Ancient History & Civilisation


At Rome also the war effort was causing significant economic strain. After a series of devaluations in 217 and the subsequent emergency production of an issue of gold currency, the coinage system was thoroughly reorganized. Yet even this firm action did not shield the new silver denarius, the centrepiece of the new currency, from two subsequent devaluations. Even a doubling of the tax rates, large loans from Hiero of Syracuse and the establishing of a state bank had not been enough to meet the escalating cost of the war, and by 215 loans with an added risk premium had to be arranged with private tax-gathering syndicates. Furthermore, edicts were passed in 214 and 210 which put in place enforced progressive taxation of Rome’s wealthiest citizens specifically to pay for the fitting out of Rome’s navy.37

The catastrophic defeats of 217/216 forced a reform of the military. The terrible losses in the legions were offset by the recruitment of those who had previously been ineligible for military service. Thus the new legions included slaves and criminals, and there may also have been a lowering of the requisite property requirement in order to include the Roman poor. Indeed, at its peak, it is thought that the Roman army during this period may have numbered as many as 100,000 infantry, 7,500 cavalry and an equal number of allied troops. Most importantly of all, there appears to have been a conscious effort to sustain more continuity in the senior command. Thus Fabius Maximus, who had previously caused Hannibal so many problems, would unusually hold a third, fourth and then a fifth consulship in 215, 214 and 209, while another three veteran commanders held the same office another two or three times between 215 and 209.38

Despite such reforms, the city nonetheless remained in the grip of a panic caused by the proximity of the Carthaginian army in southern Italy, a panic compounded by the appearance of a number of menacing religious portents. In 216 the decision had therefore been made to send the senator (and future historian) Quintus Fabius Pictor to the famous sanctuary of Delphi, to discover what prayers and supplications might appease the anger of the gods. The instructions with which Fabius Pictor returned from the oracle specified offerings to particular deities and stipulated that upon final victory the Romans should dedicate a portion of the war booty to Delphic Apollo.39 The decision to consult the oracle was a clever move on the part of the Senate: not only did it publicly affirm Rome’s cultural links with the Greek world (in the face of a Carthaginian attempt to undermine such links), it also made that affirmation at a time when Hannibal was menacing the cities of Magna Graecia. It therefore sought to re-establish firmly Rome’s Greek credentials. At the same time, however, the Romans now performed a religious rite which was unmistakably their own. Turning to their Books of Fate, they revived the terrible ritual whereby a Gallic man and woman and a Greek man and woman were buried alive in the Forum Boarium, in what Livy disapprovingly described as ‘a sacrifice wholly alien to the Roman spirit’.40 Roman human sacrifice was, however, not a crass anachronism, but something first recorded just a few years previously, in 228, when the city was faced by Gallic invasion.41 Its instigation now was surely a measure of the panic that Hannibal’s success had engendered in the city.

Hannibal spent much of 213 in the pleasant surroundings of Apulia and Campania, without making the impact for which he may have hoped. Furthermore, worrying news that the Romans were besieging Syracuse soon arrived. The city was ably defended by the extraordinary range of weapons developed by its chief engineer, Archimedes, the ancient’s world’s most brilliant geometrician, but by the spring of 212 the Roman commander, Marcellus, had not only managed to bring many rebellious cities to heel, but had also breached Syracuse’s outer fortification wall.42 Later in the summer the Romans also managed to beat off a substantial Punic Sicilian army, which was then further decimated by plague, killing the general Hippocrates.43 A further Carthaginian force sent to the island in an attempt to retrieve this deteriorating situation failed dismally,44 and even Epicydes, sensing the increasing hopelessness of the position, slipped away. After botched peace negotiations, Syracuse eventually fell to the Romans through the treachery of some mercenary leaders.45

