THE ELDERLY GENERAL WAS A VISITOR AT COURT. NO longer in command of any armies, he was a wandering exile. He was hoping to be military adviser to Antiochus the Great, lord of many of the Asian lands conquered a century before by Alexander the Great. The king was pondering a war with that annoying new Mediterranean power, Rome, and was uncertain of his guest’s loyalty.
In response, the old man told a story to prove his bona fides:
I was nine years old and my father was about to set off on a military expedition to Spain. I was standing beside him in the temple of Baal Hammon where he was conducting a sacrifice. The omens proved favorable, and my father poured a libation to the gods and performed the usual ceremonies. He then ordered all present to stand back a little way from the altar and called me to him. He asked me affectionately if I would like to come on the expedition. I was thrilled to accept and, like a boy, begged to be allowed to go. My father took me by the hand, led me up to the altar and made me place my hand on the victim that had been sacrificed and swear that I would never become a friend to the Romans.
The king was convinced and put the old man on his payroll.
For the little boy, the oath he swore that day was a defining, emotionally purifying moment. It remained a vivid memory and guided his actions all his life. He was Hannibal the Carthaginian—a military genius and, in all its long history, the Roman Republic’s most formidable enemy.
When, as commander of a great army, he camped outside Rome’s walls, it was a monstrous, never-to-be-forgotten image of nightmare; in future, if Roman children were boisterous their parents would calm them by uttering the worst threat imaginable:“Hannibal ad portas” (“Hannibal’s outside the city gates”).
HANNIBAL’S FATHER WAS the energetic Hamilcar Barca, who had commanded Carthage’s armed forces in Sicily during the final years of the First Punic War. His arrival on the island in 247 coincided with his son’s birth. Barca was not a family or clan name but a nickname meaning “lightning” or “sword flash” (the word is related to the Hebrew barak), which conveys a reputation for liveliness and drive.
This was a quality Hamilcar appears to have asserted in his private as well as his public life. As well as siring three sons and at least one daughter, he became besotted with an attractive young male aristocrat, Hasdrubal (nicknamed the Handsome). Since Hamilcar was a leading politician and general, this gave rise to much critical comment (indeed, his rivals may have invented the story) and the authorities charged with oversight of morals banned the two men from seeing each other. Nothing daunted, Hamilcar married his lover to a daughter of his, on the grounds that it would be illegal to prevent a father-in-law and his son-in-law from meeting.
Once Hamilcar had negotiated the peace that brought the war in Sicily to a close, he sailed back to Carthage, leaving to others the thankless task of repatriating the multiethnic Punic mercenary army. Being an agile tactician, he wanted to distance himself as far as possible from the humiliating capitulation to Rome and the problem of how a bankrupt state could pay off its soldiery. He also had to deal with charges of maladministration brought by his political enemies.
The return of twenty thousand mercenaries proved to be a mistake of truly disastrous proportions and nearly led to the destruction of Carthage. They were not Punic citizens, and their first loyalty was, very naturally, to themselves, not to their employers. The cash-strapped authorities paid them only a small proportion of the money owed, and the men promptly revolted. It was a mortal crisis, for the rebels were the national army and there was no other soldiery with which to resist them. The Carthaginians were obliged to recruit in short order a citizen force and, with the small amount of cash in its coffers, hire some new mercenaries.
To begin with, an incompetent commander was appointed and the war went very badly. So Hamilcar was given a small force to try his hand at defeating the insurgents. Both sides perpetrated disgusting acts of cruelty. Hamilcar trapped the mercenary army and eventually the revolt collapsed. Anyone luckless enough to fall into his hands was crucified. One of the main leaders, an African named Matho, endured a parody of a triumphal procession through the streets of Carthage. He was led along by young men who, Polybius writes, “inflicted on him all kinds of torture.” What this may have meant in practice was imagined by Flaubert in his novel Salammbo:
A child tore his ear; a young girl, with the point of a spindle hidden in her sleeve, split his cheek. They tore out handfuls of hair and strips of flesh; some had sponges steeped in excrement on the end of sticks and rammed these into his face. Blood was streaming from his throat and the sight of it excited the crowd to a frenzy. To them this man, the last of the barbarians, symbolized the entire barbarian army; they were avenging themselves on him for all their disasters, their terror and their shame.
One final twist in the story deepened the rancor against Rome among leading Carthaginians. Mercenaries on the Punic island of Sardinia revolted in solidarity with their comrades in Africa. They came under pressure from native inhabitants and appealed to Rome for help. In 238/7, the Senate decided to send an expedition to take over the island. When the Carthaginians learned of this, they reminded the Senate that Sardinia was still regarded as their possession and they intended to recover it. The response was both surprising and cynical. Despite the fact that they had not a shred of justification, the Romans claimed that Carthage’s preparations were a hostile act and delivered an ultimatum demanding an abdication of all its rights to the island and an indemnity of twelve hundred talents. These new conditions were added to the treaty of 241. Rome took possession of Sardinia and, with it, Corsica, which became a single province, like Sicily.
