How many elephants did Hannibal take over the Alps?

The year was 218 BC, and Rome was locked in a bitter conflict with its rival, the Mediterranean superpower of Carthage

A detail of a fresco of Hannibal riding his elephant. It is estimated he took as many as 40 elephants when he marched an army across the Alps and into northern Italy. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)

In a bold attempt to take the war directly to Rome, the Carthaginian general Hannibal marched an army across the Alps and into northern Italy.

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There is no real certainty of the size of force that Hannibal took with him, though estimates range from 20-40,000 infantry, 6-12,000 cavalry and 40 elephants. As Carthage was in North Africa, elephants were commonly used in war. They were a deadly weapon designed to charge, trample and generally create a sense of panic in the enemy, but from a Roman perspective, their use was a bizarre novelty.

In the event, although Hannibal did successfully negotiate the Alpine passes, his losses were considerable. Over half his army died in the severe, cold conditions, Hannibal himself was blinded in one eye, and it is recorded that only one of his elephants survived the trek. This lone elephant was used by Hannibal to ride in triumph into the city of Capua.

What happened to the animal afterwards is unknown, although the elephant certainly didn’t participate in any of the subsequent fighting, which led to Hannibal’s eventual defeat.

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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine