From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 19
Hannibal’s Elephants
(217 B.C.)

Life for the Etruscans of Gioviano was decided by the will of their gods through divinations and the nuances of nature, such as the flight of birds or the direction of the wind. It was also influenced by the seasons, and by trade relations with the Apuanian Ligurians. The daily routine followed a mundane cadence much like the daily routines of the Giovianini of today. In spring, the villagers were no doubt working on the terraces above Gioviano, planting the crops that would sustain them through the coming year.

The sound of far-off trumpets coming from the Apennines to the north and east echoed off the mountains above Gioviano. Startled, the people built a signal fire to alert the encampment on Monte Bargiglio, which in turn would alert the Etruscans of the lower Arno and Serchio Valleys as well as the Ligurians of Lucca.

The sounds coming from the Apennine passes grew louder, and eventually a line of movement in the distance appeared to snake down toward the Serchio looking from that distance like a colony of ants on the march. The trumpet’s sound seemed strange and bizarre, unlike any trumpet that might have ever been heard before.

Eventually a troop of huge gray beasts could be made out marching just below the village. These animals had massive, curved tusks and long flexible proboscises and were ridden by men holding colorful banners. The unusual procession passed through the Gola di Calavorno and headed toward the grassy pastures of present-day Fornaci di Barga. Every once in a while, one or more of the strange and frightening beasts would raise its trunk and reveal the source of the mysterious trumpeting

The Carthaginian general Hannibal (Hanba’al or “Mercy of Baal”) had been born to Hamilcar Barca, in 247 B.C. As the eldest son, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and seek revenge against the Romans for conquering and taking Sicily and other parts of the Carthaginian Empire.

In 221 B.C. Hannibal was elected commander of the Carthaginian army in Iberia and continued the conquest of Iberia. Three years later the Romans declared the Second Punic War. Fearing a Carthaginian attack in Sicily they misjudged Hannibal’s military guile and sent most of their armed forces toward Sicily.

Hannibal secretly decided to attack Rome from the rear, and in a blitzkrieg, he crossed the Pyrenees with an army of 59,000 soldiers plus a troop of 37 elephants. Reaching Arausio, today’s French city of Orange, he built rafts for his elephants and ferried them across the Rhone River. Then, under terrible conditions, Hannibal crossed the Alps, losing 13,000 of his men and several elephants by the time he arrived on the plains of the Po River near present-day Turin.

The Po plains were inhabited by Gauls who had been subjected by the Romans and were happy to join Hannibal in his efforts to destroy the Roman armies. Some 14,000 Gauls volunteered to help, which more than made up for Hannibal’s losses in crossing the Alps. After winning two victories over the Romans, Hannibal and his troops spent the winter near Bologna.

Then in March 217 B.C., Hannibal gathered his forces and began his march over the Apennines. Stealing a glance through my bedroom window, I can see the area of the Passo d’Annibale (Hannibal’s Pass) which is just behind the Foce di Giovo (Mouth of God). Oftentimes in the morning, when I first wake up, I sit up against my cozy pillows, waiting for Sue to bring me my morning coffee. Staring out of her window toward Hannibal’s Pass, I can only imagine the looks of surprise, astonishment and fear on the faces of the Etruscan Giovianini when they saw elephants emerging from The Mouth of God.

I suspect that Hannibal would have sent scouts and emissaries into the various Etruscan settlements to determine whether they be friend or foe. During that time, the Etruscans had allied themselves with the Romans who were attempting to push the Ligurians out of northern Italy and thus the Ligurians had allied themselves with Hannibal. Certainly the citizens of Gioviano would have been extremely frightened, and I suspect they would have fled into the mountains or else might have greeted Hannibal’s emissaries with open arms without any sign of hostility.

Hannibal must have been able to relax and recover from the long march from Bologna in the relative isolation of the fertile Serchio Valley. Several of his elephants had been injured during the battles with the Romans in the Po Valley, and the crossing of the Apennines would have been difficult for them. One elephant, a female, was left behind, probably because she was too tired or sick to continue the march to the south. One of her molar teeth was discovered at Fornaci di Barga and is on display in the Civic Museum of Barga, located adjacent to the Cathedral.

Hannibal went on toward the south engaging the Romans against great odds, and he defeated them, even when heavily outnumbered. In 216 B.C. Hannibal, who was only 30 years of age at the time, entered Capua seated on his last surviving elephant. This city, located southeast of Naples, then became his capital.

For many generations, if not hundreds of years thereafter, the startling arrival of Hannibal and his elephants in the Serchio Valley would have certainly been one of the stories told by the old people while sitting around the hearth in the evenings, to the wide-eyed amazement of the children.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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