Enemy at the gates: the Second Punic War, 218–202 BC

Aggression and arrogance characterized Roman imperialism between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, a combination that frequently caused it to over-reach itself, straining its military power to the point where it was broken in defeat. The Greeks, of course, had words for this: hubris, meaning gross, violent and abusive behaviour born of overweening pride; and nemesis, the righteous indignation and retribution which hubris provoked. It was Rome’s bullying of its punch-drunk enemy during and after the First Punic War that inspired a new spirit and resolve in Carthage. And it was a new offensive in the north, against the Gauls of the Po Valley, that was to provide Carthage with powerful local allies when they launched a war of revanche.

Romans and Gauls had clashed violently in the Third Samnite War, and in its aftermath the territory of the Senones tribe, the so-called ager Gallicus, had been annexed. Fifty years later, with the passage of a new land law in 232 BC, Latin settlers began arriving in numbers, displacing local Gauls, who presumably escaped northwards as refugees to foster a sense of injustice and danger among their compatriots of the Po Valley. Who would be next?

In 225 BC, a great coalition of the Cisalpine tribes (those ‘on our side of the Alps’), supported by contingents from Transalpine Gaul (those ‘across the Alps’), mobilized an army of 70,000 warriors and invaded Roman Italy. The Romans, able to draw on the manpower and logistical resources of the whole Italian peninsula, raised 130,000 men against them. Though the Gauls promptly retreated across the Apennine passes into Etruria, the Romans eventually succeeded in manoeuvring them into a pitched battle. Undeterred by the odds, despite facing attack on two sides, the Gauls deployed with confidence. The sight of their great host was, according to Polybius, ‘awe-inspiring’. The Romans, though encouraged by their tactical advantage, were ‘at the same time dismayed by the splendid array of the Celtic host and the ear-splitting din which they created. There were countless horns and trumpets being blown simultaneously in their ranks, and as the whole army was also shouting its war-cries, there arose such a babel of sound that it seemed to come not only from the trumpets and the soldiers but from the whole of the surrounding countryside at once. Besides this, the aspect and the movements of the naked warriors in the front ranks made a terrifying spectacle. They were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life, and those in the leading companies were richly adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets.’(10) But the Battle of Telamon was a massacre. Though the Gallic shield-wall held for a time against attacks front and rear, it was broken by a furious Roman cavalry charge into its flanks. Polybius records that some 40,000 Gauls were killed and at least 10,000 captured. After this victory, the Romans conquered Cisalpine Gaul in a series of campaigns between 225 and 220 BC, consolidating their triumph by founding two new colonies on the middle Po at Cremona and Placentia.

Altogether, between the end of the Third Samnite War in 290 BC and the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 218 BC, the territory of the Roman Empire roughly doubled, with the addition of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Cisalpine Gaul. Some territories were integrated under traditional legal arrangements. Loyalists – like the rulers of Syracuse and Messina – were rewarded with nominal independence and ranked as ‘allies’ (socii). Rebels sometimes lost their land to Latin and Roman settlers brought in to form new ‘colonies’ (coloniae) – like Cremona and Placentia on the Po. But most new territory was organized into ‘provinces’ (provinciae), each governed by a Roman magistrate (at this time a praetor, the number of whom elected each year gradually increased in line with the growth of Empire), and most local inhabitants were reclassified as members of ‘foreign communities’ (civitates peregrinae): they were, in other words, mere subjects of the Roman state, obliged to pay tribute but denied political rights. Integration was problematic: the rapid expansion of the empire, the lack of rights for most new inhabitants, and the greed of the empire-builders sometimes combined to produce explosive revolts. Roman officials were often corrupt. Private profiteers had the contracts to collect taxes. Settlers grabbed the land of local peasants. Native chiefs were befuddled by loan sharks and ran up hopeless debts. Those who protested were beaten up by soldiers. As the reality of conquest and ‘foreign’ status sank in, a sullen anger often bubbled beneath surface calm, an anger that could flash into revolt if organized. Cisalpine Gaul was such a place, when, at the end of 218 BC, a Carthaginian army burst over the Alpine passes and entered the Po plain.

