Ancient History & Civilisation

The March to Italy

The actual route Hannibal's army followed on its march to Italy has long fascinated historians. Even in Livy's day, there was a fierce dispute over which pass the Carthaginians had taken over the Alps. For many people, tracing the route has become a passion, and academics and ex-soldiers, including no less a figure than Napoleon, who himself campaigned in the area, have indulged in endless speculation, often spending many days travelling over the land itself. Their conclusions have varied enormously and unfortunately the nature of our sources makes it impossible to resolve these disputes. I do not intend to discuss this topic since it would be impossible to do it justice in the framework of a treatment of all three Punic Wars, in addition to which I do not possess the intimate knowledge of the ground of the best contributors in this field. In this section we shall simply trace the major events of Hannibal's march, mentioning only in passing the most favoured theories concerning the location of these episodes.26

Hannibal set out from New Carthage in late spring 218 and moved towards the River Ebro, a distance of about 325 miles (2,600 stades). His huge army probably advanced in several smaller groupings to relieve congestion on the main routes and ease the supply situation, for they crossed the river in three separate columns at different places. Although the Ebro treaty had earlier been of great significance, war between Rome and Carthage was already certain by this point, and the crossing merely confirmed this. Hannibal led his troops in a series of lightning expeditions against the tribes between the Ebro and the Pyrenees. Speed was essential if he was to reach Italy before the end of the year, so Hannibal drove his soldiers hard and was willing to accept a high casualty rate, taking fortified towns by direct assault and fighting a number of actions. After perhaps a month of intense fighting, at least four tribes had been overawed by this display of Punic military might and the violence of the onslaught. Yet the area was certainly not conquered and, like many other parts of Spain subdued by the Barcids, would remain peaceful only so long as the Carthaginians were perceived to be strong. To control the region Hannibal left an officer named Hanno, giving him a force of 1,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry.27

Although it has sometimes been suggested that Hannibal originally planned to remain west of the mountains to await the anticipated Roman invasion of Spain and only pushed on towards Italy when the Romans were delayed by the Gallic rebellion, this is not supported by our sources.28 Instead he made a few quick alterations to his force and pushed on through the Pyrenees. All his heavy baggage was to be left behind with Hanno to allow the unencumbered army to move faster. It was now late summer and the harvest was due or already gathered in the lands the army was to pass through, allowing Hannibal to reduce the amount of food and forage carried in his pack train and instead live off the land. The great size of the army had been useful in the rapid campaign beyond the Ebro, but such numbers would prove hard to feed and difficult to control on the longer march to Italy, so Hannibal planned to take only the best soldiers. About 10,000 Spanish warriors were released from service and sent back to their homes. Some of these, and perhaps many others, had deserted of their own accord; one contingent of 3,000 Carpetani are mentioned as doing so during the crossing of the Pyrenees. By the time Hannibal crossed into Gaul he had an army of9,000 cavalry and around 50,000 infantrymen, still large by the standards of the day, but more manageable and highly experienced. Even with the other detachments mentioned by our sources, the army's numbers had shrunk by some 20,000 men. Some of these were doubtless casualties in the operations beyond the Ebro, but the majority were probably stragglers and deserters. If, as seems likely, much of the army consisted of recently raised and inexperienced troops, many of these may well have lacked both the enthusiasm and the stamina to undertake the long marches Hannibal expected from his soldiers.29

After the Pyrenees, which were crossed without major difficulties, the next important obstacle was the River Rhone. Earlier diplomatic activity and the reception of chieftains with lavish gifts had proved highly successful and it was not until the river that Hannibal faced his first military opposition from the Gallic tribes. Polybius tells us that he reached the river at a point about four days' march from the sea, but the precise location is disputed. The people to the west of the river were generally friendly, especially when the Carthaginians began to pay them for the use of their boats and other material needed for the crossing, but on the far bank a sizeable tribal army had mustered to contest his crossing. Livy says that the tribe was the Volcae, the same people who lived on both sides of the river, but that most had fled to the far bank as the Carthaginians approached. The river was a formidable obstacle, and Hannibal was reluctant to force a crossing in the face of such strong opposition, so camped beside it and waited whilst his men constructed rafts. The Gauls may well have hoped that a display of force and the width of the river might have deterred the invader from attacking at all, for it seems to have been common amongst many tribes to use physical boundaries to mark the point at which they would defend their territory. In tribal warfare a show of determination may often have been enough to persuade an enemy to withdraw.30

