How Did Hannibal Cross the Alps?: The #2 Podcast on iTunesU

hannibal.jpgDur­ing a week when uni­ver­si­ty pod­casts received wide­spread atten­tion (thanks to a very pop­u­lar arti­cle in the NY Times), we’ve kept a close eye on the high-rank­ing pod­casts on iTune­sU. Quite con­sis­tent­ly, one pod­cast — How Did Han­ni­bal Cross the Alps? — has ranked at the top. It cur­rent­ly sits in the #2 posi­tion, right behind What is Exis­ten­tial­ism?.

The Han­ni­bal lec­ture was pre­sent­ed at Stan­ford by Patrick Hunt, an archae­ol­o­gist who recent­ly wrote Ten Dis­cov­er­ies That Rewrote His­to­ry (see relat­ed post) and whose long term project is to fig­ure out how the great mil­i­tary leader crossed the Alps in 218 BCE with his large army, which includ­ed dozens of war ele­phants. I had a chance to catch up with Patrick and ask him why, over 2,000 years lat­er, the adven­tures of Han­ni­bal still man­age to cap­ture our imag­i­na­tion. Here is what he had to say:

“Here are some rea­sons I think the Han­ni­bal top­ic is mes­mer­iz­ing. First, the logis­tics of mov­ing a large army — at least 25,000 sur­viv­ing sol­diers — over some­times ter­ri­fy­ing moun­tain bar­ri­ers is very daunt­ing and immense­ly chal­leng­ing. Sec­ond, this is expo­nen­tial­ly com­pound­ed by the fact that even with able scouts the increas­ing­ly steep ter­rain and bad weath­er en route to the sum­mit were threat­en­ing­ly unfa­mil­iar to the vast major­i­ty of Han­ni­bal’s army in this ear­ly win­ter of 218 BCE. Even in sum­mer, the weath­er can be harsh and wild­ly unpre­dictable. In win­ter, it can be that much worse. Third, there were Celtic tribes to con­tend with, who would roll boul­ders down on troops and ambush them from ravines. Fourth, we don’t know the exact pas­sage that Han­ni­bal took, and the mys­tery is like a detec­tive sto­ry wait­ing to be solved once and for all. Fifth, the fact that Han­ni­bal nev­er lost a bat­tle in Italy against larg­er Roman armies and over­whelm­ing odds adds to his image of being a genius strate­gist. Last but not least, the 37 or so ele­phants cer­tain­ly add an exot­ic touch: what in the world were large cum­ber­some trop­i­cal ani­mals doing on these tiny trails and how did their han­dlers per­suade them to go on, step by step, over worse and worse rocks slick with icy snow for days on end? The his­to­ri­an Poly­bius tells us that when the exhaust­ed and deplet­ed army final­ly descend­ed into Italy, they were utter­ly worn down, hav­ing lost half their sol­diers and ani­mals to ene­mies and the ele­ments. Poly­bius says they were now more like sav­age beasts than men. Hav­ing con­quered the Alps, the rem­nant, tat­tered army must have been incred­i­bly tough. How much of a chal­lenge could the Romans present after this ter­ri­ble expe­ri­ence? Tak­en togeth­er, this is why peo­ple find this Han­ni­bal sto­ry so com­pelling. I’m cur­rent­ly fin­ish­ing a new book on this, and I’m thank­ful that the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Soci­ety spon­sors this Han­ni­bal research.”

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