Ancient History & Civilisation

ITALY AND THE BATTLE FOR THE GODS

In 207 BC, while the situation in Spain looked increasingly favourable for the Romans, in Italy ominous prodigies had once again been widely witnessed: at Veii showers of stones were reported; at Menturnae the temple of Jupiter had been struck by lightning; and at Capua a wolf had stolen into the city and savaged one of the sentries. Most dramatically, at Frusino a hermaphrodite child was born the same size as a four-year-old. Diviners summoned from Etruria announced that the monstrous infant should be banished from Roman territory without any contact with the earth. After being placed in a box, therefore, the unfortunate child was taken out to sea and thrown overboard. The priests of Rome also decreed that three bands of nine virgins should process through the city chanting a hymn written for the occasion by the Tarentine poet Livius Andronicus. Andronicus was a shrewd choice for two reasons. He had written the first-ever Roman play, which had been publicly commissioned and first performed in 240 in celebration of the victorious conclusion of the First Punic War, and he and his work therefore stood as a symbol of Roman triumph over Carthage. As a Tarentine who wrote in Greek, furthermore, he represented Rome’s strong links with the western-Greek world–links put under great strain, and in some cases completely severed, during the course of the war with Hannibal. For the Romans, again, re-establishing proper relations with the gods also demanded recapturing the propaganda initiative from the Carthaginians.

Soon after events at Frusino, the temple of Juno Regina on Rome’s Aventine Hill was struck by lightning. In response to her apparent anger, the goddess was propitiated with a solid-gold basin, paid for out of the dowries of the matrons of Rome, and celebrated with solemn sacrifices.106 Juno’s implacable hostility to the Romans (and favour for the Carthaginians) became a very familiar theme in later Roman literature,107 but this was the first public acknowledgement of that supposed enmity. Contemporary evidence suggests that Hannibal was at least partly responsible for the development of this tradition. While later Roman writers would identify Juno and Tanit, in this period an association had already been drawn in central Italy between Iuni, the Etruscan version of Juno, and the Punic goddess Astarte (on the Pyrgi Tablets).108 On at least two occasions, Hannibal performed sacred rites at Lake Avernus, a volcanic-crater lake in Campania, widely thought to be the gateway to the underworld and sacred to Avernus, god of death, the husband of the goddess Juno Averna.109 While it seems likely that Hannibal was worshipping Astarte at Avernus (or perhaps her divine consort Melqart), the Romans may have perceived his actions as an attempt to win over Juno to the Carthaginian cause. The religious rituals conducted at the temple of Juno Regina, therefore, once again point to the success of Hannibal’s assault upon the sacred landscape of Italy.

The military situation was similarly portentous, for in the summer of 208 the two Roman consuls, Titus Quinctius Crispinus and Marcus Claudius Marcellus, had been killed.110 Marcellus’ signet ring had, furthermore, fallen into the hands of Hannibal, who then tried to use it to recapture the city of Salapia by sending a letter proclaiming the imminent arrival of the (in fact dead) Roman general. Crispinus, Marcellus’ consular colleague, had however managed before his death to warn the surrounding cities, so that when Hannibal arrived at Salapia he could not gain admittance, even with a contingent of Roman deserters placed deceptively in the vanguard.111 For the Romans it was crucial to prevent Hannibal and Hasdrubal from joining forces, and so Gaius Claudius Nero, one of the replacement consuls, was sent to contain the former in the south while his colleague Marcus Livius Salinator confronted the latter in the north. By early summer 207 Hasdrubal had successfully crossed the Alpine passes and reached the Po valley, with his army in good shape.112 For Rome this was a particularly dangerous moment, since the Latins, who had hitherto been loyal, had grown increasingly tired of the seemingly endless demands that were placed upon them, and in 208 twelve of the thirty Roman colonies in Latium had refused to provide subsidies and troops for the war effort.

After wasting precious time on a failed siege of the Roman colony of Placentia, Hasdrubal collected more supplies and Gallic troops before marching down the Adriatic coast. In Bruttium, Hannibal made preparations to go north to meet his brother. Although he managed to keep his army on the move, the Carthaginians suffered considerable losses when challenged by Roman forces on a number of occasions. Yet greater disaster awaited, however. A letter sent by Hasdrubal to Hannibal which outlined where the meeting between their respective armies should take place fell into Roman hands after the messengers mistakenly went to Roman-held Tarentum and were captured. After informing the Senate, the consul Claudius Nero secretly marched north with a considerable force, leaving the remaining Roman soldiers to obstruct Hannibal at the Apulian town of Canusium. After a series of forced marches, Nero reached the camp of his consular colleague Salinator at Sena Gallica in Umbria, close to where Hasdrubal was encamped. Despite Roman efforts to conceal the arrival of this new force, the Carthaginian general realized that something was wrong and hastily tried to retreat. However, his guides deserted, and the Romans were soon harrying the lost Carthaginian army as they searched for a place to cross the river Metaurus. The situation soon became so desperate that Hasdrubal was forced to make a stand. After brave resistance the Carthaginian lines were eventually broken, and Hasdrubal, knowing that all was lost, charged into the Roman lines and was killed.113 Tragically, Hannibal learned of the defeat through the sight of his brother’s severed head being hurled before his lines. With the prospect of victory fast disappearing, he mustered his army and retreated to his enclave in Bruttium.114 There he remained for the next few years living like a minor Hellenistic princeling, surrounded by the wreckage of his Italian dreams.115

