Ancient History & Civilisation




Hannibal is at the center of our story … at the center of anybody’s story of the Second Punic War. Yet historians complain that we are left with but the shadow cast by his deeds, that his character eludes us.1 Besides the paternal compact against Rome, there are no revealing childish anecdotes—little Hannibal tricking his playmates, beguiling a stallion, or concocting something equivalently brave and enterprising—the kind of homey palaver the ancients typically used to delineate their subjects. Still, it is the province of a certain kind of genius to remain forever ineffable. In the modern idiom, think Ronald Reagan, FDR, Thomas Jefferson; being indescribable may have been the touchstone of Hannibal’s endless tactical wizardry.

The personal details that do remain mostly form an image of a generic martial workaholic. Livy (21.4.1–8), eying him through the lens of his own country’s military conventions, depicts him as a good man with a sword, fearless in combat, oblivious to physical discomfort, sleeping on the ground amidst his men, sharing their hardships, eating for sustenance, not pleasure. In other words, Hannibal was an ideal Roman commander, with an obligatory dose of villainy, being Rome’s bête noire. Livy describes “inhuman cruelty, more than Punic perfidy, no truth, no reverence for things sacred, no fear of the gods … etc.” In fact, for a Carthaginian, Hannibal does not seem very religious. None of the Barcids do, though this may be partly a function of the evidence, or rather the lack of it. As far as cruelty, he did crucify one or more guides who misled him at critical junctures, and there was at least one instance when he may have ordered prisoners slaughtered,2 but there is more than a little irony in any Roman claim of enemy cruelty. This was to be a brutal war, and there is little evidence that Hannibal was any less humane than his opponents. Rather, there is evidence that he treated his dead foes—or at least their commanders—with some chivalry, giving them decent burials, an approach starkly contrasted by C. Claudius Nero delivering to Hannibal the head of his brother Hasdrubal to announce the result of the Metaurus campaign.

Clearly Hannibal was no monster. Even Livy concedes that, and certainly Polybius does, indicting Hannibal with only avarice—a quality not necessarily a glaring vice for a man far from home with an army to feed. Sex was no apparent preoccupation. He married once, a Spanish chieftain’s daughter named Imilce, and Pliny the Elder credits him with a later liaison with a prostitute in the southern Italian town of Salapia, an item of some civic pride even three centuries later.3 There is no record of other lovers, either female or male. He appears to have had friends, albeit almost all of them soldiers. He was also approachable and willing to be criticized, most famously by the cavalryman Maharbal after Cannae: “You know how to win a victory, Hannibal, but you don’t know how to use one.”4 But he could give as good as he got, and his gallows humor shines through many of the anecdotes told about him. Thus, before Cannae, when an officer named Gisgo fretted over how amazingly numerous the Roman army appeared, Hannibal replied that there was something even more amazing: “In all this multitude there is no one who is called Gisgo.” On the occasion of Tarentum’s surprise fall, though nonplussed he remarked to the effect that the Romans must have gotten their own Hannibal.5

There is little doubt that this was a sane, even psychologically healthy, individual. A comparison to the murderous paranoia of Alexander, or to the incestuous dynastic scheming of the Hellenistic monarchs of the day, makes this still more apparent. Rather than manifesting jealousy at his brother-in-law Hasdrubal’s succession, Hannibal gave every appearance of having won his complete trust as a subordinate.6 Nor was there the slightest hint of sibling rivalry among the Barcid boys; without exception, to the day of their deaths both Hasdrubal and Mago pursued the interests of their brother—a family monolith, indivisible, in effect “all the fine young Hannibals.”

Culturally, however, Hannibal was something of a changeling; for he was deeply Hellenized, and this is a real point of comparison with Alexander. Like the Macedonian, Hannibal had been tutored by Greeks, he spoke the language fluently, and he had a deep knowledge of their contemporary military practices and battle history. And also, like the conqueror of the Persians, Hannibal embarked on his great expedition armed with Greek historians to capture what transpired. This is suggestive. Alexander the Great was not simply the age’s most brilliant captain; he exemplified heroic achievement in the Mediterranean basin. The ancients—or their rulers, at least—lived in order to be remembered, and of all pursuits, military glory was the most indelible. If there was a romantic side to Hannibal, it is to be found here. His epic journey across the Alps, his vengeful pursuit of Rome, his brilliant set-piece victories, his seemingly endless anabasis on the Italic peninsula, all find their symbolic analogue in the Macedonian’s payback for the Persian invasion of Greece and in Alexander’s subsequent adventures in Asia. It makes sense that this was the emotional wellspring from which Hannibal gained sustenance and endurance, especially as the years passed and the goal grew ever fainter.

But if ultimately the source of Hannibal’s strategic imagination must remain a matter of speculation, his operational and tactical skills are beyond dispute. At this level Hannibal was among the best military commanders who ever lived. For sixteen campaigning seasons in Italy he demonstrated an ingenuity and consistency that has never been surpassed, losing not one significant battle, and on five separate occasions effectively obliterating major Roman field forces.7 His capacity for trickery was endless. Whether escaping from an apparently hopeless trap, or springing one on a hapless foe, he always seemed to concoct the unexpected and employ it to his own best advantage. In the case of the Romans, he proved particularly adroit in maneuvers prior to battle, turning their instinctive aggressiveness against them and fighting only when and where he, not they, chose.8

Without doubt he possessed the best army that ever fought under a Carthaginian standard, but his troops won in large part because Hannibal was their leader. Not only was he a master at using each combat component to maximum advantage, but it is evident that his inspirational example was central to elevating the performance of all. During the entire time they were together in Italy, immersed in what frequently must have amounted to a litany of privation, there was not a single incident of truly mutinous behavior—an amazing record for any Carthaginian army, and one that Scipio Africanus and the notoriously well-disciplined Romans could not match.