This army had marched from Spain, where the Barca faction had been busy building a new empire since 237 BC. Led first by the great Hamilcar, then by his son-in-law and former first lieutenant, Hasdrubal, the Carthaginians had won control of much of the Iberian peninsula, sometimes by military conquest, sometimes by diplomacy and alliances with the Spanish chieftains. The peninsula was a patchwork of peoples and tribes with an Iron Age culture, each group centred on a hill-fort girded by defensive walls of dry-stone masonry and mud-brick. The ancients described the inhabitants as ‘Celtiberians’, a fusion of native Iberians and incoming Celts from the north, and there is much archaeological and place-name evidence to support the idea of a hybrid culture spreading across Spain from the Pyrenees. Tribes near the east and south coasts were also recipients of limited influence from the Greek and Phoenician trading cities established there: imported wine carriers and ceramic table-services turn up at some of the larger hill-forts. The Celtiberians had a strong military tradition fostered by endemic tribal warfare and an impressive array of iron weapons. Their heavy infantry fought mainly as swordsmen, using either the curved falcata or the straight-sided gladius, both cut-and-thrust weapons designed for slashing and stabbing. They wore little or no armour, but carried large oval body-shields, and may also have been equipped with javelins. Certainly there were Spanish light infantry so armed, their javelins including a barbed variety made entirely of iron, and a short pilum, which had a narrow head and a long thin metal shaft designed to penetrate shields and armour. The Spanish way of war – as first encountered in the Second Punic War – was to have a profound impact on the Roman army. Thepilum and thegladius (the latter known to Roman soldiers as ‘the Spanish sword’) were both adopted by the legions.

Spain offered much to the Carthaginians: a barrier against further Roman expansion; mines that produced abundant copper and silver for paying mercenaries; a rich military recruiting-ground; and new markets for Carthaginian merchants. The conquests of the 230s and 220s, moreover, were no drain on the Carthaginian state: they were made to pay for themselves, and the new territories developed into a semi-independent Barca fiefdom, complete with its own capital city at New Carthage. Hamilcar probably envisaged Spain as the launch-pad for a war of revanche against Rome from the outset. Livy recounts an old story that implies as much: ‘Hamilcar, after the campaign in Africa, was about to carry his troops over to Spain, when Hannibal, then about nine years old, begged, with all the childish arts he could muster, to be allowed to accompany him; whereupon Hamilcar, who was preparing to offer sacrifice for a successful outcome, led the boy to the altar and made him solemnly swear, with his hand upon the sacred victim, that as soon as he was old enough he would be the enemy of the Roman people.’ Livy then explains that Hamilcar’s ultimate purpose in the conquest of Spain was ‘an enterprise of far greater moment’(11) that only his death in 229 BC prevented him seeing through.

But Roman writers have a reason to paint Carthage the aggressor. We cannot be sure of Hamilcar’s intentions. We do know that, while Carthage was fighting the Celtiberian tribes and Rome the Cisalpine Gauls, the two states’ relations were governed by an agreement that the River Ebro in north-east Spain should be the boundary of their respective spheres of influence. We know also that, contrary to this agreement, the Romans had an alliance with the city of Saguntum, which lay on the east coast far to the south of the Ebro line – deep within the Carthaginian sphere. Much has been written – apparently without irony – about the ‘defensive’ character of Roman imperialism, not least in relation to the dispute over Saguntum at the outbreak of the Second Punic War. Yet the facts are plain enough: Rome had no existing interests south of the Ebro when the alliance with Saguntum was made, and therefore the only possible interpretation of the alliance is that she was introducing a Trojan Horse into a Carthaginian preserve. It was as if the Carthaginians had formed an alliance with the Cisalpine Gauls. Though the implications of the Saguntine alliance have remained unclear to some modern scholars, they were not so to the Carthaginians at the time: Rome had imperial ambitions in Spain. As William Harris, author of the most thorough deconstruction of the theory of ‘defensive imperialism’, puts it: ‘A full explanation [of Rome’s conduct towards Carthage between the wars] must include the usual advantages which were expected from successful warfare and the aggressiveness with which these from time to time informed Roman conduct. Spain in particular was probably regarded by Roman senators as a rich prize that could be won in a war against Carthage. Hopes of glory, power and wealth, together with the habit of armed reaction to foreign opponents, mingled with what were seen as the needs of defence.’(12)

In 220 BC the alliance between Rome and Saguntum was activated. The Romans intervened in a dispute in the city to shore up the authority of the pro-Roman elements. Soon afterwards a Roman embassy appeared at New Carthage demanding a guarantee of Saguntine independence. The new Carthaginian commander in Spain sent home for advice on dealing with the crisis. He promptly received the authority he needed: the Carthaginian army moved against Saguntum and captured it in 219 BC after an eight-month siege.

