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Strange tales: wine drinking elephants, part two

Elephants may struggle to get drunk in the wild but they do have a taste for alcohol and man has used that taste throughout history to harness the animals themselves for work and war.

Painting From The 1700’s In The Bundi Palace In Rajasthan, India. The taming of elephants using beer and palm wine likely began in India and the Far East.

Back in August readers will hopefully remember that in part one we looked at the legend of elephants getting ‘drunk’ in the wild and how much alcohol it would take for that to happen.

Quite a lot, was the obvious conclusion as well as how difficult it would be for African elephants to find enough naturally occurring alcohol in the fruit of the marula tree which they greatly favour.

To be honest, the first part did not really cover the issue of elephants drinking wine at all but it will be instructive for this part, which most certainly does.

Elephants certainly have a taste for alcohol when they can get it and from time to time one hears of the animals in India and Africa getting into a village’s beer or palm wine supply and then going on a pachydermal rampage before tottering away to sleep off the binge somewhere under the shade of a tree (if they’re as whimsical as we all assume them to be).

Exactly when man began using elephants in war is not known but it is thought that the creatures were domesticated for agricultural work in the Indus Valley c.4,500BC at the very earliest, and possibly later c.2,000BC, and then their use in logistics and war gradually spread westwards.

One can quite imagine why man sought to domesticate elephants. For agricultural and logistical work their size and strength were invaluable in deforestation and logging, and those same qualities were equally well suited for the battlefield where they served as the ‘tanks’ of the ancient world.

If the prospect of receiving enemy cavalry was unappealing to infantry, imagine what the thought of being trampled by armoured elephants did, especially to raw troops. The psychological shock could also be doubled if the troops in question had never seen elephants before. Many a unit probably broke in fright before the elephants ever got near them so they could be extremely valuable to a commander, though they were not without their foibles and vulnerabilities either as we shall see; although in India, Burma, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia elephants continued to be a battlefield weapon well into the 19th century.

But how does one go about taming an elephant? Breeding animals in captivity is difficult (it is now let alone several millennia ago) and trying to capture and raise an elephant calf immediately introduces the problem of dealing with its very large, aggressive and dangerous mother.

The ancients seem, therefore, to have set about capturing and taming elephants rather than ever fully domesticating them and one of the primary means that they did so was with the judicious application of alcohol.

The Greek physician and historian of the 5th century BC, Ctesias, wrote in his book Indica that the Indians gave elephants intoxicants such as palm wine and rice beer. It is one of the earliest descriptions of elephants in western literature and is included among various other observations and claims, some patently ludicrous, about the sub-continent that Ctesias picked up from merchants who travelled the Silk Road and visited the court of the Persian king.1

As such we might take his assertion with a pinch of salt, but it is a theme that other ancient Greek and Roman writers also touched on – writers who lived in a world where the use of war elephants was then widespread.

The Roman writers Pliny and Aelian and the later Byzantine historian Manuel Philes all mention elephants and alcohol in various ways.

Pliny writes that the “juice of the barley” (or beer in other words) is given to elephants after their capture to help tame them, while Athenaeus reported that Aristotle had noted the effect alcohol had on monkeys and elephants, and that with the former, the creature lost its cunning, and with the latter, it lost its strength, making both easier to capture.

Then there is the practice of giving war elephants wine before battle. Aelian in his Natural History says water is the drink for the tamed elephant but “wine is for that fighting in war,” although here again he seems to mention that some sort of rice ‘wine’ or ‘beer’ is better for elephants than wine made from grapes.

There is also a reference to this practice in the Bible in relation to the Jewish uprising against the Seleucid Greeks that took place in the 2nd century BC. This was the uprising led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, who were affronted by the religious intolerance of the Seleucids and the prominence of more Hellenised Jews who the Maccabees regarded as heretics.

Eleazar slays the elephant and is crushed to death. Engraving by Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883)

The Maccabees tended to employ lightning hit-and-run raids against the Seleucids rather than confronting them head on but the two forces did take the field from time to time.

One such occasion was the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162BC when the Jews were defending Jerusalem against a Syriac-Greek army that is said to have included 30 war elephants.

The biblical text in I Maccabees 6:34 tells us that before the battle of Beth Zechariah, “to the end they [the Greeks] might provoke the elephants to fight, they shewed them the blood [wine] of grapes and mulberries.”

At the battle we are told that one of Judas Maccabeus’s brothers, Eleazar Horan, tackled an elephant single-handedly, partly to show his men the beasts could be killed and they need not be afraid of them and also because he was sure that particular animal was the personal elephant of the Seleucid king Antiochus V (it wasn’t).

Eleazar killed the wine-addled elephant as he intended but the animal apparently then fell on him and crushed him to death in the process, which caused his men to flee and the battle was lost.

A pyrrhic sort of victory for Eleazar then which is apt because one of the great users of war elephants in the western Mediterranean was the Epirote King Pyrrhus, whose name became synonymous for something achieved at great cost thanks to his bloody victories against the Romans.

