Elephants, Food Supply…Logistics – Oh My!

How many elephants did Hannibal have? How did he feed his army? These were questions swirling in my mind as I put together the last few posts about Hannibal crossing the Alps. (You can find Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here, if you missed them.)

Hannibal and Elephant (Painting c. 1626 AD)

Hannibal and Elephant (Painting c. 1626 AD)


So elephants? Yeah…elephants. To my knowledge, Carthage was the only nation in the ancient Mediterranean world using elephants in battle. Why? Because they scared enemies, frightened opposing cavalry, crushed shield walls of infantry, and made enough noise to scare almost any soldier on the opposite side of the battlefield. (Think ancient world tanks).

I had always supposed the Carthaginians had captured and bred African elephants or had perhaps traded for an initial elephant herd from India. I was surprised to discover that most historians believe the elephants were the African Forest Elephants (now extinct) which were a little smaller even than the Indian elephant. The African Forest Elephants were about 8 feet tall at the shoulder and since there’s no evidence of a breeding program, it’s assumed the Carthaginians captured them from the wild and then trained them. The beasts were trained to obey their “drivers” and when charging into battle would spread their ears and trumpet loudly. Some were trained to snatch enemy soldiers with their trunk and fling them…well…somewhere. (Scary!)

The Carthaginian army in Spain had elephants, thus Hannibal had elephants. According to Roman historians, Hannibal took 37 elephants with him on the long march. It’s not confirmed, but it’s believed that the elephants were transported by boat while the army marched to Gaul (France) and then the animals joined there.

There are a number of legends surrounding the elephants at the crossing of the Rhine River. The Carthaginians had built huge pontoon bridges (take note here, General Burnside – oops…sorry that’s Civil War!) and even covered the structures with dirt so their elephants wouldn’t be frightened. Didn’t work… Someway, somehow, the elephant herd got scared and at least some of them (other accounts say all of them) plunged into the river, walked on the bottom with their trunks in the air, and arrived safely on the other side.

Surprisingly, all 37 elephants survived the march across the Alps! However, by the next year – after several large battles, probably limited food supply, and colder climate – there was only one elephant left. Hannibal rode the lone survivor.

Food Supply

How do you feed 37 elephants? How do you feed an army of thousands and thousands without a supply base? This is a problem. In fact it’s such a large problem it’s surprising Hannibal stayed in Italy as long as he did.

First of all, let’s clarify the numbers. Roman historians claimed large, inflated numbers for the total troops in Hannibal’s army. This may have been because 1) they didn’t know and were guessing or 2) wanted to make the Roman victory story seem more impressive in the end. In a recent biography about Hannibal, the author compared ancient accounts and has proposed “adjusted” numbers for the Carthaginian army: 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry!

Now: the food supply. If we calculate 3 lbs. of food per soldier, this army is going to need 135,000 lbs. of rations per day. (And this isn’t calculating for any camp followers, or the feed for cavalry horses, war elephants, pack horses, or baggage wagon horses).

If each pack horse could carry 150 lbs. of rations, you’re still going to need 900 horses to carry the soldiers’ food. We haven’t even factored food for all the animals; these calculations are for ONE day food supply for the men. YIKES!

Hannibal was a smart general. He’d “counted the cost” of the campaign and would’ve recognized the logistical challenges.

Therefore, while the Carthaginians would undoubtedly have had a baggage wagon and some supplies with them, during the march to the Alps and the campaign in Italy, they were living off the land.

The Logistic Problem

Even though losses during the crossing and Italian battles reduced the size of the Carthaginian army, it was still a massive force…to keep fed. Thus, during the years that Hannibal and his army were in Italy, they were almost constantly moving through the land, trying to convince the Romans to battle…but mostly to search for new food supplies.

