Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

From the Ebro to Italy

After the capture of Saguntum, Hannibal went into winter quarters at New Carthage. He gave a furlough to any of his Spanish troops that wished to visit their homes. "Come back," he said, "in early spring, and I will be your leader in a war from which both the glory and the gain will be immense." The winter he spent in maturing his great plan, which was nothing less than to invade Italy. Carthage, he knew, had been brought to the brink of destruction by being attacked at home; and this because her subjects had been raised against her. Rome, too, had subjects who were doubtless ill-content with her rule. Within the last hundred years she had added the greater part of Italy to her Empire. It was in Italy that he hoped to find his best allies. We shall see how far his hopes were fulfilled, how far they were disappointed.

In the spring he made a disposal of his forces. Some fifteen thousand, chiefly Spaniards, he sent into Africa. With his brother Hasdrubal he left an army of between twelve and thirteen thousand infantry, two thousand five hundred cavalry, five hundred slingers, and twenty-one elephants, besides a fleet of fifty-seven ships, chiefly of the largest size. His policy in making these arrangements was to garrison Africa with Spanish, and Spain with African troops. The force with which he himself crossed the Ebro consisted of ninety thousand infantry and twelve thousand cavalry.

To cross the Ebro, which was still nominally the boundary between Rome and Carthage, was formally to commence hostilities. On the night before he made the passage, Hannibal, who had lately returned from a solemn visit to the temple of Melcarth at Gades, had a dream. He saw a youth of godlike shape, who said, "Jupiter has sent me to lead your army into Italy. Follow me, but look not behind." Hannibal followed trembling, but could not, after a while, keep his eyes from looking behind. He saw a serpent of marvelous size moving onwards, and destroying the forest as it went. When he asked what this might mean, his guide answered, "This is the devastation of Italy. Go on and ask no more, but leave the designs of fate in darkness."

Hannibal's numbers, indeed, were much diminished before he reached the foot of the Alps, which was to be the first stage in his journey. He had to conquer the country between the Ebro and the Pyrenees, and leave a large force to hold it; and he felt it wise to dismiss to their homes a number of men who were unwilling or afraid to go on with him. It was with fifty thousand foot and nine thousand horse that he crossed the Pyrenees. From the Pyrenees he marched with little opposition to the Rhone. His route seems to have led him to Nemausus (now Nismes), while the point at which he touched the river was probably Roquemaure. Polybius describes it as being four days' march from the mouth. He found the further bank occupied by a strong force of the neighbouring Gauls. His guides informed him that some twenty-five miles higher up the river there was an island, and that when the stream was divided it was shallow and comparatively easy to cross. Accordingly he sent Hanno, son of Bomilcar, with a party of his army to cross at this place, and to take the enemy in the rear. Hanno found no one to oppose him. His Spanish troops, men accustomed to the water, put their clothes and arms on bladders, and swam to the further bank, pushing these before them; the Africans, who had not had the same experience, crossed upon rafts. Hannibal meanwhile was making his own preparations for the passage. He had collected from friendly tribes on the right bank of the river a number of small boats. These he used for his infantry. Larger vessels and rafts constructed by his own men were reserved for the cavalry, and were put higher up the stream, to break the force of the current against the lighter craft. When all was ready he gave the signal to start. The enemy, though startled by his boldness in thus crossing in face of their opposition, would doubtless have stood firm, and, perhaps, successfully resisted him, but for the force which had already made the passage higher up the river. At the critical moment they saw behind them the smoke of the fires which, by a concerted plan, Hanno and his infantry had lighted. They found themselves taken in the rear, a danger which no undisciplined troops can brave. Hannibal, familiar with this fact, pushed boldly on. He was himself in one of the foremost boats, and, leaping to shore, led his men to the charge. The Gauls broke and fled almost without striking a blow. He had still to get his elephants across. A large raft was covered with earth and moored firmly to the bank, and to this again a smaller raft, similarly disguised, was attached. The elephants, led by two females, were taken first upon the larger, then upon the smaller raft, and, fancying themselves still upon dry ground, made no objection. Then the smaller raft was detached, and propelled across the stream. The great beasts were frightened when they found themselves afloat, but their very terror kept them quiet; and two that plunged into the water, though their unfortunate drivers were drowned, got safely to the opposite shore.

Hannibal marched up the left bank of the Rhone till he reached the Isere. Here he made a valuable ally in a chief of the Allobroges, whom he supported against a younger brother that was claiming the throne. This prince supplied his army with stores of all kinds, among which shoes are especially mentioned, and escorted him as far as the foot of the Alps.