He also fought the Carthaginians in Sicily, and it is from him that that great Libyan civilisation likely began to use war elephants of its own, most famously (if not in fact very often) by Hannibal Barca.

Everyone knows the tale of Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Alps to attack Rome in the 2nd century BC during the Second Punic War.

Some who’ve read more widely on the subject may know that it’s often said Hannibal gave his elephants wines to drink before battle.

Much as this sits happily with what we’ve read before, our chief sources for the Second Punic War, Livy and Polybius, never mention this exact detail.

Wine does play an essential role in the crossing of the Alps for Hannibal as explained by Livy who writes that, encountering a land slide on their descent into Italy a new passage was made: “By the ingenious application of heat and moisture; large trees were felled and chopped, and a huge pile of timber erected; this, with the opportune help of a strong wind, was set on fire, and when the rock was sufficiently heated the men’s rations of sour wine were flung upon it, to render it friable.

“They then got to work with picks on the heated rock, and opened a sort of zigzag track, to minimise the steepness of the descent and were able, in consequence, to get the pack animals, and even the elephants, down it.”

Polybius too writes about an important role wine plays in Hannibal’s campaign, but again not related to elephants. He says in Book III of his history: “Though Hannibal shifted his quarters from time to time for short distances in one direction or another, he remained in the neighbourhood of the Adriatic; and by bathing his horses with old wine, of which he had a great store, cured them of the scab and got them into condition again. By a similar treatment he cured his men of their wounds, and got the others into a sound state of health and spirits for the service before them.” [my italics]

So wine was important to Hannibal and his military machine, although possibly not for his elephants, many of which died in the crossing of the Alps anyway and hardly played any key part in the battles he fought in Italy. The cold of the Alps and the lack of fodder in wintery Italy devastated his elephant corps and while some are recorded as taking part in the Battle of Trebia in December 218 BC, by the time Hannibal had advanced to the walls of Rome the following summer he apparently had only his personal elephant left – called ‘Surus’ (the Syrian).

Nonetheless, Polybius leaves us with a tantalising hint about Carthaginian war elephants that potentially suggests they would be given wine before battle.

Once Hannibal was in Italy and had smashed the Roman army at Cannae in 216BC he roamed freely, destroying even the famous vineyards around Naples and Capua in a bid to draw the Romans out from behind their walls.

The Romans were not to be so tempted and bided their time. Eventually they were able to fall upon Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal and a reinforcing army who’d also braved the Alps to invade Italy in 207 BC.

The Carthaginian army was destroyed at the Battle of Mataurus, the Romans being able to sneak up on one part of it because Hasdrubal’s Gaulish allies had got drunk on plundered wine and were asleep – apparently.

Hasdrubal was killed and his army scattered, with several elephants being taken captive with, says Polybius, “their Indians”.

There’s still some debate about what is meant by this. He could of course be referring to actual Indians who, by dint of their skill with handling elephants, were hired by the Carthaginians as mahouts in their army. The Carthaginians relied heavily on mercenaries and their armies were diverse and polyglot at the best of times with Iberians, Gauls and North Africans a common mix. Or perhaps it had simply become a catch-all term for mahouts by this time? But if they were indeed Indians, then, following Ctesias’s writings, there’s every reason to believe they might have followed their old customs and provided their elephants with wine before battle. For the moment, however, we just don’t know.

Hannibal’s elephants are transported across the Rhône in the famous painting by Henri-Paul Motte. Elephants can of course swim very well so Livy and Polybius’s statements that the Cathaginian general had to build earth-covered rafts for them is, probably, a fabrication or embellishment at least.

Drunken elephants

At least anecdotally therefore we seem to have some fair grounds for saying that the ancients did indeed give their war elephants wine (and beer).

But how should we approach the claims or throwaway lines that these various ancient peoples took ‘drunk’ elephants into battle?

To begin with, there appears to be no sources that say that war elephants were explicitly drunk as they charged towards the enemy and although ancient writers record the practice of giving alcohol to elephants it is not for the purpose of getting them ‘drunk’.

Secondly, it must be obvious to anyone who sits down to consider it for any length of time that not only are drunk elephants a terribly bad idea, but also that the logistical effort required to juice each elephant up sufficiently before each battle would have been little short of crippling.

Alcohol seems to make elephants act in ways not dissimilar to humans; a good dose can make them overexcited and aggressive, trampling and trumpeting as they go. It can also make them drowsy or go to sleep, which is of no use at all if you need them to go on a brutal tear through your opponent’s front line.

Furthermore, an enraged and inebriated three-ton beast was as much danger to one’s own side as the enemy – as had been aptly demonstrated in the past. At the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, for example, a number of Carthaginian elephants were spooked by loud trumpet blasts from the Roman line (although this is odd as it is precisely the sort of thing they were trained to ignore but maybe they were only partially trained?) and stampeded back into the left wing of their own army, throwing it into confusion and leaving it to be overrun by the Romans’ allied cavalry.

Livy records a similar incident at Canusium some years earlier in 209 BC, when a counter-attack by javelin-armed Romans turned the Carthaginian elephants back onto their own soldiers.

