Danny, Ben and Sam Wood retrace Hannibal's route through the Alps. They brave snow, altitude and exhaustion before arriving in northern Italy, ready to take on Rome.
Browse content similar to Over the Alps. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
We're on a ten week journey,
cycling 3,500 kilometres
on the trail of the great Carthaginian warrior, Hannibal.
Over 2000 years ago, Hannibal marched his army from the south of Spain,
across the Alps, and into Italy.
He launched a spectacular assault on the heart of Roman power.
Hannibal's brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago, were his generals.
I'm Danny Wood. I'm a journalist, and, like Hannibal,
I'm travelling with my brothers.
Ben, a computer expert, and Sam, an archaeologist.
Hannibal marched with over 100,000 soldiers, armed with swords, spears
and 37 elephants.
We're armed with three bikes.
-And a bike-cam.
So far, we've cycled from the south of Spain, over the Pyrenees and through France.
We're well into the journey. But we still have to take on Hannibal's greatest challenge.
Crossing the Alps.
Day 21 of our journey, and we're cycling through Provence.
We're all thinking about the great test ahead.
Hannibal knew the Alps were now only a few days' march away.
The ancient Greek historian, Polybius, says he sent scouts ahead
to find a place to camp and prepare for the big climb.
Polybius says Hannibal set up camp in a place he calls "the island",
a stretch of incredibly fertile land between two rivers.
This area, around the beautiful town of Vaison la Romaine,
appears to fit Polybius's description.
Here, Hannibal's men could rest, and their horses and elephants
could forage in preparation for the hard days ahead.
The Roman historian, Livy, suggests that Hannibal's troops felt daunted
by the next step of the journey.
Hannibal gave a morale-boosting speech to urge them on to Rome.
"When finally you have the Alps in sight, at the very
"gateway of the enemy's country, you come to a halt, exhausted."
"What do you think the Alps are?
"Are they anything worse than high mountains?
"Why, even the Gauls once captured Rome.
"And you despair of being able even to get near it."
"Women and children have crossed these mountains.
"Either confess you have less spirit than a people you've defeated again
"and again, or steel your hearts and march forward to the Walls of Rome."
Hannibal put food in their stomachs and hope in their hearts.
But they would need more than that to survive the perilous journey ahead.
Hannibal soon found a way to secure the extra support he needed.
He came across two brothers from a local Gallic tribe who were involved
in a bitter struggle for control over this prosperous territory.
Hannibal stepped in to settle the dispute.
He took the side of the elder brother, Brancus.
Of course, I'm all in favour of the eldest child coming out on top.
But my younger brother, Ben, has other ideas.
So do you refute the claim that the first born Carthaginian child was sacrificed?
I think by the time of Hannibal it was a goat.
It was a goat? Oh, that's quite good.
What the first born was a goat?
Confirmed as leader, Brancus now lavished Hannibal's army with food,
warm clothes and an armed escort
for the treacherous route into the mountains.
We're back on the road, too.
And we're getting a taste of just how punishing Hannibal's journey could be.
You think about Hannibal and how he would have been reacting.
These were serious mountains for those guys.
They didn't have to just worry about getting up the altitude.
They had to find food, protect themselves from their enemies.
It's a different world.
All we've got to worry about is getting up the next hill.
We're heading up to the Gorge des Gas. It's a beautiful valley.
And it's just unbelievable.
It's October and it's like summer.
We're coming to the foothills of the Alps.
This is where Hannibal's army was most vulnerable to attack.
As his army marched towards this narrow pass, Hannibal received intelligence
that warriors from a local tribe, the Allobroges, were following him high in the rocks above.
Hannibal had no choice but to press on. He had to get through the ravine and over the pass.
Hannibal sent scouts ahead.
They came back with the information that the Allobroges held positions
high in the cliff tops to guard the pass by day.
But every night they returned to their village.
Hannibal came up with a plan to trick the Allobroges.
The first stage was to make an elaborate show of settling
his army down for the night just beneath the enemy's positions.
It's funny when you start to think about Hannibal and his army camping.
