Skip to main content

Hannibal Barca and His Elephant Army

Hannibal Barca (public domain image) (public domain image)

How Hannibal Barca & His Elephant Army Crossed The Alps

Hannibal Barca (247/248-182/183BC) was born in Carthage and was the son of Hamilcar Barca (275-228/229BC). The name 'Barca' is a famous and important family name of ancient Carthage, and whose members included Hannibal and other Carthaginian leaders. Hannibal was a Carthaginian soldier and a respected political leader. He created a reputation for daring and challenging that lives on at present times. Generally, he led an army in with 37 elephants across the Alps in Europe to invade the city of Rome over 2000 years ago, and believed to have happened in 218BC according to historians. Besides elephants, his army was made up of around 35,000 to 50,000 men and roughly 8,000 horses.

The whole army took 15 days to struggle their way, about 132 miles (212km), through harsh terrain and over snowy heights. It was on the month of October according to history and the winter season was coming, and during that time they were troubled persistently by tribesmen who were very hostile. Their average speed of around 9 miles (14km) a day on a climb to over 9000 feet was an astounding achievement. However the Alpine crossing was only a part of the army's five month and 1,500 mile (2400km) march to invade Rome by the rear door. This was the most terrific campaign of the second Punic War and which was part of the long struggle for domination between Carthage and Rome. At that time, Rome had already defeated the Carthaginian navy and did not relate to the seaborne invasion according to the facts. Even Hannibal could not take the simplest land route along the French Riviera, and that's because it was inhabited by a Greek colony which is now Marseilles and was ally of Rome then.

It was in the month of May in 218BC that Hannibal left his base at Cartegena on the southeast coast of Spain, Europe. He started his march with almost 60,000 men, however part of the army rebelled when they reached the Pyrenees mountains and they realized what was to be expected ahead. So around 7 or 8 thousand men were left behind. The first obstacle was the River Rhone in Hannibal's path. Some historians do not agree about where Hannibal crossed, but the Greek historian Polybius suggests that Hannibal opted for the lowest practicable point, which was between Fourques on the west bank and Arles on the east. This is just above the place where the Rhone divides into two for its last journey to the sea, and where it is shallow but the river was wide around 800 meters.

A Gallic tribe known as the Volcae, massed on the east bank to dispute his crossing. That moment Hannibal sent a small force of his army under his brother, Hanno, to cross farther upstream on rafts which were made by any means and outflank the tribe. Hannibal then commandeered boats and built rafts, and when the first group of his men stormed across, the Volcae found themselves caught between two forces. This was when the tribe started to disperse and make their escape.

Hannibal then turned his attention to his massive army and how to get them across. As for the elephants, the Carthaginians built piers about 60 meters long out into the river, and soil was covered on them. The huge rafts were also covered in soil to fool the elephants and they were fastened at the ends of the piers. (public domain image) (public domain image)

First the cow elephants were led on to the soiled-covered rafts, and then followed by the bulls. Some of these animals panicked and fell right into the water, but the river was shallow enough for them to swim across underwater. The whole army marched north along the east bank of the Rhone, and then carried on east into the foothills of the Alpine.

Their precise route of the Alps is unknown, but evidence from ancient historians suggests it began east of Die, maybe at the Col de Grimone, and traveled through the Col de la Traversette into the Po valley in Italy. Right at the very start of the crossing, Hannibal's army to had to ward off an attack by a Gallic tribe called the Allobroges, and the army lost several men and horses. On the same day, Hannibal seized a town where he replaced some of the horses and also acquired supplies and equipment.

Sometimes the army had to travel along narrow cliff tracks with a steep drop on one side. On the route, there were skirmishes with very unpleasant tribesmen. In one location the attackers rolled down large heavy stones above from the cliffs, and on the 7th day Hannibal had to station some of his soldiers on a bare rock overlooking the gorge to protect the pack animals as they slipped through in the nighttime. The cold weather and landslides, however, caused more casualties than the attacks, and several soldiers and pack animals slipped over the edge of the rock.

The Alps Crossing

The Alps Crossing

The army reached the summit on the 9th day, after losing their way many times, and then rested for a couple of days before descending the cliff. Even when they descending, they still ran into problems. On the 12th day a landslide blocked the way entirely, and the trail had to be cleared before the elephants and horses could progress. One enormous rock was cleared by lighting a fire to heat it, then dousing it with sour wine until the rock cracked and became fragile and using pickaxes to break it up.

On the 15th day the Carthaginian army reached the plain of the River Po. Hannibal may have lost at least 20,000 men, but still had all of his 37 elephants, but one died later due to the very cold weather. Hannibal defeated a Roman army under Scipio that had assembled on the plains near the Ticino River. Hannibal continued to battle with the Romans for 15 years in Italy. He was triumphant in three major battles and many minor ones also, but although he had lots of allies among the Italian tribe, he never had sufficient troops to destroy the might of Rome.

Scroll to Continue

In 203BC Hannibal was called back to Carthage because it was under attack from Scipio. Carthage was destroyed by Rome about 50 years later. By then Hannibal was dead by taking his own life in 183BC to avoid being captured by the Romans. So why did Hannibal take the elephants with him? Elephants were used in warfare especially as a shock force, not only to threaten the enemy but also to push them aside just like army tanks. Elephants could carry small towers on their backs, and which marksmen can use to launch arrows and spears, but there was no evidence to back up this claim, just an assumption.

Elephants proved to be useful pack animals when going on marches, and being able to carry a lot more than horses. Hannibal's elephants were not very large. They probably were about 2.4 meters (8 feet) at the shoulder. Hannibal captured the elephants from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains of northern Africa, and that's where the elephants have become extinct since his day. There were also a couple of Indian elephants which were obtained by Carthage from Egypt.

Still Video of Hannibal

Ancient History Poll


Peter Geekie from Sittingbourne on September 15, 2013:

Dear aziza,

Thank you for a well researched and interesting article. Most of us have heard the stories of Hannibal but few know the details.

Voted up, useful and interesting

Kind regards Peter

Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on January 20, 2013:

This hub is excellent.. I love history.. You have really done your homework here.. thank you so much for sharing..



Related Articles