Although the property of pro-Roman citizens was protected, the city was extensively looted and many were killed, including the great Archimedes (despite Marcellus’ specific instructions that he should be spared). The fall of Syracuse meant that Carthaginian hopes in Sicily were all but snuffed out, and the failure of the Sicilian revolt was a bitter blow.46 Not least, Carthage had invested heavily in it, even striking two very large issues of coinage specifically to be used during the campaign.47

For Hannibal, the loss of Syracuse and the decline of Carthaginian fortunes in Sicily was only one of a number of pressing problems, of which the most worrying was the Roman seizure of a number of towns in Apulia. And yet now, as so often before, just when the Italian campaign had begun to flounder, fortune decided to smile kindly on the Carthaginian general, for Tarentum, the most important city in Magna Graecia, dramatically capitulated. Both main historical sources for the Second Punic War carry such detailed descriptions of the events surrounding the capture of the city that it is generally accepted that such descriptions derived from the pen of Silenus.48

Tarentum had long been a target for Hannibal, but, although there were pro-Carthaginian sympathizers within its walls, they had never been strong enough to deliver the city. By 212, however, feelings were running high against Rome owing to an incident in which a number of Tarentine hostages had been executed by the Romans after trying to escape. Hannibal was at the time camped close to the city, when one evening a group of Tarentine young men left the town and approached the Carthaginian lines. Their leaders, Philemenus and Nicon, were brought before Hannibal and explained that they wished to surrender the city to him. After encouraging them and arranging a secret location for further meetings, Hannibal gave the Tarentine conspirators some cattle so that it would look as if they had successfully stolen them from his camp, thereby alleviating any suspicions on the part of the Roman guard. During a second rendezvous, an agreement was reached with the plotters that on the capture of the city the Carthaginians would respect all Tarentine rights and property.

Now an elaborate plan to capture the city by stealth was set in motion. Over a number of nights Philemenus, who was a renowned hunter, left the city purportedly looking for game. By giving some of his catch to the Roman sentries, he gained their trust enough that they would open the gate at the sound of his whistle. An evening when the commander of the Roman garrison was hosting a party was chosen for the seizure of the city. First, an elite Carthaginian force of 10,000 men left their camp and covered three days’ march in one session. Hannibal then carefully disguised this troop movement by sending a squadron of Numidian cavalry ahead so that it appeared that this was nothing more than a raid. Meanwhile, some of the Tarentine conspirators had attended the Roman commander’s party and ensured that the celebrations had gone on late into the night. Other plotters gathered around the main gate of Tarentum, and when a fire signal was given from outside by Hannibal they rushed the guards stationed there and killed them before admitting the waiting Carthaginians. At the second gate, which Philemenus had used for his nocturnal forays, Hannibal’s troops burst in and killed the sentries while they were admiring Philemenus’ catch, a huge boar being carried on a stretcher. After ordering that all the citizens should be spared, Hannibal sent his troops to secure the city. Then at daybreak he summoned all the Tarentines to the marketplace and gave them assurances that they would not be harmed.49

While the spectacular capture of Tarentum led to an immediate revival in Carthaginian fortunes,50 it was however salted by two major difficulties. First, much of the city’s Roman garrison, including its commander, had managed to take refuge in the citadel, which stood in an almost unassailable position with access to the sea. There they would remain while Tarentum was in Carthaginian hands.51 Second, and far more seriously, Capua was now under siege by four Roman legions with orders from the Senate to remain there until the city was taken.52 In spring 211, after he had failed to break through the Roman encirclement, Hannibal’s hand was finally forced. Only one course of action could now draw Roman troops away from Capua. He would march on Rome.53

In order to ensure that the Latin cities understood that Rome could not now protect them, Hannibal left a trail of devastation as he marched north.54 In Rome, panic reigned as news of the Carthaginian advance reached the city, and Hannibal deliberately raised the level of hysteria by sending his Numidian horsemen to terrorize the refugees trying to flee there.55 Matters only got worse when a squadron of Numidian deserters who had been ordered by the Romans to mobilize against Hannibal’s force were mistaken for the enemy by the terrified citizens.56 Livy reported that ‘The wailing cry of the matrons was heard everywhere, not only in private houses but even in the temples. Here they knelt and swept the temple floors with their dishevelled hair and lifted up their hands to heaven in piteous entreaty to the gods that they would deliver the city of Rome out of the hands of the enemy and preserve its mothers and children from injury and outrage.’57 As a further indication of the seriousness of the situation, the Senate went into emergency sitting and troops were posted around the city.58

