Hannibal embodying perseverance / Wikimedia Commons
A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016
Earlier this month the news media was whipped into a frenzy by reports that Bill Mahaney, a geologist and professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, Canada, had “found” Hannibal‘s route over the Alps.
Unfortunately, many of the mainstream media outlets, eager to garner a bump in pageviews by armchair historians, published the findings and inferred a resolution without attempting to verify if the information provided was, in fact, definitive or could have had an alternative explanation. Some even used the word “pinpoint” even though the findings are based primarily on the inexact process of Carbon 14 dating.
One of the less sensationalized articles appeared in The Guardian, a UK online news magazine [The Guardian].
Dr. Patrick Hunt, the director of the Stanford University Alpine Archaeology Project, is another researcher who has been seeking Hannibal’s route across the Alps since 1994. He is quoted towards the end of the above article but he, however, is more in favor of a northerly route.
“The route in question is too often promoted by popularists who’ve never climbed competing Alpine routes, of which about 10 passes need to be totally eliminated before this study has any real credibility,” Hunt observes, “The fact that so many today in the popular media are claiming this now solves Hannibal’s route is both sadly superficial and premature. Although they could be hypothetically right, there’s no real hard material evidence presented yet. Until they find actual material artifacts, it’s moot. Datable remains of elephant dung would be much better, but possibly not enough because Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal followed him a decade later. I know several other Alps passes with at least as much corroborating evidence and one pass far better in terms of fitting Polybius, the best source.”
Dr. Hunt’s Stanford research team thinks the Clapier-Savine Coche is at least as good and actually closer to what Polybius describes as the Col de Traversette.
“The Clapier-Savine Coche has a huge campground right by the summit as Polybius describes,” explains Hunt, “while the campground on the Traversette route is much lower, around 3000 feet lower, on the west side of the Col de Traversette summit. The Traversette summit is also a knife blade scarcely capable of holding 100 people, let alone an army. There is no way Hannibal could have addressed his army encouragingly from the Traversette summit.”
Hannibal shows his army the valley of the Po from the summit of the Alps by Alfred Rethel, 1842. Image courtesy of
“Also, Polybius states Hannibal’s forces slipped through fresh snow to ice below from the previous winter on the initial descent, not frozen ground or firnpack as interpreted by the Traversette group,” Hunt continues, “Such snow traces fitting Polybius are found each year on the summit of the Clapier-Savine Cloche around 8200-8500 feet but there is still ample grass for animal foraging and cattle graze there currently as well.”
Furthermore, Hunt thinks a route leading to the Col de Traversette must be twisted somewhat to make it fit the description given by Polybius. Polybius says after Hannibal’s army marched north of the point where the Rhone and Iskaras Rivers meet for approximately 800 stades (about 91 miles) the army began their ascent of the most rugged part of the Alps and found their way blocked by a fierce mountain tribe known as the Allobroges (according to Livy the most famous and powerful tribe in Gaul). The border of the Allobroges territory was defined historically by the “Iskaras” (Polybius) or “Arar” (Livy) River, which Hunt thinks corresponds to the modern Isère River.
“Given that the Rhone delta and mouth were less extended southward in antiquity due to less alleviation buildup and that Hannibal crossed at least a day’s march inland – both because there were more salt marshes (etangs) then around the Rhone mouth and in order to avoid Massilian Roman allies around Marseilles – the Rhone crossing should be around Avignon, an ancient fording place”, Hunt observes. “The traditional Allobroges boundary – like that of so many tribes partly demarcated by a river confluence – would then be the Isere-Rhone junction beyond Valence, not the more southerly Drome-Rhone confluence, proposed by Mahane’s Traversette group.”
Hannibal traverses the Rhône by Henri Motte, 1878, (Public Domain)
“Mahane’s team proposes the first ambush occurred in the upper Valdrome (which was not Allobroges territory). This would require Hannibal to make a double Alps crossing then drop down southeastward into the Durance River watershed,” Hunt continues, “They then have Hannibal marching up the Durance but turning away from the perfectly accessible broad northeast Mont-Genevre route (which they claim could be blocked by hostile Celts, but isn’t very likely) detouring into the narrow Guil far southward into the Queyras region and over the extremely difficult Traversette, which takes them southward away from Torino and the Taurini tribe, the point where Hannibal eventually emerged according to Polybius.”
This rather fanciful scene thought to depict Hannibal battling the Romans at Cannae adorns the shield of Henry II of France. Today it can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Gallery 374. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“They claim the Po River only starts near Traversette,” Hunt says, “but that’s a geographic fallacy as there is no one source for a major river and the Dora Riparia is a primary Po watershed as well and runs directly eastward into the Po west of Torino. They also say only the insanely narrow Traversette has the view for Hannibal’s speech but clearly must have only tried the modern Clapier footpath and not the adjacent Savine Coche broad ridge immediately west where the ancient path ran, which has a great view of Torino and the Po plain.”
“If you assess the northern route toward the Clapier-Savine Cloche, you will find a satisfying first ambush place in the Isere near Voreppe, (clearly Allobroges territory),” Hunt points out.
