Myth of the Day #2: Hannibal of Carthage


(HAN-uh-buhl) A general from the ancient city of Carthage. During the second of the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, Hannibal took an army of more than 100,000, supported by elephants, from Spain into Italy in an effort to conquer Rome. The army had to cross the Alps, and this troop movement is still regarded as one of the greatest in history. Hannibal won several victories on this campaign but was not able to take Rome.

Hannibal’s march into Italy is legendary. The Roman Senate felt secure from land invasion and took too few precautions. Their confidence is understandable. There was Hannibal in Spain. He had to fight his way through a Roman army, cross the Pyrenees (themselves a difficult range of mountains), then fight his way across southern France, for this area was under Roman control, then cross the formidable Alps.

The scope of the accomplishment is sometimes overlooked in survey textbooks. Crossing the Alps was remarkable, but Hannibal did much more than that.

When word came that Hannibal had escaped from Spain, Rome was concerned but not panicked. The Senate sent a second army to hold the bridges at the Rhone River. This river is deep and swift in its lower courses. The Romans were sure they could prevent Hannibal from crossing, then defeat him in their own good time in southern Gaul.

Again Hannibal fooled them. He slipped northward, avoiding Roman sentries, and crossed the river on pontoons and by swimming. The crossing was treacherous; not only was the river in spring flood, but if he were discovered by the Romans during the crossing, his army would have been destroyed on the spot. Most remarkable about the crossing was the elephants. The river was too deep for the elephants to wade, and no pontoon bridge would hold them. So he had bladders filled with air — elephant water wings — and floated the beasts across, not without loss.

Once across, Hannibal marched quickly south again and caught the Roman army entirely by surprise. He won a resounding victory, and now nothing stood between him and Italy. Except the Alps.

The crossing of the Alps was a heroic effort. Many classical authors told the story; the account by Livy is as good as any. The mountains themselves were dangerous, of course, but they were made even more dangerous by the fact that local tribes cheerfully fought anyone who entered their mountains, so Hannibal had to fight his way over the mountains. He arrived in Italy with only 26,000 men and about two dozen elephants. So, while it is true that Hannibal brought his elephants across the Alps, he did so only at great loss. Most died either at the Rhone or in the Alps.