While historians largely agree that Hannibal’s march over the Pyrenees and later the Alps, was a stroke of genius, historians still struggle to agree on the route the army and his 37 war elephants took on their way to Rome. Now by studying old fecal microbes, scientists believe they can figure out the route taken.
A little Hannibal history
Hannibal, the general of the Carthaginian army that tried to march on Rome had a life that straddled the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C. He was born into a military family which instilled a hatred of Rome in Hannibal (Hannibal Barca) at an early age. Following the defeat of Catharge by the Romans in First Punic War in 241 B.C, Hannibal’s father (Hamilcar) worked to strengthen Carthage while moving his son to Spain and allowing him to truly hate Rome.
At the young age of 26, Hannibal was given an army and quickly set out to control Iberia by alliance or victory over Iberian tribes along with his Iberian princess wife and his army. He made the seaport of Qart Hadasht (now Cartagena) his home base and started the Second Punic War in 219 B.C. by attacking the Roman town of Saguntum (Sagunto, Spain).
In the following year (218 B.C), Hannibal took 100,000 troops and 37 war elephants through the Pyrenees with little resistance. From there he moved onto the Alps where the climate and some resistance from indigenous tribes launching guerilla attacks saw his army exit the Alps after a 15 day crossing with only 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, but shockingly, with all 37 elephants.
For the next three years, Hannibal battled Scipio’s forces for control of Italian territory with almost no support from Carthage. While he was victorious in a number of battles and inflicted massive casualties on the Roman army he did so at a high price and saw his own forces dwindle.
Three miles outside of Rome, Hannibal effectively found himself in a stalemate where he didn’t have the forces to attack the city, but Scipio didn’t have the forces to dislodge him from Italian lands.
Hannibal’s army was defeated in 202 B.C., when Scipio and he met at the Battle of Zama. Using trumpets, the Romans caused his elephants to stampede trampling Hannibal’s men.
Ultimately, Hannibal took his own life rather than be captured and Carthage was sacked by the Romans.
Back to the horse/elephant poop
In a study published yesterday in the journal Archaeometry, scientists wrote of their intention to trace Hannibal’s route through the study of “mass animal deposition” (horsesh*t) found in the Col de Traversette.
“Over 70% of the microbes in horse dung are from a group known as Clostridia and we found these microbes in very high numbers in the bed of excrement,” study author Chris Allen of Queens University wrote in a recent article for the Conversation. “Much lower levels of Clostridia genes were found elsewhere at the site. We knew it was these bugs because we were able to partially sequence genes specific to these organisms. The bacteria are very stable in soil, surviving for thousands of years.”
Allen believes that this is surely the route taken as the bog they found the aforementioned microbes shows that it was once dug up and then stomped back down, likely by Hannibal’s army of men, horses and elephants.
Also found were horse tapeworms and “There is even the possibility of finding an elephant tapeworm egg,” he told the Guardian. “This would really be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Allen has a very different idea of a rainbow than mine which doesn’t include digging around in feces like a pig.