There really is no way to compare Alexander and Hannibal, I know, but I lately watched a program about the exploits of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants, in which it was mentioned that Hannibal achieved the greatest exploit ever by crossing the Alps. Is that so? How about Alexander crossing the Hindu Kush? This was simply too much for me and I went in search of some facts and figures to defend the case of Alexander.
I will not deny that Hannibal leading his army and most of all his elephants over the Alps in 218 BC (at the beginning of the Second Punic War with Rome) was a quite unique and daring undertaking, but there is no way this achievement could match or surpass Alexander’s march across the Hindu Kush roughly some one hundred years earlier.
The figures recorded by Polybius reveal that
travelled with Hannibal 40,000
foot soldiers, 4,000 horsemen and 37 elephants. Alexander on the other hand, having left
Macedonia with 40,000 soldiers and 1,500 cavalry, lead an army of 100,000 men,
an unknown number of cavalry and horses and no elephants over the unforgiving
heights of the Hindu Kush.
On top of that, there is no way to compare the Alps with the
Hindu Kush. Once again I let the
figures speak for themselves. The highest top of the Alps is the Mont Blanc reaching 4,810 meters, while
the highest summit of the Hindu Kusch lies at 7,690 meters. Consequently,
the passes over the respective mountain ranges are situated at quite different
altitudes as well. Scholars have argued at length about the most probable route
could have followed. Based on the reports from Polybius and Livy, it is
generally agreed that the lowest pass, the Col de Montgenèvre between Briançon in Hannibal France
and Susa in was the most probable choice,
located at Italy 1,854 meters.
Alexander on the other hand used the Khawak Pass
at 3,848 meters
in 329 BC when he moved his huge army from the Kabul
Valley in Afghanistan
in the north. Two years later he crossed the Kindu Kush in the opposite direction
to enter Bactria Pakistan, using the
easier yet more famous Khyber Pass situated at
Of course, crossing the
by itself was an exploit and the Romans themselves felt they were a solid natural
barrier. Crossing them with elephants was absolute madness (
was probably driven by his deep hatred for the Romans) and in the end it seems
that only two dozen of them survived the expedition. Yet, that by itself is not
enough, in my eyes, to place him above Alexander!
His march is a heroic one in its own right, generally not stressed enough as it
is very hard for us in the West to imagine what the overall travel conditions
through the Hannibal Hindu Kush range and passes and
what its challenges are. Alexander’s
men suffered dearly, especially in 329 BC as winter lingered on much longer
than usual and the troops were often caught in blizzards where men and beast
froze to death if they dared stop moving.
More often than not Alexander is forgotten in our western history while he opened up much of
Asia. For ten years, his amazing
campaigns lead him all the way to India
across unforgiving deserts, wide and fast flowing rivers, and daring mountain
ranges of which the Hindu Kush definitely is
the highest. The story of Hannibal’s elephants
or the conquests of Julius Caesar in France, Germany
and Britain are much more
familiar to us than Alexander’s challenging
and daring march through Asia. That is not
[Pictures from Wikipedia]