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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 2
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Romans
on the Riviera and the Rhone

by W. H. Hall

originally published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Ch. 4

 p27  Chapter III
Hannibal's Passage of the Alps

That it is still an open question, and one which will probably never be cleared up, by what pass Hannibal actually crossed the Alps, is mainly due to the incompetence of Polybius as a geographer and to his almost total suppression of names, in spite of his undertaking to make them intelligible to his readers.1

Instead of invaluable local names, Polybius proceeds to offer to his readers an irrelevant dissertation on the celestial and terrestrial globes.2

When he descends to particulars he writes, "The Rhone rises to the north-west of the Adriatic Gulf,"​3 and goes on to describe the ridges of the Alps, as "beginning at Marseilles and extending up to the head of the Adriatic," concluding as follows — "I speak with confidence on these points, because I have questioned persons actually engaged on the facts, and have inspected the country and gone over the Alpine pass myself, in order to inform myself of the truth and see with my own eyes."4

Of Hannibal's passage of the Isère, a deep and considerable river at its junction with the Rhone near Valence, we are not told a word. Yet, in order to act as arbitrator between the rival claims of the two brothers to the principacy of the Allobroges inhabiting  p28 the 'insula,' to the north of that river, we must infer that he did cross it.

We are however told by Polybius​5 that, after arriving at the junction of the Rhone and the Isère, the Carthaginians continued to march for ten days by the side of "the river," — a distance of 800 stades (100 miles).​a Read in conjunction with a previous passage​6 we must conclude that the Rhone is the river intended by Polybius. Yet a march of 100 miles by that river would have carried Hannibal 40 miles beyond Lyons, quite out of his way to the north without bringing him to the foot of the Alps. No known writer has been bold or consistent enough to follow the text of Polybius in adopting such an improbable course. The truth seems to be that Polybius was mistaken in his river, but right as to distance. For a march of 100 miles up the Isère would have just brought Hannibal to the foot of the Alps and the beginning of his difficulties. He would, too, in this case have been marching in the right direction, viz. east, towards the Alps and Italy. I am therefore decidedly of opinion that the river followed from the junction was the Isère and not the Rhone.

By making Hannibal follow the course of the Isère for a hundred miles eastwards, I do not commit myself definitely to a continuous march either on the right or left bank of that river. It is sufficient for my argument to show that the main body of the Carthaginian army followed the course of the Isère for 100 Roman miles, i.e. as far as its junction with the Arc near St Pierre d'Albigny, where the Mont Cenis Railway branches from the Isère Valley to reach the Alps by the valley of the Arc. I believe that Hannibal followed precisely the same course.

In drawing attention to the fact that St Pierre d'Albigny is just 100 miles from the island of Polybius, and precisely on the direct road to Turin where Hannibal is first heard of, on emerging from the Alps, I think  p29 I may fairly claim to have rendered it more probable that the Isère was the river followed by Hannibal than the Rhone.

That Hannibal with the bulk of his army crossed to northern or right bank of the Isère and passed some time in the above mentioned fertile island, must be admitted as most probable. For the arbitration between the conflicting claims of the two princes and the supplying to Hannibal's army a fresh outfit of arms, clothes and boots by the elder brother Brancus in return for the decision in his favour, could hardly have been conducted outside the limits of the country of the Allobroges.

When, in the completion of these operations, the Carthaginian army was again set in motion, it was conducted by the adherents of Brancus across the plains towards the Alps, and probably recrossed the Isère to its left bank near Grenoble. It was probably the heights, which command that city, which were found in the hostile occupation of the unfriendly section of the Allobroges, which sided with the younger brother.

It being impossible to arrive at absolute certainty as to the actual pass by which Hannibal crossed the Alps, we shall perhaps get nearest the truth by striking a balance between the accounts, given by Polybius and Livy respectively, rejecting those statements in each, which are irreconcilable with topographical requirements, of which they were both very ill informed.

Guided by these considerations, it becomes necessary in my opinion to reject that part of Livy's itinerary, by which Hannibal is made to double back unnecessarily at least four days' march to the south to the Durance; the difficulties of the passage of which shifting river are so graphically described by the Latin historian.

For it was the foreknowledge of and the desire to avoid these very difficulties which originally determined Hannibal to cross the Rhone at Roquemaure above Avignon, just below which city the Durance effects its  p30 junction with that river. He would otherwise have crossed lower down at the "Trajectus Rhodani"​7 — between Arles and Avignon — where from the earliest times travellers between Spain and Italy were ferried over the Rhone and where, in our own day, travellers branch from the main P. L. M. line for Spain. It seems then hard to believe, that once in the valley of the Isère, four days' march to the northward of the Durance, Hannibal would have wantonly re-traced his steps so far southwards, this time across the intricate and barren spurs of the Department of the Basses Alpes.

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Arles from the Rhone.