He had their complete trust, but he’d earned it. It has been argued that Hannibal lacked the patience for sieges, but there was seldom an occasion in Italy when he could have sat down to wage such an attack without jeopardizing the safety of his troops. They were always his most precious asset, essentially irreplaceable, so he never allowed himself to be pinned down, never wasted them in fights without purpose, never relied on sheer force of numbers when there was an alternative. At one point Livy has him say: “Many things which are difficult in themselves, are easily effected by contrivance.”9 This was the tactical Hannibal in a nutshell. In the Middle Ages the phrase might have graced his escutcheon. One of his best modern commentators, J. F. Lazenby, compares Hannibal to “a boxer, faced by a heavier opponent he feinted, weaved and dodged, and kept out of range—but his punch was devastating when he saw his chance.”10 If anybody could make an army “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” it was Hannibal.

But it was not enough. Talented he may have been, but taking on Rome was a far different proposition from Alexander taking on Persia. And had his strategic intellect matched his tactical wits, he would have grasped this critical point in an instant. Twenty-three years of the First Punic War was a stark monument to the magnitude of Rome’s determination and resources. Meanwhile, Carthage, militarily at least, was exhausted; realistically the best Hannibal could have hoped for from this quarter was lukewarm support bought with Spanish silver. At least at the beginning of the first contest, Carthaginians had had reason to hope that in a war fought for an island, their fleet might prove decisive over a state without one; but now Hannibal proposed to attack Rome literally on home turf, trying to overcome the source of the city’s greatest strength, land power. Hannibal had reason to believe in himself and his army, and he can be excused for underestimating the strength of Italy’s alliance structure, but this invasion had no logical end to it. We shall see that there was a single moment after Cannae when he might have seized victory, but he couldn’t have known about that prior to setting off across the Alps. Instead, the recent past should have told him not to try it.

It has been argued that the Romans never would have allowed Carthaginians to remain dominant in Spain, and would have continued interfering there until Hannibal had had no choice but to fight.11 Rome’s alliance with Saguntum (a locality well south of the Ebro line of 226 B.C.) and the Romans’ later ultimatum to Hannibal not to interfere there certainly point in this direction. Since it was only a matter of time, why not make war on their territory and not his? This does seem to be a reasonable projection of Rome’s strategic trajectory. Yet at this point Spain was far from Italy, and there were much more pressing problems closer to home. Hannibal could have waited, could have concentrated on further expanding and consolidating in Iberian areas not sensitive to the Romans, a resort to “salami tactics,” as it’s now sometimes called.12 But he gave little impression that he ever considered not going to war with Rome. An invasion of Italy was the best way of doing it, but that didn’t make it ultimately a good idea. So, rather than being guided by a cold assessment of his chances, it seems more likely that his vision was colored or even clouded by an Alexandrian dream of conquest for its own sake and for the great and still growing family grudge against Rome. And these motivations, in turn, led to some questionable choices in friends.


If Romans harbored a national nightmare, it was the Gauls, their Celtic neighbors. Since the traumatic sacking of their capital in 390, the Gauls had persisted in their sudden spoils-driven incursions into Roman territory, a succession of predatory raids meticulously tallied by Polybius (2.18–21), who seems to have understood their traumatic cumulative effect.

For the Romans, the Gauls had come to symbolize irrationality, violence, and disorder in ways that would have given Freudians, had they had the opportunity to set up shop on the Tiber, a field day. Given the degree of significance they invested in individual military prepotency, it was no trivial matter that Romans obsessed over their short stature in comparison to Gallic warriors.13 And the Gauls’ size was compounded by a notably frightful appearance—lime-washed spiked hair, muscular torsos naked to the waist wielding elongated slashing swords—and demonic battlefield zeal, usually described in the most lurid terms. They rushed at their adversaries “like wild beasts,” full of “blind fury,” persisting in their attacks “even with arrows and javelins sticking through them.”14

While these were clearly stereotypes, there is little reason to doubt their basis in fact, or to doubt the head-hunting proclivities of Celtic warriors. The profile was accompanied by recognized and equivalently generic weaknesses—drunkenness, lack of endurance, sensitivity to heat, tendency toward panic, mindless indiscipline—but still adds up to a very frightening specter if it was bearing down on your legion or your homeland. At least that’s the way the Romans saw it, an ever-aggressive barbarian menace.

Actually, Rome had turned the tables on the tormentors. Gradually the victims had taken the offense, reprisals had morphed into conquest, and the Gauls had become convinced that, in the words of Polybius (2.21.9), “now the Romans no longer made war on them for the sake of supremacy and sovereignty, but with a view towards their total expulsion and extermination.”

