Retreat can preserve. But it can also sever ties. High up in the Dolomites, where today’s Switzerland and the Fruilli region of Italy merge, live the Ladin, a people whose origin remains veiled in a misty mystery. From whence did the 40,000 who still live there today come? They speak their own language, hold close their folklore, uphold their unique culture and revere their traditions. Those who speak the Ladin language have their own media, news programs, talk shows and Internet sites and maintain their own pages in local Alpine newspapers.
The short answer is no one knows. The longer short answer is that the Ladin’s history started with the Carthaginians, was interrupted by the Romans, and cemented by the Bavarians. In the second and third century BC, two formidable trading and military powers were struggling for dominance. The empire of Carthage, a former Phoenician city-state in present day Tunis, encompassed most of North Africa’s coast as well as the southern tip of Iberia. At the time, Rome was but a republic, albeit one with grand ambitions. So started the Punic Wars, the first of which was fought for the Carthaginian-controlled southern Mediterranean. The Romans emerged victorious with control of the islands of Sicily and Corsica, a feat that gave way for an empire with both land and naval prowess.
Sore, but not beaten, the son of the first leader of the Punic war, Hamilcar, had a bloody trick up his sleeve. And so, it was in 218 BC that Hannibal shocked Italy by invading from the north, an impossible maneuver as the Romans had presumed the Alps created a natural barrier against invasion. His strategic acumen and military bravado put him alongside the ranks of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Ravaged on the ascent from the Rhône valley in Gaul, Hannibal’s troops were mercilessly attacked by the local tribes who savored an onslaught of ambushes. Hannibal would go on to suffer even greater losses on the descent, but that was due to the terrain. The tribespeople on the Italian side were appreciably more helpful.
From what ancient historians documented, Hannibal’s treacherous descent on the Italian side of the Alps was assisted by an amicable Iron Age tribe who lived in Raetia in the eastern Alps, which includes the Dolomites. In December, after a journey of five months from Cartagena, with 25,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and most of his original 37 elephants, Hannibal descended upon Italy. Over a span of 15 years, Hannibal ravaged the land, killing or maiming more than a million citizens. But he never took Rome. Although he did get as far south as Zama in North Africa, that is where he challenged and ultimately fell his to his archrival, the eminent Roman general Scipio Africanus.