The Romans had sent no military assistance to Saguntum. To have done so would have been a logistically hazardous enterprise. But this was of no great concern to them. Saguntum did not matter for itself, but as a casus belli. When they received news of the fall of the city, they sent a delegation to Carthage to demand the surrender of the Carthaginian commander in Spain and the restoration of Saguntine independence. Livy describes a dramatic scene on the floor of the house once the Carthaginian council of elders had rejected the Roman demands. ‘Fabius [leader of the Roman delegation], in answer, laid his hand on the fold of his toga, where he had gathered it to his breast, and, “Here,” he said, “we bring you peace and war. Take which you will.” Scarcely had he spoken, when the answer no less proudly rang out, “Whichever you please – we do not care.” Fabius let the gathered folds fall, and cried, “We give you war.” The Carthaginian senators replied, as one man, “We accept it; and in the same spirit we will fight it to the end.”’(13)

The Barca faction had got the war they may long have hoped and planned for, but it was the Romans who started the Second Punic War – by making an alliance with Saguntum, by intervening directly in its affairs, and by issuing an ultimatum when it was suppressed: all in violation of the Ebro agreement. But this time they had truly overreached themselves, grossly underestimating the strength of the Carthaginian empire in Spain, the size and professionalism of the Carthaginian army assembled there, and, above all, the brilliance of the young Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, whom the soldiers had acclaimed commander-in-chief after the assassination of his predecessor in 221 BC.

Aggressive intent and arrogant overconfidence – hubris – were implicit, too, in Rome’s military strategy at the start of the war. She planned to send one consular army to Spain, the other to Africa. Both were moving to their destinations when news reached their respective commanders that Hannibal had imposed his own grand strategy on the war. Sending 15,000 men to guard Africa, he crossed the Ebro with his main force and headed north. Leaving 11,000 men to hold north-eastern Spain, he crossed the Pyrenees and headed into Gaul with an army of 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry and 37 elephants. His final destination was the Po Valley, and his march there is one of the epics of military history. Gallic tribes contested his crossing of the Rhône and forced him into an unwanted battle. The Romans, diverted from their intended assault on Spain, landed at the mouth of the Rhône, defeated his cavalry, and drove inland looking for a fight; but the Carthaginian veered away northwards. Another Gallic tribe ambushed his army in a narrow Alpine pass; a desperately dangerous struggle ensued before the enemy was routed. Finally, snow and rockfalls turned the passage of the Alps into a nightmare trek in which thousands perished. When his army descended to the western edge of the Po Valley, it had shrivelled to less than half its original size. Those remaining were exhausted and isolated, adrift in hostile territory, threatened by winter cold, lack of supplies, and the imminent onset of powerful Roman armies coming by forced marches to the battle zone. A bold strategic move had left the Carthaginian cause hanging by a thread.

The whole world was watching. Especially the recently conquered tribes of Cisalpine Gaul were watching. Here was the key to unlocking the strategic door into Italy. A Carthaginian victory might set the region alight and provide the local allies needed to provide reinforcements, supplies, and bases for the winter. The consul Publius Cornelius Scipio, returning from his abortive landing in the Rhône delta, led out a strong force of cavalry and light infantry to reconnoitre and probe the Carthaginian position. Hannibal met them at the River Ticinus and immediately attacked with his much stronger cavalry, driving the Romans off with serious loss; the consul was wounded and had to be rescued by his own son. Scipio pulled his army back to Placentia on the middle Po, leaving Hannibal free to forage and recruit. But when the other Roman consul arrived with his army from the south – the intended conquerors of Africa – the Romans advanced again and pitched their camp close to Hannibal’s. It was late December and winter had set in – the coming Battle of the Trebia was to be fought in sub-zero temperatures and falling snow – but both sides were eager to fight.

