When Ptolemy and his sister after their progress had reached the extremity of his left wing and Antiochus with his horse-guards had reached his extreme right, they gave the signal for battle and brought the elephants first into action. A few only of Ptolemy's elephants ventured to close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead. ... Most of Ptolemy's elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the Indian elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them. This is what happened on the present occasion; and when Ptolemy's elephants were thus thrown into confusion and driven back on their own lines, Ptolemy's guard gave way under the pressure of the animals.Ptolemy's guard recovered and went on to win the battle without his elephants. Polybius credits the victory to Ptolemy being able to give better motivational speeches than Antiochus.
Aside from its strategic and geopolitical importance, the Battle of Raphia has attracted the attention of historians and natural historians for twenty-two centuries because it is the only recorded instance of African and Asian elephants facing each other in battle. Considering the fact that African elephants are usually regarded as untamable, it is one of the only recorded instances of African elephants being used in battle, period.
Polybius' statement that the African elephants were terrified by the "great size and strength" of the Asian elephants took on a life of its own. For the next twenty centuries, it was accepted wisdom among educated Europeans that Asian elephants are larger than African elephants. For most African and Asian elephants, this is not true. The average African elephant is much larger than the average Asian elephant. The exception to this rule is the African forest elephant which only recently was recognized as a third species. This species is much smaller than the African savanna elephant and slightly smaller than the Asian.
How this belief persisted if a fairly easy question to answer. During the heyday of the Roman Empire, virtually all of the elephants they saw were Asian elephants. No one had a chance to make side-by-side comparisons. After the fall of the Western Empire, very few elephants made it to Europe at all. The handful that did (admittedly a very large hand), were all Asian elephants. By the end of the Middle Ages, Europeans lacked accurate images even of Asian elephants. This began to change after 1500 with the establishment of direct trade between Western Europe and Southern Asia around the tip of Africa. Within a few years of the opening of that trade, the king of Portugal had enough elephants that he could make gifts of them to the Pope and the Hapsburg emperor. In the second half of the Seventeenth Century, enough Asian elephants had been brought to Europe that non-royals owned them an traveled the countryside showing them to commoners. Dutch merchants, stopping at the Cape of Good Hope on their way to and from Asia were the first to view both kinds of elephants and make comparisons that questioned Polybius. In 1797, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described enough differences between the two types of elephant, especially in their teeth, that he declared them to be different species.
For students of the classics, Blumenbach's identification created a problem. The Cape elephant, on which he based his conclusions, is much larger than any Asian elephant. A possible solution to their problem wasn't long in coming. As Europeans penetrated deeper into Africa, reports began to emerge of a much smaller elephant in the dense central African forests. In 1900, Paul Matschie, a zoologist from Berlin, identified four subspecies of African elephant, with the Cape elephant being the largest and the Central African forest elephant being the smallest. Matschie's samples for his forest elephant were from Cameroon, then a German colony. A few years later, Theodore Noack, based on the study of a zoo elephant in Hanover, identified a pygmy species of elephant from the same area as Matschie's forest elephant. Finally, in 1908, Richard Lydekker, of the British Royal Society, divided African elephants into thirteen sub-species incorporating all four of Matschie's sub-species as well as Noack's pygmy elephant. By the mid Twentieth Century, all of the sub-species were merged back into one species, Loxodonta africana.
Before that could happen, classicists seized the forest elephant as the solution to the Polybius problem. In a series of papers published in the forties and fifties, William Gowers and Howard Scullard argued that the elephants of Ptolemy must have been forest elephants. They further argued that forest elephants at the time inhabited a range that included all of North Africa from Morocco to Ethiopia. This interpretation has also been adopted by military historians, who use the hypothetical population of North African forest elephants to explain the source of Hannibal's famous elephants. Among historians and war gamers, the existence of the North African forest elephant has attained the same level of accepted wisdom as African-elephants-are-smaller-than-Asian-elephants had in the Middle Ages. Yet, I'm aware of no evidence that this is true.
That's not to say there were no elephants in North Africa. Around the year 500 BCE, a Carthaginian named Hanno took a fleet through the Straits of Gibraltar and down the coast of Africa. Halfway down the coast of modern Morocco, he put ashore and commented on the presence of large numbers of elephants. The elephants were part of a population that inhabited the Atlas Mountains, which stretch from the Atlantic across Morocco and northern Algeria. This population was the source of at least part of Hannibal's elephants and continued to exist for at least a century after his time. But were they savanna elephants or forest elephants? Is that even a meaningful distinction?
It turns out, the answer is yes. Though most taxonomies no longer split African elephants into different sub-species after 1960, question still lingered about the forest elephant. The elephants had distinct physical features other than size that distinguished them from other African elephants. Was this no more significant that hair and skin color among humans or did the differences run deeper? With the rise of genetic sequencing technology at the turn of the century it finally became possible to produce a definitive answer. Beginning in 2000, a number of tests showed that the differences were great enough to label the forest elephant an entirely separate species. Hybridization between forest elephants and savanna elephants is possible, but rare. The name chosen for the forest elephant is Loxodonta cyclotis and credit for defining it is given to Matschie's 1900 paper. The genetic sequencing of the forest elephant makes it possible to make a provisional determination about the identity of Hannibal's and Ptolemy's elephants.