This was grand larceny. The historian Polybius was a great admirer of Rome, but even he condemned the annexation out of hand. He observed, “It is impossible to discover any reasonable ground or pretext for the Romans’ action,” and noted that men like Hamilcar neither forgot nor forgave the injustice.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE war ended, Hamilcar set off for Spain. Carthage was no place at present for a child, and it was little wonder that he took young Hannibal with him. But the motive for his departure was not personal; it was nothing less than to reverse the misfortunes of his motherland.
Little is known of internal Carthaginian politics, but there appear to have been two factions—one representing the landed interest, which much preferred expansion in Africa and the development of agriculture to risky foreign escapades, and the other consisting of merchants and traders who sought military protection for their activities in international waters. The former represented the governing oligarchy, and the latter advocated democratic reform.
Hamilcar was a leading figure in the second group. Although he was respected as a prudent statesman, the defeat in Sicily and the agony of the Mercenary War appear to have radicalized him. According to Diodorus:
Later on after the conclusion of the Mercenary War, he formed a political power base among the lower classes, and from this source, as well as from the spoils of war, amassed wealth. Perceiving that his successes were bringing him increased power, he gave himself over to demagoguery and to currying favor with the People. In this way, he induced them to put into his hands for an indefinite period the military command over all Spain.
Hamilcar was behaving very much like a common Hellenic political type—the turranos, whose one-man rule was backed by the ordinary citizen. However, as it turned out, he had no ambitions to stage a coup d’état at Carthage. He merely wanted a free hand in Spain.
Two basic and interlinked challenges faced Carthage. How was it to rebuild its ruined economy? Both trade abroad and agricultural production at home had been gravely damaged by the recent military struggles, and the huge indemnity was an annual financial hemorrhage. And, taking the longer view, how was Carthage ever to get its own back on the Romans?
For Hamilcar, the answer to both questions lay in the Iberian Peninsula, which boasted a large human reservoir of potential military recruits and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of silver, iron, and other metals. He accepted that the loss of Sicily was permanent. Like all Carthaginians, he was humiliated by Rome’s decision to annex the Punic islands of Corsica and Sardinia, a clear and scandalous breach of the peace treaty. The Phoenicians had long had mercantile outposts in Spain, and Gades was a great city and port. Hamilcar now decided to create a large and powerful Carthaginian province in the peninsula. Predictably, even those tribes which were accustomed to a Phoenician coastal presence put up resistance. Hamilcar applied the combination of clemency and cruelty that had served him when dealing with the rebellious mercenaries.
He brought with him his son-in-law-cum-lover, the beautiful Hasdrubal, who turned out to be as persuasive a diplomat as he was an aggressive and resourceful commander. Hasdrubal tactfully chose a Spanish princess as a second wife. During the next decade, the two leaders conquered most of southern and southeastern Spain. The Carthaginians also reorganized the silver-mining industry, massively increasing its productivity. It has been calculated that in later centuries a labor force of forty thousand slaves worked the mines and created a hundred thousand sesterces of profit every day. There is no reason to suppose that the Carthaginians in Hamilcar’s day were any less efficient.
Having no strategic interest in Spain or assets to protect, the Romans paid little attention to these developments, but after a time decided to look into reports of Punic expansion (not that this meant Carthage had in any way breached an agreement). They sent an embassy to Hamilcar to ask for a briefing. It was received with carefully controlled courtesy. The Carthaginian general replied to its inquiries with a plausible explanation. “I have to make war on the Spaniards,” he asserted, “to find the money to pay our indemnity to Rome.” This very effectively silenced the envoys.
In 229, Hamilcar suffered a rare military setback at the hands of a Spanish chieftain. Hannibal and another son were with him, but he saved their lives by turning off onto a different road, the enemy following after him rather than the rest of his force. He was overtaken by the chieftain. To escape from him, he plunged on horseback into a river and drowned. Hamilcar’s death did not dent Punic dominance in the peninsula, and a successor was swiftly appointed. At eighteen, his son Hannibal, though popular and able, was too young to be considered. So the Council of Elders in Carthage confirmed Hasdrubal, who had shown himself to be far more than a pretty face.
The new commander-in-chief continued his predecessor’s good work, achieving as much by negotiation as by force of arms. This included a treaty with Rome: the Senate realized it had been “fast asleep” and let Carthage recruit and equip a large army. It sent a second embassy to Spain, and Hasdrubal agreed not to cross the river Hiberus (the present-day Ebro). This was some way north of territory then controlled by Carthage and was an easy concession; and, from Rome’s point of view, the accord satisfactorily protected the interests of its anxious ally, Massilia, and its colonies on the coast of northeastern Spain. The larger issue of the unwelcome Punic revival remained unsettled, and, indeed, even the most obdurate senatorial envoy could hardly expect Carthage to renounce its acquisitions simply on request.
