Hannibal in the Alps

The Carthaginian general Hannibal (247-182 BCE) was one of the greatest military leaders in history. His most famous campaign took place during the Second Punic War (218-202), when he caught the Romans off guard by crossing the Alps.

Col de Montgenèvre
Col de Montgenèvre

Below, the two main texts about Hannibal's crossing of the Alps are placed next to each other. There are so many similarities that we can be sure that both authors shared the same source. On the other hand, there are striking differences: e.g., Polybius of Megalopolis states that on the eleventh day, Hannibal's soldiers could see Italy from the top of the pass, and started at their descent after a dramatic speech by their commander, while Titus Livy writes that they saw Italy (and listened to the speech) on the twelfth day, while they were already descending.

The Allobroges mentioned in these texts are a Celtic tribe; they are also called Gauls. The Allobroges lived east of the river Rhône, but it is unclear where. In the late second century BCE, they lived in the neigborhood of Vienne, but tribes like these could move, and it is possible that they lived a little more to the south in the third century. Although it is not entirely clear what pass Hannibal used to cross the Alps (but go here for some speculation), it is reasonable to assume that the river Druentia mentioned by Livy has to be identified with the modern Drôme (not the Durance).

Polybius 3.50-55note   Livy 21.32.6-37.6note
  D1 [32] From the Druentia Hannibal advanced towards the Alps mainly through open country, and reached the foothills without encountering any opposition from the local tribes. The nature of the mountains was not, of course, unknown to his men by rumor and report - and rumor commonly exaggerates the truth; yet in this case all tales were eclipsed by the reality. The dreadful vision was now before their eyes: the towering peaks, the snow clad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the rude huts clinging to the rocks, beasts and cattle shriveled and parched with cold, the people with their wild and ragged hair, all nature, animate and inanimate, stiff with frost: all this, and other sights the horror of which words cannot express, gave a fresh edge to their apprehension.
[50] Hannibal began his ascent (anabole) of the Alps and soon found himself beset with great dangers. So long as the Carthaginians had remained in the plains the various chieftains of the Allobroges had left them alone because of their fear both of the Carthaginian cavalry and also of the barbarian troops who were escorting them. But as soon as the latter had set off for home and Hannibal's troops began to advance into difficult country, the Allobrogian chiefs gathered a large force and took up commanding positions alongside the road by which the Carthaginians would have to climb.   As the column moved forward up the first slopes, there appeared, right above their heads, ensconced upon their eminences, the local tribesmen, wild men of the mountains, who,
If they had only kept their plans secret, they would have completely destroyed the Carthaginian army. But in the event their scheme became known, and though the Celts inflicted heavy casualties on Hannibal's troops, they suffered at least as many themselves.   if they had chosen to lurk in clefts of the hills, might well have sprung out from ambush upon the marching column and inflicted untold losses and disaster.
Hannibal received intelligence that the barbarians had seized these points of vantage and he pitched camp at the foot of the pass; there he halted while he sent forward some of his Gallic guides to reconnoitre the ground and report on the enemy's dispositions and the general situation.   Hannibal soon ordered a halt and sent his Gallic guides forward to reconnoitre.
His orders were carried out, and he then discovered that it was the enemy's habit to remain under arms in their positions and guard them carefully during the daytime, but to withdraw at night to a neighboring town. N Informed that he could not get through there, he encamped in the best stretch of fairly level ground he could find, hemmed in though it was by savagely broken rocks and precipitous cliffs. Later he learned from the same guides, whose way of life and language were much like those of the local tribesmen, and who had been able, in consequence, to listen to their deliberations, that the pass was held only in the daytime, and that at nightfall the natives dispersed to their homes.
So Hannibal revised his plans in the light of this report and devised the following stratagem. He advanced with his whole army quite openly, and when he approached the part of the road where further movement would be threatened, he pitched camp only a short distance from the enemy. D2 In view of this information, at dawn next morning he approached the eminences where the tribesmen were on watch as if with the intention of openly trying to force a passage through the defile during the hours of daylight. During the rest of the day he concealed his actual purpose; his men fortified the position where they had originally halted, and it was not till he was sure that the tribesmen had abandoned the heights and gone off guard that his real intention became evident.
As soon as it was dark, he gave orders for watch fires to be lit and left the greater part of his troops in camp. He then led forward a picked force of lightly armed men, and passing through the defile seized the positions which the enemy had just left on withdrawing into the town according to their usual habit. N Leaving the baggage in camp with all the cavalry and most of the infantry, and kindling, for a blind, more fires than the numbers actually left in camp would justify, he assembled a force of light armed infantrymen, all men picked for their courage and determination, swiftly cleared the defile, and established himself on the heights which the tribesmen had been holding.
