In 218 BCE, the Carthaginian general Hannibal led an army across the Alps into Italy, touching off the Second Punic War. On the question of exactly where Hannibal crossed the Alps, there’s always been a lot of, for lack of a better term, horse pucky. The ancient sources are vague and of dubious reliability. In the absence of solid evidence, numerous distinct schools of thought on the question have emerged. There are the military professionals who argue that Hannibal must have taken the easiest, most straightforward route open to him. There are the romantics who insist that Hannibal’s army must have taken a difficult and dangerous route befitting such a momentous expedition. The folklorists are persuaded by local legends in the Alps while the textualists wrangle over which of the literary sources is more reliable. Now some literal horse pucky may be getting us closer to an answer.
The whole route hangs on the identification of two specific points. One is an area called the “island” somewhere in the valley of the Rhone river. The other is the pass by which Hannibal’s army crossed the Alps. While the “island” is still uncertain, recent archaeological work may have identified the Alpine pass. As reported in Archaeometry in March, 2016, a large deposit of horse manure and disturbed soil near the Col de la Traversette indicates the passage of a large number of horses dated to the period of the Second Punic War. If this finding stands up to further scrutiny, it may allow us to pin down Hannibal’s Alpine crossing.
Identifying the Traversette as the pass Hannibal’s army took would have some interesting implications for our interpretation of the war as a whole. Although favored by some scholars (notably Sir Gavin de Beer), the Traversette has usually been dismissed as too high, narrow, and difficult for Hannibal’s army, especially when several lower, wider, easier passes were available within a few days’ march. The military-history school in particular has argued that Hannibal would not have set out on his march without good advance intelligence about the Alpine passes and that intelligence would have persuaded him never to attempt the Traversette. If Hannibal did indeed take his army by the Traversette, it suggests that his advance intelligence was not as good as modern historians imagine (whether because Hannibal didn’t know enough about the available passes or because he allowed his army to get into such desperate straits that he had to take a pass he knew was a bad choice).
If Hannibal’s intelligence-gathering was less than optimal, that would also help to explain the major strategic failure of his campaign: overestimating the central Italian cities’ readiness to cast off Roman hegemony. Hannibal’s strategy against Rome depended on stripping Rome of its allies and conquests. While he found ready support in the areas of northern and southern Italy that had only recently been conquered by Rome, very few cities in Rome’s core central Italian territory were willing to join him.
It’s always important to take new findings with caution. Further research may cast doubt on this new evidence. For now though, the poop looks promising.
Post edited for clarity
Image: Tarentine didrachm struck during the Second Punic War, photograph by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia (c. 212-209 BCE; silver)