In 218 BC Hannibal left the Spanish city of Cartagena with one hundred thousand soldiers and nearly forty elephants. We’ve just left the same city on three bicycles followed by our BBC television crew. Our aim is to follow Hannibal’s path along the coast of Spain, through France, over the Alps, down the length of Italy and back to his home city of Carthage, now a suburb of the city of Tunes, capital of Tunisia.
In the Second Punic War against Rome, after Carthage’s defeat in the First, Hannibal’s aim was to teach the Romans a lesson and restore Carthage’s pride and power. Our aim isn’t so grand, but there are some similarties between our adventures. Hannibal travelled with his two younger brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. We are also three brothers, but rather than generals, we’re an archaeologist, a computer programmer and a BBC correspondent.
Our send off in hot Spanish sunshine was probably similar to Hannibal’s. This month, the city of Cartagena celebrates its annual Festival of Romans and Carthaginians. The whole city is in party mode and several thousand people dress up like their ancient forebears and stage mock battles, parades through through the main streets and theatrical events. About twenty members of the Carthaginian Association, were on hand in full battle dress, to scream and shout as we rode out of the city on this, the first leg of our five thousand kilometre journey.
Our youngest brother Sam, the archaeologist, came up with the idea of following Hannibal’s route on bikes, but the background to this project goes back more than three decades. Oldest brother Danny remmembers hauling a helium balloon around the ruins of Pompeii as a four year old, and two of us recall the stories of the Greek myths that our dad used to read us to sleep with. Pursuing our fascination with ancient history has been a part-time hobby for all three of us ever since.
And Hannibal is a compelling topic. His war against Rome nearly destroyed them and he’s regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time, best remembered for crossing the highest mountain chain in Europe with his elephants.
Cartagena was founded by Hannibal’s brother in law Hasdrubal and was the capital of the European wing of the Carthaginian empire. Joaquin Alfonso Moya is the historical adviser for the city’s annual festival celebrating this link to Carthage and Rome. He told us that Cartagena was the first capital city in Spain’s history and regards Hannibal – who spent more than decade in the Iberian peninsular and married a Spanish princess – as more Spanish than Carthaginian. He also says the city Hasdrubal founded was the first in the ancient world to have a plumbing system – even before the Romans. This claim – that surprised us all – involved sawing off the bases of large tubular shaped amphora jars that were used to transport oil and connecting them together.
Before setting off on our cycles and riding today’s leg – an exhausting and hot one hundred plus kilometres – we wandered around the city and discovered that even though the Romans destroyed and built on top of the Carthaginian buildings, there are still some significant remains. The ancient Roman historian, Livy, writing nearly two hundred years after the Second Punic War, described the Carthaginian built walls as so high, the Roman army that laid seige to the city didn’t have ladders long enough to scale them. In a purpose built museum you can visit the remains of those thirty foot high walls. The lower levels of these giant defensive barriers remain – a double wall about fifteen feet thick. Also, in the last twenty years archaeologists have been digging in an area that formed the focus of the old Carthaginina city – Molinete Hill. The foundations of Carthaginian houses have been uncovered – often no less impressively built than their later, Roman successors. It’s hoped that the remains of a Carthaginian palace, referenced in several ancient texts, could one day be discovered.
Even though it’s only the start of our trip, we already seem to have seen, and cycled, an incredible amount. Now on to Elche, a town near Alicante that is more like one big palm grove. The whole city is lined with palm trees that are thought to have been first planted in groves by the ancestors of the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians, who were famed in the ancient world for their agricultural techniques. It’s also thought that Hannibal’s equally warlike father died near here in a battle against local Iberian tribes. I hope our legs aren’t too sore to ride there tomorrow! It’s only about twenty kilometres away from our campsite.