Espada de Anibal - The Mystery Behind Hannibal’s Magical Lost Sword
Ancient Origins’ readers were recently delighted with the news that Hannibal’s first battlefield, fought on the river Tagus in Spain in 220 BC has finally been found . But for historian Ricky D Phillips, the quest for the truth behind this lost battle didn’t end with the discovery of the battlefield itself. There was a great deal of evidence, legend, and mythology still to debunk if centuries of history were to be rewritten; chief amongst which was the myth of the “Espada de Anibal” the magical sword said to have once been the property of Hannibal Barca himself.
The Search for Hannibal’s Sword Begins
“The Espada de Anibal comes into the Hannibal legend in some pretty old texts from the late middle ages,” Philips told Ancient Origins, “and at first, it seems like so many of the other legends we see around the world and even here in the UK with stories such as Excalibur and the legend of King Arthur. It is described in the old texts often as ‘the petrified sword’ plucked from the river Tagus in the 1590’s and possessing an alien or magical quality as if made of stone itself whilst being wonderfully – almost impossibly – preserved. Typically, this kind of happy legend is the kind of thing which we historians roll our eyes at and ignore, except for the fact that, unlike the legendary Excalibur, this sword was said to still exist and its existence had been used for the last 430 years to maintain the assertion that the battle had been fought near a place called Colmenar de Oreja and in a field still locally known as ‘Vado de Anibal’ – Hannibal’s ford – or by others as ‘Vado del Tajo en Valdeguerra’ or ‘Tagus ford and battlefield’. Following the trail of evidence, which wasn’t much, and armed with my own limited Spanish, I set out to discover the truth behind the legendary Espada de Anibal.”
Military Historian Ricky D Phillips set out to discover the truth behind a lost battle and the myth of Hannibal’s magical sword. (Credit: Ricky D Phillips)
The texts which the historian followed were largely from the late 18th century and spoke of the magical, petrified sword which was pulled from the river and presented to King Philip II of Spain as Hannibal’s own weapon, although the location of the sword still remained a mystery. Several monks and clergymen had written of it too, which seemed to further cloud the issue into one more of mythology than fact, and it seemed that even those more learned people over the centuries were unable to speak of the weapon in anything more than vague terms.
“I contacted several museums of antiquities in Madrid, tourist boards and information centers in the local towns and especially in Colmenar de Oreja but nobody seemed able to help,” said Phillips, “In fact, the reaction I received was probably what anyone would get asking for evidence of a magical sword! Where my Spanish failed me, however, a British friend in Madrid managed to find information placing it in the Royal Armory in the Spanish capital, along with some new archaeological information . It seemed that, at some point, someone in Royal circles had also started to doubt the Espada de Anibal and had ordered a fresh excavation which took place in 1749.”
The Spanish Royal Armories in Madrid are one of the finest collections of antique and ancient weapons and armor in the world. (Credit: Osvaldo Gago)
The finds from this new dig were even more bizarre than a ‘petrified sword’ and consisted of some spear points, a metal helmet with a bird crafted onto the top and a bronze statue of Medusa. And perhaps just as bizarre, these artifacts were brought back to Madrid as absolute proof that the battle of the Tagus had indeed been fought in that place, and that the Royal Armories were indeed in possession of Hannibal’s very own sword.
“This sounded immediately like a very bad attempt to plant evidence than anything else,” Ricky D Phillips said, “and the fact that this somehow legitimized the claim of the Espada de Anibal as genuine seemed highly doubtful. Spear points can be found anywhere in Spain and this place had been home to Iberian Celts, Romans, migrating Gauls and even Goths and was the site of a siege and several skirmishes during the time of the Moors at the nearby Castillo de Oreja. The helmet with the winged bird is a classic Gallic helmet and Medusa is obviously Greek. The Greeks had some coastal settlements in ancient Iberia, but the site was also home to a large Roman villa and household and such looted artifacts would have found their way all over Europe in Roman times. None of this was Carthaginian, let alone Iberian. It was time to go to Spain and see for myself.”
A Lost Battlefield and a Lost Sword
Phillips’ first visit was to the Royal Armory in Madrid, where he found the place closed due to maintenance over the holiday season and so, making his way south to Aranjuez, the former residence of the Spanish Royal Family, he went looking for answers in the town and around the proposed battlefield itself. “Aranjuez is a town which has always been fascinated by the story of the Espada de Anibal and everyone there knows the legend,” he told Ancient Origins, “so I knew that if I was to find out more about it, it would be there. Local legend also confirmed it as being in the Royal Armory in Madrid and a new tale came out about the sword’s magical prowess and how it survived the great fire of 1884 which engulfed much of the collection.”