For rejecting Livy's deflection of Hannibal's march to the southward and passage of the Durance, we are supported by the authority of Mommsen, who carries Hannibal up the Rhone army towards Lyons, as far as Vienne, and thence across the plains of the Allobroges to the Mont du Chat, bringing him down by an abrupt descent upon the Lac du Bourget.

While I agree with Mommsen in rejecting Livy's narrative, I disagree entirely with him in bringing Hannibal quite out of his way up into a narrow trap between a bend of the Rhone and the Lac du Bourget, when it was open to him to get back into the Isère Valley over an easy col now utilized by the Lyons-Grenoble railway.

That at St Pierre d'Albigny, a little above Montmelian, Hannibal quitted the Isère for the Arc valley seems on the whole most probable. This, as I have already observed, is the course followed by the Mt Cenis railway, and is the direct line over the Alps from the country of the Allobroges to that of the Taurini, amongst whom, according to both Livy​8 and Polybius,​9 Hannibal descended. Had Hannibal continued to follow the Isère to its source and crossed the Little  p31 St Bernard, he must have descended on Aosta, the country of the Salassi. It was over the Little St Bernard that the first carriage road was constructed over the Alps.

Those authors who adopt the Pass of the Mt Genèvre ignore the fact that Pompey, who first opened up that pass on his road to Spain, expressly states in his letter to the Senate to be found in Sallust (Bellum Jugurthinum, Teubner edition, appendix) that it was not the route followed by Hannibal.

While for the general topographical reasons stated above, I incline on the whole to accept one or other of the Mt Cenis passes, as that crossed by Hannibal, I cannot shut my eyes to the strong claims of the Col de l'Argentière, if the question is to be decided by the authority of texts alone.

If Livy is to be mainly relied upon, I consider that his narrative, of which the passage of the Durance forms a striking feature, fits in with the Col de l'Argentière much better than with the Mt Genèvre. For had the Mt Genèvre been the pass intended by Livy, there would have been no occasion to cross the Durance at all. For on striking the Durance valley, after surmounting the pass separating it from that of the Drac, Hannibal would have naturally marched up the right bank of the Durance to its source in the Mt Genèvre. Whereas he must have crossed it (as described by Livy), to get to the Col de l'Argentière.

I admit that, as Mr Douglas Freshfield forcibly shows in his Alpine Pass of Hannibal,​10 one must either reject the evidence of Varro or accept the Col de l'Argentière. For in the enumeration of the five passes​11 known to the Romans of his day (i.e. the latter years of the republic), Varro's No. 2 can refer to no other than the Col de l'Argentière. On the other hand No. 2 in the order of the four passes named by Polybius,​12 of  p32 which Mr Freshfield makes no mention, expressly specifies the descent of Hannibal on Turin, and therefore cannot apply to the Col de l'Argentière, which leads by the valley of the Stura to Cuneo — fifty-five miles south of Turin.

In order to assist the reader to understand the whole question, I subjoin the two lists of the western passes of the Alps used by the Romans, with their modern names.

Five Passes of Varro Four Passes of Polybius
(In both lists the numbering is from South to North.)
(1) Una quae est juxta mare per Ligures. (Cornice or Alpes Maritimes. Turbia pass.) (α) διὰ Λιγύων μὲν τὴν ἔγγιστα τῷ Τυρρηνικῷ πελάγει (Cornice or Alpes Maritimes. Turbia pass.)
(2) Altera qua Hannibal transiit. (Col de l'Argentière. Ubaye-Stura valleys.) (β) εἶτα τηω διὰ Ταυρίνων (Turin) ἣν Ἀννίβας διῆλθεν (Mt Cenis or Mont Genèvre.)
(3) Tertia qua Pompeius ad Hispaniense bellum profectus est. (Mont Genèvre. Durance-Doria Riparia valleys.) (γ) εἶτα τὴν διὰ Σαλάσσων. (Petit St Bernard and the Val d'Aoste.)
(4) Quarta, qua Hasdrubal de Gallia in Italiam venit. (Mt Cenis.) (δ) εἶτα τὴν διὰ Ῥαιτῶν. (Brenner.)
(5) Quinta quae quondam a Graecis possessa est. (Petit St Bernard and Val d'Aoste (Doria Baltea).)​13

To Livy, who wrote in the reign of Augustus, more than a century after Polybius, from whom he borrowed the main features of his narrative, though he diverged from him so widely in bringing Hannibal down to the Durance, we are indebted for the few invaluable names preserved in connection with Hannibal's march from the Pyrenees to the Alps. It is in Livy that we find recorded the names of the townships Illiberis, Ruscino,  p33 and of the tribes of the Volcae, Tricastini, Vocontii, and Tricorii. But it is strange that no mention should be made of the important confederation of the Cavari, occupying the left bank of the Rhone above the Durance, through whose territory lay Hannibal's four days' march from the passage of the Rhone to its junction with the Isère.14