They were mostly mercenaries, so I'm sure they slept in very different ways.
I imagine some people were in tents and some people slept under the stars.
Hannibal successfully created the impression that the entire army was sleeping.
The Allobroges fell for it and returned to their villages as usual.
Hannibal now sent some of his most reliable infantry
up into the cliffs to seize the Allobroges vantage points.
At first light, the rest of Hannibal's men struck camp.
They started to make their way along the narrow ledge of the valley.
We're really getting a sense of how vulnerable Hannibal
and his army must have felt walking up this ravine.
Then the local tribesmen returned to find their vantage points occupied.
The Allobroges were furious, and started to hurl down rocks
and missiles on Hannibal's army in the ravine below.
There was no place to shelter from the falling rocks.
And the army was soon at breaking point.
Hannibal launched a counter-attack with the men he'd sent to the top of the cliff.
It must have been chaos. Horses and elephants going crazy.
Men being crushed and falling into the ravine.
Hannibal eventually managed to overwhelm the Allobroges.
And as they retreated, Hannibal's men stormed into their village.
They then looted enough supplies to last for the next three days.
Like Hannibal, we're hoping for a trouble-free day.
No punctures, no loss of provisions and no hostile locals.
After the shock of the ambush, Hannibal realised that his vast food supplies were a tempting target.
He moved them towards the front of the convoy with armed protection and positioned himself at the rear.
It's said the route took the army through this beautiful valley, the Combe du Queyras.
Hannibal encountered more local tribesmen here.
These days, the magnificent 13th century Chateau Queyras
is the valley's striking landmark.
But in Hannibal's day, this would have been a huge dome of bare rock.
We're coming down to Chateau Queyras now.
And this is where local tribes approached Hannibal's men with gifts and offerings and he accepted them,
but he was pretty suspicious of them because of the experience he'd had with the previous tribes.
As Hannibal and his men started moving through the narrow valley,
the local warriors launched an ambush.
Hannibal's army scattered.
In the confusion, a large section became separated from their leader.
When Hannibal was split from the rest of his army, he was said to spend
a night under a bald rock, or a white rock.
Now, scholars have tried to locate this place and there are many variations.
But one of them is Chateau Queyras.
That night, cut off from half his army, Hannibal
must have felt his whole plan to invade Rome was doomed to failure.
But the next morning, the rest of Hannibal's army staggered out of the gorge, amazed to be alive.
The enemy had retreated.
Now the march on Rome could continue.
After this second ambush, Hannibal and his men had a relatively
peaceful approach into the mountains, but the physical strain began to weigh heavily.
We're certainly finding it tougher.
Progress is slow and cold.
No-one's sure which route Hannibal took through the Alps.
All we have to go on are ancient descriptions of the terrain Hannibal crossed on his journey.
We're going to split up and test out three of the possible passes, known in French as "Cols".
Col du Clapier.
Col de la Traversette.
And Col de Montgenevre.
We're going to find out which one best matches the ancient sources.
We're suddenly very aware of why Hannibal wanted to get this crossing
out of the way before winter set in.
I'm just doing a warm-up.
It's suddenly got very cold.
Well, we're truly in the Alps now.
We're at 2000 metres up.
It's not that high but pretty high.
So I'm going to turn left here and go over this mountain.
Danny and Sam need to head towards their passes.
So we're having a tearful farewell
and we meet again in a couple of days.
See you, guys.
-Same to you.
Sam and I will ride together for nearly 30 kilometres
before we, too, go our separate ways.
Ben's heading for the most northerly pass, Col du Clapier.
It's around 2,500 hundred metres high.
I've just said goodbye to my brothers.
Whilst it's great to have your brothers around to share
the load, for a bit of company, it's also nice to get a break...
have a bit of time by yourself.
Just wonder what it was like in Hannibal's army.
There was just no opportunity ever to be...
sort of, have a bit of quiet time by yourself...
for any of them.
It's a bit lonely, really, actually.
When you come besides to miss your brothers being around, you come to realise what you rely on them for.
