Crossing the Rhone On Hannibal's Trail


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Crossing the Rhone

Danny, Ben and Sam Wood retrace Hannibal's steps through the south of France to the foothills of the Alps, recreating Hannibal's crossing of the River Rhone.


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We're on ten-week journey cycling 3,500 kilometres

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on the trail of the great Carthaginian warrior Hannibal.

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Over 2,000 years ago, Hannibal marched his army from the south of Spain,

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across the Alps, and into Italy.

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He launched a spectacular assault on the heart of Roman power.

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Hannibal's brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago, were his generals.

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I'm Danny Wood. I'm a journalist.

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And, like Hannibal, I'm travelling with my brothers -

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Ben, a computer expert, and Sam, an archaeologist.

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Hannibal marched with over 100,000 soldiers, armed with swords, spears

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and 37 elephants.

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We're armed with three bikes.

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-Three tents.

-And a bike cam.

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So far, we've cycled over a thousand kilometres up

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the east coast of Spain, over the Pyrenees and into France.

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We're now well on our way to the Alps.

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But, before climbing any mountains,

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Hannibal and his vast army had another obstacle to cross -

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the river Rhone.

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So, we have to cross it, too.

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Day 15 of our journey -

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around 1100 kilometres from Cartagena where our journey began,

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still nearly a thousand kilometres to Rome.

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We're deep into France now and, like Hannibal's invading army, we feel like foreigners here.

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CAR HORN BLARES

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The locals don't seem that pleased to see us.

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HORNS BLARE

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That's what we have to put up with. Did you see that?

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French impatience. Bonjour.

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-Sam, that was slightly more polite that time.

-Definitely.

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It's not hard to be polite

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when you're in a car and people are on bikes.

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But, unfortunately, that doesn't seem to happen very often in France.

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The Spanish were much nicer drivers.

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We're arriving in Arles.

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The city was used by the Greeks as a trading port from the 6th century BC.

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But this feels like a Roman city.

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It even has its own Coliseum.

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Sam went to find out what it was like in Hannibal's day.

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We know that, in the Greek times, the town was named Theline.

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That, in Greek, means the "feeding one", the "giver of food"

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if you want. It means that it was a rich town.

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It was a huge town, a big one.

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We are thinking it was about 40 hectares,

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as big as Marseilles, the Greek town.

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And it huge place for trade between the north of Europe and the Mediterranean world.

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-Gosh, so it was a very interesting town. Do we have any archaeological remains?

-Yes, a bit.

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Not a lot, because here we've got so much remains of the Roman times.

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Maybe you'll have to dig up the amphitheatre to find out more about Hannibal's time?

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Oh! We'd like to in some small part, but we just can't destroy it!

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By this time, news of Hannibal's march had reached Rome.

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The Romans despatched an army to stop him.

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It was led by one of Rome's top generals, Publius Scipio.

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His warships put into port at Marseilles.

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Scipio was planning to march into Spain to meet Hannibal's army.

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He had no idea that Hannibal had already crossed the Pyrenees into Gaul.

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Nor that he was determined to cross the Alps.

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The Romans never dreamed that Hannibal would dare to strike at the heart of the Roman republic.

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Hannibal knew the Romans would do anything to stop his attack on Rome.

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But he had no idea that Scipio and his legions were only a few days' march away. The race was on.

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Hannibal knew he had to cross the Alps fast before the Romans found out what he was up to.

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Surprise was his most powerful weapon.

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I'll race you.

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Like Hannibal, we have an unforgiving schedule.

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-So we've left Arles, and are making our way north.

-Bonjour.

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It's easy cycling, but soon Hannibal had to cross the Rhone with his vast army and 37 elephants.

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It's hard as three brothers on bikes to convey the size

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of the 15km column of cavalry, livestock and elephants.

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It must have been like a small town on the move through this fertile countryside known as the Camargue.

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We know it's a bit of a bread basket.

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We've been riding through continuous vineyards until now.

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We're passing into different territory.

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We've seen lots of sunflowers which have already been harvested in the pastures around us.

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It was obviously a good place for Hannibal's troops to get easy supplies.

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There's a lot of good agricultural produce to be had for cyclists like us and for a big army.

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There's a centuries old debate about where exactly Hannibal led his men and animals across the river Rhone.

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The trick would have been to find a place where the river was shallow and the current slow.