The panic reached its climax when Hannibal himself–seven years after first entering Italy–finally approached the walls of Rome at the Colline Gate, accompanied by 2,000 Numidian horsemen.59 If we believe the accounts of Polybius and Livy, however, what transpired next was something of an anticlimax. The former claims (unconvincingly) that the victor of Cannae was dissuaded from attacking the city by the appearance of a legion of battle-ready new recruits.60 In Livy’s account of the episode, however, Hannibal was discouraged by the onset of a severe hailstorm on consecutive days, which he took to be an unfavourable divine omen. He was supposedly further demoralized by the news that the Romans took his challenge so lightly that they were diverting troops to fight in Spain, and that the very land on which his army was camped had been recently sold at auction, with no shortage of Roman buyers, such was the confidence in victory. According to Livy, Hannibal responded by ordering a herald to auction off all the financiers’ pitches around the Roman forum.61

Both these accounts are based, however, on little more than wilful misunderstandings of Hannibal’s true motives. In terms of military strategy the march upon Rome had been a success, because 15,000 Roman troops, under the command of Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, had been summoned back from Capua to defend the city,62 even if neither Hannibal nor the Roman commanders expected an assault on it (Hannibal had, after all, left most of his heavy infantry and equipment behind at his base in Bruttium). More importantly, Hannibal’s presence at the walls of Rome served a crucial propagandistic function. One of the few references to have survived from the history of Silenus, Hannibal’s loyal chronicler, gives an extraordinary insight into the significance of the Carthaginian’s visit to the gates of Rome. In this fragment Silenus gives an account of Heracles’ sojourn in Rome which is markedly at variance with other tales of the hero’s visit.

In the Silenian version, Rome’s famous Palatine Hill was named after Palantho, daughter of Hyperboreos, the eponymous leader of the Hyperboreans, a mythical northern people. She had enjoyed a romantic liaison with Heracles on that very spot, and hence the hill had gained its name.63 In another tale, also thought to have derived from Silenus, Latinus, first king and founder of the Latin people, was the product of that same union between Palantho and Heracles.64 In the charged atmosphere of the Hannibalic war, this seemingly obscure point of history had very serious propagandistic implications. Silenus’ version of the prehistory of Rome directly contradicted the generally accepted Roman version of events, which told that Latinus’ mother was Fauna, the wife of Faunus, the indigenous king of the region.65 In Silenus’ account, furthermore, the Hyperboreans appear as a metaphor for the Gauls, the barbarous people whom Heracles himself had supposedly tamed on his journey across the Alps. Now Hannibal had crossed that great mountain chain with an army full of Gauls. It therefore looked as if ‘history’ would repeat itself, as Heracles and his Hyperboreans returned to the Palatine to claim what was rightfully theirs.66 Part of that Heraclean patrimony included the Latins, the product of the ancient union between the hero and his Hyperborean lover. Silenus’ reconception of Roman prehistory and the display of power which the destructive march to Rome represented were therefore part of the same determined campaign to detach the Latins from Rome. It was no coincidence that, as he approached the walls of Rome, Hannibal had first stopped at the temple of Hercules by the Colline Gate.67 He wanted those who looked on to know that a new Heracles had also journeyed there, with a divine mandate to free the region’s people from the heirs of Cacus who had terrorized them for so long.68

