So who was Hannibal, and what did he look like?
There was an image that folks conjured up before it was replaced by this one, thanks to a certain 1991 film:
That other Hannibal, Hannibal Barca, conjured up images like this, from a 1959 film starring B movie Victor Mature:
What did the real Hannibal look like? Your guess is as good as ours, though he probably resembled today’s Palestinians, since his North African city state, Carthage, was founded by settlers of ancient Phoenicia [called Palaistinê by the Greek historian Herodotus], with its capital of Tyre on the Lebanese coast.
The problem vexing Carthage was the rising city state of Rome, and both were heavily armed and battling for economic hegemony over the Mediterranean.
It came down to war, or rather two wars, and Hannibal led Carthaginian forces in the final conflict, the Second Punic War, 218-201 B.C.E.
Landing an army in Carthaginian-ruled Southern Spain, he marched his army, equipped with elephants trained for battle, over mountain passes in the Pyrenees and the Alps, destroying three Roman armies in Italy, with one battle, Cannae, costing the Romans their greatest-ever losses of as many as 78,000 killed and 10,000, the virtually complete elimination of the Roman army.
A change in leadership resulted in new Roman tactics, though Hannibal was able to hold much of Italy for more than a decade.
At one point he marched his army to Rome itself, inspiring a cry that was used to frighten children for years afterward, Hannibal ad portas!, Hannibal’s at the gates.
Hannibal, finding in Rome’s wall an immovable and unconquerable obstacle, contented himself with ruling most of the south half of the Italian peninsula.
When the Punic wars began Rome lacked a battle fleet capable to standing up to Carthage, but using technology from captured Carthaginian ships, the Romans, ruthless and pragmatic, soon caught up and eventually were able to defeat the Carthaginians at sea and launched invasions of Spain, and then North Africa itself, forcing the Carthaginians into a punitive peace. Hannibal was forced into exile, and later killed himself after he was betrayed to the Romans.
Carthage itself was destroyed in the Third Punic War [149 BC to 146 B.C.E.], unprovoked by them and launched by the Romans as and act of final betrayal and conquest.
Out of Hannibal’s remarkable life, one feat has captured the imaginations of historians and artists ever since, his march of an army, including those remarkable elephants, over a pass in the snow-bound Alps.
Hannibal’s celebrated feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: detail of a fresco by Jacopo Ripanda, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museums, Rome. Via Wikipedia.
But just where the Carthaginians made their crossing has been a matter of contention among archaeologists and other scholars.
But no longer, according to a team of scientists.
And they found their solution thanks to microbes left in horse droppings from the mounts of Carthaginian cavalry.
From Queen’s University Belfast:
Microbiologists based in the Institute for Global Food Security and School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast have recently released results that may have answered one of ancient history’s greatest enigmas: Where did Hannibal cross the Alps?
Hannibal was the Commander-in-Chief of the Carthaginian army during the Second Punic War with Rome (218 –201 BC). He famously led his troops (thirty thousand men, just thirty seven elephants and over fifteen thousand horses and mules) across the Alps to invade Italia – bringing the Roman army to its knees. While the great general was ultimately defeated at Zama in 202 BC, this campaign is rightly regarded today as one of the finest military endeavours of antiquity. We can say, in retrospect, that these events ultimately shaped the future Roman Republic, eventually with Caesar morphing into the Empire, and therefore into European civilisation as we know it.
For over two thousand years, historians, statesmen and academics have argued about the route Hannibal took across the Alps. Until now, no solid archaeological evidence has been forthcoming. However, this week – publishing on-line in the Journal Archaeometry – Queen’s University’s microbiologist Dr Chris Allen and his international team of colleagues, led by Professor Bill Mahaney (York University, Toronto), have finally provided solid evidence for the most likely transit route that took Hannibal’s forces across the Alps via the Col de Traversette pass (~3000 m). This crossing point was first proposed over a half century ago by the biologist and polymath Sir Gavin de Beer, but has not previously been widely accepted by the academic community.
Using a combination of microbial metagenome analysis, environmental chemistry, geomorphic and pedological investigation, pollen analyses and various other geophysical techniques, the researchers have shown that a ‘mass animal deposition’ event occurred near the Col de Traversette – that can be directly dated to approximately 2168 cal yr BP, i.e. 218 BC.
Dr Chris Allen, from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “The deposition lies within a churned-up mass from a 1-metre thick alluvial mire, produced by the constant movement of thousands of animals and humans. Over 70 per cent of the microbes in horse manure are from a group known as the Clostridia, that are very stable in soil – surviving for thousands of years. We found scientifically significant evidence of these same bugs in a genetic microbial signature precisely dating to the time of the Punic invasion.”
The research project was conducted in collaboration with a leading group of researchers, based also in the Republic of Ireland, Canada, USA, France and Estonia.