Although known for millennia by many of the peoples of Africa and Asia, elephants’ introduction to the classical West came around 331 B.C., when Alexander the Great encountered war elephants as his army swept from Persia into India. At the river Jhelum, in present-day Pakistan, Alexander defeated the Indian ruler Porus, who was said to have 100,000 war elephants in his army. Ever since, whether revered as a divine symbol of luck and wisdom, used as unique tools of diplomacy between leaders, deployed to intimidate opposing armies or put on display in the service of status or science, elephants have loomed large in the historical record. Check out 10 notable examples.
After Alexander, it became fashionable (if not always militarily expedient) for up-and-coming generals to field a few elephants in their armies. In 279 B.C., the Greek general Pyrrhus attempted to revive Alexander’s empire, invading southern Italy with a force that included 20 armed and armored elephants. Pyrrhus hoped his tuskers would terrify the defending Romans, but the beasts’ main effect was to block his own army’s advances through narrow streets. Pyrrhus also ran into the most common difficulty with war elephants: whenever the beasts panicked they often bolted, trampling his own army’s foot soldiers. Pyrrhus’ invasion was successful, but costly, spawning the term “Pyrrhic Victory”—the ancient historian Plutarch quotes him as quipping: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest military leaders in history, the Carthaginian general Hannibal famously invaded Italy from the north in 218 B.C., crossing the Alps from Gaul with an army of foot-soldiers, cavalry and a handful of north African forest elephants, smaller than the Asian and African elephants familiar to today’s zoo-goers. Of the six elephants that survived the arduous mountain trek, five died the following winter. The sixth, a one-tusked elephant named Surus, became Hannibal’s mount and mobile viewing platform in the marshes of the Arno. Over the next 15 years, Hannibal won significant battles and occupied much of Italy, sometimes with reinforcement elephants shipped directly from Africa. In a 209 B.C. battle with the Roman consul Marcellus, Hannibal’s war elephants created havoc until the Romans managed to wound one, touching off a cascade of panic among the pachyderms.
Another famed ancient elephant was the trusty companion of King Dutugamunu, the second-century B.C. ruler of Sri Lanka, who famously defeated King Elara, his South Indian rival, to become ruler of the entire island of Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka). Captured in the forest around the time of Dutugamunu’s birth, the elephant Kandula grew up alongside the young prince. As the royal mount, he performed heroically in the siege of Vijitanagara (161 B.C.), returning to finish breaking down a fortified gate after recovering from having molten pitch poured on his back. According to the Mahavamsa, an ancient Buddhist chronicle, the king rushed to Kandula to administer a salve, exclaiming, “Dear Kandula, I’ll make you the lord of all Ceylon!” Later Kandula was Dutugamunu’s mount in his one-on-one combat when he defeated Elara (whose elephant’s name, Maha Pambata, means “big rock.”)
The first year of the Islamic calendar corresponds to A.D. 622, the year of the Hirja (the prophet Muhammad’s emigration from Mecca to Medina), but the prophet’s birth occurred 52 years earlier, in what is known in the Islamic world as the “Year of the Elephant”—so named because it was the year a Christian Yemeni ruler attempted (with one or more war elephants) to invade Mecca and destroy the Kaaba, the central shrine in Mecca that predated Islam. According to Islamic tradition, the lead elephant, prophetically named Mahmud, halted at the border of Mecca and refused to enter.
In A.D. 801, a Jewish trader named Isaac returned to Europe after a four-year mission to the Persian Empire and Africa. He had been sent by Charlemagne, the Frankish king who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor, to procure an elephant from Haroun-al-Raschid, the Abbasid Caliph who would later be immortalized in many of the “Arabian Nights” stories. Known for making Baghdad a cosmopolitan center of religious and scientific study, Haroun sought friendly relations with Charlemagne in part to counterbalance two rival dynasties—the Byzantines in Greece and the Umayyads in Spain. The elephant, named Abdul-Abbas after the founder of the Abbasid empire, found a welcome home at Charlemagne’s court at Aix-la-Chapelle (today’s Aachen, Germany). Charlemagne took Abdul-Abbas to war with the Danes in 804, but the elephant steered clear of the fighting.
