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.