‘The Roman people’, wrote Polybius, ‘are most formidable, collectively and individually, when they have real reason for alarm.’ The years which followed the battle of Trebia confirmed this. They put into the field for 217 eleven legions, some 100,000 men; five served as reserves in Rome, Sicily and Sardinia, two were assigned to Spain and four to North Italy. Scipio, who could not be blamed for Trebia, was continued in his command and sent to Spain; the new consuls, Cn. Servilius Geminus and the popular leader C. Flaminius, served in Italy. The election of Flaminius was a criticism by the people of the Senate’s conduct of the war.
The Romans determined to abandon the plains of northern Italy, where Hannibal’s cavalry and Gallic allies were most useful to him, and to defend central Italy; the fortresses in the Po valley could look after themselves. But they could not foresee where Hannibal would cross the Apennines. From Bononia (Bologna) to which he had advanced he could move either southwest, crossing by one of the numerous passes which led into Etruria, or south-east, marching to Ariminum (Rimini) and then along the via Flaminia. So the Senate wisely sent Flaminius to Arretium (Arezzo) to guard the western route while Servilius protected Ariminum, which was a strong strategic position where the Apennines reach the Adriatic and the northern plains terminate. From these two points the consuls could concentrate on any place at need and might even catch Hannibal between them. Though this division has been criticized, it was perhaps the wisest arrangement possible. The Romans might hope to hold fast to central Italy, where they had loyal allies, abundant supplies and knowledge of the country; and Hannibal would lack all these.
In May, when the passes were free from snow, Hannibal again abandoned his base and crossed the Apennines by the pass of Collina.5 This route descends at Pistoia. Between here and Faesulae (Fiesole) Hannibal encountered great difficulties in the marshes which were swollen by the flooding of the Arno and the melting snows. Riding on the sole surviving elephant and suffering intensely from ophthalmia from which he lost the sight of one eye, he got his army through in four days, though with loss. After resting he recommenced his march southwards, ravaging the land as he went. Contrary to the advice of some of his staff, Flaminius determined to follow; if he had waited for and joined Servilius, the combined Roman armies might have caught Hannibal between themselves and the troops in Rome. But Hannibal, reckoning on Flaminius’ rashness, deliberately drew him on by exposing his flank as he marched to Cortona. The Roman, however, was not quite the headstrong fool that tradition has painted him; he declined battle and hung on Hannibal’s tracks.6 But to follow closely with his smaller force was dangerous, especially as Hannibal’s superior cavalry could prevent adequate reconnoitring – a fact which in some way modifies the blame attaching to Flaminius for the disaster that befell. For Hannibal set yet another trap by suddenly swinging off the road to Rome eastwards towards Perugia along the north shore of Lake Trasimene. Here was a narrow defile with the hills coming right down to the lake except round a small plain over three miles long. On the hills above this plain Hannibal placed his troops in ambush.7 Flaminius followed blindly. Early on a misty morning his army marched in column into the defile. Signalling from the hilltops above the mist Hannibal’s troops rushed down simultaneously from all sides. For two hours the fight raged. Flaminius paid for his rashness by meeting a hero’s death. Some 6,000 men in the front cut their way through the enemy but were later rounded up. The disaster was complete; nearly two legions were wiped out, although Hannibal granted the surviving Roman allies their freedom. There was no disguising the gravity of the occasion and in Rome a praetor announced laconically: ‘We have been beaten in a great battle.’
Hannibal followed up the victory by sending his cavalry leader, Maharbal, against an advance guard of 4,000 of Servilius’ horsemen who were riding hot-spur down the Via Flaminia. They were surprised and destroyed near Assisi.8 But this crowning success must have been qualified for Hannibal by the obstinate fact that no towns of Umbria or Etruria opened their gates to him. A saviour from Rome’s tyranny was at hand but they would have none of him. Knowing that an attempt on Rome itself would be vain, although the way thither lay open, he turned instead over the Apennines to Picenum, where he could rest men and horses. Then with fire and sword he blazed his way to Apulia and ravaged the territory of Luceria and Arpi. But once again the towns barred their gates.
The disaster of Trasimene caused such a crisis in Rome that the traditional remedy of appointing a dictator, unused for thirty years, was revived. As one consul was dead and the other cut off from Rome, the task was assigned to the Comitia Centuriata, which elected a man of wide experience and well-known caution, Q. Fabius Maximus. The Comitia, not the dictator, then appointed the Master of the Horse, M. Minucius Rufus. The essence of the dictatorship was absolute power, but now the power of the Master of the Horse, though subordinate, derived from the people and not from the dictator himself. Whatever the explanation of this hampering of the dictator’s power may have been – distrust of reviving the office, popular demands, or the rivalry of the noble families – it did not work well. Fabius first restored the morale of the people by some religious celebrations, and then stated his policy: to dog Hannibal’s heels and avoid pitched battles at all cost. He took over Servilius’ army and marching to Apulia camped at Aecae near the enemy at Vibinum. Hannibal, unable to bring about a decisive outcome, struck through Samnium past Beneventum into Campania, one of the most fertile regions of Italy. Fabius followed and looked on while Rome’s allies were unsupported and their land laid waste. Such a strategy of exhaustion was only justified as a temporary expedient; the Romans could still trust in the invincibility of their legions, so a breathing space was only permissible until Hannibal could be manoeuvred on to favourable ground. The situation was changed by the disaster at Cannae the following year, but now Fabius had to offer very solid recompense for the severe economic and moral loss which his strategy inflicted on the Roman cause. At length came the chance to prove the wisdom of his policy. Hannibal wished to withdraw to Apulia for the winter, but Fabius himself held Callicula, the pass by which Hannibal hoped to leave Campania.9 Here was the opportunity to force him to battle on ground which would hinder his cavalry and where the Roman legions fighting in close order might anticipate success. But the over-cautious Fabius was outwitted as easily as the impetuous Flaminius. By a famous ruse, Hannibal at night drove 2,000 oxen with burning faggots tied to their horns towards Fabius’ camp on the high ground; the pickets left the pass to investigate and under cover of the resultant surprise and confusion Hannibal slipped through. He marched back to Apulia, crossing the Apennines for the fourth time that year, and captured Gerunium near Luceria. Yet though his army was laden with booty, no city in Campania had revolted to him.