The consuls commanded 40,000 men, mostly heavy infantry, plus good numbers of light infantry, though rather inadequate cavalry. The men were a mixture of Romans, Latins and allies. The Romans (probably also the Latins, and possibly some at least of the allies: we do not know) were organized into legions of 4,200 men, each composed of 1,200 velites (light javelin-throwers), 1,200 hastati (younger men serving as armoured heavy infantry with javelin, sword and body-shield), 1,200 principes (older men equipped in the same way), and 600 triarii (older still and armed with a long thrusting-spear instead of a javelin). Traditionally, these formed four distinct battle lines, the velites providing a screen of skirmishers in front, the hastati in the second line and, if they were needed, theprincipes in the third forming the main shock forces, the triarii a final reserve around which the army could rally in the event of disaster. This was still, however, an amateur army: despite regular drilling and weapons practice, the rank and file remained a militia of peasant farmers, the officers and generals upper-class politicians. It was an army easily goaded into battle on unfavourable terms.

Early one morning Hannibal sent his light cavalry up to the Roman camp to taunt their enemies. Sempronius Longus, the consul commanding that day, immediately led his men out – before breakfast in freezing winter weather – deployed them for battle, and led them forward to the attack. They faced a Carthaginian army of a size comparable to their own and with a large professional core. Hannibal himself had spent his youth and young manhood at war. He presided over a war council made up of veteran generals. The army he had brought from Spain was composed of long-service mercenaries. The Romans had deployed and advanced in the usual way. The Carthaginian deployment, by contrast, embodied a cunning tactical scheme. The superior Carthaginian horse was on the wings, made up of Numidian light javelin-throwers, and Carthaginian, Spanish and Gaulish heavy shock cavalry: about 10,000 in all. The infantry centre was held by newly recruited Gauls: tough fighters, but lacking discipline and the least reliable part of Hannibal’s army. Between the Gauls in the centre and the cavalry on the flanks, the infantry elite was stationed: Libyan spearmen and Spanish swordsmen. There were perhaps 20,000 heavy infantry in all, ranged in separate battle lines, each one many ranks deep. In front of each of the infantry flanks was a block of elephants (all 37 of which had survived the crossing of the Alps). Out in front was a skirmishing screen of 8,000 light infantry, including slingers from the Balearic Islands and javelin-throwers from Spain. Finally, hidden in a stream-bed on the edge of the battlefield were 2,000 picked men under a trusted marshal.

The battle went almost according to plan. The main weight of the Roman infantry attack fell on the Gauls in the centre, who gradually gave ground, drawing their enemies forwards after them. The much weaker Roman cavalry were swept away on the wings, and as the Carthaginian horse reformed and charged the exposed flanks of the legions, there were simultaneous attacks by the elephants and the Libyan and Spanish heavy foot. To complete the disaster, the concealed force emerged and plunged into the Roman rear. The Carthaginian victory would have been total had not the Gauls collapsed completely in the centre and fled, allowing 10,000 legionaries to break clean through to the far side of the battlefield and escape. Even so, the Romans lost 15,000 men; and would no doubt have lost many more but for cold, sleet and snow hindering the Carthaginian pursuit. The consuls and the rump of their army survived – retreating to Cremona and Placentia – but Hannibal ended the year master of the north. The war – Rome’s interminable war for empire – had come home with a vengeance.

The Roman strategic position was still strong, however. Africa and Spain were vulnerable to attack with the main Carthaginian army in the Po Valley, and there was every chance that Hannibal could be held there and denied entry into Italy, the real heartland of Roman power. Eleven legions were raised in 217 BC – an unprecedented number – and both consuls, with six of these legions, were sent north to block Hannibal’s anticipated invasion. (Roman sources count only Roman citizen legions. Typically at this time, a Roman army included equal or larger numbers of Latin and allied troops organized in their own contingents. The unit numbers quoted here should therefore be doubled.) For his part, Hannibal was eager for a new victory in Italy. Trebia had secured the allegiance of Cisalpine Gaul. A battle won in Etruria or Umbria might begin to break up the Italian core of Rome’s empire (so central was this aim that his standard practice was to release without ransom non-Roman POWs). The consul Gaius Flaminius – incompetent, witless, arrogant – was set on beating Hannibal before his colleague could arrive to share the glory. Hannibal lured him on, feigning a strategic retreat, until the Roman army was strung out for miles in a marching column between Lake Trasimene and high ground to the north. Suddenly, from the heights above them, sounding through an early morning mist, the legionaries heard the war-cries of tens of thousands of their enemies deployed for ambush in the defile. Within minutes the Roman column was engulfed, its way blocked front and rear, and under attack along its entire length. The Romans never had a chance to deploy, and within half an hour it was over, 15,000 dead (including the consul), 10,000 taken prisoner, a mere 6,000 escaping in the confusion.