The ruins of the Castillo de Oreja, the castle on the ‘official battlefield’ which underwent a Moorish siege. (Credit: Rodrigo Fernandez de Castro)
A picture of the legendary sword then appeared as the one which the Armory vaunted as the Espada de Anibal which was on display, but this simply didn’t fit the bill as far as the historian was concerned. “It’s a fantastical reproduction probably from the 18th or 19th century,” he said, “with a polished hilt and an eagle’s head on the handle. It was based upon an Iberian ‘falcata’ sword which wasn’t anything like the Carthaginian models and this sword, though declared as the original one and on public display, had blatantly never been near a river in its life. It certainly wasn’t the one I was looking for, whatever the Royal Armory said.”
The “Espada de Anibal” as displayed by the Spanish Royal Armory in Madrid. An obvious reproduction based loosely upon Spanish swords of the time and certainly not the sword of Hannibal himself. (Credit: Madrid Royal Armory)
On his travels to the various proposed sites of the famous lost battle, he met with friend and fellow historian, Antonio C. Nunez, an important local man who held a great interest in the subject and was well connected to other historians and archaeologists. Instantly, of course, he knew of the legends of the mysterious Espada de Anibal.
Having friends who worked at the Royal Armory, the Spanish historian followed up on it and found other historians who claimed to have seen it, although many in the Armory and museum seemed unsure as to its exact location and some, remarkably, had never even heard of it at all. Eventually a record of it was tracked down, and the Armory claimed to have lent it to the Museo de Ejercito in Toledo. The Spanish historian rushed there next, but was told that they did not have it and that the magical sword had vanished.
Spanish historian Antonio C. Nunez discussing Phillips’ new book, “Hannibal Rising – The Hunt for a Lost Battle and a New Past” with the Mayor of Aranjuez, the Head of Tourism for the region, and the Manager of the local radio station (Credit: Antonio C. Nunez)
The Sword Maestro
By this time, Philips had returned home to Edinburgh, but his friend and companion kept up the search and finally found the legendary sword beyond public display in the Royal Armory archives, seemingly forgotten. Nobody ever offered an explanation as to the mix up with Toledo.
To the surprise of both historians, who had expected to find little more than a long, flat rock, vaguely resembling a sword, what the Armory had in their possession was indeed a sword, and around the hilt it certainly did have a mysterious rocky growth which, from the images they provided, could not so easily be explained.
The real “Espada de Anibal” finally appeared in the archives of the Spanish Royal Armories, complete with a curious rock-like growth which could not be explained. (Credit: Spanish Royal Armories)
Back home in Edinburgh, Phillips took these images to Maestro Swordsmith Paul Macdonald to identify the blade and finally the truth about the mysterious Espada de Anibal came to light. “The sword is known as a ‘Messer,’ which is a German model of sword, widely exported and copied around Europe,” he said, “and they have been found all over the continent and even quite recently in Scotland. Single bladed backswords with straight cross-guards like this didn’t enter the world of swordcraft until the late 15th and early 16th centuries and they quickly became widespread and quite common. The ‘fullers’ or grooves for weight reduction were also very typical of this model. I asked Paul to explain about the rocky hilt and he said that this too was common in a process which is known as ‘concretion by erosion’ of the all-iron hilt, much like rust bubbles in an old car, except on a grander scale, typical of having been in a river rich in other mineral and metal deposits. Paul, one of the UK’s leading experts, was in no doubt about the origins of the sword and he showed me an original one which was identical. I asked him how long a sword like that would need to be in a river to achieve that level of erosion and he said even a short period of fifty to a hundred years would be easily sufficient.”
Swordsmith and Maestro, Paul Macdonald is considered one of the top historical sword experts in the UK. (Credit Paul Macdonald at macdonaldarms.com)
So here ends the mystery of the Espada de Anibal, not Hannibal’s blade or even a Carthaginian one, but a mass-produced Germanic weapon, which had probably broken through bad casting and simply been flung away into the river where, 50-100 years later, it was picked up. Myths and mysteries about magical blades, rivers, and stones appear throughout all of history but with a little persistence, historical and archaeological know-how and an outstanding team of experts, the story of one which has lasted for 430 years can at last be put to bed.
