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. 

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:


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'

July 19th on BBC Four...Hannibal!

July 9, 2010 00:14 by Danny

The BBC has confirmed a broadcast date for the series and it's very soon! The six episodes of On Hannibal's Trail will transmit in the UK on BBC Four starting in less than two weeks time: Monday July 19th at 830pm!

Visiting the New Rome

April 22, 2010 19:28 by Danny

I was recently in Las Vegas where I called in on a modern reincarnation of Hannibal's old enemy.  As you probably know, Caesars Palace is one of those incredible hotel and casino complexes along the city's 'Strip', this particular one attempts to recreate the grandeur of ancient Rome with statues, temples, a forum and plenty of excess. 

In Madrid Magazine Article

March 13, 2010 14:28 by Danny

Here's an article on our trip in the latest issue of Madrid's, English-language magazine "In Madrid":




End of an Epic

December 15, 2009 07:37 by Danny

The morning of our second day of riding in Tunisia was spent at a spectacular ancient Roman ruin: Dougga.    There seemed to be no-one there except us and an army of caretakers restoring old walls.  Dougga is on top of a hill and as you enter the site you hit the very well preserved Roman theatre.  But there are a lot of good Carthaginian related remnants as well.   Beyond the temple, next to a tethered donkey, was a big Temple of Saturn-Baal with its large front columns and stone structure and floor slabs intact.   An interesting mixture of gods! – Saturn the Roman god of the harvests and Baal, the supreme god of the Carthaginians.     Then we curved back to the centre of the site past more temple ruins, a gathering of feeding sheep whose heads were invisible because they were shoved inside a bail of hay (quite strange), the remains of the forum and also dozens of houses and shopfronts along paved roads, with their lower walls heavily restored but still standing.  Peeping over the top of an olive grove there was also an impressive tower like mausoleum, described as in the ancient Libyo-Phoenician style.   A great way to start the day! But we had to get going, partly because we hadn’t had breakfast yet!  That was causing something of a minor panic and there wasn’t much around to be eaten – or at least not that we could find quickly and easily.  We ended up with that spicy mixture of fresh tomatoes and chiles on bread and a bowel of olives.  It was served by a man with few teeth, who showed us his black gaps when he was warning us to be careful eating the olives.  One of my teeth fell out into my cereal on the trip so I considered comparing my hole to his but thought better of it.  After that challenging breakfast, we cycled on a little warily.

The theatre at Dougga

The Temple of Saturn-Baal

Libyo-Phoenician mausoleum

These last days on the road felt very good, partly because of the new landscapes we were enjoying.  The countryside in Tunisia is like being in the middle ages and reminded me of those delicately painted scenes that you can see on paper room dividers in Asian houses where one man is in the field scattering seeds, another is riding up a track, a couple are on the balcony of their wooden house, to the left of them, a river running through a wood.  That was what the landscapes were like in Tunisia – lots of simultaneous activities were visible from the seat of the bicycle that looked like they should have been happening a thousand years ago.

We also felt happy because we were coming to the end of our epic.  However amazing the trip, ten weeks is a long time and the prospect of home and being still for a while was very appealing.

But the action wasn’t over yet.  Near the town of Siliana, adjacent to Zama, the police took an interest in us and escorted us into town in their green and white jeep and then tried to make us continue riding towards the next town that was a good 15 km away, when all we wanted to do was stop, rest and have a drink.  There wasn’t a lot of logic to their argument except the insistence that further on was much nicer than Siliana.  Ben politely conversed with them in broken French for a while and we managed to extricate ourselves.

In the end, our visit to the last important part of the Hannibal story, the battlefield of Zama, was very memorable.  Zama, or Jama, is a little village about 140 km south west of the city of Tunes that is thought to be on the site of, or at least near where the Battle of Zama was fought.  This is the historic battle Hannibal lost to the Roman general Scipio, ending the Second Punic War with Carthage surrendering.  It was very strange to be gazing over this battlefield after thinking about it for a couple of years.  We didn’t really have any expectations about what it would be like when we got here –  the dusty farmland, olive groves and mountains in the distance seemed to fit the bill.   But I don’t think any of us have ever heard a donkey, sheep, chickens and a dog all making noise at once.  Zama is the battle that changed the course of history, but the battle changed little at Zama.    The locals were still riding donkeys and seemed to own a few scattered cows and little else.  The cluster of white houses were dusty and without windows.   Water was fetched from a fountain down the hill.  Little children chased us and laughed us past.   You felt a world away from Europe, but only a few hours away in a car another name that belongs to the past, Carthage - described by Ben in the last blog -  was now a wealthy suburb of the capital with palacial houses that you would see in any prosperous Mediterranean city.  The contrasts were really stark in Tunisia.