Even if Rome had wanted to issue any threats at this time, it would not have been able to follow them up, for the Republic was facing a major crisis in northern Italy. The Celtic tribes that formed the population of the Po Valley were infuriated by Roman encroachments and had mobilized a vast horde of warriors. In 225, they were defeated at the Battle of Telamon but remained discontented and ungoverned neighbors.
Hasdrubal’s enduring accomplishment was the foundation of a new port, one of the best harbors in the Western Mediterranean, which he called Carthago Nova (New Carthage, today’s Cartagena). The name was appropriate, for, like the mother city, it was built on a promontory between a shallow lagoon and a bay. An island at the mouth of the bay broke the waves of the sea. Occasionally, a southwest breeze raised a slight swell, but otherwise few winds ruffled the surface of the water inside. It was an ideal spot, not merely for fishermen and merchants but as an up-to-the-minute export facility for the growing silver trade. On the city’s highest eminence, Hasdrubal erected a magnificent palace, which stood as a gleaming symbol of the new empire he and his father-in-law had created.
The message to the world was unmistakable: Carthage was back.
HASDRUBAL’S PACIFIC POLICIES did not save him from a violent end. One night in 221, he was killed in his lodgings by a Celtic slave, whose master he had had executed. The assassin was seized by bystanders but showed no sign of fear or remorse. Under torture, the expression on his face never changed.
Hannibal was now twenty-five years old, popular with his men, daring, with a quick and fertile brain and, though still young, experienced; he had, after all, spent the past fifteen years at the center of affairs while his father pursued his self-ordained mission of conquest. As a member of a leading democratic family, the rank and file acclaimed him as the new commander-in-chief, as did the popular Assembly at Carthage. Despite some opposition in the Council of Elders, Hannibal’s appointment was confirmed.
He was soon to win Rome’s complete attention and his personality became of absorbing interest. Livy summed up the general perception:
Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability once he was at risk. Physically and mentally tireless, he could endure with equanimity excessive heat or excessive cold. He ate and drank according to need rather than for enjoyment. His hours for waking, like his hours for sleeping, were never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then and only then, he went to sleep, without needing silence or a comfortable bed. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground among ordinary soldiers on sentry or picket duty.… He was the first to go into battle, and the last to leave the field.
On the negative side, he was notorious among his fellow citizens for his love of money and among Romans for his cruelty. This, at least, was the general impression. The accuracy of these criticisms is obscured by the murk of hostile propaganda. Also, in Polybius’s wise words, pressure of circumstances made it exceptionally difficult “to pass judgement on Hannibal’s real nature.”
At this point, the young general’s thinking was unknown. For two years, he maintained the Carthaginian policy of expansion but reverted to his father’s aggressive military approach. He, too, took care to marry a local princess, as his brother-in-law had done. Soon Punic territory reached as far as the Hiberus. Did he have a long-term plan?
If he did not, events soon prompted him to create one. Saguntum was a small coastal town well south of the Hiberus, of no great military or commercial importance. It was on friendly but not formal terms with Rome, which at the town’s request had acted as arbiter in an internal political dispute. It is not known exactly when this entente with Rome was agreed, but if it was before Hasdrubal’s Hiberus treaty, then that, it might be supposed, superseded the entente. If afterward, Rome had incontestably breached the treaty, for Hasdrubal’s commitment not to march his forces beyond the Hiberus could only mean that territory south of the river lay inside Carthage’s sphere of influence. Either way, Hannibal had grounds for irritation with Roman meddling.
Then Saguntum became involved in a quarrel with a local, pro-Punic tribe, which appealed to Hannibal for assistance. For the Punic general, this was the last straw. However, he acted with caution, not wanting to give the Romans any pretext for war until he had completed his conquest of all territory south of the Hiberus, and fully secured his gains. This he achieved in 220, after a decisive victory over enemy tribes. He now controlled about half of the Iberian Peninsula, some 230,000 square kilometers.
Only Saguntum refused to recognize Punic dominance, but feared Hannibal’s anger. The townsfolk could feel the noose tightening around their neck and sent embassy after embassy to Rome asking for urgent assistance. The Senate, busy with other matters, took a long time to respond but eventually dispatched envoys to warn Hannibal against taking action against Saguntum.
The Carthaginian general found them at the palace at Carthago Nova, where he was to spend the winter after the end of the campaigning season. He launched into a critique of Rome for intervening in Saguntum’s internal affairs. He said, “We will not overlook this breach of good faith.”