Neither the Greek nor the Latin historian attempts any description of the physical features of the Rhone valley, nor enlivens his narrative by any reference to the mode of life, or degree of civilization attained by the natives. We get no general information, such as Herodotus, Caesar, or Strabo would have afforded. We are left completely in the dark as to the existence of any native settlements at Nîmes, Arles, Avignon or Vienne, though all those places must have been of considerable importance. Of the latter place, as the chief settlement of the Allobroges, and presumably the depot whence were drawn the arms and clothes supplied by Brancus to Hannibal, we should at least have expected some mention. To have sufficed to fit out 50,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, of which Hannibal's army in the Rhone valley consisted, the factories of the Allobroges must have been very extensive.

Although we get no precise information on the point from either Polybius or Livy, it seems certain that Hannibal must have been considerably delayed in the country of the Allobroges by the business of arbitrating between the contending brothers and of refitting his army. He paid dearly for this expenditure of precious time. For his passage of the Alps, which a month earlier would have been achieved with comparative ease, as far as the elements were concerned, proved from the break-up of the weather so disastrous, that more than half his army perished.

 p34  Of the 50,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry with which Hannibal approached the Alps, only 20,000 infantry (viz. 12,000 Africans and 8000 Spaniards) and 6000 cavalry survived to reach Italy. As, partly owing to the supineness of the Carthaginian Government, partly to the Roman superiority at sea, Hannibal appears to have received no reinforcements either from Spain or Africa till after the battle of Cannae, two years later, (B.C. 216), it is certain that the bulk of the so‑called victories over the Romans consisted of Gauls and Ligurians. At Cannae alone Hannibal's losses consisted of 4000 of the latter to only 1500 Spaniards and Africans.15

In spite, however, of the warmth of their invitation to Hannibal to come amongst them and the protestations of their readiness to flock to his standard, the Cisalpine Gauls at first held aloof, probably deterred by the presence of the superior forces of the Romans. The cavalry encounter near the river Ticinus, to which the narrow escape of the consul Publius Scipio, badly wounded in the affray and rescued by the gallantry of his son, the future Scipio Africanus, lent its chief importance, was not in itself decisive enough to change the attitude of the Gauls. But, after the victory of the Carthaginians at the Trebia, to which the desertion of a Gallic contingent serving under the Romans largely contributed, the ever-dwindling force of Hannibal was recruited by sixty thousand Gauls and Ligurians. With this swollen army, in defiance of the season — it was the depth of winter — Hannibal pushed on up the valley of the Trebia into the heart of the Apennines, hoping to descend upon Etruria by the valley of the Magra, and to excite that province to revolt against the Romans. But the violence of the wind and the intensity of the cold exceeding even his Alpine experiences, compelled him to desist and retrace his steps down the Trebia to  p35 within ten miles of Placentia, where the Roman legions were recovering from their recent defeat.

In spite of their sorry plight, the Carthaginians on the following day offered battle, which was again readily accepted by the consul Sempronius — the same commander whose rashness had occasioned the defeat of the Trebia.

On this occasion, however, the fighting, which was exceptionally desperate at the outset, was prematurely put a stop to by nightfall, and led to no decisive result. Failing in his attempt to get possession of Placentia, Hannibal withdrew into Liguria (whether the Liguria to the north or South of the Apennines is not expressly stated), where he passed the remainder of his first winter in Italy.16

Having followed Hannibal from the foot of the Pyrenees into Liguria, we must take leave of him there in the late winter of B.C. 218 or the early spring of 217.

The Author's Notes:

1 Polyb. III.36.

2 Polyb. III.36, 37.

3 Polyb. III.47.

4 Polyb. III.48.

5 Polyb. III.50.

6 Polyb. III.39.

7 See map, p12.

8 Livy XXI.38. "The tribe that he first encountered on his descent into Italy were the Taurini" (Church and Brodribb's Translation).

9 Polybius, quoted by Strabo, p209.

10 Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, October No. 1886.

11 Preserved by Servius on Virg. Aen. X.13. º

12 Quoted by Strabo, p209.

13 The modern name Aosta is derived from the ancient Augusta Praetoria, — so called from the fact that Augustus made it a station of his Praetorian cohorts. The Salassi — the inhabitants of the Val d'Aoste — paid the penalty for having stolen the Emperor's baggage by being sold as slaves.

14 The Cavari occupied riparian territory on the E. of the Rhone, between the Isère and the Durance, while the Ligurian Vocontii occupied a parallel zone across the spurs of the Alps.

15 Polyb. III.117.

16 Livy, XXI.59.

Thayer's Note:

a Like many ancient authors, Polybius makes a Roman mile out to eight stadia. It is an approximation.

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Page updated: 26 Aug 16