The above painting shows Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps on his way to Italy to fight the Romans. Where Hannibal crossed the Alps has perplexped scholars for over 2,000 years but I hadn’t gave it a moments thought until arriving in Bourg Saint Maurice on the 2016 Tour de Travoy. I spotted a pass near to Bourg Saint Maurice called the Col de la Traversette and remembered that this pass had made international headlines a few months previously as a possible location for Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps. This sparked my interest and I spent a whole day in Bourg Saint Maurice researching Hannibal’s route through the Alps. It turned out that there are a few Col de la Traversette’s in the Alps and that the Col de la Traversette in the headlines was nowhere near Bourg Saint Maurice and was actually 200 km away in the Queyras region of France. But the more I researched the more I realized that Hannibal probably did come through Bourg Saint Maurice on his epic trek and had climbed the Petit Saint Bernard on his way to Italy, the same climb I had came down the day before.
Scientists retrieving soil samples from the Col de la Traversette. In April 2016, a Canadian professor, Bill Mahaney, announced that he had discovered evidence that a huge herd of horses had passed over the Col de la Traversette 2,200 years ago. Samples of sediment from a lake near the pass were tested by Dr. Chris Allen at Queen’s University in Belfast and by Dr. Brian Kelleher at Dublin City University who concluded that they contained bacteria often found in horse manure. The samples were then carbon dated to around 200 BC, which coincided with the time that Hannibal had marched from Spain all the way to Italy to attack Rome. However, the more I researched the more I realized that the Col de la Traversette referred to in all the articles was not the Col de la Traversette near Bourg Saint Maurice but instead another Col de la Traversette about 200 km further south in the Queyras region of France. However, the controversy sparked my interest and I started researching more about where Hannibal may have crossed the Alps.
Carthaginian and Roman territory in the 3rd Century BC. You can see from the map above that Carthage controlled more territory than Rome around 220 BC. Rome had defeated Carthage in the First Punic war around 240 BC and as a result, gained control of Sicily. To compensate for losing Sicily, the Carthaginians invaded Spain from their base at modern day Cartagena. During this campaign, Hannibal’s father was killed and Hannibal took control of the Carthagian forces in Spain. It is well known that to gain revenge for losing the first Punic war to Rome, Hannibal decided to assemble an army and attack Rome by crossing into Italy via the Alps.What is not so well known about Hannibal’s mission is that he only decided to attack Rome via the Alps after receiving a visit from Gallic envoys, who had traveled all the way from northern Italy to southern Spain to meet him. The Insaubre and Boii tribes had recently been defeated by the Roman army and their land in northern Italy confiscated. So they were hoping that Hannibal would help them to regain control of their land and they promised Hannibal their full support if he would assemble an army to attack Rome.
Hannibal’s army on the march. Hannibal set out from 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. The exact route, however, has been subject of a long but inconclusive debate. In the years since, there have apparently been over 1,000 books published about Hannibal and no two books include the same route.
Hannibal crossing the Rhone. About 2 months 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. Once across the river, he met up with a Gallic chieftain called Magilicus. Magilicus was chieftain of the Boii tribe who were originally based around Bologna in northern Italy. His tribe along with another Gallic tribe, the Insaubres, who were based near Milan, had recently been defeated by the Romans and some of their land had been confiscated so Magilicus was keen and guide Hannibal through the Alps and then join forces with him to attack the Romans.
Possible routes Hannibal took through the Alps. 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 (Isere) a further four days’ march up the Rhone. Hannibal then may have marched 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.
Hannibal’s route through the Alps has perplexed scolars to this day. 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 Genevere. Proponents of the central route maintain he traveled up the Maurienne-Arc valley and across the Alps at either Mont Cenis or the Col du Clapier. 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.
John Hoyte was a proponent of the central Mont Cenis – Clapier route. In 1959, the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition, led by engineering student John Hoyte, tried to prove that Hannibal had used the central route across 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. 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.
Patrick Hunt and his team hiking along the Clapier route. Another Clapier advocate, American archaeologist Patrick Hunt, has crossed the Alps 20 times via a number of passes, breaking 30 bones along the way, trying to find a match between the archaeology in the ground, and the accounts in Polybius and Livy. 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.
