A Medal of Honor

A Medal of Honor

This is the story of a great military leader and a heroic unnamed elephant. Both were figures in the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome. Three wars were waged by Rome to keep Carthage (a Phoenician settlement in Africa situated advantageously on the Mediterranean) from taking possession of any island or country that Rome might desire.

Most of the First Punic War (264—241 b.c.) was fought at sea, but toward the end of the conflict the Carthaginians used their secret weapon—an army of elephants—against the Roman legions. The Roman troops found themselves face to face with "Lucanian oxen," as the elephants were called. The beasts carried turrets on their backs filled with archers and, across the elephants' posteriors, broad shields to protect the brown—skinned warriors advancing behind.

The Carthaginian secret weapon failed miserably. Roman infantry and cavalry swarmed around the elephant squadrons commanded by General Hasdrubal and threw burning brands into their ranks. The frightened elephants began to trample the Carthaginian mercenaries instead of the Romans. In desperation, Hasdrubal ordered the stampeding elephants to be dispatched immediately by having sharp spikes driven into their foreheads. The riders, however, were too busy trying to jump safely from the elephants' backs to attempt to spike a stampeding, living tank. So Lucius Caecitius Metellus defeated Hasdrubal's elephant army at Panormus (now Palermo), Sicily, in 250 b.c. He captured all surviving elephants and led them triumphantly to Rome, where they were slain in the arena to the delight of screaming, blood—thirsty spectators.

Thirty—two years later, military elephants suffered the greatest single defeat of their entire combat experience. What caused their downfall was not the Romans but the malicious and ill—timed forces of nature. The occasion was the Second Punic War, which took place in 218—202 b.c. Hannibal (247—183 b.c.), the younger brother of Hasdrubal, was the Carthaginian general who led an army across the mountains and waged war against the Romans for 15 years on Italian soil. His tactics are studied in military academies, where Hannibal has been compared to such military leaders as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon.

Hannibal was the son of Hamilcar Barca, who had commanded Carthage's forces in Sicily during the First Punic War. After being defeated, the old general compelled the nine—year—old Hannibal to swear eternal enmity to Rome. The boy incorporated hatred of Rome into his rules for living; the idea became an enduring factor in his life. Hannibal's subsequent invasion of Italy was considered by the Romans to be the fulfillment of that vow.

Hannibal's plan was to conquer Italy from the north, despite African soldiers who were unaccustomed to cold and African elephants thoroughly inexperienced in travel through ice, snow, or mountains. With a courage born of recklessness and an army of 9,000 horsemen; 50,000 Carthaginians, Libyans, Iberians, and Nubian infantry; and at least 50 war elephants, Hannibal set out in May 218 b.c. from Nova Carthage (the modern city of Cartagena), and crossed the Pyrenees and Alps in an unparalleled forced march.

Hannibal had left his brother Hasdrubal behind in Spain to raise additional troops and to exploit the silver resources of the Iberian Peninsula to pay for the war. Hasdrubal and the new army were to follow later as reinforcements.

Crossing the mountains with an army of men and elephants was not without hazards. In the Pyrenees the Carthaginians were constantly harassed by hostile tribesmen who blended into the snow like ghosts, giving the oppressed men very little rest at night. But climate, weather, and terrain took the major toll of man and beast.

After Hannibal had crossed the Pyrenees, only 37 elephants remained. But in the Alpine passes, the battle with the elements turned into sheer tragedy, and by then there was no turning back. The peaks were covered with snow, and whatever paths there might be were frozen over. The mercenaries and elephants, weak from hunger and forever cold, constantly slipped and fell into yawning crevasses. Some of the soldiers, frostbitten and too weak to walk, were able to ride on the elephants. When a beast slipped over the edge, its frightened trumpeting blended with the human cries as they fell together into the chasm. Doubtless the remains of many of these casualties of war still lie frozen in remote parts of the Alps, yet to be discovered.

When Hannibal finally reached the valley of the Po, his army had shrunk to 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and eight elephants. With this mere remnant of a once mighty force, Hannibal had to face several Roman armies, each many times the size of his. Fortunately his army was boosted to 40,000 by the immediate addition of Gauls, the traditional enemies of Rome with a nurturing hatred of Romans that equaled Hannibal's.

The war continued in Italy for years, and with fewer and less skilled troops Hannibal did not suffer a single defeat. In 209 b.c. Hasdrubal crossed the Alps with a large army and moved south to join his brother Hannibal. Knowing that the two armies combined could move against Rome, the crafty Romans engaged Hasdrubal in battle and won. Hannibal refused to believe the news, but he quickly became a believer when Roman horsemen galloped through his camp and tossed a head at his feet. With beard bloodied and glassy eyes staring, the head was not difficult for Hannibal to recognize as his brother's.

Almost at Rome's back door, Hannibal may still have been able to conquer it. But because Scipio Africanus was invading North Africa, Hannibal was called home to defend Carthage. In 202 b.c. Hannibal's new army met Scipio's outnumbering troops and cavalry at Zama, North Africa. He was defeated and, with his army destroyed and Carthage stripped of its navy and overseas possessions, the valiant warrior escaped into private life. He eventually accepted exile rather than continued Roman threats. In 183 b.c., no longer able to live with his disgrace, Hannibal took his own life to be free of further humiliation.

The tragedy of lost wars does not end here, because one elephant did survive the entire campaign. Fifteen years after setting out from Carthage and having traversed Spain, Gaul, and Italy, crossed the Pyrenees and the Alps, taken part in at least six major battles, and come within three miles of Rome, this lone surviving elephant returned safely to one of the great stables of Carthage. Of all animals that have participated in and aided man in military adventures, this truly heroic beast would have had the best claim to a medal. In the United States he could have qualified for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Not even his name remains. In fact, he may not have had one. But as a lone elephant, he could have been called "The Lucanian Ox."


From the book: 
Petrified Lightning