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(From Geology Today, v. 24, 2008)

Hannibal and The Alps: unravelling the invasion route

W.C. Mahaney1, Barbara Kapran1 & Pierre Tricart2

1 Geography Department, 4700 Keele St, North York, Ontario, Canada, M3J1P3
2 Observatoire Des Sciences De L’universitaire, Bp 53, F-38041, Grenoble, France

Over the last two millennia all the proposed invasion routes followed by the Punic Army in 218 BC have been based on historical and topographic analysis provided by Polybius and Livy, the two main ancient sources. Because Polybius actually followed the invasion route 60 years after the trek he is considered the prime authority. Livy never left his residence in Padua and studied the invasion from sources no longer available to us. Neither source provides a name for the approach route and ultimate col of transit into Italia but Polybius does state the col is the highest in the Alps—tas huperbolas tas anõtatõ. Several other ancient authors including Varro, Servius and Strabo list the cols from south to north as Col de Larche, Hannibal’s Pass, Col de Montgenèvre and Col de Mt Cenis, thus limiting Hannibal’s Pass to one of the three major cols south of the Col de Montgenèvre, which are from south to north, Col Agnel, Col de la Traversette and Col de la Croix. Invoking available geological and environmental evidence tied to descriptions in the ancient literature it is apparent Hannibal, either by design or happenstance, approached the Alps through the Queyras, the ultimate col of passage being the Col de la Traversette at nearly 3000 m above sea level. The implications of this find for geoarchaeology are enormous and offer the opportunity to find artefacts that will undoubtedly offer new insights into the military culture of ancient Carthage.

One of the most controversial questions in ancient history centres on the invasion route followed by the Punic Army in one of the most daring military enterprises of all time, the invasion of Italia in 218 BC. The invasion itself is important because it opened a northern front in what promised to be a series of land battles at low elevation in North Africa, or Iberia—no one expected a Carthaginian attack from the northern frontier of the Roman Republic. Establishing the exact route—north, intermediate, south—followed by the Punic Army (see Figs 1A,B), whilst of importance to historians, is of greater significance to archaeologists as it offers the prospect of identifying key sites that might be excavated to discover artefacts that might yield important new information on the military culture of ancient Carthage. Conflicting interpretations of Polybius and Livy have been presented and discussed by numerous researchers over the years including such luminaries as Edward Gibbon (1814), and Napoléon (de Montholon, 1905); and eminent military historians including Dodge (1891), Hart (1967), Lazenby (1978), General Sir Nigel Bagnall (1999), Goldsworthy (2001) and Sir Gavin de Beer (1967, 1969). Aside from analysis of topographic features and arguable interpretations of what Polybius actually meant by several passages in his The Rise of the Roman Empire, only de Beer attempted to invoke analysis of natural history, principally river flow data to argue for a southern route through the Queyras and over the Col de la Traversette into the upper Po River catchment. Yet geology and especially geomorphology/pedology offer the possibility of reconstructing the invasion route and identifying particular sites of interest to geoarchaeologists.

© Blackwell Publishing Ltd, The Geologists’ Association & The Geological Society of London , Geology Today, Vol. 24, No. 6, November–December 2008

Cover from Geology Today, Dec, 2008, showing the exfiltration trail out of the Col de la Traversette. The trail lower right leads around a bedrock bar and switchbacks down into the Upper Po River Valley where Hannibal regrouped after clearing a way through the two-tier rockfall described by Polybius (see Mahaney, ‘Hannibal’s Odyssey’, 2008).