Military Historian Discovers Hannibal’s Long-Lost Battlefield
The history of Hannibal Barca, one of the greatest military commanders of the ancient world, is one which has fascinated historians and generals throughout the last two millennia, and yet his final secrets seem often set to never reveal themselves, and especially since Hannibal’s exact route over the Alps – the great secret so long disputed for centuries – seems to have at last been uncovered with the recent discovery of petrified elephant droppings, the historian has to sometimes ask himself, what else is there to find?
Whilst archaeological discoveries will, of course, turn up from time to time to help us understand more of Hannibal and of Carthage, it is rare indeed, and perhaps the rarest of all things for an historian to discover a whole Hannibal battlefield. Yet, this is what Ricky D Phillips, an Edinburgh-based military historian, has just done. And it isn’t just any Hannibal battlefield which he has uncovered either, but the site of Hannibal’s first ever battle: the battle of the Tagus.
The battle of the Tagus by Dionisio Cueto, the only modern depiction of the battle (public domain)
The Great Battle of Tagus
“Hannibal has always fascinated me,” said Phillips, “and I love mysteries. These are the things which get a historian going; the hunt for the past and seeing something which nobody else has seen before. I have studied Hannibal for years but always came back to this, his first battle on the Tagus in 220BC. The story of Hannibal, as it is told to us, largely brushes over Hannibal’s campaigns in Iberia and those of Hamilcar and Hasdrubal before him and I have often said that, if the life of Hannibal were ten chapters of a book, it is as if the very first chapter was always missing. Key to this whole war, in essence, was this one great battle. It was the battle which, effectively, moulded Spain into a country from a mere collection of tribes and really has effects as wide and far reaching as battles such as Charonaea, Gaugamela or others, yet nobody had ever found it, and without this, the centrepiece of an entire war, we have at best an outline to this vast jigsaw… it was something which I set out to find five years ago: first a lost battle, and then a lost war.”
The battle of the Tagus occurred in late 220BC as Hannibal set out on a great campaign to subdue all of the tribes in Iberia. After quickly subduing the Olcades near the Guadiana, he moved south, west and finally north into the territory of the Vaccaei, taking their capital Helmantica (Salamanca) at a rush and following up to modern day Zamora where, after a lengthy siege, he subdued them. Yet the siege had taken too long, and winter was already upon him, which forced Hannibal, laden down with the looted riches of the Vaccaei, to take a shorter route back to New Carthage, through the territory of the unconquered Carpetani, the largest and most warlike of the tribes of Iberia.
Iberia before the Carthaginian conquests showing the location of the various tribes of the area. (Alcides Pinto)
The Olcades and Vaccaei had been coercing the Carpetani to launch a combined attack upon the Carthaginian army and somewhere on the river Tagus, a mighty force of 100,000 men cornered him. The young Hannibal, just 26 years old, had just moments to produce a winning plan and extricate his army, and he did it in fine style, somehow evading his opponents, crossing the river and now forcing them to come onto him, to their destruction. It was a grand and titanic battle, larger than Cannae for numbers and also for disparity of numbers, yet its location and any idea of what Hannibal actually did, have been lost to history since 220BC.
The hunt for the battlefield of the Tagus was never going to be an easy one. The river Tagus is 1,000km long and historians have placed it anywhere from the upper reaches of Spain to due west of Valencia and even into Portugal, where the Tagus finally meets the North Atlantic. Most historians settle upon the battle being somewhere near Toledo but, with the sole sources coming from two often-at-odds accounts from Polybius and Livy, and with the scantest archaeological evidence pertaining to it, the truth is that it could have been anywhere. All of this does not help, and it would seem that the only thing to go by is that the battle of the Tagus was fought at a bend – or a meander – in the river, of which, Phillips adds, there are hundreds.