Logistics can be as hard as moving and feeding elephants...literally! (Image: Public Domain)

Logistics can be as hard as moving and feeding elephants…literally!
(Image: Public Domain)

One of the major difficulties in the “Italian Years” was: Hannibal never captured a seaport. Therefore, even if Carthage had been inclined to send supplies, they simply couldn’t. In the spring of 215 B.C. some supplies were smuggled into Hannibal (including a few additional elephants). But the lack of the seaport was a severe hardship in the logistical situation of the Carthaginian army.


The war elephants are fascinating. The logistics are mind-boggling.

And Hannibal was one amazing general with a story that still inspires us to “climb great mountains.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What was most interesting to you in the overview of Carthage and Hannibal’s Campaign? Please leave a comment.

Check out the our Facebook Page. I’m going to share some info about another historical event involving war elephants on the Facebook Page.

Over The Mountains, Into The Plains

“Over the Mountains and into the plains, Toward Rome we go; Hannibal knows the way to lead the elephant train through the deep and drifting snow…”

(Okay, that was kind of dumb…but it was one of those silly things a historian thinks of every once and while. If you feel inclined to “sing” it, it’s to the tune of “over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.”)

Anyway, back to subject: Hannibal Crossing the Alps. He was a Carthaginian, fighting the Romans in the 2nd Punic War, and he was originally a colonial general in Spain.

Today, we’re discussing the actual crossing of the Alps. (Part 3 in our series.) What was it like? When was it? What happened before they got there? What happened afterward?

March To the Alps Remember, Hannibal and his army were in Spain, and, if you look at the map, there is quite a distance between Spain and Italy. The Carthaginians first crossed the Pyrenees Mountains, beginning the march sometime in June 218 BC. They crossed the Pyrenees at the end of August. In the months before Hannibal had sent friendly messengers to the native Gaulish tribes along the route, and most, already hating the Romans, agreed not to fight the Carthaginians. (An uprising by the Gauls actually helped Hannibal by distracting the Roman armies). By the time the Carthaginians reached the Rhone River, they were fighting off Roman cavalry attacks and trying to “buy time” to get the army supplies (and those elephants) across the river.

Across the Mountains It was October when the Carthaginians reached the Alps. It’s difficult to know the precise dates of the crossing, but by early November 218 BC the army was in the Roman plains. Unfortunately, the native tribes in the Alps did not get the message that they were supposed to be friendly; these tribes fought Hannibal’s army and the Carthaginians sometimes had to resort to military fighting or tricks just to clear the trail of the warriors. Adding to the difficulty was the weather.

Hannibal Crossing the Alps (Depicted by J.M.W. Turner, Public Domain)

Hannibal Crossing the Alps (Depicted by J.M.W. Turner, Public Domain)

Here’s a quote from “The Young Carthaginian” by G.A. Henty which describes part of the crossing: “The next morning the march was renewed. The snow lay deep on the track [trail], and the soldiers found that, great as had been the difficulties of the ascent, those of the descent were vastly greater… Every step had to be made with care; those who strayed in the slightest from the path found the snow gave way beneath their feet and fell down the precipice beside them… But at last the head of the column found itself at the foot of the steep descent in a ravine with almost perpendicular walls….in it lay a mass of the previous year’s snow which had never entirely melted, but which formed with water of the torrent a sheet of slippery ice…. The troops…as they stepped upon it fell headlong, sliding in their armor down the rapidly sloping bed of ice… The cavalry attempted the passage, but with even less success… The engineers with fire and explosives blasted away the foot of the cliffs…and by morning a path which could be traversed by men on foot, horses, and baggage animals was onstructed for a distance of three hundred yards.” (pages 168-169, Preston Speed Publications)

Fighting Rome Once in Italy, the Carthaginians spent time resting and recovering in the homes and camps of their native allies. In the following years Hannibal’s Carthaginians fought many battles with the Roman legions and were frequently successful. However, because of lack of support from their mother city, the Carthaginians were never able to march directly on Rome and capture the city. Worn down by the fighting and with no reinforcements arriving from Carthage, Hannibal and his army were forced to become inactive in Italy and were recalled to undeserving Carthage in 203 BC. Hannibal and his Carthaginians had remained in enemy territory for 15 years, harassing the Roman armies and costing that Republic many resources which could otherwise have been used to fight the North African city directly.

