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How the Greeks Got Their Elephant Corps for Their Army

Updated on December 25, 2017

The Greek Army and Elephants

Hindu Kings and the Elephant

The elephant was part of the arsenal of the Hindu kings of the subcontinent from 4000 BC. The Mahabharata the ancient epic gives graphic account of the use of the elephant at the battle of Kurukshetra. They continued as part of the armies of the sub-continent till the 19th century. One reason for this was the abundance of the Elephant in India where at any given time almost 200,000 elephants roamed the jungles.

Indian Elephant Vrs the African Elephant as an Instrument of War

History records that the Indian elephant was used as a part of the arsenal for at least 6000 years, while the African elephant was never used.

It must be noted that the Indian elephant is smaller than the African bush elephant, which has never been used as a weapon of war. There are two reasons for it

Why the Indian Elephant scored over the African Elephant

a) The African elephant was tougher to tame and not obedient

b) The civilization in Africa was very primitive and the nuance of elephants as a weapon of war was beyond comprehension of the African tribes. This was a major reason as the African civilization never developed to the level of Indian civilization.

Elephants used by Romans and Greeks

The Romans and Egyptians did use the elephant but it was not the bush elephant of Africa, but a smaller species which was a meter smaller than the Indian elephant. This species is now extinct and at one time it had its habitat in Egypt and North Africa. Known as the North African elephant it was put to use by the Greeks as a substitute to Indian elephant which was not available.

The African elephant was not much of a success and after it became extinct, its use stopped.

Alexander and Porus

The Greeks had incorporated the Indian elephant in their army. The first brush that the Greeks had was when they invaded Persia. Darius had a small corps of elephants and this elephant corps met the Greeks in battle. Alexander was impressed with the performance of the elephants, though he won. He then took a fateful decision in 329BC to have elephants in his army. Subsequently when he invaded India and met Raja Porus in the battle of Hydespes (Now known as the river Jhelum) he had about 15 elephants in his ranks.

The Battle of the Greeks with Raja Porus (326 BC)

Raja Porus opposed the Greeks with nearly 100 elephants. Some chroniclers mention a force of 200 elephants. These elephants had a decisive effect on Greek psyche that saw these big beasts advancing forward to the sound of conch shells and trumpets. They had an unnerving effect and convinced the rank and file of Greek soldiers that to advance further into India would be a disaster. Despite popular perception Porus checked Alexander. Even Greek writers concede that it was the most ferocious battle fought by the Greek King.

Alexander became friends with Porus and ceded vast lands to him. In turn Porus presented Alexander with a small corps of elephants. Alexander on his return to Baghdad entrusted the defense of his palace to elephants. Such was the effect of elephants on the psyche of Alexander.

Seleucus and his Elephant Corps

The Greeks now began to keep elephants as part of their army. The successor to Alexander in Asia Seleucus Nikatar was convinced about the military use of the elephant. After his defeat at the hands of the Maurya king Chandragupta in 303 BC, he made peace with the Indian king and gave his daughter to him as wife. In turn he received a gift of 500 elephants from Chandragupta.

Use of Elephants by Seleucus

Seleucus was delighted with this gift and his elephant corps served him in good stead till 181 BC when he was murdered. Seleucus used the elephants in many battles with his opponents and the elephants played a decisive part in his victories. The death of Seleucus resulted in the disintegration of the Greek empire and the demise of the elephant corps. One reason was the growing belligerence of the Indian kings who refused to send elephants to the Greeks.

The Greeks later tried the North African elephant, but it was a poor substitute for the Indian elephant and slowly faded from the field.


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