[51] At daybreak the barbarians saw what had happened, and at first did nothing to press their attack. But later, as they watched the long train of pack animals and horsemen slowly and painfully making their way up the narrow track, they were tempted by this opportunity to harass the advance. D3 [33] At dawn next morning camp was broken up and the rest of the army moved forward. The tribesmen were beginning to muster at their usual look-out station on the heights when, to their astonishment, they saw the Carthaginian assault troops right above their heads and already in possession of it, while another army of them was passing through along the track. The two things together were such a shock to them that for the moment they were frozen into immobility; soon, however, the sight of the enemy's own difficulties restored their confidence.
When they went into action and attacked at several different points at once, the Carthaginians suffered heavy losses, especially of their horses and baggage mules, and this was not so much at the hands of the enemy as because of the nature of the ground. The road leading up to the pass was not only narrow and uneven but flanked with precipices, and so the least movement or disorder in the line caused many of the animals to be forced over the edge with their loads.   In the narrow pass the marching column was rapidly losing cohesion; there was great confusion and excitement amongst the men, and still more amongst the terrified horses, so the tribesmen, in the hope that any hostile action by themselves would be enough to complete their discomfiture, came swarming down the rocky and precipitous slopes, sure-footed as they were from long familiarity with their wild and trackless terrain. The Carthaginians thus found themselves facing two enemies - the hostile tribesmen and the terrible difficulty of their position in the narrow defile. It was a case of every man for himself, and in their struggles to get clear of danger they were fighting with each other rather than with the enemy.
It was chiefly the horses which brought about this confusion whenever they were wounded: some of them, maddened by the pain, would wheel round and collide with the baggage mules, while others, rushing on ahead, would thrust aside anything that stood in their way on the narrow path, and so throw the whole line into disarray.   It was the horses, more than anything else, which created havoc in the column: terrified by the din, echoing and re-echoing from the hollow cliffs and woods, they were soon out of control, while those which were struck or wounded lashed out in an agony of fear, causing serious losses both of men and gear of all descriptions. In the confusion many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers, were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below; but it was worst for the pack-animals - loads and all, they went tumbling over the edge almost like falling masonry.
When Hannibal saw this, he realized that even those who survived this ambush would have no chance of safety if their baggage train were destroyed, and so he took command of the body of troops which had seized the enemy's positions on the previous night, and hurried to the rescue of those at the head of the column.   All this was a shocking spectacle; nevertheless Hannibal, watching from above, stayed for the moment where he was and kept his assault troops in check, lest their joining the column should only add to the confusion. But when he saw the column break up, and realized that even to get the men through safely would not help him much if all their gear were lost, he knew it was time to act. Hurrying down from his position on the heights, he scattered the hostile tribesmen with a single charge.
He killed great numbers of the Allobroges, as he had the advantage of attacking them from higher ground, but the losses were equally heavy among his own troops, since the turmoil and the mêlée in his main column were greatly increased, and now came from both directions at once on account of the shouts and struggles of those who were fighting higher up the slope. It was only when he had killed most of the Allobroges and driven off the rest in headlong retreat towards their own territory that the horses and the survivors of the mule train could make their way slowly and with great difficulty over the dangerous stretch of the path.   His arrival did, indeed, increase the confusion amongst his own men, but only for a moment; for once the enemy had fled and the track was clear, order was restored, and it was not long before the whole army, unmolested and almost in silence, was brought safely through.
After this action Hannibal rallied as many of his troops as he could, and attacked the town from which the enemy had made their sortie. He found it almost empty, as all the inhabitants had been lured out by the prospect of easy plunder, and he at once took possession of it.   The chief fortified village of the district, together with the neighboring hamlets, was then captured,
The seizure of this place brought him several immediate as well as future advantages: he recovered a number of his baggage mules and horses, and many of the men who had been captured with them, and found a supply of cereals and of cattle to last him for two or three days.   and the cattle and grain taken from these places proved sufficient to feed the army for three days.
But an even more important gain was that his victory inspired such fear among the tribes in the vicinity that none of those who lived near the ascent were likely to dare to attack him again.   As the tribesmen had learnt their lesson,
[52] He proceeded to pitch camp there and rested for a day before resuming his march. For the following three days he led his army safely over the next stretch of their route,




