|New book pinpoints
Hannibal's route over the Alps—York University News Release
Available at Amazon.com
The exact route Hannibal, one of the greatest militarists
of all time, took in 218 BC over the Alps to invade Italia has remained
a controversial and unresolved question, but York geography Professor
Emeritus William Mahaney believes environmental science can add
much to the debate.
In his upcoming book, Hannibal's Odyssey: Environmental
Background to the Alpine Invasion of Italia, Mahaney argues
the southern route over the Col de la Traversette is the most likely
path, given geological, topographical and environmental evidence
that matches the description of the route in the ancient literature.
“I don’t think anybody’s gone after
this from an environmental perspective before,” says Mahaney.
“But the main objective is to identify sites worth geoarcheological
The lee side of the Col de la Traversette is the only
place in the western Alps where a two-tiered deposit exists. It
was described by ancient Greek historian Polybius in his accounts
of Hannibal’s journey as a “landslide”, but it
is actually a rockfall, says Mahaney. Until Mahaney discovered the
rockfall on one of his three expeditions to the Alps, the location
of it was one of the missing puzzle pieces in determining Hannibal’s
exact route with the Punic army, leading up to the Second Punic
War (218-202 BC).
“I think what is really interesting is that
I’ve managed to identify some geoarcheological sites of interest
that could be further explored,” says Mahaney, former director
of York’s Geomorphology and Pedology Lab, previously housed
in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies. Once
the correct route is identified, archeologists can start excavating
the area in search of artifacts that would shed more light on the
history and military culture of the time. It would be even more
important to archeologists than historians, he says.
“Even though Hannibal was a great militarist,
he left no records,” says Mahaney. “Everything we know
about him comes out of Roman literature.” Polybius, who wrote
his account of the journey after retracing Hannibal’s steps
from Iberia to Italia 60-some years later, is considered one of
the more reliable sources along with Roman historian Livy (Titus
Livius), who also wrote about the route using long-gone historical
texts, although he never travelled it. The great march of the Punic
army under Hannibal across the Pyrénées to the Rhône
River and over the Alps is still considered one of the largest and
most daunting military operations in history.
The discovery of the two-tiered rockfall on the lee
side of the Alps, along with several other topographical indicators,
has Mahaney convinced that Hannibal took the southern route through
the Queyras and over the Col de la Traversette.
Over the centuries, historians have argued over three
main routes, each believing one of them was the path taken by Hannibal
and his army, numbering some 50,000 men, horses and elephants. The
southern route, however, was first advocated in the 1960s by former
director of the British Natural History Museum, Sir Gavin De Beer.
Several other indicators point to the southern route
as the most plausible, says Mahaney. Polybius described a great
view of the lowlands and a place where the army could regroup on
the lee side in his accounts, as well as the presence of snow firn
pack (dense snow). Such a view is only present at the Col de la
Traversette, the highest of all possible mountain passes in the
Alps that Hannibal might have transited. The army could have gathered
on the lee side of the Col de la Traversette at the Po River catchment
where there is sporadic firn pack on the east as well as the west
Polybius also indicated that Hannibal used timber
to fire fallen boulders to clear a path down the mountain. The boulders
were then doused with sour wine while still hot, which would cause
them to split making them easier to move. Whereas fired rock is
not present at the site of the two-tiered rockfall, it is found
near a rockfall 60 kilometers to the north, below the Col de Clapier.
Whether the northern rockfall could have been fired by Hannibal
remains to be seen. Mahaney and his colleagues have taken samples
and are having them tested using paleomagnetism to determine their
age at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.
Mahaney, who was fascinated by the history surrounding
Hannibal, has examined and analyzed the topography and environment
on each of the three.