Charlemagne was hardly the only Medieval European ruler to be the recipient of large-mammal diplomacy. Henry III, who ruled England from 1207 to 1272, was the recipient of several such gifts. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II sent him a camel, while the king of Norway gave a polar bear. But Henry’s biggest gift came from France’s Louis IX—an African elephant. Henry quickly dispatched the Sheriff of London to build, without delay, “one house of forty feet long and twenty feet deep, for our elephant.” Crowds flocked to see it, including the English chronicler and illustrator Matthew Paris, who made a remarkably detailed illustration of the beast. Sadly, after just two years as the toast of London, Henry’s elephant died, purportedly after having been given too much red wine to drink.
In 1514 a grand procession, led by the Portuguese explorer Tristan de Cunha, wound its way into Rome. Its highlight was a white Indian elephant, covered in gold brocade and topped with a silver safe containing precious gifts. This was Hanno, sent by King Manuel I of Portugal as a gift to Pope Leo X. On cue, the trained animal knelt before the pontiff, and delighted onlookers by spraying them with a trunkful of water. Hanno was the centerpiece of Manuel’s strategy to win papal backing for Portugal’s claim to the newly discovered Spice Islands in present-day Indonesia—then the world’s sole source of mace and nutmeg. The strategy worked, and for several years Hanno made appearances at various Roman festivals. After the elephant died in 1516 at the age of seven, Leo commissioned the artist Raphael to create a memorial portrait of the beast (now lost). Leo’s devotion to Hanno provided fuel for the pope’s critics, including Martin Luther, describing Leo as “indolently catching flies while his pet elephant cavorted before him.”
In 1801 pioneering American natural historian and museum-founder Charles Willson Peale asked President Jefferson for a federal grant to excavate a set of bones that had been uncovered in a tar pit near Newburgh, New York. Jefferson obliged, and Peale uncovered the first known full remains of a North American mastodon, a prehistoric cousin of the elephant and mammoth that went extinct 11,000 years ago. Misidentified as a mammoth, the skeleton of the 11-foot-tall animal was put on display at Peale’s Philadelphia museum. In 1804 Jefferson, who doubted that species could go extinct, instructed the leaders of the Lewis and Clark expedition to keep an eye out for any mammoths, living or dead, as they journeyed to the Pacific. In 1807 Jefferson commissioned William Clark to collect mammoth fossils from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky. Clark then forwarded set of bones to the White House, where Jefferson enthusiastically laid them out in the East Room.
Though it was never given to a king or president, the 19th’s century’s most famous pachyderm counted Queen Victoria as a devoted fan. Captured by a river in the spring of 1861 in what is now Mali, Jumbo was eventually taken, by way of a French zoo, to the London Zoological Society. There the bull elephant became a hugely popular attraction, ferrying a dozen children at a time around the garden. His name quickly became a synonym for anything gigantic. In 1882 the zoo set off a nationalist controversy after it agreed to sell Jumbo to the American entrepreneur and showman P.T. Barnum for $10,000. Donor campaigns, prayer vigils and Jumbo’s own dislike of shipping crates were ultimately unable to keep him on British soil. It took Barnum just two weeks of American circus ticket sales to recover the cost of Jumbo’s purchase and transport.
How big was jumbo? According to Barnum’s publicity, he stood 7 feet tall and weighed 7 tons. Jumbo was the star of the Barnum & Bailey Circus until 1885, when he was struck and killed in an Ontario rail-yard accident. In the years following Jumbo’s death, Barnum continued to make handsome profits exhibiting the elephant’s skeleton and taxidermic hide.
In 1942 the Japanese invaded Burma, commandeering work elephants to build roads and fortifications. A year later, Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Expeditionary Forces captured 13 of the Japanese elephants, marching them to China along the Burma Road. After World War II’s end, the seven surviving elephants from that group were used to build war monuments. In 1947 three were taken to Taiwan. Three years later, there was only one surviving elephant. Nicknamed Lin Wang (“forest king”), the elephant was donated to the Taipei City Zoo in 1954, where he became a popular attraction. After his death in 2003 at the published age of 86 (few elephants live past 70), Lin Wang was made a posthumous citizen of Taipei