Ben, Sam and Danny Wood. In 2010, the Wood brothers cycled three different routes for the BBC, before declaring for la Traversette. The brothers set out from Vaison la Romaine along the Durance and claimed that Hannibal was ambushed at the Chateau Queyras. 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. They then tried to assess each pass against 7 criteria which were mentioned by both Polybius and Livy ;
- a big bare or white rock where Hannibal sought refuge with part of his army when he was ambushed for a second time 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.
They concluded that none of the passes met all the 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. Danny got the easiest option as he was able to cycle up the Mont Genevre pass but there was no spectacular view at the summit and little snow as the pass is only at 1,750 m in altitude. None of the brothers were able to locate a suitable location with a huge white rock where Hannibal was ambushed for a second time a week after his first ambush. However, in my opinion, if one of the Wood brother’s had crossed the Petit Saint Bernard, they would have discovered a pass that met all 7 criteria.
Theodore Ayrault Dodge. Having done considerable research, 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 a book about Alexander, Julius Cesaer, Napoleon and others but his book about Hannibal is arguably his finest work. The whole book is over 700 pages long but the Crossing of the Alps is described in about 30 pages. He was a wonderful writer who really brings to life Hannibal’s battles with the Romans after crossing the Alps. His prose is very easy to read and importantly, he keeps referring throughout his book to what Polybius and Livy wrote about Hannibal’s route and ignoring what later writers, such as Strabo, wrote. What makes his book even more convincing is that Dodge personally visited many of the passes that Hannibal could have crossed over. Before going to the Alps, he had agreed with Napoleon that Hannibal had crossed via Mont Cenis and it was only after visiting the region that he fixated on Petit Saint Bernard being the most likely crossing point.
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 convinced that Hannibal used the northern route and that he 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 valley is wide enough to support an army on the march. Also there were a lot of villages and settlements in the valley which guaranteed supplies for Hannibal’s troops. This was the main throughfare for Gallic tribes across the Alps at the time and as Hannibal was being guided by Magilicus, he almost certainly came this way.
Hannibal was ambushed near Seez by a local tribe known as the Ceutrones. The first of the Wood’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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Polybius and the Via Domitia between Spain and Italy. At this point, I think it is important to pause just as Hannibal did at the top of the pass and write a little about Polybius, who wrote the first account about Hannibal crossing the Alps. Polybius was born in Greece around 200 BC and served in the Roman army under Scipio and was present when Carthage was razed to the ground in 146 BC . After he retired from the army, Polybius devoted his life to documenting Hannibal’s life and his battles with the Roman army. He traveled along Via Domitia which was being built at that time to connect Roman colonies in Spain to Italy. The Via Domitia ran from Barcelona around the Med and across the Rhone near Tarascon. The road then traveled up the Durance valley to Sisteron, Gap and Briancon before crossing the Alps at Mont Genevere. Along the way, he interviewed many witnesses who had been told stories by their parents and elders about Hannibal and the route he had taken from Spain to Italy 80 years previously. He compiled these stories and others into a book about Hannibal which he called “The Histories“. There are very few geographic references in his books and this may be because although Polybius did visit the Alps, he probably didn’t visit many of the same places that Hannibal visited in the Alps. This was probably because at that time, Rome only controlled the southern half of the Alps. It would be another 100 years after the death of Polybius and 200 years after Hannibal before Rome conquered the Aosta valley and the northern part of the Alps. So while Polybius may have crossed the Alps on the Via Domitia, he almost certainly did not visit the Petit Saint Bernard and many of the other passes in the Alps that Hannibal may have used. Instead, he would have relied on stories he had heard from others to compile this section of his book. This is probably why his writing is so confusing and contains very few specific geographic references. But his account does contain many references to Gallic tribes, such as the Allobrogues and the Insubres and he occasionally mentions various landmarks and these clues can be used to piece together the likely route that Hannibal took. I have already referred to some of these landmarks, such as the bare white rock where the Carthaginians were ambushed and now that Hannibal has made it to the summit of the Pass, he writes
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”.
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. About 50 years after Polybius died, the same scene was described by another Roman historian called Livy 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.
