Waking Up To Elephants – Hannibal Crosses The Alps

Yesterday Gregorio and I became friends. For him, this was based mainly on the act of his learning how to say ‘elephant’ (in Italian I should add). In all honesty, during our two hours together, we never progressed much beyond ‘fante’ instead of ‘ELE-fante’, but then this was only the first time we met. Here is a photo of the book we were reading – who remembers just what a long story Tarzan is?

Gregorio's Elephant...

Gregorio’s Elephant…

Gregorio used my Iphone to snap the picture and, judging by his enjoyment in doing so, if not a biologist, together we might have initiated a future career – or better; passion, as a photographer. Gregorio I’d say is about four.

Funnily enough I’d put on my wellies and walked down to the tiny library of La Thuile in search of exactly that. Not Gregorio, but elephants. Ending up instead reading ‘Tarzan’ to a four year old was due to a combination of a disinterested mother (distracted by facebook I think), a slow internet connection (I gave up on email) and my instant liking for this curious little fellow who patiently – and more importantly, quietly – sat down to watch me ‘research’. Now fittingly, ‘fante’ would have been more than any other local mountain resident would have known two thousand two hundred and thirty one years ago, when almost to the day, perhaps as many as 37 of them appeared one evening on the Italian Alpine horizon of La Thuile.

The Locals Down Below Would Have Run...

The Locals Down Below Would Have Run…

On that October day in 218 BC I doubt in fact the locals would have uttered much other than ‘run’ and ‘fast’ as, just after lunchtime if the records are correct, their nap was interrupted by the loud trumpeting of Hannibal of Carthage’s trained war beasts. What a sight it must have been. Today, were even one elephant to come ambling down the road just behind room 9 of the Hotel Rolland (which I have made my home from home for the winter) where the ancient Petit Saint Bernard pass still empties from France into Italy and the beautiful Valle d’Aosta below, it would be quite the shock. Imagine now that you’ve neither seen nor even heard of the existence of such a creature before when three dozen suddenly appear, full war regalia and in gleaming armour.

'Of No Importance Whatsoever...'

‘Of No Importance Whatsoever…’

Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps I recently saw described in a history book as follows; ‘Hannibal’s route across the Alps is one of those historical questions that cause endless debate even though the subject has no importance whatsoever’. Bam. Dealt with. I presume, as this was not the end of the chapter, that it was also of no importance whatsoever to the author whether his readers read on or not. ‘One of the boldest military manoeuvres in history’, as a different author stated, is a slightly more generous – and I would argue – accurate description of the events of the 15 days the crossing allegedly took (both Livy and Polybius, the two main sources agree on this much). But fair enough, maybe the exact route matters only to the very fewest.

Near The Summit - Was This Road Built For Elephants?

Near The Summit – Was This Road Built For Elephants?

‘Day 11; halt on summit, begins to snow’ goes the eyewitness account. ‘Day 14 and 15 building a road for the elephants’. It might not be ‘important’, but it sure is (hopefully) interesting. Imagine bringing Elephants all the way from Africa up through the Iberian peninsular, across the Pyrenees, through Gaul and then finally across the Alps (and even then Rome was hardly just around the corner). Imagine having to build roads as you go along. When British engineer John Hoyte took Jumbo an ‘unruly’ elephant from Turin Zoo across the Alps in 1959 in what is exactly the kind of hands-on historical experiment I would have loved to partake in, it ate 150 pounds of hay, 50 of apples, 40 of bread, and 20 of carrots PER day and still lost 300 pounds during the first four days of the trip. Hannibal started off with probably 37 (27 we are pretty sure made it into Italy). That’s more than 60 tonnes of food JUST for his elephants. 20.000 men and 6.000 cavalry also made it. Imagine.

‘When even now the Alps are right before our eyes and Italy only just beyond; now on the very doorstep of our enemies – you want to stop – because you feel a little tired!’. I love this supposed speech which Livy ascribes to Hannibal before starting the crossing. This being BC, it must qualify as one of the understatements of all time when spoken (which sadly it probably never was). I suspect they were a ‘little tired’. They’d walked from Africa after all. Anyway, it worked, they upped sticks and the rest is history…

And as you know I love, simply love history. As I headed up from La Thuile towards the Petit Saint Bernard Pass a beautiful early November afternoon, it certainly matters to me that this just could be, the route. The pass, now a ski run in the winter and a bikers favourite road in the summer, is already closed to through traffic. As I climb, gradually fallen pine needles underfoot give way to fresh snow. I stop regularly to take pictures or just admire the view, marvelling at how similar this must have looked to Hannibal.

In The Footsteps of Greats...

In The Footsteps of Greats…

It’s simply magical to me, this walk. However, scholars now seem to have settled on a more Southerly route as the probable point of crossing, closer to the Mediterranean which admittedly if you look at a map, would have made more sense. But it is by no means open and shut. I’ve come to spend the first part of the winter here in La Thuile truly partly at least thanks to the presence of this incredible historical event and for the next two months I shall at least be imagining awaking after my pisolino not to the ring ring of a modern alarm, but the sound of 37 elephants crossing beneath my balcony. It works for me.

By the time a tiger appears and attacks one of the monkeys my new friend Gregorio is firmly asleep on my knee. Tarzan really is a very long tale. He therefore misses out, for today at least, on learning the word ‘tigre’. Here is another photo he took from my ‘research book’ before passing out…

'Fante, Fante!'...

‘Fante, Fante!’…

Imagine had Hannibal brought those too (and there is evidence of their existence also in Africa). We all have our passes to cross in life and maybe our ‘historian’ is right in it not mattering which route we chose to take across them. But just sometimes following in the footsteps of those we admire can help us feel a little less lost. Up there today, amongst the trees, lost in nature and seeing no one, I could on occasions almost hear the ‘fante’ leading me home…

~ by 2ndcupoftea on November 9, 2013.

8 Responses to “Waking Up To Elephants – Hannibal Crosses The Alps”

  1. Lovely story as always Thomas. If you have never seen a film titled Hannibal Brooks” I suggest you watch it. It’s a modern day (WW2) take on this march. Oliver Read stars. Stay well Mr Randall. The cats say “hi”

    • Dearest Colin – perhaps my most loyal reader? Thanks so much for your words. I really enjoyed experiencing and writing this one. I don’t know the film but will try to find it – no luck so far on iTunes… Many many hugs to you and the cats… T

  2. Hey, great stuff 🙂 hope you are well! Wanted to talk to you about about working with a group in Italy can you e mail me your telephone number so we can chat…tamaratahhan@hotmail.com thanks!

  3. The subject is important, as the Romans were able to dispense the Carthaginians in three separate wars and expand their empire out of Italy into Sicily, northern Africa , and Spain … The route may not be important, but the series of events were in history at least..

    • Ahh true enough my old friend. But sometimes the details and the incidentals of history are forgotten for the bigger picture. Either way, it was fun to imagine walking on roads maybe first built for elephants… See you soon to debate over a beer I hope. Take care

  4. It’s pretty obvious what kind of narrow-minded view of history the ‘author’ mentioned possesses. ‘Historians’ tend to simply ignore important questions about which they neither know anything nor can deal with rationally.

    • Hear, hear… couldn’t agree more. Thanks for reading – and in such detail to boot. I am also glad someone else cares…

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