||This term was used for animals employed to fight on ancient battlefields. The animals mostly mentioned in this respect include horses, elephants, camels, asses, donkeys, mules and oxen, but dogs only exceptionally.
In his Dawn of the Roman Empire a Roman historian named Appianos depicts a situation where the Iberians fighting against Carthaginians "loaded their carts with wood, harnessed oxen to them and followed the carts in full armor. When the Africans spotted the scene, they burst into laughter and failed to smell a rat. As soon as the Iberians got close enough, they set the cartloads of wood on fire and drove the harnessed oxen among the Carthaginians. As the animals spread in all directions, so spread the fire and wreaked havoc among the Africans. As soon as their formations disintegrated, the Iberians struck" Obviously, even an ox or an ass may come in handy!
The donkeys, mules and oxen, draft animals and load carriers by their civil occupations and much favored in that position by the common people, were exploited to draw with steadfast determination the storage wagons of all armies of the then world. The wagons were loaded with corn, clothing, skin bags full of wine, oil and water, weaponry, fighting machinery, tools and implements...
A horse was always a rather costly animal, whose acquisition price and sustenance costs were bearable only for sons of "better families" and perhaps the Barbarians from the Asian steppe, where the horses originated and from where they spread into every corner of the world. Needless to say the Romans appreciated that the horses bred by Asian tribes satisfied themselves with just hay and straw fodder and water, so the stock of precious corn for the troops was not thus depleted. "Lack of fodder and food killed more troops than the battles proper", wrote a historian called Renatus in his Outline of Martial Art.
The horse was used to carry a rider, either lightly or heavily armored, it was harnessed to the war carts fitted with scythe-like blades, and employed to draw the vehicles serving for the sovereign and his retinue. The number of horses killed in wars is beyond any count. They represented a primary target particularly for slingshot bearers, archers and dogs. Horses running wild with fear and pain unsaddled their riders and disintegrated the lines of their own infantry thus exposing the footmen to the enemy. In their battles against the Syrians the Romans focused primarily on the horses drawing wagons. When they managed to disable the horse, the whole wagon became useless. In addition, the fighting capability of the Syrian soldiers was impaired too, since they started to be afraid of the scythes attached to their own wagons. In case several horses were hit at the same time, they drew the wagons in between their own troops and caused panic first among the camels, which followed immediately behind, and then made inroads into their armored cavalry, whose heavy armor made it difficult for them to escape the scythes. Amidst the uproar and mayhem of the battle the elephants ran wild too and ceased to obey their masters. The initial order turned into panic and confused flight. Nevertheless it did not last long before the Romans found a way to defuse the scythe-fitted wagons. They scattered the battlefield with wooden "hedgehogs" capable of stopping the wagons. Similar obstacles, albeit of steel, were used to confine tanks during the Second World War.
For a long time horse saddles were not equipped with stirrups, making it virtually impossible to stop a horse when at a gallop. Whoever disregarded this fact lost the battle simply because he was not where he should have been and found himself at a place of his horses´s choice! For a person of the past it was a fact of tragic gravity, for a person of today it is a rather comical idea! Occasionally even the then participants found some amusement in it. Just imagine this scene:
The Romans besieged the town of Capua occupied by their enemy. Since the soldiers were rather bored, the free space between the inner and outer city walls become a stage for teasing and skirmishes. "The soldiers often fought in pairs ... The best fighters of both sides challenged each other. So it happened that a certain Taureas, a citizen of Capua, lost in a fight against a certain Claudius Asell, a Roman, and sought refuge in flight. Asell pursued him, but being incapable of turning his horse in full swing, he spurred the animal and rode through the Capua gate into the enemy town. He managed to ride across the whole town and reach the Roman camp on the other side." So says Appianos. In this way Asell, an otherwise insignificant Roman, entered on his horse the records of history, or expressed in a more emphatic way, he rushed into them!
As for elephants the case was much the same. When the troops of Nobilior, a Carthaginian, were joined by three hundred Numidian cavalrymen and ten elephants "he led his troops against the enemy, hiding the animals at the rear. The moment the battle started the soldiers withdrew to the sides and the elephants appeared. Since neither Celtiberians, nor their horses, had seen martial elephants before, they panicked and fled to the town. Nobilior took his troops as far as the city wall and fought bravely until one of his elephants was hit on the head by a falling stone. The animal went berserk, turned back and roaring terribly hurled itself against its own troops and on its way destroyed all obstacles, be they enemies or own soldiers. The other elephants, aroused with the uproar, started to behave mostly in the same way, trampled the Romans, tore them and threw them up. That is how elephants behave when in rage and incapable of distinguishing a friend from a foe. With this whimsical nature of elephants in mind, some people call them unpredictable allies." This murderous potential of elephants aimed blindly at "all and every" has been mentioned many times by Appianos and Sextus Iulius Frontinus, historians.
?Elephants were used as weapons by king Pyrrhos, by Hannibal, the Carthaginians, king Antiochos, Jugurtha...
