The Romans had presumed that the Alps created a secure natural barrier against invasion of their homeland. They hadn’t reckoned with Hannibal’s boldness. In December he smashed apart the Roman forces in the north, assisted by his awesome elephants, the tanks of classical warfare. Many of the animals died of cold or disease the following winter, but Hannibal fought his way down through Italy. For 15 years he ravaged the land, killing or wounding over a million citizens but without taking Rome. But when he faced the Roman general Scipio Africanus at Zama in north Africa in 202BC, his strategic genius met its match. So ended the second Punic war, with Rome the victor.
Hannibal’s alpine crossing has been celebrated in myth, art and film. JMW Turner made high drama of it in 1812, a louring snowstorm sending the Carthaginians into wild disarray. The 1959 sword-and-sandals epic movie, with Victor Mature in the eponymous title role, made Hannibal’s “crazed elephant army” look more like the polite zoo creatures they obviously were.