The Roman delegation concluded that war was inevitable and sailed to Carthage to repeat their protests, to no avail. Hannibal reported to the home authorities that Saguntum, confident in its Roman support, had attacked a tribe under Punic protection and asked for instructions. There was some token opposition, but the Council of Elders hesitated to take a stand against a well-liked and successful general in command of a large army and with support among the People. Hannibal was given a free hand, if without great enthusiasm.
In early 219, he lay siege to Saguntum. The inhabitants put up a stiff resistance, believing that the Romans would come and save them. They were to be disappointed, for the Republic had just finished one war, against the Celts of northern Italy, and was now busy with another, against the piratical Illyrians on the far side of the Adriatic Sea. The Senate never liked to fight on two fronts, so Saguntum went to the wall. It fell to Hannibal in the autumn after eight long, desperate months.
The defenders were driven by starvation to cannibalism. Once they had despaired of Rome, they gathered together all their gold and melted it with lead and brass to make it unusable. Believing it best to die fighting, the men sortied from the town and battled bravely but futilely against the besiegers. Appian writes:
When the women watched the slaughter of their husbands from the walls, some threw themselves from housetops, others hanged themselves and others killed their children and then themselves.
Hannibal, whose temper had not been improved by a javelin wound, was so cross over the loss of the gold that he put all surviving adults to death by torture.
Everything now went into slow motion. Rome was of two minds what to do. The clan of the Fabii, led by a respected Senator, Quintus Fabius Maximus (to which was added the descriptive cognomen Verrucosus, or Warty, for he had a wart above his lip), opposed war, whereas the Cornelii Scipiones argued for it. It was not until early or late spring of 218 that, after a lively debate, the Senate sent some senior politicians to Carthage to deliver an ultimatum. They told the Council of Elders that either Hannibal was to be handed over to Rome or there would be war. A Punic spokesman pointed out that the annexation of Sardinia had been a Roman breach of the peace treaty of 241, and that Saguntum had not been listed in that treaty as a Roman ally and so was not protected by its terms from Carthaginian attack. The Romans did not like being seen to have acted illegally, and declined to reply to what had been said. Polybius reports what happened next:
The senior member of the delegation pointed to the bosom of his toga and declared to the Council of Elders that in its folds he carried both peace and war and that he would let fall from it whichever of the two they chose. The Carthaginian sufet answered that he should bring out whichever he thought best. When the envoy replied that it would be war, many of the Elders shouted at once, “We accept it.”
The Romans went home and, for a time, very little seemed to happen. It was assumed that the war would be fought out in Spain and in Africa. So the two consuls, Publius Cornelius Scipio and Titus Sempronius Longus, raised armies for that purpose. Sometime in the summer, they set off from Italy in different directions. Scipio took ship for Massilia, after which he was to march to the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, his colleague established himself in Sicily and laid his invasion plans.
HANNIBAL HAD OTHER ideas. Although no record survives of his having said so, he must have thought long and hard about his next step, which was nothing less than the invasion of Italy.
He did not acccept the verdict of the First Punic War as final, and we may strongly suspect that his dead father, Hamilcar, had been of the same mind. This is not to say that either of them intended war from the outset. Twenty years had passed since the loss of Sicily, and many of these were spent on the arduous, absorbing, and ambitious task of reasserting the greatness of Carthage and building a Spanish empire. An eventual second round with Rome would have seemed to them a possibility rather than a realistic objective. However, now that it had arrived, the energetic young commander relished the prospect.
For Hannibal, the unfair and illegal annexation of Sardinia and the massive reparations still rankled. In his eyes, the Saguntum affair was yet another example of Rome playing fast and loose with freely negotiated agreements. Romans liked to sneer at Punica fides, Carthaginian “good faith”; what price now Romana fides? Perhaps the most important factor in persuading Hannibal to make war was his belief that he was able to do so with a good prospect of success. The conquest of half the Iberian Peninsula gave him two huge advantages—for all practical purposes, an inexhaustible flow of cash, thanks to the silver mines, and of manpower, thanks to the fierce Spanish tribesmen whom he now governed. There would never be a more favorable opportunity for a return match.
He had no intention of destroying Rome altogether; rather, he would cut it down to size. This would mean unpicking its web of Italian “allies.” If he could give them back their freedom, he would remove from Rome what he had just won in Spain—the money and men that a minor regional player needed if it was to become a great power. This political objective determined his military strategy. He had to take the war to Italy.
He laid his preparations carefully and secretly. He dispatched a large contingent of Spanish troops to protect North Africa and of African troops to garrison Spain; in this way, he insured himself against disloyalty by separating soldiers from their home communities. He entrusted the defense of the peninsula to his younger brother, another Hasdrubal. He would also, and crucially, depend on him for reinforcement as and when required, and for supplies of ready money. Messages were sent to forewarn the Gallic tribes whose territory in southern France he would have to traverse and to make logistical arrangements for the upkeep of a large army.