As I came out of the town below, I actually had to have a look at a map which was a bit painful.
Ben's the expert with them and...
yeah, we've really come to rely on him for that.
Sam's making his way further south towards the Col de la Traversette.
At nearly 3,000 metres, it's one of the highest Alpine passes.
My younger brothers have given me Montgenevre.
It stands at a modest 1,860 metres.
We're all looking forward to a good night's sleep before the climb.
I always think
that I'll be in a hot shower in 24 hours from now.
And Hannibal's men had been going for months.
If they were camping out in this sort of weather,
they must have been either very, very tough or...
er... pretty upset by now.
I'm climbing Traversette tomorrow.
And should be brilliant.
I mean, I'm not set on it as the one which Hannibal went across, but just to cross any pass over
the Alps and think about him possibly being there before, and just the hardships he went through.
Yeah, I can't wait.
Montgenevre is the easy one, so I'm looking forward to getting there and just seeing
whether it is a real contender, at least from my humble perspective.
So it'll be fun.
Fingers crossed for some decent weather tomorrow.
Ben's prayers for good weather appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
But Sam can't get over his luck when he sets off.
The sun's coming over the mountains.
It's going to be a great day climbing this mountain.
As long as I can push my bike all over the top.
You do start to think about Hannibal. You imagine it.
You're in the middle of the Alps, in a country you've never been to,
with men who've never been there either.
You've lost men and animals by the thousand
to cold, to ambushes, to desertion.
You're on a mission you believe in, but are probably starting to doubt as you reach these mountains.
I really feel for Hannibal. It must have been so hard.
Thanks for guiding me today. Which way to Traversette?
Traversette is over there.
-Great... lead on.
It makes sense to have a guide in these mountains.
The weather can suddenly change and the paths aren't always clear.
Livy writes that Hannibal's army took the wrong route several times before reaching the pass.
We're hoping our guides will be more reliable than Hannibal's.
So I've just left Gilbert, my guide, who's very nice.
But the way at the moment looks pretty easy, actually.
It's a fairly well-defined track.
A bit bumpy at times.
I'm sure I'll let him catch up a bit later
just in case I'm not sure of the trail.
I don't really need a guide for my pass,
and there's no real rush to get going.
So before I set out from the ski resort of Briancon,
I have time to speak to a Hannibal historian about the march through the mountains.
The crossing of the Alps took 15 days,
but is the most important of the journey.
Why is there such a dispute over
which route Hannibal took over the Alps?
Lots of specialists still not agree about the routes.
There are a lot of possibilities.
And we have a lot of sources,
Polybius and Livy, but the authors are not clear.
They didn't mention precise location, and chronology,
so it's very difficult to choose clearly one path.
My crossing's all by road, but the terrain on the other passes
is making it tough for Sam and Ben to do any cycling at all.
I've had to start walking my bike now. It's got a bit steep and rocky.
But it is beautiful. Everywhere we've been in the Alps has been beautiful.
I suppose I'm not sure if Hannibal and his army were appreciating the scenery so much.
I know Traversette's going to get very hard at the top, so I've tried
to get ahead of my guide, Nicolas, by doing a bit of cycling.
But I'm pushing now because it's much too hard to ride.
It's tough going but the weather's perfect.
It's a beautiful day.
And we know that Hannibal had terrible weather.
There was snow and ice.
And his animals and men were dying from the cold.
Some historians have suggested that Hannibal had little choice
but to lead his army through these high passes.
Here, they would have been less exposed to attack.
Livy describes the terrible conditions
Hannibal and his men faced as they began to climb.
"The awful vision was now before their eyes.
"The towering peaks, the snow-clad pinnacles soaring to the sky."
"Beasts and cattle shrivelled and parched with cold, the locals with
"their wild and ragged hair, everything stiff with frost."
"All these horrifying sights gave a new edge to their fear."
No remnants of Hannibal's army have ever been found.
And with so many potential routes over such a vast territory,
it's hard to know exactly where excavations might start.
Until these mountains yield some real evidence about Hannibal's
route, we're left with the clues given by Polybius and Livy.
