Hannibal in the Alps: Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project 1994-2006
Figs. 1 & 2 Hannibal Crossing the Alps; Stanford Alpine Archaeology Team 2004
(Patrick Hunt - project director- at back center in orange)
One of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project's most interesting ongoing research foci is Hannibal in the Alps. Hannibal’s famous passage through the Alps in 218 BCE remains one of the most intrepid marches in history. Along with at least 25,000 surviving soldiers, hundreds if not thousands of pack animals and scores of elephants (although apparently only 37 survived the crossing), this surprising military maneuver was both bold and desperate and has inspired countless readers of ancient history in the intervening millennia.
Fig. 3 Cottian Alps (from France) looking east - Val d'Isere and Val d'Arc
watershed toward Piedmonte-Paduana, Italy. Turin is roughly just above
the center of the image.
Because it was undertaken in late fall – which is early winter in these high Alps – the Pleiades constellation could be easily viewed at a certain recorded point in the night sky, a journey that would have been daunting even in the summer became all the more dramatic. As Polybius wrote (Hist. 3.53-4):
"After a journey of nine days, Hannibal gained the summit pass. He camped there and stayed for two days to rest the survivors of his army and wait for stragglers...As it was now almost the time for the setting of the Pleiades, snow had already settled on the summit...He noticed that his men were in a state of low morale for all that they had suffered and tried to cheer them up. He depended on the actual view of Italy, which lies so close under these mountains that when they are seen together, the Alps stand to Italy in the same way a citadel does to a city...He restored their spirits by showing them the plain of the Po..."
Unfortunately, the specific name of the pass Hannibal used was never mentioned in any sources or presumably by the informant, who may never have known its Celtic name anyway. Some of the Celts aided Hannibal and his Punic and mercenary army with guides and provisions; others were hostile and some may have tried to lead him into an Alpine trap, from which he escaped by clever resources and brave fortitude at some expense of men, animals and supplies to the surprise of both Celts and Romans.
The Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project has attempted to track Hannibal since 1994, using near contemporary sources like Polybius (History, Book 3, esp. 50-60) in the mid-second c. BCE who claimed his informant’s account was directly compiled from one of Hannibal’s veterans who would have been very young during the march, and Livy (History XXI-XXXIX) who used Polybius and other possible sources nearly two centuries later. I refer herein mainly to Polybius because Livy often appears mostly derivative of Polybius, with more descriptive language but without more ample topography as his is so far after the fact where Polybius seems to have possibly known this landscape. On the other hand, Livy adds some accurate comments about the improbability of some of the often-suggested northern Hannibal routes such as the Grand-St-Bernard pass then known as Poeninus. Because this Poenine alpine region is one with which our Stanford project has spent considerable time, we concur with Livy on this (XXI.38), because as he notes this was Salassi territory, not Taurini. Additionally, this route would have added far too many days to Hannibal's journey being so far northward and requiring Hannibal to travel all the way around Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) likely from Geneva, adding far more than 600 stades distance up the Rhone almost regardless of where his army crossed, possibly with another 900-1000 stades and at least a week more total time in passage, which is negated by Polybius and Livy both agreeing on a nine day journey from the Rhone crossing to the Taurini.
Our Stanford team has hiked over at least 15 Alpine passes, many on multiple occasions, and compared their present landmark features to the topographic details given in Polybius and Livy. Allowing for a modicum of some erosional and geomorphological change, it is still possible to find a few favorable candidates among the western Alpine passes (now between France and Italy) and at the same time eliminate many more passes as unsuitable based on the ancient historians’ narratives. Naturally, this also rests on several assumptions: that the informants of Polybius and others were accurate observers and honest in their recollections and that Hannibal himself was fairly well-informed (when not misinformed by Celts) and honest with his soldiers when he is reported to have made geographical statements. Previous studies include those of Wilkinson (1911), Freshfield (1911), Dunbabin (1931), Lavis-Trafford (1943), de Beer (1952), Meyer (1964), Mungo (1979), Bradford (1981), Zeuner (1982) and others, including fairly recent studies by Prevas (1998) and Lancel (1999).
The most recent phase of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project's Hannibal route research is published elsewhere now in a new book Alpine Archaeology (2007).
Fig. 4 Southern ridge, Dents d'Ambin, above Lac de Savine
Dr. Patrick Hunt © copyright 2006
TO READ MORE, SEE PATRICK HUNT'S NEW ALPINE ARCHAEOLOGY BOOK (2007).