I want to thank “nablator” for sharing in the comments to yesterday’s blog post the impressive critical analysis of ufologists’ claims for ancient accounts of marvels in the sky by French UFO skeptic Dominique Caudron. Unfortunately, this very thorough research is available only in French, and I sincerely hope that Caudron will someday make the same pages available in English. Caudron does journeyman’s labor exposing the slipshod research and outright fraud that goes into creating modern legends about ancient UFO sightings. Today I’d like to highlight Caudron’s terrific research into the alleged occupied spaceship seen by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE. It’s a bizarre story of fraud and mindless copying.
The story starts in August 1967, when an Italian UFO magazine, Cielo e Terra (Sky and Earth), published the following paragraph, which I translate here into English:
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.”
According to Caudron, the Cielo e Terra magazine didn’t gain its name until 1969, and I do not know whether the year of publication or the title of the magazine is given incorrectly in the many internet citations of this “fact.”
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)
None of this appears in any ancient source (it is a wildly distorted rendering of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ History of Alexander 4.3), but as you can see Fenoglio claimed that he had access to a secret and unknown source that recorded the “true” history of Alexander’s battle! Raymond Drake, translating this passage into English for his readers, mistakenly attributed it to Droysen—omitting the conspiracy Fenoglio meant to imply! That said, Caudron is wrong in attributing the invention of this claim to Fenoglio. He, in turn, borrowed it from Frank Edwards’s Stranger than Science (1959), and he expanded and developed Edwards’s fictive reference to two (not five) fire-spitting UFOs that panicked Alexander’s elephants, a story I wonder if Edwards borrowed from the Mahabharata at 7.202 (201 in this edition). Fenoglio took the geographically uncertain version from Edwards and applied it to the siege of Tyre.
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.)
It’s rather surprising that given the copying that occurs in fringe literature that the story didn’t cross over into the English speaking world, while in France it apparently had a long life of being repeated from Tarade’s version (though sometimes confusing Cannae for the more famous French city of Cannes). In 2009, Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck published a translation of the Cielo e Terra text, though they noted that they included it in their anthology “with reservations” because they could not confirm its authenticity and “acknowledged possible confusion” with the texts given in Livy!
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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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