Episode 1: Sagunto
Hannibal lay siege to Sagunto for eight months in 219 BC and although the town was under Roman protection, Rome, negligently, never came to its aid. Hannibal was particularly active during the battle and was seriously wounded by a javelin in the thigh. According to ancient authors Livy and Augustine, the siege was particularly brutal and horrible for the inhabitants – they were forced by starvation to eat the corpses of their relatives. When all was lost, the Saguntines piled their possessions into the main square, set them alight and threw themselves into the flames.
Hannibal’s army stormed the city and put to death all remaining men of military age and enslaved the rest of the population. Vicious, perhaps, but this was not unusual for the time. For Hannibal, his victory was a complete success. He had spoils to keep his mercenaries happy and plenty to send home to Carthage to secure political support for his upcoming war. The fall of Sagunto is considered the catalyst for the Second Punic War.
Episode 2: The Pyrenees
According to the ancient sources crossing this mountain chain wasn’t difficult for Hannibal thanks to good coastal passes that avoid the peaks, but it was a critical psychological point in his journey to Italy. Thousands of Spanish mercenaries abandoned his army here and rather than risk mutiny from other unhappy troops, Hannibal wisely dismissed thousands of others. Hannibal knew that his arrival in what is now modern day France would alarm many Gauls – and they gathered to resist him near present day Perpignan. The Carthaginian requested a friendly meeting and lavished so many gifts on the Gallic leaders that they let him pass by unmolested. That’s according to Livy and Polybius. According to other scholars, this meeting coincided with the arrival of a delegation of Roman politicians. The tribal assembly that gathered to hear the Roman ambassadors was reportedly hosted by Hannibal himself! The Gauls were unimpressed by Roman requests that they resist the Carthaginians – in fact they burst out laughing! Instead they were won over by Hannibal because he offered to allow the wives of the Galus to hear any complaints made by Carthaginians about the behaviour of Gallic soldiers!
Episode 3: Crossing the Rhone
Where exactly Hannibal crossed isn’t known, but Polybius says it was four days march north of the mouth of the river. What we do know with more certainty is that his crossing was opposed by the Volcae – an aggressive local Gallic tribe. Hannibal’s strategy was to send his nephew Hanno with a detachment of troops north to surprise the Volcae.
When Hannibal landed on the opposite bank, Hanno sprung his ambush. The Volcae’s raucous howling turned to panic as they were caught in a classic pincer movement. Hannibal then had to get the rest of his army across including his Elephants. Polybius says that Hannibal built rafts, covered them with soil and urged a female elephant onto these floating islands and the rest of the herd followed. However, once the rafts were detached from the bank, the elephants panicked and were forced to make their own way across to the other side – Polybius believes the elephants walked across the bottom of the river using their trunks as snorkels!
Livy, our other main ancient source, writes that the elephants swam from the beginning following the lead male, who was driven into a rage by his driver. This brave man then jumped into the river himself, with the elephant herd following the lead male who, in turn, was intent on catching the driver – who would have swum desperately fast to the other side!
When we talk to people on our route about Hannibal the two most known facts about him are his elephants and the battle of Cannae.
Episode 4: Crossing the Alps
Hannibal is best known for crossing Europe’s biggest mountain chain, the Alps, into Italy with about fifty thousand men and forty elephants. More than two thousand years later we still don’t know which path he took and this mystery continues to puzzle scholars and amateur adventurers. History’s heavyweights like Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte had opinions on Hannibal’s route and over the years more than half a dozen possible mountain crossings, or cols, have been proposed.
There are no archaeological remains of the crossing so our guides for our test are literary: Polybius and Livy. Hannibal scholars have come up with these criteria lifted directly out of the descriptions of Hannibal’s crossing in Polybius and Livy:
• a big bare or white rock where Hannibal sought refuge with part of his army when he was ambushed by hill tribes
• a site suitable for an army to camp, on or near the summit
• a spectacular view of Italy from the summit
• a descent that is steeper than the ascent
• at a high enough altitude to be cover snow and ice on it all year round
• evidence of a landslide on the descent and burnt rocks where Hannibal forced his way through using fire and vinegar to crack open the rocks blocking his path
• pasture on the Italian side after the steep descent
There are many options which fit these Criteria. We tested 3 – Montgenevre at 1850 metres, Col du Clapier at 2500 metres and Col de la Traversette at 2,950 metres high. After our journeys, Traversette and Clapier were ahead on the criteria, although archaeological evidence is really needed to confirm where exactly Hannibal went.
Episode 5: Cannae
Cannae was Hannibal’s greatest victory and Rome’s worst defeat. Hannibal’s tactics in this clash are still taught in military colleges today. Polybius estimates Hannibal had close to 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry versus the Roman force of 80,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry. The armies lined up with infantry in the centre and cavalry on the wings – Hannibal’s infantry in a convex curve towards the deep lines of the Roman force.
The Romans were commanded by two consuls – Varro and Paullus. Paullus was happy to continue the Fabian delaying tactics but Varro was in command this day and he was keen to engage Hannibal in battle.
The battle began. Hannibal’s weak centre bowed inwards under the weight of the Roman Infantry. The cavalry clashed on both sides of the infantry. The Numidian cavalry engaged with and inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman force on their wing. Meanwhile Hasdrubal had virtually destroyed the cavalry on the other flank.
By this time the Romans had forced their way deep into the enemy infantry line and now the heavy African infantry were aligned on their sides. The Africans turned and attacked the flanks of the Roman force and soon the Carthaginian cavalry arrived and attacked their rear. The Roman infantry was surrounded – Hannibal’s ‘double envelopment’ was complete. The Roman’s were slaugtered – Polybius estimates that close to 70,000 Roman’s died at Cannae, including Paullus with Varro fleeing the battlefield. To this day this figure stands as the most men killed in a single day’s battle or in a more horrific context the equivalent of the nuclear bomb’s death toll at Hiroshima.
Episode 6: Zama
Unlike at the battles of Cannae, Trasimene and Trebbia, for the first time, Hannibal was outnumbered in the cavalry department. Most of his valuable Numidian allies had defected and with them his crack horsemen. But he had about 80 war elephants and according to Polybius had assembled an army of 50,000 men, against Scipio’s 45,000.
On the eve of the battle Hannibal requested a meeting with Scipio and the two men met face to face. Perhaps unusually, Hannibal was not very keen to fight and tried to negotiate peace terms but they were flatly refused by the Roman general.
According to Livy, Hannibal was still giving orders to his men when his elephants were surprised by the sudden advance of the Romans and because of the loud trumpet calls and war cries the animals panicked, trampling Hannibal’s own men. Those elephants that did attack the Romans were allowed to harmlessly pass through the Roman ranks thanks to Scipio’s battle formation that left wide alleys between the ranks to allow the beasts to harmlessly go by.
Scipio also used Hannibal’s famous encirclement tactics against him by first defeating the Carthaginian cavalry and then encircling the enemy infantry and attacking them from behind. Nonetheless it was a closely fought contest – Hannibal’s veteran infantry were holding the Romans until the enemy cavalry attacked them from the rear.
It was a conclusive defeat for Hannibal – he escaped the field of battle and returned to Carthage where he encouraged his fellow citizens to sue for peace. The Second Punic War was over.