Over the Alps

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Despite his best efforts, Hannibal’s mission to conquer Rome would ultimately fail. Though he pushed the Republic to the very brink of destruction, he was unable to sack Rome and complete his conquest—a testament to Rome’s tenacity in the face of utter annihilation rather than any lack of capacity on Hannibal’s part. Livy writes of the Hannibalic war, “The final issue hung so much in doubt that the eventual victors came nearer to destruction than their adversaries.” However, even before he took his first steps into the Italian peninsula to begin one of the most devastating and memorable conflicts in human history, Hannibal had already catapulted his name into legend with what many consider to be his crowning achievement: his astonishing crossing of the Alps.

Hannibal’s crossing looms large as one of the most memorable achievements of military logistics to ever occur. The tale of this Carthaginian commander boldly leading his forces, including several dozen elephants, into a mountain range thought to be impassable by all his contemporaries, and not only completing the passage, but doing so in a matter of weeks, has a feel of mythic awe about it. It is the sort of story that feels like it has more in common with legend and folklore than with sensible military strategy. To this day it is still admired as a watershed moment of military command, especially given the plethora of obstacles the general faced. For Hannibal had to not only cross an extraordinarily treacherous mountain range, but he had to do so in the midst of hostile tribes, with limited supplies, and perhaps worst of all, in the chill of winter. And, of course, he had to do so with his army intact and ready to take on the Roman forces upon their arrival in hostile territory. All of these challenges may cause the observer to ask a pressing question: why would a military commander who possessed a wealth of experience (as Hannibal did) make such an audacious gamble?

Hannibal’s crossing has fired the imaginations of countless artists.

The answer to this question can never be fully known. Perhaps Hannibal was misinformed about the arduous nature of the crossing; even though he was successful, the ancient sources still estimate the loss to be enormously high—some even suggest up to half his force was lost in the endeavor. Perhaps he was supremely confident in his troops’ abilities to surmount such an immense struggle. But also we must consider what Hannibal gained from such an endeavor: certainly, it would entail an enormous amount of loss and hardship, but the potential boons were enormous too. At the time when Hannibal elected to undergo his legendary passage, he was faced with the problem of either crossing the purportedly impassable Alps, with winter rapidly approaching, or taking the southerly and far more hospitable route through the region of Massalia (modern Marseilles); the route the Romans expected him to take. The problem with taking the southerly route however, was just that: all of Rome was anticipating his forces’ arrival through that passage. Rome had long viewed the Alps as Italy’s impenetrable northern barrier, and therefore entirely logically predicted that Hannibal would head south, by way of Massalia, to make his entrance into Italy.  Thus, in response to that eventuality, Rome had taken the prudent course of stationing a well-equipped, armed, and entrenched army at Massalia, to bar Hannibal’s passage into Italy, and keep the war off Roman lands.

The Alps are an extraordinarily rugged and beautiful setting.
The Alps are an extraordinarily rugged and beautiful setting.

Thus, Hannibal was faced with a choice: he could attempt to force his way through a Roman army waiting for him, on their terms, before ever arriving on Italian soil, or he could take what was arguably an even greater risk—putting his entire army on the line without ever proffering battle. There were, of course, a variety of other factors effecting the final decision. Livy states that Gallic tribes in the northern reaches of Italy, who for years had been eager to break free of Roman control, offered Hannibal their full support upon his arrival in their lands. Circumnavigating the Roman army would enable him to choose the time and place of his encounters (an asset that was critical to all of Hannibal’s most memorable victories), and force them to react to his movements, rather than the other way around. Every victory won in Italy, Rome’s very homeland, would have far greater ramifications than those abroad, as Hannibal would be able to capitalize on his victories with greater alacrity and inflict more significant and lasting damage to his opponent.

Perhaps my favorite reason for Hannibal’s legendary choice, though, is one that is less purely logical. As Hannibal made his decision, a man of his intellect must have been able to discern the potential psychological ramifications of his crossing should he succeed. Not only would he outmaneuver his enemy’s position and appear in their backyard with his army, he would have done so in a fashion that, a month before, his opponents would have deemed utterly inconceivable. The Alps were impossible to cross for an army in the best of times, the Romans would have said, let alone for an army of foreigners in the midst of winter, surrounded by hostile tribes. It is not hard to imagine the Senate never even fathoming that Hannibal would attempt so outrageous a maneuver, and then to envision their horror and dismay at discovering not only had he done so, but done so in a matter of 16 days. For the Romans, it would appear as if they were facing a man who was capable of achieving the impossible, a man who could overcome the most unimaginable obstacles. What sort of mortal could achieve such feats? Surely, Hannibal must be more than a man—he must be an instrument of divine retribution upon the Republic. The psychological force that such an accomplishment must have had in and of itself is a worthy justification for attempting a feat that seems more herculean than mortal.

