Hannibal’s Elephant Army – how did an audacious stratagem became one of history’s greatest military feats?

21 February 2018

filming for Hannibal on Channel Four
On top of the world - filming for 'Hannibal’s Elephant Army – the new evidence'

Expedition seeks evidence of the outlandish route that took Carthage into Rome’s heartlands

Imagine crossing the Alps in just sixteen days with an entourage of 40,000 men, 9,000 horses and 37 elephants to surprise one of the great powers of the age.

Following in the footsteps of that ancient remarkable journey, a team of experts from fields including ancient history, geology and palaeontology has sought evidence of the tactician Hannibal’s audacious attempt to enter Roman territory by stealth in 218BC.

The surreptitious and highly risky campaign is one of the best known in the second of the Punic Wars - Carthage and Rome’s struggle for dominance of the Mediterranean region in the third and second centuries BC.

Author of Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life, Dr Eve MacDonald joined the epic expedition in Hannibal’s Elephant Army – the new evidence for Channel Four. Her book analyses the legend against his wider society, using archaeological findings and documentary sources from across the ancient world of the wider Mediterranean.

The Ancient History lecturer was there to provide the historical background from the ancient accounts of the Greek Polybius and Roman Livy.

How Hannibal succeeded in his intrepid journey across treacherous mountain terrain has been debated for centuries since, with six potential routes proposed.

The experts set to searching for clues hidden deep beneath the Alps’ rocky soil, using latest dna testing. They also considered why elephants may have been surprisingly good at mountain climbing.

“Hannibal inspires a Boys’ Own adventure in the modern imagination. The number of publications on Hannibal over the Alps is mind-boggling. But this project was an amazing opportunity to see first-hand what crossing the Alps really entailed. The expedition gave me a real sense of the enormity of the achievement, something I hope the programme will convey for viewers today,” she adds.

Hannibal’s legendary triumph now has a 21st century perspective, informed by latest scientific techniques. But the sheer scale of one of history’s greatest military feats 2,000 years ago remains awe-inspiring.

Fascinated by the social history and archaeology of the opponents of Rome and the Roman Empire, Dr Eve MacDonald has travelled widely across the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East for her work. Finding inspiration across the wide range of Ancient world cultures, she is currently researching the Sasanian Persians.

Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life is published by Yale.

Hannibal’s Elephant Army – the new evidence premieres on Channel Four (Sunday 25 February, 8pm).