Pigs at War

The (ab)use of animals was and still is by all means quite common in military history. But German historiography only slowly comes to terms with this topic. Therefore it was rather unexpected that the Museum of Military History in Dresden – opening its doors in 2011 – as a department of the German Bundeswehr exhibits a temporal cross-sections theme “Animals at the Military”.

Horses, mules, elephants and even pigeons are more or less well known to a broader audience as animals used in human warfare. Pigs on the contrary are uncommon on this account (even more so than lions, sheep, apes or potato bugs – about these I might write another time). A pig’s military purpose might be limited as food source for soldiers or leather for uniforms – or so most people will think. But even if these animals are uncommon in warfare their fate shows the merciless abuse of animals in any military conflict – in this special case during ancient times. The modern day abuse for testing new weapons is another but no less brutal topic.

Let me introduce the war-pig as it is displayed in the Museum of Military History in Dresden: a stuffed wild boar.


Stuffed wild boar. Photo: Lutz Kirchner

Stuffed wild boar. Photo: Lutz Kirchner


The wild boar is a closer relative to the ancient form of the hog than the modern well known domestic pig. The display of a boar and therefore a more ancient form links to a horrible account on pigs in war during Roman antiquity: the use of swine as weapon to frighten elephants. Next to the pig the exhibition shows a short clip from the computer game “Rome: Total War”, where a herd of burning swine run into a group of war elephants going mad in their wake. The following video is not the one shown in the museum, but gives an impression on how it looks like:



During my work for the museum I had long discussions with the curator, because I did not find the ancient sources as reliable and clear on this account. Something I would like to discuss further in this short essay is the possibility of using incendiary pigs on ancient battlefields.

Two ancient accounts report the horrible story that took place in the mid of third century BC, when the king of Macedonia, Antigonos II Gonatas, besieged the city of Megara. The Greece rhetorician and author Polyaenus wrote a collection of stratagems in the second century AD, almost certainly in the year 161. In one of these he wrote:


“At the siege of Megara, Antigonus brought his elephants into the attack; but the Megarians daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions. From this time onwards, Antigonus ordered the Indians when they trained up their elephants, to bring up swine among them; so that the elephants might thus become accustomed to the sight of them, and to their noise.”



The term “Indian” in the ancient sources is a synonym for mahout or in another term elephant driver, because the first war elephants in the Mediterranean came from India, before African elephants were captured and trained. The origin of the elephants of Antigonos is unknown.

A second source is given by the slightly younger Roman born but Greek writing author Claudius Aelianus, who died before 235 AD, in his “On the Characteristics of Animals”:


“I have stated earlier on that the Elephant dreads a pig; I now wish to tell what happened at Megara when the Megarians were besieged by Antigonos, end the story I have to tell is as follows. When the Macedonians were pressing them hard, they smeared some pigs with liquid pitch, set a light to them, and let them loose against the enemy. Goaded with pain and shrieking because of their burns, the pigs fell upon the troops of Elephants, driving them mad and throwing them into terrible confusion. So the Elephants broke ranks and were no longer tractable in spit of having been trained since they were small, either because Elephants by some instinct hate and loathe pigs, or because they dread the shrill and discordant sound of their voices. In consequence those who train young Elephants, being aware of this, keep pigs along with them, so it is said, in order that through herding together the Elephants may get to fear them less.”

(Aelian: On the characteristics of animals. With an English translation by A. F. Schofield. Volume III. The Loeb Classical Library. London and Cambridge 1972. 311-313)


Nobody today knows Polyaenus’ and Aelian’s sources since both wrote their account 400 years after the event. Both works are compilations of other writings which today are lost. Some of their accounts may be doubtful and controversial, but both were highly educated philosophers and Polyaenus even wrote his work as reference for the two Emperors Marc Aurel and Lucius Verus. If he wanted to be successful when working for the even better educated Marc Aurel, he must have studied his sources carefully.

