In his dreadful crossing of the Alps, Hannibal Barkas had a gigantic rock removed by breaking it with an ancient method: the same often used by alchemists.
By the ancient Romans, the statement ” to shatter a rock” was not intended as simply as holding a hammer and starting to apply brute force upon, nor even with the help of a more sophisticated scalpel. They did know the rudiments of a basic chemistry and applied it. A system not foreign to ancient alchemists to get to their Alkahest, for how incredibly simple it may seem.
A piece of rock is alchemically useless if it remains in its bulky state. The matter must be turned into element water, or in a flowing state, that is either melted or powdered as finely as possible. One cannot start the work from the element earth and stay there. According to the theory of elements rotation, we must start from the element earth to return to a more glorious and indestructible element earth, through the other elements.
The most known episode in Europe about the shattering rocks “technology” was the remotion of a huge and heavy monolith to allow the Carthaginian army elephants to overcome the obstacle, and continue the journey along the narrow alpine paths among frightful ravines. That day the military engineers had the road cleared doing chip away the rock with the only system then known.
Hannibal decided to cross the Alps in 218 b. C. during the winter season, something unheard of at the time. Polibius and Livius were among the most important historical tracks to have the record. Pliny described several steps to enhance the scientific part of the challenge, or naturalistic as they said at the time. In the sixteenth century Josephus Scaligerus, at that time Professor at Leyden University, compared the original manuscripts of Livius with the often full of errors and oversights transcripts of medieval scribes. The report arrived to us is therefore neither legendary nor hagiographic, but rather faithful to the real events.
From the venetian writer Gianni Granzotto’s “Annibale” 1980, a real exhaustive biography of Hannibal Barkas: “……. Hannibal ordered to shovel snow and clear the landslide with picks and shovels. He had brought along a department of experts in all those works of embankment and adjustment that was needed in long journeys accidents.
But the main difficulty was a huge rock slipped with the landslide and remained there planted among the debris, which blocked the passage between the mountain and the precipice. The boulder was entirely covered with armfuls of resinous wood, pine and fir branches were torn trunk with axes. When the pile was amassed high as a pyre all around the giant boulde, the fire was lit and crackled illuminating the darkness of the night and the white snow. Inside the fire the flames wrapped the rock up all over and after a while it became hot. At that point the square of sappers overturned barrels of vinegar into the bonfire. The whole landslide crackled outbursts, it seemed a volcan’s eruption. The vinegar acted on the hot stone with the effect of dynamite. Polibius and Livius claimed that the rock was split into fragments, which were easily removed at the end of that hell. A few hours after the road was open.
This reminded me of a trip I made in China when I was taken to see the Tungkjang dam in Szechuan. Built in 256 b.C, almost at the same time with Hannibal ‘s march in Europe. Let me explain why the two events were associated in my mind: the builder of the dam, the imperial governor Li-bin, still revered as a deity, to divert the waters of the river out of their bed and launch them to the catchment for irrigation, faced with the need to break down a rock wall twenty meters high. In the year 256 b.C. there were, even in China, neither explosive nor mechanical levers, the Chinese officers dam, through an interpreter, told me that the incomparable Li-bin used the method called “of fire and frost”. He had the rock heated till hot, then he had it poured over waterfalls of vinegar. Repeating the process several times, the rock gradually shattered. The same as the Hannibal’s engineers ….. “
A large percentage of mountains, seas and deserts rocks of the world are carbonates compounds. Ancient chemists didn’t use normal culinary vinegar, but rectified, or distilled over and over.
Some Renaissance chemists then started to add common salt to vinegar. To end, the reference to the night hours, by Pliny and Scaligerus, was not only for poetic effect (especially knowing Pliny).