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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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HANNIBAL CROSSES THE ALPS

[178] IN the spring of 218 B.C. the Carthaginian army set out on its great undertaking, thirty-seven elephants in its train.

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 battle array.

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, and [179] 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 safety.

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 so.

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 reconnoitre.

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 its banks.

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 [180] 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.

[181] 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 following day.

But the worst of the ascent was now over, and the army reached the summit of the Alps, after a march of nine days.

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.

[182] 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 daunt Hannibal.

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.


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