Ancient History & Civilisation


In the Footsteps of Heracles


The enormity of the task ahead must have struck Hannibal the moment the Hiberus had been crossed. He may have received welcome messages of support from Celtic chiefs in the Alpine regions and the Po valley, to whom he had sent emissaries laden with presents, but the Spanish tribes who lived in north-eastern Spain were certainly not so well disposed towards his presence.1 His armies met particularly fierce resistance in the foothills of the Pyrenees, resulting in heavy losses. So hostile was the reaction of the local peoples that Hannibal was forced to leave a force of 10,000 foot soldiers and 1,000 cavalry there in order to hold the mountain passes and protect his rearguard. His army was further diminished when 3,000 infantry from the Carpetani, a tribe that had been recently subdued, deserted. Realizing that they would be even more of a liability if they remained in his force, Hannibal sent away another 7,000 men whose loyalty was unsure.2

On crossing the Pyrenees, the situation did not improve, for the Gallic tribes who lived in south-western France, fearful of subjugation, mustered their fighting men in order to repel the Carthaginian army.3 It is hardly surprising that some of the peoples who inhabited the region saw the Carthaginians as being far more of an immediate threat than the Romans. Full-scale conflict was averted only by the distribution of gifts.4

Following the line of the Mediterranean coast, Hannibal and his army passed through Gaul,5 and by the close of August 218 they had arrived at the next great natural barrier between them and Italy: the Rhône.6 This would be Hannibal’s greatest challenge yet. The Rhône was a vast expanse of water, and on the other side waited an army of hostile Volcae tribesmen. To counter this, Hannibal sent his nephew Hanno with a detachment of his Spanish troops to cross the river 40 kilometres upstream, with the intention of attacking the Gauls from the rear. When they were in position, they would let Hannibal and the main army know by smoke signal.

The next day, as the main army started to cross the river on a flotilla of small craft and rafts, some of the horses swam across (led by long reins), while others travelled on the boats, saddled and ready to spring into action once they reached the other side. On being attacked by Hanno and his troops, however, the Volcae panicked and fled. The elephants within Hannibal’s entourage nevertheless presented another problem. Most ancient writers were of the opinion that elephants were frightened of water and could not swim, and Polybius even repeated a story that some of Hannibal’s elephants, panicked by the water, plunged into the river, and crossed to the other side by walking underwater on the riverbed and using their trunks as snorkels. To get their elephants across to the other bank, the Carthaginians came up with an ingenious solution. Huge rafts were constructed covered with a thick layer of earth so that the elephants would be tricked into thinking that they were still on terra firma. To encourage the bulls, two females were led on to the rafts first. Thus the whole squadron crossed safely.7

The crossing of the Rhône would very much set the tone for the other events which provided the narrative links in the chain of the long march to Italy. Each story had as a common theme both the conquest of seemingly insurmountable natural obstacles and the taming of wild beasts and barbarous peoples. Thus Hannibal’s journey to Italy came increasingly to resemble a series of Heraclean labours. Indeed, the strong association between the expedition and the Heraclean odyssey may have injected some awkwardness into overtures towards indigenous peoples, for, while the Carthaginian general eagerly sought out their friendship in order to gain access to manpower and supplies, Hannibalic ideology placed a heavy emphasis on the pacification of the land not only as a physical barrier but also in regard to the people who lived there. Hannibal’s elephants played a starring role in these adventures, and on the battlefield they would stand for the seemingly unstoppable might of the Carthaginian forces. However, the stories connected with the crossing of the Rhône and, later, of the Alps also played on the essential vulnerability of these giant beasts in unfamiliar territory. Through being able to control these formidable and mercurial creatures in even the most difficult of circumstances, Hannibal would prove himself equal even to the great Heracles, who had led Geryon’s cattle over the same route.

Before embarking on his account of Hannibal’s epic journey over the Alps, Polybius provided his readership with an impromptu geography lesson. In typically censorious style, the Greek historian voiced his disapproval of those fellow writers who bamboozled their audience with a daunting list of strange names. Whether they liked it or not, those who read the histories of Polybius would know exactly where Hannibal and his armies had been.8 In addition, Polybius particularly emphasized the precedents for Hannibal’s supposedly unique feat: ‘Similarly in what they [other historians] say about the loneliness, and the extreme difficulty and steepness of the road, the falsehood is manifest. For they never took the trouble to learn that the Celts who lived near the Rhône not on one or on two occasions only before Hannibal’s arrival but often, and not at any remote date but quite recently, had crossed the Alps with large armies.’9 According to Polybius, crossing the mighty Alps was an almost mundane exercise, easily within the capabilities of a large Celtic rabble. The feat for which Hannibal was most celebrated thus became a mere cipher for barbarity. Hannibal, rather than being a new Heracles taming the wild Alps, was just one in a long line of barbarian invaders hoping to break into Roman territory.