Hannibal went to Gades and sacrificed at the famous Temple of Melqart-Hercules, with its eight columns of brass on which the money-minded Phoenicians had inscribed the cost of its construction, before proceeding to his capital, Carthago Nova. In May or thereabouts he set out northward with an army of about ninety thousand infantry and twelve thousand cavalry. He crossed the contentious river Hiberus and, after conducting a quick blitzkrieg in northern Spain, sent a number of troops home to stand ready as a reserve for future deployment. He crossed the Pyrenees and advanced into Gaul with a force of fifty thousand infantry, nine thousand cavalry, and thirty-seven war elephants. He forced a crossing of the river Rhodanus (the Rhône), with difficulty persuading his nervous elephants to be drawn across the water on large earth-surfaced rafts.
A LEGENDARY PERSONALITY from the early years of Rome’s story (see this page) now puts in a reappearance.
Hannibal took care to promote his image as a great commander, and as a practitioner of moral and social virtues. Like Alexander the Great (as ever a model for would-be conquerors), he gathered round him a group of trusted Greek intellectuals. One was his old teacher, a certain Sosylus of Sparta, who had taught him Greek, a language in which he was fluent, and another the distinguished historian Silenus, the author of a four-volume study of Sicily, whom Cicero praised as a “thoroughly reliable authority on Hannibal’s life and achievements.”
Their task was not simply to record the events of the campaign but to put the best possible gloss on them and even to tell symbolic stories (invented or enhanced) about their hero. It was Silenus who first recounted a dream Hannibal was supposed to have had after taking Saguntum. He was summoned by Jupiter to a council of the Olympian gods and ordered to invade Italy. One of those at the assembly was produced as his guide. After he and his army began their march, the guide told him not to look back. He could not resist doing so. But unlike Orpheus, who yielded to a similar temptation when leaving the underworld ahead of his wife, Hannibal was not punished but given a vision of the horrors to come. According to Cicero:
He saw a vast monstrous wild beast, intertwined with snakes, destroying all of the trees and shrubs and buildings wherever it went. Staggered, he asked the god what such a terrible occurrence could mean. “It is the devastation of Italy,” answered the god. “Go forward and do not worry about what is happening behind your back.”
The beast sounds very much like the Hydra, a many-headed serpent whom Hercules killed during one of his labors. In the dream it stands for Rome, and Hannibal is cast as the brave demigod.
This was no casual identification. The Punic commander presented himself as a new Melqart-Hercules who restaged the demigod’s original journey from west to east, which began at Gades, proceeded up Spain, along southern Gaul, and as far as Italy. (In the original legend, of course, Hercules then crossed over into Greece.) He issued silver shekels to pay his troops, some showing Hercules with (almost certainly) the features of a bearded Hamilcar and others of his clean-shaven son. A reconciler of different cultures, especially the Greek and the Phoenician, an upholder of law, a dauntless fulfiller of labors, Hannibal was to be a standard-bearer for civilization, sent by heaven to defeat the cruel, barbaric power that was Rome. It was these qualities which helped him unite his disparate army and would, he hoped, persuade the peoples of Italy to switch their allegiance to him.
Hannibal also seems to have appealed to one of Rome’s most implacable enemies on Mount Olympus, the goddess Juno. She may have reconciled herself to the fall of her city of Veii, but she forgot nothing and forgave nothing—especially her humiliation at the hands of Paris, prince of Troy, and Aeneas’s rejection of her favorite, Dido, the lovelorn queen of Carthage.
MEANWHILE, THE UNKNOWING Consul Scipio arrived in Gaul on his way to Spain at about the same time as the Carthaginians, coming in the opposite direction. The armies brushed against each other, Hannibal avoiding an engagement and slipping away toward the Alps and Italy. It was only now that, with a shock of dismay, the Romans realized what Hannibal’s destination was. The consul chose not to chase after him; instead, he sent most of his force onward to Spain as planned, and he himself returned to Italy, where he would confront Hannibal with new troops. It was the single most important strategic decision of the war, for if Roman legions were active in Spain they should be able to remove or, at least, severely limit Hasdrubal’s opportunities to reinforce his brother.
In October or early November, Hannibal crossed the Alps. He would probably have taken Hercules’ route by the relatively straightforward Montgenèvre Pass, but he had to avoid Scipio and so marched north away from the sea. We do not know which pass the Carthaginians actually chose (it was a matter of dispute even in ancient times), but wherever it was they were confronted by aggressive mountain tribesmen and unseasonable snow. Both men and animals made heavy going of it. The descent was just as hazardous as the ascent. The track down the mountainside was narrow and steep. New snow lying on top of old made surfaces treacherous. At one point an earlier landslide had removed part of the pathway, and the army looked fearfully over the edge of a brand-new precipice. Going back was out of the question—but how to go on? The pass had become an impasse.