“I’m a military historian, not a battlefield archaeologist,” Phillips said, “but my part of the job is to go and find the site, and then to hand it over to the people who know best how to curate it. Luckily, people have been looking for this battlefield since the 16 th century, and there have been a number of proposed sites (over fifty, but you can rule most out and scale it down to about nine which in any way fit the bill) and there is actually one ‘official site’ which underwent two very dubious excavations, both of which produced some very confusing results. Modern academics have also proposed sites, and it has been the work of several years to evaluate each one by the evidence and then to go over the ground again and again, first by satellite imagery and then on foot, where you can, looking for any tell-tale signs or reasons why it could, or could not be the site. Again, the biggest problem we have – and they’re all big at this level – is that nobody really knows what actually happened. Thereby, it is hard to find ground which matches the battle. If we could find the ground, however, then it was always my belief that the battle itself would be revealed as it happened. Like the proposed sites for this battlefield, I should add, there are at least six popular running theories as to what happened and how, and without a site to go by, these are simply guesswork.”
Military Historian Ricky D Phillips set out to find the battlefield of the Tagus, fought in 220BC.
Ancient Texts Meet Modern Tech
Phillips began his search several years ago, comparing all archaeological accounts which exist and every proposed site, which was scrutinised with satellite imagery and compared and contrasted against the ancient texts and his own knowledge of Hannibal, to draw up an initial profile of the battlefield and to simulate the proposed sites – and several others – against the requirements for the battlefield, and soon had a good shortlist to go from.
“We know from Polybius and Livy that the battle occurred in a convex meander of the Tagus” he said, “and that Hannibal was heading back to modern-day Cartagena from the vicinity of Toro and Zamorra on the Douro. The river bend is said to have worked in his favour, so he used the outer bend as a force-multiplier to effectively ‘pocket’ the tribespeople into it. This sounds okay, but a quick look at the line of the Tagus will reveal hundreds of these meanders and worse still, the Tagus has moved over time in some places. Even accounting for a likely search-area, there was always going to be doubt unless certain sites could be ruled out.”
‘Official Site’ Not the Right One
The first place for Phillips to start his quest was at the ‘official site’ for the battlefield, to test whether this held up to scrutiny, “The official site is just below a place named Colmenar de Oreja,” he said, “and the river there is actually probably the single worst site that Hannibal or anyone else could have picked. The area is known locally as ‘Vado de Anibal’ or Hannibal’s ford, and there are three such meanders here. Two are useless as the mountains immediately around them either climb vertically or else drop straight away into chasms. The third has no historical road to or from it, the meander is ridiculously small compared to others and nowhere near big enough to hold Hannibal’s 26,000 men, much less the 100,000 of the enemy and there is no usable ground around; anyone could have easily seen what Hannibal was doing. It simply doesn’t fit with the ancient texts, it’s geographically wrong, logistically impossible and ultimately it flies in the face of anything we know about Hannibal’s method of war.”
Hannibal and his men crossing the Alps. Phaidon Verlag, 1932 (Public Domain)
‘Magical’ Sword Sparks Legends
So why is this the official site? – It all began in the late 1500’s, Phillips records in his new book, “Hannibal Rising – The Hunt for a Lost Battle and a New Past” when someone claimed to have found a sword in the river at this place. The sword was quickly said to be magical and had taken on a petrified, stony quality. The obvious point was that it was simply a piece of rock, perhaps a long, flat stone, smoothed down over thousands or even millions of years in the river, yet it was presented to King Philip II not just as an ancient sword (which it wasn’t) but as Hannibal’s own sword! Indeed, it became the founding piece of the Spanish Royal Armouries.
“This shows the power of mythology,” says Phillips, and magical swords and stones can be found anywhere in all cultures, but there was more evidence after an excavation was ordered in 1749 and this too, threw up some bizarre results; a few spear points, which you could find anywhere, a Gallic war helmet with a winged bird on the crest and a bronze statue of Medusa. Now Goths, Gauls and Romans had all settled in this area, but this looked to me like a deliberate and ham-fisted attempt to plant evidence than to produce anything useful and even more amazing, this was somehow used to absolutely prove that this was indeed the right place… of course, it wasn’t.”