The Gauls were part of a broad band of Celtic-speaking tribal cultures stretching from central Europe into northern Italy through the Alps, north into the Low Countries, across France, and then into central and western Spain. The tribes were pre-state chiefdoms basically dependent on agriculture, and they appear to have been dominated by a distinct warrior class comprising both nobles and commoners who also existed as itinerant fighters. As such, these tribes were a floating body of potential mercenaries who could very quickly coalesce into large, if inchoate, force structures of the kind that had traditionally bedeviled the Romans. Militarily they represented a range of skills, with up to a third being noble equestrians, mostly heavy cavalry and some charioteers, and the remainder an undifferentiated mass of pedestrian swordsmen.15 All were very aggressive in combat, fighting essentially as individuals. The frenzied behavior—screams, wild gesticulations, and war dances—that so appalled the Romans would be recognized by modern anthropologists as rather typical of warrior cultures. Such fighters could be incorporated into the force structures of more advanced societies—the Carthaginians plainly did so during the First Punic War and after, but it remains unclear whether Carthage had been compelled to employ them fighting in their traditional manner or had been able to shape them into specialized units.16 Arguably, the transition from traditional fighters to specialized units enabled Hannibal to gain a key advantage at Cannae, but for the moment the Celts that most worried the Romans marched along a time-honored warpath.

After the Gauls’ attack in 390, serious unrest recommenced in 338 B.C., when the Boii stirred up local tribes and some Transalpine warriors to attack Ariminum (modern Rimini), settled three decades earlier as part of the Roman incursion on behalf of the land-hungry poor, into the fertile plains of northern Italy, which they called Cisalpine Gaul. Gallic bickering soon blunted this attempt, but two years later continuing problems with the Boii forced Rome to send an army to restore order.17 The trouble had just begun. In 232, Caius Flaminius, the farmers’ friend and Hannibal’s eventual victim at Lake Trasimene, pushed through a law as a tribune to parcel out captured Gallic lands to poor citizens in small plots rather than sending them out in concentrated colonies, thereby inviting a deluge of Romans.

Inevitably, the anger of the dispossessed Celts boiled over. In the spring of 225, Boii from around what is now Bologna, Insubres from the area of present-day Milan, and Taurini from the Piedmont were joined by a band of itinerant warriors from the Alps, the Gaesatae, to self-organize into a host seventy thousand strong, which then poured through the Apennine passes and fell upon Etruria, the rich area in the northeast high on Italy’s boot. Shades of the devastating attack on Rome in 390—the Gauls were laden with booty and were just three days’ march from the panic-struck city—only this time they chose to withdraw in the face of the four legions of consul L. Aemilius Papus that were heading north to intercept them. Unfortunately, the Gauls ran into another double consular army headed by C. Atilius Regulus, hastily recalled from Sardinia. At Telamon, trapped between the two jaws of what was the biggest force the Romans had ever accumulated prior to Cannae, the Gauls were forced to form lines back-to-back and fight for their lives. It was a desperate encounter that saw the severed head of Regulus delivered to one of the Celtic chiefs, but at the end of the day, forty thousand of the invaders lay dead and another ten thousand were taken prisoner by the Romans.18

The emergency was over, but Rome was far from finished with the Gauls. The next year both new consuls descended on the Boii with armies and forced their submission. In 224, it was more of the same, with now-consul Flaminius and his colleague Publius Furious both moving into the tribal territories of the Insubres and Cenomani. Here Flaminius won a great victory over a combined force of around forty-thousand Gauls, a victory featuring an on-the-spot tactical innovation that has recently stirred up some scholarly controversy. Being backed up against a river—a bad habit of Flaminius’s—his tribunes gave the maniples of the first line the spears of the triarii, the idea being to keep the Gauls and their long slashing swords at bay during their initial charge. It worked, and Polybius (2.33.1–6) is clear that the legionaries subsequently finished matters with their short swords. Modern historian Martin Samuels, however, arguing that the Greek historian was confused about the legionary’s equipment at this point, uses this passage to indicate that all fought primarily with long thrusting spears, both here and seven years later at Cannae.19 While Samuels’ points about the Roman army are interesting in other respects, this argument is just not convincing, given Polybius’s general reliability and knowledge of military detail. We can rest assured the Romans fought with the gladius at Cannae, and meanwhile would continue using them to kill Celts.

Thoroughly battered, in 222 the Gauls sued for peace. But the senate spurned their offer and instead sent both consuls with armies to throttle them still again. At Clastidium, one of the consuls, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, single-handedly killed and stripped the armor from the Gallic chief Britomarus, winning the spolia opima, immortality of the most Roman sort. His colleague, Cn. Cornelius Scipio, was also gainfully employed, successfully storming the site of modern Milan and the capital of the Insubres. Both were now made men, especially Marcellus, destined to play major roles and to die fighting in the Second Punic War. Yet again the tribes surrendered and were stripped of more land. Rome’s response was to push farther north, in 218 planting colonies of six thousand each at Placentia and Cremona on either side of the Po River, still further inflaming Gallic resentment.20

This anger would prove to be a magnet for Hannibal, providing a ready source of allies, supplies, and fresh bodies when he and his army spilled off the Alps, depleted and hungry. The potential for an amalgam with the restive tribes of Cisalpine Gaul was a brilliant insight and was the basis for his decision to invade Italy by land from the north. The Gauls were essentially the pot of gold at the end of his long journey.21 Yet no prize comes without its cost. It has been said that Hannibal’s objectives in Italy were limited, but an affiliation with the Gauls could only have served to convince the Romans of the opposite. These were not ordinary foes. The Gauls represented something altogether more frightening and dangerous to the Roman soul, and by joining them, Hannibal took on an onus that would serve to define the coming conflict in the starkest possible terms. So it was that what we refer to as the Second Punic War was frequently called by the Romans “the war against the Carthaginians and the Gauls.”22


In the winter of 219, Hannibal arrived in New Carthage, awaited by envoys from Rome who warned him not to interfere in a dispute between their ally Saguntum and local tribes, and also reminded him not to cross the Ebro line of 226. The fact that the Romans had chosen to align themselves with a city well to the south of this line, and then had taken up for the city in a dispute with Carthage, not only echoed the Mamertine episode that had kicked off the First Punic War, but exemplified Rome’s characteristic pattern of defensive aggression.