The morale of the Roman ruling class collapsed. Quintus Fabius Maximus was elected dictator. Cautious and conservative, his solution to the crisis was to avoid pitched battle and wear down Hannibal’s forces in a long war of attrition: he was dubbed Cunctator– ‘the Delayer’. New legions were raised, but their role now was to shadow the enemy, to box him in, to harass his foragers, not to confront him in open battle. The armies marched the length of Italy laying it waste, the Romans employing scorched earth to deny Hannibal supplies, the Carthaginians plundering Rome’s allies in an effort to feed their army and provoke the enemy to battle. The policy was unsustainable. If Rome could not protect her allies, if her generals were too scared to fight an invader, her Italian Empireseemed bound to collapse. The Fabian policy was overturned the following year, and the two new consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, were ordered to seek battle in the summer of 216 BC. The armies met on a level open plain at Cannae in Apulia.

Varro was in command on the day of the battle. His plan was to withhold his wings, which were weak in cavalry, while launching an immediate attack in the centre with his legions. Hannibal’s plan was a precisely calculated mechanism for translating the energy of this attack into the means of the Roman army’s destruction. Cannae was a tactical masterpiece. It requires no genius, of course, to realize that destroying an enemy’s flanks so that his centre can be surrounded and annihilated is a guarantee of victory. What makes Cannae special is that Hannibal found a way to do this in the concrete circumstances facing him. The Roman legionary attack was massive but unsophisticated: it was like a steam-roller that rumbled forwards with tremendous power but was impossible to stop or turn. Each man in the mass knew little of the battle around him, but he could scent victory over an enemy ahead who was faltering and falling back, and, scenting it, his instinct was to drive forwards. The Carthaginian mistake at Trebia was not repeated: the Gauls deployed in the centre were supported this time by the Spanish, creating a line that would give but not break through the long hours of battle. As the struggle of infantry developed in the centre, the Carthaginian horse again mastered the Romans on the wings, and columns of Libyan spearmen pushed forwards on the flanks of the legions. The trap was set. The mass of Roman infantry was then assailed on every side – Gauls and Spanish in front, Libyans on the flanks, cavalry against the rear. The ring of enemies gradually compressed the legionaries into a tight mass without room to manoeuvre, deploy or wield weapons. Hardly any broke out; they simply died on the ground where they stood. In all, of the 80,000 or so Roman troops who engaged that day, 65,000 perished.

Cannae finally shattered the solidity of Rome’s Italian Empire. Livy provides an impressive list of the communities that now came over to Hannibal – all the Gauls, most of the Samnites, the Lucanians, the Bruttians, and most of the Greek cities of the South. The greatest prize, though, was Capua, perhaps the greatest city in Italy after Rome, whose allegiance Hannibal won by supporting local democrats against the pro-Roman oligarchy: they provided Hannibal with a first-rate base and an army of 30,000 foot and 4,000 horse. Henceforward, Greeks, Samnites, Lucanians and Bruttians would provide a growing proportion of Hannibal’s army. But for all that, the gains were limited and problematic. The whole of the north, most of the centre and some of the south stayed loyal to Rome. Hannibal now had allies and territory to protect: if he failed in this, he would lose what support he had gained; but in guarding his new fiefdom, he sacrificed the strategic mobility that had won him such startling battlefield success in the first two years of the war. Some of his new friendships, moreover, ensured the continuing enmity of others: Hannibal’s war rekindled ancient fears of the barbarian ‘other’ – of the Gaul, the Oscan, the highland brigand, the cattle rustler – and reactivated old rivalries between neighbouring cities and tribes, while his support for democrats triggered upper-class fears of revolt from below and threats to property.

