Of all Hannibal’s accomplishments, nothing quite resonates like his passage over the Alps. It was not just audacious, it was unimaginable. The crossing eclipses even his spectacular victories in later battles against the Romans. Although it is often cited as an example of leadership at its best, it also accounted for more casualties and losses than any of the battles that followed. The feat can be viewed as a stunning success, an example of a leader overcoming nature by the sheer force of his determination, or a colossal failure when measured in terms of the cost in human life. In biographies of Hannibal and in histories of the Punic Wars, authors tend to gloss over this part of the story, preferring to focus instead on his battlefield victories in Italy.
The Alps are a natural barrier between France and Italy—stretching over two hundred miles from majestic Mount Blanc in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south. They begin as a relatively low range of mountains (three thousand to four thousand feet) just east of the Rhone River, gradually building in height and steepness until they attain their full measure of majesty (twelve thousand to fourteen thousand feet) on the Italian frontier. At the frontier, there is a dramatic change in their contour as they suddenly end in a precipitous drop from the dizzying heights straight down onto the level plains of Italy below. Seemingly a solid wall of rock, snow, and ice between France and Italy, the Alps have a series of depressions or passes which run east to west between their highest peaks. These passes provide the only way over the peaks and make for a convenient division of the range into sections. The lowest and most southern section is called the Alpes Maritimes, beginning at the Mediterranean Sea behind the city of Nice and ending at the Col de la Bonette, at nine thousand feet, the highest pass in the Alps with a hard surfaced road over it. North of the Alpes Maritimes is the section known as the Cottian Alps—named by the Romans after a Ligurian ally, King Cottius. This section is centered on two passes, the Mount Cenis and the Montgenevre, both well-travelled routes over the mountains between Italy and France. The Alpes Graiae, or Greek Alps, are the next section located between the Mount Cenis pass and Mount Blanc. This is the range that the legendary Hercules allegedly crossed on one of his adventures. The final range is the Alpes Penninae or Pennine Alps, which extend from the Swiss frontier and the upper Rhone valley to the most northern and western portions of Italy.
Scholars are generally of the opinion that Hannibal passed over the Cottian Alps, which begin in the Rhone Valley in an area of relatively low mountains known as the pre-Alps or the Alpes du Dauphine. Once over this first low range, Hannibal would have descended into a series of valleys before starting his second and final climb over the higher mountains, the Hautes Alpes, on the frontier with Italy. The only way over the mountains is to follow valleys. Their riverbeds afford level footing, provide ample sources of drinking water, and eventually lead to streams on the mountainsides. These streams in turn lead to passes, which are the only practical way over the peaks. The sources of the streams begin at the highest elevations, where the snows begin to melt and then cascade down the mountainsides. Streams become rivers and the rivers, over millennia, have formed long transverse valleys as they find their way to the Rhone. But even following rivers can be risky, because it is easy to become confused and lost in a labyrinth of blind valleys along the way. Valleys often contain gorges, narrow passages where there is a risk of being trapped and swept away by the torrents of water, mud, and rocks that periodically surge from the heights, destroying everything in their path—something the author has witnessed firsthand in the valley of the Queyras.
There are four principal rivers that flow from the higher elevations of the Alps and make their way to the Rhone. The farthest north is the Isere, which begins as a stream in the glaciers of the high Alps near the Val d’Isere and enters the Rhone as a sizable river at the city of Valence. This riverbed is the preferred choice among historians who have speculated on the route of Hannibal. Below the Isere is a smaller river, the Drome, which begins in the pre-Alps or the Alpes du Dauphine and flows into the Rhone just south of Valence. Another even smaller river just south of the Drome is the Aygues, which also begins in the pre-Alps and enters the Rhone just north of the city of Orange. Neither the Drome nor the Aygues leads directly to passes in the high Alps. The last and longest of the four is the Durance, which begins as a series of streams on the slopes of the highest mountains on the Italian frontier and flows southwest through a broad valley before it reaches the Rhone just south of Avignon. Ruling out the coastal route to Italy because of the risk of encountering the Roman army at Massilia, Hannibal’s best choice among the four options would have been the Durance. The river leads to one of the lowest and easiest passes over the mountains—the Col du Montgenevre. But that route, in its initial stages, had to be avoided as well, because it still brought Hannibal’s army perilously close to the Romans.
In searching for a way over the Alps, Hannibal had no choice but to move farther north along the Rhone than he perhaps originally intended. Then, once he had lost the Romans, he could turn east and make his way into the upper reaches of the Durance River, near the modern French towns of Mont Dauphine and Guillestre. From there it is an easy passage into Italy by way of the Montgenevre—a pass that is less than six thousand feet, and today a principal truck and car route between France and Italy.
