Despite thousands of years of hard work by brilliant scholars, the great enigma of where Hannibal crossed the Alps to invade Italy remained unsolved. But now it looks like we may just have cracked it – all thanks to modern science and a bit of ancient horse poo. As a microbiologist, I was part of the team that carried out the research.
Hannibal was the leader of the Carthaginian army during the Second Punic War with Rome (218-201BC). He famously led his 30,000 assorted troops (including 37 elephants and over 15,000 horses) across the Alps to invade Italy – bringing the Roman war machine to its knees. While the great general was ultimately defeated after 16 years of bloody conflict, this campaign is now regarded as one of the finest military endeavours of antiquity. We can say, in retrospect, that these events ultimately shaped the later Roman Empire and therefore the European civilisation as we know it.
For more than 2,000 years historians, statesmen and academics have argued about the route he took. Even Napoleon is known to have shown an interest. But until now, there’s not been any solid archaeological evidence.
Our international team, led by Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, have finally provided solid evidence for the most likely transit route: a pass called the Col de Traversette. This narrow pass between a row of peaks is located on the border slightly south-east of Grenoble in France and south-west of Turin in Italy. Our findings are published in Archaeometry.
An illustration of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and horses. Photograph: Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley
The truth about Hannibal’s route across the Alps
Having battled their deadly rivals the Romans in Spain, in 218BC the Carthaginian army made a move that no one expected. Their commander Hannibal marched his troops, including cavalry and African war elephants, across a high pass in the Alps to strike at Rome itself from the north of the Italian peninsula. It was one of the greatest military feats in history.
The Romans had presumed that the Alps created a secure natural barrier against invasion of their homeland. They hadn’t reckoned with Hannibal’s boldness. In December he smashed apart the Roman forces in the north, assisted by his awesome elephants, the tanks of classical warfare. Many of the animals died of cold or disease the following winter, but Hannibal fought his way down through Italy. For 15 years he ravaged the land, killing or wounding over a million citizens but without taking Rome. But when he faced the Roman general Scipio Africanus at Zama in north Africa in 202BC, his strategic genius met its match. So ended the second Punic war, with Rome the victor.
Hannibal’s alpine crossing has been celebrated in myth, art and film. JMW Turner made high drama of it in 1812, a louring snowstorm sending the Carthaginians into wild disarray. The 1959 sword-and-sandals epic movie, with Victor Mature in the eponymous title role, made Hannibal’s “crazed elephant army” look more like the polite zoo creatures they obviously were.
The battles didn’t end with Scipio’s victory, though. Much ink, if not blood, has been spilled in furious arguments between historians over the precise route that Hannibal took across the Alps. The answer makes not a blind bit of difference to the historical outcome, but there’s clearly something about that image of elephants on snowy peaks that makes experts care deeply about where exactly they went.