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E - 87 : Why did Hannibal walk to Italy?

Now that all my 2017 and 2018 Blogs have been transferred to this site, it is time to switch on the automated notification mail again. The 2019 Blogs are still going to be transferred over the next few days but are worth re-reading. With every transfer you will get an e-mail but I promise to keep it to one a day. Also changed the count-down letters. A stands for 2017, E for 2021, F will be for next year. Just in case you wonder.

Why did Hannibal cross the Alps? Carthage was a sea power at that time. Could he not have shipped his army and his elephants ?


Came across this fascinating new book from Ronald Ennos, "The Age of Wood", the other day. Written in simple prose, he shows us how important wood was for the development of mankind, being it as fire wood to cook, for making hunting weapons like spears and bows, for building homes or for using it to work metals. It is a truly interdisciplinary piece and totally worth reading.

Published at Scribner, New York 2020


Without wood, there would be no ships either. As shown in one of my previous blogs, ship building in the Mediterranean started early. Phoenicians, Minoans and Greek people were doing long distance trading by 1'000 BC. One of the earliest bulk goods being shipped were trees, the famous cedars from Lebanon. The main buyer was Egypt which had plenty of palm trees but no trees with sufficient structural strength for building large ceilings or long ships. They had to import wood. We tend to forget that the Levant was an Egyptian province at the time - the Egyptian Pharaohs must have been attracted by something valuable to spend so much money on a military campaign ...

Phoenician sailors shipping large logs


By the 5th century, shipping technology was so advanced that the Persian Emperor Xerxes could build pontoon bridges over the Dardanelles for his soldiers and put the entire train of his large army on vessels. Without them, he couldn't have brought his huge army to Greece. His 300'000 soldiers (I guess the real number was half) needed to be fed every day. The fact that the campaign was over once the Greek had destroyed the Persian Fleet in Salamis in 480 BC tells us everything. The Persian ships were the backbone of the Persian logistic.

Wooden Triremes at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC where the Greeks sunk the Persian Fleet


We already talked about the sophistication of Greek shipping in one of my previous blogs on the merchant vessel found in 1965 off Kyrenia, built around 400 BC (E-180). Ship building required strong materials - wood! The keels of ancient ships were usually built from oak or beech. For planks cedar trees or Aleppo pines were used. Silver-fir was best for masts and oars - long, stiff but still flexile. A look at the map below shows were these woods existed.

European forestation in 1'000 BC and 300 BC - red = almost no forest left, dark green = forest only


At the beginning of the Iron Age, all of Europe was well forested - some of the areas in the north were giant, never ending woods. But the Levant was already well cleared - a sign that urban development, metal production and ship building had taken its toll. What is also. interesting is that Tunisia had many trees before Phoenicians built Carthage.


By 300 BC the situation had changed. Carthage, Greece and the Levant had few forests left and needed to procure their wood from other places. The Phoenicians from Anatolia - the Greeks from Macedonia, the Danube river basin and the Black Sea - Carthage from Sardinia, Corsica and Spain. It never occurred to me until today why Rome demanded Sardinia and Corsica from Carthage after the first Punic War in 241 BC. Sicily they wanted for the grain. But why Corsica and Sardinia? To deprive Carthage of wood. No wood = no war fleet.


When the Second Punic War broke out in 201 BC (it ended in 201 BC), Carthage had not enough wood to build a large, new fleet. Hannibal had to walk to Italy in order to attack Rome. I often say that you have to talk about logistics in order to understand life. But that the lack of ships forced the Hannibal's elephants to cross the Alps is kind of an epiphany.

Hannibal's epic march over the Alps in 218 BC


Having access to wood not only had a big influence on Roman history, much later we see the same again. Why were Genoa and Venice able to build mighty fleets in the Middle Ages?

Both had easy access to the forests of the Alps. So did the Ottoman Turks who controlled the Danube basin which gave them access to the woods of the Carpathian mountains.


Without wood, mankind would not have discovered fire which allowed the cooking of food. We thus can absorb calories far more efficiently than any other animal, Cooked food powers our complex brain. Without wood, ships would not have been built either and long-distance trading never developed. It is for this versatile material that we benefit today from large scale labor division. The world without wood would be a different place - our history also.









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