullard's rendering is "the elephant has a terror of a horned ram and of the squealing of a pig. It was by these means, they say, that the Romans turned to flight the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus and won a glorious victory". Discussion of pigs on Scullard, "Elephant..." pp.113-115. It was the Megarans against Antigonos, not the Romans, who are said to have smeared the pigs in fat and set them alight."

These are the African elephants at the Wild Animal Park in San Diego.  I witnessed a wild event one day. The calf was playing nearby us close to edge of the fence. Some deer hopped by and set the baby into a wild panic trumpeting up the hill.  All hell broke loose. The elephants all began running from all over the enclosure towards the calf.  They were really pissed cause you could hear them grunting and then trumpeting! The ground literally shook as they converged in their defensive stance.  Some of them were looking right at me and all I could say was gibberish.... in fact it all happened so fast that I was only able to take this onephoto... but the adrenalin was pumping! Note they have the baby hidden from view!



How do we know this was an Epirote shield design?

The Epirote shield is based on the monogram on the coin below.  Coins are often the best sources since the written record rarely gives up such detail.  The artwork is based off the image in
Duncan Head's "Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars" by Ian Heath.  One can be reasonably assured that such a device was used, but alas one cannot be certain as an actual shield has not been uunearthed.

The monogram is based on these Greek letter: PYR  = (Pi Ypsilon Rho)  The Pi is the frame, the Upsilon is inside , the Rho on the right.  See the alphabet below for the Greek characters.

The Newline Epirote elephant with decal shields:

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