Were pigs set on fire to fight elephants?

Published

Claim

The ancient Greeks and Romans set pigs on fire in order to cause panic among enemy elephants.

Rating

Half true

Explanation

The use of elephants in warfare is a striking feature of the Hellenistic period and quickly saw the development of numerous countermeasures intended to neutralise the elephant’s effectiveness on the battlefield. Typically, these countermeasures focused on the elephant’s susceptibility to pain and panic, and it was not uncommon for elephants to become uncontrollable on the battlefield and subsequently trample their own forces in the confusion.

The idea that the ancient Greeks and Romans used flaming pigs against enemy elephants offers perhaps one of the most unusual anti-elephant measures from this period. Polyaenus reports that at the siege of Megara in 266 BC (4.6.3):

Antigonus [Gonatus] brought his elephants into the attack; but the Megarians daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions. From this time onwards, Antigonus ordered the Indians, when they trained up their elephants, to bring up swine among them; so that the elephants might thus become accustomed to the sight of them, and to their noise.

The same details are recorded by Aelian in his work On the Nature of Animals (16.36), with an added speculation as to the reason why the elephants might have panicked:

either because elephants by some instinct hate and loathe pigs, or because they dread the shrill and discordant sound of their voices.

Bright and Bowen note that “there was a long and active tradition of reporting how elephants were frightened by the squealing of pigs” (1983, p. 19), and the idea is corroborated by Seneca’s comment that ‘the elephant fears the sound of pigs’ (Of Anger 2.11.5). This also finds parallels in Polybius’ account of the battle of Zama (202 BC), where he records that the shrill sound of the trumpets frightened some of Hannibal’s elephants at the beginning of the battle (15.12.2). Moreover, as Scullard (1974, pp. 114-5) points out, in what is still one of the best scholarly works on ancient elephants, this suggestion raises no zoological objections, and it is well known that elephants can become nervous and easily frightened in captivity.

Nevertheless, the story itself has an almost fantastical quality to it, inviting us to question its authenticity. Not only do the logistics of ensuring the burning pigs charged towards the Macedonian elephants and not back into the city raise issues regarding practicality, but neither Polyaenus nor Aelian were contemporary, writing in the second and third century AD respectively, over three hundred years after the siege at Megara.

Although this does not necessarily dismiss the accuracy of their testimony, and the close details of their individual versions suggest an earlier common source, it is worth noting that both writers had a distinct interest in unique events. Polyaenus’ work was specifically dedicated to narrating fascinating or unusual battlefield tricks, whilst Aelian collected a wealth of ancient “facts” and beliefs regarding various animals, and was continually in search of “the picturesque, the startling, even the miraculous” (Scholfield 1958, xiii). It is therefore best to be cautious.

Despite this, the use of pigs to combat elephants at Megara echoes the earlier battle of Beneventum (275 BC) during Pyrrhus of Epirus’ campaigns in Italy. Here, Aelian (On the Nature of Animals 1.38) reports that

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 put to flight the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus, and that the Romans won a glorious victory.

Whether these pigs were similarly on fire, as Nossov (2008, p. 25) suggests, is impossible to determine. Likewise, it remains unclear whether the use of pigs here was deliberate or accidental.

Once again, it is notable that it is Aelian who records this story, whilst the main authors who detail Pyrrhus’ campaigns, such as Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, are notably silent, although Plutarch does mention the elephant’s dislike for pigs elsewhere (On the Intelligence of Animals 32). However, a piece of Aes Signatum (a bronze bar that was an early type of money) has been found from central Italy which shows an elephant on one side and a pig on the other. Although artistic humour at the contrasting size of the two animals cannot be ruled out, this bar is suggestive of the authenticity of this encounter (Scullard 1974, p. 115; Epplett 2007, p. 220).

If this is accepted, then it is not impossible that the Megarians, having heard of the Roman’s success with pigs against Pyrrhus of Epirus, decided to replicate the idea 11 years later against the Macedonian king, Antigonus Gonatus. By setting the pigs on fire, the Megarians could guarantee a cacophony of high-pitched squealing that likely would have discomforted everyone who heard it, whilst the psychological impact of the fire itself would have added to the elephants’ distress. This development of the original idea is in keeping with the experimental nature of the Hellenistic period, and, although the story initially seems fantastical, the use of pigs to counteract an enemy’s elephants is arguably no more bizarre than the striking anti-elephant wagons which the Romans deployed at Asculum (279 BC) (Dionysus, Roman Antiquities 20.1-2; Zonaras 8.5), or Perseus’ decision to construct wooden elephants with a trumpeter inside to mimic their noises in order to accustom his horses to the sight and sound of these animals during the Third Macedonian War of 171-168 BC (Polyaenus 4.21).

Therefore, the claim that the ancients set fire to pigs in order to cause panic among enemy elephants does seem to have an element of plausibility, although it should be pointed out that, despite Nossov’s claim (2008, p. 25), it is uncertain that the Romans themselves actually used fire. Whilst the sources surrounding the siege of Megara are late, meaning that certainty is impossible, the story of the flaming pigs does fit within the wider pattern of Hellenistic experimentation and the anti-elephant measures devised in this period. For this reason, we have rated this claim as half-true.

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References

  • D.F. Bright, and B.C. Bowen, “Emblems, elephants, and Alexander”, Studies in Philology 80 (1983), pp. 14-24.
  • C. Epplett, “War elephants in the Hellenistic world”, in: Heckles, W. et al. (eds.), Alexander’s Empire, Formulation to Decay (2007), pp. 209-32.
  • K. Nossov, War Elephants (2008).
  • A.F. Scholfield, Aelian, On Animals, Volume 1: Books 1-5, Loeb Classical Library (1958).
  • H.H. Scullard,The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (1974).