Hannibal refused to admit defeat at the hands of nature. He had the snow cleared off a ridge and made camp. Livy writes:
It was necessary to cut through rock, a problem they solved by the ingenious application of heat and moisture; large trees were felled and lopped, and a huge pile of timber erected; this, with the opportune help of a strong wind, was set on fire, and when the rock was sufficiently heated the men’s rations of sour wine were flung upon it, to render it friable. They then got to work with picks on the heated rock, and opened a sort of zigzag track, to minimize the steepness of the descent, and were able, in consequence, to get the pack animals, and even the elephants, down it.
And then, all at once, the ordeal was over. The soldiers, freezing, filthy, unkempt, and starving, found themselves strolling amid sunny Alpine pastures with woods and flowing streams. Hannibal gave them three days’ rest to recover and clean themselves up, and then they continued their descent into the plains—in Livy’s words, “a kindlier region with kindlier inhabitants.”
The news of Hannibal’s arrival on Italian soil at the head of a large army stupefied public opinion, for at Rome the last that had been heard of him was his capture of Saguntum. Although Celts regularly went to and fro across the Alps, there was widespread amazement at his achievement in taking a large army across the mountains in wintry weather. Rather than a campaign in Spain, the Senate now had to contemplate a struggle in its backyard: It canceled the invasion of Africa and instructed Sempronius to rush north. Worse, in place of the usual incompetent generals of the First Punic War, it faced in Hannibal a commander of daring, stamina, and élan.
However, this public-relations triumph came at a high price. Since leaving Spain five months previously, Hannibal had lost more than half his army. As we saw, the Carthaginians had begun their journey with 50,000 foot and 9,000 horse. By the passage across the Rhodanus, these numbers had dwindled to 38,000 and 8,000, respectively. Only 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, plus a handful of elephants, made it to the valley of the mighty river Padus. The greater part of Hannibal’s supplies had been lost, along with many pack animals. Undaunted, he immediately launched a recruitment drive among the discontented Celtic tribes of northern Italy, who regarded him as a liberator from their Roman conqueror, and soon 14,000 fresh volunteers had joined his ranks. A successful cavalry engagement near the river Ticinus convinced the Celts that they were backing a winner. The careful Scipio was in command, and nearly lost his life. Luckily, his seventeen-year-old son Publius was close at hand, as Polybius describes:
Scipio had put his son in command of a picked troop of horse to ensure the boy’s safety, but when the latter caught sight of his father in the thick of the action surrounded by the enemy, dangerously wounded and with only two or three horsemen near him, he at first tried to urge the rest of his troop to ride to the rescue. Then, when he found that they were hanging back because of the overwhelming number of the enemy around them, he is said to have charged by himself with reckless daring against the encircling cavalry.
This shamed his comrades, who followed him into the fray and saved his father. Scipio’s wound incapacitated him (although it did not kill him), and he stepped down as commander.
Effective control of the legions was handed to his colleague, the incautious and overconfident Sempronius. Hannibal was lucky.
IT WAS A bitterly cold December morning with gusts of snow, on or around the winter solstice. The night before, there had been a downpour and the river Trebia, together with its accompanying web of streams running beside it, was in full spate. Hannibal decided to make the weather work for him.
The two armies, Carthaginian and Roman, both perhaps forty thousand strong, were encamped on either side of the river. The land was flat and treeless and suitable for a set-piece battle, but the Punic commander noticed that it was crossed by a watercourse with high banks that were densely overgrown with thorns and brambles. There was room here for quite a substantial special-service unit to hide away out of sight. Hannibal arranged for a body of a thousand cavalry and the same number of foot soldiers to be assembled and placed his younger brother Mago in charge of them.
After dark on the evening before the battle, once the army had eaten its evening meal, this force made its way through rain to its place of ambush. First thing in the morning, some Numidian horsemen galloped across the river and threw javelins at the Roman camp. Their instructions were to lure the consul Sempronius to lead out his army before the men had had breakfast, ford the Trebia, and offer battle. Sempronius, eager to fight before his term of office expired at the end of the year, was only too happy to oblige.
The legions struggled across the rushing river and formed up in battle order. The whole process must have taken several hours and the men were soaking wet, cold, and hungry. In contrast, before deploying, the Carthaginian rank and file had time to warm themselves by large fires in front of their tents. They breakfasted at leisure and groomed their horses. They were given portions of olive oil so that they could rub themselves down to keep their bodies supple.
After all this, the outcome of the battle itself was a foregone conclusion. The foot soldiers faced one another in the center and were evenly matched, but the Punic cavalry on the wings soon drove back their Roman counterparts. This exposed the legions’ flanks to attack. Then Mago’s hidden force suddenly emerged and fell on them from behind. Despite the fact that ten thousand Roman legionaries pushed their way through the enemy line out of the battle and quit the field in good order, the day was lost. Well over half of the Roman army was slaughtered.