The heights of the Col de Clapier Pass- Hannibal's army may have camped on this very spot
The heights of the Col de Clapier Pass- Hannibal’s army may have camped on this very spot

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the seminal work of Roman literature that would be written some centuries later, neither Hannibal nor his crossing is forgotten. While only spoken of in allusion, the text constantly whispers about his coming: upon her funeral pyre, Carthaginian Queen Dido summons the arrival of an avenging spirit and the resulting reckoning he will bring upon Aeneas’s descendants. He is the dark force that will one day sweep down from the towering Alps. He is the greatest antagonist the world’s greatest empire will ever face, and his crossing of the Alps, perhaps more than any other achievement, shows just how worthy a nemesis Rome had found.

It is a great irony then, that, for such a famed event in human history, our data is far from concrete. Nearly two and a quarter millennia from the time Hannibal carved his name into legend, our best archaeological evidence has yet to conclude with any certainty what Hannibal’s path was exactly. The ancient sources only provide a fairly loose outline, and scholars have argued for centuries between many potential candidates for THE route. Nevertheless, it would be an offense of unimaginable proportions to claim to be following Hannibal’s trail, and ignore its most epic moment. The path we ultimately decided on is the one that in recent years has been most firmly advanced, by sources such as Stanford archaeologist Patrick Hunt and Hannibalic scholar Serge Lancel. In truth, when examining the region, it is also the one that topographically makes the most sense. The route we set out to follow took us first northeast along the Isere river valley, which stretches all the way from the Rhone into the mountains, and then along the Maurienne river valley which intersects with it, south, until, finally, crossing the Alps at the Col de Clapier pass.

Arriving in Grenoble, it is impossible to overstate the sense of awe that overcame us, staring upon the beetling peaks of the looming mountains. Assuming this is the route Hannibal took, the path along the river’s edge is not hard to trace, nor is it hard to imagine that the mountains, austere and unmoved by the passing of the centuries, looked almost the same in his day as they do in ours. In summertime, it is a region of incomparable beauty, with gorgeous, Tolkeinesque mountains surrounding a landscape largely composed of small villages and open fields. With our 15 kilogram packs on, we hoped to get a rough sense of what it would be like trudging throughout the region, day-in and day-out, but we assumed our trek would be leisurely in comparison to hardships endured by Hannibal and his men. Indeed we anticipated that by and large we would have to simply imagine what the Carthaginian army’s struggle must have been like, and that we would not truly be able to empathize with the exhaustion, misery, and even terror they must have endured on their journey in winter. We were wrong.

The Isere River carves through a gorgeous, wide valley
The Isere River carves through a gorgeous, wide valley

In the Alps, even in the height of Summer, the weather is merciless. At night it can drop down into the low 40’s, coupled with seemingly perpetual wind and rain. Those rare days of sun are a blessing—and one that any would-be adventurer must take full advantage of to compensate for the many days they will be drenched to the bone. As it happened, our guide book’s lack of proper warning, and our haphazard, typical college-student-level of preparation, left us far from being fully ready for the struggles we would face on the trek across the Alps. Despite all of this, the week and a half we spent undergoing our own crossing was by far the most memorable and incredible of the entire journey.

Standard Alpine Weather
Standard Alpine Weather

Our own crossing began idyllically enough, with a beautiful summer day as we covered mile after mile of charming French countryside. Walking roughly along the Isere river, we walked through a number of quaint villages, full of people who rarely see tourists at all, especially outside of ski season. On the rare occasions we found people who spoke enough English, we eagerly inquired as to whether they knew anything of Hannibal, to incredibly mixed results—some had only barely heard of him, some said they knew the precise path he took, one even claimed they had Carthaginian blood in them from a deserter who stayed in the region. However, after such a lovely start, we made the foolish assumption that the weather would be as mild, the hiking as easy-going, and the experience as enjoyable as it had been thus far.

