Geology Home Page physical geology historical geology planetary gems
Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Shelby Gonzales
How Land Affects History
Throughout the millennia, though however unfortunate, war and combat has shaped human history. War has brought about the rise and fall of empires, has shaped the political landscape in many ways, and continues doing so even through this day. Many factors affect combat, including military training, organization, and leadership. Another variable that has a strong hand of influence is the location where the battle takes place, the landscape. Man has long known the benefits of working with the environment not only in war, but also with things like travel and trade. When man works with the environment he is usually rewarded with things like victory and the prestige that comes with it, but when he goes against it, he is often subject to defeat and the humiliation. While this is not always the case, as exemplified by feats such as Hannibalís crossing of the Alps, it is generally agreed upon that landscape can, and will, make or break an armyís advance at any point in history.
An excellent example of man working with the landscape takes place in Greece in 408 B.C. Greece is a land of great seismic activity, and the formation of the regionís current features is complex. However, to put it simply, it was formed by tectonic break-up followed by collision, the latter of which is still occurring today, and involves the African tectonic plate subsiding beneath the Eurasian plate. The result is the very rugged landscape that is familiar to us today. Amongst these rugged locations took place one of the most well-known battles of the ancient world: The Battle of Thermopylae. The location of the Battle of Thermopylae was not actually within the city of Thermopylae itself, but instead was in the nearby Pass of Thermopylae. The pass itself was very narrow, far narrower than today, a mere 20-30 meters across, and flanked by a steep slope on one side and the sea on the other. The pass of Thermopylae forced any attacking army into a bottleneck where numbers meant all too little.
The Pass of Thermopylae, 480 BC
This advantage was used to its fullest by the Greek hoplites who took up arms against the invading force of Persians that was attempting to march through Greece at the time. Although many sources and people, both ancient and modern, like to speak of the 300 Spartans that stood up to the foreign enemy, in reality there was a total of about 7,100 Greek hoplites altogether, and the Spartans made up a small portion of the entire Greek force (less than 5%). All of the Greek soldiers worked together to stand up to the Persians, and for the first part of the battle, things went more or less as planned. And since numbers counted for little, the Greek hoplitesí better equipment, such as bronze shields rather than wicker, and long spears rather than short javelins, proved better than even what the Persian Immortal carried.
However, after a local man named Ephialtes showed the Persians a path through the hills surrounding the battle location, things started falling out of favor for the Greeks. All along, the Greeks knew very well of the path that existed, and, according to historical sources went so far as to post 1,000 Phokian hoplites to stop any attempt to encircle them. However, the Phokians were caught off-guard by the Persian approach and unable to stop them. Word reached Leonidas and the other Greeks of the incident, and most of the hoplites decided to take a well-timed retreat. All but the Spartans.
Many people debate the reason that Leonidus and his men stayed behind. Some say it was to hold off the Persians so that the other Greek troops could have a chance to retreat. Some suggest that he felt he had to fulfill a prophecy by the Oracle that a Spartan king must die or Sparta herself would fall. Whatever the reason, the Spartans stayed behind and valiantly gave their lives to defend their homeland and delay the Persians almost to the point where they had to retreat for fear of starvation.
While the Battle of Thermopylae is an excellent example of an army using landscape to its advantage, there have been some in history that have taken the landscape as more of a challenge than an ally. One man that did so and, most importantly, succeeded was Hannibal of Carthage. During the second Punic War (218 BC), he marched over the Alps and on to Rome with foot soldiers, mounted units, and even War Elephants.
An artistís interpretation of the event
The Alps themselves were formed as a result of the colliding of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, and the resulting seismic activity caused the great snow-packed peaks we see today. Such a mountain range would seem formidable to most, if not all, sensible military leaders. But Hannibal decided to take on the Alps and cross them to catch his enemy of Rome not only by surprise, but in their own backyard. Although the route used by the Carthaginians in this case is still under debate, the fact remains that they did make it through the Alps and into the Italian Peninsula.
But how did he do it? According to some sources: vinegar and fire. Carbonate rocks, such as limestone, can be dissolved by acids such as vinegar, and this is a well-known phenomenon among modern Geologists. When applied properly, heating and cooling can weaken, crack, and even shatter solid rock. One of the ancient sources that wrote on Hannibalís march, Livy, says that vinegar was poured onto the rock while large fires were set ablaze beneath them. The heat sped up the process of dissolving, and when the rocks cooled (especially if the night was cold), they would rapidly shrink, causing them to fracture and break down. The combined corrosive forces reportedly caused the rock to crumble well enough that the boulders could be removed more easily than they would otherwise, thus making Hannibalís journey much easier for him, his troops, and his pachyderms. But this claim raises many questions, and to this day many continue to doubt the legitimacy of such an occurrence. However, in theory, it is possible.
Many people may ask: Where did Hannibal find the vinegar? Surely he didnít stumble upon a vinegar factory while on his journey, and, according to the sources, he didnít. The Carthaginian troops that followed Hannibal could very well have carried wine with them, since it was something to drink and could even be used for medical purposes such as sterilizing wounds or getting surgical patients intoxicated so they wouldnít feel very much pain (this is not recommended by modern medical professionals). Also, back in those days, wine could have easily turned into vinegar. While most soldiers would be rather disappointed when their valued beverage turned into something as unpleasant as vinegar, Hannibal (or one of his advisors) was evidently spending much time thinking outside the box. Not only would they get rid of the vinegar, but they would also clear the way for their precious elephants to walk in the process. As for the wood, the tree line back in that day was higher in elevation compared to what it is now due to warmer temperatures, so even if they were very high up in the mountains they had plenty of fuel available to them.
In the end, the Alps were crossed with 20,000 foot-soldiers, 6,000 cavalry, and twenty-seven elephants. Hannibal took a great toll on the Roman army, but, like the Greek hoplites at Thermopylae, he and his troops eventually failed. His campaign fell into ruin, but not without first leaving its mark on the pages of history.
An Arbitrary Landslide in the Alps
These well-known occurrences in history have continued to be spoken of and studied throughout the ages. From the past to the present, these great military minds have influenced many more battles and many more men that came after. The landscape-combat relationship did not end with Hannibal. Men continued fighting with the land, even fortifying their locations to mind-boggling extents.
Mont Saint-Michel, France
(I donít know about you, but I wouldnít want to attack this chapel...)