It is remarkable that both claim the squeaking of the pigs and not the fire as the cause of the elephants’ madness. The fire only made the swine squeaking in pain, as the authors mention. At another point of his book, Aelian made clear, that “(…) the Elephant has a terror of a horned ram and the squealing of a pig. It was by these means, they say, that the Romans turned to flight the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus, and that the Romans won a glorious victory.” (Aelian: On the characteristics of animals. With an English translation by A. F. Schofield. Volume I. The Loeb Classical Library. London and Cambridge 1972. 57)

Without mentioning the battle against Pyrrhus and so more general, Pliny the elder wrote the same in his “Naturalis historia” more than 100 years earlier:


“The very least sound, however, of the grunting of the hog terrifies them [elephants]: when wounded and panic-stricken, they invariably fall back, and become no less formidable for the destruction which they deal to their own side, than to their opponents.”

(http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D8%3Achapter%3D9 )


The battle against Pyrrhus occurred 275 BC, the siege of Megara was around 266 BC, it is therefore possible that some Megarians heard about the story of the pigs. But why do we hear nowhere else of the use of pigs as weapons against elephants – inflamed or not? And why did until Antigonos no one had the same idea if elephants really were clearly terrified of pigs?

War elephants were used in Indian armies since 1000 BC or earlier, the Greek and even Roman armies used them widely from 331 to the second century BC, some sources suggest even a military use by the Romans until the second century AD. And even after that date the enemies of Rome like the Persians led the beasts to battle. In Southeast Asia pachyderms as weapon were not obsolete until the beginning of the 19th century. Elephants were expansive; they need “300 pounds of fodder, plus fruits and grains, each day.” (Kistler: War Elephants. 2007. Page 110) Training should toughen the animals, it is possible they were hurt and injured, permanent shrill sounds of weapons and instruments were around them as on a battlefield, and it is possible that the training was not completed until the elephants executed a man to learn the sound of crushing bones and smell of blood. All of this cost years, tons of fodder and even the mahouts had to be paid very good, because the whole “weapon-system” war elephant was at the end only successful, if the mahout, as the most trustworthy man for the elephant, did not desert. On the other hands, pigs were widely bred in ancient times; an army without elephants could gather these animals much more easy than the enemy could bring his elephants to the battlefield. And how could the fear of squeaking swine be forgotten in this excessive training of war elephants?

In many battles elephants went mad and caused much more damage to their own then the enemy. The battle of Beneventum between Romans and Pyrrhus 275 BC for example was described in different sources. Many wrote that one or some of the elephants went mad (all sources about the battle can be found at http://www.attalus.org/bc3/year275.html#17). But none of them, except Aelian, gave account of pigs as weapons of war. The whole story sounded quite untrustworthy until archeological findings made the whole account more credible: I am speaking of a bronze “as signatum”, a coin of the middle Roman Republic weighing nearly four pounds. One side shows a pig, the other side an Asian elephant, as can be seen on the website of the British Museum:


In ancient times Asian elephants lived in what today is Syria. The “as signatum” is dated between 280 (the first clash between Pyrrhus and the Romans) and 250 BC (when smaller coins from other metal were made). This dating was made with an eye towards the known sources, but even before elephants were surely known to merchants (African elephants lived at ancient times in the Atlas Mountains in today Algeria). But why should a coin which was only used in Italy, show a beast, what was barely known to some few globetrotters? Another explanation is that the two beasts on the coin had nothing in common and later sources only mixed the story of the elephant’s fear of hogs with the battle of Beneventum.

But we should look back to the siege of Megara and the burning pigs. I think the squeaking of the pigs was not the cause for the elephant stampede at Megara. The burning pigs, smelling of pitch, squeaking in absolute horror and pain and running between their feet troubled the elephants – the fire made it regardless whether the pachyderms knew swine or not. Eventually, should the elephants ram against the walls or gates of the city, the Megarians only needed to free and ignite the swine at the right time if the enemy was close enough to the walls. (Kistler: War Elephants. 2007. Page 90) At a battlefield outside a fortification this might have been much more work. How many men would it need to prevent the pigs from running away if they feel threatened? Especially if they were greased with pitch and ignited they would run at every direction, but not for a moment to the big and loud trumpeting elephants.

In the end the story of burning pigs on the battlefield during the siege of Megara they seemed to be trustworthy – but also useless: Antigonos captured the city and made it part of his empire.

Lutz Kirchner

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