Conclusion Hannibal successfully crossed the Alps and brought the war into Roman territory. However, because he lacked support from weakening Carthage, he was never able to capture the Roman capital and complete the victory.

Next week will be the last in the “Hannibal’s Alps” series, and we’ll discuss the logistics of the crossing and those fascinating warrior elephants!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you see any valuable military lessons in this incident?



Of Exiles, Rome, & Colonial Generals

Ready to continue with our adventure in Ancient History?

(American History/Civil War will be back as bonus posts next week and in themes during the coming months, in case you were wondering.)

This week we’ll set the historical stage for Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps during the Second Punic War and discover nations in conflict.

1. The Exiles: City of Carthage

According to legend, in 814 BC a Phoenician princess was exiled from her home city of Tyre and with her followers sailed away to found a new city. That city was Carthage; the name means “new city” in ancient Phoenician. The centuries passed, and republican governed Carthage became of the ruling powers in the Mediterranean, controling 300 cities and a large colonial empire. With a strong military, formidable navy, and one of the greatest merchant fleets in the world, Carthage was a prosperous nation. The “city of exiles” had done well.

"Carthage Map". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Carthage Map”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, the Roman Republic wanted to expand, wanted to control, wanted to have no rivals…and of course Carthage didn’t want to share. The First Punic War was fought between 264-241 BC.

By the time of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was fought Carthage was facing serious internal problems. Most of her military was mercenary forces (troops pressed from conquered territories); this gave diversity and skill, but lacked motivating patriotism. Another problem was the republic itself; as the prosperous people enjoyed their luxuries, they became less enthusiastic about governing themselves well. Mob demonstrations were becoming common and elected officials were intimidated to make choices to please the  people rather than for the good of the entire nation. And of course there was the enemy on the horizon…

2. Rome: Mediterranean Rival

Though the date and history of the founding of Rome are sketchy, the beginning of the Roman republic is known. 509 BC: the last king was driven out of the city and the Roman republic was established. By the time of Punic Wars, Rome had established herself as the ruler of the Italian peninsula and was expanding borders and trade, hoping to become the next world power. Internal government was typical of a republic form of government; there were squabbles and disagreements, but Rome was powerful. In the years leading up to the Punic Wars, the republic “upgraded” its army and navy and was ready to start the war for an empire.

3. Colonial Generals: Hamilcar & Hannibal

The Spanish Peninsula is a long way from Carthage (in modern day Tunisa, Africa), especially in the days of wood boats propelled by sail or galley oars. Carthage had colonies in Spain and was fighting native tribes to gain more territory there. The elected general of the territory was in charge of the military forces, and, to some extent, the government of the region.

One of these generals was named Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar had spent the First Punic War fighting the Romans in Sicily and lost, creating a bitter hatred of Rome in the heart of the general. The Barca family was one of the most influential in Carthage, and Hamilcar was determined to restore his honor and the prestige of his city. In 237 BC he took his army to the Spain colony, intending to conquer new territories, rich in natural resources and recruit new soldiers from defeated tribes. He may have planned to strike back at Rome, but he died in 228 BC while fighting tribes in Northern Spain.

Umm…okay…so why did we need to know about Hamilcar? Read on –

Hannibal (Public Domain)

(Public Domain)

Hamilcar had a son named: HANNIBAL. When Hannibal was about nine, he went with his father to Spain and spent his youth with the army, treated as a common soldier and learning how to fight and command. After the death of Hamilcar, another Barca ruled Spain for a time, expanding the colony’s borders and establishing a large city; there was also a treaty with Rome stating that Carthaginian forces would not cross the Ebro River, thereby dividing Spain between the feuding powers. In 221 BC a new commander was needed in Spain and twenty-five year old Hannibal was the Carthaginian Senate’s choice. Popular with his men, the new commanding general prepared to use the leadership skills he had spent the previous sixteen years learning and perfecting. He had a daring plan, the unswerving loyalty of his army, and a hatred of Rome.

