Identifying where Hannibal crossed the Alps

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Identifying where Hannibal crossed the Alps

PostPosted by verdilak » Fri Apr 16, 2010 7:27 pm

Times Online has a fascinating article about how archaeologists are looking for evidence of where Hannibal crossed the alps. This is the sort of thing that I would to be doing with my life. wrote:“A hundred elephants Hannibal had when Hannibal crossed the Alps” is a piece of childish doggerel that sticks in the mind, along with “Hannibal crossed the alps, with his horsemen and his spearmen and his elephants”. What Hannibal, the Carthaginian leader, did in 218BC is well known: “I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome,” he had vowed at the start of the campaign. With Rome poised to attack Carthage across the strait from Sicily, he decided the best way to tackle the Romans was head on.

His army of more than 30,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 37 battle elephants from Morocco marched through the autumn from Spain, which he had taken. When they reached the Alps some of Hannibal’s soldiers died of exposure in the bitter cold, while others fell to their death; only about half of them reached northern Italy.

Argument still rages over where the Alpine crossing took place. While there is general agreement that Hannibal moved up the Rhône from Avignon almost to Valence, from there onwards every valley and pass has had a case made for it being the route across the mountains into the plain of the Po near Turin. In 1959 an elephant called Jumbo was taken over the Col du Clapier by the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition to prove the route’s feasibility. This adventure was immortalised in John Hoyte’s book, Trunk Road for Hannibal. In 1988 the cricketer Ian Botham did the same thing, but with three elephants, in aid of leukaemia charities.

From the Col du Mont Cenis in the north to the Col Agnel 35 miles (60km) almost due south of it three approach routes have been argued for. In the most recent study, Dr William Mahaney, a geomorphologist, and his colleagues have looked at the evidence from Classical sources.

“As documented by Polybius and Livy in the ancient literature, Hannibal’s army was blocked by a two-tier rockfall on the lee side of the Alps, a rubble sheet of considerable volume,” they note in the journal Archaeometry. “The only such two-tier landform lies below the Col de la Traversette, 2,600 metres above sea level, a rubble sheet with sufficient volume to block the Carthaginian army.

“The character of the rockfall can best be seen from the sides or below, where a thin cover mass lies atop a much larger and more substantial rubble mass,” they say. “The trail cuts across a steep bedrock slope laced with a two-tier combination of rockfall and slide, just as Polybius described more than 2,150 years ago.” The trail has been shored up with ballast one to two metres thick, and Dr Mahaney’s team believes that artefact evidence may survive: “The three-day struggle to forge a path through the rockfall must surely have resulted in the abandonment or loss of implements used by Hannibal’s troops to prepare a path with sufficient ballast to support the passage of the baggage train, horses and elephants.”

Hannibal is said by Livy to have ordered timber to be cut and laced around the blocking rocks and then set alight. When a high temperature was reached, sour wine was thrown on to the hot rocks, splitting and spalling many of the large stones and allowing Hannibal’s engineers to remove them.

Dr Mahaney’s studies, in a book, Hannibal’s Odyssey, suggest that the tree line would have been higher in ancient times, so that timber would have been available; the area today is treeless. So far, however, there is no evidence of fire-shattered rock on the Col de la Traversette, although otherwise it fits the ancient descriptions. The site is the only area where rockfall and rockslides blocked part of an existing road, and where they can be plausibly dated to the right period. In most respects, “this location meets the criteria outlined by Livy and Polybius,” the team concludes.

Archaeometry 52: 156-172.
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