Three nights after his arrival, Hannibal sent a detachment of men under cover of darkness to seek a crossing point upstream, giving the command to another Hanno, this one known as 'the son of Bomilcar the Suffete'. Led by local guides this party, which consisted mainly of Spaniards, marched about 25 miles to reach a point where the river forked and formed an island. Building rafts, and with some of the Spaniards swimming with the aid of inflated animal skins, they crossed and camped; Hanno then allowed his weary men a day's rest. The next night, the second after they left the main army, this detachment pushed south, arriving near the Gallic army by dawn. Using a prearranged signal, they lit a beacon to inform Hannibal of their presence. At once he ordered his army to cross the river, some of the horses being towed behind rafts or boats. The Gauls mustered to oppose them, but began to panic when Hanno's troops made a sudden attack on their camp, setting it on fire. Hannibal seems to have crossed amongst the leading troops, for he swiftly began forming up his army on the east bank and advanced to meet the reeling enemy. The Gauls never recovered from their surprise and, perhaps dismayed to see the enemy making light of the supposedly strong obstacle, soon broke into flight.31

After this victory, Hannibal's main concern was to bring the remainder of his army across the river, using the craft he had purchased or constructed on the spot. Men were detailed to prepare for the major task of carrying the elephants across the river. There are several different versions of how this was achieved, but the earliest and most likely is that engineers constructed several rafts, 50 feet (15 m) in width, two of which were fastened to the western bank of the Rhone. Additional rafts were lashed into place at the end of these, creating a bridge 200 feet (61 m) in length. At the end of this roadway were two smaller rafts which could be cut free and towed across the river by small boats to ferry the animals across. To persuade the nervous animals to step onto the raft in the first place, earth was spread over the planking to make it appear like dry land, and two cow elephants driven on first to persuade the majority of male animals to follow. When the ferry was cut loose from the bridge many of the elephants panicked at the unfamiliar motion of the water and, despite the attempts of their mahouts to calm them, a few jumped into the river. Several mahouts were drowned, although all the elephants were able to make their way across.32 Hannibal used the delays imposed by ferrying men and animal across the Rhone to rest his army. He held parades where he brought before them representatives from Cisalpine Gaul, notably the chieftain Magilus, who encouraged the men with promises of the aid they would receive and the plunder to be gained once the army reached Italy. It was during this halt that the news arrived that a Roman fleet had anchored off the mouth of the Rhone near Massilia. Hannibal immediately despatched 500 Numidian light horsemen to reconnoitre the enemy presence and report on their activity.33

The Roman fleet carried the army of Publius Scipio, who, after a long delay, had at last begun his move to confront Hannibal in Spain. The Romans had left Pisa and sailed along the coast of Liguria, reaching Massilia in five days, although it is probable that at least one, and probably several, landfalls were made before this to rest the crews. Apart from the limited range of ancient fleets, it made considerable sense for the Romans to confer with the Massiliotes before proceeding on to Spain, since this Greek city and faithful ally had a far greater knowledge of the area. It is most probable that it was only after arriving at Massilia that Scipio learned of Hannibal's crossing of the Pyrenees, since only reports of his march across the Ebro seem so far to have reached Italy. The news caused an immediate change of plan. Scipio's main objective was to confront the Carthaginian general who had initiated the war and there was no point in continuing to Spain when Hannibal was in southern Gaul. The Roman troops disembarked from their transports and spent several days recuperating from their sea voyage, preparing for the anticipated battle with the enemy. It is unclear how much of Scipio's army was present, but their commander's willingness to offer battle suggests that he had the vast bulk of the consular army allocated to him. Scipio still believed that Hannibal was many days' march away, but was swiftly disabused of this idea when a report arrived that the Carthaginians had reached the Rhone. Amazed at the speed of the enemy advance, the Roman general organized a reconnaisance, sending his 300 best horsemen, led by local guides and supported by a force of Gallic mercenary cavalry provided by the Massiliotes.34

The rival scouting parties bumped into each other and fought a short and bloody skirmish. Our sources claim that 200 out of 300 Numidians were killed, whilst the Romans and their allies lost 140 men. If these figures are correct then they would represent exceptionally high losses in proportion to the forces involved, but it may well be that both sides made exaggerated claims for the casualties they had inflicted on the enemy. The Roman force chased the Numidians back to Hannibal's camp and certainly believed that they had won a great victory, although it is possible that the enemy light horsemen withdrew deliberately because they were there to look and not to fight. The Romans then hurried back to Scipio to inform him that they had located Hannibal and his army. The consul did not hesitate, but loaded all his heavy baggage back onto his ships and led his army as fast as possible towards the enemy with the intention of bringing him to battle. They were too late. By the time the Romans reached Hannibal's camp, they discovered that the Carthaginian army had marched on up the Rhone three days before. Scipio was in no position to follow them. His heavy baggage had been left behind and he had not had sufficient time to arrange with the Massiliotes to gather enough food to supply his army, or the pack and draught animals needed to transport it overland. At best his soldiers had food for a few more days. Foraging for provisions would have been difficult in autumn and would anyway have slowed the Romans down, making it even less likely that they would be able to intercept the enemy. Even if he had possessed better logistic support, following the enemy would have taken the Romans into unfamiliar land, peopled by probably hostile tribes, and there was no assurance that he could catch up with the enemy.

