Saturday, April 9, 2011

Crossing the Alps: Hannibal's Famous March....with Elephants!

The Alps were the site of one of the most famous military marches of all-time, Hannibal's infamous trek. His journey with thousands of men and numerous animals was considered impossible at the time, however, Hannibal's determination and cunning won him a spot in the history books and is the focus of my post today!

Hannibal was born in 247 B.C.E. to a Carthaginian commander who gained fame in the First Punic War. Now, if you are like me and have no idea what most of what I just wrote means, here's a little background info. Carthage is basically a suburb of present-day Tunis (Tunisia), although it has been an urban center for around 3,000 years. The Carthaginian Empire grew from the Phoenician colony and flourished in the 3rd century B.C.E. - corresponding with the Hellenistic Era. Now, I know about Hellenistic Greece because they made some damn fine sculptures, but if you are unfamiliar with that era it is the time after Alexander the Great's unification of a vast territory including the eastern Mediterranean seaboard and parts of the middle east. His empire broke down quickly after his death in 323 B.C.E, however, and about a hundred and fifty years later, we find ourselves in the midst of the Punic Wars - probably the largest wars that had taken place up to that point - which were being fought between the Carthaginian Empire and the Roman Republic. Here's a break down of who had what territory:

This map may not be the most perfect, but it's the best I could find to show both groups at this point in history. The Romans had some outcroppings of soldiers in other areas outside of Italy as well, and I believe Carthaginian territory expanded a bit further into the middle east.
Part of the Iberian peninsual (present-day Spain) was under Carthaginian control at this point, and was the point of departure for Hannibal's campaign to take on the Roman Republic.  Hannibal departed from New Carthage in 218 B.C.E.

The Roman senate wasn't too worried - they felt that the land was secure, and that there was no way Hannibal would be able to make it past the natural wall of the Alps. Hannibal was determined, and made his way with extraordinary troops - nearly 45,000 men with him and 37 war elephants.  He fought his way through various outcroppings of Roman soldiers, crossed the Pyrenees mountains, and fought his way across southern France. The Romans sent some reinforcements, but weren't too worried.  Hannibal was a cunning military leader and worked his way through by using a great deal of strategy, including a number of sneak attacks.

When Hannibal reached the Alps, however, his primary enemy was nature, not Roman soldiers. We have some accounts of Hannibal's journey that come from Roman historians such as Livy (unfortunately Carthaginian records are mostly non-existent).  Here's what Livy had to say about how the Alps appeared to Hannibal and his troops:
The nature of the mountains was not, of course, unknown to his men by rumor and report - and rumor commonly exaggerates the truth; yet in this case all tales were eclipsed by the reality. The dreadful vision was now before their eyes: the towering peaks, the snow clad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the rude huts clinging to the rocks, beasts and cattle shriveled and parched with cold, the people with their wild and ragged hair, all nature, animate and inanimate, stiff with frost: all this, and other sights the horror of which words cannot express, gave a fresh edge to their apprehension.  - livy

From what I have been able to glean, it sounds as if Hannibal's journey through the Alps took about two weeks and was fraught with difficulty. First off, it was cold. Yuck. Secondly, they were frequently at treacherous altitudes and on poorly hewn paths. Third, many of the alpine villagers fought on the side of the Roman Republic and attempted to thwart Hannibal's advancements. Fourth, even if Hannibal could speak with his troops and try to rally them, the animals proved a significant challenge. According to Livy, the horses that were brought were terrified by the noise of the troop movement in some narrow passages, which was "echoing and re-echoing from the hollow cliffs and woods, they [the horses] were soon out of control...lashing out in agony and fear, causing serious losses...many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below."

One of the most well known facts about Hannibal's trek is his use of elephants, which ended up being both a blessing and a curse. They took a great deal of time getting through the narrow and precipitous parts of the paths, however the native Alpine villagers had never seen any creature like them before and were reluctant to go near. In the end, all but a few of the enormous beasts perished in the brutal journey.

Altogether it took 9 days to reach the summit after taking wrong paths (partially due to deception on the part of guides from the villages). They were exhausted, and rested 2 days at the summit, but to add insult to their injuries, it started to snow. To rally the troops, Hannibal spoke out saying "my men, you are at this moment passing the protective barrier of Italy - nay more, you are walking over the very walls of Rome. Henceforward all will be easy going - no more hills to climb.  After a fight or two you will have the capital of Italy, the citadel of Rome, in the hollow of your hands" (Livy).

As they journeyed on, they were thwarted by impasses, and the men at the front of the march would trample fresh snow on top of old snow, causing the old snow to turn to ice and leaving no foothold for the troops at the end, giving them no option but to, according to Livy's account, "roll and slither on the smooth ice and melting snow."

