I recently saw this rather tongue-in-cheek graphic:

enter image description here

Now I have no idea regarding the veracity of the above, but assuming it is somewhat true it begs the question: If Europeans didn't eat them, what did people do with captured (i.e still alive) elephants once their masters would have been killed and presumably there wasn't many people with expertise of elephant handling on the European side. One would also think that often the elephant would find itself in a non-native habitat and so couldn't just be left to their own devices.

Is there any historical record of this rather niche question?

  • 2
    Please cite source to avoid charges of plagiarism. Were any war elephants captured? Seems like that would be rather difficult.
    – MCW
    May 22, 2023 at 18:08
  • 1
    I'm not too sure Romans wouldn't eat elephants.
    – Jos
    May 23, 2023 at 4:36
  • 4
    They would have almost certainly been killed, and possibly tusks and other trophies taken home while the carcasses were either buried or left to rot.
    – jwenting
    May 23, 2023 at 7:38
  • 1
    Designating Spain as "didn't travel much" on a map is... not my impression reading history books.
    – nvoigt
    May 23, 2023 at 11:26
  • 4
    Ancient Romans used elephants, for example a dozen during the Siege of Numantia (current Spain) in 134 BCE. The problem with war elephants was the multiple ways of injurying them and turning them back as Vegetius lists in his Epitoma Rei Militaris in the 4th century CE and as it happened in Numantia. May 23, 2023 at 11:59

1 Answer 1


Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, gives several examples of how captured elephants were part of Roman triumphs. The two earliest examples are after the battles of Beneventum (against Pyrrhus) and Panormos (against Carthago).

What happened to the elephants after being paraded around is not entirely clear to Pliny, but some of his sources said they were killed because the Romans did not know what to do with so many elephants. (Also note that there seems to be a slight problem with the year of the Panormos battle in Pliny's account):

Elephants were seen in Italy, for the first time, in the war with King Pyrrhus, in the year of the City 472 [281 BCE]; they were called "Lucanian oxen," because they were first seen in Lucania. Seven years after this period [i.e. in 274 BCE], they appeared at Rome in a triumph. In the year 502 [251 BCE] a great number of them were brought to Rome, which had been taken by the pontiff Metellus, in his victory gained in Sicily over the Carthaginians; they were one hundred and forty-two in number, or, as some say, one hundred and forty, and were conveyed to our shores upon rafts, which were constructed on rows of hogsheads joined together. Verrius informs us, that they fought in the Circus, and that they were slain with javelins, for want of some better method of disposing of them; as the people neither liked to keep them nor yet to give them to the kings. L. Piso tells us only that they were brought into the Circus; and for the purpose of increasing the feeling of contempt towards them, they were driven all round the area of that place by workmen, who had nothing but spears blunted at the point. The authors who are of opinion that they were not killed, do not, however, inform us how they were afterwards disposed of.

(source, via wp and another online source)

  • Key phrase: "what to do with so many elephants." The notion that there were no non-fighting grooms and other miscellaneous handlers for the elephants is absurd; and they would have quickly and readily surrendered upon defeat if only for the opportunity to remain with the elephants they card for. May 31, 2023 at 10:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.