INVASION, 218-217 BC

The march to Italy was an epic in itself, but its details need not concern us here. When in November 218 the tired and weary survivors of the army came down from the Alps somewhere near modern Turin, there were only 6,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry left. Though few in number, these were the pick of the army, veterans of years of hard fighting in Spain, who were confident in themselves and their leaders. In time their numbers would be swollen by Gallic warriors from the area, whose tribes had already risen in rebellion against the Romans trying to colonize their territory.

The Roman Senate had not dreamed that the Carthaginians would attempt anything so rash as the invasion of Italy. Two senior magistrates, the consuls, were elected each year to provide both civil and military leadership for the State, and where these men were sent always indicated the Senate's priorities. In 218 one consul, Titus Sempronius Longus, was sent to Sicily to prepare an invasion of Africa, whilst the other, Publius Cornelius Scipio, was to take an army to Spain and confront Hannibal. In this way the Romans intended to attack Carthage itself and the Punic general who had started the war, putting maximum pressure on the enemy in an effort to force a decisive result. The Senate does not appear to have anticipated that the Carthaginians would do anything other than defend themselves. Ancient states and armies possessed very limited long distance intelligence and it was some time before the Romans found out what Hannibal was doing. Scipio’s expedition to Spain was delayed when some of his forces were diverted to face the Gallic rebels in the Po valley and others had to be recruited to replace them. When he finally began to ship his army to its destination, he stopped at Massilia (modern Marseilles), the Greek colony in Southern Gaul which was one of Rome’s oldest allies, to gather supplies and intelligence. The consul was shocked to discover that Hannibal's army was no longer in Spain, but at that moment crossing the River Rhone. A cavalry force sent out to reconnoitre bumped into a similar detachment of Numidian light cavalry from the Punic army and beat them in a brutal skirmish, but failed to discover much information about the enemy. Scipio disembarked his army and marched to confront Hannibal, only to find that he had moved on some days before, which was probably just as well, as the Romans were significantly outnumbered. He returned to the fleet, sent a report to the Senate and, after dispatching the bulk of his forces to Spain under the command of his elder brother Cnaeus, returned to Italy to take command of the troops already fighting the Gauls in the Po valley.

Next page: Hannibal's march to Italy was one of the great epics of the ancient worlds, rivalling the journeys and labours of Hercules, to whom the Carthaginian was sometimes compared. Even before he could begin his campaign against Rome, he had to defeat tribes in Spain and Gaul, as well as crossing physical obstacles such as rivers and mountains. His losses were heavy, but the best and most experienced soldiers completed the journey and proved a formidable fighting force. Some details of his route, and in particular the pass he took across the Alps, remain subjects of fierce dispute.

The Battle of Trebia was fought on this plain within a day or two of the winter solstice in 218. A Roman army half the size of the one which would fight at Cannae was destroyed here.

The news of Hannibal's march towards Italy stunned the Senate, and immediately prompted a change in the Roman plans. Sempronius Longus was recalled from Sicily and instructed to join forces with Scipio in Cisalpine Gaul to confront the invader. It took time to carry out this move and before this Hannibal arrived. Scipio behaved as aggressively as he had on the Rhone and immediately moved to fight the enemy in battle, but he was defeated in a cavalry engagement near the River Ticinus. Scipio's Roman, Italian and Gallic cavalry were outnumbered and enveloped by the Punic horse. As his troops fled the consul was badly wounded, and only escaped capture when his teenage son, also called Publius, led a body of horsemen to his rescue. The Roman army retreated in some disorder, destroying the bridge across the Ticinus and moving back to a position outside the Roman colony of Placentia (modem Piacenza). In December Scipio was joined by Sempronius Longus, who soon afterwards won an action which had escalated from a minor skirmish. Polybius praised Hannibal for accepting this minor defeat instead of feeding more and more troops into the fighting and allowing a battle to develop which was not under his control. Our sources now claim that there was a dispute between the two consuls, Scipio arguing for avoiding battle until the Roman soldiers had received more training, and Longus for an immediate battle. This caution seems out of character with Scipio's earlier boldness on the Rhone and before Ticinus. Perhaps his wound had depressed him, but it is more probable that his alleged opposition to fight a battle was intended by Polybius to exonerate him from blame for the subsequent defeat.

