A Note on Hannibal’s Losses During the Crossing of the Alps

Hannibal and his army forging their way through alpine snow Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian general, is famous, among other feats, for his epic crossing of the Alps in 218 BCE. At the time, such passage of the apparently impenetrable barrier of the Alps was regarded as impossible, but Hannibal accomplished it, true to the dictum most often attributed to him, “We will find a way, and if there is no way, we will make a way!” But, at what cost? He has been often criticized for the enormous losses of men and animals mentioned in the pro-Roman narratives of Polybius and Livy, the two main sources of what we know of his life and deeds. Essentially, these hardly impartial “historians” claim that he lost some 20,000 men, half of his army, to the elements and the attacks by hostile mountain tribesmen, a staggering toll to have paid. Although Napoleon actually praises him for the willingness to sacrifice half his army in order to secure his field of battle, others deride him for what they label one of the worst blunders or disasters in history. Did such massive losses actually occur?

Before leaving Italy after 16 years undefeated in a foreign land, despite being cut off from his supply lines and receiving practically no reinforcements from Carthage, Hannibal prepared a bronze stele where he recorded the strength of his army as he arrived in Italy across the Alps. This stele was actually viewed by Polybius at the Temple of Juno Lacinia in Croton, and he reports that the bilingual inscription gives his numbers as 20,000 infantry, and 6,000 cavalry, plus the famous 37 elephants who accompanied him over the high mountains. These numbers, in all likelihood accurate, are most impressive, in view of the manpower available to his enemy, the predatory and militaristic Roman Republic, essentially 700,000 men, according to Polybius’s estimations. To defeat army after Roman army, to the point that the Romans feared facing him on the battlefield and tried to just follow him at a distance (occasionally failing to do so only to be crushed in battle once more), for 16 long years, against such overwhelming odds, speaks volumes of the genius of the invincible Carthaginian commander, justly considered by many as the greatest general in history.

A recent study by a Spanish academician, Salvador García Tomás, contains a careful analysis of the numerical strengths of Hannibal’s forces as he started his epic expedition against Rome from Iberian Qart Hadasht (today’s Cartagena), proceeding north across the Pyrenees, crossing the Rhone River, and then marching over the high Alps into Italy. He takes into account the garrisons left at different points, the troops repositioned, those dismissed or returned back to Spain or North Africa, and those lost before arriving at the Alps, computing a fairly precise number of likely losses during the actual crossing. Hannibal’s men who perished during the passage did not total 20,000, nor 10,000, nor even 5,000 or 1,000, but instead about 500, from a combination of the difficult terrain, the weather, and the attacks from the mountain Gauls!

An attack by the mountain Gauls, who rolled boulders and otherwise harassed Hannibal's army. Five-hundred is a much more reasonable number than the alleged 20,000, still quite a few men to lose, but not a catastrophic figure like 20,000, that would have plunged any reasonable commander into a pit of despair. Prof. García points out that in practically all instances where the pro-Roman historians reported events not actually witnessed by the Romans, the numbers tend to be wildly exaggerated, while reports of happenings actually experienced by them seem much more trustworthy, although occasionally even these were distorted to achieve a particular effect. And, by the way, there is no evidence that any of Hannibal’s 37 elephants were lost during the crossing, despite numerous paintings and illustrations to the contrary. Unlike horses or oxen (or men, for that matter), pachyderms are very sure footed, feeling the ground to test its resistance before committing their considerable weight as they proceed step by step. These celebrated elephants contributed significantly to Hannibal’s first major victory in Italy, at the river Trebia, in December 218 BCE, but unfortunately all but one perished later from the unusually cold winter of 218-217. The one surviving pachyderm was of the Indian variety (the rest being from a small North African species, now extinct), and was believed to have been named “Surus,” carrying Hannibal himself on his back.

García Tomás’s book, titled “Aníbal, genio de la guerra: Una nueva visión más realista de sus hazañas”, was published in Spain by Cultivalibros in 2010, and contains a number of additional insights and speculations worthy of consideration by both the general public and the specialist. It is highly recommended, together with the even more important volume authored by the Tunisian researcher Abdelaziz Belkhodja, “Hannibal Barca: L’histoire veritable et le mensonge de Zama” (Tunis: Apollonia, 2011 and 2014). Although García Tomás is also skeptical of the historicity of the so-called “Battle of Zama,” it is Belkhodja who demonstrates conclusively why the pro-Roman narrative of the final battle of the Second Punic War lacks credibility and must be dismissed as nothing more than Roman propaganda invented after the destruction of Carthaginian records in the holocaust of 146 BCE. Through the efforts of these and a few other historical detectives, the lies and distortions perpetrated by the victors to besmirch the image of the great Hannibal are being gradually dispelled in modern times, enhancing our understanding of one of the most fascinating figures of human history.

Literature:

Belkhodja, A. (2014). Hannibal Barca: L’histoire veritable et le mensonge de Zama. Apollonia Publishers.
Delbrueck, H. (1975). Warfare in Antiquity. University of Nebraska Press.
Faulkner, N. (2008). Rome: Empire of the Eagles. Pearson/Longman.
García Tomás, S. (2010). Aníbal, genio de la guerra: Una nueva visión más realista de sus hazañas.  Cultivalibros.
Jaeger, M. (2006). Livy, Hannibal’s Monument, and the Temple of Juno at Croton. Transactions of the American Philological Association, 136:2, pp. 389-414.
Livy (Foster translation). History of Rome (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard University Press.
MacDonald, E. (2015). Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life. Yale University Press.
Mosig, Y. (2009). The Barcids at War: Historical Introduction, Ancient Warfare, 3:4, pp.6-8.
Mosig, Y. (2012). The Trouble with Zama: Paradox, Smoke, and Mirrors in an Ancient Battlefield. TheHistoryHerald.com.
Mosig, Y. (2013). Hannibal’s Elephants: Myth and Reality. TheHistoryHerald.com.
Mosig, Y. and I. Belhassen (2007). Revision and Reconstruction in the Second Punic War: Zama—Whose Victory? The International Journal of the Humanities, 5:9, pp. 175-186.
Polybius (Patton translation). The Histories (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard University Press.

©Yozan Mosig, 2016.

yozan-mosig-miniAbout The Author

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 15 years. His Hannibal Library contains almost 10,000 items. Read more about Yozan »