Hannibal Crosses the Alps

And yet, notwithstanding the awful desolation which reigns in the upper regions of the Alps, the lower valleys, through which the streams finally meander out into the open plains, and by which the traveler gains access to the sublime scenes of the upper mountains, are inexpressibly verdant and beautiful. They are fertilized by the deposits of continual inundations in the early spring, and the sun beats down into them with genial warmth in summer, which brings out millions of flowers, of the most beautiful forms and colors, and ripens rapidly the broadest and richest fields of grain. Cottages, of every picturesque and beautiful form, tenanted by the cultivators, the shepherds and the herdsmen, crown every little swell in the bottom of the valley, and cling to the declivities of the mountains which rise on either hand. Above them eternal forests of firs and pines wave, feathering over the steepest and most rocky slopes with their somber foliage. Still higher, gray precipices rise, and spires and pinnacles, far grander and more picturesque, if not so symmetrically formed, than those constructed by man. Between these there is seen, here and there, in the background, vast towering masses of white and dazzling snow, which crown the summits of the loftier mountains beyond.

Hannibal’s determination to carry an army into Italy by way of the Alps, instead of transporting them by galleys over the sea, has always been regarded as one of the greatest undertakings of ancient times. He hesitated for some time whether he should go down the Rhone, and meet and give battle to Scipio, or whether he should leave the Roman army to its course, and proceed himself directly toward the Alps and Italy. The officers and soldiers of the army, who had now learned something of their destination and of their leader’s plans, wanted to go and meet the Romans. They dreaded the Alps. They were willing to encounter a military foe, however formidable, for this was a danger that they were accustomed, to and could understand; but their imaginations were appalled at the novel and awful images they formed of falling down precipices of ragged rocks, or of gradually freezing, and being buried half alive, during the process, in eternal snows.

Hannibal, when he found that his soldiers were afraid to proceed, called the leading portions of his army together, and made them an address. He remonstrated with them for yielding now to unworthy fears, after having successfully met and triumphed over such dangers as they had already incurred. “You have surmounted the Pyrenees,” said he, “you have crossed the Rhone. You are now actually in sight of the Alps, which are the very gates of access to the country of the enemy. What do you conceive the Alps to be? They are nothing but high mountains, after all. Suppose they are higher than the Pyrenees, they do not reach to the skies; and, since they do not, they can not be insurmountable. They are surmounted, in fact, every day; they are even inhabited and cultivated, and travelers continually pass over them to and fro. And what a single man can do, an army can do, for an army is only a large number of single men. In fact to a soldier, who has nothing to carry with him but the implements of war, no way can be too difficult to be surmounted by courage and energy.”

After finishing his speech, Hannibal, finding his men reanimated and encouraged by what he had said, ordered them to go to their tents and refresh themselves, and prepare to march on the following day. They made no further opposition to going on. Hannibal did not, however, proceed at once directly toward the Alps. He did not know what the plans of Scipio might be, who, it will be recollected, was below him, on the Rhone, with the Roman army. He did not wish to waste his time and his strength in a contest with Scipio in Gaul, but to press on and get across the Alps into Italy as soon as possible. And so, fearing lest Scipio should strike across the country, and intercept him if he should attempt to go by the most direct route, he determined to move northwardly, up the River Rhone, till he should get well into the interior, with a view of reaching the Alps ultimately by a more circuitous journey.

It was, in fact, the plan of Scipio to come up with Hannibal and attack him as soon as possible; and, accordingly, as soon as his horsemen, or, rather, those who were left alive after the battle, had returned and informed him that Hannibal and his army were near, he put his camp in motion and moved rapidly up the river. He arrived at the place where the Carthaginians had crossed a few days after they had gone. The spot was in a terrible state of ruin and confusion. The grass and herbage were trampled down for the circuit of a mile, and all over the space were spots of black and smoldering remains, where the campfires had been kindled. The tops and branches of trees lay every where around, their leaves withering in the sun, and the groves and forests were encumbered with limbs, and rejected trunks, and trees felled and left where they lay. The shore was lined far down the stream with ruins of boats and rafts, with weapons which had been lost or abandoned, and with the bodies of those who had been drowned in the passage, or killed in the contest on the shore. These and numerous other vestiges remained but the army was gone.



There were, however, upon the ground groups of natives and other visitors, who had come to look at the spot now destined to become so memorable in history. From these men Scipio learned when and where Hannibal had gone. He decided that it was useless to attempt to pursue him. He was greatly perplexed to know what to do. In the casting of lots, Spain had fallen to him, but now that the great enemy whom he had come forth to meet had left Spain altogether, his only hope of intercepting his progress was to sail back into Italy, and meet him as he came down from the Alps into the great valley of the Po. Still, as Spain had been assigned to him as his province, he could not well entirely abandon it. He accordingly sent forward the largest part of his army into Spain, to attack the forces that Hannibal had left there, while he himself, with a smaller force, went down to the sea-shore and sailed back to Italy again. He expected to find Roman forces in the valley of the Po, with which he hoped to be strong enough to meet Hannibal as he descended from the mountains, if he should succeed in effecting a passage over them. In the mean time Hannibal went on, drawing nearer and nearer to the ranges of snowy summits which his soldiers had seen for many days in their eastern horizon. These ranges were very resplendent and grand when the sun went down in the west, for then it shone directly upon them. As the army approached nearer and nearer to them, they gradually withdrew from sight and disappeared, being concealed, by intervening summits less lofty, but nearer. As the soldiers went on however, and began to penetrate the valleys, and draw near to the awful chasms and precipices among the mountains, and saw the turbid torrents descending from them, their fears revived. It was, however, now too late to retreat. They pressed forward, ascending continually, till their road grew extremely precipitous and insecure, threading its way through almost impassable defiles, with rugged cliffs overhanging them, and snowy summits towering all around.

At last they came to a narrow defile through which they must necessarily pass, but which was guarded by large bodies of armed men assembled on the rocks and precipices above, ready to hurl stones and weapons of every kind upon them if they should attempt to pass through. The army halted. Hannibal ordered them to encamp where they were, until he could consider what to do. In the course of the day he learned that the mountaineers did not remain at their elevated posts during the night, on account of the intense cold and exposure, knowing, too, that it would be impossible for an army to traverse such a pass as they were attempting to guard without daylight to guide them, for the road, or rather pathway, which passes through these defiles, follows generally the course of a mountain torrent, which flows through a succession of frightful ravines and chasms, and often passes along on a shelf or projection of the rock, hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet from the bed of the stream, which foams and roars far below. There could, of course, be no hope of passing safely by such a route without the light of day.

The mountaineers, therefore, knowing that it was not necessary to guard the pass at night,-its own terrible danger being then a sufficient protection, were accustomed to disperse in the evening, and descend to regions where they could find shelter and repose, and to return and renew their watch in the morning. When Hannibal learned this, he determined to anticipate them in getting up upon the rocks the next day, and, in order to prevent their entertaining any suspicion of his design, he pretended to be making all the arrangements for encamping for the night on the ground he had taken. He accordingly pitched more tents, and built, toward evening, a great many fires, and he began some preparations indicating that it was his intention the next day to force his way through the pass. He moved forward a strong detachment up to a point near the entrance to the pass, and put them in a fortified position there, as if to have them all ready to advance when the proper time should arrive on the following day.
The mountaineers, seeing all these preparations going on, looked forward to a conflict on the morrow, and, during the night, left their positions as usual, to descend to places of shelter. The next morning, however, when they began, at an early hour, to ascend to them again, they were astonished to find all the lofty rocks, and cliffs, and shelving projections which overhung the pass, covered with Carthaginians.