View from just below the headland from where I believe Hannibal addressed his troops. This is a photo from about 1,800m in altitude looking up at the road as it climbs it’s way up the pass. 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, 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 to get any pasture for their horses and elephants.
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 brother’s seven criteria as there is evidence of multiple landslides between here and Pre Saint Didier.
Theodore Dodge’s sketches showing the landslide’s possible location. Theodore Dodge also agreed that this was the location of the landslide that blocked Hannibals path for 3 days. Dodge believes that the detour Hannibal first tried was to go up the Colle San Carlo from La Thuile and then down to Morgex. But Hannibal soon realized that this route was too dangerous for his elephants so he instead got his men to start clearing rocks from the landslide. What is interesting about this episode is that the climb of the Colle San Carlo would have been similar to trying to cross the Alps at the Col de Clapier or the Col de la Traversette. Instead, Hannibal’s army spent 3 days clearing a path through the rubble for first his horses and then his elephants to get through. It was here that his army is said to have lit fires under the biggest boulders and then split them by pouring wine over them. However, Dodge believes this story is fictional and I have to agree as wine is heavy and it is hard to believe that Hannibal’s army would have transported much wine up and over the mountain pass without drinking it on the way.
Polybius clearly states that Hannibal met up with his allies after crossing the Alps. I have picked out a number of key passages from Polybius that show that Hannibal clearly met up with his allies, the Insubres in the “plain of the Po” probably near Ivrea before then attacking the Taurini, who were based further south near Turin.
“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 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 mre 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.”
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.
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. Last year on the Tour de Travoy, I cycled along the Isere between Valence and Grenoble and then after watching the Tour de France cycled norh 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 so would be amazed if Hannibal took this route. Instead I have to agree with most modern historians in that Hannibal made his way up along the Isere as this would have been a much easier route for an army to traverse. But I do agree with Theodore Dodge that on the third day, Hannibal reached Montmelian on the Isere in France and that it took another 12 days for Hannibal to arrive at Ivrea in Italy.
The 1959 British Alpine Expedition. The town of Montmelian is also the same town that John Hoyte and the British Alpine Expedition set out with Jumbo the elephant to cross the Alps via the Col du Clapier. It took them 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.
Hannibal monument near Mont Cenis. It is endorsements by the likes of Napoleon and publicity stunts like John Hoyte’s 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 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.
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 and here is another. 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.
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.
Possible routes Hannibal may have used to cross the Alps. This post is probably the longest post of any in the Tour de Travoy but I will finish up where I started back at the Col de la Traversette in the Queyras region of France. The above map was published on the Dublin City University website and shows in black the Gavin de Beer route the Professor Bill Mahaney believes Hannibal used to cross the Alps. But the map also shows the location of the Allobroges and Insubres tribes. We know from both Polybius and Livy that Hannibal crossed Allobrogues territory before meeting up with the Insubres and then attacking the Taurini. But the Gavin de Beer route goes nowhere near the Allobrogues or Insubres territory. What is not shown on this map is the Petit Saint Bernard route which connects the Allobrogues and Insubres territory and which was the main throughfare for the Gallic tribes 2,200 years ago.
Col de la Traversette tunnel also known as the Monte Viso tunnel. However, the Col de la Traversette was a main throughfare for the local people in medieval times, roughly a 1,000 years ago. Salt was very important in times gone by to preserve meat and other foods and there was a lucrative trade in salt from the Mediterranean across the Alps to the Po valley. The most direct route from the salt farms near Arles to the Po valley was via the Col de la Traversette. This trade route was so popular that in 1480, a 75m long tunnel was dug under the Col de la Traversette at around 2,800m in altitude. The tunnel took 3 years to dig most likely using just rudimentary tools and maybe gunpowder. It was an incredible feat of engineering and is arguably the first international tunnel built anywhere in the world. There must have been an incredible volume of salt being transported up the Col de la Traversette to make it worth the salt traders time to dig such a tunnel. So up until 1480 when the tunnel opened, there must have been thousands of mules with loads of salt who crossed over the Col de la Traversette. Many of these mules would have stopped to drink at the lake near the summit where Bill Mahaney and his team extracted 2 cores from the sediment. So you would expect these cores would also have a layer mule fecal deposition layer from around a 1,000 years ago as well as a horse fecal deposition layer from 2,200 years ago.
