The History, 15.10

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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10This country then of the Gauls was by reason of its lofty mountain ranges perpetually covered with terrible snows, almost unknown to the inhabitants of the rest of the world, except where it borders on the ocean; vast fortresses raised by nature, in the place of art, surrounding it on all sides.

2On the southern side it is washed by the Etruscan and Gallic sea: where it looks towards the north it is separated from the tribes of the barbarians by the river Rhine; where it is placed under the western star it is bounded by the ocean, and the lofty chain of the Pyrenees; where it has an eastern aspect it is bounded by the Cottian Alps. In these mountains King Cottius, after the Gauls had been subdued, lying by himself in their defiles, and relying on the rugged and pathless character of the country, long maintained his independence; though afterwards he abated his pride, and was admitted to the friendship of the Emperor Octavianus. And subsequently he constructed immense works to serve as a splendid gift to the emperor, making roads over them, short, and convenient for travellers, between other ancient passes of the Alps; on which subject we will presently set forth what discoveries have been made.

3In these Cottian Alps, which begin at the town of Susa, one vast ridge rises up, scarcely passable by any one without danger.

4For to travellers who reach it from the side of Gaul it descends with a steepness almost precipitous, being terrible to behold, in consequence of the bulk of its overhanging rocks. In the spring, when the ice is melting, and the snow beginning to give way from the warm spring breezes, if any one seeks to descend along the mountain, men and beasts and wagons all fall together through the fissures and clefts in the rocks, which yawn in every direction, though previously hidden by the frost. And the only remedy ever found to ward off entire destruction is to have many vehicles bound together with enormous ropes, with men or oxen hanging on behind, to hold them back with great efforts; and so with a crouching step they get down with some degree of safety. And this, as I have said, is what happens in the spring.

5But in winter, the ground being covered over with a smooth crust of ice, and therefore slippery under foot, the traveller is often plunged headlong; and the valleys, which seem to open here and there into wide plains, which are merely a covering of treacherous ice, sometimes swallow up those who try to pass over them. On account of which danger those who are acquainted with the country fix projecting wooden piles over the safest spots, in order that a series of them may conduct the traveller unhurt to his destination; though if these piles get covered with snow and hidden, or thrown down by melting torrents descending from the mountains, then it is difficult for any one to pass, even if natives of the district lead the way.

6But on the summit of this Italian mountain there is a plain, seven miles in extent, reaching as far as the station known by the name of Mars; and after that comes another ridge, still more steep, and scarcely possible to be climbed, which stretches on to the summit of Mons Matrona, named so from an event which happened to a noble lady.

7From this point a path, steep indeed, but easily passable, leads to the fortress of Virgantia. The sepulchre of this petty prince whom we have spoken of as the maker of these roads is at Susa, close to the walls; and his remains are honoured with religious veneration for two reasons: first of all, because he governed his people with equitable moderation; and secondly, because, by becoming an ally of the Roman republic, he procured lasting tranquillity for his subjects.

8And although this road which I have been speaking of runs through the centre of the district, and is shorter and more frequented now than any other, yet other roads also were made at much earlier periods, on different occasions.

9The first of them, near the maritime alps, was made by the Theban Hercules, when he was proceeding in a leisurely manner to destroy Geryon and Tauriscus, as has already been mentioned; and he it was who gave to these alps the name of the Grecian Alps. In the same way he consecrated the citadel and port of Monæcus to keep alive the recollection of his name for ever. And this was the reason why, many ages afterwards, those alps were called the Penine Alps.

10Publius Cornelius Scipio, the father of the elder Africanus, when about to go to the assistance of the citizens of Saguntum—celebrated for the distresses which they endured, and for their loyalty to Rome, at the time when they were besieged with great resolution by the Carthaginians—led to the Spanish coast a fleet having on board a numerous army. But after the city had been destroyed by the valour of the Carthaginians, he, being unable to overtake Hannibal, who had crossed the Rhone, and had obtained three days’ start of him in the march towards Italy, crossed the sea, which at that point was not wide, making a rapid voyage; and taking his station near Genoa, a town of the Ligures, awaited his descent from the mountains, so that, if chance should afford him an opportunity, he might attack him in the plain while still fatigued with the ruggedness of the way by which he had come.

11But still, having regard to the interests of the republic, he ordered Cnæus Scipio, his brother, to go into Spain, to prevent Hasdrubal from making a similar expedition from that country. But Hannibal, having received information of their design by some deserters, being also a man of great shrewdness and readiness of resources, obtained some guides from the Taurini who inhabited those districts, and passing through the Tricastini and through the district of the Vocontii, he thus reached the defiles of the Tricorii. Then starting from this point, he made another march over a line previously impassable. And having cut through a rock of immense height, which he melted by means of mighty fires, and pouring over it a quantity of vinegar, he proceeded along the Druentia, a river full of danger from its eddies and currents, until he reached the district of Etruria. This is enough to say of the Alps; now let us return to our original subject.

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