Ancient History & Civilisation


The great Alpine trial was now at an end, and the plains of northern Italy stretched out before the Carthaginian army. Yet heroic grandeur and the element of surprise had come at a high price. The journey that had taken the Carthaginian army from Spain to northern Italy had been epic in every sense, including the scale of human loss. Hannibal had left the Iberian peninsula with 50,000 foot and 9,000 horse, but by the time he had reached the river Rhône those numbers had dwindled to 38,000 and 8,000 respectively. The crossing of the Alps had cut those figures down to just 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry.31 Whether or not the original size of the Carthaginian army was exaggerated, the collateral damage of Hannibal’s Alpine crossing was as breathtaking as his feats of valour. Like many armies on epic journeys, however, the majority of soldiers were lost not to enemy steel, the cold, hunger or, in this case, even the steep precipices of the Alpine peaks. Many, confronted by extreme hardship, exertion and danger, had simply deserted. But, for all the losses, there could no doubt that this daring enterprise had been a glittering success. After all, new troops could now be recruited and supplies gathered. More importantly, if the Hellenistic world and the Italian city states had not taken the young Carthaginian general seriously before, they certainly would now.

Before the battle for Italy began, however, Hannibal engaged in a little housekeeping. The loyalty, or at least the compliance, of the Celts could not be guaranteed by blandishments and expensive gifts alone. An example had to be made so that the price of hostility to the Carthaginian cause could be gauged and understood. Once the Roman armies were successfully engaged, there would be little time to keep the northern Celts in check. The Taurini, a tribe who had attempted to resist the Carthaginian advance, were picked out as the poor unfortunates who would provide the painful lesson. Their capital was besieged and soon taken, and its inhabitants–men, women and children–were massacred. Thus a brutal, bloody message which spelled out the consequences of resistance was sent out to the Gallic tribes. However, the massacre also served another purpose, for, as the final act of the great Alpine crossing, the slaughter of the Taurini stood as a further reminder of Hannibal’s claim to the lionskinned mantle of that great hero who had first tamed the wild peoples of this barbarous land.32

In Rome, the news that Hannibal had successfully crossed the Alps was met with grave alarm. The consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus was recalled from Sicily to assist his colleague Publius Cornelius Scipio, who was now marching towards the river Po in order to confront the Carthaginian army.33 Before the first confrontation between the two armies, at the river Ticinus, a tributary of the Po, Hannibal, in order to prepare his army psychologically for the hardships that undoubtedly lay ahead, took the unusual step of offering his Gallic prisoners the opportunity of freedom if they emerged victorious from a series of bouts of single combat. Previously he had ensured that these young men had been ill-treated and starved, in order to create the maximum impact when they were led out in front of his assembled troops. To exaggerate further the contrast between the present miserable plight of the captives and the possibilities which both triumph and defeat would offer, Hannibal also brought forth some suits of armour, rich military cloaks and horses as rewards for the victors. All the prisoners clamoured to take up Hannibal’s offer, for both victory and, through death, defeat offered release from their present servitude. After the bouts, the Carthaginian troops found themselves pitying those who had not been chosen for combat but remained captive even over those who had been killed. Polybius gives an account of what happened next:

When Hannibal had by this means produced the disposition he desired in the minds of his troops, he rose and told them that he had brought the prisoners before them with the purpose that, clearly seeing in the person of the others what they might themselves have to suffer, they would better understand the present crisis. ‘Fortune’, he said, ‘has brought you to a pass, she has locked you into a similar battlefield, and the prizes and prospects she offers you are the same. For either you must conquer, or die, or fall captive into the hands of your foes. For you the prize of victory is not to possess horses and cloaks, but to be the most envied of mankind, masters of all the wealth of Rome. The prize of death on the battlefield is to depart from life in the heat of the fight, struggling until your last breath for the noblest of objects and without having learned to know suffering. But what awaits those of you who are vanquished and for the love of life wish to flee, or who preserve their lives by any other means, is to have every evil and every misfortune as their fate. There is not one of you so dim and unreflecting as to hope to reach his home by flight, when he remembers the length of the road he traversed from his native land, the numbers of the enemies that lie between, and the size of the rivers he crossed. I beseech you, therefore, cut off as you are entirely from any such hope, to take the same view of your own situation that you have just expressed regarding that of others. For as you all considered both the victor and the dead fortunate and pitied the survivors, so now should you think about yourselves and go all of you to battle resolved to conquer if you can, and, if this be impossible, to die. And I implore you not to let the hope of living after defeat enter your minds at all. If you reason and decide as I urge upon you, it is clear that victory and safety will follow; for none ever who either by necessity or choice decided on such a course have been deceived in their hope of putting their enemies to flight. And when the enemy has the opposite hope, as is now the case with the Romans, most of them being sure of finding safety in flight as their homes are near at hand, it is evident that the courage of those who despair of safety will carry all before them.’34

