Hannibal Talk in San Francisco

September 17, 2010 17:18 by Danny

If you're free this Saturday and in San Francisco - just when you thought Wood Brothers might have had enough of Hannibal - one of us is giving a talk at the San Francisco Public Library.  'On Hannibal's Trail: Biking the Alps' starts at 1030am in the Latino/Hispanic Meeting Room B of the main library on 100 Larkin Street.  Come along! Thanks to the SF Library's Jonathan and Jerry for their interest in the topic and efforts publicizing the talk with flyer drops at local bike shops, book shops and cafes!


Episode 5 - Hannibal the Great

August 17, 2010 10:39 by Danny

Tonight's episode of On Hannibal's Trail deals with a moment in history when the fate of the world hung on a knife edge. In 'Hannibal the Great' at 830pm on BBCFour we follow the Carthaginian commander around Italy and re-enact his big victories against the Romans. As we cycle away from the battlefield of Cannae, we ask; why didn't Hannibal march on Rome after this massive victory and finish the war by taking his enemy's capital?

There is enough evidence to argue that if Hannibal had done this the war could have been won. His decision not to probably surprised a lot of his men who were waiting for the opportunity to sack the city.  Afterall, Hannibal had urged his men on in the freezing Alps with the promise that they were climbing Rome's very walls. And wasn't this a general famous for taking the initiative and reacting quickly to take advantage of events?

Most modern historians accept Hannibal's decision not to advance on Rome after Cannae with a combination of explanations: Hannibal wasn't prepared for siege warfare; Rome was well defended and still had reserves of manpower; destroying Rome wasn't part of Hannibal's plan - instead he wanted to isolate Rome from its allies and force her to accept peace on Carthaginian terms.

But what if he had?

Livy portrays Hannibal's cavalry, Commander Maharbal urging him on: "Sir!...within five days you will take your dinner, in triumph, on the Capitol. I will go first with my horsemen...You have but to follow."

But Rome is 250 miles from Cannae

Historians often say Maharbal was being unrealistic and doubt his cavalry could reach Rome in five days. They argue it was impossible to take Rome with a few thousand men and even when the rest of the army arrived at least two weeks later, sieging the city was an unrealistic objective.

But if we take Maharbal's quote on its merits for a moment. As an example of what a horse can do, in Auburn, California the Tevis Cup Endurance Race requires horses to complete 100 miles in one day. The best horses do it in under 12 hours. Some horse experts think that, with regular rest stops and over terrain that wasn't too rough, a quality horse could ride about 60 to 75 miles per day for a week. The Numidian cavalry and their mounts were the best in the known world, even taking into account recovery time after the battle, it looks like Maharbal's estimate of what they could do - 50 miles per day - is spot on. Rome was a realistic target.

They would have been closing in on the city's gates while the Romans were still absorbing the result of the battle. In that confused and panic stricken atmosphere fuelled by a lack of information about their worst defeat ever, the arrival of Hannibal's cavalry could have been devastating. And as those cavalry were spotted, news of yet another defeat would have been coming in. Polybius writes that only days after Cannae, Rome's only other army in the field was destroyed in Cisalpine Gaul. So in the days following Cannae, it's possible that Rome's only defence was its garrison and 1,500 sailors in the city's port of Ostia. Who's to say that a panic stricken citizenry wouldn't have opened the gates?

Livy, is very clear about Rome's situation: "That day's delay is well judged to have been the salvation of the city and its empire."

Viewed from the perspective of the 3rd century BC, Rome wasn't the all conquering people it would become later. In the aftermath of Cannae, some Senators were trying to raise troops and restore order, but they were also placing guards at Rome's gates to stop people fleeing the city in panic. And even before orders were sent to fetch the 1,500 sailors at Ostia, it was deemed more urgent to carry out human sacrifices. Two Gauls and two Greeks were buried alive in the cattle market to appease the gods, hardly the response of a people confident in ultimate victory. "Never" writes Livy, "without there actually being an enemy within the gates had there been such terror and confusion in the city."

Who said Siege Rome?

So the gates may well have been opened to Hannibal if his cavalry had appeared in the week after Cannae. If not, a siege or blockade of Rome could have followed when the rest of Hannibal's army arrived. If Hannibal's aim was to separate Rome from its allies, one way of doing that could have been to blockade Rome. This could have been a rallying cry for Celtic tribes in the north and Italians and Greeks in Italy, eager for plunder and revenge against their Roman oppressor. Who knows what would have happened?

But Hannibal didn't push his hand after Cannae and so in the small world of Woodbrothers we had a final, episode 6 to make. 

Episode 4 - Over the Alps

August 10, 2010 03:05 by Ben

Probably the most famous part of Hannibal’s invasion march to Italy was his crossing of the Alps. Getting a huge army and herd of war elephants across the mountains in autumn was a phenomenal feat – even though he did lose a substantial portion of his men. In episode 4 of the series tonight (8:30pm, BBC4, UK only, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00td4n6/On_Hannibals_Trail_Over_the_Alps/) we attempt to find out which way he went over these huge mountains.

