Elephants were given wine before battle to rouse them into a fighting frenzy.
War-elephants were a striking addition to the Hellenistic battlefield, and it is unsurprising that there are many unusual, often lurid, tales told about their use. In particular, in 2006, a BBC documentary, Hannibal: The Man, the Myth, the Mystery, made a curious claim that Hannibal used to give his elephants alcohol before each engagement in order to rouse them into a frenzy. Several scholarly works also state a similar idea, claiming that it was standard Hellenistic practice to give war-elephants wine prior to battle (e.g. Nossov 2008, p. 42; Kistler 2007, p. 137; Spinage 1994, p. 226), although these do not specifically attribute this to Hannibal.
The war-elephant’s ability to act as a psychological deterrent was an important aspect of its battlefield use: there are numerous instances in our ancient sources where armies were too afraid to fight opposing elephants. As such, the claim that elephants were given alcohol does not immediately appear unreasonable.
Furthermore, it is one that captures the imagination, and even has resonances in popular thought. For example, a modern association between elephants and alcohol is evident in the phrase “seeing pink elephants”, a euphemistic expression for drunken hallucinations, memorably adapted in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment of Disney’s Dumbo (1941).
Nevertheless, the plausibility of this claim is worth assessing in greater detail. In particular, it is important to note that none of our major literary sources for the Punic Wars mention that Hannibal gave his elephants alcohol before battle. Indeed, despite the prevalence of war-elephants in the conflicts of the Hellenistic period, the ancient evidence for the use of alcohol in their military preparation is significantly limited.
The ancient sources
The author of I Maccabees claims that at the Battle of Beth-Zechariah (162 BC), which was fought between the Seleucid army and the Hasmonean Jews, the Seleucids (6.34):
offered the elephants the juice of grapes and mulberries, to arouse them for battle.
Scholars have traditionally assumed that this juice was fermented, meaning that the elephants were given some kind of wine prior to the fighting (Scullard 1974, p. 187). A similar idea is also stated in Aelian’s work, On the Nature of Animals. Aelian claims that (13.8):
an elephant that fights in war drinks wine, not however that made from grapes, for men prepare a wine from rice or from cane.
But the validity of these statements is far from certain. Aelian in particular wrote nearly two hundred years after the Hellenistic period, and was specifically interested in collecting unusual and fascinating ancient “facts” about animals. Tropper (2017) has recently questioned the reliability of the account of the Battle of Beth-Zechariah in I Maccabees, illustrating that much of it was deliberately fashioned to parallel the Biblical story of David and Goliath.
Furthermore, when we compare the passage from I Maccabees to our other accounts of this battle, both of which are provided by Josephus (i.e. Jewish War1.41-6 and Antiquities of the Jews12.369-75), and which differ curiously with regards to certain details, there is notably no mention of wine being given to the elephants at any point during the engagement. The lack of this detail in the version presented in Antiquities of the Jews is particularly striking, since this account otherwise closely paraphrases the narrative in I Maccabees.
The other issue that we must consider is the suggestion that the wine was intended to “arouse [the elephants] for battle”, presumably to increase their aggression. This claim complements the important role that war-elephants played in psychological warfare. It is in keeping with the overall tone of I Maccabees’ account, which strongly focuses on the formidable nature of the Seleucid elephants in order to highlight the heroism of Eleazar’s attack on the lead pachyderm (6.43-6), and the bravery of the Jewish rebels in general.
It is worth pausing to consider the practicalities of elephant warfare. In particular, despite their military value, there are numerous occasions where an army’s elephants became unmanageable, trampling friend and foe indiscriminately on the battlefield. Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, took this threat so seriously that he instructed his mahouts(elephant-drivers) to kill their own elephants if they got out of control (Livy 27.49.1-2). It is therefore easy to imagine the potential chaos that a contingent of intoxicated elephants could cause. It is unlikely that commanders would wish to take this risk as part of their standard practice.
Alternatively, given that elephants can become nervous and easily frightened in captivity, we might ask whether the alcohol was actually intended to calm the animals before battle, rather than increase their aggression. Indeed, Epplett has noted that, despite Aelian’s claim that war-elephants were given alcohol, he does not mention what effect this was intended to have (2007, p.227). This suggestion would also fit with Pliny the Elder’s comment that (Natural History8.7):
when taken captive, [elephants] are very speedily tamed, by being fed on the juices of barley.
However, even here, there are complications. First, we should not assume that every elephant would react in the same manner to the alcohol. Second, the logistical requirements would have been considerable, as an army would have to transport extensive supplies of wine, in addition to the large amounts of food and water already needed for each elephant, if they intended to administer this drink prior to every engagement.
The most curious aspect of the claim that war-elephants were given alcohol before battle, however, is the silence of the majority of our sources for this period. Given the prominence of elephants in the warfare of the Hellenistic period, we might have expected such an unusual detail to appear elsewhere. Despite this, the only similar instance in our ancient sources concerns Ptolemy IV’s alleged attempt to have a group of Jews trampled to death by a contingent of drunken elephants (III Maccabees 5; Josephus, Against Apion 2.5), and this is crucially not an account of an actual battle.
A similar silence also pervades the ancient Indian literature. This is significant, as elephants had long been a staple of Indian warfare and would continue to be important there for many centuries. In particular, although Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra details how elephants should be trained for military use, and the various battle formations and environmental conditions they could be deployed in, it makes no mention of the use of wine to rouse these animals for battle, something which would have been natural to include if such a practice was standard.
Furthermore, since it was the Greco-Macedonian’s encounter with the elephants of the Indian king Porus at the battle of the Hydaspes (327/6 BC) which inspired the use of war-elephants across the Hellenistic world, and many of the mahouts in Hellenistic armies came from India (at least initially), it is reasonable to assume that many of their techniques for handling elephants mirrored contemporary Indian practice, at least to some extent.
Of course, we must be aware of proposing an argumentum ex silentio, and, given the innovations of the Hellenistic period, it is not impossible that commanders occasionally experimented with the idea of giving their war-elephants wine, or some other type of alcohol. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that this was ever a standard part of battle preparations, and almost certainly never with the intention of rousing the elephants into a frenzy before military engagements.
For these reasons we have rated this claim as false.
- C. Epplett, “War Elephants in the Hellenistic World”, in: Heckle, W. et al. (eds.), Alexander’s Empire, Formulation to Decay (2007), pp. 209-232.
- J.M. Kistler, War Elephants (2007).
- K. Nossov, War Elephants (2008).
- H.H. Scullard, The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (1974).
- C.A. Spinage, Elephants, (1994).
- A. Tropper, “The Battle of Beth Zechariah in light of a literary study of 1 Maccabees 6:32-47”, Hebrew Union College Annual 88 (2017), pp. 1-28.