For nearly a full week following, it poured everyday. The skies were perpetually gray, and we seemed to be perpetually drenched. After giving us an enticing taste of good weather, the Alps decided to unleash the full fury they could muster: while camping in a makeshift tent we prepared the first night, a storm of apocalyptic portions swept in, forcing us to take shelter in the campsite’s ‘Sink Room.’ From that point onward, every minute it wasn’t raining we had to take as a blessing. Many times, we had to take shelter in countless forms of ramshackle locations, from tumbledown warehouses, to abandoned stables. All the while we pressed along the Isere, and eventually, around the Maurienne. Even despite the steep challenges the rain posed, we were constantly impressed by the panoramic display of the countryside, and, as we got deeper into the mountains, the scenery only improved. Walking along the river valleys, flanked by mountains in every direction, one cannot help but be overcome by a since of wonder. The number of times we stopped to soak it all in, even in the rain, is beyond counting, and something that I hope our photographs can communicate even more effectively than my words.

Our majestic and masterfully crafted tent
Our majestic and masterfully crafted tent

While walking along the river valleys was a challenge and a pleasure in its own right, nothing compared to the time we had to undertake our own crossing. The weather had been getting gradually colder as we had gotten deeper into the mountains, with frigid alpine winds barraging us, and we knew with altitude it would only get worse. Indeed, we had to stay an extra night at one of our alpine inns, simply because the rain that day would have made for a horrifically miserable ascent. Thus, when the gods (whether Roman or Carthaginian, who can say) granted us another rare day of sunshine, we seized our opportunity, ascending toward the Col de Clapier in the most outlandishly gorgeous part of the journey, amplifying all aspects of the undertaking with which we had already become familiar. The wind blew colder, the panoramas more beautiful, the hiking more arduous and steep. Standing atop a ridge overlooking an alpine lake of indescribable beauty, gazing down on a trio of sculptures depicting Hannibal and his elephants, Napoleon and his horses, and the Tour de France Racers and their bicycles in turn, was a sight that was so breathtaking it nearly moved me to tears. Marching up ever higher, the air growing thinner and chillier, each step burned with a continually greater ferocity, as if agony and beauty were always meant to walk hand in hand.

Legendary Crossings from across the Centuries
Legendary Crossings from across the Centuries

In spite of the incredible sites and sensations we experienced throughout the Alps, no part of the journey bears a greater emotional impact, and sense of historical resonance, than reaching the summit of the Col de Clapier. As we ascended the narrow pass, staring up towards that famous ridge, we could look out at the valley around us, in many parts with snow still clinging to the cliffside, under a moody gray sky, and imagine the desperately hungry and exhausted Carthaginian army clambering up the cliffside—so very close to their ultimate goal. Ascending the pass even in the summertime is no mean feat, with the ground in many places becoming marshland, and in others drying up to loose, craggy scree.  It is said that from atop the pass Hannibal pointed down on the plain of the Po valley into Italy, to show his men how close they were. From the height of the pass, we too, despite the clouds that shrouded the air, could see the distant Po sprawled out before us; perhaps that very same site Hannibal gestured to all those centuries ago.

"Look men. The Po lies just beyond!"
“Look men. The Po lies just beyond!”

As it would turn out, reaching the height of the pass was very far from the end of our journey: as Livy suggested, the descent was far more trying than the ascent. Hannibal’s losses on the descent are depicted as horrendous, and, after experiencing the downward slope ourselves, it is little wonder why. The journey downhill was so steep, and the footing in many places so precarious, that many times we called into question the wisdom of our endeavor. The path would often times vanish all together, and we had to survey the nearby hillsides in order to discern how to press forward. If these obstacles alone weren’t enough, scarcely a few minutes into our downward journey, another torrential rain began to pour down on us, soaking us through to our socks, and making the entire path slick and ever more treacherous. What would have already been a brutal descent changed into an experience of more or less undiluted misery, that even the view of distant Italy, seeming never to inch closer, could do little to repress. Performing this trying descent, often over narrow riverbed ravines, and through dense underbrush, with a mere two people and at the height of summer was an extremely trying experience. To envision anyone doing it with an army in winter is virtually unthinkable. When we finally arrived at a paved road once again, what felt like an epoch of toil later, we were so relieved that we collapsed to our knees. We had never expected that in our journey we would be able to empathize with Hannibal’s men to such an extent, but, in hindsight, I feel as though it is all the more appropriate that we did. Had we faced no true hardship, no minute risk of perishing, we could never have truly claimed to have experienced what Hannibal’s crossing must have been like. We could never have fully realized how mind bogglingly outlandish his achievement was. As it stands now, for all its beauty and hardship, all its elation and toil, our own crossing will loom large forevermore in my mind, as one of the most unforgettable experiences I have ever had. P1010403

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