Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
HANNIBAL CROSSES THE ALPS
 IN the spring of 218 B.C. the Carthaginian army set out on
its great undertaking, thirty-seven elephants in its
Hasdrubal, one of Hannibal's brothers, was left behind
to guard the towns that had been taken in Spain.
Meanwhile the Roman Senate, knowing nothing of
Hannibal's movements, sent Sempronius, one of the
Consuls, into Sicily with an army, while the other,
Cornelius Scipio, was ordered to lead an army into
Spain to punish Hannibal.
But while Rome was thus hoping to secure the general
who had flouted her, he was already marching through
Gaul. At the river Rhone he was met by his first
difficulty, for some of the tribes that were unfriendly
to the Carthaginians had gathered on the opposite bank
to oppose his passage.
Hannibal at once sent a body of his troops higher up
the river, with orders to cross, and, stealing
unnoticed into the camp of the enemy, to set it on
fire. When the general thought that there had been
time for this to be done, he began to cross the river
with the main body of his army, in boats and canoes.
On the opposite bank, the barbarians were drawn up in
Hannibal did not fear them. Already his quick eyes had
seen a column of smoke rising from the Gallic camp, and
he knew that when the flames burst out, the Gauls would
not stay to oppose his passage across the river.
As Hannibal had foreseen, so it happened. The Gauls,
to their dismay, soon saw that their camp was on fire,
 many of them at once rushed away to try to save their
goods. Those who did not desert their post were too
few to prevent Hannibal and his army from landing in
It was no easy matter to get the elephants across the
river. Huge rafts were moored to the bank and covered
with earth to make them seem part of the land. The
animals were then persuaded to venture on board.
When the rafts began to move, some of the elephants
grew restive and jumped into the river, drowning their
drivers. The beasts themselves, however, reached the
other side in safety.
By this time Rome had discovered Hannibal's movements.
Scipio, who had not yet sailed for Spain, was sent
toward the Rhone to keep Hannibal from crossing the
river. But as you know, he was already too late to do
However, he sent out a company of cavalry to find out
the movements of the enemy and to report to him. The
cavalry soon came across a number of Hannibal's men,
who, after crossing the Rhone, had been sent forward to
Scipio's horsemen drove them back toward their camp,
then sped swiftly to the Consul to tell him that
Hannibal was across the river and had now encamped on
No sooner had Scipio heard this, than he hastened in
the direction of the river, only to find that the
Carthaginians had marched away three days earlier. But
from the direction in which the enemy had gone, Scipio
learned that they intended to cross the Alps and
descend into Italy by one of the passes used by the
Gauls in other times.
It was incredible, yet it was true. Scipio did not
dare to follow Hannibal into the dangerous passes of
the Alps, so he marched into Italy, to be ready to meet
the bold invader when he descended into the valley of
the river Po.
Among the mountain passes, the Carthaginian army was
meanwhile struggling against terrible difficulties.
It was already October, and snow had fallen and lay
 thick in the passes, so that often no footpath was to
be seen. Guides proved false, mountain tribes hostile.
It was almost impossible to find food or shelter for
the great army he was leading, yet Hannibal went before
his troops fearless, undaunted. Neither cold, nor
hunger, nor treachery could change his purpose.
The hostile tribes were guarding many of the defiles
through which the army must pass, but it was only
during the day that they were to be seen. When
darkness fell they slipped away to their own homes,
which were scattered among the mountains.
One evening, Hannibal with a band of lightly armed
troops, seized the posts that had been held by the
barbarians through the day.
When morning dawned, the general ordered his army to
advance along the narrow and difficult defile, while he
stayed above the pass, to keep the enemy in check.
At first the barbarians looked at the slowly moving
army in astonishment; then, seeing how easy it would be
to attack and plunder it, they rushed down the
mountains and dashed upon the startled Carthaginians.
Hannibal had been unable to hinder their descent.
In the narrow pass all was soon in utter confusion.
The cattle, laden with baggage, stumbled, fell and
slipped over the track, while the horses, wounded by
the darts of the enemy and mad with fear, plunged into
the depths below.
Hannibal saw the havoc that was being done in the
valley, and despite the danger, he now charged down
upon the barbarians, and succeeded in driving them
away. But in the struggle, as he had foreseen, many of
his own men were lost.
Soon after this desperate adventure, the army emerged
from the pass, and ere long reached a town which
Hannibal took by storm.
Here he found many of his own men, as well as much
baggage, which had been captured by the hostile tribes.
 In the town there was also a good supply of corn and
cattle, so that the exhausted army was fed and rested,
before it again began its perilous march.
It seemed as though the natives had now determined to
be friendly. When the army had marched steadily on for
four days, many of the tribes came to meet it, with
branches of trees in their hands and on their heads
wreaths, in sign of friendship. They even brought with
them cattle to provide the army with food, and offered
hostages, to prove that they were sincere.
Yet Hannibal did not trust them. He accepted their
offers of help, but as the army approached another
dangerous pass, he was careful to send the baggage and
cavalry on in front.
The cavalry left the defile safely, but as the foot
soldiers were still toiling along the dangerous way,
the faithless barbarians attacked them from above,
rolling huge stones and great masses of rock upon them.
A great number of soldiers were killed, and it was with
difficulty that Hannibal regained his cavalry on the
But the worst of the ascent was now over, and the army
reached the summit of the Alps, after a march of nine
The soldiers, who had come from the warm and sunny
climates of Africa and Spain, were unused to snow and
frost, and they grumbled at every discomfort.
Hannibal soon roused them to a braver spirit. Calling
them together he bade them look at the valley beneath.
"That valley," he said, "is Italy. It leads us to
our allies, the Gauls, and yonder is the way to Rome."
After resting for ten days, the army began the descent,
and although no hostile tribes added to the
difficulties, the downward way proved even more
dangerous than the ascent.
Snow had completely covered the path, and the soldiers
unawares stepped off it, to be hurled down the
precipice into the chasm below.
 At one spot it is said that the road was broken away by
an avalanche, and in front of the army yawned a hideous
gulf. But even such a disaster proved powerless to
Encouraged by their general, the men were soon at work
bridging the chasm. Before a day had passed the
cavalry and baggage were sent across in safety. But it
took three days to make a bridge strong enough and wide
enough to bear the elephants.
At length, all obstacles were overcome, and Hannibal
led his army into Northern Italy. But in the terrible
journey across the Alps he lost three thousand men.