Over the Alps

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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.

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After following Hannibal’s trail together on our bicycles for about five weeks, we three brothers decided to separate for the first time and attempt to ride our bikes over three possible Hannibal Alpine crossing points: Col de la Traversette, Col du Clapier and Montgenevre. These mountains range from about two to three kilometres high and October isn’t necessarily the best time to attempt a crossing, but I am writing from the Italian village of Piasco, near the Alpine foothills, a few days after our experiment, so we have all survived!

There are no archaeological remains of the crossing (perhaps surprisingly, no one has yet excavated in the Alps looking for evidence) so our guides for our test are literary and well known to Hannibal fans: Polybius and Livy. The problem is that neither writes in much detail about the Alpine crossing – Polybius, for instance, devotes only six pages out of nearly three hundred and fifty in his Rise of the Roman Empire.

Livy devotes about the same quantity, and rather annoyingly seems to have known what pass Hannibal took but doesn’t actually say which one it was. In Book XXI he writes: “I can’t understand why there should be any doubt about the route he [Hannibal] took over the Alps…”. But some academics, like Emilie Emptoz, a Hannibal and Scipio specialist from Grenoble University, think this mystery is what is most compelling about the whole Hannibal story.

Nonetheless, we have tried to solve this puzzle, or at least test the compatibility of our respective passes against criteria that Hannibal scholars use for this purpose. Those criteria are lifted directly out of the descriptions of Hannibal’s crossing in Polybius and Livy, and include these seven:

  • 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

Our results are as follows…

Montgenevre
1,850 metres high
Tested by: Wood Brother Danny

I had the easy mountain! I started my cycle from the town of Briancon which is only 13 kilometres from Montgenvre, so I had a climb of about five hundred metres. The bare rock where Hannibal sought refuge from an ambush could have been a formation suggested by the eminent Hannibal scholar Dexter Hoyo near the town of Embrun; and there are other imposing bare rocks within the vicinity that fit this minimalist description in Polybius.

As I cycled up the valley, it was certainly possible to imagine an army moving up the mountain chain and as I neared the summit there was plenty of space for an army to camp. In fact if they turned up today, they could probably be accommodated in comfort because Montgenevres summit is now occupied by a large ski village that was deserted when I cycled through it.

Unfortunately the view from here towards Italy isn’t really very impressive – all you see is a pine tree covered slope directly ahead. The descent does get steep, but starts very gently, so that’s a problem too in terms of the test criteria. At only 1,900 metres there was no snow around when I was there, which on the one hand isn’t necessarily an issue because Hannibal may have arrived later than me towards the end of October or early November. But it does mean Montgenevre fails the criteria about snow being present all year round.

I didn’t really have enough time to look for evidence of a big landslide or burnt rocks on the other side of the col (it was getting late and my BBC TV crew had other things we needed to film) but I haven’t read about anyone discovering any.

So based on the seven criteria above, Montgenevre seems to only fit three: it’s close to the bare rock occupied by Chateau Queyras, it has campsite potential, and it looked like there would be pastures a little way down the mountain. If Polybius and Livy are our guides, Montgenevre can’t be ruled out completely, but it is hard to see how it can be Hannibal’s pass.

Col du Clapier
2,500 metres high
Tested by: Wood Brother Ben

Clapier actually fits almost all the criteria reasonably well and is championed as the pass Hannibal and his army took by many prominent scholars – the late Serge Lancel among them. There is some white rock down in the Ambin valley about a day’s march to the pass, but it may have only been exposed in recent landslides. There is a very large area for an army to camp in just 200 metres from the summit – although it started to get shrouded in fog as we arrived, which ruined any view of Italy we might have had.

However, having been there before, I can attest to the fact that there is a view of Italy from the top. There are some patches of last year’s snow lying about in the shadows and my local guide, Gilbert, told me that within weeks the whole area will be covered in one to two metres of snow. So if Hannibal was unlucky, winter may have come early the year he passed through here.

The descent is very steep and, although I didn’t notice any burnt rock or evidence of a landslide, by this stage it was quite dark and foggy, and with lightning flashing overhead and a heavy bike in one hand, it was about the last thing on my mind!

Col de la Traversette
2,950 metres high
Tested by: Wood Brother Sam

Traversette was a serious test on my physical endurance as well as the criteria extracted from Polybius and Livy. It is a steep and rocky climb which meant that I carried my bike rather than rode it most of the way, and I am still feeling the effects three days on! Col de la Traversette does, however, fit most of the criteria really quite well.

Chateau Queyras, back down the valley, is an ideal spot for Hannibal’s camp when he was split from his army and many scholars have championed this location. I left many tyre tracks through snow, so it is above the snow line. There are large open areas, suitable for an army camp around 500 metres from the col.

The view is definitely spectacular from the top – you can see far into the Po valley, which suits Hannibal’s fabled speech from the summit. The descent is steep and treacherous: carrying a heavy touring bike up a mountain was extremely hard, down was really quite absurd! I didn’t find any landslides or burnt rocks on the Italian side of the col, but it was getting dark and time was short.

However, Brian Mahaney, a geologist, is investigating this criteria at Traversette and seems convinced. Before going over the pass we did wonder whether it was too just hard, but I think if I can get my bike over there is no doubt that Hannibal and his army could get across it. Before we began our journey we did have a question mark over the elephants and their ability to climb and descend steep mountains, but the zoo keepers at the bioparc in Valencia convinced us of their agility and capacity to walk anywhere a human could.

Traversette was a convincing, if exhausting expedition! After our journeys Traversette and Clapier are ahead on the criteria, although archaeological evidence is really needed to confirm where exactly Hannibal went.

Anyone interested in coming on our next expedition?

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For more on the journey, go to www.woodbrothers.tv

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Click here to catch up on previous updates from the Wood brothers’ epic expedition. We’ll be receiving regular updates as they follow in Hannibal’s footsteps, so keep an eye on our blog pages.