All this time opposition to Fabius’ policy had been growing, though with courageous tenacity of purpose he had turned a deaf ear. No sooner was he summoned to Rome to confer with the Senate than Minucius, who had followed Hannibal to Gerunium, disobeyed Fabius’ orders and attacked with considerable success, forcing Hannibal to change his camp. In Rome Fabius vainly tried to check popular discontent by getting Atilius Regulus elected consul in Flaminius’s place, but the people demanded that Minucius should be made co-dictator with Fabius, an extraordinary undermining of the very nature of the dictatorship, which thus soon fell into disuse. When, after this political upheaval, Fabius returned to Minucius, the army was divided into two camps. Hannibal, counting on the discord of the Roman generals and on Minucius’ desire for battle, soon drew him into an engagement which would, it is said, have proved disastrous but for the timely help of Fabius. Again the aristocratic tradition has perhaps exaggerated the danger of Minucius, the popular favourite, and the importance of Fabius’ help; in any case Fabius allowed the Carthaginians to retire unopposed.10 But Fabius’ period of office soon expired, and the consuls, Servilius and Regulus, took over the command at Gerunium.
The consuls elected for 216 were the aristocrat L. Aemilius Paullus and the popular leader C. Terentius Varro who was a novus homo; the aristocratic tradition deals with him no more kindly than with his predecessors Flaminius and Minucius. He is represented as a radical demagogue opposed to the Senate, but his career shows that he enjoyed its confidence. Tradition made him the scapegoat of the disaster of Cannae, but he was scarcely more culpable than his colleague. He was decried as a butcher’s son, as Cromwell was called a brewer, but he did not lack sterling qualities.
Suddenly came news that Hannibal had captured the Roman post at Cannae on the right bank of the Aufidus. Though he had carefully chosen a position in the plains by the Adriatic where his cavalry would have full scope, the Romans decided to give battle. The new consuls advanced to Cannae with their four legions slightly reinforced. Hidebound by tradition and hampered by practical difficulties, they probably did not unduly increase their usual force, as they still trusted in the quality of their troops. They outnumberedHannibal’s infantry, though they had few cavalry. Reaching the Aufidus they camped probably on the left bank not far from Cannae. Hannibal was encamped on the other bank some three miles higher up near Cannae. The Romans then formed a smaller camp on the right bank, as a protecting outpost. At this Hannibal transferred his camp to the north bank.11 It was probably early in August that both armies crossed the river to battle. The Romans disposed their cavalry on the wings and massed their infantry in deep and close formation in the centre where they hoped to break the foe; they relied on their weight and push. To meet this Hannibal trusted the elasticity of his formation. He drew up his line in crescent shape. The Gauls and Spaniards held the centre; on their flanks en échelonbehind them stood the African troops; the cavalry held the wings. As he expected, his cavalry was successful; the left wing of Spanish and Gallic horse defeated the Roman right, and began to surround the rear of the infantry, while a detachment was sent to help complete the defeat of the Roman left wing. Meanwhile the Roman infantry gradually forced back Hannibal’s centre; if it broke before the cavalry could assail the Roman rear, Hannibal had lost the battle and probably the war. But the retreating Gauls held firm and the Roman centre was gradually drawn into a trap: Hannibal’s crescent was now becoming a hollow, while the Africans began to encircle the Romans flanks. This encirclement was completed when the Carthaginian cavalry assailed the rear. The Romans, massed together and unable to move, were completely surrounded and cut to pieces. Aemilius, Minucius, Servilius and some 25,000 men fell; 10,000 were captured, while perhaps 15,000 escaped, including Varro. The enemy lost only 5,700. So ended the greatest battle the Romans had yet fought. Rome’s prestige in Italy was shaken. Many towns in Samnium and Apulia and nearly all Lucania and Bruttium revolted to Hannibal; and, worse still, in the autumn Capua, the second city in Italy, and other Campanian towns followed suit. But the whole of Latium, Umbria and Etruria remained loyal. And Rome herself was safe; Hannibal dared not march against her walls.
Cannae showed with tragic clearness that Rome must now abandon any attempt to seek out the main armed forces of the enemy and that Fabius’ strategy of exhaustion must be rigorously followed. As Rome refused to accept defeat, Hannibal could only persevere in trying to break up her Italian Confederacy. But instead of asking his home government for further reinforcements for this task, he advised or acquiesced in a new Carthaginian strategy. This aimed at embarrassing Rome still further by extending the theatres of war and by raising up a circle of enemies around her. In the west the war was to be prosecuted vigorously in Spain and a landing effected in Sardinia; in the north were the hostile Gauls; in the east an alliance was sought with Philip of Macedon who would attempt to drive the Romans from Illyria; in the south the Greek cities of Sicily would be encouraged to revolt to Carthage, more readily when she was allied with Philip. Thus from all sides Carthage sought to encompass Rome, and before the fortunes-of Hannibal in Italy are followed further, the new theatres of war in Spain, Sardinia, Macedon, and Sicily must be viewed.