But, it will be asked, were the Romans doing nothing to defend themselves against this invasion? They had other work on their hands, for they were at war with the Gauls in what is now Northern Italy, but was then called Cisalpine or Hither Gaul. The first armies they could raise were sent against them; but Publius Cornelius Scipio (a name of which we shall hear much hereafter) was dispatched with a force to the mouths of the Rhone. Had he moved up the river at once he might have hindered Hannibal's passage, but he sat still. A proof that the Carthaginians were near was soon given him. Hannibal had sent a squadron of African horse to reconnoitre, and this fell in with some cavalry which Scipio had sent out for the same purpose. A sharp skirmish followed. It was the first occasion on which the two enemies crossed swords, and the Romans won the day. When his cavalry had returned, Scipio marched up the river; but he found Hannibal gone, and did not think it well to follow him. Returning to the sea, he sent the greater part of his army under his brother Cnaeus into Spain, and sailed back with the rest to Italy. This policy of strengthening the Roman force in Spain, in face of what seemed a greater danger nearer home, was masterly, and was to bear good fruit in after time.

Hannibal's route across the Alps has been the subject of much controversy, into which I do not intend to enter. The view which seems to me the most probable is that he marched up the left bank of the Rhone as far as Vienne; then, leaving the river, struck across the level country of Upper Dauphiny, and met the river again at St. Genix. Thence he marched up the valley of the Upper Isere, and crossed by the pass of the Little St. Bernard, descending into the Valley of Aosta.

The dangers and difficulties of the passage are described in vivid language by the historians, and indeed they must have been terrible. To take an army, with all its stores and baggage, the horses, and the elephants, across the Alps, was indeed a wonderful task; still more wonderful when we consider how late it was in the year when the attempt was made It was almost the end of October before the summit of the pass was reached, and the seasons, there is little reason to doubt, were colder then than they are now.

If Hannibal had only had natural obstacles to contend with he would have had plenty to do; but he found the mountain tribes fiercely hostile. They resented the intrusion of this formidable force into their country, and they saw an excellent opportunity for plundering. Their attacks began as soon as he commenced the ascent, and were continued till he had nearly reached the highest point. The first stage of the march was at the pass which leads to the Lake of Bourget. Every mile of this had to be won by hard fighting. The road was steep and narrow, and the barbarians attacked the army from points of vantage. It was only Hannibal's foresight in occupying a still higher position, which the enemy had left during the night, that prevented a most serious loss. When the plain at the upper end of the pass was reached, the disciplined army had nothing to fear. The mountaineers' fortified town was stormed, and much of the property that had been lost was regained. The next three days' march was made without opposition; and then the mountain tribes, seeing that force had failed, tried what treachery could do. Their chiefs came into the camp, offered hostages, sent in supplies, and promised to guide the army by the best and shortest route. Hannibal did not wholly trust them, and took precautions against a sudden attack. But he allowed the guides to lead him into a dangerous defile, where the longer road would have been safer. At the most critical point of the march the enemy attacked, rolling down great rocks or sending showers of stones from the cliffs. The loss was great, but the army struggled through. The elephants, difficult as they must have been to drive up those narrow and slippery roads, were of great service. The mountaineers were terrified at the sight of them, and wherever they were visible did not venture to approach.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The story of how Hannibal split with fire and vinegar the rocks which his men could neither remove or climb over is so famous that it cannot be omitted, though it is not easy to imagine how the vinegar came to be there. Had his foresight, wonderful as it was, extended so far as to provide this most unlikely kind of store? But without further criticism I shall quote Livy's own words. "Having to cut into the stone, they heaped up a huge pile of wood from great trees in the neighbourhood, which they had felled and lopped. As soon as there was strength enough in the wind to create a blaze they lighted the pile, and melted the rocks, as they heated, by pouring vinegar upon them. The burning stone was then cleft open with iron implements."

Livy represents this incident as occurring in the course of the descent. By that time the work, of course, was really done. The army took nine days, we are told, to make its way to the top. That once reached, they were permitted to rest two days. When they resumed their march a fall of snow almost reduced them to despair. But Hannibal told them to keep up their courage. He would show them the end of their toils. And indeed, a little further on, they came to a point from which they could look down on the rich plains of Italy. "You are climbing," he cried to his men, "not the walls of Italy only, but of Rome itself. What remains will be a smooth descent; after one or, at the most, two battles, we shall have the capital of Italy in our hands."

Six days sufficed for the descent. It was more than four months since Hannibal had started from New Carthage. His losses on the way had been terrible. He brought down with him into the plains of Italy not more than twenty thousand infantry (three-fifths of them Africans and the remainder Spaniards) and six thousand cavalry; and he had left thirty-three thousand, most of them victims of disease and cold, upon his road. This was the force, if we are to reckon only his regular troops, with which he was to undertake the conquest of Italy. The numbers rest on the authority of a Roman who was a prisoner in the Carthaginian camp, and who heard them from the lips of the great general himself.