Hannibal – Petit Saint Bernard

In my opinion, the most convincing argument for where Hannibal crossed the Alps was published 120 years ago by the American historian, Theodore Ayrualt Dodge, who was convinced that Hannibal used the Petit Saint Bernard pass. Dodge was an American general who fought in the Union army at the Battle of Gettysberg in the American Civil War. After retiring from the army, he devoted his life to writing about historical military commanders. He wrote books about Alexander the Great, Julius Cesaer, Napoleon and others but his book about Hannibal is arguably his finest work.

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View of Bourg Saint Maurice and the Tarentaise valley. Having read Dodge’s account of Hannibal’s Crossing and having cycled the route personally, I am also convinced that Hannibal marched up the Tarentaise valley and across the Alps via the Petit Saint Bernard pass. You can clearly see from the photo above that the Tarentaise valley is wide enough to support an army on the march. Also in Roman times, there were a lot of villages and settlements in this valley which guaranteed supplies for Hannibal’s troops. This was the main throughfare for Gallic tribes crossing through the Alps during Roman times and as Hannibal was being guided by the Gallic chieftain, Magilicus, he almost certainly came this way.

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Hannibal was ambushed near Seez by a local tribe known as the Ceutrones. In Part 2 of this 3 part analysis, I described 7 criteria that the Wood’s brothers used to assess Hannibal possible route. The first of the Woods brother’s criteria refers to a big white rock where Hannibal took refuge after being attacked by a local hill tribe. Theodore Dodge believed that this skirmish between Hannibal’s troops and the Ceutrones took place near Seez at the start of the climb proper. He calls this skirmish the Battle of the White Rock and near to the village of Seez, there is a huge block of Gypsum which locally is known as La Roche Blanche or the White Rock. You can clearly see it in the Google Street View photo above and it obviously would have been an excellent place to stage an ambush.

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Climb of the Petit Saint Bernard. Once clear of the Big White Rock, the climb to the summit is relatively easy. Polybius states that it only took Hannibal’s army one day to reach the summit after fighting off the Ceutrones at the Big White rock. It is roughly 10 km from the White Rock to the summit of the Petit Saint Bernard and an army could easily climb this distance in a day as the gradient is relatively gentle. The photo above shows the last 5 km or so of the climb with the Hospice of Saint Bernard in the distance. You can easily visualize an army the size of Hannibal’s making it up this stretch of the pass relatively comfortably. You can also see from the photo above that there is lots of room on the climb for an army and lots of pasture for their animals. Both Polybius and Levy state that the descent into Italy was dangerous and steep which implies that the ascent was relatively easy. For the Clapier and Traversette passes, the ascent is just as difficult as the descent but this is not the case with the Petit Saint Bernard.

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Hannibal and his troops crossing the Alps. Hannibal most likely crossed the Alps during October so there almost certainly would have been more snow and ice than when I climbed the Petit Saint Bernard pass in June. Experts disagree as to whether the climate in the Alps was cooler or warmer than the present day but I think this painting accurately portrays the conditions Hannibal and his troops would have faced as they crossed the Alps.

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Lac du Verney at the summit of the Petit Saint Bernard. Livy says that Hannibal camped for 2 days at a lake just after crossing the summit. This lake is certainly big enough to water 5,000 horses and 37 elephants and there is plenty of space for a camp of 30,000 men. This location clearly meets the second of the Wood brother’s seven criteria. It also meets their fifth criteria in that this location is high enough to be covered with snow and ice all year round.

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As it was now close on the setting of the Pleiads (end of October),  snow had already gathered on the summit, and noticing that the men were in bad spirits owing to all they had suffered up to now and expected to suffer, he summoned them to a meeting and attempted to cheer them up, relying chiefly for this purpose on the actual view of Italy, which lies so close under these mountains, that when both are viewed together the Alps stand to the whole of Italy in the relation of a citadel to a city. Showing them, therefore, the plain of the Po, and reminding them of the friendly feelings of the Gauls inhabiting it, while at the same time pointing out the situation of Rome itself, he to some extent restored their spirits. Next day he broke up his camp and began the descent.

Polybius clearly writes that you could see a plain from a vantage point near to his camp, which he refers to as the “plain of the Po”. Remember Polybius probably never visited the Petit Saint Bernard and would have been unfamilar with the rivers and terrain in the northern Alps. He may have been told about a plain that could be seen from near to Hannibal’s camp and assumed it was a “plain of the Po” as that is where Hannibal was going to meet up with his allies, the Insubres, the so-called “friendly Gauls”.