Hannibal’s misery was now compounded by the return of the victorious Scipio from Spain. Despite a masterful stage-managed account of his victories in front of the Senate at the temple of Bellona, and war booty totalling a massive 6,500 kilograms of silver, Scipio nevertheless failed to obtain a triumph, for he had never held a senior magistracy. Such was his popularity, however, that he easily won the election for the consulship in 205.

Scipio now pushed hard to be granted North Africa as his field of operation, for he believed that the Carthaginians would be finished off only if defeated in their homeland.116 Others, led by Fabius Maximus, wanted to concentrate on first driving Hannibal out of Italy, but eventually, after an increasingly heated debate, a compromise was reached. Scipio was allotted Sicily as his theatre of command, but with the proviso that he could attack North Africa if it served the Senate’s interests. His consular colleague, Publius Licinius Crassus, was to remain in Italy and keep the pressure on Hannibal.117 This arrangement clearly favoured Scipio, and his senatorial opponents therefore tried to hamper his war preparations by refusing him the right to levy troops. Many, however, simply volunteered to fight under him, and a number of loyal Italian states provided timber for ships, as well as corn and munitions. Scipio was thus able to proceed to Sicily to train his army for the battle in North Africa.118

Defeated in Spain, Hannibal’s brother Mago landed at Liguria in the spring of 205, bringing with him 12,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. By that summer, after receiving further reinforcements from Carthage and from among the Gauls and Ligurians, he was ready to move south. The Romans, however, now experienced in dealing with such a threat, simply blocked both sides of the Apennines, meaning that for the next two years Mago and his army were effectively trapped in northern Italy.119 Hannibal also could do little but wait in his enclave at Bruttium, for he found himself increasingly blockaded both by sea and by land. 120 In the summer of 205 eighty Carthaginian transport ships bound for Bruttium were captured, and no help could be expected from his ‘ally’ Philip of Macedon:121 through a series of treaties with Philip’s enemies in Greece and Asia Minor the Romans had cleverly ensured that Philip was far too preoccupied at home to contemplate an intervention,122 and in 205, with the pressure mounting, he had hastily sued for peace with Rome and its allies, thereby jettisoning his previous treaty with Carthage.123

The Roman Senate now sensed that the fragile alliance of Carthaginians, Italians and Greeks which Hannibal had constructed was poised to dissolve. It therefore undertook two ideologically charged missions which brilliantly emphasized the cultural links between Rome, Italy and Greece. The Senate now decided to fulfil the promise of a share in the booty for the oracle at Delphi made over ten years previously. Two ambassadors were sent over to Greece with a golden wreath weighing 90 kilograms and other silver trophies from the spoils of the victory over Hasdrubal.124 Around the same time, a high-ranking Roman delegation was making its way eastward to receive a religious relic from Attalus, king of Pergamum. The object which they were to bring back to their city was a sacred stone of the earth goddess, Cybele (whom the Romans called Magna Mater, ‘the Great Mother’). Earlier in 205, continued religious portents had led to another consultation of the sacred Sibylline books. Found within their hallowed pages was a prophecy that foretold the final defeat of Hannibal if the Magna Mater was returned to Rome.125 Some have puzzled at the timing of this prophecy, particularly as Hannibal was by now a spent force.126 But great unease still lingered at Rome long after final victory on the battlefield seemed assured.

Indeed, Hannibal’s most lasting impact on Rome was not the bloody defeats that he inflicted on its legions at the Trebia, Lake Trasimene or Cannae, but his successful appropriation of much of the mythological legacy (particularly the Heraclean legacy) that had acted as the keystone both in Rome’s cultural and political affiliation with the Greek world and in its subsequent claims to the leadership of the central and western Mediterranean. The missions both to Delphi and, in particular, to bring back the Magna Mater therefore marked the beginnings of a protracted exorcism of the doubts and insecurities that Hannibal and his advisers had so skilfully planted in the collective consciousness of the Roman elite. The original home of the Magna Mater had been Mount Ida near Troy, and later myth would claim that Aeneas and his followers had once taken refuge there at the beginning of the journey to Rome.127 The journey to Pergamum and the negotiations for the sacred stone were thus a very public reaffirmation of Rome’s heritage within the wider Hellenistic world, and by extension a reiteration of the historical and cultural connections that Hannibal had worked so hard to dismantle.

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