Indeed, the very real danger posed by an out-of-control elephant is enough for some to have suggested the idea they gave wine to the animals at all is untrue and, furthermore that they were extremely ineffective battlefield weapons and never appeared in the numbers sometimes described (such as 80 at Zama).

There’s also Aristotle’s assertion that wine made an elephant lose its strength, yet another handicap if you’re relying on the animal as a shock weapon.

Furthermore, there seems to be confusion or at least conflicting ideas about what giving elephants booze before battle was meant to achieve. The Byzantine Philes says it helps calm their nerves, while others suggest it stimulates their fury.

But the various writers’ words of advice on what drinks – be it beer or wine from grapes or other fruits – should be given to elephants also seems to suggest that the ancients attributed different properties to various drinks and thought each had differing effects (the ancients not knowing that it was alcohol that was found across all fermented beverages).2 This would then explain why the Seleucids gave their elephants wine made from grapes and mulberries (separately or blended together?) and why Aelian cautions against giving elephants grape wine before battle but palm wine or beer is fine.

Either way, in terms of logistics as the 2006 study pointed out, the Carthaginians would have needed a lot of wine in order to get each elephants sufficiently soused before battle.

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the wine Hannibal or any other ancient general had was no more than 10%, on average3 then he’d need 10 to 20 litres per elephant in order to get them suitably lubricated.

If Hannibal had kept his full complement of elephants then that would mean he’d need to feed them between 300 to 740 litres of wine before each battle, so too the Seleucid commander Lysias at Beth Zachariah.

Pillaging the Italian countryside and its wine and grain stores this level of wine might not be as hard to find as we imagine (see Polybius’s quote above) but it would add enormously to the logistical effort required in the upkeep of these animals, which was already prodigious; elephants eat a huge amount too.

The trope therefore of ‘drunken’ elephants seems to be less of a historical reality and more of an embellishment. It’s extremely unlikely war elephants were ever ‘drunk’ in any real sense and even if the idea of drunken elephants has come down to us through some now neglected or lost text, then we must also counter with the point that the ancients might have read any change in the elephants’ tempers after any amount of wine as ‘drunkenness’, when in fact it wasn’t anything of the sort.

So did ancient peoples really give their elephants wine at all? This basic fact alone seems very likely. Wine and beer was important in their cultures and they attributed many properties to these drinks that they no doubt could be transferred to creatures such as elephants. How much they gave their war elephants however and what exactly and to what purpose may be a subtlety we will never fully know or understand.


In 1623 King James I was given an elephant by the King of Spain, Philip IV. The elephant was typical of the sort of gift monarchs gave one another at the time – and of course foreign heads of state still give each other rare and valuable gifts – and was promptly sent to join the other royal animals at the menagerie in the Tower of London.

It was not the first time an elephant had been kept at the Tower. In 1255 Louis IX of France had given one to Henry III of England and the animal had caused great interest among Londoners who were surprised to discover that elephants, contrary to popular belief, did not have joint-less knees and were perfectly able to bend their legs.

The chronicler Matthew Paris made a particular study of the animal and even drew some rather impressive and (by Medieval standards) accurate pictures of it.

Nonetheless, by 1623 it had been some time since an elephant had been kept at the Tower and how to look after one was completely unknown. ‘What,’ the elephant’s new custodians asked, ‘does this creature need to survive?’

The answer was, ‘wine’, especially to help keep out the cold. And so the keepers dutifully kept the elephant supplied with a gallon of wine a day but, unfortunately, the poor creature through a likely combination of alcohol, poor diet and the English weather, soon expired.

Sad as it might have been for the elephant and its admirers, the king’s Lord Treasurer was no doubt relieved as that much wine was likely proving to be very expensive4; the creature apparently cost over £275 a year excluding its wine ration, “as much to maintain as a garrison,” it was ruefully remarked upon.

Around the same time as the poor, doomed elephant was supping his gallon of wine a day in the Tower, over in Holland someone else was creating another tribute to elephants and wine.

The famous Dutch silversmith, Wolf Christof Ritter, created the beautiful wine jug pictured left, which today is on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

It shows one of Hannibal’s elephants, his mahout and soldiers in the fighting ‘castle’ on its back. The crenellations on top of castle can be removed and the body of the elephant filled with wine – in a far more humane and possibly practical way than had ever been the case in real life – a final tribute perhaps to those apocryphal tales of drunken elephants.



[1] Among the wilder claims of the book are that India is home to manticores and unicorns and giant races of men who only had one leg and a foot so large they lay down and used it as an umbrella to shield them from the Sun.

[2] An idea put forward in a PhD thesis by Max Nelson at the University of British Columbia in 2001.

[3] And here we assume a lot about how alcoholic ancient drinks were. By all accounts they could be quite strong but with a lack of cultivated yeast strains capable of converting all the sugars into alcohol we might suppose many wines were ‘light-bodied’.

[4] The giving of alcohol to animals had not ended by the 19th century, around the 1820s there was a zebra that was allowed to roam the Tower yard, gave rides to a small boy and was rewarded with occasional sips of ale.

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