The Alps are a large system of mountains in south-central Europe. About 500 miles long and 100 miles wide, the Alps begin near the Mediterranean coast of present-day France and Italy and curve in a great arc to the Balkan Peninsula. The name comes from alpes, the Latin word for the mountains.
Throughout much of the ancient period, the Alps were a formidable barrier between the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome and the cultures that developed on the northern side of the mountain chain. The Romans referred to one section of the western Alps as the “Walls of Rome” because the mountains rise abruptly from the plains of Italy, forming a protective shield.
Although most of the Alpine region was a part of the Roman empire, few Romans lived there. For the Romans, the mountainous region’s many passes and valleys served primarily as trade and invasion routes to western and northern Europe. Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, also followed Alpine routes when he led his troops with horses and elephants across the mountains in a bold attack on Italy in 218 B.C. In the later years of the Roman Empire, barbarian forces from the north and east also used Alpine routes to invade Italy.