During the famous battle of Cannae (August 2, 216 BC), which saw the Romans routed by the army of Hannibal, a mysterious phenomenon was observed: “The day of the battle, in the sky over Apulia, round objects were seen in form of ships. The prodigy continued to repeat itself throughout the night. Aboard these objects they saw men dressed in white, like priests around an altar.”
I recognized immediately that the claim was false when I read it a couple of years ago. I briefly described Jacques Vallée’s and Chris Aubeck’s misuse of the story in my analysis of Wonders in the Sky back in 2013, but I merely noted at the time that the two authors admitted that they knew the story only from a 1960s Italian magazine. I provisionally attributed the claim to an account in Livy at 21.62 and its later inclusion in Julius Obsequens’ summary of Livy’s prodigies. I suggested we could profitably ignore the fake version presented by the two authors since it had no provenance, but it turns out I was a little too hasty.
Caudron has gone far beyond my analysis in determining how this false fact emerged and how it influenced generations of ufologists. We should begin by tracing the sources. As mentioned, I cited Livy at 21.62, writing of the year 218: “A phantom navy was seen shining in the sky […] in the territory of Amiternum beings in human shape and clothed in white were seen at a distance, but no one came close to them.” (All quotes are from the Rev. Canon Roberts’s 1905 translation.) Caudron adds some other pieces of Livy that were mixed in. At 22.1 Livy says that in 217 BCE “at Arpi shields had been seen in the sky and the sun had appeared to be fighting with the moon.” At 24.10 he further said that in 214 “at Hadria an altar had been seen in the sky with men clothed in white standing round it.” From this raw material, the Italian concoction was created—but by whom?
Caudron proposes two possible candidates: First, Peter Kolosimo, the Italian ancient astronaut author who I have demonstrated in the past fabricated a number of pieces of evidence and frequently cited science fiction stories as fact. Caudron also suggests that it might have been the work of Alberto Fenoglio, the future editor of the UFO magazine Clypeus, who in 1966 fabricated the hoax text claiming Alexander the Great was buzzed by a formation of UFOs at Tyre (which he claimed was purposely omitted from Johann Droysen’s 1833 biography of Alexander, in which the story does not appear), and who also fabricated a 1790 UFO landing that appears in no known text. Fenoglio would be a good guess since he’s on record fabricating multiple other texts. Just for the record, here’s Fenoglio falsifying Alexander’s siege of Tyre, which I am going to shorten a bit:
During the siege of Tyre in the year 332 BC strange flying objects were noticed. Johann Gustav Droysen, in his History of Alexander the Great, deliberately does not mention them, considering then to be born from the fantasy of Macedonian soldiers. […] One day, mysterious objects suddenly appeared over the Macedonian camp; these flying shields, as they had been dubbed, proceeded in a triangular formation with a very big one at the head; the others were smaller by about half. In all there were five. The unknown writer says they slowly turned over Tyre, while thousands of warriors of both factions watched them in amazement. Suddenly, the largest of the “shields,” emitted a flash that hit a part of the walls and these crumbled, other flashes followed. Walls and towers crumbled as if they had just been built of mud, leaving the way open to the besiegers streaming down like an avalanche through the breach. The “flying shields” circled the city, until it was completely conquered, then disappeared upward at high speed, soon melting into the blue sky. (my translation)
Anyway, Fenoglio may well have fabricated Hannibal’s UFOs, a matched set with Alexander’s.
In 1969, French writer Guy Tarade repeated the claim in a book, adding a spurious citation:
Julius Obsequens wrote in his Prodigies that on the day of the battle of Cannae, August 2, in the year 216 BC, round objects and others shaped like ships were seen in the sky over Apulia, and that this lasted all night all. On the ground, says the author, it was possible to distinguish white shapes moving aboard these objects, standing so close to the earth that one could observe them in detail at one’s leisure. (my trans.)
But here’s the kicker: Vallée and Aubeck don’t understand the Italian, or never read it, and they mistranslate (or perhaps quote someone else mistranslating) the word “altar” (ara) as “plow” (aratro)! “On the edge of such objects were seen men dressed in white, like clergymen around a plow.” Some sources attribute the translation to the 1967 revision of Harold T. Wilkins’s Flying Saucers on the Attack, a notorious source of bad quotations, but I haven’t seen that edition and can’t confirm it.