But by this time, it being nearly the period of the setting of the Pleiads, (end of October) the snow was beginning to be thick on the heights; and seeing his men in low spirits, owing both to the fatigue they had gone through, and that which still lay before them, Hannibal called them together and tried to cheer them by dwelling on the one possible topic of consolation in his power, namely the view of Italy: which lay stretched out in both directions below those mountains, giving the Alps the appearance of a citadel to the whole of Italy. By pointing therefore to the plains of the Padus (Po), and reminding them of the friendly welcome which awaited them from the Gauls who lived there, and at the same time indicating the direction of Rome itself, he did somewhat to raise the drooping spirits of his men.

Alternative translation of Polybius account of Hannibal’s speech. Polybius wrote his account of Hannibal’s life in Greek and over the centuries, it has been translated first into Latin and only more recently into English. Each translation is similar but in places, it is slightly different and I have included an alternative translation to the previous translation above as a comparison. The key difference is the “view of Italy, which lay stretched out in both directions (i.e to the left and the right) below these mountains”. The view of the “plains of the Po” from both the Col du Clapier and the Col de la Traversette is only in one direction and far off in the distance. But the incredible view of the La Thuile plain from a headland not far from the Petit Saint Bernard stretches to your left and the right at the foot of the nearby mountains.

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View of the La Thuile plain from near the summit of the Petit Saint Bernard. This is the view of Italy that I believe Hannibal used to inspire his weary troops. This vantage point is roughly at 1,900m in altitude  and is only 1 km or so from the lake where Hannibal may have set up his camp. There is lots of pasture to eat as well as trees which were important for fires and cooking. Not only that but the Doria-Baltea river in La Thuile eventually flows into the Po so the plain at La Thuile could be loosely described as a “plain of the Po” which is what Polybius wrote that Hannibal and his troops could see after leaving their camp at the summit of the pass.  The present day Po flows through Turin before joining up with the Doria-Baltea river at Ivrea and then flowing into the Adriatic near to Venice. It is quite possible that ancient people referred to what is now called the Doria-Baltea river as the Po and the river that flows through Turin by some other name. Or perhaps they referred to both rivers as the Po in a similar way to the Nile river in Africa is known as the Blue Nile and the White Nile until both rivers join up near Khartoum. While Polybius refers to “plains of the Po” the same scene was described by another Roman historian called Livy about 50 years after Polybius, as follows;

“We saw only piles of snow when, at dawn, we set off again; the Carthaginians were advancing slowly; dejection and despair were painted on every face. Hannibal takes the lead, stopped at a sort of headland offering everywhere an immense view, is to halt his soldiers, showing them Italy and at the foot of the Alps, the plains each side of the Po”.

Livy clearly states that Hannibal and his troops left their camp at the summit and arrived at a headland which offered “everywhere an immense view”. The view from above La Thuile is incredible and in my opinion, this was the view that Hannibal used to inspire his troops. This view, the presence of pasture and the steep descent from the headland fulfill another 3 of the Wood brother’s seven criteria.

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View of the headland from where I believe Hannibal addressed his troops. This headland is located about 1 km from the Lac du Varney where I believe Hannibal set up his camp and about 3 km from the Petit Saint Bernard pass. This photo is taken from about 1,800m in altitude looking up at the road as it climbs it’s way up the pass to the left of the headland. The road gradient is about 7% as it winds it’s way up the climb. But in Hannibal’s time, there was no road with hairpins to travel on so he would have had to make his way down the steep valley in the snow and ice. While the pasture is abundant in this photo from June of 2016, in late October, it likely would have been covered in snow and Hannibal’s troops probably would have had to descend down to the La Thuile plain at about 1500 m in altitude to get any pasture for their horses and elephants.