Hannibal must have known what this implied. Most modern historians follow Polybius and Appian in saying that Hannibal thought it necessary to send home for instructions, though he prejudiced the case by presenting the situation as the Romans and Saguntines inciting Carthaginian Spain to revolt.23 Having apparently received permission to do what he saw fit, Hannibal attacked Saguntum, taking it after a brutal eight-month assault that left the adult population massacred and a good quantity of the copious loot in Carthage as a matter of public relations.

Yet the Roman historian and senior senator at the time, Fabius Pictor, disagreed completely. He argued that Hannibal began the war on his own initiative, and that not a single one of the notables in Carthage approved of his conduct toward Saguntum.24 If “notables” meant the traditional oligarchs, then Hanno’s impassioned speech against the war, cited by Livy (21.10), very probably represented more than a lonely voice in the political wilderness. “Is it your enemy you know not, or yourselves, or the fortunes of both peoples? … It is Carthage against which Hannibal is now bringing up his … towers; it is the walls of Carthage he is battering with his rams. Saguntum’s walls—may my prophecy prove false!—will fall upon our heads.”

But the delegation of high-ranking Romans sent to Carthage was demanding as the price of peace the surrender of Hannibal and his senior officers for trial as war criminals, a bribe that was at once infuriating and possibly beyond the Punic capacity to deliver. So when the most senior Roman—Livy (21.18.1) tells us it was Fabius Maximus—eventually announced that in the folds of his toga he held both war and peace and it was up to the Carthaginians to choose, the presiding suffete told him to do so instead. Fabius replied that war fell out, and a shout rang out in response: “We accept it!” From all appearances this was hardly what we might call a measured deliberation. Quite probably it was a decision also lubricated with Barcid silver and success with the popular faction, but the real story was that Carthage had not fully recovered from the first struggle with Rome and was unable and ultimately unwilling to throw its full weight behind a second.

Back in Spain, Hannibal was not sitting on his hands awaiting a decision from Carthage. Instead, he was expecting word from the agents he had sent forward, possibly even before Saguntum’s fall, to explore the proposed route into Italy and to make contact with the tribes of Cisalpine Gaul.25 When the emissaries returned to assure him that the passage over the Alps, while difficult, was possible and that he would be welcomed upon arrival, the invasion was a go.

Meanwhile, he had been using the winter of 219–18 to make all the key decisions, not just planning for the expeditionary force, but seeing to the defense of Spain and even Africa. He was a man very much in charge of events. An early cross-baser—cross-basing being the means by which the Romans later successfully garrisoned their empire—Hannibal sent a force of nearly sixteen thousand Iberians to guard the vulnerable African home front, and brought an equivalent number of reliable Libyans, Numidians, and Liby-Phoenicians to Spain and placed them under brother Hasdrubal to keep watch over Barcid land.26

Yet most of his efforts must have been devoted to putting together his land armada, an apparently bloated entity of ninety thousand infantry and twelve thousand cavalry, along with thirty-seven elephants—really a force within a force.27 This was probably deliberate. Most were likely to have been recently recruited Spaniards—Iberians, Lusitanians, and Celtiberians—raw but potentially good close order horse and foot soldiers; but at the core was the army initially forged by Hamilcar, veteran professionals—wickedly effective Numidian light cavalry and meticulously trained African heavy infantry, the centerpieces in all of Hannibal’s future tactical shenanigans. Italy was a long way off, and much as his father had done on the way to Spain, Hannibal it seems meant to use the trek to train and toughen his force into the steely instrument he would need to take on Rome. He must have foreseen that this would be a Darwinian exercise, with many falling by the wayside or off icy cliffs in the Alps, though he may have underestimated the wastage. His African troops in particular were not likely to be tolerant of the cold weather at altitude. Still we can assume from this initial force structure that he believed that most of his veterans would survive the journey and that the newbie Spaniards who remained from the expendable outer layer would arrive as tough as the rest.

Hannibal was already bound to his veterans in a way no prior Carthaginian general could claim; he had not only lived with them and fought with them, he had literally grown up with them. Yet the march to Italy would prove the first great test of his leadership. There were multiple initial challenges, but in the Alps there was a real possibility of total disintegration. He rose to the occasion, but it was a near thing, and he probably completed the journey also transformed, tempered by danger and driven by a new sense of ruthless desperation.

He was not alone, never alone. Relatively little is known about the officers and unit commanders who left with him on the great adventure, but as with many other illustrious captains, they appear to have been a close group of friends and family, and with few exceptions they appear to have stayed with him for the duration.28 As is appropriate for a “brotherhood of arms,” his youngest brother, Mago, acted as his right hand at Trebia and as his virtual co-commander at Cannae. Another Barcid, nephew Hanno—the son of the admiral Bomilcar and Hannibal’s sister—though barely an adult, may have led the Numidian cavalry at Cannae. Another Hasdrubal, not the brother Hasdrubal who was left in charge in Spain, was known to have headed the army service corps, and as commander of the Celtic and Spanish cavalry at Cannae, he closed the final escape route on the Romans. Then there was the cheeky critic of Hannibal’s strategic sense, the brilliantly opportunistic commander of horse, Maharbal, whom Plutarch calls a Barcid.29Polybius (9.24.5–6; 9.25) identifies two other officers, Hannibal Monomachus and Mago the Samnite, as particularly good friends, and certainly as tough customers—the former advising his namesake to teach his men to eat human flesh to get through the Alps, and the latter so notoriously greedy that even Hannibal avoided disputes with him over spoils.