On the Carthaginian side, the Spaniards and Africans were more or less unscathed, but the newly recruited Celts suffered heavy losses. Unluckily, the winter continued harsh and, in the coming days, more rain, snow, and intolerable cold took their toll. Men and horses perished. In this weather, Hannibal, riding the only surviving elephant, marched south through marshy terrain on the way to Etruria. He suffered intense pain from a bout of ophthalmia and lost the use of one eye.
For all that, it was the Romans who had been defeated. The Senate was not so much alarmed as energized. A hundred thousand men were conscripted, and Sicily, Sardinia, and Rome garrisoned against possible attack. The losses sustained by the four consular legions at the Trebia were made good. Nevertheless, it was a dark time. Many portents were reported to bode ill for Rome. A spring sacred to Hercules at the Etruscan city of Caere was found to have flecks of blood in it, and a propitiatory lectisternium was held—a banquet at which an image of the demigod reclined on a couch, with the food spread around him. Expensive gifts were donated to shrines of hostile Juno—evidence, perhaps, that Hannibal’s public-relations campaign was working.
LAKE TRASIMENE, IN Etruria, was shallow, muddy, and humid, a breeding ground of pike, carp, tench—and malarial mosquitoes. Its northern shore was guarded by a line of steep hills. Approached from the west, some high ground gently sloped down to the lakeside (near today’s Borghetto, in the comune of Tuoro). It opened out onto a small plain that extended for a mile or so before closing in again and ending at almost but not altogether impassable heights. Beyond lay the way to the south.
In the spring of 217, the Punic army, well rested after its winter trials, marched down through Etruria, laying waste to the countryside as it went. It bypassed a Roman army led by a new consul, Gaius Flaminius, who immediately set off in hot pursuit. Hannibal reached the lake and turned east into the defile. An idea struck him; here was the ideal spot for an ambush, if only the consul was foolhardy enough to walk into the obvious trap. One of the habits of the Carthaginian was to seek out intelligence on enemy commanders and to tailor his tactics to what he knew of their personality. Flaminius, he discovered, was not without military experience, but as a plebeian he seems to have had a chip on his shoulder and was an impatient leader. He would have felt humiliated by having to take his legions through a devastated landscape, and now be eager for revenge.
This was a correct judgment. Flaminius saw the Punic army enter the defile and followed straight after, setting up camp on the plain. Hannibal’s camp could be seen in open view right at the far end of the lake, but he had stationed most of his troops unseen in the hills, where the ground narrowed and there was no room for maneuver.
In the early dawn of 21 June, Flaminius formed up his troops into column of route and they proceeded along the lakeside. He did not trouble to send out scouts. Visibility was poor, for a heavy mist hung over the water and the shore. So when the Carthaginians charged down from the high ground, the surprise was complete. The Romans hardly knew what had hit them and there was little they could do to defend themselves. Nevertheless, the battle, or perhaps more accurately the bloodbath, lasted for three hours. Flaminiusfought bravely, but at last was struck down by a Celtic lance. Livy takes up the narrative:
The Consul’s death was the beginning of the end. Panic ensued, and neither lake nor mountain could stop the wild rush for safety. Men tried blindly to escape by any possible way, however steep, however narrow; weapons were flung away, men fell and others fell on top of them. Many, finding nowhere to turn to save their skins, plunged into the lake until the water was up to their necks, while a few in desperation tried to swim for it—a forlorn hope indeed over that broad lake, and they were either drowned or, struggling back exhausted into shallow water, were butchered wholesale by the mounted troops who rode in to meet them.
A vanguard managed to push through the Carthaginian line and escape into the hills, but fifteen thousand Romans perished, while Hannibal lost only fifteen hundred men. When the news reached Rome, there was no attempt to hide the magnitude of the catastrophe. A praetor went to the Forum and announced, with becoming brevity, “Magna pugna victi sumus” (“We have been defeated in a great battle”).
A YEAR PASSED, and the date was now 2 August 216. The scene was a windy, dusty plain in Apulia a few miles from the Adriatic coast. High summer in southern Italy brought fierce heat and a permanent chorus of cicadas. Within a space of five square miles, two armies, consisting in total of about 150,000 men, confronted each other. One of the great battles of the world was about to be fought, and has inspired generals down the ages. It is a rare military training college today whose curriculum does not include it.
After the Battle of Lake Trasimene and two routs in a row, the Romans had lost heart. A dictator was appointed for a six-month term of office, the warty Fabius Maximus. He seems to have attracted nicknames; as well as Verrucosus, he was called Ovicula, or “lambkin.” According to Plutarch, this was
because of his gentle and solemn personality when he was still a child. In fact, his calm, quiet manner, the great caution with which he took part in childish pleasures, the slowness and difficulty with which he learned his lessons, and his contented submissiveness in dealing with his comrades, led those who knew him superficially to suspect him of something like foolishness and stupidity … but his seeming lack of energy was only lack of emotion, his caution was prudence, and his never being quick nor even easy to move made him always resolute and reliable.