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We're going to cross here.

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It's the ancient trading town of Beaucaire, which means beautiful stone.

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Hannibal was a master strategist.

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Since arriving in Gaul,

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he'd been currying favour with the local tribes.

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They now sold him boats for the crossing, as his troops amassed on the river bank.

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Our tight budget means we haven't exactly showered the locals with gifts,

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but we've turned to the town's boat club for help.

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Ben asked the club's director where he thought Hannibal might have crossed.

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Can you tell us about the current here,

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and are there any dangerous sections of the Rhone?

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For our crossing, we've chosen a nice calm stretch of river,

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a branch known as the sleeping Rhone.

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So we're setting up our tents before it gets too dark and before the mozzies eat us.

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And tomorrow, we're using canoes to cross the Rhone,

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which is one of the forms of transport Hannibal would have used to get across.

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I think we've got it a lot better than Hannibal did.

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He used to sleep in his cloak. We've got quite nice airbeds actually.

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Of course it's funny to be sinking pegs into this earth which is probably the same earth that

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thousands of soldiers camped on thousands of years ago

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when they were about to cross this massive obstacle, the Rhone,

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which is the first big physical obstacle Hannibal had to cross.

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As we huddle round our mosquito-beating campfire,

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we can only imagine what Hannibal's men would have been doing.

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They would have probably been very drunk. That's my best guess.

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I suppose his army would have had entertainment.

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-There would have been singing, drinking, pigs roasting.

-Yeah, maybe prostitutes.

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THEY LAUGH

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We stay just one night on the river bank.

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Hannibal's army would have spent days going back and forth,

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transporting thousands of men and animals across the Rhone.

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The army was so big that they would have had to construct additional vessels from scratch.

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Hannibal's men would have hollowed out tree trunks to make canoes, and lashed logs together for rafts.

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The preparations along this river bank would have made a spectacular sight.

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But the crossing wasn't Hannibal's only challenge.

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He also had to deal with a hostile local tribe, the Volcae,

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notorious for their shield waving and demented screaming

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when going into battle.

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The Volcae were now ranged along the opposite bank of the river.

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They were determined to smash the intruders and loot the spoils from Hannibal's army.

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Hannibal secretly sent some troops, led by his nephew, Hanno,

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to cross the Rhone upstream and make a surprise attack on the Volcae.

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So we send Ben off to cross upriver, like Hanno.

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Hanno had a force of elite North African and Spanish soldiers with him.

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They marched up the river under cover of darkness to make their crossing undetected.

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It was an operation that would have required discipline and concentration.

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I was bit naughty. I wasn't thinking about Hannibal or elephants.

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I was thinking how nice it was to be alone.

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Being alone was a great feeling.

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About the first time in about three weeks really.

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Having a few hours paddling on a river was just very nice.

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Hanno's force made their way down the river bank.

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They then crept up behind the enemy camp,

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and waited for an early morning ambush.

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Once in position, Hanno sent a smoke signal.

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He was ready for battle.

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Hannibal's army started crossing the river to do battle.

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The Volcae were howling and chanting and brandishing their weapons on the other side.

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The Volcae had no idea they were about to be attacked on two fronts.

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Hannibal and his forces launched their assault on the Volcae from the river.

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Hanno seized his chance.

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He and his troops launched the surprise attack.

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The Volcae scattered in total chaos.

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It was a textbook strategy for attack that's still used in military campaigns to this day.

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It's so nice to be doing something other than riding a bike.

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And paddling across the Rhone is a pretty nice thing to be doing,

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even if we're supposed to be attacking the Volcae.

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No artefacts have ever been dredged up to indicate where Hannibal crossed the Rhone with his men.

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-I'm stuck!

-But I'm about to leave some evidence of our crossing for future archaeologists.

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I'm just looking for my Flip Flop.

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It disappeared somewhere into this mud with my foot. I don't think I'll find it.

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I think it will be consigned to the past with the men who would have sunk through here 2,000 years ago.

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With the Volcae defeated, Hannibal could now transport his 37 elephants over to the other side.

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As you can see, getting bikes across a river is a lot easier than getting elephants across.

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Legend has it that the elephants crossed the Rhone on rafts.

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The ancient Greek historian Polybius writes that, as soon as the rafts were cut from their moorings,

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the elephants panicked and jumped into the river.

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Their drivers were thrown off and crushed or drowned.