It was time to plan, to march, to climb, and to fight. One last time the name of Carthage would be feared. One last chance to win immortal fame for the family name of Barca. And Hannibal was ready to take the challenge rising before him. A city founded by exiles would once again attempt to defeat the up-start republic in Italy.

The stage is set. History is about to be made. (Join us next Friday!)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on republics and empires in conflict? Do you see any lessons we could learn from today?


Hannibal’s Alps & Life’s Challenges

The Italian Alps

Forbidding mountains reaching to touch the sky. Beyond them hostile, enemy armies. What to do? Where to go? Forward.

In 218 B.C. a Carthaginian general and his army cross the Italian Alps and entered the heartland of the Roman Republic. The general was Hannibal, a man considered by his peers and later historians to be one of the greatest generals of ancient history. During January 2015 our history posts on Fridays will be examining the leadership and historical account of this momentous undertaking.

You might have a lot of questions right now, so lets do some fast facts on the topic.

1. Exactly how long ago did this event happen? 218 BC is two hundred and eighteen years before Christ was born, so approximately 2,233 years ago. By the way, I’m old-fashioned and like to use BC (Before Christ) rather than BCE (Before The Common Era)

2. Where on earth was Carthage? In North Africa, modern day Tunisia. Carthage was founded by Phoenician exiles (more about that next week) and was the Roman Republic’s main rival in the Mediterranean region. Both Carthage and Rome wanted to destroy each other and they fought the Punic Wars. Hannibal crossed the Alps during the Second Punic War.

3. So if Carthage is in Africa, why was Hannibal in Europe? Great question! Carthage had colonies in Spain; Hannibal was the general in that region. He was fighting both native European tribes and the Romans. He actually went through the Pyrenees, crossed the Rhone River, and headed for the Alps with a Roman army on his heels.

4. What time of year was it when Hannibal got to the Alps? Late autumn. Snowstorms were a problem. (Understatement). However, the general knew if he delayed, the Roman provinces in Italy would have time to raise an army to oppose him. He wanted to be there and ready to fight in the spring, while the Romans were still squabbling about who should lead their army.

5. Why is this important in history? It’s the first time in known military history that an army crossed the Alps. And remember, these are the days before radios, tanks, and really warm uniforms; the Carthaginians had elephants, horses, and wood fires. (More on the elephants later!) Hannibal fought the Romans in their own territory, but, as we shall study later on, he was not ultimately successful. However, the invasion of their homeland, prompted the Roman Republic to organize a powerful military force which became their tool to conquer the Mediterranean world.

My Thoughts

I’m excited to write about this topic. I enjoy ancient history…well, if you haven’t guess by now…I enjoy all eras of history.

I was thinking about the leadership challenges Hannibal faced today as I was struggling through a not fun editing project. At the moment it felt like the “insurmountable Alps” were looming before me. I was tired. (I needed a coffee break). But I was determined to get the project finished. And one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time, I was able to finish the task. Right now, it’s all good. The work’s finished, and I get a relaxing Friday evening (Huzzah!), but that wouldn’t have happened if I quit. And Hannibal wouldn’t have almost conquered Rome if he quit in the mountains.

So, just my thoughts as we introduce the Carthaginians and their trek across the Alps: Don’t give up. Remember why you’re “fighting.” And remember…the “plains of Italy” will be in sight, if you continue the upward climb!

Happy Friday and Weekend! Best wishes and encouragement for whatever “upward climb” of life you’re facing right now…go on, it’s worth the view of success from the top.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps and the metaphor to life’s challenges? Had you heard of Hannibal before? What challenges are you facing right now?