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Otters Oddities

Dang, I forgot my gloves.

Elephants. You don't typically think of snow when you think of them. In fact, elephants prefer warmer climates.


There is a story from history, though, involving snow and elephants. And, at some point, you have all heard it.

It's the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his army that included elephants.

Well, guess what? It's actually true.

Hannibal was the leader of Carthage. Carthage was a city-state much like Rome, or Athens. It was located on the North African coast in present day Libya. And, Hannibal was looking to win back some of the territory that was lost in the First Punic War. (Punic comes from the latin 'punici', which is what the Romans called the Carthageans because of their Phoenician heritage.)


Hannibal knew the Romans had a very powerful army. Their infantry was almost unstoppable. That's why Hannibal decided to build up his cavalry. Infantry, no matter how good, will struggle against cavalry. His mounted forces numbered 9,000 and included 37 war elephants.

Historians debate what kind of elephants they were. Indian elephants, while slightly smaller than African elephants, are easier to train. But for Hannibal, African elephants would have been the easier ones to obtain.


However, back in 218 BCE when Hannibal was gathering his forces, there was a sub-species of the African elephant that lived in the Atlas mountains which, conveniently, were right in Hannibals neighborhood. And, since an adult elephant eats 400 pounds of food a day, the closer the elephants, the better. (as a side note, Hannibal was on good terms with the Ptolemic empire in Egypt, and it is knoen that the elephant that Hannibal rode was a gift from the Pharaoh, and was an Indian elephant named Surus.)

While Hannibal started off with 90,000 infantry, because he had to release some of his troops from duty, and because he had to garrison some to guard over newly conquered land, he only took 38,000 infantry along with his 9,000 cavalry and 37 elephants.


Not knowing the Alps, Hannibal trusted Gaulish guides to lead his army through. As you may know, the Alps are tall. So tall that, in the higher elevations, the snow doesn't melt in the summer. This is where the problems started. The elephants didn't handle the steep terrain and the cold snow very well. The road was narrow with drop offs on one side. Some elephants slipped and fell off. Others froze to death. Some starved. The logistics of feeding that many elephants on a rough mountain crossing was difficult. The elephants were not getting the amount of food they needed due to limited supplies. And, in the cold and high altitudes, they needed more than normal.

By the time the army finished the crossing and entered Italy, only 3 survived(or 10, experts disagree. The two Roman historians who wrote about it disagreed, and many contemporary writters just said, "very few survived" or "most perished". Although, many experts think 3 is closer to the actual number).


Regardless of the actual number that survived the crossing, it is known that they played no role in Hannibals victories in the early part of the war. By the end of the war, Hannibal was able to gather more elephants, but by then, it was too late. The Roman commander, Scipio, had expanded his cavalry so much that by the time of the final battle in 202BCE, the Romans were able to neutralize the effect of the elephants.

So, while Hannibal did cross the Alps with elephants, most died, and none of the survivors were of any use against the Romans. So, it was a pointless feat. He would have been better off bringing more troops with.


Of course, like all of history, the truth isn't quite as sexy as the reality. And it's the sexy they like to teach in school.

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