These tensions compounded the central strategic problem now confronting his campaign. Even Cannae – the greatest defeat the Romans had ever suffered – had not destroyed Rome’s Italian confederation. The war, it seemed, could not be won by mere spectacle. Roman territory would have to be broken away bit by bit in a long struggle of sieges and attrition. But how could Hannibal win such a war? His offensive represented a powerful coalition of forces: the revanchist imperialism of the Barca faction and the hawkish wing of the Carthaginian ruling class; the anti-Roman nationalism of the subject peoples of Cisalpine Gaul and southern Italy; the hostility of democratic crowds towards pro-Roman oligarchs in the cities of Magna Graecia; and the attraction of pay and booty for the professional mercenaries who made up the rank and file of Hannibal’s army. But against this was the extraordinary resilience of the Roman state. Polybius estimated its reserves of citizen and allied manpower at 700,000 foot and 70,000 horse; and in the years after Cannae, having doubled the rate of war tax, the Romans regularly mobilized 20 legions (170,000 men), more than ever before. It was sufficient not only to maintain an iron ring of containment and pressure around Hannibal and his south Italian allies – the Fabian strategy renewed – but to allow the Romans to go on to the offensive in Spain and win a crushing victory over the Carthaginian army there in 215 BC. Even then, Rome was not at full stretch. When the Greek revolt spread to Syracuse, Tarentum and other southern cities, Roman mobilization reached 25 legions (210,000 men), so that Capua and Syracuse were recaptured in 211 BC. As Polybius observed, the Romans had the strength to divide their forces, whereas Hannibal could be in only one place at a time.

The war reached stalemate in southern Italy. The wider anti-Roman movement gradually decayed, but Hannibal’s skill and continuing successes enabled him to maintain a large mercenary army and keep Roman commanders at a distance. The war’s centre of gravity shifted to Spain. Roman victory there might compel the Carthaginians to abandon Italy for the defence of their Empire. Carthaginian victory might free them up to send a second army to reinforce Hannibal in Italy. The struggle for Spain ebbed and flowed. The Roman victory of 215 BC was followed by a crushing double-defeat in 211 BC. The ex-consuls Publius Cornelius Scipio and his brother Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio were separately defeated and killed in the same month. It seemed a shattered blow both to the Roman cause in Spain and to the Scipiones family, who, with the Aemilii, had led the opposition in the Senate to the Fabii’s defensive strategy. They had argued for an offensive war linked with empire-building. Denied the main command (against Hannibal) since 216 BC, they had been fobbed off with Spain; and, after a promising start, this had now ended in disaster.

Some among Rome’s conservative senatorial majority hoped that the Spanish defeat would silence the hawks. They were quickly disabused. Publius Cornelius Scipio, son and heir of the ex-consul – who as a young man had rescued his wounded father on the battlefield, and who, though still only 26 years old, was already a veteran officer of eight years active service – stood for election to the Spanish command. The decision rested with the Assembly of the Centuries – made up of Roman soldiers – and Scipio was elected. Weary of the war – of the losses, of annual conscription and high taxes, and of land laid waste and trade decayed – the rank and file had rejected old age and caution for a young fighter. In doing so, they sent a shock wave through the political system. Such elevation was unprecedented for one so young; Scipio had never held a senior magistracy, never wielded the power of imperium; and the jealous old men on the backbenches of the Senate resented and feared this breach of tradition. But they could not prevent it: under the stress of war, the old order – of amateur generals and part-time armies – was crumbling. A new kind of politics – imperial rather than urban – was being forged in the storm and stress of the war against Hannibal. Scipio was to become the first of Rome’s great professional generals, and also the first of the populists, the conservative revolutionaries, who broke with their class, appealed to the people, and built a career as generals and empire-builders in defiance of the Senate. Scipio was the first of the men like Caesar who would eventually topple the Republic.