As for Hannibal's elephants, no one has done the study yet. Since the Atlas Mountains elephant herds have been extinct for two thousand years, this would require locating some bones and dating them to Hannibal's time. Even when the tests were done, it wouldn't produce a definite answer. While he probably used Atlas elephants for most of those he took on his invasion, it is possible that at least some of them were Asian elephants. His personal elephant was called Sarus, a word that has been translated as possibly meaning "the Syrian" (it could also mean "one tusk" or "Mr. Snuggles" (I made that last one up)).
We're on firmer ground with Ptolemy's elephants. Polybius specifically says they were African elephants, distinguishing them from Antiochus' Asian elephants. We have a second line of evidence to back this up. During Alexander the Great's campaigns in the East, the Greeks came to appreciate the value of War elephants. After his death, his generals and successors, each with their own chunk of the empire, tried to acquire elephants for their armies. Although Ptolemy I gained one of the choicer and easier defended parts of the empire, Egypt, he was cut of from the source of war elephants and was unable to breed his own herd (he likely had no females). According to an insciption found at Adoulis on the Eritrean coast, Ptolemy III bragged that "Troglodytic and Ethiopian elephants, which he and his father were the first to hunt from these lands and, [brought] them back into Egypt, to fit out for military service." Although the geographic term Ethiopia was used to mean all of Black Africa, in this case, it's safe to assume that it meant the the region of Adoulis which was then part of the Kingdom of Axum. Luckily, elephants still exist in the region.
In a place called Gash-Barka, near where the borders of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan come together, a small herd of about 120 elephants has survived. Between 2001 and 2003, a group of scientists collected poop as part of a larger research project into the Gash-Barka herd. One of the leaders of the team was Jeheskel Shoshani who had been one of the primaries on the team that first sequenced forest elephant DNA. Naturally, the team also sequenced DNA of the Gash-Barka elephants recovered from their poop. The results were conclusive: "At every one of the diagnostic sites, savanna elephant-specific nucleotide character states were present; sequences with sites that matched a character state typical of forest elephants were never found." The Gash-Barka elephants are savanna elephants. Furthermore, the Gash-Barka closest affinity was to East African savanna elephants, which are less likely to contain any hybrids than the other group tested, West Central African elephants.
In the discussion section of their paper, the researchers look at the implications for Polybius' account of the Battle of Raphia. The Adoulis inscription only mentions African elephants as the source for the war elephants for Ptolemy IV's father. There is no reason to believe he had replaced them with new, smaller elephants from another source. If the Egyptian elephants were as big, if not bigger, than the Selucid ones, something other than size must have caused them to run away. Maybe they weren't as well trained or experienced as the Selucid elephants. Maybe the Selucid troops knew some trick for fighting elephants that the Egyptians didn't know. Pliny wrote that one of the only things elephants fear is mice. Maybe the Selucids had a battalion of trained combat mice (probably not). Maybe it was just one of those things that happen when armies clash.
There is one final possibility to consider. At the time, there existed a herd of Asian elephants native to Syria. The bones of these elephants show them to have been the largest of Asian elephants. Within a century they would be hunted to extinction for their impressive ivory. Most surviving records of war elephants describe them as having come from India already trained. Quite a few generations passed before Mediterranean kingdoms were able to breed and train their own herds of war elephants. It is remotely possible that Antiochus' elephant handlers had managed to capture and train some Syrian elephants. If Ptolemy's elephants were bigger than average Indian elephants, the use of Syrian elephants raises the possibility that Antiochus' elephants could have matched them in size.
The Gash-Barka study puts to rest one part of the theory of the North African forest elephant. Elephants in Northeast Africa today are, and almost certainly in antiquity were, savanna elephants. In Northwest Africa, the species used as war elephants remains in question. But, it's a question that can potentially be answered in the near future. The study also shows how fields of science, supposedly far removed from the humanities, can find unexpected relevance there.
In its way, this is an argument for a traditional liberal arts education. If genetics was taught as nothing more than a vocational skill, it would have been far less likely that anyone on the Gash-Barka team would have made the connection between their project and the writings of a second century BCE historian. A liberal arts education brings remote fields of knowledge together and makes them all relevant to the human experience. Who could have said in advance that collecting a few piles of elephant poop would produce knowledge relevant to genetics, conservation, history, and the classics? I'm a strong believer that no knowledge is ever completely useless. I hope this advances my case.
Afterward: The Gash-Barka genetics study in the current issue of the Journal of Heredity is the fifth report on that project. In May 2008, Jeheskel Shoshani was killed in a terrorist bombing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With permission from his daughter, the team will continue to list him as a co-author on reports from the study.