The decision taken by Fabius Maximus in 209/208 to have the temple of Hercules moved to the safety of the Capitol strongly suggests that Hannibal’s visit had been something of a propaganda coup.69 For all its ideological impact, however, the march on Rome had not achieved its major strategic aim, for at Capua in 211 the demoralized Senate had nonetheless surrendered to the Roman army, and paid a heavy price for its treachery. Anxious to make an example of the city, the Romans rounded up the leaders of the pro-Carthaginian faction and then scourged and executed them. All the other citizens were sold into slavery. The city itself was not completely destroyed, but was allowed to carry on as a humble agricultural market town under the direct rule of Roman officials, a mere shadow of its former self.70 Indeed, the name of Capua was thereafter associated in the Roman imagination with the conceit of pride and the dangers of ambition.71

The impact of the loss of Capua was felt across the region, with a number of other Carthaginian-held towns falling to the Romans. Hannibal continued to enjoy some military success, however, most notably the defeat of a Roman army at Herdonea in 210, which resulted in the death of its general the proconsul Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus, many of his senior officers and thousands of troops.72 But by 209 even Tarentum had been lost, and the enormous amount of war booty captured from the city helped rescue Rome from the financial crisis in which it had been embroiled.73

The Romans now fought back in other ways. Fabius Maximus, the victorious Roman general, placed a colossal statue of Heracles captured at Tarentum on the Capitol, near to a bronze equestrian statue of himself.74 The relocation of the statue not only played to Fabius’ much trumpeted family connections to the hero, but also reclaimed Heracles for the Roman cause.

It was another member of the Fabii clan, Fabius Pictor, the senator who had been sent to Delphi in 216, who completed the first history of Rome by a Roman historian–his celebrated Annales (which has unfortunately not survived). Following the literary conventions of the day, Pictor wrote his opus in Greek. It is clear that he had read the western-Greek historians, such as Timaeus and Philinus, and had accepted the theory that the Romans were the descendants of the Trojans. Yet at the same time Pictor construed his work as a radical departure from the Greek-authored works that had preceded it. This was unashamedly a Roman history.75 As well as highlighting his use of Roman documentary sources for his research, Pictor also provided careful explanations of archaic Roman customs.76 The strong emphasis on traditional Roman culture was further underlined by the presentation of the work in the form of annals, a kind of official record traditionally used by the Romans to set down election results, religious ceremonies and other official notices.77 Despite the Romanocentric hue of his work, however, Pictor, who was a committed philhellene, wrote with a Greek as well as an educated Roman audience in mind.78 Indeed, one of the major aims of his project was to remind the inhabitants of mainland Greece and Magna Graecia that Rome had a distinguished past which represented far more than a pale reflection of the Hellenic world.79

The statement of Rome’s cultural equality to Greece was, however, only one part of Fabius Pictor’s agenda. He wrote his history during some of the most difficult moments of the war against Hannibal, probably finishing it around 210.80 The first Roman history was thus written at a time when the Romans were bearing the brunt of a moralesapping assault not only on the battlefield, but also on their collective identity. Their relationships with their gods, their allies and the wider Mediterranean world had all been called into question by potent Carthaginian propaganda. Indeed, it is probably the Hannibalic context which explains Polybius’ complaint that Pictor showed too much of a pro-Roman bias in his work.81 In this time of crisis, Pictor attempted to show both Rome and its allies just how spectacularly successful the Romans had been.82

After relating the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans in Italy, Pictor’s Annales described their first foundation at Alba Longa, the eventual establishment of Rome just to the north of this, and other traditional stories such as the rape of the Sabine women.83 Those stories stressed not only Rome’s antiquity but also its historic and deep-seated ties with the other cities of Latium, key allies in the fight against Hannibal. Furthermore, the cultural links between southern Greeks and Romans were consolidated by reference to Evander, the leader of the Arcadian Greeks who had first settled the site of Rome.84 Most significantly of all, Pictor is accredited with having given a detailed description of the activities of Hercules, presumably in Italy and specifically at the site of Rome.85 Within the context of Hannibal’s own particular claims to the Heraclean mantle, that description represented an attempt to resituate the legend firmly within Roman foundational history.

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