Hannibal’s Elephants Over the Alps

dumbledore13, weberstategirl15, stabb117, Parker Langeveld

Hannibal’s Elephants in the Alps

Hannibal’s Route

Col du Montgenevre is the most likely route because according to Hannibal’s own account of his passing, there are 5 key physical traits that the pass would have had:

  1. The pass has to offer sufficient room to build a camp for at least 20,000 soldiers, 6,000 cavalry and twenty-seven elephants
  2. The defile should begin within 15 to 30 kilometers from the summit, because Hannibal’s soldiers started to climb down on the day they left the camp on the summit;
  3. The road to Italy must be in a northerly direction: the soldiers encountered snows of the previous year when they were descending;
  4. The first part of the descent has to be narrow and steep;
  5. After this, the descent has to be less steep for about 50 kilometers, because it took Hannibal’s men three days to reach the plain;

Col du Montgenevre, between Briancon in France and Susa in Italy, is the only pass in this area which would fit the description of all 5 key points.


Hannibal in the Alps (Google, 2016)


Finally, while it can’t be said which account of later witnesses is 100% accurate, it can be said that Polybius of Megalopis was likely have the most accurate information because he interviewed various men who were actually present during these occasion.  He also personally explored the country, and he’d crossed the Alps himself to discover the most feasible route. (Livius, 2016).


Traveling with the Elephants

There are several possible ways that Hannibal got his war elephants over the Alps.

  1. According to Charles & Rhodan (2007), Syrian elephants were most likely used by Hannibal and his army.  This is because Syrian elephants were inferior in size to African elephants and much easier to train.  Training and taming the elephants would have made it easier to bring them over the Alps.  
  2. Although there is some speculation on the use of African elephants from the coin found, we know for sure that Hannibal himself had at least one Syrian elephant.  It may be thought that his train of elephants were both African and Syrian.
  3. When elephants are tamed, they are tied so they cannot wander and beaten. This goes on without food or water for days, until the elephant is finally submissive. Then, food and water are given, and the elephant spends time tied to already tamed elephants until its trainers are satisfied it can work without the other elephants (Frei, n.d.). Because of this process, tamed elephants become reliant on their handlers for subsistence. Basically, if the animals didn’t cross and climb the Alps, they wouldn’t eat or survive.
  4. Elephants follow herd instincts.  Therefore, in some accounts of Hannibal, the female elephants were able to lead the rest of the herd into undesirable terrain (O’Bryhim, 1991).
  5. Another way that Hannibal could have provided a way for the elephants to cross the Alps was by going ahead of the elephants and clearing a track for them to travel on more easily. At one point on the journey, Polybius wrote about how at one point in Hannibal’s journey, it took  three extra days work to make the track fit for the elephants to cross (Brown, 1963).



Carthaginian Coin with African Elephant (Google, 2016)


Works Cited

Brown, J. (1963). Hannibal’s Route across the Alps. Greece & Rome, 10(1), 38-46. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/642791


Charles, M. & Rhodan, P. (2207).Magister Elephantorvm: A reappraisal of Hannibal’s use of elephants. The Classical World, 100, 4.  


Frei, G. (n.d.). Training of elephants in zoo and circus. Retrieved October 04, 2016, from http://www.upali.ch/training_en.html


Google. (n.d.). Hannibal in the alps (image). Retrieved October 4, 2016 from http://www.google.com/search


Livius. (2016). Hannibal in the Alps. Retrieved October 4, 2016 from http://www.livius.org/articles/person/hannibal-3-barca/hannibal-in-the-alps/


O’Bryhim, S. (1991). Hannibal’s elephants and the crossing of Rhone. The Classical Quarterly, 41,


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