Ancient History & Civilisation

The Battle of Lake Trasimene, c. 21 June 217 BC

The Senate was shocked by the defeat, but began the new year grimly determined to prosecute the war with greater success. The other theatres were not ignored, but the main focus of Roman effort was to be against the enemy on their own soil and both consuls would go north against Hannibal. An air of normality was provided when Longus returned briefly to Rome to preside over the consular elections, which were won by Cnaeus Servilius Geminus and Caius Flaminius. We do not have a detailed breakdown of the citizens and allies levied in this year, but Geminus and Flaminius both seem to have been given the standard consular army of two legions and two alae, composed of a mixture of newly raised troops and the remnants of the armies defeated at Trebia. The legions may have had a stronger than usual complement and it is also possible that the armies contained a very high proportion of cavalry, perhaps as a reaction to Hannibal's superiority in this arm. Geminus' army is said to have included at least 4,000 horsemen, which was a very high proportion for a Roman army and probably consisted in the main of allies.14

Polybius' account suggests that little military activity occurred during the winter, and although Livy supplies a dramatic account of an action in which Longus gained an initial advantage, but which was ended by bad weather, this is most probably an invention. It may even derive from Longus' own self-serving account of Trebia. The usually sober Polybius does, however, recount the bizarre story of how Hannibal, distrusting many of his newfound Gallic allies, adopted a range of disguises, including a variety of differently coloured wigs, to conceal his true appearance. Perhaps the apparent ability of appearing in different forms enhanced his reputation as a powerful leader with the tribesmen, but this is no more than a conjecture.15

When the new campaigning season opened in the spring of 217, Hannibal had two real alternatives. Remaining in the Po valley would achieve nothing, and the continued consumption of their food by his soldiers might in time weaken Gallic support, whilst moving west into Liguria would not help to weaken Roman resistance and meant passing through country where foraging would be difficult. Hannibal needed to keep up the pressure on the Romans and this meant continuing his advance deeper into their territory. There he could feed his soldiers from the produce of enemy fields, provide them with plentiful booty, and any victories he won would be that much more disturbing to the Romans and perhaps do more to encourage the defection of their Italian allies. The direction he took could not ignore that most important feature of Italian geography, the Apennine Mountains, that solid barrier which cuts the Peninsula in two and which could only be crossed by an army in a few places. Therefore Hannibal could either move east to the sea and advance down the Adriatic coast into Picenum, or go south to the passes of the Apennines and then swing west into Etruria. These alternatives were as clear to the Senate as they were to Hannibal, and their solution was to place one consul in a position to oppose each threat. Geminus moved to Ariminum (modern Rimini) to cover the eastern coast, whilst Flaminius went to Arretium, where he could best cover the various passes over the Apennines.16

Caius Flaminius was to play the most prominent role in the forthcoming campaign and has suffered in our sources because he too presided over a Roman disaster and, unlike Sempronius Longus, was killed and so unable to justify his actions. Nor was his family a prominent one at Rome, so that there were few descendants able to have much influence on the widely accepted version of events, for Flaminius was a novus homo, a new man who was the first in his family to reach the consulship. Both Polybius and especially Livy depict him as an aggressive demagogue, a man of bold words but little talent who had based a career on pandering to the desires of the poorest citizens to overcome the opposition of most of the Senate. His career up to this point had certainly been controversial, but it had also been exceptionally distinguished, even by the standards of the third century, and especially so for a new man. We have already seen how as a tribune of the plebs in 232 he had passed a bill to distribute land in Cisalpine Gaul to poorer citizens, and in his first consulship in 223 had celebrated a triumph over the Insubres. He had also been the first praetorian governor of Sicily. Elected one of the two censors in 220 he had carried out several major projects, including the construction of the Circus Flaminius in Rome and the via Flaminia which ran from the city to Ariminum, connecting the city with the newly colonized land. He was clearly something of a maverick, a politician who achieved his ambitions by methods that were anything but traditional. His land law had been disliked by many in the Senate, and he had gained a reputation for impatience during his first consulship, refusing to be recalled on religious grounds and only celebrating his triumph by Popular vote, after the Senate had refused him this honour. The most successful politicians at Rome were the men who got what they wanted quietly and without such crises. Men like Flaminius made many enemies who only waited for them to become vulnerable to exploit this weakness. In his case they were allowed to savage his reputation after his death.17