Later, just before the battle, Hannibal called his men together for some final words of encouragement. He promised land, money, Carthaginian citizenship and freedom to the massed ranks of his troops if victorious. Then, as a sign of the inviolability of his oath, Hannibal picked up a lamb in one hand and a stone in the other and sent up a prayer to Baal Hammon and the other gods that they should kill him if he broke his word. He then dashed the animal’s brains out.35

The battle itself ended in a complete rout of the Roman forces. Hannibal, realizing the great advantage that he possessed in both numbers and quality of cavalry, had recalled the Numidian prince Maharbal and his squadron of 500 horsemen from a raiding mission. Perhaps overconfident in the ability of his javelin-throwers to keep the Carthaginian cavalry at bay, Scipio had placed them in front with his own horse in reserve, but the Roman cavalry were called quickly into action when the javelin-throwers retreated behind them. Eventually a party of Hannibal’s Numidian horse managed to outflank the Roman cavalry, and rode down the foot soldiers behind, who panicked and fled. The Roman horse soon followed. Matters were made worse for the Romans by the fact that Scipio was badly wounded, and Livy reports that the general’s 17-year-old son Publius, fighting in his first battle, saved the life of his father, although the historian also alludes to an alternative version of the events, in which Scipio suffered the indignity of being rescued by a Ligurian slave.36

In pain, and lacking confidence in his inexperienced troops, Scipio immediately ordered a Roman withdrawal from the area. Although the Romans managed to delay the Carthaginians’ advance by destroying their pontoon over the river, Hannibal quickly found a suitable place on the Po for his engineers to build another bridge. Meanwhile Scipio, feeling increasingly insecure after the desertion of a large contingent of Gallic troops and the betrayal of the town of Clastidium by its Italian commander, withdrew once more, across the river Trebia, and set up camp on high ground overlooking the east bank, where he waited for reinforcements.37

Eventually, in mid-December 218, Sempronius Longus arrived with fresh troops. Conscious that his term of office was drawing to a close, and with it the chance of a glorious triumph, Longus was impatient to engage the Carthaginian army in open battle, especially as his own troops appeared to have come off best in a number of minor skirmishes. In fact Hannibal had merely withdrawn his troops to near the Trebia, preferring to conserve his military strength for an encounter of his own choosing. The strategy had worked, because Longus, buoyed by these meaningless victories, was ready to commit his forces to a major confrontation. Scipio attempted to get his consular colleague to reconsider, arguing that their raw troops needed more training over the winter months, and that a period of inactivity would ensure that the notoriously fickle Gauls would start to question their new-found allegiance to Hannibal. Longus, however, was not to be deterred, and Hannibal did everything in his power to encourage a Roman attack.

After boosting Longus’ self-confidence, Hannibal now set the trap. Selecting an area between the two camps where plants and undergrowth covered the steep sides of a riverbank, he organized an ambush party of 1,000 horse and an equal number of foot under the command of his brother Mago. The next day at dawn he sent his Numidian cavalry across the Trebia, where they proceeded to provoke the Romans by hurling javelins and abuse at their camp. Predictably, Longus ordered his troops to pursue them. Although the whole Roman force forded the river and drew up into their battle lines in good order, the troops were cold, wet and hungry after being mobilized before they had breakfasted. In contrast, the Carthaginian troops had been well prepared and fed. Both sides appear to have had around 40,000 men each, and, although the heavily armed foot soldiers in the centre were evenly matched, once again Hannibal’s superior and more numerous cavalry easily bested their Roman counterparts, leaving the flanks of the Roman infantry exposed to attack. It was then that Mago’s small force launched its ambush on the rear of the Roman infantry. Around 10,000 Roman soldiers managed to fight their way out and make it to the nearby town of Placentia, but many others were killed.38