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According to Polybius, the elephants then walked under water

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using their trunks as snorkels until they reached the shore.

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That sounds like an amazing scene.

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But there's one fact that Polybius clearly wasn't aware of.

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Elephants can swim!

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More than 100 years after Polybius, the Roman historian Livy wrote his own account of Hannibal's journey.

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He entertains the idea that the elephants made it across by themselves.

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Livy suggests that the elephant drivers would have aggravated a male elephant

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until it chased them into the water.

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Elephant experts have confirmed that the herd instinct would have been to follow an angry male.

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Once in the water, they'd all happily swum to the other side.

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Hannibal's Rhone crossing has passed into legend.

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We may never know exactly how he did it, but we do know there were even greater obstacles to come.

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Always planning ahead, Hannibal dispatched 500 of his Numidian

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cavalrymen into the territory east of the river.

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What they found was completely unexpected.

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The Numidians ran into a force of 300 of Scipio's cavalry.

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In the battle that followed, around half the Roman force was lost.

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But more than 200 Numidians were slaughtered.

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The surviving Numidians escaped and returned to Hannibal

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with the news that the Romans were after him.

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Hannibal now had to decide -

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stand and fight?

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Or march on to Italy?

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Hannibal chose to press on to Rome.

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Scipio now understood that Hannibal was planning

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to invade Rome via the Alps.

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He gave up the chase and headed home to Italy where he planned to ambush Hannibal on his arrival.

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We are on our way to Maillane, a sleepy Provencal village

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tucked away on this quiet country road near Avignon.

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Deep beneath its streets, Maillane has a secret -

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a key to the mystery of Hannibal's route.

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We're off to see if we can find it.

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It's said that in the late 18th century, a local farmer,

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Barthelemy Daillan, was digging a cellar in one of these houses.

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Amazingly, though, no-one seems to know which one it was

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Anyway, Daillan dug up some bones that turned out to be part of a 12-foot long elephant skeleton.

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He also found a huge elephant tooth, a molar!

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That not all. It's also said he found a copper medallion engraved with an elephant.

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He kept it and fixed it to the handle of his pickaxe.

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This is Rue du Geant,

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Giant Street.

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It's said to be named in honour of the elephant unearthed here.

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We found two local historians who share our interest in Hannibal.

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They also happen to be brothers.

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I ask them about Daillan's discovery.

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Like almost everything connected with Hannibal, the pickaxe with the elephant medallion was lost.

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And nobody knows what happened to the elephant skeleton.

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It's said that Daillan's widow kept the elephant tooth until the day she died.

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But then, another tiny part of the Hannibal trail goes cold.

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What we do know about the next part of Hannibal's march on Rome is that he turned east

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for the most physically gruelling leg of his journey.

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We're beginning to see mountains,

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and something that will give us a taste of the struggle ahead -

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Mount Ventoux, known locally as The Giant.

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The Gauls believed that a mountain God lived at the top.

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And this nearly 2,000 metre climb is a notoriously gruelling section of the Tour de France.

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Ventoux means windy. It's named for the powerful mistral wind that's been

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known to blow at speeds up to 200 miles an hour across its summit.

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We've decided to pit ourselves against The Giant, and each other,

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in a Wood Brothers mini-Tour de France.

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The view from the top is supposed to be spectacular!

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We're going to need a good night's sleep before we attempt the long climb to the summit.

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It's hard to race your brothers.

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I mean, we're competitive in some things, but not in much really.

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The occasional tennis game maybe but,

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yeah, hard to know who's going to win.

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I think it really could go any way.

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It's taken me a long time to get used to being beaten by my younger brothers.

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And I probably am, I'm not sure.

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I think we're all very competitive.

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My brothers think I'm the most competitive.

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But I have noticed in this light I'm looking a bit older than I think of myself.

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My grey hair seems to stand out.

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So I'm hoping I can stave off old age until I get up this hill.

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I'm actually looking forward to the difficulty and

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putting myself in difficulty, and I'd quite happily come last.

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I'm not fussed to be honest.

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But we'll all try our hardest and see what happens.

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-Hi, Sam.

-Hi.

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-Pretty good. you're up first.

-Yeah.

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We know all the professionals shave their legs, so today I'm becoming a professional.

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We're all quite anti-leg shaving.