Polybius had felt able to pass such a damning judgement on Hannibal’s achievement because he had, according to his own account, actually visited the Alps and painstakingly gathered evidence by talking to the locals, even walking some of the route that Hannibal had taken. The truth, however, was that Polybius’ account of his Alpine research trip was really an indication of the gaping distance between himself and his subject. The area known as Cisalpine Gaul and Liguria had been radically transformed by the time that Polybius visited it. The ‘locals’ whom Polybius grilled were not the Celts who had peopled that region during the time of Hannibal’s crossing, but Roman settlers sent there long after the Second Punic War, when the region had at last been militarily subdued by Rome and many of its previous Celtic inhabitants deported. For the Greek historian wandering around the new farmsteads and settlements of the Roman colonists, the idea that this place had just a few short years ago been a dangerous and hostile environment could be dismissed as alarmist nostalgia. In 218 BC, however, the situation had been very different.

The Celtic people who lived in the Alpine regions had long been a thorn in the side of Rome. Commonly known as ‘Gauls’ in both Latin and Greek texts, they had in 387 BC swept down into central Italy and inflicted the terrible humiliation of occupying Rome. The Po valley, where these tribes lived, was worth fighting for. By the mid third century BC it was the largest parcel of fertile land on the Italian peninsula outside Roman control. If it were captured, new homes and cheap food could be provided for Rome’s dispossessed and discontented poor.10 There were also other, more defensive, strategic considerations that informed Rome’s northern-Italian policy. Ancient commentators appear to have been united in their analysis that while Rome did not control this area ‘not only would they [the Romans] never be the masters of Italy but they would not even be safe in Rome itself’.11 In 225 BC a large force of 50,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry mainly made up of two Gallic tribes, the Boii and the Insubres, had again marched down the Po valley and had advanced on Etruria. It was only after an emphatic Roman victory over this force in battle that the Roman Senate decided on a systematic plan for conquering the region. Two new Roman colonies were established on Gallic territory, at Cremona and Placentia, and by 220/219 the Via Flaminia, which connected the region to Rome, was also completed.12 Now the approach of Hannibal put these hard-fought gains in jeopardy, with the Boii and the Insubres once more in open revolt (no doubt encouraged by the ambassadors whom Hannibal had instructed to foment unrest). The Roman armies sent to subdue the revolt suffered humiliating defeats and were driven from the region, and an attempt to recover the strategically crucial Po valley was also a catastrophic failure, with the Roman forces annihilated.13

Although the Celts were generally denigrated by Roman and Greek authors for their lack of endurance, tendency to panic and lack of military discipline (as well as their drunkenness), it was also recognized that they could be a very effective fighting force.14 The intimidating mixture of their wild appearance, blood-curdling war cries and ferocious charges made them a tough proposition, even for a disciplined and experienced Roman army.15 Their menace to Rome had, however, previously been diluted by their inability to maintain alliances with one another,16 and in later Greek and Roman historians the perfidy of the Celts became proverbial. According to one damning assessment, they were ‘naturally more or less fickle, cowardly or faithless . . . And the fact that they were no more faithful to the Carthaginians will teach the rest of mankind a lesson never to dare invade Italy.’17 The potential danger for the Romans was that Hannibal might manage successfully to unite the Celtic tribes under his charismatic command. While Hannibal himself never really trusted the Celts (it was said that he possessed several wigs and other disguises to guard against treachery), many of the alliances he made with them gave him invaluable access to much-needed reinforcements and front-line shock troops.18



At the same time as Hannibal was approaching the Alps, the Roman consul Publius Cornelius Scipio had landed his army near the port of Massilia, with the intention of attacking Barcid Spain. Scipio might have arrived there much more quickly if he had not been delayed by the rebellion of the Boii and the Insubres, in response to which the Romans were forced to use one of the legions given to him for his new Spanish campaign. Scipio had therefore been obliged to recruit another new legion, and had arrived in southern Gaul three months behind schedule.19 On landing, he quickly sent out 300 horsemen to ascertain the whereabouts of Hannibal and his forces. These Roman scouts soon ran into a group of Numidian cavalry who were fulfilling the equivalent role for Hannibal, and, after a skirmish in which the Numidians suffered fairly heavy losses, the Roman cavalry returned to their camp to pass on the location of the Carthaginian army. Scipio quickly set off in hot pursuit.20

Hannibal initially vacillated between engaging with Scipio’s legions and continuing on to Italy, but his mind was finally made up by the arrival in the Carthaginian camp of emissaries from the Boii, who both offered to act as guides across the rugged terrain ahead and promised an alliance. When Scipio arrived at the site of Hannibal’s camp, he found that the Carthaginians had long gone. Instead of rushing after Hannibal in pursuit of glory, however, he returned to northern Italy in order to defend the Po valley. At the same time, he decided to raise fresh troops for this mission and left the greater part of his original force under the command of his brother Gnaeus, with orders to proceed with the original mission of invading the Iberian peninsula. This decision proved crucial, for it effectively ended any chance of Hannibal receiving reinforcements from Spain.21

Hannibal approached the Alpine region at some speed, hoping to put as much distance as possible between Scipio and himself. For both topographical and propagandistic reasons, he must surely have desired to continue on the Heraclean way via the river Durance and Mont Genèvre, but Scipio’s retreated army now blocked that route. Hannibal’s subsequent route is unclear, but it is most likely that he travelled north following the river Rhône. There in the territory of the Allobroges he made valuable allies by adjudicating in a dispute between two royal brothers over who should rule. Aided by guides given by the grateful new ruler, and provided further with supplies, warm clothes and food, he and his troops then set off across the Alps.

