Julius Caesar Had Tamed Elephants Shipped From Italy To Calm His Men And Horses In Preparation For His Battles In North Africa

(Caesar painted by Lionel Royer (1852–1926) cropped into the painting: An elephant keeper riding his elephant, c. 1825, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

In 48 BCE, Pompey the Great fled to Egypt after he lost the Battle of Pharsalus. Yet, instead of finding asylum in the autonomous Kingdom of Egypt, Pompey was assassinated by the Egyptians in an attempt to gain the favor of Julius Caesar. With Pompey’s death, the main military adversary against Caesar in the Roman civil war was gone, but the war was far from over. Despite the absence of their leader, Pompey’s officers and allies continued to fight for the Roman Republic, or just simply against Julius Caesar. Though Caesar’s adversaries were spread throughout the empire, many of the greatest Pompeian leaders—Titus Labienus, Metellus Scipio and King Juba I—had gathered their forces together in North Africa.

After securing Egypt for his ally Cleopatra and defeating a hostile army from Pontus, Julius Caesar turned his attention to the Pompeians (or Optimates) amassed in North Africa. Caesar began his campaign against Labienus, Scipio and King Juba around 47 BCE when he landed his legions somewhere in modern Tunisia.

The war, however, would not be simple. Labienus and Scipio were both very able Roman generals and King Juba not only had some of the best horsemen in the Mediterranean, but he also fielded war elephants. Also, as usual, Julius Caesar’s forces were outnumbered.

To win the war in Africa, Caesar had to rely on his own military genius, as well as the extraordinary battlefield experience that his elite and hardened legions had gained through years of continuous war. Yet, the enemies in Africa had weapons that Caesar’s legions had never seen in action before—the elephants. The legions were experienced thoroughly in how to fight infantry and horsemen, but the elephants understandably unnerved even the most battle-tested troops, not to mention the horses.

To remedy this, Julius Caesar sent word to Italy requesting that some tamed elephants be shipped to his camp. When the animals arrived, the camp basically became a petting zoo. Soldiers were invited to approach the tamed elephants and touch them. With the elephants accessible to the soldiers, Caesar’s men learned what the beasts could and could not do, and they were instructed where to attack the elephants during battle for the most effect. Likewise, the horses were brought near the elephants so they would become familiar with the sight, smell and sounds of the strange creature, so that the cavalry would not waver in battle.  According to Caesar in his War Commentaries, the petting zoo ploy “succeeded to a wonder” (African War Commentaries, 72).

With the confidence of Caesar’s forces regained, the Pompeian leaders were doomed. Julius Caesar intentionally let himself be attacked at the defensible region of Thapsus in 46 BCE. There, his men ferociously charged the enemy, causing elephants and soldiers, alike, to run amuck and scatter.

The battle was another huge event in Julius Caesar’s path to victory. Scipio was killed in the battle and King Juba committed suicide soon after it was over. Cato, a key politician of the Roman Republic, also killed himself in the aftermath of the battle. The only major Pompeian officer involved in Thapsus who survived the year was Labienus, who would die a year later fighting Caesar’s forces in Spain.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Sources:

  • War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 2014.
  • Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.
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