and the going was now comparatively easy, the army during these three days made considerable progress.
but on the fourth he once more found himself in great danger. The tribes which lived near the pass joined forces to lay a treacherous plot against him. D7 [34] Coming to the territory of another mountain tribe, a numerous one for this sort of country, Hannibal encountered no open resistance, but fell into a cunningly laid trap.
    In fact he nearly succumbed to the very tactics in which he himself excelled.
They came out to meet him carrying branches and wreaths, which are recognized among almost all the barbarian peoples as tokens of friendship, just as Greeks use the herald's staff. Hannibal, however, was inclined to be suspicious of the good faith of these people, and took especial pains to discover what were their intentions and the meaning of this approach. The Gauls told him that they were well aware of the capture of the city and the destruction of those who had tried to attack him.   The elders of the fortified villages presented themselves in the guise of envoys, and declared that the wholesome example of others' suffering had taught them to prefer the friendship of the Carthaginians to the risk of learning at first hand of their military might.
They explained that this was why they had come to meet him, since they had no desire to do him harm, nor to suffer any themselves, and they promised to deliver up hostages from among their own people.   They were willing, in consequence, to submit to Hannibal's orders, to supply him with guides and provisions, and to offer hostages as a guarantee of their good faith.
Hannibal was reluctant to believe these assurances and hesitated for a long time; then in the end he decided that if he accepted their overtures he might make them more pacific and less inclined to attack him, but that if he refused, he would only provoke them into open hostility.   Hannibal was too cautious to take what they said at its face value, but was unwilling to reject the offer out of hand, lest a refusal should drive them into open hostility;
So he agreed to their proposals and pretended to accept their professions of friendship. The barbarians then handed over their hostages, provided him with large numbers of cattle, and indeed put themselves unreservedly into his hands, whereupon Hannibal trusted them so far as to engage them as guides for the next difficult section of his route. For two days they showed him the way,   accordingly he replied in friendly terms, accepted the hostages, and made use of the supplies the natives had offered; he then followed their guides - but with proper precautions, and by no means proceeding in loose order, as he might have done in friendly territory.
    At the head of the column were the cavalry and elephants; Hannibal himself, with the pick of the infantry, brought up the rear, keeping his eyes open and alert for every contingency.
but then the same tribe gathered their forces, and corning up behind the Carthaginians attacked them as they were passing through steep and precipitous defile.   Before long the column found itself on a narrowing track, one side of which was overhung by a precipitous wall of rock, and it was suddenly attacked.
[54] This time Hannibal's army would have been wiped out, but, for the fact that his fears had not been allayed, and that having some foreboding of what might happen, he had stationed his mule train and his cavalry at the head of the column and the heavy infantry in the rear. The infantry covered his main body and were able to check the onslaught of the barbarians, so that the disaster was less serious than it might have been, but even so, a great number of men, pack animals and horses perished in the attack.    
The enemy had gained the higher ground and could move along the slopes, and from there some of them rolled down rocks, while others struck down their opponents with stones at close quarters.   The natives, springing from their places of concealment, fiercely assaulted front and rear, leaping into the fray, hurling missiles, rolling down rocks from the heights above.
The Carthaginians were thrown into such confusion and felt so threatened by these tactics that Hannibal was compelled to spend the night with only half his force near a certain bare rock which offered some protection. Here he was separated from his cavalry. and from the mule train, and waited to cover their advance, until after a whole night's struggle they slowly and with great difficulty made their way out of the gorge. N The worst pressure was on Hannibal's rear; to meet it, his infantry faced-about - and it was clear enough that, had not the rear of the column been adequately protected, the Carthaginian losses would have been appalling. Even as it was the moment was critical, and disaster only just averted; for Hannibal hesitated to send his own division into the pass -to do so would have deprived the infantry of such support as he was himself providing for the cavalry- and his hesitation enabled the tribesmen to deliver a flank attack, cut the whole column in two, and establish themselves on the track. As a result, Hannibal, for one night, found himself cut off from his cavalry and baggage-train.
By the next morning the enemy had broken off contact, and Hannibal was able to rejoin the cavalry and baggage animals and advance towards the top of the pass. D8 [35] Next day, however, as enemy activity weakened, a junction was effected between the two halves of the column and the defile was successfully passed, though not without losses, especially amongst the pack-animals.
He was no longer threatened by any concentration of barbarians, but at a few points on the route he was harassed by scattered groups who took advantage of the ground to launch attacks on his front and rear and carry off some of the pack animals.   Thenceforward there was no concerted opposition, the natives confining themselves to mere raids, in small parties, on front or rear, as the nature of the ground dictated, or as groups of stragglers, left behind or pressing on ahead of the column as the case might be, offered a tempting prey.
His best resource in this situation were the elephants, for the enemy were terrified by their strange appearance, and never dared to approach the part of the column in which they were stationed.   The elephants proved both a blessing and a curse: for though getting them along the narrow and precipitous tracks caused serious delay, they were none the less a protection to the troops, as the natives, never having seen such creatures before, were afraid to come near them.

