DEFYING THE ODDS, HANNIBAL CROSSES THE ALPS LATE IN THE SEASON, AND BY SO DOING TURNS THE TABLES ON ROME
On a bitterly cold late autumn morning, high atop the Western Alps, a polyglot army of Spaniards and North Africans gathered to hear the inspirational words of their twenty-nine year old commander. Bone-weary and increasingly ragged, the host was a skeleton of the force that had entered the mountains from the Rhone Valley only eleven days earlier. Twice they’d been ambushed by hostile Celtic tribesmen, in the process loosing thousands of men and hundreds of pack animals. For the last two days they had been camped here, at the top of the pass leading to Italy; recouping and allowing stragglers to catch-up.
It was the beginning of November, 218 BC. This army, the creation of one man’s implacable will, was attempting to accomplish the seemingly impossible: cross the snow-girded Alps and enter Italy, from whence to make war upon Rome in its own backyard.
That man was Hannibal Barca, and this was his war.
What we know as the Second Punic War was called by Roman writers the “Hannibalic War”. It was Hannibal, following in his father Hamilcar’s very large footsteps, who carefully prepared his nation for this struggle. Continuing the conquest of Spain begun by Hamilcar, he had honed the multi-ethnic Carthaginian army into his personal instrument of revenge against the Romans, who had humiliated Carthage in the First Punic War. It was he who’d defied Rome and attacked their ally, the town of Saguntum in Spain; the casus bellum of this new war.
Standing now on a promontory and facing his tired, shivering soldiers, the indefatigable Hannibal pointed to the vista below: there, Italy beckoned. Five months before they had left New Carthage (Qart Hadasht to the Carthaginians, and Carthago Nova in Latin) in Spain; now their goal was in sight. Below, the Celtic tribes of the Po Valley waited as allies to welcome and supply them. He told them that they should imagine that they “were now scaling the ramparts not only of Italy, but of Rome itself…and after one, or, at the most, two battles, they would have in their hands and in their power the citadel and capital of Italy.” Years later, old veterans imagined they had actually seen Rome itself in the distance. Only one more effort was needed, and this downhill. Their spirits buoyed, the army prepared for the final push on into the valley below.
It had been a long, history-making trek.
Hannibal had prepared all winter, setting off in early spring. He crossed the Pyrenees with 50,000 infantry, 10,000 horse and 40 elephants. His course was carefully arranged in advance, with guides….