Longus escaped and subsequently tried to convince his fellow citizens that the defeat had occurred only because of the extreme weather conditions. However, few if any appear to have believed him.39 Meanwhile, it took Hannibal little time to persuade the Italian cities to desert the Romans. The Roman and Italian prisoners of war were treated in quite different ways: the former were put on starvation rations; the latter were treated well and eventually sent home. Before they left, Hannibal addressed them and said that ‘he had not come to make war on them, but on the Romans for their sakes; and therefore if they were wise they should embrace his friendship, for he had come first of all to re-establish the liberty of the peoples of Italy and also to help them to recover the cities and territories of which the Romans had deprived them.’40

The harsh winter of 218/217 granted the Romans some respite, for Hannibal lost a large number of men and horses to the bitter cold, as well as all but one of his elephants.41 After wintering in Bologna, the Carthaginians moved south and crossed the Apennines into Etruria. They suffered terribly as they spent four days and three nights tramping through terrain so marshy that it was impossible to set up camp. Hannibal, who rode on top of the one remaining elephant, was afflicted by opthalmia, which led eventually to blindness in one eye.42

In recognition of the threat that they now faced, the Romans had mobilized over 100,000 fighting men. Concerned that the Carthaginians might launch attacks on Rome’s new central-Mediterranean empire, it was decided to send two legions to defend Sicily and another to Sardinia. Two further legions were charged with the defence of Rome itself. The four legions, now under the split command of the two new consuls, Gaius Flaminius Nepos and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus, were reinforced to make up their losses to Hannibal in the previous year.

Flaminius was an impetuous and arrogant man, whom Hannibal immediately tried to goad into rash action by ravaging the agriculturally rich Chianti region where Flaminius and his army were stationed. He consequently managed to lure Flaminius and his army into the Borghetto pass, where on the shore of Lake Trasimene an ambush had been set. The mist of the early morning of 21 June 217 made visibility poor, and the Romans did not see the danger until it was too late. Chaos ensued, and over 15,000 Roman troops were cut down, including Flaminius himself. Some retreated into the waters of the lake, where they drowned in their heavy armour, and 6,000 troops who had survived surrendered when they realized the hopelessness of their situation.43 In his treatment of them, Hannibal continued his policy of distinguishing between Roman and Italian prisoners, for the latter were sent home without ransom, while the former languished in captivity. The Carthaginian general also had the superior Roman heavy armour and weapons collected up and redistributed to his own Libyan infantry.44 A few days later the other consul, Geminus, lost virtually all his cavalry as another surprise attack rendered his force virtually worthless.45

According to Livy, the news that arrived in Rome after the Carthaginian victory told not only of military defeat, but also of strange and ominous portents in central Italy. Particularly notable are reports that blood had appeared in the sacred spring of Hercules at Caere, an apparent indication of the success with which Hannibal had associated himself with the hero.46 The Roman reaction, which consisted in offering up prayers at the shrine, certainly suggests an attempt to win Hercules back to the Roman cause.47 The battle for supremacy was thus being fought on both the temporal and the celestial plane.

Hannibal, recognizing the poor physical shape that his troops and animals were now in, decided to recuperate on the more clement Adriatic coast. According to Polybius, the Carthaginians had by that time captured so much booty that they had grave difficulty transporting it to their new base. After two years away from the sea, Hannibal now had the opportunity to send a message back to Carthage to inform the Council of his victories. The news was met with great celebration in North Africa, and Carthage sent back a message promising support for the campaign both in Italy and in Spain.48 In contrast, the mood in Rome was one of panic, as news of this latest and most terrible defeat trickled in with the survivors. The populace had thronged around the Forum Romanum and the Senate House, waiting for confirmation from the magistrates. On this occasion the disaster was such that no positive spin could be put on it. One of the praetors climbed on to the speaker’s rostrum and simply said, ‘Pugna magna victi sumus’–‘We have been defeated in a great battle.’49 With one consul dead and the other unable to return, the Romans decided to compromise Republican ideology and appoint a dictator, a temporary autocrat allowed by the constitution only in times of intense crisis. The people chose the vastly experienced Quintus Fabius Maximus, twice consul and once censor, with Marcus Minucius Felix to assist him as Master of the Horse.50

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