Eventually they even had to cut through rock, which brought about one of the most ingenious components of the trek: they would cut down trees, set them on fire on top of the rock layers, would wait for the rock to get hot, and then would fling their rations of sour wine on the rock, with the temperture juxtoposition causing cracks in the rock which they would then widen using their picks to carve a zig zag track.

When Hannibal finally arrived in Italy his number had shrunk considerably to around 24,000 men (about half what he had starting his alpine trek) and just a few elephants.  By winning a few minor victories in a row, Hannibal was able to bring in warriors from other tribes and to gain a stronghold in Northern Italy.  His journey continued to be a struggle (he even lost an eye during his crossing of the Apennines), and as he continued to move forward eventually lost more of his forces and the remaining elephants before arriving in Etruria (just north of Rome).  He had a decisive win in the battle of Lake Trasimene - it was one of the most costly ambushes the Romans had sustained.  Although inferior in numbers, Hannibal managed to use traps and cunning to continue beating Roman forces. In the battle of Cannae, Hannibal's men killed or captured an estimated 50-70,000 Romans. His troops killed several consuls, and eighty senators (25-30% of the governing body). It was a catastrophic defeat - one of the bloodiest battles of human history.  Hoever, despite Hannibals successes, he eventually ended in a stalemate as he received no further rinforcements from Carthage and was unable to attack the city of Rome.  After nearly 15 years of fighting in Italy, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage.

Although Hannibal was unable to defeat the Roman Republic, his tactical ingenuity is still heralded today, and his trek across the Alps continues to be an epic chapter in military history.


  1. Sounds like just another day at E-Line Motorsports!

  2. Of another elephant that crossed the Alps arriving all the way from Sri Lanka in the 1500s. Enjoy!

    Read the full story in:

    Extracts from the start and end of article:

    The Alpine trek of a ‘Ceylon’ elephant
    By Tissa Devendra

    My interest in this extraordinary story began with a supper that Jose Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel winner had, in 2007 or so, with Professor Gilda Lopes Encarnacao at the “Elephant” restaurant in Salzburg, Austria. Their talk about a fascinating episode in relations between Portugal and Austria inspired Saramago’s final work ‘The Elephant’s Journey’.

    I read a review of this book by J.M. Ledgard and was immediately struck by the fact that the elephant in this story had been gifted by King Buvaneka Bahu VII of Kotte to King John III of Portugal. The animal probably accompanied the Sinhala Embassy of 1541 that carried the now-legendary golden image of the infant Prince Dharmapala to be crowned by the king of Portugal.

    This sturdy young bull elephant from the royal elephant stables of Kotte clearly had the strength and stamina to withstand the rigours of the arduous sea voyage from Colombo to Lisbon. There is no doubt that he withstood all these tribulations thanks to the tender loving care of his mahout. Little did the elephant and his keeper ever imagine the transcontinental journey across Europe that lay in their future. Our elephant, now ‘christened’ Solomon was installed as a prize exhibit in King John’s royal menagerie – full of exotic beasts and birds gifted by his intrepid voyagers to distant lands. His mahout was dubbed ‘Subro’, possibly easier on Portuguese tongues than his Sinhala name – quite likely ‘Subaya’.


    Farewell to Vienna

    Maximilian granted ‘Fritz’ an honorarium and gifted him a mule to carry him to faraway Lisbon. Thus does Subhro, who scaled the Alps on an elephant. leave Vienna as Fritz on a humble mule and thus vanish from recorded history. His life is an intriguing footnote to the Portuguese Encounter. This mahout from the royal elephant stables of Kotte seems to have adapted well to life in Europe and been able to speak Portuguese and German to communicate with his masters. He obviously had the closest rapport with the young elephant he cared for, especially during their gruelling transcontinental journey Alas, the humble leave no record on history’s pages – else Subhro’s would be one of the most fascinating life stories of this age.

    Suleyman’s end

    Suleyman’s body parts were taken as trophies and relics. His bones were made into a chair at the Abbey of Kremenminster. His bulletproof hide – bulletproof to early modern bullets – was stuffed and presented to Albert V of Bavaria. This apparition of him stood in the Old Academy in Munich and, later, in the Bavarian National Museum until it was blown apart in a World War II bombing raid, when he passed out at last from history’s archives and into the consolations of literature.

    [With acknowledgement to the writings of Jose Saramago, J.M.Ledgard and Venerable S.Dhammika]

  3. Geoffroy de GalbertJuly 23, 2011 at 6:31 AM

    I have written two books on Hannibal in Gaul. The second one have very good remarks by two american professors ( Stanford and Arkansas) and 4 french professors (Grenoble,Chambery). The name of the book is " Hannibal et Cesar dans les Alpes".
    Best regarrds
    Geoffroy de Galbert

  4. wow, fantastic brief summary, doing my speech on him :)