The first of these is an area near the summit,
large enough for Hannibal's whole army to set up camp.
This looks like the perfect place for a campsite.
You can definitely imagine an army of thousands of men,
a baggage train, horses and elephants camped here under the pass.
Traversette definitely does very well on the campsite test.
So we're just below highest point of the pass.
And we're in a huge area which is possibly where Hannibal
and his army camped waiting for the stragglers to come up the valley.
It's got a bit of forage and a nice big freshwater lake.
So I'm sure they could have camped here quite comfortably.
As I reach the summit at Montgenevre, it strikes
me that there would be no shortage of places for a large army to stay.
The next feature Polybius and Livy mention is that the previous year's snow still lay on the pass.
I'm almost at the top and I've reached the snow line.
It's such hard going.
If Hannibal came this way, with elephants and an army, he did so well.
I'm struggling enough even just with my bike.
I can't believe I volunteered for Traversette!
That small patch of white behind me is all that remains of last winter's snow.
But it's very likely that when Hannibal and his army came through, there was plenty more of it.
Well, as you can see, there's not even snow on this pass now, but I'm crossing Montgenevre a bit
earlier than Hannibal would have, and it does snow here because you can see around me the ski pistes.
It may not seem to match the descriptions in the history books,
but Montgenevre does have its advocates.
This is partly because it would have been so much easier for Hannibal
to transport his army across here than over the more hazardous passes.
The next clue we have is that there was said to be
a dramatic view from the summit, over the Po Valley in Italy.
Mmm. They told me there was an amazing view from here,
but unfortunately today it's just clouds.
I'd best take a photo to prove to Danny and Sam I've actually been here.
That's Italy over there, but it's not exactly a spectacular view of the Po Valley.
I couldn't have made it without you, Nicolas. Thank you, especially hauling my elephant bike.
-Do you think he came this way?
-Yes, it's possible.
I think all is possible.
Yeah, all is possible.
It's a phenomenal view. Looking down this valley, it's stunning.
You can see miles. I really wish my brothers were here to see it.
Livy and Polybius both report that Hannibal chose this vantage point to give a stirring speech.
"you are now crossing the very borders of Italy.
"More than that, you're walking on the walls of Rome."
"From now on, it'll be easy going.
"No more mountains to climb."
"After a battle or two, you will hold the capital of Italy,
"the fortress of Rome, in the palm of your hands."
There's one final clue.
The descent from the summit is supposed to be extremely steep.
And Ben's route over Clapier certainly seems to match this description.
How do you think I'll go on my bike?
Sam's also struggling to get down the other side of Traversette.
Well, the descent definitely matches the descriptions of Livy and Polybius. It's so steep.
I don't know how much chance I've got of getting my bike down here.
Hannibal probably wouldn't have had many problems crossing here,
even before the invention of tarmac and roadside cafes.
And why would he have chosen a steeper crossing,
when this nice gentle route into Italy exists?
One day, maybe an elephant bone or a shield will emerge
as conclusive evidence of the route Hannibal took over the Alps.
Until then, no-one can be sure.
We each like to believe it was our own passes, of course.
But at the end of it all, it's just great to see each other again.
Mine was easy-peasy. It was just basically like a zombie town ski resort.
-Yeah, mine was quite relaxing.
-No, it was quite dark at the end.
I'm still feeling it. I'm still very tired. It was hard.
You look quite tired. I'm tireder than you.
Now comes the best bit!
Freewheeling for miles into Italy.
Hannibal had it much tougher.
He lost thousands of men and animals in these mountains.
And his exhausted army now had to go to war against Rome.
In the next programme, we cycle across Italy.
Hannibal and his army storm their way through battle after battle.
And Rome is brought the brink of collapse.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
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.
The brothers take on the most challenging leg of their trek - crossing the Alps. Historians disagree about which route Hannibal took across the mountains, and the Woods split up and each cycle a different path. They brave snow, altitude and sheer exhaustion as they carry their bikes across some of the highest peaks in the Alps. Finally, they meet up in northern Italy, ready to take on Rome.