It seems a bit sad that one can rise to the giddy heights of an ODNB entry for one reason: ‘Ellis is chiefly known for his fierce controversy with William John Law, which raged from 1854 to 1856, on the route followed by Hannibal in his passage of the Alps’. And even sadder that ‘The arguments of Ellis and Law are not cited in most recent discussions of Hannibal’s route.’
The life of Robert Ellis is summed up briefly. Born in 1819 or 20, he went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1836 obtaining a scholarship in 1839, graduating 5th wrangler in 1840, becoming a fellow in 1841, and an M.A. in 1843. He was ordained deacon in 1845 and priest in 1846. At the age of 52, he married, and so was required to give up his fellowship. He died in Exeter in 1885.
John William Law (1786–1869), was, appropriately enough, a lawyer (indeed, better than that, a judge: a commissioner in bankruptcy, and later chief commissioner of the court for the relief of insolvent debtors). His main hobby was horse-flesh: according to the ODNB, ‘he knew the Racing Calendar by heart, and never missed seeing the Derby’. But he was also interested in the classics, and this led to his titanic clash with Ellis.
‘Hannibal Sagunto capto Carthaginem Nouam in hiberna concesserat, ibique, auditis quae Romae quaeque Carthagine acta decretaque essent, seque non ducem solum sed etiam causam esse belli, partitis reliquiis praedae, nihil ultra differendum ratus, Hispani generis milites convocat’: thus begins with a stately periodic sentence the most famous account of Hannibal’s march on Rome, (and also the chunk of Livy that was a ‘set book’ for A-level Latin a few aeons ago).
However, when proposing a route for Hannibal across the Alps, scholars believed that one had to start with the earlier history of Polybius (c.200–118 BCE), in Greek, of which we have reissued Shuckburgh’s 1889 translation. An aristocratic Greek from Arcadia, Polybius was attached to the household of the Scipios, and therefore able to access the Roman account of the Second Punic War, which had concluded in Roman triumph and the exile of Hannibal only two years before he was born. He also claimed to have traversed the Alpine route used by Hannibal, and pours a certain amount of scorn of ‘previous historians’ who have no idea of the geography of the area (though his own is notably defective in some respects).
Ellis’s first book, A Treatise on Hannibal’s Passage of the Alps, was printed in 1853 by Cambridge University Press and published by John Deighton in Cambridge and John Parker in London. A ‘series of excursions in the Alps’ and subsequent study of Polybius had led him to conclude that the Mount Cenis pass was the only route which matched the writer’s account, and an examination in detail of the pass, in July 1852 and April–May 1853, confirmed him in this view. The work provides a contextual chapter on the twenty-year period after the end of the First Punic War, and gives translations of the crucial sections of Polybius’ account of Hannibal’s march.
Ellis then proceeds systematically to examine each stage of the proposed route, matching place-names and geographical features where possible. He is especially driven by the need for the route to have the famous vantage point from which Hannibal famously rallied his despondent troops, ‘by dwelling on the one possible topic of consolation in his power, namely the view of Italy: which lay stretched out in both directions below those mountains’ (Shuckburgh’s translation of Polybius). Or, as Livy puts it: ‘praegressus signa Hannibal … unde longe et late prospectus erat, consistere iussis militibus Italiam ostentat subiectosque Alpinis montibus circumpadanos campos…’.
Considering distances, timing and terrain, and using Livy as a secondary source of data, Ellis certainly convinces himself: ‘… the conclusion reached is always the same, and the Little Mont Cenis is pointed out, in every case, as the pass by which by which Hannibal effected his descent into the plains of Italy’. Unfortunately for him, William Law, sent to Aix-les-Bains for the water cure in July 1854, not only took with him the recently published Treatise, but also made the acquaintance of a French savant who had his own (different) theory on route, and was moreover told that ‘an indication of one reputed track was in sight from the garden of my house’.
His imagination thus kindled, Law, continuing his convalescence in Nice, wrote a critique of Ellis’s work, published on his return to England in 1855. Ellis responded with two articles in the Journal of Classical and Sacred Theology in 1856: ‘and I replied promptly to each through the same channel’. Law realises that by now (in 1866) publishing a lengthy work of his own, the two-volume Alps of Hannibal, ‘it may be asked, why further stir this worn-out controversy; has not too much been said already?’ – since the time of Polybius, one might add.
Law does not in fact propose anything new. Instead, he reviews all the evidence, ancient and modern, and all the theories (including the ‘peculiar’ ones) deriving from the evidence, in true lawyerly style, before deciding that the route across the Little St Bernard, proposed by ex-soldier General Robert Melville (1723–1809), was the most likely one, not least because it matched most closely Polybius’ account.
Ellis produced another slim volume in 1867: as the title, An Enquiry into the Ancient Routes between Italy and Gaul, With an Examination of the Theory of Hannibal’s Passage of the Alps by the Little St Bernard, indicates, this is a specific riposte to Law, and a reassertion of the claims of Mont Cenis. Two years later, Law died, at 83; the much younger Ellis outlived him by sixteen years. The controversy continues unresolved – perhaps until elephant bones or Carthaginian artefacts are revealed by the retreat of the Alpine glaciers…