On the ninth day of his march Hannibal reached the top of the pass, and there he pitched camp


On the ninth day, the army reached the summit. Most of the climb had been over trackless mountain-sides; frequently a wrong route was taken - sometimes through the deliberate deception of the guides, or, again, when some likely-looking valley would be entered by guess-work, without knowledge of whither it led.

and halted for two days to rest the survivors of his army and wait for the stragglers.



There was a two days' halt on the summit, to rest the men after the exhausting climb and the fighting.
While he was there many of the horses which had taken fright and run away and a number of the mules which had thrown off their loads unexpectedly rejoined him: they had followed the trail of his march and now wandered back into the camp.   Some of the pack-animals which had fallen amongst the rocks managed, by following the army's tracks, to find their way into camp.
[54] By this date it was nearing the time of the setting of the Pleiades, and snow was already gathering around the mountain crests. Hannibal saw that his men had lost heart because of the sufferings they had already endured and the hardships which they believed still lay ahead.   The troops had indeed endured hardships enough; but there was worse to come. It was the season of the setting of the Pleiades: winter was near - and it began to snow.
  D12 Getting on the move at dawn, the army struggled slowly forward over snow-covered ground, the hopelessness of utter exhaustion in every face.
So he called his troops together and strove to raise their spirits, and for this purpose he relied above all on the actual sight of Italy, which now stretched out before them, for the country lies so close under these mountains that when the two are seen simultaneously in a panoramic view, the Alps seem to rise above the rest of the landscape, like a walled citadel above a city. Hannibal therefore directed his men's gaze towards the plains of the Po, and reminded them of the welcome they would receive from the Gauls who inhabited them. At the same time he pointed out the direction of Rome itself, and in this way he did something to restore their confidence.   Seeing their despair, Hannibal rode ahead and at a point of vantage which afforded a prospect of a vast extent of country, he gave the order to halt, pointing to Italy far below, and the Po Valley beyond the foothills of the Alps. "My men," he said, "you are at this moment passing the protective barrier of Italy - nay more, you are walking over the very walls of Rome. Henceforward all will be easy going - no more hills to climb. After a fight or two you will have the capital of Italy, the citadel of Rome, in the hollow of your hands."
The next day he broke camp and began the descent. D12  
During this part of his march he met none of the enemy except for a few prowling marauders, but because of the snow and of the dangers of his route he lost nearly as many men as he had done on the ascent.   The march continued, more or less without molestation from the natives, who confined themselves to petty raids when they saw a chance of stealing something. Unfortunately, however, as in most parts of the Alps the descent on the Italian side, being shorter, is correspondingly steeper, the going was much more difficult than it had been during the ascent.
The track which led down the mountainside was both narrow and steep, and since neither the men nor the animals could be sure of their footing on account of the snow, any who stepped wide of the path or stumbled overbalanced and fell down the precipices.   The track was almost everywhere precipitous, narrow, and slippery; it was impossible for a man to keep his feet; the least stumble meant a fall, and a fall a slide, so that there was indescribable confusion, men and beasts stumbling and slipping on top of each other.
These perils they could endure, because by this time they had become accustomed to such mischances, but at length they reached a place where the track was too narrow for the elephants or even the pack animals to pass.   [36] Soon they found themselves on the edge of a precipice - a narrow cliff falling away so sheer that even a light-armed soldier could hardly have got down it by feeling his way and clinging to such bushes and stumps as presented themselves.
A previous landslide had already carried away some three hundred meters of the face of the mountain, while a recent one had made the situation still worse. At this point the soldiers once more lost their nerve and came close to despair.   It must always have been a most awkward spot, but a recent landslide had converted it on this occasion to a perpendicular drop of nearly three hunderd meters. On the brink the cavalry drew rein - their journey seemed to be over.
