Meantime Rome had successfully weathered the storm in Italy. After the recapture of Tarentum in 209 the people were eager to make a final effort to end the war in Italy. The energetic Marcellus was elected consul for the fourth time for 208; his colleague, T. Quinctius Crispinus, had served under him at Syracuse. The two consuls encamped near Hannibal and it looked as if they might risk a battle. But while out reconnoitring they fell into an ambush; Marcellus was killed and Crispinus was mortally wounded.4 In this unimportant skirmish Rome lost one of her best generals; it would be hard to replace the energy and dash of Marcellus, who alone seemed ready to cross swords with Hannibal. No further effort was made to renew the projected offensive, especially when news came that the commander at Tarentum had been defeated near Petelia, and later that Hannibal had driven off a Roman force which was besieging Locri. But the year was more successful abroad than in Italy. Laevinus, returning from a naval raid on the African coast, had defeated a Carthaginian squadron and captured 18 ships, and Scipio had won the battle of Baecula.
But news soon reached Rome that Hasdrubal had left Spain and was wintering in Gaul. True, Scipio was wisely keeping at bay the two other Carthaginian armies in Spain, but Hasdrubal might soon arrive in northern Italy with some 20,000 men. It was too hazardous for the Romans to attempt to check him, as they had tried to check Hannibal, at the Rhône, or even in the plains of northern Italy. Instead they must concentrate on central Italy and at all costs prevent him coming south to join Hannibal. The consuls elected for the critical year of 207 were C. Claudius Nero, who had served at Capua and in Spain, and M. Livius Salinator, who after conquering the Illyrians in 219 had withdrawn from public life. The legions, which for the last three years had dropped to twenty-one, were raised to twenty-three. While Nero held Hannibal at bay, Livius was to counter Hasdrubal’s arrival.
By the end of May Hasdrubal had crossed the Alps, probably by the same pass used by his brother, and reached the Po valley, where he raised his numbers to 30,000 by recruiting Gauls. After failing to take Placentia, which would have been of great value, he advanced south in the summer when the fields of central Italy would provide corn for his troops and forage for his horses. As in 217, the Romans stationed two legions under Terentius Varro at Arretium in Etruria and two more under a praetor Porcius at Ariminum in the east; but they improved on the previous plan by placing Livius south of the two advance armies near Narnia, where he could support either according to Hasdrubal’s movements. When it was clear that Hasdrubal was making for the Adriatic coast and the Via Flaminia, Porcius gradually withdrew while Livius hastened to join him, so that Hasdrubal found the united force of four legions awaiting him at the Metaurus.
Meanwhile Hannibal did not attempt to join his brother in northern Italy, and risk losing Bruttium, his only base in Italy. Instead the brothers hoped to meet in central Italy. Hannibal moved slowly northwards to Grumentum, where he found Nero and four legions.5 Here, and again at Venusia, skirmishes took place which Roman tradition magnified into victories. Faced by four legions and with two more behind him at Tarentum, Hannibal could not advance beyond Canusium without serious risk. But events played into the hands of the Romans, who learned from the capture of Hasdrubal’s despatch riders that the brothers intended to meet in Umbria. Claudius Nero then took a momentous decision. Leaving four legions to watch Hannibal he determined to join Livius in the hope of defeating Hasdrubal with their augmented forces and of returning to his southern command before Hannibal had realized his absence. He marched with 6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry along the coast road, which was shorter and where provisioning was easier, amid enthusiastic aid from the loyal population. At the river Metaurus he entered Livius’ camp by night, having covered 240 miles in six days according to the pro-Claudian tradition. In the morning a double bugle-call rang through the Roman camp and Hasdrubal knew that two consular armies lay over against him.
The Romans had encamped probably south of Fanum and the Metaurus where they could cover the coast road and watch the Via Flaminia without being forced to fight on the level ground near Fanum, where Hasdrubal had in vain offered battle to Livius. The arrival of Nero changed the situation. In face of superior numbers Hasdrubal could not force the coast road. He must either withdraw to northern Italy and await events, or stake all on marching inland along the Via Flaminia in the hope of joining Hannibal further south but with the risk of finding himself between two Roman armies. It is not certain which plan he favoured, but probably he chose the bolder one; he had before him the example of how Hannibal had successfully thrown himself between Flaminius and Servilius at Trasimene. In any case, Hasdrubal withdrew by night up the Metaurus valley, where he was overtaken by the Romans before he could cross the river. He was forced to fight. He posted his Gauls on a steep position on the left and massed his other troops and elephants on the right where he hoped to break the Roman line. But Nero, on the right wing, finding he could not engage the Gauls because of the ground, led a force round to support Livius on the left and thus outflanked the enemy. Seeing the day was lost Hasdrubal charged into the thick of battle and died fighting. ‘And it would not be just to take leave of this commander without one word of praise,’ wrote Polybius, who in a fitting tribute esteemed him a worthy son of Hamilcar and a worthy brother of Hannibal.6
Victory was complete; Rome had won an open battle in Italy for the first time during the war. The first serious attempt to reinforce Hannibal had failed. The relief was tremendous and the effect on Rome’s prestige in Italy instantaneous. The battle of Metaurus was a decisive moment in world history; it was Rome’s ‘Crowning mercy’. But had the result been otherwise, it would scarcely have ended the war. Rome, that had stood so much, could surely have braced herself for one more shock when the tide of war was turning in her favour elsewhere. But the joy at Rome was unbounded. Hastening back to the south, Nero, a member of the grim Claudian house, flung Hasdrubal’s head into his brother’s camp at Larinum. Thus learning the bitter news, Hannibal was forced to withdraw to Bruttium, unaided and alone.
The war in Italy began to hang fire and the centre of interest shifts to Africa, which the Romans were preparing to invade. In 206 the legions were reduced to twenty. Although there were thirteen in Italy itself, the consuls still feared to attack Hannibal, but the next year, while preparing for his African campaign, Scipio snatched Locri from Hannibal’s grasp. At the same time the Carthaginian government made one last attempt to help Hannibal and to keep Scipio in Italy. Mago sailed from the Balearic Isles and captured Genoa, where he received reinforcements from Carthage.7 This danger of a fresh invasion from the north was met by stationing armies at Arretium and Ariminum, as in 207. But Mago could not yet take the offensive; the Gallic tribes, abandoned by Hannibal and remembering the fate of Hasdrubal, were lukewarm, and it was a slow task to organize the hill tribes of Liguria. At length in 203 Mago advanced into the Po valley with some 30,000 men. One legion had been sent to Genoa, two more held the Boii at bay, while four advanced from Ariminum against him. After a serious engagement Mago withdrew wounded to the coast, where he found orders to return to Carthage, but he died on the voyage.
Meanwhile Hannibal had been holding on desperately in Bruttium like a lion at bay. Reinforcements from Carthage in 205 had been driven to Sardinia by a storm and there captured. Gradually one small town after another was wrested from Hannibal and he was even worsted in a skirmish near Croton, according to the Roman claim. All hope of success in Italy was dead; he could only try to prevent reinforcements being sent to Scipio who had invaded Africa, where success after success was reported. Finally, in the autumn of 203 he received orders to return home to defend Carthage. Having kept together a loyal army for fifteen years in an enemy’s country, undefeated, he at last evacuated Italy more sorrowfully than an exile leaving his native land. He had failed in an attempt to which he had devoted his life. Yet all was not lost, and he must have felt some eagerness in the thought that he was going to face in battle the most brilliant general Rome had produced, and that when they parted the fate of the civilized world would be decided.