Hannibal – Col du Clapier / Mont Cenis

Much ink has been spilled over the last 2,000 years in numerous arguments between many historians over the precise route that Hannibal took across the Alps. There have apparently been over 1,000 books published about Hannibal and no two books include the exact same route. The audacity of Hannibal in marching his army of 50,000 men, 5,000 horses and 37 elephants across the Alps has sparked the imagination of many historians and the mystery as to the exact route he took has sparked even further debate. In Part 2 of this 3 part analysis of Hannibal’s route, I will look at the evidence that Hannibal may have used the Col du Clapier or the adjacent Col du Mont Cenis to cross the Alps before attacking the Roman army in Italy.

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Hannibal’s army crossing the Rhone river. Hannibal set out from southern Spain (Hispania) in March 218 BC with an army of perhaps 50,000 men and 37 war elephants. His march was first recorded by the Greek historian Polybius around about 140BC and then also by Livy  around about 50BC. About a month after crossing the Pyrenees, Hannibal arrived at the Rhone river. Most historians accept that he crossed the river near the modern day city of Orange. Where Hannibal went next after crossing the Rhone has remained a mystery to this day.  Polybius, the Greek historian, tells us that he crossed the Rhone at a place about four days’ march from the sea, and that he then turned east towards the Alps at a place called ‘the Island’, at the confluence of the Rhone and the River Iskaras (possibly the Isere) a further four days’ march up the Rhone. Hannibal then may have marched up the Isere for ten days before being attacked by a hill tribe, known as the Allobrogues. Most historians believe this attack took place near Voreppe, about 20 km northwest of Grenoble. I had cycled this route on the 2015 Tour de Travoy and would agree that the terrain around Voreppe would be an ideal location for an ambush.

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Possible routes Hannibal took through the Alps. After fighting off the Allobrogues, Hannibal then set out for the Alps. But where he went next remains a mystery to this day. Proponents of the southern route maintain he went via the Durance valley and across the Alps at either the Col de la Traversette or Mont Genevre. And there are others including the brilliant military historian, Theodore Dodge, who proposed that Hannibal used the northern route across the Petit Saint Bernard Pass to enter Italy. However, for some reason, most historians nowadays believe he used the the central route and that Hannibal traveled up the Maurienne-Arc valley and then across the Alps at either Mont Cenis or the Col du Clapier.

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Patrick Hunt and his team hiking along the Clapier route. One proponent of the Col du Clapier is American archaeologist Patrick Hunt, who has crossed the 20 different Alpine passes, breaking 30 bones in his body along the way, trying establish where Hannibal crossed the Alps. He has focused on finding a match between the archaeology on the ground and the description of the landscape in the  accounts in Polybius and Livy. After all this considerable research and effort, he firmly believes that Hannibal used the Col du Clapier to cross the Alps. Michael Peyron, a French mountain guide from Grenoble, has also climbed dozens of Alpine passes in the search for clues as to where Hannibal crossed the Alps and is also a proponent of the Col de Clapier. You can’t help but admire how much time and effort both these men have put into trying to solve a 2,200 year old mystery.

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Ben, Sam and Danny Wood. In 2010, the Wood brothers made a TV program about the life of Hannibal for the BBC. They cycled three different routes through the Alps, one of which included the Col du Clapier, in an attempt to determine where Hannibal crossed the Alps. The brothers set out from Vaison la Romaine along the Durance and claimed that Hannibal was ambushed by a Gallic tribe (the Allobrogues) at the Gorge des Gats. They then split up with Sam tackling the Traversette, Danny the Mont Genevere pass while Ben headed about 100 km to the north to hike up the Col de Clapier.

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The Woods Brothers cycling through the Alps. The Wood’s brothers plan was to assess each pass they climbed against 7 criteria which were mentioned by both Polybius and Livy ;

  1. a big bare or white rock where Hannibal sought refuge with part of his army when he was ambushed for a second time by a different hill tribe (the Ceutrones) about a week after his first ambush by the Allobrogues
  2. a site suitable for an army to camp, on or near the summit
  3.  a spectacular view of Italy from the summit
  4.  a descent that is steeper than the ascent
  5. at a high enough altitude to be cover snow and ice on it all year round
  6. 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
  7. pasture on the Italian side after the steep descent.

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Sam and his guide climbing the Col de la Traversette. Sam claimed that the White Rock where Hannibal was ambushed by the Ceutrones could be where the Chateau Queyras is now located but the other brothers did not mention any white rock formations near the passes that they climbed. The white rock formation beneath the Chateau Queyras certainly fits Livy’s description but it is located at least 2 or even 3 days march from the summit of the Col de la Traversette. Livy clearly states that Hannibal’s army crossed the summit a day after the ambush before setting up camp and resting for a day.

