31 January 2023
Alexander the Great versus the elephants
Have you ever wondered how to defeat an army or a herd of wild elephants? Alexander the Great knew how, to judge by accounts (both historical and legendary) of his campaigns in the East. Elephants feature most prominently in Alexander's famous battle with King Porus of Inda in 326BC, as described by Plutarch, Arian and the later Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus. Curtius’ Historia was translated into French, and illuminated copies were produced in considerable numbers in the 15th century, notably for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1467–1477), who modelled himself on Alexander.
A battle between Alexander and Porus with elephants, in Quintus Curtius Rufus. Historia Alexandri magni, translated by Lucena: Burney MS 169, f. 165v
Curtius describes how Alexander and his men faced a terrifying force of 300 chariots, 30,000 foot soldiers and 85 elephants with castles on their backs, on the opposite bank of the river Hyaspedes. King Porus himself was mounted on a huge elephant that towered above the rest, decorated with silver and gold armour. Fortunately, Alexander and his troops were already familiar with these terrifying creatures, as he had earlier been presented with 56 elephants by King Omphis of Taxila.
Using his characteristic strategic genius, Alexander sent troops to cross the river further down in order to surprise his opponents. By attacking on two fronts, he restricted the elephants’ room to manoeuvre. Alexander’s great victory over Porus soon became the stuff of legend. The French Roman d’Alexandre en prose tells that he employed ‘ymages de laiton’ (bronze models of soldiers) filled with red hot coals, which he placed in iron chariots and sent in among the elephants. When they saw the burning embers and felt the scorching heat, the elephants fled in terror. A manuscript made in Bruges manuscript illustrates the burning soldiers in chariots facing the elephants.
The battle between Alexander and King Porus, with the elephants and bronze model soldiers filled with hot coals, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Harley MS 4979, f. 51r
Legend has it that after another battle, a short period of friendship ensued, during which Porus took Alexander to see the wonders of India. But the truce was short-lived and Alexander finally killed Porus in single combat. Determined to continue his journey of conquest as far as the ocean, he encountered many strange and dangerous creatures, including a herd of ferocious elephants. The cunning Alexander, aware that elephants were afraid of the sound of squealing of pigs, sent into their midst a troop of horsemen, trumpeters and all the pigs he could find. The elephants fled in terror, pursued by the horsemen, who killed 980 of them and brought back their ‘teeth and horns’. This story is illustrated in a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en prose made in Paris around 1425, perhaps for a young owner, as it has startling, colourful images on almost every page.
Alexander’s army with trumpets and pigs confronting the wild elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 20 B XX f. 57r
Alexander’s life story was incorporated into world histories such as the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, which encompassed all of human history from Creation to the reign of Julius Caesar. In this version of the Alexander legend, Porus and Alexander were exploring the far reaches of India when they made camp for the night near a forest, before finding that it was infested with fierce elephants. Porus told Alexander not to worry. He should gather together some ‘truie’ (sows), upset them so that they squealed loudly at the elephants, who would immediately flee in terror, fearing this noise more than anything.
Alexander fighting with pigs against elephants (above), and meeting the talking trees of the Sun and the Moon and their Indian guardian (below), in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Northern France, 2nd half of the 13th century): Add MS 19699, f. 156r
Alexander’s army with wild pigs confronting elephants in a forest, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Paris, late 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 133v
In a luxurious copy of the prose Roman d’Alexandre made for Margaret of Anjou (1429–1482), future queen of England, Alexander and his soldiers are shown attacking a group of elephants with spears; the pigs mentioned in the accompanying text are nowhere to be seen.
Alexander’s army fighting elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 16v
This story must have circulated widely in England. In one manuscript of the Festial by John Mirk of Shropshire (1382–1414), the homily for the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist describes how bones and wood are used in making St John’s fire (Harley MS 2417, f. 42r). Mirk then adds a long digression on the origins of fire in ‘that countrey of grete hete’ where dragons breathe noxious gases and poison the water. This leads to a description of Alixander’s campaign in India:
...mony grete clerkes that hadden red of kyng Alysaunder how when he shulde have a batel wyth the kyng of Ynde and the kyng of Ynde browyte wyth hym mony olyfauntes beryng castels of tre (wood) on her bakkes.... Thene knewe alysau]nder the kynde (species) of olyfauntes that they dreden noo thyng moore the ȝarryng (squealing) of swyyn (swine). Therfor he made togedere all the sowes that myghte be geten and made to dryve hem so nygh the olifantes ...anoon they maden suche a ȝarryng all yfer that alle the olyfauntes flowen (fled) and casten down her castelles...
The subject then turns to dragons once again, and how they hate the stench of burning bones, so that a ‘boon fyr’ (the origin of the word, bonfire) could be used to chase them away.
Discover more about Alexander the Great by visiting the British Library's exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023, or explore more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards this exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
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