According to Cicero, he had read a lot “for a Roman.”
Fabius raised two new legions and, adding them to existing Roman and allied troops, commanded an army of forty thousand men. He pursued a wise, but extremely unpopular, policy of tailing Hannibal but never offering battle. His idea was to wear down the enemy in the hope that eventually he would make a bad mistake and expose himself to defeat. The policy nearly brought a quick success, for Fabius bottled up the Carthaginians in mountainous territory. On the following night, Hannibal, never at a loss, tied burning brands to the horns of two thousand cattle and set the terrified animals to run around on the high ground. This bizarre ruse worked. The Romans thought they were about to be attacked and the Carthaginians crept away through the concealing dark.
The policy of delay also enabled the elderly dictator to train his new troops and allowed time to heal the Republic’s wounded morale. But public opinion very soon swung against Fabius, who duly retired after his six-month term. A huge army of eighty-seven thousand men was assembled—that is, eight legions plus roughly the same number of allied troops. This would give them the edge over Hannibal, who disposed of only about fifty thousand soldiers. The two consuls who succeeded Fabius held very different views of the plan of campaign. Lucius Aemilius Paullus, a member of one of the most ancient patrician clans, was a Fabian and believed Hannibal should be starved out of his winter quarters in southern Italy; but Gaius Terentius Varro, a plebeian parvenu much disliked by the gratin, argued that Rome should make the most of its advantage in numbers and provoke a full-scale battle as soon as possible.
They tracked Hannibal down to the neighborhood of a small town in Apulia called Cannae, amid the dust and the cicadas. As was the practice, they alternated command daily. Paullus was in charge when Hannibal led his army out and offered battle; he declined the invitation. The next day, Varro accepted the challenge. Immediately after sunrise, he sported the red flag, or vexillum, outside his tent, the traditional signal for battle. He formed up his army, with cavalry on the wings and a mass of infantry in the center; the right wing abutted against a river and the left against rising ground.
Hannibal looked carefully at the enemy and noticed that the foot soldiers were short of space, and as a result were in deep formation and rather squashed together. They would find it hard to maneuver. The Carthaginian general formed his troops in a way that would exploit that potential weakness. He lined his Celtic and Spanish infantry in a convex curve opposite the Roman center. Behind them, at either end and out of sight, he placed two substantial detachments of his best troops—Libyan infantry, well-trained and reliable. On his wings, his cavalry faced the Roman horse.
When the fighting started, the Roman center pushed back the Celts and the Spaniards, so that their line changed from convex to concave. Pleased to find more space to fight in, they unwisely continued to press forward until the Libyans suddenly came into view on either side and turned inward to attack them on their flanks.
Meanwhile, Hannibal’s cavalry on his left wing routed their Roman counterparts, commanded by Consul Paullus. With great self-discipline, the victorious Celtic and Spanish horsemen then disengaged and crossed behind the Roman army to attack the enemy cavalry on the far wing, which fled in panic. For a second time, they pulled away and proceeded to attack the rear of the Roman infantry, which now found itself boxed in on all sides.
The rest of the battle consisted of exhausting hours of blood-slippery butchery. Gradually, the packed mass of Roman legionaries and allies was cut down. Paullus, felled by a stone from a slingshot, fought bravely to his last breath, but Varro escaped with seventy horsemen. He rounded up stragglers and took general charge of the grim aftermath. When he returned to Rome, crowds turned out to greet him “because he had not despaired of the Republic.” He continued to receive public appointments, although he was never to lead a consular army again. This was Rome at its magnanimous best.
A larger group also managed to extricate itself from the hecatomb, among whom was Publius Scipio, now nineteen years old. He threatened to kill some young noblemen who chattered disloyally of fleeing abroad, and forced them to swear that they would never abandon their homeland.
Seventy thousand Romans lay dead on the battlefield. Twenty-nine senior commanders and eighty senators lost their lives. Cannae was the worst military disaster in Rome’s history. Immediately, the Greek poleis and the local tribes of southern Italy switched their loyalty to Carthage. The famous city of Capua and other towns in Campania defected. After the death of the aged Hiero, Syracuse abandoned its long-standing alliance with Rome. Tarentum was captured by a clever trick (although the Roman garrison retained the citadel and control of the harbor).
Rome was inflamed by religious panic, stoked by portents and prodigies. In some inexplicable way, the gods were gravely offended. An embassy was sent to Delphi for advice, and two Greeks and two Gauls were buried alive in the city in a bid to regain divinefavor. This extreme gesture was a sign of the despair and hysteria of the time, for human sacrifice was almost unknown in Roman religious practice.
Everyone could see that the Republic was staring total defeat in the face.