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Google Earth view of the location of Hannibal’s speech above La Thuile.  All the photos I took of my climb of the Petit Saint Bernard during the 2016 Tour de Travoy were from the road and I don’t have any of the “immense view” from the  headland where I believe Hannibal addressed his troops. If I ever return to the Petit Saint Bernard, I will try and get a photo from this headland. But in the meantime, the map above gives you a good idea of my interpretation of Hannibal’s movements after breaking camp and starting the descent into Italy. It shows where I believe Hannibal’s campsite was beside the Lac du Verney and the location of the headland where I believe he gave his speech only 1 km or so away. Crucially, the map shows the “immense view” of a plain (at La Thuile) “in both directions” i.e to the left and the right. Most of my photos only show the view to the left of La Thuile as you look down on it because they were taken from the road. This view was arguably the best view of any I came across on the 2016 Tour de Travoy and I believe the view from the headland would be even better and show the plain to the right of La Thuile as well as the left. But if the Petit Saint Bernard is the pass that best fits the description given by both Polybius and Livy, then why did the Woods brothers ignore it and John Hoyte only give it 20 points out of 45 in his analysis.

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View of the Daria-Baltea valley from near the Col du Petit Saint Bernard. In my opinion, if any of the the Woods brothers or John Hoyte had crossed the Petit Saint Bernard, they would have discovered a pass that met all of Livy’s and Polybius criteria. John Hoyte gives it 0 out of 5 for it’s view of the Po valley (item b in the scorecard below). But the view of the Daria-Baltea valley, which the ancient people may have referred to as the Po valley, shown above is worth 5 out of 5. Also he only gives the vicinity 2 out of 5 for foliage (item e in the scorecard). But the La Thuile valley is often below the snowline in October and has considerable foliage and should also get 5 out of 5.

John Hoyte’s scorecard. He also gives the Petit Saint Bernard pass 0 out of 5  marks as it is not 3 days march from the Po valley (f) and does not lead to the land of the Taurini (g). But as we wil see later, Polybius clearly states that Hannibal met with the Insubres, almost certainly in the Aosta valley before then attacking the Taurini. From La Thuile to Ivrea in the Po valley is roughly 120 km which a fast moving army could easily march in 3 days. Awarding 5 points for both these criteria means the Petit Saint Bernard pass would have a total of 38 points and the Col du Clapier would be reduced to 35 points. So you can see from this analysis that changing John Hoyte’s criteria ever so slightly can make a big difference to the outcome.

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Possible landslide location. You can see that below La Thuile the valley is incredibly narrow in places and could easily have been blocked by a landslide. Nowadays, there is a 2 km tunnel through this section  of the valley. Of course, in Hannibal’s time there was no road tunnel and only a narrow path probably on the lefthandside of the valley. However, this location meets the last of the Wood’s brothers seven criteria as there is evidence of multiple landslides between here and Pre Saint Didier.

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“The whole march from New Carthage had taken him five months, and he had spent fifteen days in crossing the Alps, and now, when he thus boldly descended into the plain of the Po and the territory of the Insubres, his surviving forces numbered twelve thousand African and eight thousand Iberian foot, and not more than six thousand horse in all, as he himself states in the inscription on the column at Lacinium (near Crotone in southern Italy) relating to the number of his forces.”

Polybius later writes that after resting for a few days, his troops then attacked the Taurini and destroyed their city which was located near to Turin about 50 km south-west of Ivrea, where the Insubres were based.

“So that while Hannibal started from the passage of the Rhone with thirty-eight thousand foot and more than eight thousand horse he lost in crossing the passes, as I said above, about half his whole force,  while the survivors, owing to the continued hardships they had suffered, had become in their external appearance and general condition more like beasts than men. Hannibal, therefore, made every provision for carefully attending to the men and the horses likewise until they were restored in body and spirit. After this, his forces having now picked up their strength, when the Taurini who live at the foot of the mountains quarreled with the Insubres and showed no confidence in the Carthaginians, he at first made overtures for their friendship and alliance, but on their rejecting these he encamped round their chief city and reduced it in three days. By massacring those who had been opposed to him he struck such terror into the neighbouring tribes of barbarians that they all came in at once and submitted to him.”

This passage is crucial as John Hoyte and other historians have argued that Hannibal directly made his way to the Taurini territory after crossing the Alps. This was one of Hoyte’s 9 criteria and the Col de Clapier was awarded 5 points whereas the Petit Saint Bernard was awarded 0 points. But Livy clearly states that Hannibal made his way to Insubre territory, rested for a few days before attacking the Taurini. The Insubre were originally from the Milan area but had been defeated by the Romans and may have settled in the Aosta valley near Ivrea. This means that Hannibal first went to Ivrea before then attacking Turin. Ivrea is about 120 km from La Tuile so Hannibal could have marched from La Thuile to Ivrea in 3 days which was another of John Hoyte’s criteria. However to reach Ivrea from the Col du Clapier, Hannibal would have had to go around Turin and would have been unlikely to meet up with the Insubre in 3 days.