The likelihood that a major confrontation could have taken place there was also suggested by the recent discovery of what appears to be the remains of a large Celtic oppidum (hill fort) near there.
Significant differences in the geophysical features between the two proposed passes is discussed in an article that appeared in this 2010 post in Earth Magazine:
In this article Hunt also describes a two-tier rockfall at the Clapier-Savine Coche pass a short distance from the summit.
“Polybius actually describes more of a multi-tier precipice,” Hunt says, “and the Clapier-Savine Coche descent has multi-tiered rockfalls that geological weathering dates to more than a few thousands years ago.”
Hannibal crossing the Alps from The illustrated history of the world for the English people, 1881.
But perhaps the best analysis of all candidate passes was prepared by John Hoyte, a British engineer whose team actually took an elephant over the Alps in an effort to settle the question in July 1959. Hoyte first distilled a list of conditions defined by Polybius in his Histories.
(a) be large enough to camp 30,000 men and about 5,000 horses (on its French side)
(b) command a panoramic view of the Po valley
(c) have a difficult descent
(d) be high enough to have large areas of snow, from two consecutive winters on its flanks
(e) have a place for pasturing the horses immediately after the difficult stretch of the descent
(f) give a distance of three days’ march, from here to the plains.
(g) lead straight down to the land of the Turini.
(h) be a day’s march from a probable site for the ‘bare-rock’ ambush (or a day and a night for the baggage and elephants).
(i) be positioned so that the most direct route to it from the Rhône passes by the ‘Island’ (where the river ‘Skaras’ meets the Rhône) seven days’ march from the sea (three days from the sea to the crossing of the Rhône and four from the crossing to the Island).
He then scored each pass on a scale of 0-5 for each of these parameters with 5 awarded for a complete fit and less for more doubtful cases.
Hoyte’s group launched their attempt from Montmelian, France and followed the valley of the Arc River with the goal of crossing the Col de Clapier, since that pass scored the highest in Hoyte’s comparison study of Polybian parameters. However, the pass had become narrowed and dangerous due to rockfall so the group retracted down into the valley and crossed the Col du Mon Cenis, a route proposed by Napoleon. After 10 days of travel, the expedition successfully reached Susa in Italy.
Details of the expedition and a wonderful series of photographs can be viewed on Hoyte’s website.
Hoyte also published an account of the expedition in his book, Trunk Road for Hannibal – with an elephant over the Alps, in 1960. It was republished in 1964 under the title Alpine Elephant – In Hannibal’s Tracks.
But in the latest research, Mahaney tackles the question from a different perspective. The new findings most recently reported are based primarily on the discovery of a layer of soil disturbance and the findings of “a mass animal deposition event” – bacterial remains indicating the presence of a large number of equines in the vicinity. Although the articles currently circulated by the media claim the Carbon 14 dates obtained for the material in the disturbed layer point to 218 BCE, Carbon 14 dating methods are not that precise and are often within a range of 60 – 80 years give or take (standard deviation). Contamination is always a concern and testing waste from ruminants can also be problematic as vegetation can have varying amounts of carbon that could impact test results. All of these issues can make reliance strictly on Carbon 14 dating methods tricky.
“The new hypothesis places the boggy dung mass on the eastern side at 2580 meters,” Hunt points out, “Given the warmer climate around Traversette, since it’s further south, vegetation is more lush there, so Alpine tribes have grazed animals there for thousands of years.”
In fact, Hannibal’s expedition through the Alps, although truly legendary in its scope and military context, was not the first mass migration across the mountain range that could have left sizable animal waste deposits.
When Hannibal harangues his troops about their fear of crossing the Alps, Livy says Hannibal himself describes earlier mass migrations.
“What on earth do you think the Alps are except a collection of high mountains? Perhaps you think they are even higher than the Pyrenees? So what? Nothing on earth can ever reach the sky; no mountain is too high for man to conquer. People actually live in the Alps, for goodness’ sake! They till the ground; animals breed and grow fat there. If a small group of natives can cross them, so can an army. Look at these delegates from the Boii – they didn’t grow wings and fly here over the top. Even their ancestors were not born here; they came here as immigrant peasants from Italy; they crossed these selfsame Alps in huge migrating hordes, with all their women and children – and lived to tell the tale.” – Livy, Book 21, Chapter 30.6 – 30.8.
A reconstructed late La Tène Period (3rd-1st century BCE) Celtic settlement in Havranok,Slovakia.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, activities preceding the Gallic War of 225 BCE culminating in the Battle of Telamon had involved large scale movements of Gauls across the Alps.
“After their defeats by Rome in the 280s, the Gauls were quiescent for forty-five years; but eventually a younger generation took their place, ‘full of unreflecting passion and without experience of suffering or peril’ (Polybius’ Histories 2.21.1-2). They began to disturb the existing equilibrium with Rome, and invited Gauls from across the Alps to participate in a new war…The leaders of the Po Valley peoples held out to the leaders of the Gauls beyond the Alps the promise of the rich loot that awaited them in Italy, along with assurances that Gallic military power could easily overcome the Romans; after all, this had happened before, when Rome itself had been taken and held for seven months by Gallic warriors (Polyb. 2.22.4-5).” – Arthur M. Eckstein, Polybius, the Gallic Crisis, and the Ebro Treaty.
