In the battle of Thermopylae between the Persians and the United Greek Forces, what role did the mighty war elephant play? The Persians threw Immortals and archers at the United Greeks on the narrow cliff-side but the Greco-Persian wars don't describe how or if the war elephants played a decisive role in the major battles.

  • 3
    This question would be greatly improved if you included the research you used to conclude that War Elephants were decisive.
    – MCW
    Aug 19 '13 at 18:11
  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace: I fixed (IMO) the problem. :-) Aug 19 '13 at 18:22
  • @LennartRegebro - I still don't see any reference to support the use elephants. Does 'immortals' mean elephants? Am I missing an elephant in the room? Maybe a citation so we could verify?
    – user2590
    Aug 19 '13 at 22:29
  • 1
    @Vector, no but it now says "if". :-) Aug 20 '13 at 3:50
  • 1
    Is this question prompted by watching the Hollywood movie 300? Aug 20 '13 at 6:17

War Elephants in the west were a military fad that started with Alexander the Great's encounter with them at the battle of Gaugamella. They became popular for a while, but their ineffectiveness for Hannibal at Zama 113 years later spelled the beginning of the end for the fad. The extinction of the Syran and North African species iced it. By the beginning of the Common Era, the Romans were no longer employing them. The Parthans continued to use them for a time, but had to import them all from India. The Ethiopians continued to use them at least until the birth of Mohammed.

Thermopylae was a few generations before all this. There's no record of war elephants being used there, and this is certainly something one would expect a record of had it happened. Elephants are, after all, the prototypical example of "something that cannot possibly be missed, if it is there".

  • However it is a fact that an elephant had been used in the capture of Cremona in 1214. Aug 19 '13 at 20:58
  • @AarãoXistoSalazar - I suspect you are talking about this animal, which as near as I can tell was a parade beast, not a war elephant.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 19 '13 at 21:46
  • +1 "War Elephants in the west were a military fad [...]" and as many fads, they were utterly useless as a military tool. Aug 20 '13 at 6:44
  • @Sardathrion - Well, I suspect Indians found them much more effective when used in the thousands, as they did. Having only 10-100 of them in a fight containing thousands of calvary and tens of thousands infantry, I don't see how they could possibly be decisive.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 20 '13 at 16:26

It's tempting to think of war elephants as some kind of super cavalry, but in reality they were far from that. War elephants were unpredictable and hard to control. At times they were as dangerous to your own troops as they were to the enemy. They were primarily a psychological weapon and used as such. You line them up and send them running at the enemy lines. You're not trying to kill people, you're trying to scare them, and against untrained soldiers this had the possibility of routing a unit or sowing disorder. Against well trained armies, however, they were almost always ineffective.

As far as Thermopylae goes, I don't think Xerxes' army included elephants, which would make the point moot, but supposing it had I still find it incredibly unlikely that you could convince an elephant to charge up a narrow mountain pass like that, and against trained soldiers like the Greeks the risks would have outweighed the rewards of trying a strategy like that.

  • 2
    "I still find it incredibly unlikely that you could convince an elephant to charge up a narrow mountain pass" War elephants were used in the 191 BC battle of Thermopylae between the Romans and the Seleucids.
    – yannis
    Aug 24 '13 at 10:36
  • Fascinating, I'd never heard of that battle before. Based on the battle account, however, it sounds like the elephants were deployed at a wider part of the pass, and not used in the actual fighting.
    – Odysseus
    Aug 27 '13 at 20:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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