Did Hannibal’s elephants carry towers? Historian and chronological biases color the conflicting accounts, with some of them claiming that towers were built atop the Punic war elephants. On the other hand, there are many who argue that the said elephants were inadequate to have carried towers. Let’s take a look at the real answer to this question.
This plate depicting a war elephant was discovered in the Macchie necropolis in Capena, Italy, not far from Rome. You can tell it’s an Asian elephant by looking at its back, size, and ear form. From the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome, this work likely commemorates the 275 BC triumph of Roman consul Manius Curius Dentatus against Pyrrhus.
Unlike the elephants employed by Pyrrhus and the Hellenistic kingdoms, which are shown with crenellated towers or battlements, the Carthaginian elephants were diminutive and did not have towers with warriors on their backs. The Carthaginian silver coins issued in Hispania demonstrate that the elephants of Carthage, led by their mahout, were used as weapons. The story of the poet Silius Italicus, who writes of Punic elephants with towers, is not taken seriously by modern historians.
In contrast, historian Livy depicts the Punic elephants who fought at Ilipa (206 BC) as “fort-like,” while sources from the Republican era recall the usage of towers on Numidian elephants. For this reason, it is anticipated that they would be fitted onto miniature elephants native to North Africa. The name “thorakion” (meaning “tower” or “parapet”) exists in the Suda (a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia of missing text fragments), and it appears to refer to the towers on top of Hannibal’s elephants.
Historians believe that this word may have come from either the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus (flourished: c.100 BC – c.1 BC) or the Greek historian Sosylus of Lacedaemon (the 3rd century BC). Both of these people went on trips with Hannibal, thus his mighty war elephants.
Occasionally, Hannibal’s elephants had towers attached on top of them, and with the towers, there were the warriors standing in them. One of Hannibal’s most courageous elephants (who had lost a tusk in combat) was dubbed Surus, “the Syrian,” which suggests that it was likely a giant Asian elephant, a species that undoubtedly carried a tower with Hannibal’s warriors. The Asian elephants of the time were larger than their African counterparts, yet they were both equally tameable.