We learn from History that we never learn anything from history. — G. W. F. Hegel

Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

Hannibal Crosses the Alps

In the year 235 B.C. the gates of the Temple of Janus were closed, for the first time since the reign of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, nearly five centuries before. During all that long period war had hardly ever ceased in Rome. And these gates were soon to be thrown open again, in consequence of the greatest war that the Roman state had ever known, a war which was to bring it to the very brink of destruction.

The end of the first Punic War—as the war with Carthage was called—left Rome master of the large island of Sicily, the first province gained by that ambitious city outside of Italy. Advantage was also taken of some home troubles in Carthage to rob that city of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica,—a piece of open piracy which redoubled the hatred of the Carthaginians.

Yet Rome just now was not anxious for war with her southern rival. There was enough to do in the north, for another great invasion of Gauls was threatened. And about this time the Capitol was struck by lightning, a prodigy which plunged all Rome into terror. The books of the Sibyl were hastily consulted, and were reported to say, "When the lightning shall strike the Capitol and the Temple of Apollo, then must thou, O Roman, beware of the Gauls." Another prophecy said that the time would come "when the race of the Greeks and the race of the Gauls should occupy the Forum of Rome."

But Rome had its own way of dealing with prophecies and discounting the decrees of destiny. A man and woman alike of the Gaulish and of the Greek race were buried alive in the Forum Boarium, and in this cruel way the public fear was allayed. As for the invasion of the Gauls, Rome met and dealt with them in its usual fashion, defeating them in two battles, in the last of which the Gaulish army was annihilated. This ended this peril, and the dominion of Rome was extended northward to the Alps.

It was fortunate for the Romans that they had just at this time rid themselves of the Gauls, for they were soon to have a greater enemy to meet. In the first Punic War, Carthage had been destitute of a commander, and had only saved herself by borrowing one from Greece. In the second war she had a general of her own, one who has hardly had his equal before or since, the far-famed Hannibal, one of the few soldiers of supreme ability which the world has produced.

During the peace which followed the first Punic War Carthage sent an expedition to Spain, with the purpose of extending her dominions in that land. This was under the leadership of Hamilcar, a soldier of much ability. As he was about to set sail he offered a solemn sacrifice for the success of the enterprise. Having poured the libation on the victim, which was then duly offered on the altar, he requested all those present to step aside, and called up his son Hannibal, at that time a boy of but nine years of age. Hamilcar asked him if he would like to go to the war. With a child's eagerness the boy implored his father to take him. Then Hamilcar, taking the boy by the hand, led him up to the altar, and bade him lay his hand on the sacrifice, and swear "that he would never be the friend of the Romans." Hannibal took the oath, and he never forgot it. His whole mature life was spent in warfare with Rome.

From the city of New Carthage (or Carthagena), founded by Carthage in Spain, Hamilcar gradually won a wide dominion in that land. He was killed in battle after nine years of success, and was succeeded by Hasdrubal, another soldier of fine powers. On the death of Hasdrubal, Hannibal, then twenty-six years of age, was made commander-in chief of the Carthaginian armies in Spain. Shortly afterwards his long struggle with Rome began.

Hannibal had laid siege to and captured the city of Saguntum. The people of Saguntum were allies of Rome. That city, being once more ready for war with its rival, sent ambassadors to Carthage to demand that Hannibal and his officers should be surrendered as Roman prisoners, for a breach of the treaty of peace. After a long debate, Fabius, the Roman envoy, gathered up his toga as if something was wrapped in it, and said, "Look; here are peace and war; take which you choose." "Give whichever you please," was the haughty Carthaginian reply. "Then we give you war," said Fabius, shaking out the folds of the toga. "With all our hearts we welcome it," cried the Carthaginians. The Romans left at once for Rome. Had they dreamed what a war it was they were inviting it is doubtful if they would have been so hasty in seeking it.

War with Rome was what Hannibal most desired. He was pledged to hostility with that faithless city, and had assailed Saguntum for the purpose of bringing it about. On learning that war was declared, he immediately prepared to invade Italy itself, leading his army across the great mountain barrier of the Alps. He had already sent messengers to the Gauls, to invite their aid. They were found to be friendly, and eager for his coming. They had little reason to love Rome.

A significant dream strengthened Hannibal's purpose. In his vision be seemed to see the supreme god of his fathers, who called him into the presence of all the gods of Carthage, seated in council on their thrones. They solemnly bade him to invade Italy, and one of the council went with him into that land as guide. As they passed onward the divine guide warned, "See that you look not behind you." But at length, heedless of the command, the dreamer turned and looked back. He saw behind him a monstrous form, covered thickly with serpents, while as it moved houses, orchards, and woods fell crashing to the earth. "What mighty thing is this?" he asked in wonder. "You see the desolation of Italy," replied the heavenly guide; "go on your way, straight forward, and cast no look behind." And thus, at the age of twenty-seven, Hannibal, at the command of his country's gods, went forward to the accomplishment of his early vow.

His route lay through northern Spain, where he conquered all before him. Then he marched through Gaul to the Rhone. This he crossed in the face of an army of hostile Gauls, who had gathered to oppose him. He had more difficulty with his elephants, of which he had thirty-seven. Rafts were built to convey these great beasts across the stream, but some of them, frightened, leaped overboard and drowned their drivers. They then swam across themselves, and all were safely landed.


Other difficulties arose, but all were overcome, and at length the mountains were reached. Here Hannibal was to perform the most famous of his exploits, the crossing of the great chain of the Alps with an army, an exploit more remarkable than that which brought similar fame to Napoleon in our own days, for with Hannibal it was pioneer work, while Napoleon profited by his example.