“I’m glad to have found the truth behind the mystical Espada de Anibal,” said Phillips on reflection, “but I’ll admit that there’s a tiny bit of sadness when you know that by doing so, you have killed off such a happy local legend.”
Top Image: A magical sword ( CC BY SA 2.0 ), in a Fairy Tale forest ( CC BY NC SA 2.0 ); Deriv.
Ricky D. Phillips is the author of “Hannibal Rising – The Hunt for a Lost Battle and a New Past ”
If you were interested enough in the man Hannibal, that you paid a visit to Spain because of a mere sword, maybe you might be interested to visit Spain’s neighbour Portugal? Of course, neither Portugal nor Spain existed as such in these ancient times, however, there is a place where the three names Hamilcar (a man who left a deep mark on the whole of Iberia), Hannibal (whose mother actually was from Lisbon) and Hasdrubal (in whose time Iberia in total was consolidated under Carthaginian rule, and whose death probably occured in a small town not far from Castelo Branco, killed by a Celtic slave) survived, all three of them. These names are still used here. Later on this year there will be, in Castelo Branco, a day dedicated to its history. Indeed, the lost Carthaginian city built by Hamilcar Barca was called AkreLeuca (which Livy referes to as being Castrum Album) and I have quite a lot of evidence that this city is Castelo Branco, military stronghold where the armies built by Hannibal Barca were trained. Hadrubal is recorded as having built a city, now Carthagena, but Hannibal never built a city because he continued to use as his base not Carthagena, as is wrongly assumed, but his father’s dream city, AkreLeuca. It is Castelo Branco, whose ruins later in the reconquista were granted to the Knights Templars, who rebuilt them over the legendary AkreLeuca, name which by that time had morphed into the monogram Castelbranco. Neither should it be a surprise that Hamilcar’s then Hannibal’s city/stronghold would be in the West of Iberia. It is logical. The main Iberic rivers all flow into the Atlantic, and both the Carthaginians and Phoenicians (who came here long before the Carthaginians set foot) used especially the Tagus (now Tejo) river as entrance into the heart of Iberia. There were maritimal bases permanently in the estuaries of the Tagus, Guardiana and Mondego rivers. Hamilcar’s policy after the first punic war was to consilidate and built friendships with the Western Iberian tribes, and Castelo Branco was the perfect place to build his army. Hannibal actually built (according to ancient Portuguese historical sources, mostly unknown to military historians) three armies, one which he sent to Africa, one which he took across the Alps, and one which he left here in Western Iberia, and which the Romans encountered on their first adventure into Iberia which they so coveted. It took them forever the conquer Lusitania. Under Castelo Branco is, basically, an underground city which some of the old people speak of with fear and trepidation. One day perhaps historians will wake up to understanding that Carthaginian base/stronghold was not in Spain but in Portugal. Indeed much of Portuguese history, especially the “discoveries” was due to naval strength and experience which, undoubtedly, has some connection with the Phoenician/Carthaginian legacy which lies in Portugal’s ancient history. Portugal, nevertheless, gets forgotten and ignored in almost all attempts to find and reconstruct Carthaginian history and movemments, and Hannibal’s in particular. Hannibal was Carthaginian only from his father’s side. He was Lusitanian from his mother’s side. Anyone seriously looking into Carthaginian history should open their eyes to understanding that, starting from Hamilcar Barca, their stronghold was in the West, where also the mineral riches lie. There are other cities here with Carthaginian roots, (although this will be disputed). Braga is one and Coimbra is another. Before the Carthaginians were the Phoenicians, whose marks are clearly seen here. Indeed, all the riches of agriculture, fisheries, minerals, even music can be traced to their Phoenician origin. The Romans knew nothing about these things. They coveted Iberia and later bled it dry, exporting all its gold, copper, tin, olive oil etc, in a mad frenzy. This phoenician and carthaginian legacy still remains to this day.
Tom G Hamilton
Hey, one small correction: when the article says "which had probably broken through bad casting", are you implying that the sword was made by pouring molten metal into a mold (casting)?
Medieval and renaissance swords were never made that way. Swords were forged, hammered down into shape. Casting produces pieces far too weak to be used as real swords, so they weren't made like that. The sword casting thing is sadly a very widespread myth.