Typical core samples from various locations around the world. The above photos show typical core samples from various sites around the world. It is fascinating to see what evidence scientists can extract from examining pollen and other plant seeds found in a core. In a similar way to studying rings in a tree, they can work out the climate from 1,000’s of years ago. For example, the core sample on the left above was obtained from Chesapeake Bay in north eastern USA. The core is about 20 feet long and goes back 18,000 years to the end of the Ice Age in north eastern USA. By examining the pollen in the sample, they can identify the Little Ice Age period between 1450 and 1850 as well the Medieval Warming period between 900 -1200.
Photo of the trench and core sample analysis from the Col de la Traversette. On the 27th of July, Professor Mahaney’s article in the Archaeometry journal was published online on the Wiley Open Access website and released under a Creative Commons licence. You can clearly see the churned up layer below the dashed line in the image of the trench above. The MAD (mass animal deposition) layer or the horse manure layer was determined by studying various samples for the Clostridium bacteria and is located between 35 and 50 cm below the surface. In all, 6 samples were carbon dated to determine their age and the top sample at the boundary between the fibrist and hemist layers was dated to 1130 years before present. In the churned up layer, a range of dates between 2070 BP and 3540 BP were discovered which Professor Mahaney explained as a result of deeper sediment being churned up by the hooves of Hannibal’s horses and mixed with younger sediment. But there is a fatal flaw in this argument as you one of the dates in the churned up MAD layer is from 2070 BP + or – 31 years. So this sample dates from between 23 to 85 BC or at least 140 years after Hannibal crossed over the Alps. If the churned up MAD layer was caused by Hannibal you would not expect to find a sample date from after his crossing, only dates from before 218 BC. Instead, the churned up layer could have been caused by a different army around the time of Christ. But it is more likely that the churned up layer was caused by the thousands of medieval mules transporting heavy loads of salt up and over the mountain up until the tunnel under the Col de la Traversette was opened in 1480.
An artist’s depiction of Hannibal Crossing the Alps. It is interesting to compare the reports of the Col de la Traversette core samples in the English and American press with that of the French press. In Ireland, the Irish Times, the so-called “paper of record” published an article saying that the 2,000 year argument over Hannibal’s route through the Alps had been “settled” due to evidence of “poo, lots and lots of poo”. A thin slice in 2 core samples a few feet apart is not even evidence of lots and lots of poo let alone proof that this is where Hannibal crossed the Alps. To be fair, most of the other reports in the English speaking press played down the hype and simply reported that the carbon dating may have proved that Hannibal may have passed over the Col de la Traversette 2,200 years ago. But, in my opinion, the conclusions of Proessor Mahaney and his team are as threadbare as the clothes the Carthaginian soldiers are wearing in the above painting. Interestingly, in the French press, the findings of Professor Mahaney were also dismissed out of hand. Geoffrey Galbert wrote that at least 5 armies crossed over the Alps between 250 BC and 100 BC and any one of them could have left the fecal layer discovered in the core sample. Most historians were also skeptical of Professor Mahaney’s conclusions. Tom Holland, writing in The Times said that the latest evidence is “literally a pile of manure”. Mary Harrsch from Ancient Times was also dismissive but wondered if equine DNA could be extracted from the churned up layer to determine the breed of horses to see if they may have been from the Numidian cavalry. However, dissappointingly there is no mention of DNA in the journal or of any attempt to determine the climate from the pollen in the core.
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 unlike Theodore Ayrault Dodge . I am sure if Napoleon was alive today, he too would change his mind, just like Theodore Dodge did after visiting the Alps, and agree that Hannibal crossed into Italy via the Petit Saint Bernard pass. 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 Dodge. Apparently, over a thousand books have been written on the subject of Hannibal Crossing the Alps and no two books have the same route. Indeed, it is also obvious after spending a few days researching Hannibal’s route and writing this article that some people have passionate views and have devoted a major part of their lives to discovering where Hannibal crossed the Alps so maybe it is best to agree to disagree.