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Only because it doesn't improve the performance, so I'm testing out today

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whether it's going to help me climb Ventoux.

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The troublesome spot is behind the knee.

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-Hi.

-Hi.

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-Looks lovely.

-Yeah, should be nice with coffee.

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Sam's the strongest cyclist.

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That's what you keep saying, but I think that's the double bluff.

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It is the double bluff.

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I've tried to reclaim my rightful place as older brother and best at everything.

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-But I can never do it.

-When did you lose that title?

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-When I was about 12.

-I think probably in the first few kilometres I'll try and break you both.

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I made secret preparations.

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It's pretty good.

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So you shaved your lower leg.

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-You didn't shave the top bit though.

-Yeah, well I didn't have time.

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I only done one leg.

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So I'm a bit worried I'll be going round in circles due to aerodynamics.

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-You look like a professional.

-I'll be half a professional.

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-Have you ever shaved your legs before?

-No. Have you?

-No.

-Have you, Danny?

-I don't think so.

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-You don't think so?

-No, I'm sure I haven't. I don't think I would have.

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Well, Nana always said I had nice legs, lovely legs.

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From that photo in the kilt, isn't it?

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-I think Nana was a bit obsessed with kilts.

-Yeah, and lovely legs!

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THEY LAUGH

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-To Ventoux.

-Good luck.

-Thank you.

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Now it just remains for us to locate our inner warriors and steel ourselves for the battle ahead.

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We each prepare for the race in our own unique way.

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So far on Hannibal's trail, we've been working very well together as a team.

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Mending punctures together, setting up tents. Today, up Mont Ventoux, that may all change.

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I suppose, to see myself lose to my brothers on TV,

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and everyone else in the world to see it,

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is a bit worrying, so I think I'd better win.

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So now, the gloves are off.

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Good luck, gents.

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It beautiful Saturday morning as we set off, and it feels like half the country is also out for a ride.

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We've been on the road for nearly three weeks now,

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and covered about 1200 kilometres of Hannibal's journey.

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But this is the first time we've been really tested.

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It gives you renewed respect for the stamina of the Carthaginian soldiers.

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A very difficult middle part of the climb. It's got to be easier now.

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Sam's very strong. He just left.

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And none of us could stay with him.

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We sort of split up all at the same time.

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Not sure where Danny is. But hopefully not too far behind.

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In fact, I'm still about half an hour behind,

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and starting to wonder if I can make it to the top.

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It's constant 21 kilometre uphill climb.

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A victorious Sam crosses the finish line in an impressive two hours ten minutes.

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Not much to say.

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I'm stuffed.

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Ben makes it about 20 minutes later. But he's having trouble.

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Sam, Sam, Sam. Hammy, hammy, hammy.

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Just drop it, drop it, drop it. Oh!

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Can we get off now? 'And my time is around two hours 40 minutes.'

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'But I'm not disappointed.'

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It's the toughest thing I've ever done.

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Gosh.

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I think the prunes kept me going.

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Honestly. Granny's favourite food.

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I just dug into my bag and stuffed them in my mouth. I'm just going to lay down.

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I kept stopping for cramp and hoping Danny would come round the corner just so I could say hello.

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And he did eventually.

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And then we sort of leapfrogged each other as we got cramps.

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We've managed to conquer the Giant of Provence, and the view from the top is spectacular.

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There is a reward for all that suffering. It's one hour downhill freewheeling.

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-That'll be a lot of fun.

-Lead the way.

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Today's been tough, but this journey would have been much tougher for Hannibal and his army.

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Yee-ha!

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It makes you wonder what drove them on.

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It must have been Hannibal's obsession with bringing Rome to its knees.

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In the next programme - Hannibal gets cut off from his men.

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We try to work out which route he took across the Alps.

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And we catch sight of Italy where all roads lead to Rome.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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History and travel series in which three Australian brothers - Danny, Ben and Sam Wood - set out cycling on the trail of Hannibal, the Carthaginian warrior who marched from Spain to Rome at the head of an invading army accompanied by elephants.

From the Roman amphitheatre of Arles, the brothers retrace Hannibal's steps through the south of France to the foothills of the Alps. They recreate Hannibal's historic crossing of the River Rhone before cycling on to the town of Maillane, where the remains of one of Hannibal's elephants were found in the 19th century. They then race up the 2000-metre-high Mont Ventoux before setting off into the Alps.