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Ben and his guide on the Col du Clapier. Ben’s ascent of the Col du Clapier was much easier than Sam’s of the Col de la Traversette. The terrain at the summit of the Col du Clapier is also much more suitable for a camp. But the view from the Col du Clapier was shrouded in mist and not as good as the view Sam got from the Traversette.

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View of Italy from the Col de la Traversette. Of the 3 passes, the view from the Col de la Traversette that Sam got to witness was by far the most spectacular. But the view above shows only mountains and there is very little sign of any pasture for Hannibal’s army of horses and elephants. Hannibal’s men had already spent over a week travelling through the Alps and it is hard to believe that their spirits were lifted by the sight of more mountains in the distance.

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Danny Wood at the summit of the Col du Montgenevre. Of the 3 cols the brothers tackled, Danny got by far the easiest one to climb. At 1750m, it is over a 1,000 m lower in altitude than both the Col du Clapier and the Traversette. As a result, it rarely snows here in October as you can see from the photo above. Also, there is no spectacular view of Italy or the “plains of the Po” from near the summit. What I don’t understand is why Danny didn’t tackle the Petit Saint Bernard climb about 100 km to the north-west rather than Mont Genevre. Had he gone there, he would have discovered a climb that in my opinion meets all 7 of their criteria.

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The route Ben took is in blue and the  route Sam took is in red on the above map. Not shown on the map is Danny’s route but it is roughly in the middle between the blue and red lines. The 3 brothers later met up again near Turin. They concluded that none of the passes met all their 7 criteria and both Ben and Sam agreed that the climbs of the Clapier and Traversette would have been extremely difficult for an army as they had trouble just pushing their bikes up each pass.

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Screenshot from Episode 4 of On Hannibal’s Trail. The Wood’s TV program about Hannibal crossing the Alps was only one out a series of 6 programs they made about Hannibal’s life, called On Hannibal’s Trail. The whole series is very good and despite it’s low budget, was exceptionally well produced and is well worth watching if you can find it on Youtube. Episode 1 was about Hannibal setting off from Cartegena in southern Spain, Episode 2 about him crossing the Pyrenees and Episode 3 about his crossing of the Rhone. All of the screenshots in this blog were taken from Episode 4 as the 3 brothers cycled through the Alps while Episode 5 concentrated on Hannibal’s victories in Italy before Episode 6 finished with his defeat at Zuma in Africa in 202 BC. The episode showing them cycling through the Alps was filmed in October so they may have been under time pressure to get the series finished before winter set in. This might explain why they did not film any other passes that Hannibal may have used such as Mont Cenis or the Petit Saint Bernard.  Of the 3 passes they did visit, they seemed to imply that the Col du Clapier was probably the one that best matched Polybius and Livy’s description, a similar conclusion that British engineer John Hoyte also reached roughly 60 years ago.

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Jumbo the elephant and the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition team.  In 1959., a similar analysis to the Wood Brother’s 7 criteria was prepared by John Hoyte, a British engineer who, along with some colleagues, actually took an elephant over the Alps in an effort to settle the question of where Hannibal crossed the Alps. Hoyte first distilled a list of conditions defined by Polybius in his Histories.

(a) be large enough to camp 30,000 men and about 5,000 horses (on its French side)

(b) command a panoramic view of the Po valley

(c) have a difficult descent

(d) be high enough to have large areas of snow, from two consecutive winters on its flanks

(e) have a place for pasturing the horses immediately after the difficult stretch of the descent

(f) give a distance of three days’ march, from here to the plains.

(g) lead straight down to the land of the Turini.

(h) be a day’s march from a probable site for the ‘bare-rock’ ambush (or a day and a night for the baggage and elephants).

(i) be positioned so that the most direct route to it from the Rhône passes by the ‘Island’ (where the river ‘Skaras’ meets the Rhône) seven days’ march from the sea (three days from the sea to the crossing of the Rhône and four from the crossing to the Island).

John Hoyte’s scorecard for each of Hannibal’s possible passes. Hoyte then scored each pass on a scale of 0-5 for each of these 9 parameters with 5 awarded for a complete fit and less for more doubtful cases. He concluded that the Col du Clapier with 42 points out of a maximum of 45 best fitted the description in Livy’s account. But Hoyte also decided that the best way to assess the Col de Clapier’s credentials was to take an elephant across it to get an idea just how difficult it would have been for Hannibal to climb this pass with his army.

Jumbo the elephant having his passport checked at the French – Italian border at Mont Cenis.  In 1959, the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition, led by engineering student John Hoyte, tried to prove that Hannibal had crossed over the Col de Clapier by taking with them an elephant called Jumbo that they had borrowed from Turin Zoo. They set out from Montmelian in France in July 1959 and 10 days later, arrived in Susa in Italy via the Mont Cenis pass. Details of the expedition and a wonderful series of photographs can be viewed on Hoyte’s website. They had tried to cross over the Col de Clapier but found it too dangerous and instead had to backtrack and go over Mont Cenis instead. This was in July so imagine how much more dangerous the route would have been for a herd of elephants in October when Hannibal is thought to have crossed the Alps.

