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Representation of Hannibal and the Carthaginians before battle.       Source: Iuliia KOVALOVA / Adobe stock

New Site Identified For Battlefield Of Hannibal’s First Great Victory


Archaeologists in Spain have discovered the lost battlefield where the legendary Hannibal won his first great victory before his march on Rome.

Hannibal was the famous Carthaginian statesman and general who commanded Carthage's main army against Rome during the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), but the whereabouts of the famous battle which occurred in 220 BC, two years before Hannibal famously crossed the Alps and marched on Rome, has always perplexed archaeologists and military historians, until now.

Tracking the Legendary Lost Battlefield

Hannibal is best remembered as the Carthaginian commander who marched 40 war elephants across the Alps to crush Rome and according to a new report from Caraca-Driebes Archaeological Team, the National Museum of Roman Art and the Spanish Geological Mining Institute (IGME) details how two years prior to this the 27 year old led an army of 25,000 men, and 40 war elephants, against a 100,000-strong horde of Spanish tribesmen.

Hannibal, his men and elephants crossing the Alps. (Heinrich Leutemann / Public domain)

Hannibal, his men and elephants crossing the Alps. (Heinrich Leutemann / Public domain)

Earlier in 220 BC, Hannibal’s forces had conquered the Vettones tribe in Helmática, present day Salamanca in northwest Spain. According to a report in The Times, while he was “still bathing in the success of his victory,” when returning to his winter headquarters in Qart Hadasht, now modern-day Cartagena, in southeast Spain, he was ambushed, but exactly where this occurred has been a point of debate among historians and archaeologists for over two centuries, with many sites proposed.

Historical records identified the unknown location as being somewhere between the cities of Driebes and Illana on the banks of Tagus River and now, using geographical maps supported by archaeological digs, scientists have discovered the site.

The Tagus River from the Caraca archaeological site in Driebes, Spain, where Hannibal’s first great victory is believed to have taken place. (Equipo Arqueológico Caraca)

The Tagus River from the Caraca archaeological site in Driebes, Spain, where Hannibal’s first great victory is believed to have taken place. (Equipo Arqueológico Caraca)

Hannibal Rising

After this Iberian standoff Hannibal’s heightened standing in the military allowed him to take command of the upcoming wars, which would see his bold march on the Roman Empire, with his 40 elephants, via the treacherous Alps. The authors of the study say Hannibal utilized an ancient route connecting Complutum, now Alcalá de Henares in the Madrid region, to Carthago Nova, now Cartagena in Murcia, that crossed the Tagus River close to Driebes, not far from Carpentani fortified settlement of Caraca. 

The site of this famed battle between Hannibal and a 100,000-strong hoard of vengeful Spanish tribesmen has been discovered by archaeologists on the banks of the Tagus River between Driebes and Illana in Guadalajara province. Hannibal is one of the most brilliant strategic wartime commanders of all-time and according to a report in Pais England, the archaeologists say it was his ability to “process the rapidly unfolding events and formulate an effective response” that led to this crushing victory.  

Depiction of Hannibal and the Carthaginians fighting in battle. (Art Institute of Chicago / Public domain)

Depiction of Hannibal and the Carthaginians fighting in battle. (Art Institute of Chicago / Public domain)

Force of the Red Dragon 

The archaeologists identified several features in the terrain that military historians say the general had used to his advantage, for example, he quickly calculated that his army was outnumbered approximately four to one by the unified Carpetani, Vettone and Olcade tribes. He knew that an open battle would result in a bloodbath. To prevent the enemy attacking in a mass wave, Hannibal tactfully situated his troops so that the Spanish would be drawn across a natural choke point of the Tagus River, which effectively funneled 100,000 enemy soldiers into a relatively small and controllable slaughter zone.

Hannibal had built a vast palisade running parallel to the river, which housed his prized war elephants and the infantry, while his highly-trained cavalry manned the fords. These defensive strategies meant the Spaniards had to risk crossing the river, which could reach almost 6ft (2m) deep with strong currents, or cross at the fords and battle with the waiting cavalry. Choosing option B, after slowly wading their way across the river at the fords, the natives were exhausted, only to be greeted by battalions of Hannibal’s mounted troops who took shifts butchering the Spanish by their thousands.

Vantage Point of the Elephant Marauder

The archaeologists also knew that Hannibal used a raised hill to the southeast of the main battle as a vantage point from which he commanded his forces, and El Jardín hill, beside the newly identified battle site is thought to be this tactical feature. The researchers also think this particular hill may have been used to hide his light cavalry and personal escort, and that when the general saw the Spanish forces breaking at the fords, when victory was within reach, he ordered a violent second wave attack that saw the killing of 100,000 indigenous Spaniards.

Top image: Representation of Hannibal and the Carthaginians before battle.       Source: Iuliia KOVALOVA / Adobe stock

By Ashley Cowie



T1bbst3r's picture

The Indian elephants are smaller than African elephants, so guessing that the African ones didn't cross the Sahara desert (as it's very dry) I expect they were of a similar size.
How they trapped and trained the elephants are recorded from nearchuses (Alexander's navy general) war diaries from another author.
I think, remembering from the Portuguese expedition to india that 2 war elephants could be carried in a boat, although this is over 1700 years later.

Hi Mr. Cowie,

I know this will be shocking but, I have one or two questions such as How big were these elephants?

Sometime ago I saw a documentary on Rome's Colisuem death trap attractions when Rome introduced wild beast in to the arenas for the gladiators to battle. That's how I found out about Morrocan elephant's and no surprise, because of what the Roman Empire did to the animal's for Entertainment, these Morrocan elephants went extinct.

After, learning about Hannibal and his war elephants Iwondered if they were Morrocan Elephants and just how big did they get. Now Alexander the Great is said to be one of the greatest military minds in history yet he never thought of elephants?

I only ask that because while Alexander was attempting to attack India, he reportedly recorded in his notes which was reaffirm by The Macedonian Army, that India, had some of the largest Elephants living at the time.

I'm aware that Jumbo the Elephant who P.T. Barnum bought from England, was said to be going through gigantism, so if the reports on India's Elephants were true through Alexander the Great then there must have been clustered elephants going through gigantism, either, that or those elephants down in India were Mastadons.

So what do you think Mr. Cowie? Great Article on Hannibal and his elephants.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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