Hannibal Crosses The Alps

“I will either find a way, or make one.” 

Hannibal Crosses The Alps The invasion of Italy had already been planned by Hasdrubal the Fair by the time Hannibal Barca assumed control of the Carthaginian forces in Iberia. Rome was aware of an alliance between Carthage and the Gauls of the Po Valley in northern Italy, and assumed their mobilisation and raiding in 225 BC was done with Carthaginian backing. The Gauls had been decisively beaten at the Battle of Telamon, and with the annexation of Cisalpine Gaul and the death of Hasdrubal, Rome relaxed and looked east to Illyria, rather than west to Iberia. 

Hannibal left New Carthage in late Spring of 218 BC, battling his way through the northern Celtiberian tribes of what was ostensibly the area of Roman control.

Clever mountain tactics and stubborn fighting saw his force reach the foot of the Pyrenees, and he left some 20,000 soldiers to garrison this newly conquered region. He then discharged some 11,000 troops who were loath to leave their homeland, crossing the Pyrenees with 40,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and 38 ear elephants. His force still had to cross numerous rivers and the great Italian barrier of the Alps, in addition to passing through the territory of hostile Gauls. Hannibal conciliated with the Gallic tribes on the Rhone in September, his campaigning having cost him a couple of thousand of infantry and cavalry. 

War elephants depicted in Hannibal’s army crossing the Rhône, by Henri Motte, 1878

Rome was ready to rise to the challenge of renewed war with Carthage when word was received back from Fabius. The Consuls for 218 BC, Tiberius Sempronius Longus and Publius Cornelius Scipio (Scipio the Elder), each raised a consular army. Sempronius was to head to Africa with 160 quinqueremes to gather the forces and supplies to attack Carthage directly, while Scipio was to march to Iberia to intercept Hannibal.

Sempronius got off to a good start when, launching from Lilybaeum, he captured the island of Malta from the Carthaginians. This was a war Rome was confident of – the renegade general would be choked up in Hispania, while legions marching to the walls of Carthage itself would bring the Punic city and its peace-loving citizens to heel. Unfortunately for Rome, Hannibal had no intention of sticking to its script.

Darkness over Cannae

When Scipio reached Massilia he was shocked to learn that Hannibal’s army was not in Iberia, but was mere miles from his own legions. There was a skirmish between the two side’s cavalry, though Hannibal manoeuvred inland away from Scipio and did not accept battle, turning up the Rhone Valley. Late in the year, Scipio was confident that he had until the following Spring before Hannibal could reach Italia, and thus sent his legions to continue on their way to Hispania while he himself returned back to northern Italy to take command of the legions garrisoning Cisalpine Gaul. 

Hannibal had no intention of waiting for warmer climes, and in mid-October 218 BC, began his epic march across the Alps.

Possible routes Hannibal took through the Alps, with Polybius’ account shown in green.

Hannibal’s route across the Alps is still uncertain to this day, and even Polybius, writing less than a century after the event, said it was unknown then.

The Gauls living in the Alpine passes had no desire to let Hannibal and his army merely march peacefully through their lands. Despite the proximity of the Alpine passes to Rome, and their importance, these regions were never fully conquered until the time of Augustus – long after regions such as Africa and the Levant had become Roman. Hannibal faced numerous attacks, including a rockfall to trap his men on the narrow pass. When he was told there was no way through, he replied “I will either find a way, or make one.” He thus had an amphorae of wine burnt beneath the large rock, creating an inferno that burnt until the rock cracked in half and the army could pass.

Hannibal arrived in northern Italy with a devastated army. He had crossed the Alps, but it had cost him half his men, and almost all of his elephants.

He now had a force of 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, though these were not fresh men. They were exhausted, drained and half-starved men – a shadow of an army.

Despite this, Hannibal was not forlorn.

His entire campaign did not rely on support from Hispania or Carthage – he planned a self-sustaining campaign, attracting the Gauls to his cause and ultimately dismantling Rome’s system of alliances with the other Italian powers. Knowing he could not rely on support across the Mediterranean, but aware of his father’s success against the Romans in Sicily, Hannibal planned to open a front in northern Italy and then gradually use that as a launchpad to dismantle Rome.

The Carthaginian force seized the city of Taurini (near Turin), which would provide for them a base in Cisalpine Gaul.

Finally, the men could eat and rest, though they would not have much time to recuperate. Gauls were defecting to Hannibal’s cause, though they were in trickles, not a flood. Shocked by their arrival, Scipio nonetheless felt well prepared – he had eight legions in Cisalpine Gaul, fresh recruits but eager and prepared men. Looking at a Carthaginian army of exhausted men with half his number, he was confident of a swift Roman victory to crush the young Punic upstart. The two sides prepared their forces – the son of the lion was about to face his first test against the might of Rome.

Hannibal Crosses The Alps Written by Jack Tappin

Hannibal Crosses The Alps