Together this group seems to have formed an inner circle of advisors—a general staff, if such a thing can be applied to a decision-making process about which so little is known. Several others are named—Carthalo, an officer whose light cavalry captured two thousand fugitive Romans after Cannae; Gisgo, who worried about the size of the Roman army before the battle; Adherbal, chief of engineers; Bostar and Bomilcar, apparently aides.30 The remains of this group are obviously skeletal, an archaeology of bits and pieces, with no individual besides Hannibal even remotely taking shape as a personality. Yet corporately, they formed a cadre brilliantly attuned to their commander’s intent, instinctively carrying out his will with a timing that could only have come from complete and mutual trust. Without them Hannibal never would have made it to Italy, and with them, once there, he would win victory after victory.


He had a narrow window of time to arrive; the Alpine passes close down with snow and ice by mid-November. Conventional wisdom has it that he would have wanted to leave New Carthage in the early spring, but it seems more likely he had to wait until late May or early June. Once he left Barca land, his army would have had to forage, and the harvest would have begun to become available during this time frame, and progressively later as he moved north.31 This was to be a continuing theme for the entire war. Hannibal’s army would move or not move according to the rumbling of its stomach, and as much as anything else, the Romans’ understanding and manipulation of this most unrelenting fact of life would save them from defeat. A soldier on the march burns between four and five thousand calories a day, or between two and three pounds of food; for an army of fifty thousand that meant over sixty tons daily, and Hannibal’s initial force would have required more than twice that amount, plus forage for thousands of cavalry horses and pack mules—quite literally a tall order.32 For the initial 280-mile march to the Ebro, there were probably supply dumps, but once they passed this point, Hannibal and friends were on their own. This was their Rubicon.

It was here, Livy reports (21.22.8–9) that the aspiring conqueror dreamed of a ghostly youth sent as a guide. The apparition told Hannibal to follow him and not look back. However, like Lot’s wife, the mortal could not resist. He turned to discover an immense serpent amidst thunderclaps tearing up the landscape, and when he inquired what this meant, he was told “that it was the devastation of Italy: that he should continue to advance forward, nor inquire further, but suffer the fates to remain in obscurity.” Thus reassured, he headed off into the unknown.

But as he went, he apparently tried to create a buffer zone to the north by pacifying the tribes as far as the Pyrenees, stripping off an occupation force of ten thousand foot soldiers and a thousand horse under a certain Hanno (not his nephew) and also leaving him all the heavy baggage. Upon reaching the base of the Pyrenees, the army was more than half the distance to Italy but was still burdened by a considerable number of unhappy campers. During the ascent through the col de Perthus, an easy pass approximately twenty-six hundred feet high, a group of three thousand Spanish Carpentani mercenaries turned back toward home, apparently sending a thrill of apprehension through the entire army.33 Hannibal’s reaction was unpredictably mild; he not only made no attempt to stop them, but he also gave leave to another seven thousand he observed to be restless. There must have been another twenty thousand infantry and two thousand cavalry whose departure went unrecorded. Like a moon rocket shedding stages, Hannibal seems to have been consciously lightening his army for the tough road ahead. Polybius (3.35.7) tells us that, stripped of its malcontents and impedimenta, the remaining force entered coastal Gaul a much leaner fighting machine of fifty thousand foot soldiers and nine thousand horse.

Blocking the way near Perpignan was a confab of worried and potentially belligerent Gauls, uncertain of just what the appearance of this army of strangers implied. Anxious to avoid an unnecessary fight, Hannibal offered a barrage of gifts and assurances that he was just passing through, which won him a free march all the way to the Rhône. He followed the traditional route of what would become the Via Domitia and what is today the Languedoc coastal motorway, completing around seven hundred miles of the nine-hundred-mile journey and shedding another twelve thousand infantry and one thousand cavalry, possibly leaving them for garrison duty.34 Here, on the banks of the Rhône, probably sometime past the middle of September, things got a lot more complicated.

Glowering from across the river at the point where he wanted to ford—Polybius (3.42.1) tells us it was about four days’ march from the sea—was a concentration of particularly aggressive Celts, the Volcae, whose obvious intent was to dispute his passage. Hannibal’s reaction was clever and also characteristic; after spending two days collecting boats and canoes, he sent a strong force of cavalry under his nephew Hanno approximately twenty miles north, to a point near what is today Avignon, where they crossed and headed back down to lie in wait behind the Celtic camp. Smoke-signaled that they were in place, Hannibal ordered his main body to begin the crossing, which drew the Gauls racing from their encampment to stop the foreigners at the riverbank. Instantly Hanno attacked from the rear, leaving the Volcae flabbergasted and fleeing for their lives as the Punic vanguard carved out a beachhead sufficient for the rest of the army to cross in safety. It was a signature Hannibalic move, and the surprise cavalry attack from the rear was destined to seal the doom of many Romans. The strategy also harkened back to a nearly identical flanking maneuver that Alexander had pulled off at the Hydaspes River (modern Jhelum River) a century earlier. The Punic commander’s nearly endless bag of tricks was certainly energized by his tactical creativity, but, surrounded as he was by learned Greeks, we can also assume his choices were informed by state-of-the-art military history and perhaps a bit of hero worship.