The Roman army turned around and headed back to the coast, where they re-embarked. Scipio then made a critical decision which was to have a major impact on the outcome of the war, far more so than any of his other deeds. Giving command to his elder brother Cnaeus, the former consul who was now serving as Publius' deputy or legatus, Scipio sent the main body of his army on to Spain to attack the Barcids' bases. Publius himself hastened by sea back to northern Italy, planning to take charge of the forces there and confront Hannibal if he was foolhardy enough to try and cross the Alps. In this way he combined an adherence to the Senate's original instructions with a reaction to cope with a changing situation. He was aware that two legions were in Cisalpine Gaul under the command of the praetors to face what appeared to be the main enemy threat. These troops would now be commanded by one of the State's most senior magistrates, who would then gain the massive glory derived from the anticipated victory.35

We shall discuss the activities of Cnaeus Scipio and their great importance in a later chapter. The whole encounter on the Rhone, the surprise both armies felt when they realized each other's proximity, the ease with which they broke contact and lost all awareness of each other's current position or movements, emphasizes the poor strategic intelligence available to commanders in this period. This factor must always be borne in mind by modern historians attempting to analyse their decisions.36

Livy tells us that Hannibal considered fighting Scipio on the Rhone. This is possible, since he had a clear numerical advantage, especially in cavalry, and was likely to have been confident of his ability to win any encounter. On the other hand, Polybius tells us that he moved straight on and, whether or not he considered other alternatives, he seems to have led his army further north along the line of the river to ensure that he was not interfered with by the Romans he had encountered operating from Mas-silia. The first march was covered by a screen of cavalry deployed to the south. A victory won in southern Gaul would have less impact than one fought in Italy and any delay would mean that he arrived later at the Alps and would have to cross the passes in worse weather. It is also important to remember that Hannibal too had left the bulk of his baggage train behind and was relying to a great extent on foraging to feed his men and horses. He simply could not afford to keep his army in any one place for more than a few days.37

Hannibal followed the Rhone for four days until he reached an area known as 'The Island', whose location is again fiercely contested, where he allowed his soldiers a short rest. Here he encountered a Gallic tribe in which two brothers were engaged in a struggle for power. Hannibal aided the elder brother, Braneus, who gratefully provided his army with supplies of food, particularly grain, as well as replacement weaponry and boots and warm clothing suitable for their passage across the mountains. The army was about to move through the territory of another Gallic tribe, the Allobroges, who had so far not responded to any attempts to negotiate safe passage. As far as the approach to the pass over the Alps, Hannibal's column was shadowed by Braneus' warriors, who protected its rear from any attack.38

It was probably around the beginning of November 218 when the Carthaginians began the ascent of the pass, although which pass is perhaps more fiercely debated than any other aspect of his route. In the flat country the Punic cavalry and Braneus' men had deterred any hostile moves, but as the long column began to snake its way up the pass, Allobrogian chieftains began to muster their forces along the route. Hannibal discovered that a large group had massed on high ground overlooking the path. Moving his army ostentatiously to the foot of the pass, he camped there, sending some of his Gallic guides to observe the enemy. Like many other tribesmen throughout history, the Ailobroges clearly despised enemies unfamiliar with their rugged homeland and trusted too much to the protection of their high position. Hannibal's scouts discovered that at night the tribesmen, for whom predatory attacks on travellers or soldiers passing through their land were a normal supplement to the meagre livelihood of agriculture, did not bother to keep watch, but returned to their nearby set-dement to sleep, mustering again the next morning. Hannibal moved his army a little nearer the next day, but camped a little short of the ambush point, making a great play of lighting many campfires. That night he led out a picked body of men carrying only their weapons and, following the narrow path, took them up to occupy the ambush position. The next day the Gauls were amazed to see their plan foiled, and for a while allowed the main column to move unhindered through the pass. In time, the temptation of seeing so many vulnerable men and animals stretched out beneath them proved too much and Allobrogian tribesmen, at first as individuals or small groups, began to make sudden attacks on the Carthaginians. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries AD it was usually enough to 'crown the heights' on the North-west Frontier of India to ensure passage for a column moving through the valley bottom, but Hannibal's picked force were not armed with any missile weapons with sufficient range to allow them to dominate all the ground below them. At first he was forced to watch as short raids were made on vulnerable parts of the column, creating local havoc, especially amongst the animals who panicked and added to the disorder or stumbled and fell off the steep slope beside the road. Hannibal led the picked force dowrihill, charging against the enemy who were trying to block the head of the column, driving them off with heavy loss. Following up on this success he stormed the Gallic setdement which was largely deserted. This success showed the neighbouring tribesmen that their homes were not secure from enemy reprisals and, more practically, the setdement was found to contain many men and animals captured during the day of attacks. In addition to this, the town's grain stores provided enough food to last the whole army two or three days. Wearily the rest of the column followed on and reached this sanctuary by the end of the day.39 Hannibal gave his soldiers a day's rest before pushing on, encountering few problems for the next diree days. At this point he was met by a group of Gallic chieftains offering peace, claiming that his capture of the Allobrogian setdement had convinced them of his might. Hannibal did not fully trust these approaches, but considered that it was better to appear to accept them and receive the guides and livestock offered by the tribesmen. His suspicion appeared to have been proved right when two days later a force of warriors made a strong attack on the rear of his column as it was travelling through a difficult and narrow pass. Fortunately he had prepared for just such an eventuality, sending his baggage train with the cavalry, who were exceedingly vulnerable in this terrain, near the front of the column and forming a strong rearguard of heavy infantry - Polybius calls them 'hoplites'. These men, probably Libyan foot, bore the brunt of the Gallic assault, defeating it with heavy loss. Even so, small groups of tribesmen, knowing the ground, made darting attacks up and down the column, going chiefly for the baggage train. In some places they rolled boulders down onto the narrow path, crushing man and beast and spreading confusion. The advance guard pushed on to the main pass, Hannibal leading them in person. They seized it, but spent an uneasy night waiting for the baggage and cavalry to catch up. The Gauls, perhaps deterred by the fierceness of the Punic reaction, or maybe because they had already acquired satisfactory amounts of booty, withdrew in the night and returned to their homes.40