The mountaineers proved to be hostile, and gathered at all points that commanded the narrow pass. But they left their posts at night, and Hannibal, when nightfall came, set out with a body of light troops and occupied all these posts. When morning dawned the natives, to their dismay, found that they had been outgeneralled.

Soon after the day began the head of the army entered a dangerous defile, and made its way in a long slender line along the terrace-like path which overhung the valley far below. The route proved comparatively easy for the foot-soldiers, but the cavalry and the baggage-animals only made their way with great difficulty, finding obstacles at almost every step.

The sight of the struggling cavalcade was too much for the caution of the natives. Here was abundant plunder at their hands. From many points of the mountain above the road they rushed down upon the Carthaginians, arms in hand. A frightful disorder followed. So narrow was the path that the least confusion was likely to throw the heavily-laden baggage-animals down the precipitous steep. The cavalry horses, wounded by the arrows and javelins of the mountaineers, plunged wildly about and doubled the confusion.

It was fortunate for Hannibal that he had taken the precaution of the night before. From the post he had taken with his light troops the whole scene of peril and disorder was visible to his eyes. Charging down the hill, he attacked the mountaineers and drove them from their prey. But it was a dearly bought victory, for the fight on the narrow road increased the confusion, and in seeking the relief of his army he caused the destruction of many of his own men.

At length the perilous defile was safely passed, and the army reached a wide and rich valley beyond. Here was the town of Montmelian, the principal stronghold of the mountaineers. This Hannibal took by storm, and recovered there many of his own men, horses, and cattle which the natives had taken, while he found an abundant store of food for the use of his weary soldiers.

After a day's rest here the march was resumed. During the next three days the army moved up the valley of the river Isere without difficulty. The natives met them with wreaths on their heads and branches in their hands, promising peace, offering hostages, and supplying cattle. Hannibal mistrusted the sudden friendliness of his late foes, but they seemed so honest that be accepted some of them as guides through a difficult region which he was now approaching.

He had reason for his mistrust, for they treacherously led him into a narrow and dangerous defile, which might have easily been avoided; and while the army was involved in this straitened pass an attack was suddenly made by the whole force of the mountaineers. Climbing along the mountain-sides above the defile, they hurled down stones on the entangled foe, and loosened and rolled great rocks down upon their defenceless heads.

Fortunately Hannibal, moved by his doubts, had sent his cavalry and baggage on first. The attack fell on the infantry, and with a body of these he forced his way to the summit of one of the cliffs above the defile, drove away the foe, and held it while the army made its way slowly on. As for the elephants, they were safe from attack. The very sight of these huge beasts filled the barbarians with such terror that they dared not even approach them. There was no further peril, and on the ninth day of its march the army reached the summit of the Alps.

It was now the end of October. The grass and flowers which carpet that elevated spot in summer had become replaced by snow. In truth, the climate of the Alps was colder at that period than now, and snow lay on the higher passes all through the year. The soldiers were disheartened by cold and fatigue. The scene around them was desolate and dreary. New perils awaited their onward course. But no such feeling entered Hannibal's courageous soul. Fired by hope and ambition, he sought to plant new courage in the hearts of his men.

"The valley you see yonder is Italy," he said, pointing to the sunny slope which, from their elevated position, appeared not far away. "It leads to the country of our friends, the Gauls; and yonder is our way to Rome." Their eyes followed the direction of his pointing hand, and their hearts grew hopeful again with the cheerfulness and enthusiasm of his words.

Two days the army remained there, resting, and waiting for the stragglers to come up. Then the route was resumed.

The mountaineers, severely punished, made no further attacks; but the road proved more difficult than that by which the ascent had been made. Snow thickly covered the passes. Men and horses often lost their way, and plunged to their death down the precipitous steep. Onward struggled the distressed host, through appalling dangers and endless difficulties, losing men and animals at every step. But these troubles were trifling compared with those which they were now to endure. They suddenly found that the track before them had entirely disappeared. An avalanche had carried it bodily away for about three hundred yards, leaving only a steep and impassable slope covered with loose rocks and snow.

A man of less resolution than Hannibal might well have succumbed before this supreme difficulty. The way forward had vanished. To go back was death. It was impossible to climb round the lost path, for the heights above were buried deep in snow. Nothing remained but to perish where they were, or to make a new road across the mountain's flank.

The energetic commander lost not an hour in deciding. Moving back to a space of somewhat greater breadth, the snow was removed and the army encamped. Then the difficult engineering work began. Hands were abundant, for every man was working for his life. Tools were improvised. So energetically did the soldiers work that the road rapidly grew before them. As it was cut into the rock it was supported by solid foundations below. Many ancient authors say that Hannibal used vinegar to soften the rocks, but this we have no sufficient reason to believe.

So vigorously did the work go on, so many were the hands engaged, that in a single day a track was made over which the horses and baggage-animals could pass. These were sent over and reached the lower valley in safety, where pasture was found.

The passage of the elephants was a more difficult task. The road for them must be solid and wide. It took three days of hard labor to make it. Meanwhile the great beasts suffered severely from hunger, for forage there was none, nor trees on whose leaves they might browse.

At length the road was strong enough to bear them. They safely passed the perilous reach. After them came Hannibal with the rear of the army, soon reaching the cavalry and baggage. Three days more the wearied host struggled on, down the southward slopes of the Alps, until finally they reached the wide plain of Northern Italy, having safely accomplished the greatest military feat of ancient times.

But Hannibal found himself here with a frightfully reduced army. The Alps had taken toll of their invader. He had reached Gaul from Spain with fifty thousand foot and nine thousand horse. He reached Italy with only twenty thousand foot and six thousand horse. No fewer than thirty-three thousand men had perished by the way. It was a puny force with which to invade a country that could oppose it with hundreds of thousands of men. But it had Hannibal at its head.