The next day was a busy one, filled with implications for the future. First off—and this must have been a surprise—he heard that there was a Roman fleet anchored at the mouth of the river, and immediately sent five hundred Numidian cavalry to check out numbers and intent. Next, he assembled his men and introduced to them a delegation from Cisalpine Gaul—one Magilus and several other chieftains—as a way of reassuring the men that a happy reception awaited them on the far side of the Alps. When Hannibal noticed gloom concerning the prospective climb, he asked the men if they thought these Boii “had not crossed the Alps in the air on wings?”35 Then, as if on cue, once the gathering dissolved, the Numidians raced back into camp. They had gotten much the worst of an engagement with a reconnoitering band of Roman cavalry, who, having discovered the main body of the Punic army, had then turned back to report its presence. Very suddenly and most unexpectedly, the wraps were off Hannibal’s invasion.

Another general might have stayed put and readied his army for the inevitable Roman assault, but this Barcid was not easily distracted and seems to have understood that a delay of even a few days could have precluded crossing the Alps that year.36 He immediately ordered his infantry to start marching north along the river, and sent his cavalry south as a screen.

But if he was in a hurry, he was also a Carthaginian and therefore was not about to leave his elephants on the wrong side of the river. So Polybius (3.46) describes for us the construction of a massive two-hundred-foot-long dirt-covered pachyderm pier and ferry arrangement, onto which the great beasts were lured and on which they were then towed across the river. Most stayed on the ferry, but some panicked and fell into the water, drowning their mahouts but still making it to the other side by using their trunks as snorkels. This proved to be quite a spectacle, but it also represented considerable time and energy devoted to a questionable military asset.

The crossing ended well, though. When the army of Publius Cornelius Scipio (father of Scipio Africanus) and his brother Cnaeus (whom we last saw storming the capital of the Insubres) arrived at the Punic campsite, Hannibal was three days gone and far up the river. Without supplies, there was no way the Romans could chase him. Besides, there was no clear idea of his route or intentions. It would have been like tracking a ghost in the wilderness. This would prove the curse of the team of elder Scipios, good generals but always just slightly out of phase with opportunity—the playthings of fate.

The Romans wanted to fight the war in Spain and Africa, and had it not been for Hannibal’s march, this would have been a perfectly reasonable plan—simultaneously striking at the nest of the Barcids and at Carthage’s vulnerable home front.37 Thus, for the year 218, the two consuls, Publius Cornelius Scipio and Tiberius Sempronius Longus, were sent to Iberia and Sicily with the appropriate military and naval assets. Sempronius sailed for Lilybaeum, the jumping-off point to Africa, and set about preparing for the invasion. But Scipio was detained.

Yet again Cisalpine Gaul was in rebellion. This time it was the Boii and Insubres, probably encouraged by rumors of Hannibal’s coming, chasing the Roman settlers from the new and unfortified colonies of Cremona and Placentia, blockading them at Mutina (modern Modena), and then taking a senatorial commission prisoner when the Romans attempted to negotiate. To make matters worse, a relief column commanded by the praetor L. Manlius Vulso was twice ambushed and then besieged at Tannetum.38 Publius Cornelius Scipio, who was in the north preparing to set sail for Spain, was an obvious source of troops to clean up this mess. Under senatorial orders, another praetor, C. Atilius Serranus, sheared off one of his own legions along with five thousand allies and quickly relieved Manlius, but then he kept the force to sit on the situation. This meant Scipio had to levy more forces, which took valuable time.

Finally, after a long delay, Scipio sailed from Pisae (modern Pisa), hugging the coast of Liguria and pulling into Massilia, a staunch Roman ally and a place where he might be updated on the state of play in Spain. Instead he learned, probably to his amazement, that Hannibal was just up the River Rhône. Being a Roman, he immediately sought to engage. But it took time to disembark his army, and having missed the Carthaginians, Scipio made a fateful and strategically prescient decision. Despite the improbable nature of the invasion route, Scipio seems to have understood that Hannibal was going to attempt a transalpine crossing, but neither had Scipio forgotten that the seat of Barcid power remained in Spain. So he split the difference, sending the bulk of his army on to Iberia under his brother, the former consul Cnaeus, while he himself returned to northern Italy to take command of the two legions there to await Hannibal, should he make it across intact.

Hannibal might not have made it, but for catching a lucky break. After four days of marching up the Rhône, the Punic force came to a place of indeterminate location, known in the sources as “the island,” inhabited by a prosperous tribe of Gauls in the midst of a leadership dispute between two brothers. The brothers turned to the outsiders to mediate, and Hannibal threw his weight behind the eldest, one Braneus, thereby earning his gratitude, and more important, grain supplies, replacements for worn-out weapons, warm clothing, and boots suitable for high altitude. Braneus even sent experienced guides and a cavalry escort all the way to the foothills of the Alps.39 Hannibal was not one proverbially dependent upon the kindness of strangers, but as he stared up at this forbidding wall of mountains before him, he may have suspected that the aid of these Gauls could spell the difference between success and failure.


