Hannibal's March Over the Alps
Hannibal’s March over the Alps
Hannibal’s trip over the Alps in the fall of 218 B.C. is often cited as an amazing feat (which it was), but where was he going and why?
At the age of 26, Hannibal was put in charge of the Carthaginian army in Spain during the period before the Second Punic War. Acting with the approval of his superiors in Carthage, he provoked the Romans into war by attacking the Roman ally Saguntum in Northern Spain. Then, after forming his army, Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into Southern Gaul and made his way to the Rhone Valley to block Roman attempts to move an army over land to Spain. As Hannibal crossed the Rhone, the Roman army was arriving at the mouth of the river after being transported there by ship. The Romans were hoping to block Hannibal from any move eastward into Italy, but had not anticipated his rapid advance. When scouts of the two armies encountered each other, Hannibal made the decision to head north rather than fight an enemy of unknown size.
The Carthaginian army followed the Rhone River and proceeded to what is now Grenoble, France during fourth week in October. Snow was already on the ground, and the prospects for the 46,000 infantry and cavalry were not good. Because of a missed turn and harassing attacks from the native tribes, Hannibal was forced to cross the Alps by an unconventional route. It took nine days to reach the highest point and six more days to descend into western Italy near Torino (Turin).
The chronology below combines information from the two best sources we have on the subject -- Polybius and Livy. Their accounts are similar but do not contain many place names that can be used as landmarks. The place names have been added based on geographical analysis -- taking the descriptions of the terrain and fitting them to the geography.
Day 1 March along the Drôme from to the foothills; first encounters, near Die - Night Camp on fairly level ground; near Die
Day 2 March towards blocked Col de Cabre - Night Attack on abandoned blockade at Col de Cabre
Day 3 Enemy attack on baggage train; capture of a fort at Saint-Mens - Night Camp in Gap
Day 4 Easy march towards Durance and Col du Montgenèvre - Night Camp near Prunières?
Day 5 Easy march along the Durance towards Col du Montgenèvre - Night Camp near Embrun?
Day 6 Easy march along the Durance towards Col du Montgenèvre - Night Camp near Mont Dauphin?
Day 7 Envoys from tribe near Briançon; ambush 10 km before Briançon - Night Hannibal's infantry separated from cavalry and baggage train
Day 8 Hannibal's army united near Briançon; march towards Col du Mont Genèvre - Night Camp at La Vachette, near the sources of the Durance?
Day 9 Hannibal's army reaches the Col du Montgenèvre - Night On the summit of Col du Montgenèvre
Day 10 Halt on the summit of Col du Montgenèvre - Night On the summit of Col du Montgenèvre
Day 11 Halt on the summit of Col du Montgenèvre; it begins to snow - Night On the summit of Col du Montgenèvre
Day 12 Precipitous and dangerous descent for about 9 km (1854 to 1354 meters) - Night Camp near Cesana Torinese
Day 13 Repairing the road, the infantry starts to descend - Night Elephant camp near Cesana; infantry camp near Mollières
Day 14 Building a road for the elephants; infantry descend - Night Elephant camp near Cesana; infantry camp near Oulx
Day 15 Building a road for the elephants; infantry descends to Susa - Night Elephant camp near Cesana; infantry camp near Susa
Day 16 Infantry stays at Susa; first of three days' rest to recover from the fatigue
The Carthaginian army lost 20,000 men in its trek over the Alps, although his 37 elephants survived. Even with these losses, Hannibal was able to prepare for battle and won his first great victory over the Romans at Trebbia on December 21st, 218 B.C.