Archaeologist uncovers Hannibal's secret weapon


Archaeologist Patrick N. Hunt took the Morning Forum of Los Altos audience on a trip back in time during his Nov. 19 discussion of Hannibal, a leader he deemed the “greatest military strategist of all time.”

In his presentation “Hannibal’s Secret Weapon,” Hunt, who has taught at Stanford University since 1993, spoke of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general born in 247 B.C.

“Hannibal, who is most famous for carrying war to Italy by crossing the Alps with 37 elephants, used nature as his secret weapon,” Hunt said. “He picked the time and place of his battles and studied his enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Hunt has lectured about Hannibal’s military strategies at the U.S. War College to the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and security agencies along with NATO country military personnel.

His book “Hannibal” (Simon & Schuster, 2017) took Hunt 10 years to write, from 20 years of fieldwork. In the book, Hunt carefully lays out how Hannibal weaponized nature and the environment, setting the stage for modern tactical warfare.

As director of Stanford’s Alpine Archeology Project from 1994 to 2012, Hunt led many expeditions to the Swiss, Italian and French Alps, crossing more than 30 passes in hopes of finding the route Hannibal’s army took and studying battle sites.

“These expeditions were very difficult,” he said. “In my life, I’ve broken about 40 bones, many in the Alps. We were in blizzards that shredded our clothes so badly we used duct tape to hold them together. We marched through fog so thick we couldn’t see in front of us. I think the Col de Clapier (in France) is Hannibal’s most likely route, because it is the only route where some elephant remains have been found.”

Thirty-seven student athletes cycled the entire Col de Clapier route from Avignon to the summit. Since 2007, when National Geographic first sponsored Hunt’s explorations, he has spent half his time working for National Geographic.

Battling the elements

Hannibal led a smaller polyglot army of mercenaries against the much larger Roman army in the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.). Although Rome eventually won the war, Hannibal’s army had “amazing” victories at Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae.

At the Trebbia River early on a bitter-cold winter morning, Hunt described how a well-rested and fed Carthaginian army greased their bodies with fat and made the Romans cross the freezing Trebbia River and also ambushed the Romans from the rear, trampling with elephants whoever tried to escape. Hunt said the sleepy Roman troops were defeated because they were poorly led, had not eaten breakfast and were ill prepared for battle after being half-frozen crossing the icy Trebbia.

The Battle of Lake Trasimene was the second major battle in the war. On a foggy morning, Hannibal’s troops, concealed by heavy fog, positioned themselves in the hills north of the lake, above the narrow route the Roman army marched. Hannibal’s army swooped down on the Roman troops, forcing them into Lake Trasimene, where they drowned or were massacred.

He described the battle of Cannae as one of the most significant battles in history. In the heat of August, the Carthaginian troops arrived first at the battle site and took command of the Aufidus River, the main source of water in the area. Hannibal positioned his lines facing north, with a hot sirocco wind at their backs, compelling the Romans to face the south, causing the wind to blow dust and grit into their eyes. Rome lost more than 55,000 men at Cannae that day.

“I am very lucky to be able to do what I love,” Hunt said, “and although I’d love to have met Hannibal, I would never want to face him in battle.”

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Subscriptions are open to new members. For more information, visit

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