The ancient sources indicate that after Hannibal left his crossing point on the Rhone he marched north along the eastern bank of the river for four days in an attempt to lose the Roman army he feared might be following. Based on accounts of the expeditions of Alexander the Great in Asia and Julius Caesar in Gaul, events which bracket Hannibal in time, his army could probably cover ten to fifteen miles a day under ideal conditions. Even allowing Hannibal and his army the more conservative figure of ten miles a day, leaving from the vicinity of Arles would have brought them to a point along the Rhone close to what is today the French city of Orange. Historians speculate that land travel, especially in the interior regions of France, might have been fairly easy because roads were relatively well developed. Those roads followed the river valleys through the mountains and then, through a system of sharply graded pathways, some eventually reached the passes.
On the fourth day, Hannibal and his army came to an area along the Rhone simply referred to in the manuscripts as the “island”—a triangular body of land that resembled the Nile Delta because it was low-lying, subject to seasonal flooding, fertile, and densely populated. The main river that bordered the “island” was clearly the Rhone, while the identity of the second remains uncertain. Polybius, writing in Greek, named this second river the Iskaras or Skaras, while Livy, writing in Latin, called it the Arar or Araros. The tribe that occupied the island was the Allobroges, a generic name for tribes that inhabited a wide section of Gaul from the Rhone River to the Alpes du Dauphine and were loosely bound together by language and custom. This tribe had recently lost its king, and his two sons were contending for the throne. The elder, Brancus, claimed the throne by right of primogeniture, while the younger, whose name is never given, was threatening to depose his brother if he declared himself king. The tribe was on the verge of civil war. According to Polybius, Hannibal sided with the older brother and then used his army to drive the younger one and his followers from the area. Livy, on the other hand, maintains that Hannibal played a much more conciliatory role, serving more as a mediator with the assistance of the tribe’s elders. Either way, the dispute was settled in favor of Brancus, and to show his gratitude the new king provided clothing, weapons, and supplies for Hannibal’s soldiers suitable for the journey ahead of them. Then he furnished an armed escort to guide them as far as the foothills of the Alps.
From the island, Hannibal turned east and began his trek following this second river for ten days and covering about a hundred miles. The march was uneventful and relatively easy until the column reached the foothills known as the Alpes du Dauphine, where the escort provided by Brancus left to return home. The terrain became more difficult in these higher elevations, and the column was now being shadowed from the heights above by local tribes that might have allied themselves with the younger brother of Brancus.
While the Alpes du Dauphine only rise to a height of between four and five thousand feet, they are still a formidable obstacle. The farther the column moved east, the higher the mountains became and the slower their progress. More tribesmen began to appear on the heights above them. When Hannibal’s scouts reported that a particularly narrow gorge lay ahead, he became concerned. That night, exaggerated reports of the dangers ahead circulated through the camp, causing apprehension among the soldiers. The scouts further reported that the tribesmen shadowed the column by day but returned to the comfort of their villages at night. That gave Hannibal an idea. He ordered a larger than normal number of campfires to be built just before dusk, so that when darkness fell the tribesmen would think the camp was settled for the night. The tribesmen withdrew to their villages, and Hannibal slipped out of his camp with a force of lightly armed infantry. They scaled the heights over the gorge and positioned themselves above the ledges usually occupied by the tribesmen during the day. Just after daybreak the Allobroges returned, unaware that Hannibal and his men were lying in wait. The army below broke camp and slowly began moving into the gorge. Once in, the walls seemed to close around them and an ambush seemed certain. By late morning, the vanguard had cleared the gorge and begun to climb to an adjacent pass.
Initially the tribesmen only watched as the column slowly threaded its way into the gorge and then began to move up a track leading to a pass. The track eventually became a narrow ledge with a precipitous drop to the river on one side and a sheer wall on the other. In places, the column had to move nearly single file along the ledge. As the Allobroges watched the column struggling along the ledge, they could no longer restrain themselves. They began screaming and hurling their spears. Their cries echoed and re-echoed through the gorge as they purposely wounded horses with their arrows, causing them to rear out of control. The animals, maddened by pain, either lost their footing and fell off the ledge or pushed blindly ahead, shoving men and animals over the side. Casualties began mounting as panic and confusion took a greater toll on Hannibal’s soldiers than the spears, arrows, and rocks raining down on them. Watching from above, Hannibal continued to restrain his soldiers, even though they pleaded with him to allow them to relieve the pressure on their comrades. But Hannibal hesitated, fearing an attack at this point would only add to the confusion on the ledges below and increase the casualties. Finally, when the Carthaginian column was close to breaking apart, Hannibal ordered the attack. Within a short time the heights were swept of the enemy, and the column slowly regained its cohesion. The remaining elements were now able to climb out of the gorge and make it over the pass safely. Even the most experienced and battle-hardened among the mercenaries were shaken by what they had been through. Only when the last of the soldiers, horses, and pack animals had been brought through safely were the elephants led along the ledge and over the pass. Hannibal’s tactics were similar to what Alexander the Great had done over a hundred years before when the defenders of the Persian capital Persepolis trapped his army in a gorge and began inflicting heavy casualties. Alexander led a small contingent of soldiers up and over a mountain at night, coming down on the enemy just before dawn and winning the day.