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Hannibal would go on to win numerous battles against the Romans. After attacking the Taurini near Turin,  Hannibal would then go on to defeat a Roman army at the Ticinus and another Roman army a month later at the Trebbia before resting for the winter. The following year he would defeat the Romans again at Lake Trasimene in Tuscany before inflicting probably the worst defeat any Roman army ever suffered in 216 BC at Cannae in southern Italy. However, the defeat of his brother Hasdrubal at the Battle of the Metaurus in 207 BC prevented Hannibal from attacking Rome. In 202 BC, Hannibal was summoned back to Africa, where he was defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama. All historians are in agreement about the campaign of terror Hannibal waged throughout the length and breadth of Italy for 16 years between 218 BC and 202 BC but they still cannot agree to this day the route he took to reach Italy. But Theodore Dodge was in no doubt how Hannibal reached Italy and summarized the route he took to cross the Alps as follows.

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Theodore Dodge’s summary of Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps. Polybius states that it took Hannibal 15 days to cross the Alps but he doesn’t exactly state where the climb started but does say it finished in the Po valley, when Hannibal met up with his allies, the Insubrians. Theodore Dodge believed that the ascent started near to the Mont du Chat whereas most modern historians believe that the ascent started near Voreppe about 60 km south of the Mont du Chat. In 2015, on the Tour de Travoy, I cycled along the Isere between Valence and Grenoble and then about a week later cycled north past the Mont du Chat. I found the terrain around Mont du Chat very hilly and it would have been very difficult for an army to cross over so would be amazed if Hannibal took this route when there was a much easier route available just a few kms to the south. Instead, I have to agree with most modern historians in that Hannibal was ambushed by the Allobrogues near Voreppe before making his way up the Tarentaise valley along the river Isere. But I do agree with Theodore Dodge that on the third day, Hannibal reached Montmeillan on the Isere in France and that it took Hannibal’s army another 12 days to travel from here to Ivrea. From Montmeillan to Seez where Hannibal was ambushed for a second time at the White Rock (La Roche Blanche) is roughly 100km and could easily be marched in 5 days. From Seez to La Thuile over the Petit Saint Bernard pass is only about 30 km and could be easily covered in 4 days even allowing for a rest-day. From La Thuile to Ivrea is 120 km so this would be a difficult to march in 3 days but it would be possible if the bulk of Hannibal’s army was left behind to clear a path through the rubble for his elephants, as Theodore Dodge suggests above. This was certainly possible as Hannibal’s army was now in friendly territory and unlikely to be attacked.

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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.  But, in my opinion, this statue should be located elsewhere, perhaps near Seez on the approach road to the Petit Saint Bernard. Michael Peyron, the French mountain guide, states that an elephant skeleton was found near the Petit Saint Bernard pass in the 18th Century. To me this is much more significant piece of evidence for Hannibal’s presence than a layer of dung found at the Col de la Traversette or the view of the Po valley from the Col de Clapier. The Petit Saint Bernard also meets the Wood Brother’s 7 criteria from Polybius and Livy’s account of his crossing so I can’t understand why more people don’t agree with Theodore Ayrault Dodge. The renowned lawyer, Johnny Cochrane once said at OJ Simpson’s murder trial that “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”. Well in the case of the Petit Saint Bernard as regards its suitability for Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, the glove fits in so many ways. The white rock near Seez fits, as does the historical location of the 2 Gallic tribes that attacked Hannibal. Also his campsite at the summit beside the Lac du Verney fits, the “immense view” looking down on La Thuile from a headland above the Lo Riondet restaurant fits as does the abundant presence of pasture on the La Thuile plain. Theodore Dodge’s location for the landslide between La Thuile and Pre Saint Didier fits as does Hannibal’s attempted de-tour up the Colle San Carlo. A 3 day march from la Thuile to the plains of the Po near Ivrea is a stretch but it is certainly possible for a motivated cavalry unit in friendly territory. But while I firmly believe that Hannibal used the Petit Saint Bernard pass, I also understand why some people have passionate views about other passes. You can’t help but admire the time and effort the likes of Professor Mahaney, Professor Hunt, Michael Peyron and others have put in criss-crossing the Alps trying to solve a 2,200 year old mystery so maybe as regards this historical puzzle, it is best to agree to disagree.

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