The battlefield at Zama?

The Jama locals

This is being written from a comfortable chair in the sitting room of my Granny’s home in London.  The trip seems like a dream.  But we are back from something real, and it was great.


Attack dog or escort?

Final day of filming with cameraman John and Hamet our Tunisian fixer (in white)

The Way it is Baby

November 24, 2009 05:21 by Danny

When you cycle day after day the rhythm naturally brings music to your mind.  At the beginning of the trip I tended to hum fairly epic stuff as the wheels turned – tunes from the film The Dark Knight  for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfO3szikvnI&feature=related or some of those ponderous but very catchy Michael Nyman movie sound tracks, like, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZG_-iTyQdog

They all seeemed to help with the peddling.  As the trip became never ending, and getting on the bike a little harder, the melodies got worse (arguably) but adjusted appropriately, and we even started to vocalise them. I cringe a bit to admit it, but Ben started this one and Sam sang snippets of it too: That´s Just the Way it is Baby by the Rembrandts, was hard to shift from my head as getting into the saddle just one more time started to feel like that Bill Murray film, Ground Hog Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_yDWQsrajA

Silly as it may seem, the on camera side of things and the desperate search for conversation topics made us fantasize about who would be appropriate to play us in a Hollywood version of our BBC epic.  We had this conversation with the help of Andrea our Director and it was in no way a serious one, just to pass the time!  We brothers thought Sam should be played by David Wenham, Ben by Jim Carrey and me by Joaquin Phoenix.  Andrea thought Ben should be played by Keanu Reeves, me by Tom Cruise and from what I recall, Sam by Russell Crowe!  We are contacting their agents…

This part of Hannibal's Trail was about discovering the parts of Italy the tourist brochures have generally forgotten.  Trani, is on the Adriatic coast of Italy and near Cannae where Hannibal won his greatest victory against the Romans.  Trani is a beautiful, old stone town where the main street is paved with large, slipperly slabs and the port area is like a mini-Marseille.  If you think you have read about Trani before, you are right – this leg of our Italian trip is a a return to the locations we had already cycled, in order to do the filming.  This time in Trani we had a lot of fun in a local barber run by a friendly Italian called Frank.  He and his two middle aged male assistants gave us all the sort of old fashioned shave you only thought possible in spaghetti westerns.

After our clean shaves..

After Trani, we headed to the deep south of Italy.  It´s a curious place, in some ways reminiscent of our cycling in the south of Spain where rubbish and ugly buildings can predominate a little too much.  For western Europe, southern Italy has surprising poverty and neglect.  In the port city of Taranto, for example, the old town centre is literally rotting and collapsing. Rows of abandoned buildings and others that look difficult to inhabit, but are lived in by people whose looks and gestures remind you of those black an white pictures of sufffering Italians in rubble strewn streets post World War II.  But this is 2009!

Statues at Altamura

Riccardo Chiaradia, a local Archaeologist who helped us find the hotspots of Taranto

Mussolini's doors at Taranto

One other difference – I always expected Italian restaurants to be chatty places, and they generally are in the centre and north.  Here, in the deep south, everywhere we ate – whether it was lunch or dinner - had at least one big television screen blaring out banal chat shows.  No-one who was eating seemed to talk as much as you hoped they would, instead their attentions were distracted by the box.    This drove Francesco our Italian producer bonkers and at least once he saved our sanity by asking restaurants to turn off the tv.   

Our main ancient literary source, Polybius, writes that Hannibal recorded his achievements on a tablet that was fixed to a column on the Temple of Hera art Crotone.   On a streatch of green coastline there is an archaeological site and a column belonging to this temple still standing.  Unfortunately this lone column was surrounded by a wire fence – but it was still an atmospheric spot where we were encouraged by our Director Andrea to mimic Hannibal and reflect on our achievements.  This made a lot of sense but at the time seemed like a potentially egotistical and difficult thing to do with the cameras rolling.  Sam and I were both impressed with how Ben got around that by saying that our biggest achievement was getting on so well with each other most of the time during our weeks together on the road.   On an unusual, intensive trip like this one, I think we would all agree, that just saying nice things, even if they may not be entirely true, helps them to come true.   I certainly felt that after Ben’s statement.

