A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Hot on the icy trail of an ancient general
I reach the summit of the Col de Clapier Pass panting for breath, my heart thudding in my chest. At 8,200 feet above sea level in the southern French Alps, the air is little more than a cold, thin gruel. I have been hiking since just after daybreak, passing under snow-covered peaks and ascending nearly a mile in elevation.
At the summit, my guide, Stanford University archaeologist Patrick Hunt, stands on a rocky ledge and sweeps his arm over a view of the Po River Valley. Framed by steep mountainsides, the verdant Italian river plain spreads out like a tablecloth. Peering through a purple haze, I see Turin some 70 miles away. "Hannibal and his army must have come right through here on their way to Italy," Hunt says. "It's hard to imagine, I know."
Gazing at the surrounding mountains of stone and ice, I find it almost impossible to imagine that a large army could have crossed these peaks; so did the ancient Romans, who called the Alps the "Fence of Italy," and for centuries were unable to conquer the Celtic tribes who lived there. But in late October 218 B.C., battling snowstorms, rock avalanches, and bellicose tribes, the Carthaginian general Hannibal marched some 25,000 men, 37 elephants, and scores of pack animals over a narrow pass in the mountain range. Hailed as one of the boldest military maneuvers in history, Hannibal's invasion of Italy almost destroyed the young Roman Republic--and failed only after 15 years of tireless war.
While ancient historians wrote countless books about Hannibal's battle for Rome, the name of the Alpine pass does not appear in any of the texts, and for more than two millennia the Carthaginian army's route has been a tantalizing question. "Most historical questions don't have this aura of mystery and legend," says Hunt. But now, after a decade of hiking Alpine passes in France, Italy, and Switzerland, Hunt believes that he may have found the pass Hannibal crossed. Using everything from ancient texts to satellite images, he argues that Hannibal's army trekked over the exact trail we have been hiking. This year he hopes to excavate here and find the remnants of the massive Carthaginian army that moved through these mountains.
Sitting just below the crown of the pass, Hunt pulls out a copy of The Histories by Polybius, a near-contemporary of Hannibal who chronicled the general's exploits. Over the whipping wind, Hunt shouts out a passage: "[Hannibal] noticed that his men were in a state of low morale. . . . He depended on the actual view of Italy, which lies so close under these mountains. He restored their spirits by showing them the plain."
The text matches up with the view: The pass stands directly over the plains of the Po River and its vista of northern Italy would impress even the most exhausted. Hannibal's men certainly would have needed the panorama's inspiration. With grades exceeding 70 percent, the Clapier's descent is far more dangerous than its ascent and the ancient texts say hundreds of Hannibal's men slipped to their death on the vertiginous path down the Alps. The thought spinning in my head, I stand up and begin the climb down, hoping not to join Hannibal's fallen.
Ulrich Boser is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.