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Hannibal crossing the Alps on elephants by Nicolas Poussin

2,200-Year-Old Moat with Artifacts Linked to Hannibal Unearthed in Spain


Spanish university students trying to retrace Hannibal’s war march through northeastern Spain found a huge buried moat with ancient objects in it. The moat may have been meant to protect the ancient Carthaginian warrior-leader’s troops who remained in Iberia. If the moat was defense works for Hannibal’s Iberian troops, it did little good: Romans defeated them after Hannibal departed in 218 BC.

Hannibal left to attack the Roman Empire in Italy with as many as 90,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. He had with his army a famous elephant brigade of 80 or so pachyderms, most of which, scholars think, perished in the harsh mountain terrain between Spain and central Italy.

Hannibal's route of invading Italy

Hannibal's route of invading Italy. (Abalg and Pinpin map/CC BY SA 3.0)

Hannibal, who many years later committed suicide because the Romans finally caught up to him, left 11,000 troops near the town of Vilar de Valls to defend Carthaginian interested in Iberia.

The moat measured up to 131 feet (40 meters) across, 16.4 feet (5 meters) deep and extended three-tenths of a mile (.5 kilometer).

The moat’s size surprised the directors of the dig, Jordi López of the Catalan Institute of Classic Archeology and Jaume Noguera of the Prehistory department at the University of Barcelona.

Archaeology students discovered the 2,200-year-old moat in 2015, in what is now the Catalan town of Valls using electrical resistivity tomography to analyze subsurface structures. The objects showed presence of Hannibal in the area, said a story in Among the objects found were coins and lead projectiles.

Ancient coin showing Hannibal Barca. Students found coins and other objects in the ancient moat.

Ancient coin showing Hannibal Barca. Students found coins and other objects in the ancient moat . (Public Domain)

"Roman legionnaires, led by general Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus, defeated Hannibal’s men in Iberia. After the battle, the Romans raided a nearby Carthaginian camp, located on the edge of a town, and destroyed everything," the story said. That town, scholars think, was Vilar de Valls, at the present-day town of Valls.

"Noguera and López said the site may have been destroyed by the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC) that pitted Rome against Carthage for the hegemony of the Mediterranean."

Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, the ruler of the North African city-state of Carthage, had his son at age 9 immerse his hand in blood and swear hatred against Rome. He brought his son at age 10 to Spain about 237 BC, says Hamilcar’s son-in-law succeeded him and made Hannibal an officer. When the son-in-law was assassinated, Hannibal was voted to lead the army. He consolidated control around Cartagena, Spain.

Hannibal attacked and besieged the Roman-allied city of Saguntum in 219 because its people had engaged in hostilities against Carthaginians in the area. Rome took this as an act of war and demanded Hannibal surrender. He refused and plotted the Second Punic War.

Hannibal and his men crossing the Alps. Phaidon Verlag, 1932

Hannibal and his men crossing the Alps. Phaidon Verlag, 1932 (Public Domain) tells of Hannibal’s attack on Rome in 219:

The march that followed–which covered some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) through the Pyrenees, across the Rhone River and the snowcapped Alps, and finally into central Italy–would be remembered as one of the most famous campaigns in history. With his forces depleted by the harsh Alpine crossing, Hannibal met the powerful army of the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio on the plains west of the Ticino River. Hannibal’s cavalry prevailed, and Scipio was seriously wounded in the battle.

And in 2016, researchers reported they had finally solved the mystery of where Hannibal crossed the Alps to invade Italy. Modern science and a bit of ancient horse poo combined to make a fascinating discovery. They found solid evidence for Hannibal’s transit route - a dangerous pass called the Col de Traversette. The researchers used microbial genetic analysis, environmental chemistry, pollen analysis, and various geophysical techniques to find a large quantity of feces (probably left by horses) near Col de Traversette. That dung was dated to approximately 200 BC (close to the historical date of Hannibal’s trip – 218 BC).

In late 218, Hannibal and the Carthaginians defeated a Roman army on the left bank of the Trebia River. The Gauls and Ligurians became his allies in light of this. He advanced to the River Arno by spring 217 and won a battle at Lake Trasimene, but declined to attack the city of Rome itself.

But the Romans and Carthaginians met the following year at Cannae. Sixteen Roman legions, at nearly 80,000 men – twice the number of Hannibal’s forces, met the Carthaginians. Roman general Varro put his cavalry on either wing and massed his infantry in the center in classic military formation.

"Hannibal maintained a relatively weak center but strong infantry and cavalry forces at the flanks. When the Romans advanced, the Carthaginians were able to hold their center and win the struggle at the sides, enveloping the enemy and cutting off the possibility of retreat by sending a cavalry charge across the rear," says.

A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal. Capua, Italy

A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal. Capua, Italy. (Public Domain)

More Roman colonies and allies defected to the Carthaginian side after this, but the Romans began to have some success, regaining ground by 209 in southern Italy and repelling Carthaginian reinforcements in 208 in northern Italy.

The Romans drove the Carthaginians out of Spain and attacked Carthage itself in 203. Hannibal returned to North Africa to defend, but the Romans and Numidians defeated the Carthaginians at Zama. The Romans lost 1,500 men; Carthage, 20,000.

Carthage lost its overseas empire, but Hannibal retained some power. Later the Romans learned he encouraged the Syrians to make war on Rome. Rome demanded his surrender. Hannibal then went to Bythinia, where he served the king in making war on a Roman ally, King Eumenes II of Pergamum. This war was unsuccessful. The Romans again asked for Hannibal, who was unable to escape this time. He killed himself with poison about 183 BC.

Top Image: Hannibal crossing the Alps on elephants by Nicolas Poussin. Source: Public Domain

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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