Not far from the pass, Hannibal’s scouts came upon a town that belonged to the Allobroges. It was largely deserted as most of the inhabitants had fled to the forests and higher elevations. When the scouts entered, they discovered some of their compatriots, who had been captured while foraging days before, and enough grain and cattle to supply the army for three days. The town was burned, and as a result the other tribes in the area allowed Hannibal’s army to pass through their territory unhampered.
Where was Hannibal’s army ambushed? Based upon this author’s research, it is doubtful it was along the Isere River route—a popular choice among scholars. Having traced the route, the author found that it leads to the Alps without any particularly difficult gorges to march through or passes to climb. There is no place along this valley the author could find that corresponds to the conditions Hannibal encountered. The only possibility is the Gorges de la Bourne, which can only be reached by leaving the Isere at the town of St. Nazaire-en-Royans and following a smaller river, the Bourne, due east. The gorge is admittedly an ideal site for an ambush, but why would Hannibal have left the easier and safer Isere route to follow the more difficult Bourne? Just beyond the gorge is a second smaller gorge, the Gorges du Furon, but no second gorge is mentioned in the ancient sources. Nor could the author find a mountain pass near the gorge. The Bourne route eventually leads back to the Isere River at Grenoble.
A few miles south of the Isere is a more likely possibility—the Drome. This river enters the Rhone just north of the modern town of Le Pouzin, in an area that closely resembles, even today, what could have been the island mentioned in the manuscripts. But the Drome does not lead to the frontier with Italy. Its riverbed leads east, paralleling the D93 highway, but only as far as the pre-Alps. It does, however, come very close to the Durance River at one point, and Livy mentions that Hannibal eventually reached a river named the “Druentia”—a Latin name that is tantalizingly close in spelling and sound to the modern name Durance. While Hannibal would have avoided the lower reaches of the Durance where it flows into the Rhone near Arles for fear of encountering the Romans, farther north the river would have been a safer and easier route to Italy.
Along the Drome River route is the Gorges des Gas, which leads directly to a nearby pass, the Col de Grimone, accessed today by a roadway, the D539. The gorge and pass are less than sixty miles from where the Drome flows into the Rhone, a distance Hannibal’s column could have covered in the ten days the manuscripts say it took to reach the ambush point. Although the manuscripts also tell us there were times when the column lost its way, sometimes simply “wandering,” either because of the treachery of the native guides with them, or when they would not trust the guides, “their own blindness.” Often they had to guess at the route and then retrace their steps when they entered valleys that offered no exit.
After following the gorge for a few miles, the roadway narrows considerably, not far from the village of Glandage. Once through this defile, there is a long climb to the Col de Grimone, a pass at four thousand feet. From there, it is an easy descent to the small town of La Faurie, some fifteen miles away. This town might have been the one looted and burned by Hannibal’s army. From La Faurie, it is twenty miles to the Durance River at Tallard and from there an easy march of less than sixty miles along the level valley floor to the Italian frontier by way of the Col du Montgenevre.
Once Hannibal and his army entered the Durance River valley at Tallard, the route would have been clearly marked and relatively safe. The valley is wide and passes the modern towns of Embrun and Mont Dauphine. As the column entered the valley, a delegation of elders from the surrounding tribes approached, bearing branches as symbols of peace and promising Hannibal his army could pass through their territory in safety. Although Hannibal cautiously accepted their gestures of peace, he demanded hostages to guarantee their word, provisions to feed his army, and guides to lead them over the final barrier of mountains. The elders agreed; hostages were turned over, guides designated, and large quantities of supplies provided. Despite their assurances of friendship and their willing compliance with his demands, Hannibal remained skeptical. His army had survived a particularly bad time, which made him reluctant to accept overtures of peace and friendship from these mountain tribes at face value. While the elders had been very accommodating and were quick to comply with his demands, Hannibal suspected there was treachery afoot, but at the same time, he was careful to avoid any slight that might provoke them to attack.