This was the end of the major fighting during the passage over Alps, only the occasional small raid on the column occurring in the remainder of the journey. The Carthaginian war elephants proved very useful in defending against these forays, since the unfamiliar appearance of the creatures ensured that the Gauls avoided whichever parts of the column included them. Hannibal's soldiers now found that their main enemies were the elements and the terrain itself. It took nine days to reach the summit of the pass and the army stopped there for two more days, allowing many stragglers to catch up. We are even told that many of the animals who had bolted in panic during the fighting wandered into the Punic camp during this time. Morale was not good amongst the men, most of them unfamiliar with both mountains and cold, for snow, already on the heights, was now beginning to build up on the path itself. Hannibal is supposed to have made a rousing speech to the assembled troops, pointing towards the Lombard plain, assuring them of the great opportunities for loot and glory awaiting them on arrival. The ability to view the northern Italian plain is one of the many criteria used by scholars to decide which Alpine pass Hannibal actually used, although we cannot be sure whether such a view was literally visible, or conjured in the men's minds by their general's words.

The path down was difficult, slippery from snow and ice and proved especially hard for the animals with the army - horses, mules and most of all, the elephants. At one point a landslide had completely blocked the path for several hundred yards, and the deep snow made it impossible for the animals to go round. Under the direction of his engineers, Hannibal set his

Numidian horsemen to building a new path through the obstacle. It took a day to make a path suitable for the pack animals, another three to make it viable for the elephants. Livy tells the story of how Hannibal's ingenuity found a way to break up the larger boulders blocking the path. His men piled faggots of wood around the rocks, setting them on fire and keeping the pyres going until a great temperature was reached. Then they poured onto them the sour wine, which was certainly the standard ration in the later Roman army and may also have been normal with the Carthaginians, causing the rocks to crack and allowing them to be broken into pieces. This is typical of the stories told of many ancient commanders, celebrating their intelligence and adaptability as well as reinforcing the belief that a good commander needed to be a highly educated man, as knowledgeable about weather, engineering and the natural sciences as he was about the technical aspects of warfare. Polybius does not mention the incident, and it may be a later invention, although it certainly became firmly embedded in the Hannibal myth, but there is nothing inherently impossible about it.41

The army suffered badly from the elements during the delay imposed by this obstacle, forced as they were to camp on the bare mountain sides. All were weary and weak by the time they moved down into the lower valleys, where the snow had not yet settled and there was grass for the animals. Three days after clearing the landslide, the army reached the flatter country. Polybius tells us that the army took fifteen days to cross the Alps, but it is not certain if this includes the entire journey or only the passage of the last, highest pass. It may be that three to four weeks elapsed between the beginning of the ascent in the territory of the Allobroges and the arrival on the plain to the south of the mountains. The entire march from New Carthage had taken five months. It had been an epic journey, leading in ancient minds to an obvious comparison with the hero and demigod Her-akles, who had also crossed the Alps in the mythical past. Not for the first or last time, Hannibal had done what the Romans had not expected or believed impossible. He had ensured that this war would be fought on Italian soil. It now remained to seen what his invading army could achieve now that it had reached its destination.42

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!