Switzerland has remained neutral in all wars because of the Alps. They are a seemingly impenetrable wall of mountains no army can cross. Yet Hannibal did. His decision to attack Rome through the Alps could be seen as madness, but the fact he managed to cross the Alps points to his great genius. Not just any man could bring an army through the impossible.
The first problem Hannibal faced after the Rhone River was the Allobroges tribe. The leader of the tribe, Brancus, was ousted by his brother, and none could decide who had the right to rule the tribe. Hannibal’s arrival forced the question on him. Hannibal studied the tribe’s situation and politics and chose Brancus as the rightful leader, for he had the support of the leading men of the tribe. Hannibal’s service to Brancus earned him such gratitude that the Allobroges people gave him the provisions he would need to cross the mountains, especially warm clothes (Lazenby 48). Instead of ignoring them or fighting them, as was the usual approach, Hannibal’s quick thinking and problem solving gained his men much needed supplies and a solid ally.
When he reached the Alps, Hannibal discovered a tribe of people who would hide in ravines and then rush down to attack any who attempted to pass into the mountains. His case seemed desperate, for the natives knew the land so well they did not need paths, and his troops could not easily navigate the mountainous terrain. Hannibal made camp in the valley and sent Gauls to reconnoiter the ground. He sent the Gaul not only because of their knowledge of like terrain, but also because their speech and manners were considered to be similar to that of the natives’ (Livy 21.32) . Thus, the Gauls were able to strike up conversation with the violent natives and discover that they left their posts at night and assumed that Hannibal would be unable to reach them from his side of the mountain (Ellis 64). Knowing this, Hannibal spent a day moving his troops in ways that kept the natives from attacking but also concealed his plans. That night, once the natives had dispersed, he had a larger than necessary number of fires lit and moved most of his troops up the mountain, leaving the cavalry with the baggage below. That morning, the natives watched the cavalry attempt to climb the mountain with the baggage and struggle over the terrain, and so they aimed an attack on the vulnerable force. Hannibal ran down from his higher ground and surprised the enemy, scattering them and securing the mountain pass for his men. By attacking the natives in this way, he insured that they would not attempt to fight him again as he captured villages for their food (Livy 21.33-34).
While descending the Alps, Hannibal’s path was blocked by large, limestone boulders. For a while, it looked as though he would have to turn back. That is, until he discovered how to destroy the massive rocks of the mountains. His troops were sent out to cut down trees and lean them against the offending boulders. Then, when the winds were favorable, they lit the trees on fire. When the temperature was so great that the rocks turned red hot, the troops poured sour wine over them. The sour wine had an acidic content similar to that of vinegar. Pouring the acidic substance over the red hot boulders caused them to fissure all over (Prevas 84). The rocks thus weakened, Hannibal’s men were able to break them with hammers and picks until even the elephants could pass through. From there, it was only a matter of winding their way down the steep slope and on to Italy. This use of chemistry to pass obstacles sets Hannibal apart from most military generals. Hannibal’s unusual way of making a path for himself has gone down in history as a great logistical invention and military triumph. This episode is an example of his great genius, and the innovative thinking that made him a formidable opponent to the Romans. Had Hannibal not been able to cross the Alps, he would not have posed such great a threat to the Romans.
With the Alps behind him, Hannibal’s next innovations came at the Battles of Trebia and Trasimene.