Pigs: Ancient Weapons of Biological Warfare?

PETA Wouldn't Approve of Antique Battle Tactics

Greeks loved pigs - even babies used piggy rattles!. Mountain/Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The Greeks and Romans really used anything they could to get ahead in the game of war … and that includes using pigs in battle! They lit porkers on fire and flinging them at mighty war elephants, some of the most frightening creatures on the battlefield. The ancients might not have won the war every time (especially if PETA had been around), but war pigs helped them win the battle.

Alexander the Great: No Friend to Pigs

Elephants were a key part of warfare in the ancient Mediterranean and Asia.

  The Carthaginians used them to attempt to conquer Rome, for one, while the Seleucid king Seleucus I Nicator even got a monopoly on Indian elephants to use in war. According to Pausanias in his Description of Greece, “The first European to acquire elephants was Alexander, after subduing Porus and the power of the Indians ... Pyrrhus captured his beasts in the battle with Demetrius

. When on this occasion, they came in sight the Romans were seized with panic, and did not believe they were animals.” But how did people combat these massive vehicles? With pigs!

Apparently, Alexander the Great first learned about setting pigs on fire from an Indian ruler. Alexander fought King Porus in 326 B.C., but after Alex defeated his enemy at the Battle of the Hydaspes River, chronicled in the pseudo-historical Alexander Romance, the two became pals.

When one thousand wild elephants headed towards Alexander, legend has it, Porus advised him to grab pigs and trumpets to oppose the incoming animals.

Alexander made the pigs keep squealing. Along with blowing the trumpets, the sound scared the elephants off.

Elephants vs. Pigs: An Eternal Battle

This secret of pigs vs. pachyderms was one that Pliny related in his Natural History. The author confessed that elephants "tread under foot whole companies, and crush the men in their armor.

The very least sound, however, of the grunting of the hog terrifies them: 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.” Plutarch added, “The lion also vehemently hates the cock, and the elephant the hog; but this probably proceeds from fear; for what they fear, the same are they inclined to hate.”

The Romans learned from Alexander the Great’s victories. As Aelian wrote in his On the Nature of Animals, “The elephant is frightened of rams and the squealing of pigs, and the Romans put both to use in sending the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus in flight, by which the Romans won a resounding victory.”

When King Pyrrhus sent his army of twelve war elephants rampaging across Italy in the third century B.C., the Romans found their tactics in the farmyard. They noticed that that horned rams, torches, and pigs all freaked the elephants out … so they sicced their barnyard friends on the pachyderms and won!

Aelian enjoys chronicling the misadventures of pigs in war. He noted, “I have already mentioned that elephants are terribly afraid of pigs. Antigonus [II Gonatas, king of Macedonia] once besieged the city of Megara.

The Macedonians coated some pigs with pitch, set them afire, and turned them loose, and the pigs, shrieking in pain and panic, went tumbling into the elephant cavalry and set the elephants in panic in turn.”

Polyaenus echoed this in his  Strategems, “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.”

Aelian agreed, “The elephants, though highly trained, would not obey orders afterward. It may be that elephants simply cannot stand pigs in general, or they are afraid of their screaming and squealing.” Stanford University classicist Adrienne Mayor suggested that these pigs, set on fire with resin, may have even been the first hybrid biological-chemical weapons in her Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.

This disaster led the elephant trainers to train their young charges with baby pigs so future generations of these war animals wouldn’t be afraid of their opponents’ battle tactics.

In The Wars of Justinian, the late antique historian Procopius chronicles some porcine adventures in battle. When Khosrau I, king of Persia, besieged the Mesopotamian city of Edessa in 544 A.D., one of his war elephants nearly overpowered the enemy and got into town. Pigs ended up saving the day.

“But the Romans,” wrote Procopius, “by dangling a pig from the tower, escaped the peril. As the pig was hanging there, he naturally squealed and this so irritated the elephant and stepping back little by little, withdrew.” Poor pig … but lives were saved thanks to this guy. Now, if only the Romans had used them against Hannibal and his elephants.

This wasn’t the end of elephants in warfare – no word on whether pigs were used often to frighten them. There was even a Year of the Elephant, 622 A.D., when a Christian king allegedly tried to invade Mecca and his battle elephant supposedly stopped before he could do so.

Thousands of elephants were utilized in Indian warfare around in the eleventh century A.D. Even Emperor Akbar allegedly got 12,000 pachyderms to help him out! Thankfully, these guys have earned an honorable retirement in recent years.