What steps did the Romans take to defend themselves against elephants? Scipio, a Roman commander, tried to protect each unit with a forward group of soldiers ordered to hinder the advancing animals by throwing thick iron-clad poles against them, as if they were shot from a cross-bow. The progress of elephants was also hampered with chain-connected beams armed with pointed pins capable of inflicting injuries to their legs, thus driving them into frenzy. The infantry learned how to step deftly close to the animals and cut their tendons. It was not rarely that elephants were withdrawn in the heat of battle so that they did not hurt their own troops.
The camels were employed mostly to scare horses with their smell and appearance. This was the only way they could be made useful. "The camels were still a long way off and the horses already became unmanageable. Some ran wild and fled, while others pranced and fell over each other. Such is the scare camels spread among horses" writes Xenophanes in his work On the upbringing of Cyrus. "Nevertheless no proper soldier is willing to ride a camel, and still less so to train it for fighting. That is why the camels retook their former position and returned to the duty of load carrying." added Xenophanes by way of conclusion.
Soldiers were prepared to use donkeys and mules only in case of a real emergency. The animals were being driven into the enemy lines to incite confusion. Quite often they played a role in staging a stratagem. Oxen carried torches attached to their horns so that the enemy was misled about the numbers of their opponents. Helping staff, women not excluded, walked in front of the donkeys fitted with poles so as to impersonate horses...
The dogs used to serve the army basically in the same way as the working dogs of today. "In practice, it proved advantageous to keep evil dogs with a keen sense of smell on towers, since they could detect the approaching enemy at a great distance and announce their approach with barking" wrote Renatus. Nevertheless, he adds "geese also show no less prowess in announcing night-time ambushes".
"When the enemy attack is in progress, the dogs should be kept confined in the town, because with all the people running about and making noise the dogs could be scared and get in people´s way, thus aggravating the problems the defenders have to face." advises Aineas Taktikos in his work On town defense. The dogs placed in front of the city walls were to alert the guards to enemy spies trying to steal into the town, as well as to the runaways trying to desert it.
In Epier they used dogs as couriers like this: "First, using a leash, they took the dog away from its master. Then they gave it a collar with a message inside. After, either at night or even by day, they let the dog loose and the animal invariably returned to where it was taken from, i.e. to its master" writes Taktikos in an attempt to depict the inventiveness of Epierians.
The sovereign or the supreme commander usually wanted their packs of hunting dogs to accompany them throughout the campaigns so that they could while away the time by hunting. Keep in mind that such campaigns could span a number of years! King Lysimachos took his favorite dog along to the war. When he died on the battlefield, the dog faithfully protected its deceased master against birds and wild beasts until the dead body was found and buried.
The Barbarians went to their battles against the Romans flanked with huge dogs trained to disquiet the Roman horses, a task at which they were successful, at least for some time. The horses familiar with relatively small hunting dogs of friendly disposition, used primarily for finding and pursuing prey, were easily scared of large half-savage dogs smelling just as foul as their wild riders.
?Dogs accompanied all Celtic tribes on their bloody expeditions through the world to the places where they intended to settle, be it to the North, as far as the British Isles, or across the Pyrenees to where Spain and Greece are today. The dogs helped them drive their herds of cattle. The same is true for the Germans and Scythians; to fulfill special tasks or in case of need dogs were used by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Molosses...
Dog´s behavior on the battlefield was just as inscrutable as the elephant´s. All being well the dog kept close to the person it regarded as its master. In case that not all was so well, and these cases prevailed, the dog prompted by its master attacked the enemy horses, but soon it slipped into behavior typical of every pack of frenzied dogs - it bit left, right and center, got into the way, ran around and in the end assailed its own people! The concept of a couple of hundreds of dogs arranged in neat formations, commanded "Get them!", and subsequently attacking unit by unit the enemy forces destroying them or putting them to flight is foolish, if not outright ridiculous. In battles where tens of thousands of soldiers fought on either side, a few hundred dogs made no difference at all. That is why dogs seem to have been spared the major battles and no sources testify to their exploitation in them. Dogs could only be used to bother the cavalry troops of smaller armies, and only until an effective countermeasure was found - nets! Anyone skilled enough to catch a lion, a tiger or a cheetah to serve as a circus animal, could just as well catch a dog - a job so common to every village knacker!
?The role played by the "martial" dogs has been so exaggerated by many authors of the so-called cynology literature that their assertions can be without any qualms relegated to the sphere of modern mythology. In the course of time the sensational "facts" they indiscriminately copied from one another became to be regarded as rock-solid truth, just as any lie a hundred times repeated!
True, the dogs of Antiquity were less domesticated than the working dogs of today, but even then they could be used as a weapon against other people on extreme occasions only. Plinius the Older wrote: "...when the Kimber tribe warriors were killed in fight, their dogs continued to defend their families hidden in wagons". Apart from frightening the horses, the dogs could be used to guard military camps and corrals for horses and draft animals, and to pursue the foes in flight, since even today dogs, particularly when in packs, are inclined to perceive each moving target as a potential prey. The dogs certainly did not fight for "the Emperor and His Family", but for their masters. When the master perished in a battle, they became "unpredictable allies".