Of all antiquity’s sanguinary events, none has drawn more ink than Hannibal’s passage across the Alps.40 It seems that almost as soon as the Carthaginians stumbled down onto the Lombard plain, quills began hitting the parchment in an endless orgy of speculation that proceeds to this day, most of it concerned with delineating the path Hannibal took.41 This question will not be settled here, or addressed beyond outlining a few of the more probable contenders. All that is necessary to know really is that he did it, and this is not only beyond dispute, but it overshadows all else, since this accomplishment set the conditions for one of the most important wars in recorded history. Certainly earlier bands of amorphous Celts had managed the crossing and had then surged down into Italy. But this was the first time a highly organized army attempted such a stunt, an army already far from home base and numbering in the tens of thousands—including cavalry, engineers, and logistical elements, not to mention elephants. The term “stunt” is no misnomer. For as desperate as the circumstances grew, there was a theatrical aspect to the episode; that is the way the ancients interpreted it and that is probably how Hannibal would have wanted it remembered, eclipsing Alexander’s sweep into Asia and recalling the mythical Alpine crossing of Hercules.42

The high Alps were inhabited by a thin penumbra of Gauls known as the Allobroges, eking out a meager living as subsistence farmers, supplemented by freebooting, and networked so that word of a large force of flatlanders to be preyed upon would reverberate rapidly from glen to glen. Almost as soon as the Punic columns began ascending the valley leading through the first and lower range of the Alpes du Dauphiné, Hannibal began noticing tribesmen shadowing them from the heights, each day growing more numerous and less concerned with concealing themselves.

Worried, Hannibal sent his scouts (probably companions of Magilus’s, since Braneus’s guides had returned to “the island”43) forward, and soon learned that to reach the pass over the initial range the army would soon have to thread its way through a narrow gorge, where the Allobroges were preparing an ambush. However, he also learned that the Gauls obligingly returned to the comfort of their village at nightfall. The wily Carthaginian therefore unveiled his “keep the campfires burning” trick destined to fool so many Romans. He marched his army to the mouth of the narrow ravine, settled down the main body, and then under the cover of night led a troop of light cavalry unobserved to the heights above where the Allobroges normally congregated.

When the Gauls returned the next day, they found Hannibal looming like a guardian vulture, which deterred them for a while. But then the sight of the Carthaginian column—so slow and vulnerable, often trudging single file on precipitous ledges—proved too tempting and the Allobroges tribesmen came charging down, hurling rocks, rolling boulders, and launching arrows. Pack animals began to bolt and plunge off the cliffs, dragging their handlers to the rocks below. Hannibal hesitated to intervene, wanting to avoid even greater confusion. Finally, realizing he risked losing most of his supplies and transport, he stormed down upon the attackers, killing some and driving off the rest. The situation stabilized, and a morose silence settled over the men as they moved out of the gorge and toward the pass above, followed by the elephants, which had been led carefully across the ledges without loss.44

A measure of revenge, though, lay just ahead in the form of the attacking Allobroges’ fortified township, now all but abandoned and primed for sacking by the angry Carthaginians. The fate of the remaining inhabitants goes unrecorded, but it cannot have been good, especially after the Punic soldiers found some of their compatriots, foragers who had been recently captured, bound and held as prisoners of an uncertain fate in hovels scattered about the village. The Carthaginians also picked the place clean, gathering enough grain and cattle to last the next three days’ march.

Proceeding down the first ridge and across the valley, the army at last came within sight of what the Alps were all about—truly high Alps. Where the peaks of the previous barrier had topped out at around five thousand feet, these loomed as high as thirteen thousand feet, an apparently impenetrable barrier to an army whose Cisalpine Gallic scouts seemed to have lost their way.

Enter a delegation of elders from the local tribes. Bearing olive branches and purporting to be cowed by Hannibal’s recent victory over the Allobroges, they offered him provisions and guides to lead him over the mountains. Hannibal may have been skeptical, but he was also probably desperate for supplies and directions; so he went against his instincts, took some hostages, and once again became dependent upon the kindness of strangers. It was a near fatal error.

For ambush, not guidance, was their intent. Over the next two days these Gauls led the Punic force in the general direction of the Italian frontier, but all the while funneled warriors from the network of surrounding villages into a trap calculated to produce maximum lethality. So for the second time Hannibal found himself standing before the entrance of a long, narrow, very deep gorge. Sensing Gallic treachery, he took the precaution of re-forming his column with the pack train in the middle, the elephants and cavalry at the head, and the heavy infantry to the rear. Polybius (3.53.1) says it saved the army from utter destruction. Still, Hannibal stood on the precipice, about to become ensnared in a deadly combination of bad company and bad country. Of the approximately forty thousand men who entered the gorge, only 65 percent would survive the week or so it took to reach the Lombard plain.45

Initially the atttacking Gauls were divided into two elements: those stationed along the cliffs above, and a larger group shadowing the Punic column at ground level. The Gauls waited until virtually all of the Carthaginian army had been swallowed up by the defile and then delivered their first thrust against the rear guard, which, turning in unison, checked it. Had the heavy infantry not been in the back, the Gauls might have rolled up the entire force from the rear. Still, the Carthaginians could not prevent a devastating assault from above, as the tribesmen once again began bombarding the column and especially the pack animals with rocks, boulders, spears, and arrows—a hail of projectiles that this time could not be stopped, only endured. The Gauls even managed to establish a blocking force on the narrowest part of the path, effectively cutting the Carthaginian army in half. Still, there was only one way out, and that was forward, so the vanguard pushed ahead.

