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Hannibal And His Elephants Crosses The Alps ?

Hannibal and elephants crosses the Alps

Hannibal's army surprises Rome by attacking from the north; the Carthaginian chief made his elephants cross the Alps! An extraordinary feat which has excited historians, but which raises many questions.

When he came to power in 221 BC, the 27-year-old Hannibal seems to be driven only by the desire to avenge his father Hamilcar, defeated by Rome after the First Punic War. Rome, eternal rival of Carthage, and which is on the way to impose its supremacy in the Mediterranean, becomes the sole object of Hannibal's resentment. Consolidating his father's conquests in Spain, he prepares to engage in a second Punic war the seasoned troops he intends to lead to the walls of Rome.

A brilliant strategist and unparalleled tactician, Hannibal had a troop of some 60,000 professional mercenaries recruited from the subjugated peoples of Carthage. Libyans, specialists in javelin, with legendary resistance and who will still form two-thirds of the infantry after crossing the Alps. By their side, Iberian infantrymen and Balearic mercenaries. This light infantry is supported by a Numidian cavalry armed with a few javelins and a simple dagger, virtuosos capable of leading two horses at a time and changing horses in the middle of the race to spare their mounts. It is therefore a very mobile and seasoned army that Hannibal has assembled, an army which also has an impressive "armored cavalry": the famous elephants.

Hannibal's "armor"

The military effectiveness of elephants, Carthage has already tested to its cost by facing the mastodons of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. Before him, it was the Indians and then the Persians who first used the force of impact and fear of this "armored cavalry". To march on Rome, Hannibal gathers no less than 37 elephants whose mission in battle is to break through enemy lines by terrifying them: led by a mahout, they charge, trumpeting, their heads held high between their monstrous outstretched ears, standing between their terrible tusks the "proboscis", that trunk that Lucretia describes as "a hand in the shape of a serpent". Their scent is sometimes enough to panic an opponent's horses.

An extraordinary logistical feat

Even more than the expeditions of Alexander the Great, the crossing of the Alps by a Carthaginian army of several tens of thousands of men and a heavy stewardship, an imposing cavalry and an "armored division" of 37 elephants represents an unprecedented feat that will ignite the minds of historians like Polybius and Livy.

Hannibal launched his army from Cartagena in Spain in May 218. It crossed the Ebro then the Pyrenees via the Perthus pass and was preparing to cross the Rhône at the end of August, probably at Villeneuve-lès-Avignon or Pont-Saint-Esprit. The surprise is total for the Romans! When Cornelius Scipio and his legions arrive in Marseilles, Hannibal is already halfway to Rome, it is too late to intercept him.

Voluntarily reduced to 40,000 men and guided by the Gauls, the army engages in Maurienne by the Arc River Valley and finally reaches a pass after nine days, at the "sunset of the Pleiades", that is to say the end of October, at the approach of winter. The Petit-Mont-Cenis pass, the Clapier pass or more probably the Savine-Coche pass at an altitude of nearly 2,500 m? There is no way today to find the route that elephants would have been able to take.

The Alps, tomb of the elephants?

"These are the ramparts of Rome that you have just climbed", Hannibal exclaims to his exhausted troops who have reached the top of the Alps. The descent to the Po Plain takes place under the snow and is even more perilous than the ascent, taking a path blocked by scree. How many elephants have managed to cross over the Alps ?

Neither Livy nor Polybius makes this clear. According to the numbers engraved by Hannibal's order on the bronze table at Cape Lacinion in southern Italy, the Carthaginian army which has reached this point is reduced to 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry ... but how many elephants?

We only know that Hannibal has no more than seven able-bodied elephants, six of which will freeze to death, before the brilliant victories of Trasimeno and then Cannes in Apulia. Then there will be only one left, baptized Syrus, with whom he will parade through the conquered cities.

Extinct animals

During the summer of 1959, it was a strange crew that the Savoyards could observe in the direction of the Clapier pass: led if not "cheated" by an Englishman, a young Asian elephant named Jumbo tried to cross over the Alps! The adventure will end in failure, and the animal can only reach Italy by the Mont-Cenis national road. Other attempts will take place, which will also fail. How then could Hannibal achieve such a feat 2000 years ago? The answer may lie in these animals that we know nothing about because they were the Berber elephants, Loxodonta africana cyclotis, which have now completely disappeared. Cousin of the mighty African elephant, but smaller than the Asian elephant, reputed to be intelligent and easy to train, did this elephant exhibit any particular faculties that would have enabled it to achieve a feat that some still doubt?