    Hannibal, in the rear, did not yet know what had brought the column to a halt; but when the message was passed to him that there was no possibility of proceeding, he went in person to reconnoitre.
Hannibal's first thought was to avoid this impasse by making a detour, but a fresh fall of snow made further progress impossible and he was compelled to abandon the idea.   It was clear to him that a detour would have to be made, however long it might prove to be, over the trackless and untrodden slopes in the vicinity.
[55] These conditions were so unusual as to be almost freakish. The new snow lying on top of the old, which had remained there from the previous winter, gave way easily, both because it was soft, having only just fallen, and because it was not yet deep. But when men and beasts had trodden through it and penetrated to the frozen snow underneath, they no longer sank into it, but found both their feet slipping from under them, as happens when people walk on ground which is covered with a coating of mud. What followed made the situation even more desperate. In the case of the men, when they found they could not get a foothold on the lower layer of snow they fell, and then, as they struggled to rise by using their hands and knees, slid downwards even faster on these, no matter what they clutched on the way, since the angle of the slope was so steep.   But even so he was no luckier; progress was impossible, for though there was good foothold in the quite shallow layer of soft fresh snow which had covered the old snow underneath, nevertheless as soon as it had been trampled and dispersed by the feet of all those men and animals, there was left to tread upon only the bare ice and liquid slush of melting snow underneath. 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 foot or hand; in short, there was nothing for it but to roll and slither on the smooth ice and melting snow.
As for the animals, when they fell and struggled to rise they broke through the lower layer of snow, and there they stayed with their loads, as though frozen to the earth, because of their weight and the congealed state of the old snow.   Sometimes the mules' weight would drive their hoofs 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.
Hannibal was compelled to give up the idea of attempting a detour,    
and, after clearing the snow away from the ridge, pitched camp there. N [37] When it became apparent that both men and beasts were wearing themselves out to no purpose, a space was cleared -with the greatest labor because of the amount of snow to be dug and carted away- and camp was pitched, high up on the ridge.
Then he set his troops to work on the immensely laborious task of building up the path along the cliff. However, in one day he had made a track wide enough to take the mule train and the horses; he at once took these across, pitched camp below the snow-line and sent the animals out in search of pasture. Then he took the Numidians and set them in relays to the work of building up the path. After three days of this toilsome effort he succeeded in getting his elephants across, but the animals were in a miserable condition from hunger.





The next task was to construct some sort of passable track down the precipice, for by no other route could the army proceed. It was necessary to cut through rock, a problem they solved by the ingenious application of heat and moisture; large trees were felled and lopped, and a huge pile of timber erected; this, with the opportune help 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, to render it friable. They then got to work with picks on the heated rock, and opened a sort of zigzag track, to minimize the steepness of the descent, and were able, in consequence, to get the pack animals, and even the elephants, down it.
The crests of the Alps and the parts near the tops of the passes are completely treeless and bare of vegetation, because of the snow which lies there continually between winter and summer, but the slopes half-way down on the Italian side are both grassy and well-wooded, and are in general quite habitable.   Four days were spent in the neighborhood of this precipice; the animals came near to dying of starvation, for on most of the peaks nothing grows, or, if there is any pasture, the snow covers it. Lower down there are sunny hills and valleys and woods with streams flowing by: country, in fact, more worthy for men to dwell in.
[56] After he had reassembled all his forces Hannibal resumed the descent, and three days after leaving the precipice I have just described he arrived at the plains.   There the beasts were put out to pasture, and the troops given three days' rest to recover from the fatigue of their road-building. Thence the descent was continued to the plains - a kindlier region, with kindlier inhabitants.

This page was created in 1998; last modified on 4 October 2020.