Flaminius' election was no protest by a 'democratic party' against the Senate's handling of the war. As we have seen such terms have no relevance for Roman politics, and anyway Flaminius' candidature almost certainly predated the news of Rome's early defeats. That he was an experienced man, who had fought successfully against the very Gauls now joined with Hannibal, may well have been useful in his election campaign, but Flaminius must have had some support in the Senate, even if few wished to admit to this after his defeat. Certainly he must have won the votes of many of the wealthier citizens and cannot have relied simply on the poorest to have been successful in the Comitia Centuriata. It is important not to confuse modern concepts of 'popular support' with Roman or be taken in by the language of political insults at Rome. It is possible that Flaminius exploited a body of support outside the traditional family systems of patronage which tended to dominate the Roman assemblies, for his career as tribune and censor had given him many opportunities of winning the favour of the wealthier classes outside the Senate. The distribution of the ager Gallicus and his building projects all gave opportunities to award lucrative contracts and win important friends.

Flaminius proved impatient to begin operations, flouting convention by taking up office on 15 March not in Rome, but at Ariminum. Livy says that he was afraid that his rivals in the Senate would manipulate the auspices and delay him in Rome as long as possible, hoping to deprive him of his command, fears which were probably not groundless. To avoid this, he pretended to leave the city on private business and instead went to join the army.18 Militarily this made sense, since it was important to have his army in position to cover the approaches to Etruria before Hannibal made any move and the armies last year had withdrawn to this town. It did mean that Flaminius did not properly carry out the rituals normally presided over by an incoming consul, and further alienated the Senate by ignoring the commission sent to recall him to Rome. As with Claudius at Drepana, the consul's disrespect for the gods was later held to be a major factor in his defeat w

Hannibal moved as soon as the arrival of spring made it easier for his army to forage. As usual he moved quickly and in an unexpected direction. He had decided to cross the mountains into Etruria, partly because the area was fertile enough to support his soldiers, but also because it would allow him to pose a more direct threat to Rome. He crossed the Apennines probably by the Porretta, or perhaps the Colline pass, and forced his way through the marshes around the River Arno, which had flooded after the winter rains, driving his army hard to push it quickly through this difficult terrain. His most disciplined infantry, the hard-marching Africans and Spanish, led the way with the baggage train, setting a fast pace which the Celtic warriors, unused to the rigours of campaigning, found difficult to maintain. It is anyway always harder and more aggravating to march in the rear of a column. Hannibal's cavalry brought up the rear and chivvied along the Gallic stragglers. It took three days and nights to get through the marshes and the army suffered much in the process, the men finding it difficult to rest on the muddy ground so that some were only able to sleep by lying on pack saddles, or the corpses of the many baggage mules which collapsed and died during the journey. Hannibal himself suffered badly from ophthalmia, eventually losing the sight in one eye since the conditions did not allow proper treatment, and had to be carried for much of the journey by the sole surviving elephant with the army, perhaps the brave 'Syrian' mentioned by Cato.20

Once again Hannibal had done the unexpected, getting his army across a major obstacle in spite of the difficulties and without interference from the enemy. He was now in position to begin the next stage of his campaign. Granting his men a few days' rest when they emerged from the marshes somewhere near Faesulae, Hannibal sent out scouting parties to locate the Romans and gain as much information about the area as possible. Learning that Flaminius was at Arretium, and confirming that the rich plain of Etruria should offer plentiful food to support his army and booty to encourage his soldiers, he decided to push past the Roman army and lure them into following him south. He is said to have realized that Flaminius was a rash commander who was likely to pursue incautiously and so give opportunity for a battle in conditions favourable to the Carthaginians.