The young Roman general took war seriously – he studied it with the conscious aim of becoming its master. The army he commanded also took war seriously. The levy was imposed on communities, not individuals, and this allowed most places to be filled by volunteers. Many men returned to war each year or remained on campaign from one year to the next. For them, soldiering was becoming a career. This was especially so in Spain, an overseas posting in which men may have been obliged to serve for the duration. The Spanish army had been shattered in 211 BC, but around the surviving core of officers and men who had served his father and uncle, Scipio built it anew. He may have introduced new weapons – was it now that legionaries were first equipped with thegladiusand the pilum of the Celtiberians? He certainly drilled his soldiers until they could carry out the complex battlefield manoeuvres that the division of the army into maniples (sub-divisions of 120) made theoretically possible. Proper intelligence and reconnaissance services were developed. Light infantry tactics became more elaborate. Not less, Scipio’s charisma and confidence transformed the morale of the army, while his diplomatic finesse won over a coterie of Celtiberian chieftains. Suddenly, in 209 BC, with his new machine ready for testing, he struck. A combination of brilliant intelligence, rapid movement and total surprise allowed the Romans to storm into New Carthage, the enemy’s Spanish capital, before any of the three widely dispersed Carthaginian armies could move to support it. By a coup de main Scipio had secured the most important fortress, naval base, munitions plant, and treasure-house in Spain.

The Carthaginian generals had to fight if their empire was not to unravel. Scipio met Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal, at the battle of Baecula in 208 BC. The enemy occupied a strong defensive position on a plateau at the top of cliffs. Scipio pinned Hasdrubal’s centre with a large and well-supported force of velites, while the bulk of his men were formed into two mobile columns to advance on to the enemy’s flanks and attack them from either side. The Carthaginian line quickly collapsed. Two years later, confronting another Hasdrubal at Ilipa, this time on an open battleground, Scipio repeated the tactics: a weak and withdrawn centre to pin the enemy; elaborate manoeuvres on the flanks; devastating attacks that broke the enemy line at both ends and rolled it up. Ilipa destroyed the last Carthaginian army in Spain, and any remaining strongholds were swiftly overrun. Scipio returned to Rome the victor of New Carthage, Baecula and Ilipa, and conqueror of the Carthaginian Empire in Spain. His ambition now was for the supreme command, but he envisaged this not as a command in Italy, but as a new command to lead an invasion of Africa, with Carthage itself as target, a threat almost guaranteed to secure Hannibal’s recall to fight in defence of the home-land. The Fabian strategy of an Italian defensive was to be transformed into a Scipionic strategy of African empire-building.

A political storm raged around Scipio in the winter of 206–205 BC. He was elected consul by the popular vote, but it was for the Senate to assign provinces and commands. The final compromise was for Italy to be given to his colleague – denying the young superstar the chance to form an invasion force from its legions – but for him to have Sicily as his province, with the authority to attack Africa ‘if he judged it to be in the public interest’ – and so long as no state expenditure was involved. If he wanted an army for an invasion, therefore, he was going to have to build it himself. This he did, starting with the several thousand survivors of Cannae – whom Scipio now inspired with a chance of redeeming glory – and some 7,000 volunteers, many of them his Spanish veterans. He spent 205 BC encamped at Syracuse, recruiting, arming, drilling. With his command prorogued (extended beyond its normal term), he sailed early the following year in a fleet of 40 warships and 400 transports, carrying a small but highly trained and motivated army of 26,000 men. His African campaign was as brilliant as his Spanish. He established a new coastal base at Castra Cornelia, won the allegiance of the Numidian prince Masinissa, and, with his assistance, ambushed and destroyed the local Carthaginian cavalry. The following year he destroyed a combined Carthaginian-Numidian army by having his men set fire to the enemy camps in the night and then massacre the panic-stricken fugitives issuing from the gates. And when the Carthaginians and their Numidian allies began to build a second army in the hinterland, Scipio marched inland and destroyed it at the Battle of the Great Plains. The desperate Carthaginian government then recalled Hannibal.

