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How Hannibal crossed the Alps

Across the Great Sea, on the African coast, Carthage, a daughter of ancient Tyre and Sidon, was already a rich city when Rome first became a republic. Carthage kept the character of an Eastern city. It was ruled by a few prominent citizens (an oligarchy), and it had grown wealthy on its trade and on its farms worked by slaves.

Soon after Rome had made itself master of Italy, she found herself at war with Carthage, which by this time had a great fleet, several colonies, and a vast trade. The two cities were jealous of each other, and both desired to be supreme in the Mediterranean. There is a grim story of how Hamilcar of Carthage, on one of his journeys into Spain, took with him his little son, Hannibal, and made him swear, on the sacred altar, eternal hatred to Rome.

During the century 264-164 B.C. three wars were fought between the great rivals. At first Carthage was master of the sea, but by the end of the first war Rome had also learnt how to fight on the sea, and had become mistress of the Mediterranean. And when Hannibal became head of the army, he remembered his vow, and determined to humble the proud city across the sea, though he knew only too well that he would have to reach her by land.

In five months Hannibal, with a great army and many elephants, had marched and conquered through Spain, crossed the Pyrenees, advanced through Gaul and across the Rhone. Livy, the Roman historian, tells how no toil could tire his body or conquer his spirit. He could endure both cold and heat, and he ate and drank only enough for his bodily needs. He did not sleep on a soft bed or in a quiet place; many people constantly saw him lying on the ground, covered with his soldier's cloak, among the sentries and outposts. His clothes were never better than other men's. He was the first to go into battle, and the last to leave the field when the fighting was over.

His journey across the mighty Alps with his great army and fifty-eight elephants was a marvellous feat. The ninth day, says Livy, he won the very tops of the Alps. At the break of the next day the ensigns were set forward, and the army marched slowly through the deep snow. Then Hannibal advanced before the standards, and commanded his soldiers to stay upon a certain high point, from whence they could see a goodly prospect all about them. There he showed them Italy, and the goodly fields about the Po, which lie under the foot of the Alpine mountains, saying that even then they were mounting the walls, not only of Italy, but also of the city of Rome. "After one or two battles at the most, ye shall have at your command the very castle and head city of all Italy."

While Hannibal was marching through Gaul, he made friends with the people, and when he arrived in North Italy other Gauls, who had settled there, joined him. As soon as the Romans heard of the invasion they raised two armies, and sent one to Carthage. One was defeated by Hannibal, and the Romans at once recalled the other. But they were again defeated, and Hannibal became master of North Italy.