One of the crossings we were interested in is called the Col de Clapier. I reached it by riding over the Col de Galibier (a climb often included in the Tour de France) and heading up the Marienne Valley. If Hannibal had used Clapier to get to Italy he probably wouldn’t have come this way but rather from Grenoble. Somewhere near modern day Bramans he would’ve headed south east towards the pass. This valley is initially fairly steep and wooded. A one lane road winds up it now which passes a chalet built in the 1920’s by an English Archaeologist and Hannibal fanatic Mark Antony Lavis-Trafford. He spent much of his life here trying to prove Hannibal used this pass to cross the Alps. His chalet is now a lodge which was closed when we passed – between the summer hiking and winter ski seasons. After some scrambling you get up and out of the forest and into rocky highlands. According to our guide the valley has been fought over for centuries and only since World War II has it been safe for farmers to move in so the area still has a very isolated feel. Five more hours of steady hiking and you get to the top of the pass. It's difficult but not impossibly hard and very easy to imagine Hannibal and his men doing the same thing all those years ago.

The view up the valley to the Col de Clapier

BBC Breakfast News from Monday 19th July:


Anniversary: The Battle of Cannae

August 3, 2010 14:08 by Danny

August 2nd is the anniversary of the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal's greatest victory against ancient Rome. It's one of a handful of ancient battles that still gets frequently mentioned outside military history books. The clash took place on the wide coastal plain near the modern town of Barletta (known for its symetrical Swabian Castle and the Colossus of Barletta) on Italy's eastern, Apulian coast. When we cycled into the area, it was easy to get the sense that an epic conflict had taken place here. Visible from the saddles of our bicycles and extending for miles in either direction, stood thousands of fleshy grape-vines, resolute in their rows, like well drilled soldiers waiting for battle. If you ride up to the hilltop of Cannae and visit the museum there, you can wander through the ruins of a medieval village to a column that marks a viewing point over the battlefield. If you can't take a trip right now, you'll see all that in episode 5 of On Hannibal's Trial when it airs on BBCFour and on BBC i-player on 16th August!

Here are some reasons why the Battle of Cannae is not forgotten...

Bloodiest Day of Battle Ever

The death toll from this horrific clash is often hailed as the bloodiest single day of battle ever. Polybius estimates that close to 70,000 Romans died and modern historians generally accept a figure approaching that. A quick check of internet discussion groups on this topic and you'll read that battles like Borodino and Panipat are mentioned as possible competitors with Cannae for this gruesome glory, but usually Cannae comes out on top.

The Pincer Movement is Born

Cannae is also remembered because Hannibal is credited with, if not inventing, at least being the first we know about in detail to successfully carry out a new military tactic: double envelopment or the pincer movement. Hannibal's use of this tactic at Cannae is still seen as a perfect example of how a smaller army can destroy a larger one. In short, Hannibal allowed his centre line to give, the Romans followed and then Hannibal crushed the Romans from the sides with his heavy infantry and from the rear with his cavalry. We try to recreate this in episode 5 of On Hannibal's Trail by running around the battlefield pretending to be the two contending armies. I'm not sure that we explain what happened very well, but we had fun doing it.

The Generals Still Love it

General Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander of the Coalition forces that invaded Iraq in 1991 said, "I learned many things from the Battle of Cannae which I applied to Desert Storm." Given that General Schwarzkopf had other advantages during operation Desert Storm, like massive technological and air superiority over the Iraqis, it would be hard to assess how much Hannibal helped him, but commanders including Napoleon and Rommel have all paid tribute to the Carthaginian's tactics at Cannae and tried to emulate him. Military Colleges still mention Hannibal in their training manuals and often those same instructors, like Robert L. O'Connell (The Ghosts of Cannae) and John Keegan (A History of Warfare), are writing some of the books we read about Hannibal and the Punic Wars.

Hannibal's Genius

Cannae is regarded by military historians as a sign of Hannibal's genius because he not only effectively invented a new tactic, but he perfectly carried it out. Perfectly because he totally destroyed the Roman armies opposing him. Scholars say this battle set new standards for speed of movement, manoeuvrability and flexibility of command. The Carthaginian probably had a degree of luck but there is little doubt that he had incredible control over his army's movements. Not only was Hannibal on campaign in a foreign land, fighting an army twice his size, just communicating simple orders to his mulit-ethnic force, let alone demanding Olympic standard manoeuvres, would have been very complicated. In that light, victory at Cannae was all the more amazing.  But so was Rome's recovery in the years that followed, perhaps the main reason we remember Cannae.

Has anyone visited the battlefield at Cannae? What did you think?

Does anyone know which author started the reference to Cannae as the bloodies single day of battle ever?

Has anyone attended a military college somewhere and heard Hannibal mentioned?

Tonight, On Hannibal's Trail, Episode 3, 'Crossing the Rhone', broadcasts at 830pm on BBCFour and the BBC i-player:


Dweeb surfer types

July 21, 2010 16:45 by Ben

A very funny review from the Independent:

The programme is on the BBC website here too:

Blog of a blog

July 20, 2010 07:55 by Ben

This is a blog about a blog I wrote for the BBC TV blog blog:





Just in case we hadn't told you already the first episode of the documentary airs in the UK tonight at 8:30pm on BBC4.


The Press Reaction...

July 19, 2010 07:11 by Danny


"Tour de Warrior"            The Sunday Times, 18th July 


"The story's a cracker...Part-travelogue, part-history lesson"        Timeout, 15th July


"Well-informed and surprisingly engaging"             The Observer, Sunday 18th July,   'Picks of the Day'


 "You can feel their pain."                  The Guardian, Saturday 17th July, 'Pick of the Day' 


"...a jolly and informative ride."         Daily Mail, Weekend, Saturday 17th July.`, 'Pick"


"The idea...is a good one. The result is enjoyable too."     Telegraph, Review, Saturday 17th July, 'Digital Choice'