Attempts at reinforcement in Italy had failed. An alliance with King Philip V of Macedon had yielded no practical support. The revolts of Capua, Tarentum and Syracuse had long since been suppressed. Hasdrubal, after his defeat in Spain in 208 BC, had marched to northern Italy, hoping to effect a junction with his brother in the south, but his army had been destroyed at the battle of the Metaurus in 207 BC (the first that Hannibal knew of the disaster was receipt of his brother’s severed head). By 203 BC Hannibal, in control of only an enclave around the city of Croton in the toe of Italy, had been reduced to little more than a chief of brigands and mercenaries. The Italian campaign was at its lowest ebb, whereas the homeland was in mortal danger. Even now, though, the Romans feared the great general: such was his reputation that they made no attempt to interfere with the evacuation of his small army, content merely to see him go. (Or perhaps the Fabii secretly hoped he would destroy Scipio.)

Taking command in Africa, Hannibal did not move until he was ready, needing time to build a new army around his core of Italian veterans. But in the spring of 202 BC he set out for the Bagradas Valley, determined to bring Scipio to battle, and the two armies, each close to 50,000 men, met at Zama. Hannibal’s was by far the weaker: he was heavily outnumbered in cavalry, and most of his infantry were either demoralized by earlier defeats or newly recruited and without battle experience. Even his huge corps of 80 elephants was poorly trained. Only the ‘Old Guard’ of Italian veterans was first-rate. Scipio, by contrast, commanded an army of seasoned volunteers, laurelled with victory and supremely confident; the only nagging doubt, perhaps, was that they were now to be tested for the first time by the master of war himself.

Hannibal’s plan took full account of his own weaknesses. He knew he would lose the cavalry action on the wings, and his aim was to crush the Roman infantry in the centre quickly, before their cavalry had a chance to join in. But the Roman infantry were first-class troops, so his only hope was to wear them down before he committed the Old Guard. His first line was formed of elephants, but their charge miscarried: met by trumpet blasts and javelins, many stampeded back on their own men; others passed through gaps opened by Scipio’s highly drilled legionaries and were then dispatched in the rear. The Roman hastati then closed with Hannibal’s first line of infantry and broke it. As the fugitives streamed to the rear, they disordered and panicked the men in Hannibal’s secondline, and as the hastati pressed forwards this line also collapsed. The Old Guard forming the third line had been held well back to keep it clear of any débâcle in front. So there was a lull and a period of mutual readjustment. The hastati were reformed and kept in the line, while the principes and triarii were moved up either side of them. Then there was a further pause as the two lines faced each other across a few dozen yards of African plain: some tens of thousands of veteran soldiers who perhaps sensed that this was a supreme moment of historical decision. Then the lines charged, and for a time hacked and lunged and crashed shield against shield in the chaos of heavy-infantry collision. But it was an unequal contest. The Roman infantry had not been weakened: theprincipes andtriarii were fresh, the hastati had their blood up, and together they greatly outnumbered Hannibal’s Italian veterans. Then the Roman cavalry, returning from the fight on the wings, joined the infantry action, charging into the Carthaginian rear. The Old Guard disintegrated – and with it, the Carthaginian cause.

Hannibal Barca had launched a total war to destroy the Roman state. But the mercenary and barbarian army of a mercantile empire was no match for Rome’s Italian confederation. A combination of local self-government, widespread citizenship rights, shares in land and booty, and consistent Roman support for city oligarchs gave to the confederation a mass social base solid enough to withstand the shock of 100,000 casualties at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae – a shock that in Livy’s view ‘no other nation in the world could have suffered and not been overwhelmed’. Because of this, Hannibal could not drain away that huge pool of manpower reserves that enabled Rome to put up to 200,000 men into the field each year regardless of losses. Hannibal had launched a total war, but only Rome had the resources to fight one.

The Carthaginian Empire was destroyed by the peace terms now imposed: the loss of Spain and all overseas territories; a financially crippling indemnity of 10,000 talents payable over 50 years; a navy reduced to ten ships; and a ban on waging war without Roman consent. Zama thus reduced Carthage from a first- to a third-rate power. Rome, by contrast, was left the only superpower in the Mediterranean. As events would soon show, the Hellenistic states of the East, her nearest rivals, were hollow by comparison, and none would offer the sustained and bloody resistance that ancient Carthage had done in the First and Second Punic Wars. The pivot on which Roman imperial history turned was the war against Hannibal. Before it, Rome could still perhaps have been stopped; afterwards, the power and dynamism of her imperialism could not be checked, and she was propelled inexorably to supremacy in the Mediterranean and Europe.

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