Hannibal’s crossing was also followed by more than twelve years of war-related traffic, again mentioned in Livy:
“He [Hannibal] had believed, indeed, that his brother [Hasdrubal] would come over into Italy that summer; but when he recalled what he had himself endured during five months, in crossing first the Rhone, and then the Alps, in conflicts with men and the nature of the country, he looked forward to a crossing by no means so easy and so soon accomplished. This accounted for his slowness in leaving winter quarters. But for Hasdrubal everything moved more quickly and more easily than had been expected by himself and others. For not only did the Arverni, and then in turn other Gallic and Alpine tribes, receive him, but they even followed him to war. And not merely was he leading an army through country for the most part made passable by his brother’s crossing, although previously trackless, but, thanks to the opening up of the Alps by twelve years of habitual use, they were also crossing through tribes now less savagely disposed. For previously, being never seen by strange peoples and unaccustomed themselves to see a stranger in their own land, they were unfriendly to the human race in general. And at first, not knowing whither the Carthaginian was bound, they had believed that their own rocks and fastnesses and booty in cattle and men were the objects of attack. Then reports of the Punic war, with which Italy had been aflame for eleven years, had made it quite plain to them that the Alps were merely a route; that two very powerful cities, separated from each other by a wide expanse of sea and land, were contending for empire and supremacy.” – Livy, The History of Rome, Book 27.39.
Replica of a Celtic warrior’s garb
In the museum Kelten-Keller, Rodheim-Bieber, Germany
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
These activities all occurred within the time encompassed by the Carbon 14 dating period of the Col de Traversette equine waste remains.
In fact, Hasdrubal’s crossing of the Alps in 207 BCE, significantly complicates the search for Hannibal’s crossing. Although Livy makes it sound like Hasdrubal followed in the path of Hannibal, Polybius uses the word “shorter” in his fragmentary reference to Hasdrubal’s easier crossing in Polybius’ Histories. Much of the easier aspect can be attributed to Hasdrubal’s much more friendly reception by native tribesmen who have, by then, decided to join the Carthaginian’s war efforts. But to have a reportedly shorter journey suggests a deviation from Hannibal’s original route at some point. Furthermore, Hasdrubal brought war elephants with him as well, so even finding pachyderm waste or remains may not definitely prove a route was Hannibal’s and not Hasdrubal’s.
Apparently,The London Times has expressed their skepticism about the latest claims, too, as have noted historian Tom Holland and others.
“We are unlikely to know definitively but the literature of ancient military campaigns has an allure regardless of strict accuracy. Caesar’s Gallic War recounts a fantastical tale of how German tribesmen caught elks through a cunning plan reminiscent of Piglet’s heffalump trap. Polybius and Livy tell of how Hannibal’s elephants crossed the Rhone by walking along the riverbed and using their trunks as snorkels; evidently no one told these historians that elephants can swim. There is a pleasing symmetry that the latest scholarship of the ancient world is literally rather than metaphorically a pile of manure.” – Elephantine Enigma: Scientists believe they have identified Hannibal’s route over the Alps, Editorial, The Times (London), April 5, 2016
Tom Holland was a little more succinct, “The evidence is s***,” he said.
“The amount of evidence needed is substantial indeed across multiple parameters; this new claim just does not have the kind of support required despite sounding so scientific,” Hunt observes.
The bottom line as I see it is that, despite our wishful thinking, none of the current findings are truly definitive without the discovery of supporting archaeological remains.
Perhaps we should take the advice of Polybius, who once cautioned his readers about fully embracing statements by another Roman historian, Q. Fabius Pictor, “My own opinion is that one must not treat his authority as being of little weight, but at the same time one should not regard it as final.”
I must admit I was intrigued with the possibility of finding ancient equine DNA from a breed originating in North Africa, though. Hannibal’s elite Numidian cavalry probably would have brought their own mounts with them so that does pose an opportunity for further study. However, finding the whereabouts of ancient equine DNA from North Africa for comparison, possibly locked away in some museum or research institution’s dusty basement, may prove as challenging as trying to find a crated Ark of the Covenant in a government warehouse!
Ball, P. (2016, April 3). The truth about Hannibal’s route across the Alps. The Guardian. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/apr/03/where-muck-hannibals-elephants-alps-italy-bill-mahaney-york-university-toronto
Hoyte, J. (1960). Trunk road for Hannibal; with an elephant over the Alps. London: G. Bles.
Livy, The History of Rome
Eckstein, A. M.. (2012). Polybius, the Gallic Crisis, and the Ebro Treaty. Classical Philology, 107(3), 206–229. http://doi.org/10.1086/665622
Elephantine Enigma: Scientists believe they have identified Hannibal’s route over the Alps. (2016, April 05). The Times (London). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from http://www.thetimes.co.uk/