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War pigs are pigs said to have been used - at most, rarely - in ancient warfare as a countermeasure to war elephants.

Pliny the Elder reported that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog".[1] The Romans would later use the squeals of pigs to frighten Pyrrhus' elephants.[2] Procopius, in book VIII of his History of the Wars, records the defenders of Edessa using a pig suspended from the walls to frighten away Khosrau's siege elephants.

While the above use of pigs in war is plausible, another historical reference - incendiary pigs or fire pigs - is much less so. Aelian reported that Antipater's siege of Megara during the Wars of the Diadochi was broken when the Megarians poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs often killing great numbers of the army the elephant was part of.[3]

Analysis

There are several points that call Aelian's story into doubt:

  1. The Aelian in question is not Aelianus Tacticus, the 2nd century military historian and author of "On Tactical Arrays of the Greeks". In fact, this anecdote is not contained in any ancient military history. Instead, the author of the above quote was Claudius Aelianus, the 3rd century Roman teacher of rhetoric and author with no reputation as a military historian.
  2. Claudius Aelianus' fire pigs anecdote is found in his book de Natura Animalium, a curious collection, in 17 books, of brief stories of natural history, sometimes selected with an eye to conveying allegorical moral lessons, sometimes because they are just so astonishing. Aelian seldom relied on personal observation and frankly stated that he did not believe many of the stories himself. There are no less than 16 chapters concerning dragons.
  3. Claudius Aelianus wrote of the fire pigs some 500 years after the supposed incident.

It is possible, if not likely, that the fire pigs reference was a misinterpretation of the ancient use of incendiary bundles. Combustibles would be packed into animal hides and set alight. These were called carcasses (or carcases), as the bundle resembled the carcasses of the animal. Flaming carcasses were used for illumination (tossed out beyond the defensive walls), for incendiary purposes (to set defensive works or cities ablaze) or for psychological purposes (catapulted into enemy ranks to cause chaos). The hides of pigs were of convenient size both for handling by men and for firing by catapults, and were used extensively for these purposes. Hence, 'fire pig' would be an apt description of a pig's hide used as a combustible.

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References

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