It was at this point—the first and only during the entire campaign—where the Punic pachyderms truly earned their keep. Doubtless enraged by the barrage of rocks, the elephants were even more intent on exiting the gorge than their compatriots, and they proved considerably more effective at doing so, since the Gauls blocking the exit had never dreamed such beasts existed, and scattered in terror before them. Spilling out of the far end of the defile the forward portion of the Carthaginian force was saved. Hannibal, never slow to grasp an advantage, seems to have led the elephants back to break up the Gauls obstructing the rear of the Punic column, thereby rescuing the remainder of his army, minus the heavy casualties they must have taken.46 All told, it was far from Hannibal’s best battle, and things would soon get a lot worse.

At high altitude, with winter breathing down his neck, a hungry army at his back, and now without guides, Hannibal was plainly disoriented. He had been led into this valley partly because of its gorge and the opportunities afforded for ambush, but also apparently because it ended with one of the highest and most remote of all the southern Alpine passes. Which brings us to an equivalently bewildering intellectual pass: Which Alpine pass was it?

There are two basic routes Hannibal could have taken. He might have left the Rhône and followed the Isère River to the Arc and then passed over the Petit Mount Cenis or possibly the col du Clapier (the two favored by most scholars).47 Or he might have passed over the Savine-Coche,48 which was close at hand. Alternatively, he could have turned off the Rhône slightly farther south and passed along the Drôme and Durance rivers and climbed through the col de la Traversette.49 All lead to the vicinity of Turin, where we know he emerged. In the absence of definitive archaeological evidence, of which there is not a scrap, the truth will remain buried deep in the past, despite a mountain of argumentation, opinion, prejudice, jealousy, and perhaps even hatred—a perfect example of an academic dispute grown bitter because so little is truly at stake. For our purposes, all we really need to know is that he and his army suffered horribly but eventually made it across.

There was no turning back; time was too short. He had to push ahead as rapidly as possible. Wanting no part of the elephants, the tribesmen pretty much left the Carthaginians alone afterward, and the march to the summit proved relatively straightforward, with the vanguard making it by noon of the next day. So, nearly three weeks since leaving the Rhône and nine days after entering the Alps, they were literally in sight of their goal.

After resting the troops for two nights and waiting for stragglers at a camp just below the crest, Hannibal rousted his army at daybreak for the descent into Italy. The top of the pass provided a splendid vista of the Po valley and the green plains that stretched beyond; so he gathered them here for a pep talk, promising that from this point it was all downhill—a few battles, and Rome would be theirs.50

He was right at least on the first count, but the icy path down was a great deal steeper than the ascent, and shortly the mountain was shedding Carthaginians and their animals like so many flakes of dandruff. After several hours of baby steps and the progress of only a few hundred feet, the column lurched to a halt blocked by a landslide. Hannibal came forward and thought there might be a way around by climbing to a ledge overhead, but the men in the caravan, after making some headway in the fresh snow, began slipping and plunging off the thousand-foot cliffs when the tracks of those ahead turned to ice. Realizing this would never work, the general ordered his army to settle down for the night and conferred with Adherbal and his engineers.

Ten thousand feet high, his men strewn over a frigid wind-whipped mountainside without food, this might have been literally the end of the road had not the planners had a plan. They were for carving a completely new path along the side of the mountain to replace the part obliterated by the slide, and in the morning Hannibal ordered his Numidians to start excavating.

All went well until they encountered a huge boulder too big to move and impossible to circumvent. Livy (21.37.1–4) tells us the engineers came up with a unique solution. They built a great fire with wood transported from lower altitudes, and when the rock’s surface was sufficiently hot, they poured the troops’ rations of sour wine over it to create fissures that might be enlarged with iron picks and wedges until the entire mass was broken apart. With this obstacle removed, the remainder of the detour was completed in short order, enabling Punic scouts to find their way to the valley floor in a matter of hours.

Over the next day the engineers widened the entire path sufficiently to allow the beasts of burden and vital cavalry horses—by now certainly near starvation—to pass safely down to the lush vegetation of the foothills and begin grazing their way back to health. The men set about building a base camp and presumably foraging for anything they too could sink their teeth into. Thousands of feet above, the Numidians still toiled, further widening the path for another three days to accommodate thirty-seven very special members of the Carthaginian force, the panzer pachyderms.51 They made it down, but in such poor shape that it looked as if none would survive. But remarkably, after a few days of grazing, they all regained their strength. Hannibal must have been relieved. After all, every team needs mascots.

On the whole, though, his army was not what it had been, especially in terms of numbers. When roll was taken of the infantry at the base camp, only 40 percent were Spaniards—eight thousand remnants of what must have been the bulk of the force when the journey had begun at New Carthage. On the other hand, fully twelve thousand of the African foot soldiers—the tough core of Hannibal’s father’s army—had made it.52 It’s also interesting that half of the original cavalry force—now amounting to six thousand—survived, especially since equine attrition is proverbially higher than among humans.53 Hannibal would need every one of the cavalrymen and would use them to great effect, particularly the Numidians. Still, the entire army now amounted to only twenty-six thousand members of a force that had originally numbered more than a hundred thousand. Many had been left behind or had deserted, but still, the two weeks or so in the mountains had plainly taken a huge toll. With the exception of Scipio Africanus, of all the enemies Hannibal faced over the next sixteen years, none proved more lethal than the Alps. Yet he had escaped their craggy clutches and descended upon Italy with a viable force structure, and once it got some food and some rest, it would prove effective beyond all expectation. His was now a freeze-dried army, hardened by the danger and cold of the mountains and capable of immediate expansion…. Just add Gauls.

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