Sometime near the winter solstice, Sempronius was lured into fighting a battle on the open plain west of the River Trebia. Hannibal's army had grown to 10,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry, and thirty or so elephants. The Romans mustered around 36,000-38,000 infantry, but only 4,000 cavalry, many of them demoralized by their recent defeat at the Ticinus. Hannibal had chosen the ground carefully, concealing 2,000 men in a drainage ditch behind the Roman line. The Carthaginian cavalry was divided equally between the two wings, outnumbering their Roman counterparts by more than two to one. The flanks of his infantry line were reinforced by the elephants. In the ensuing battle the legions managed to punch through Hannibal’s centre, but first the Roman cavalry wings and then the flanks of their infantry were overwhelmed and collapsed. The 10,000 Romans who had led the attack in the centre were able to escape in good order, for Hannibal had no reserves to send against them, but the rest were captured, killed or scattered. This first great Carthaginian victory was a major shock to the Romans. Even more importantly it gave momentum to Hannibal’s campaigns and practical support as more and more Gauls joined his army or brought it supplies.

The remaining months of winter, when the weather was poor and it was virtually impossible for armies to feed men and horses in the field, saw the usual period of inactivity as both sides prepared for the spring campaign. It was clear to the Senate that Hannibal’s army must go one of two ways, since it could not ignore the great barrier formed by the Apennines. Therefore the two new consuls were positioned with their armies on either side of these mountains. Cnaeus Servilius Geminus was stationed at Ariminum (modern Rimini) in case Hannibal thrust down along the coastal plain of Eastern Italy, whilst Gaius Flaminius' force lay to the west of the mountains at Arretium in Etruria.

Neither of the consuls was really strong enough to face Hannibal on his own, and it was intended that the two armies would join forces as soon as it was clear which direction the enemy had taken. In the event Hannibal moved faster than the Romans expected and took an unorthodox route. He crossed the Apennines quickly, and then forced his army through the difficult marshy country around the River Arno. Before Flaminius was aware of his presence, Hannibal was past Arretium and heading south. The consul sent word to his colleague and led his army in pursuit.

Flaminius was a 'new man’ (novus homo), the first in his family to hold Rome's highest magistracy, which was usually dominated by a small group of aristocratic families. His career had been distinguished, for he had already been consul once before in 223, when he won a victory over the Gauls of the Po valley. It had also been highly unorthodox, and had won him many enemies, all ready to savage his reputation after his death. His disrespect for convention and proper ceremony was demonstrated by his decision to begin his year of office in 217 not at Rome, where consuls normally performed a series of religious rites, but actually with the army. Later he was depicted as dangerously rash, but the enthusiasm and confidence with which he pursued Hannibal's army was no less bold than that displayed by first Scipio and then Sempronius Longus in the previous campaign. Flaminius shared the anger of his men as they passed devastated villages and farms, burnt by Punic soldiers. Such devastation was normal in the wake of an invading army, but Hannibal had ordered his men to be especially brutal and thorough in their depredations. Rome and its allies were still fundamentally agrarian societies and the laying waste of their farmland was a serious blow, especially since an enemy’s freedom to cause such havoc suggested their own military weakness. Flaminius urged his army on to pursue ever more closely, telling his men that the enemy's reluctance to face them was the result of fear.

The Battle of Trebia was fought in December 218 and was the first time Hannibal faced a full Roman army in battle. The battle was fought on ground of his own choosing, and he was able to conceal 2.000 men commanded by his brother Mago in a drainage ditch behind the Roman lines. Having a significant numerical advantage in cavalry, he further strengthened his wings with war elephants. Although the Romans were able to break through his centre and escape, their flanks collapsed and the bulk of the army was destroyed.

Lake Trasimene today. On 21st June 217 Hannibal ambushed the army of Caius Flaminius as it marched along the narrow plain beside the shore. Almost the entire army was massacred or taken prisoner later in the day.

On the shores of Lake Trasimene, the route ran through a narrow plain between the shore and a line of hills. Hannibal's army marched along this with the Romans just within sight, but in the night it doubled back to take up ambush positions parallel to the road. The next day, 21 June 217 BC, the Roman army left camp at dawn to follow the enemy. Thick mist, common in the area at this time of year, added to the confusion as the Roman column was suddenly attacked in the flanks and rear, which prevented the creation of anything like an organized fighting line. The Romans fought hard, resisting for three hours, but the issue was never in doubt. In the end they were killed, captured or drowned as they tried to swim to safety across the lake. Flaminius was cut down by a Insubrian horseman, a representative of one of the tribes he had defeated in 223. Only the vanguard, some 6,000 men, failed to encounter serious opposition and escaped from the trap, but even these were subsequently rounded up by the victorious Carthaginians. Flaminius' army of 25,000-30,000 men had been effectively destroyed, but the cost of 1,500-2,500 Punic casualties testified to the struggle that some had managed to put up. The other consul, Geminus, was hastening to join Flaminius and had sent his cavalry on ahead. This force, nearly 4,000 men commanded by Gaius Centenius, was ambushed and killed or captured by the enemy before they learned of the disaster. Without its mounted arm, the second Roman army was for the moment crippled.

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