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Mapping Alpinist Elephants

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As one of the curators of the largest map library on the planet, there are times when one comes across a map that just strikes you as unique, not only as piece of cartography, but also as a monument to the obsessions of antiquarians of the past, the present, and the future. Several days ago while searching through one of the three footballs fields of storage cabinets that make up the stacks of the Geography and Map Division here at the Library of Congress, I came across a map from 1911, made by the English antiquarian Spenser Wilkinson (1853-1937).

Map of Hannibal's March Across the Alps. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress
Map of Hannibal’s March Across the Alps. Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress.

Wilkinson was a journalist for the Manchester Guardian and a professor of military history at Oxford University, but it appears that his life’s goal was to actually trace the path of Hannibal’s elephants across the French and Italian Alps as he made his way to attack the Roman forces in the Second Punic War (218-204 BCE) and to avenge the destruction of Carthage. Wilkinson wrote a small book entitled, Hannibal’s March in which he discusses the classical sources for the tale and outlines the geographic researches that led him to conclude, with much certainty, that the elephants in Hannibal’s army must have climbed to the top of a high mountain pass known as the Col du Clapier,  located along the French border with Italy, at a height of some 2,491 meters.

Remote Sensing Image of the Col du Clapier. United States Geological Survey
Remote Sensing Image of the Col du Clapier.
United States Geological Survey.

The story of Hannibal’s trek was narrated by both the Roman historian Livy (64 BCE- 17 CE), and by the Greek Polybius (200-118 BCE), both of whom give tantalizing details about the landscape, making the reader imagine that a reconstruction of this amazing historical journey is possible.

Polybius, in Book III of his Histories, writes that the elephants, “proved something of a mixed blessing. Where the track was narrow and precipitous, they slowed things up considerably; but wherever they were placed in the column, they offered useful protection to the troops, because the natives [these are the Celtic tribes of Gaul] had never come across them before and were frightened to go near them.”

The trip was difficult and, like many climbers and alpinists of later expeditions, Hannibal’s troops suffered both physically and psychologically in the high mountains. Polybius explains that “after nine days they reached the high summits and there pitched camp. [Hannibal] waited a couple of days to allow his surviving troops to recover and to gather up those who had fallen behind.” Later he goes on to write that, “The soldiers were worn out by the effort of responding to so many misfortunes; but when, naturally enough with the approach of winter, it began to snow, it was the last straw and total demoralisation set in.”

Today, there are historical geographers, geologists, and alpine archaeologists who are still searching for material evidence of Hannibal’s passage. Perhaps there is an elephant bone buried in a glacial moraine, or a stash of Phoenician coinage lost along the long trek. Many agree with Wilkinson that the only possible pass had to be the Col du Clapier, others, who think that elephants are better alpinists and climbers, vote for the higher and more snow covered Col du Traversette, which tops out at 2950 meters. Too bad for us that Hannibal decided to bring along a herd elephants and not a team of cartographers.


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