The remaining column of the Temple of Hera at Crotone


Early morning filming near Crotone

We dashed across Sicily – it is not part of Hannibal's trail.  After a night in Trapani, on Sicily's southern side, we boarded another ferry to head for our final destination – Tunisia, once the home of Hannibal's Carthaginian civilization.  While we were boarding we met Cristof, a Belgian, who was about to start an astonishing, solo bike ride that would begin in Tunisia and take him all the way to India!  He said he was going to take a year and a half to do it!  We wished him luck!

It's always exciting arriving at a port city by boat.  At sunset our ferry cruised in towards the port of Tunis.  To the right we could easily make out the peninsular of pretty white buildings that is Sidi Bou Said.  Just below that we knew there was what remained of the old Punic port and beyond that, Carthage itself, now a wealthy suburb of this bustling city.  The final leg of Hannibal´s Trail and lots left to explore!

In the Navy

November 8, 2009 02:26 by Danny

We're back with the crew again at a campsite near Naples.  I've had one beer and a swig on a bottle of wine and dinner should be soon but there could be time to write about Taranto, a strange place but well worth a visit.  Taranto was one of many southern Italian cities where the people were split between supporting Rome or Carthage. Today the people there still seem a bit split, almost schizophrenic. We rode in from Altamura, about eighty kilometres away, through an industrial area and crossed a bridge into what looked a bit like a deserted cowboy town on a bad day.  There was a steady flow of traffic that circled around the outer rim of this old part of town that forms an island connected to the mainland by bridges at either end.  This was originally the citidadel area where the Roman garrison managed to hold out against Hannibal even when he had won over the rest of the town.  There's a squat castle on the site of the Roman citadel that is still in use by the Italian navy.  You do see a lot of sailors wandering about town - one of them came across the three of us having breakfast in a cafe.  He strolled in and he got so close to me I thought he was going to put his white hat on my head, but instead he put it down on the sideboard next to me without diverting his disapproving glare.  His reason for not liking us probably had something to do with our dress sense. In this more conservative part of Italy what you wear seems to be the most important thing on earth to a lot of people. It was pretty cold but we were all wearing our baggy, cycling shorts, an assortment of dirty T-shirts, and Ben and I had white slippers on that we picked up earlier in the trip. To him, we probably looked like eastern European labourers about to go to work on a building site. We couldn't help laughing at our predicament - in the mind of this Captain, there we were, not only insulting the local fashions but taking Tarantine jobs too! Ben suggested we ask him why Italian tanks have more gears in reverse than forwards, but in the end we let him to have his coffee in peace. Peace man! If only more people had the same attitude.

Ben hunts Danny and Sam at a WWII pillbox near Tarento

This old part of Taranto had plenty of atmosphere with its narrow alley ways and Naples like conglomeration of low-rise appartments.  Quite a number of the buildings had signs on them indicating they were former palaces so you couldnt help but wonder why the glory days had faded. That's something we are yet to find out.  In spite of its ruined state, the old town was very lived in.


A pause in the sun with a view towards the castle in Tarento

The pizzas we had for dinner on the corner opposite us were very good, but the restaurant where we ate the next night gave us a shock. The hostess in this family run place was so friendly when we entered that we readily accepted her immediate offer of antipasto as we sat down.   When our hostess didnt present us with menus and instead gave us a verbal rundown of a limited number of dishes, we assumed we were getting the fourteen euro fixed menu that we had been recommended. The undrinkable wine seemed to confirm that we were getting a bargain basement dinner.  We had to laugh when the bill came to ninety-five euros.

Hannibal would have seen this Doric style Greek temple in the old quarter of Tarento

Taranto's surprises kept coming. When we ventured into the newer part of town across the bridge, we found a swanky, pedestrianised promenade lined with smart shops and busy with relatively wealthy looking locals promenading around. A pretty place with well kept buildings, plazas with palm trees and only across a small bridge from the neglected old town.  There is even rare archaeological evidence of Hannibal's presence: difficult to see under a fogged-up, perspex covering alongside a cafe, there's a section of what is thought to be part of a wall built by Hannibal's forces when they occupied the place.  There is also a good archaeological museum with lots of quality Roman remains including armour, jewellry and mosaics.

Under perspex in the main square in Tarento, the remains of a fortess wall possibly built by Hannibal

A mysterious, ghostly face appears in a photo taken in the archaeology museum in Tarento

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About the authors

Danny, Ben and Sam Wood are three brothers who followed in the footsteps of three ancient Carthaginian brothers Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago. They cycled from Cartagena, Spain to Zama, Tunisia - the route that Hannibal and his army took over 2200 years ago. Along the way they filmed a documentary to be aired on the BBC in July 2010.


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