Historian Finds Real Battleground
Having ruled out the official site, he now looked to see which others might fit the bill, and luckily, this was a battlefield which a number of historians over the centuries had set out to find. From comparing their notes and that of several modern academics, finding ground which looked the way it would have two thousand years ago with all of the requirements and scrutinising each one, Ricky D Phillips was soon convinced that he had found his site. Visits to the Battlefield Archaeology Department of the University of Glasgow followed, with his findings being approved by some of the UK’s top specialists, and soon, it was apparent that he had found the only site which was truly possible.
Looking over the battlefield from a nearby hill on what would have been Hannibal’s right wing (Credit: Ricky D Phillips).
“It fits,” he said, “there’s no other site which does. The people who looked for it before me drew a straight line from Toro to Cartagena, found where it intersected the Tagus and assumed it was there, but this wasn’t what Hannibal did and this actually places it farther south than it was assumed. I needed a good, convex meander, which this site had, and of course, it needed to be a ford, which this obviously was, and a road which existed all that time ago, running to Cartagena, which also existed. The meander needed to work as a force multiplier which could hold 26,000 men, whilst the plain beyond needed to be able to hold 100,000 or more; this pretty much ruled out a lot of other sites.”
More recently, revisionists have attempted to scale down the battle in terms of number, in order to fit smaller sites, but again, Phillips argues, this doesn’t work. What he terms ‘The popular Spanish version’ claims just 40,000 Iberians were present, but this, Phillips successfully counters, showing what became of these tribes after the battle and how reduced in numbers and power they were after the battle, from their former glory. “The popular Spanish version really lacks a lot of credibility and seems to base itself in a misunderstanding from something said by Livy,” he says, “and again, it makes a lot of assumptions which, without a battlefield, are simply hypotheses at best.”
The remains of an earthen wall still present in the fields above the ford, where, according to Livy, Hannibal protected his army for the night whilst crossing the river behind him.
Battle Site Confirmed
In July 2018, Phillips finally went to claim his battlefield and did so, accompanied by several important Spanish historians and archaeologists who had been searching for the site for many years themselves. All were in agreement that, after reviewing the evidence, site by site, they had found what they were looking for. “You can feel a battlefield,” said Phillips, “and there was just this tingle that everyone got when we walked there in the footsteps of Hannibal as he would have descended into the valley of the Tagus and begun to realise that he was never getting across the river in time. Suddenly, all of the ancient texts make sense, and you can see the ground which he used, the place where he swung off the road and built an entrenchment was there and I even walked along what remained of them and even found the crossing place where he shifted his forces overnight and the hill which screened his movements. The location and size of the ground are right, and the Tagus has never moved from this place either. We even found what we all agreed looked absolutely like ancient elephant dung. Perhaps the best part was in finding the track by which Hannibal brought his forces around and onto the far bank, to await the Iberians in the morning. I asked the locals if it had a name: they told me ‘Camino de la Barca’ – Barca’s path.”
Military Historian Ricky D Phillips standing on the site of Hannibal’s first battlefield, July 2018.
What Else Will be Found?
Now that the battlefield is found, the work of archaeology can begin at last. In Spain, metal detecting is illegal without the land owner’s permission and ‘hawking’ or illegal excavation is severely punished, as it deserves to be. “The authorities are well informed,” says Phillips, “as is the land owner and the appropriate people who can conserve the site. It was also the site of an action in the civil war, so anyone just digging there would be in big trouble. It has to be done responsibly. After 2,238 years, though, it’s likely that anything found will be very far down indeed, which at least gives the right people the time to protect the site and conserve the history beneath it.” The location, Phillips reveals in his book, with a full overview of the other proposed sites, archaeological finds from them and the many versions of the battle proposed over the centuries.
There is, however, one last surprise, for Phillips delivers up one final gem in his book “Hannibal Rising” almost like an ‘easter-egg’ trailer in a movie; “I went looking for one ancient battlefield and found it,” he told Ancient Origins, “but something I never expected to do was exactly what ended up happening almost completely by accident… I found two.”
Top image: Hannibal crossing the Alps on elephants by Nicolas Poussin (public domain)
Ricky D. Phillips is the author of Hannibal Rising: The Hunt for a Lost Battle and a New Past