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Jumbo the elephant crossing the Alps in 1959. It took the British Alpine Expedition 10 days to walk 150 km from Montmelian along the Arc valley and over Mont Cenis to Susa in Italy. Despite a diet consisting of 68 kg of hay, 23 kg of apples, 18 kg of bread and 9kg of carrots, Jumbo lost an estimated 230 kg in weight. The story is great and my favorite part is that when Jumbo finally made it to Italy, she devoured a cake and a Magnum bottle of Chianti. But what this expedition highlighted is just how much food an army of elephants and horses would need to make it across the Alps.

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Hannibal monument near Mont Cenis. It is publicity stunts like John Hoyte’s and endorsements by the likes of  Napoleon that cement Mont Cenis and the Col de Clapier in most people’s mind’s as the most likely location for Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps. Of course, the local authority in this part of France is keen to associate this area with Hannibal and have paid for many monuments to be erected in the area to commemorate the Crossing. There are no ski resorts in this part of France so being associated with Hannibal is one way to attract tourists to the area. There is also a political element to all these monuments. For 50 years, the local authorities have been trying to get support for a high speed rail tunnel between St. Jean de Maurienne and Susa underneath the Col de Clapier. The rail tunnel would be the longest rail tunnel in the world and almost twice as long as the Channel Tunnel but the project has been opposed by locals who believe it is a waste of money. But by promoting the Col de Clapier, the local authorities can claim that if the pass was good enough for Hannibal, then the area is also good enough for a high speed railway tunnel to link France and Italy.

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Source: Cycling-Challenge.com

Will from Cycling-Challenge.com at the Col de Clapier. Due to all the monuments in the local area, there are numerous articles online of people who have drove or cycled up Mont Cenis or the Col de Clapier and claimed to be following in the footsteps of Hannibal. For example, here is one article from a travel writer and here is another from a Mini Cooper enthusiast who crossed over Mont Cenis during a rally to Italy. Even Will from Cycling-Challenge.com, who has climbed more Alpine passes than I have had hot dinners, cycled up the Col de Clapier on his mountain bike and claimed to be following in the footsteps of Hannibal. However, almost certainly, none of these people were following in the footsteps of Hannibal but they may have been following in the footsteps of Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal.

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Hasdrubal also crossed the Alps with an army of war elephants. 11 years after Hannibal crossed the Alps, his brother Hasdrubal set out from Spain with an even bigger army and even more horses and war elephants than Hannibal. Again his exact route is not known but Polybius does state that he took a shorter route to Italy across the Alps. So almost certainly Hasdrubal traveled up the Arc valley and across Mont Cenis or the Col de Clapier or he went up the Durance valley and across Mont Genevere or the Col de la Traversette. But Hasdrubal was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of the Metaurus near to modern day Rimini before he was able to meet up with Hannibal. His head was de-capitated and placed inside a sack and then thrown over a fence into Hannibals camp. So nobody wants to follow in Hasdrubal’s footsteps eventhough he crossed the Alps with a bigger army and more war elephants than Hannibal. When Bill Mahaney and his team found evidence that a huge herd of horses had crossed over the Col de la Traversette, he immediately announced that Hannibal had crossed the Alps there eventhough it is much more likely that Hasdrubal may have gone that way. But again nobody wants to be associated with Hasdrubal as he was defeated by the Romans whereas Hannibal’s name is still box-office to this day, 2,200 years after he crossed the Alps.

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Source : Rossiwrites.com

Hannibal monument in Bramans. You know what they say how nature abhors a vacuum. And as a result of all the uncertainty over where Hannibal crossed the Alps, the town of Bramans near the Col de Clapier has staked a claim to have been on Hannibal’s route.  In July 2011, they unveiled this aluminium statue of an elephant behind a silhouette of Hannibal triumphantly making their way through the Alps.  Of course, it helps that most French believe that Hannibal crossed the Alps here at Mont Cenis – Col de Clapier simply because this is what Napoleon said. But there is no evidence that Napoleon studied the writings of Livy or Polybius in detail or was aware of the location of the different Gallic tribes mentioned by them. The brilliant American military historian, Theodore Ayrault Dodge, also originally believed Hannibal used Mont Cenis or the Col du Clapier to cross the Alps. It was only when he visited the Alps around about 1890 that he fixated on the Col du Petit Saint Bernard as a more likely location for Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps. In Part 3 of this 3 part analysis of Hannibal’s route, I will look at why Theodore Dodge changed his mind and the very convincing observations he made during his ground-breaking visit to the Alps.

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