Hannibal crossing the Rhône

Everybody knows that Hannibal fought the Romans by crossing the Alps with elephants. But I had never heard this amazing story about how hard it was for Hannibal to even get to the Alps, because first he had to cross Spain, then cross France. And en route to the Alps, he had to cross the Rhône.

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Now the Carthaginians under Hannibal (plus Iberians, Africans, and 37 or so elephants) were not straying too far from the coast, so historians believe they were trying to cross the Rhône north of Avignon, where the river is well over half a mile wide. I mean, just imagine if someone told you you had to get across this thing without a bridge, and without the prospect of a nice wine tasting on the other side.

The currents were strong enough that a normal band of people could cross with rafts or canoes if they could concentrate, though of course getting a bunch of cavalry horses and 37 elephants to cross is another matter. And on either side of the river were angry Volcae natives who were eager to attack Hannibal’s forces as soon as they were divided and weakened, not to mention Roman troops led by Scipio creeping north from the ocean towards them on the East side. I’m not sure if Hannibal knew they were coming for sure, but he knew he had to hurry.

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Badass battle map from Wikipedia

Anyway, needless to say Hannibal’s methods of making this work were fucking genius. The video above by Lindybeige tells it better than I could, but his combination of subterfuge, technological innovation, expert planning and even using animal psychology to trick the elephants by making them think that rafts were a land bridge make me feel pretty humbled that I couldn’t even manage to have my cabinet stocked with cereal this morning. And this crossing seems far more genius than the actual “crossing the Alps” part that is the most famous part of the story.

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Hannibal’s Army Crossing the Rhône, Henri Paul Motte, 1878. ( Wikipedia)

One note of criticism for Lindybeige, though: does he really buy the story the Roman historians Livy and Polybius pass down to us about the elephants being afraid of water and having to be tricked into crossing? I was wondering this myself when I ran into a fellow doubting Thomas in this article:

… neither Polybius nor Livy knew much about elephants, and their histories include fanciful fabrications presented in careful detail, as if related by actual witnesses—caveat lector. What neither classic historian was aware of is that elephants not only are not terrified of rivers, but can swim and are actually very good swimmers! The aquatic prowess of pachyderms would have been well known to the Carthaginians, who had been training elephants for more than a century prior to the wars with Rome. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that Hannibal would have attempted such complicated and unnecessary procedure to get his animals across the Rhône.

Now that author, Yozan Mosig, doesn’t seem to be a zoologist or animal trainer, so he doesn’t say whether all breeds of elephants would be up for swimming across a wide river with a heavy current, nor whether perhaps the problem was exacerbated by their having riders on top and big armored wooden platforms strapped to them. But still, I agree with him, the raft crossing theory seems a bit less than plausible when most likely Hannibal could have simply let them swim.

 

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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