By now it was October and winter was fast closing in, and as the Carthaginian army prepared its ascent through the valley of the Arc, probably after marching through the Isère valley, it lost its friendly guides, who returned home.22 Despite Polybius’ claims to the contrary, the Alps presented possibly the most formidable barrier on the European continent. One later Roman historian described how in the spring season men, animals and wagons slipped and slithered on the melted ice towards precipitous ravines and treacherous chasms. In the winter, conditions were even worse. Even on the level ground, lines of posts were driven through the snow so that travellers knew where it was safe to tread to escape being swallowed up by the treacherous voids which lurked just under the surface of the snowfall.23 Ominously, other Allobrogian chiefs, sensing easy pickings to help them through the harsh winter ahead, had started to muster their tribesmen on the high ground, ready for an attack on the vulnerable Carthaginian column below.

Now Hannibal showed that he was as skilled in mind games as in armed combat. Finding out from his scouts where the Alpine tribesmen were planning an ambush, he and a group of select men occupied a nearby site while the complacent Allobroges slept in their village. When the tribesmen started to attack his army, Hannibal and his troops rushed down and drove them off, killing many of them. He then stormed the Gallic settlement, and not only freed a number of his men and animals who had been captured the previous day, but also seized the contents of the tribesmen’s corn store. A few days later, Gallic chieftains came forward and offered friendship, hostages and guides. Hannibal, suspicious of their motives, accepted their overtures while at the same time preparing for treachery. Two days later, as the Carthaginians travelled through a narrow pass they were ambushed by a strong force of Gauls. Fortunately Hannibal had prepared for this eventuality by moving his vulnerable baggage train and cavalry to the front of the column, and positioning heavy infantry at the rear where the tribesmen attacked. The tribesmen were eventually repulsed, but nevertheless they continued in small groups to make isolated attacks on the column, rolling boulders down the steep slopes on to the men and animals below.24

Finally, nine days into their march, the Carthaginians reached the top of the pass. After waiting two days for stragglers to catch up, Hannibal rallied his exhausted and dispirited troops by showing them the panorama of Italy below and, according to Livy, delivering a spirited exhortation.25 Such encouragement was sorely needed. It was now late October, and the winter snows had begun to fall. What was more, the descent into Italy was even steeper than the past ascent. The track was precipitous, narrow and slippery, and it was almost impossible for men or beasts to keep on their feet.

Eventually the army reached what at first looked like the premature end of their odyssey. In front of them was a steep precipice, which a recent landslide had turned into a vertical drop of some 300 metres. Livy dramatically describes the attempt to bypass it:

The result was a horrible struggle, the ice affording no foothold in any case, and least of all on a steep slope. When a man tried by hands or knees to get on his feet again, even those useless supports slipped from under him and let him down; there were no stumps or roots anywhere to afford a purchase to either hand or foot; in short there was nothing for it but to roll and slither on the smooth ice and melting snow. Sometimes the mules’ weight would drive their hooves through into the lower layer of old snow; they would fall and, once down, lashing savagely out in their struggles to rise, they would break right through it, so that as often as not they were held as in a vice by a thick layer of hard ice.26

The situation was now critical, and Hannibal ordered that snow be cleared high up on the ridge so that camp could be pitched. It had been decided that the only way of proceeding down the sheer slope would be by cutting a stepped route through the rock. The means by which this was achieved became one of the most famous tales in the Hannibalic canon:

It was necessary to cut through the rock, a problem that they solved by the ingenious application of heat and moisture; large trees were cut down and logged, and a huge pile of timber was built up; this, with the opportune aid of a strong wind, was set on fire, and when the rock was sufficiently heated the men’s rations of sour wine were flung upon it in order to render it friable. They then proceeded to work with picks on the heated rock and opened a sort of zigzag track, to minimize the steep gradient of the descent; they were, therefore, able to get the pack animals and even the elephants down it.27

Many aspects of this story of course appear fanciful, and it may reasonably be doubted whether the Carthaginians were able to acquire such quantities of wood, let alone to heat rock to a sufficient temperature. Nevertheless, the dissemination of such tales from the Carthaginian camp served a vital agenda. Quite simply, the heroic creation of a new Hannibalic way through impermeable Alpine rock was a brilliant piece of propaganda. Through the production of such heroic tales, Hannibal ensured that his name would be indelibly linked with the great mountain chain that he had successfully crossed. Despite Polybius’ denigration of this stupendous achievement, it would not be until the reign of the emperor Augustus (31 BC–AD 14) that a Roman would traverse the Alps.28 Indeed, Hannibal’s Alpine adventures would remain a source of wonder for both Greek and Roman writers, producing a vast number of different theories on the actual route that the Carthaginian troops took through the mountains.29 Even 600 years later the section of the mountains through which Hannibal passed was still called ‘the Punic Alps’.30

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!