Crossing the Alps with Hannibal

According to Betty Radice, Penguin Classic’s founding editor, the Roman historian Livy “was an inspiration to the European scholars who welcomed the humanism of the classical world.” He was a masterful storyteller. In Book XXI he takes the reader across the Alps with Hannibal, so that we vicariously experience the cold and the peril of vertiginous heights all the while being threatened by savage Gallic tribesmen who inhabit these forbidding realms.

Men and pack animals plummet off the side of cliffs. Trails become impassible, and the Carthaginian have to hack new roads out of the frozen rock. In one famous scene they heat up the ground with burning timber and then quickly pour wine on the rock which causes it to fracture and crumble, allowing the soldiers to break it up with their picks.

The dreadful vision was now before their eyes: the towering peaks, the snow-clad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the rude huts clinging to the rocks, beasts and cattle shriveled and parched with cold, the people with their wild and ragged hair, all nature, and inanimate, stiff with frost….

Once Hannibal’s army makes its way across the worst of the precipices and begins its march into Italy, the reader breathes a sigh of relief.

Lower down there are sunny hills and valleys and woods with streams flowing by: country, in fact, more worthy for men to dwell in. There the beasts were put out to pasture, and the troops given three days’ rest to recover…. Thence the descent was continued to the plains – a kindlier region, with kindlier inhabitants.

The Punic Wars, Rome’s dramatic and protracted conflict with Carthage, have long fascinated me. I have read Polybius’ history as well as Plutarch’s biographies of Roman leaders like Fabius Maximus. Livy provides even more detail about the armies and personalities involved. I refer specifically to the volume titled The War With Hannibal, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, which comprises Books XXI-XXX by the Roman author.

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