Battlefield vineyards: Part 1

218-201 BC: The second Punic war and the campaigns of Hannibal


The plains of Cannae where Hannibal won his greatest victory are now covered in vines.

Hannibal’s long and bloody campaigns against Rome that marked the late second century BC includes a veritable checklist of what are, today, famous wine regions.

Rioja, Priorat, Catalonia, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Rhône, Emilia-Romagna, Montepulciano, Puglia and Campania, all were among the modern wine regions once traversed by Hannibal’s extraordinary army.

Of course, in 218 BC, most of those regions had not yet been put under vine. The ancient Iberians and Gauls did not practice viticulture although the Greek colonies along the Spanish and Gaulish coastlines, such as at Massilia, today Marseille, certainly did include winemaking as part of their economy.

Before setting out to destroy Rome, Hannibal first had to pacify the Iberian tribes along the Ebro as far along as the areas now known, collectively, as Rioja. He left his brother Hanno to keep peace in the area before moving across the Pyrenees.

When Hannibal crossed the Rhône – a spot still debated today but probably not far north of Avignon – it was not the thriving home of Syrah and Grenache but the rather less welcoming home of the Volcae tribe who fiercely resisted his passage.

It would not be until Italy that the Carthaginians would have come across vines in any great quantity though, even so, not to the extent they exist now.

Hannibal’s most famous victory took place on the plains of Cannae. It is said some 50,000 Romans were slaughtered in what is widely held as one of the most ‘perfect’ battles ever fought and where now exist row after regimented row of vines producing wine in bulk or for the local DOC Barletta.

In the years that followed Cannae the Romans refused to give battle to what they now recognised as their Nemesis. The new dictator, Fabius, forbade confronting Hannibal directly in the field but opted to wait until Rome’s manpower was sufficiently replenished.

So, for the next 15 years, Hannibal roamed southern Italy, reducing Roman towns, setting up client kings and burning the olive groves and vineyards to try and tempt the Romans out from behind their walls.

While ravaging Campania when trying to bring Fabius to battle, he even burned the vineyards that produced the famous Falernian wine around Mount Massicus.

In the end, however, Hannibal’s victories and pillaging were all for naught. Recalled to Africa by his political enemies, he was finally defeated at Zama by Scipio in 202 BC. The infamous Carthaginian war elephants – reputedly given wine before battle to encourage them into a frenzy and to ignore pain – were countered by a simple drill manoeuvre; soldiers stepping aside to create lanes through which the wine-addled elephants charged to the rear, where they were dealt with by javelin-armed men.

In 146BC Carthage would be destroyed, but one of the few things salvaged from the great city before it was torched were the famous treatises by Mago on agriculture, including viticulture.

Translated into Latin and now only existing in works by the likes of Columella, this accumulated Phoenician knowledge would help form the basis of Roman winemaking techniques that would then be taken into Gaul and Iberia as the Roman Empire began its inexorable expansion; bringing viticulture and wine to those very areas which Hannibal had passed through in his bid to destroy Rome over a century before.

2 Responses to “Battlefield vineyards: Part 1”

  1. Fascinating article. Thank you

  2. Jill BARTH says:

    This is very interesting, you offer a lot to learn and contemplate here. Thank you!

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