Did Alexander the Great use war elephants? (Explained)

The most prominent use of war elephants was Hannibal marching across the Alps with his 37 war elephants. But war elephants had been used in India for centuries before they ever made an appearance in the European battlefields.

The Achaemenid Persian empire was the first western empire that used imported Indian war elephants. Which bears the question if Alexander the Great also adopted the use of war elephants when he invaded the Persian empire.

Alexander the Great did not use war elephants for battle. It wasn`t until after the battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC that Alexander acquired a large number of Indian elephants. He only used these war elephants for carrying luggage, not for battle.

Let`s find out more!

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Did Alexander the Great use war elephants?

Alexander the Great had contact with war elephants as early as the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC where he encountered his first elephants. But Alexander wouldn`t use war elephants in his campaigns.

Most likely because he hadn`t figured out the best way to integrate them into his tactics. Additionally, the feeding of these large animals was a challenge. Elephants need large amounts of fiber. In contrary to horses they can not be mostly feed with grains.

Transporting large amounts of hay with the army was a logistical nightmare. Especially since the Macedonian army was designed to march faster than other armies of their time.

In my article here you can find more information on what made the Macedonian army so much faster than rivaling armies.

But after Alexander had climbed and secured the Achaemenid throne, more on that here, he slowly collected a small force of elephants. He even established these elephants as a guard unit for his palace in Babylon.

During the battle of the Hydaspes Alexander only used his elephants as reserve. Most likely because his enemy Poros had a much larger force of elephants (some sources claim up to 200 animals).

It wasn`t until after the battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC) that Alexander would acquire a large number of Elephants. But due to Alexanders early death in 323 BC, he could not use them anymore in battle.

Are you interested in the life of Alexander the Great? Then you might want to check out the biography of Alexander that was written by the ancient Roman writer Plutarch (and that is still one of the most important sources for our knowledge about Alexander). You can find a translated version here* on amazon.

Where did Alexander the Great first encounter war Elephants?

Alexander the Great saw the first Indian war elephants before the Battle of Gaugamela on October 1 331 BC.

The sight of these magnificent but huge and from a Macedonian perspective completely unknown animals prompted Alexander to make a sacrifice to the god of fear in the night before the battle.

During the battle of Gaugamela, the 15-20 Indian war elephants were feared by Alexanders’ troops but were not able to turn the battle in favor of the Persians.

It is unclear when elephants were first used for war. Historians estimate that the first use of war elephants might have been as early as 500 BC in northern India.

It is not known when exactly the Persians got in contact with those Indian war elephants. But the Persian king Cyros the great had already conquered the north-western part of India (and was killed there in 529 BC). So it would make sense that the Persian began to learn the use of war elephants from the defeated Indian rulers.

The Persian king Dareios I. (the same guy who was defeated at the battle of Marathon; please read my article on that topic) had expanded the Persian rule over the Indus valley from Gandhara to modern-day Karachi in 515 BC.

Over the next few years of his campaign into the Persian empire, Alexander would not have to face war elephants anymore.

That chanced in May or June of 326 BC at the Battle of the Hydaspes.

The Battle of the Hydaspes

Alexander’s lust for exploration had driven him and his army deeper and deeper into Asia. In the spring of 326 BC, Alexander and his army exceeded the river Indus. The goal of the expedition that had been prepared since 328 BC was to conquer the Indus delta and Punjab.

East of the Indus river the land was ruled by rivaling Indian kings and princes. By the way, in Antiquity, the area that was called India was the land WEST of the Indus. So when we are talking about India in antiquity then we are talking about modern-day Pakistan without the province of Balochistan.

Check out my article here for more information on how much of India Alexander actually conquered.

In May or June of 326 BC, Alexander faced the most important Indian king named Poros in the Battle of the Hydaspes. Poros had a lot of experience with using war elephants the right way. The number of war elephants that Poros used is estimated to be arround 200.

Since the Macedonians soldiers had never seen such an amount of elephants the psychological effect was accordingly. This might be a good place for a short digression on how war Elephants were actually used!

How were war elephants used?

Naturally, Elephants are gentle animals who would not charge into enemy formations.

It took years of training (and sometimes intoxication, more on that later) to bring these gentile giants to charge into an enemy.

By the way, since Elephants would usually not reproduce in captivity all these animals had to be captured and tamed which was another quite cruel chapter in the use of these animals.

War elephants would usually be deployed in a line or as a block. The goal was to charge them into the enemys` formation, swinging their powerful Trunks at enemy soldiers and trampling them down.

That would usually lead to the breach of the hostile formation that would then be exploited by following infantry or cavalry.

Since wounds on elephants tended to get infected armor was developed to protect these efficient and yet so vulnerable animals.

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Another method that was used by Indians to unleash the full destructive power of the elephants was to get them (and often also the Elephant driver) drunk.

Honestly, the Idea of intoxicated war elephants that are led by also intoxicated elephant drivers is horrifying!

But Alexander had learned how he could use his army against groups of war elephants. Alexander had realized that the Elephants could only be controlled by their elephant driver who was sitting in the elephant’s neck. So Alexander ordered his men, most likely the Hypaspists to throw javelins at the elephant driver.

Without the elephant driver, the war elephants would lose their usefulness and became a danger to their troops.

If you want to find out more about the Hypaspists I would recommend you my article about the army of Alexander where I also go into detail on what Hypaspists were, how they were used, and so on.

After the elephant commanders were killed and Poros army was surrounded the elephants panicked and started trampling their own troops.

Alexander won the battle and the Indian king Poros, who had fought till the end, was seriously wounded when he was captured.

After the battle, Alexander would get hold of  200 Indian Elephants. But since the battle of the Hydaspes was the last major battle in Alexanders’ life those elephants would only be used for transporting luggage.

The Greek use of war elephants after Alexanders Death

War elephants remained an important role for the Hellenic rulers who followed after Alexanders’ untimely death in 323 BC.

And not only in a military way. Some coins show the head of Alexander the great with the scalp of an elephant on his head.

Alexanders` Successors, the so-called Diadochi, would use hundreds of war elephants during their wars over Alexanders’ Inheritance (basically over his empire).

A good Example is Seleucus I, one of Alexanders’ Generals, who founded the Seleucid Empire (one of the final 3 Hellenistic empires that developed on the ground of Alexander`s empire, more on that here) after the death of Alexander.

He made a deal with the Indian king Chandragupta Maurya. In exchange for fought over territories, Chandragupta Maurya gave 500 war elephants to Seleucus I. Seleucius had served as Commander in chief of Alexanders Hetairoi.

Find out more about the Hetairoi in my article here.

Seleucus I. went on to use these elephants to defend the part of Alexanders’ Empire that he had claimed for himself against his former comrades.

Many of Alexanders Successors would frequently use war elephants and the knowledge on how to use war elephants quickly spread throughout the Hellenistic world. In 301 BC, Seleucus would use the fact that horses are afraid of elephants to his advantage when during the battle of Ipsus a line of his elephants blocked the hostile cavalry from returing to the battlefield.

In later years the Romans also had to face war elephants when they had to conquer Macedonia, fight Pyrrus, and later Hannibal.

But that is a story for another post. You can find out more about Pyrrhus and his wars against Rome in my article here.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the world of Alexander the Great.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


P. Cartledge, Alexander the Great (2005).

Plutarch, The life of Alexander the Great.