As the column moved northeast along the valley and reached what is today the fortress town of Mont Dauphine, they were horrified by the view that unfolded before them. The ancient sources describe “a dreadful sight before their eyes; high peaks covered with snow and all around them everything stiff with cold.” They faced the highest and most formidable mountains in the Alps; a barrier so high it seemed to touch the heavens. These mountains were like nothing they had seen so far on their journey, and the sight brought back a hundredfold the fear that had gripped them when they first reached the Rhone. The peaks in this part of the Alps can rise to nearly fourteen thousand feet, and they stand like immovable, unassailable giants—daring anyone to scale their heights. Yet unknown to Hannibal and his army at this point in their journey, they were less than fifty miles from Italy.
Livy tells us that the people who inhabited these high mountains were “ragged and unkempt, more horrible to look upon than words can tell.” Another Roman, Pliny the Elder, writes that many of these mountain people suffered from a disfiguring condition that made them grotesque to look upon, and the Roman Diodorus describes them as living “a hard and luckless life” in huts or caves and because of constant climbing, hard work, and little food they were thin but muscular. Only “half-civilized” and barely able to sustain themselves, the Greek geographer Strabo recounts how they supplemented what little they had by attacking and plundering wealthier villages and towns at the lower elevations where people lived relatively comfortable lives. When they raided, they were without pity, killing not only all the males they found, but also any pregnant women whom their priests divined carried male children within them.
It was now late September or early October; Hannibal was anxious to press ahead as conditions in the higher elevations were deteriorating and becoming more dangerous as each day passed. The longer the delay, the more likely the column would be caught in bad weather. At that point, Hannibal made one of the most disastrous tactical decisions of his career, and at the same time the one that put him in the history books. At the urging of the guides offered by the elders, he led his army away from the safety of the wide valley floor of the Durance at Mont Dauphine and into a narrow gorge known as the Comb du Queyras. These guides assured Hannibal this was a quicker passage over the mountains, and the Boii in Hannibal’s entourage, probably not familiar with the area since they crossed into Gaul by one of the lower and easier passes at the southern end of the range, could not object. The Comb du Queyras is an ominous place, where Druid priests held ritual human sacrifices—hurling young virgins from its cliffs into the river below. Even in summer, when the sun is high overhead, the gorge is covered in dark shadows. Torrents and streams cascade down its cliffs, and today a narrow roadway, suspended over the swift and turbulent river below, clings precipitously to its walls as it follows the bed of an old Roman road.
Suspicious of his guides and concerned by the gorge, Hannibal tightened the formation. When the soldiers marched through territory where they felt secure, they moved in a more relaxed fashion. But in times of uncertainty, Hannibal moved the cavalry and the elephants to the head of the column and positioned the lighter infantry on the flanks to protect the baggage train and the civilians. Last in the column was the heavy infantry, which served as a rear guard under the direct command of Hannibal. As the column moved toward the gorge, the elders who had offered Hannibal their most sacred assurances of safe conduct were dispatching messengers to the outlying tribes with a call for armed men. The call was answered as men crawled out from their crags, caves, and hovels, all with one mind—to ambush the column and loot the baggage train of its weapons, horses, clothing, and food. On the wide, flat expanses of the valley floor, the elders knew their men were no match for Hannibal’s cavalry, his elephants, and his infantry. But an ambush in the gorge was something that gave them the advantage and was more conducive to their style of fighting.
The entrance to the gorge is narrow, so only a few soldiers at a time could get through. This slowed the column, causing it to back up for a considerable distance. Once in the gorge, soldiers found themselves moving along a narrow pathway with a steep wall on one side and a swiftly flowing river on the other. Concealed in the heights, the tribesmen were positioning themselves and waiting their chance to strike. They waited patiently as the column below moved deeper into the gorge. Behind the column, another force of Gauls shadowed at a distance, while at the far end, where the gorge opened into a small valley, a third force was assembling to massacre any survivors who might escape the ambush. The column moved slowly and apprehensively as the sides of the gorge closed in on them. Soldiers became silent as they glanced nervously at the heights above. At the front of the column, the Boii scanned the cliffs looking for any sign that might indicate an ambush, while the local tribesmen who were guiding the column became increasingly restless as they looked for an opportunity to escape before the carnage began. The hostages, like lambs being led to slaughter, marched dutifully in line, bound to their captors and meekly awaiting whatever fate had in store for them.