Such a move would also draw the Roman army further away from the support of whatever forces they had stationed east of the Apennines -Hannibal is unlikely to have known the precise location of Geminus' army - who would doubtless attempt to join Flaminius as soon as they had confirmed which way Hannibal was going. Other factors made such a plan both feasible and desirable. Hannibal had established no permanent base from which he intended to keep his army supplied and so had no lines of communication which the Roman army could cut if he left it in his rear. Instead he relied on gathering food and forage from the land through which he was passing, carrying just enough in his baggage train to keep men and horses fed until the next opportunity came to stop and scour the neighbourhood for supplies. Although this granted his army considerable freedom of movement, it also meant that the army could never afford to stop moving for any length of time, since they would swiftly consume all the available resources of that locality. The problem was made more acute now that he had left behind the allied tribes of Cisalpine Gaul. Therefore, to move on Arretium, and hope to draw Flaminius into battle on favourable terms before his army ran out of food and had to disengage, was highly risky. Hannibal simply could not afford to fight too many indecisive battles, or win minor victories at the cost of high casualties amongst his irreplaceable experienced soldiers. Bypassing the Roman army gave Hannibal the initiative and ensured that he would dictate the course of the campaign.21

Flaminius immediately responded as the Carthaginian had predicted, and indeed as any other Roman commander of this period, and certainly the consuls of 218, would have acted. As soon as he realized that the Punic army had passed him and was devastating the land of Rome's allies, he marched out of Arretium in pursuit. He is supposed to have ignored the advice of his senior officers, as well as a series of bad omens, such as when his horse threw him, and the standard bearers had difficulty pulling the standards free from the ground where their iron butts had been planted to hold them upright. It is possible that some officers advised the consul to wait until he had been reinforced by his colleague, since Flaminius' soldiers on their own were significantly outnumbered by the enemy, but this is more probably part of the tradition which placed the sole blame for the disaster on the commander. As the Roman army marched south, it passed through the area laid waste by the enemy, through villages pillaged and burned. It was immensely humiliating when an enemy could violate the fields of a state or its allies without any interference from the army of that state, and reflected badly on its military prowess. It is important to remember that the Roman army was still largely recruited from a rural population of farmers and their sons, commanded by officers who were themselves landowners. They retained much of the old hoplite ethos which held the preservation of the community's land to be the highest duty of the citizen under arms. When the enemy openly ignored a Roman army and felt free to plunder the land at will, this implied that it held Roman might in contempt and issued a direct challenge to prove otherwise. Few, if any, states in the ancient world were able to resist such provocation without admitting their own weakness. The Romans were no exception, especially since they were still convinced of the superiority of their infantry despite the defeat at Trebia.

As Flaminius and his army hastened to catch up with the enemy in the first weeks of June, it may well have seemed that the Carthaginians were fleeing because they were terrified of Roman arms. According to Polybius the Roman column was swollen by volunteers anticipating an easy victory and bringing along fetters and chains they expected to use on the prisoners they would capture and sell as slaves.22

Hannibal continued south, deliberately provoking the Romans with the savagery of his depredations. They were now no more than a day's march behind him. Passing the city of Cortona, he came to Lake Trasimene and saw an opportunity as the main route continued through a defile with the shore on one side and a line of hills on the other. On 20 June the Carthaginian army marched past the lake and very visibly pitched a camp at the far end of the line of hills. During the night Hannibal divided his troops into several columns and led them round behind the hills, taking up positions parallel with the path. Such night marches are never easy and it was no small feat for an army composed of so many different nationalities to' make their way quietly to the correct positions without confusion or discovery by the enemy, who had pitched camp near the lake shore late in the day. Most, if not all, of the troops were positioned on the reverse slopes of the high ground, concealed from the enemy's view when the sun came up. The cavalry were on the flank nearest to the Romans, ready to swing round behind the enemy column once it had completely entered the defile and cut off their retreat. The Celts formed the centre and the African and Spanish foot the left flank near the Punic camp. The javelin skirmishers and Balearic slingers were probably to the left of these troops ready to close the exit to the defile. Precisely where on the northern or eastern shores of Lake Trasimene the ambush was set is now impossible to know, since our sources are unclear and sometimes contradictory. It is also uncertain where the third-century shore-line lay in relation to the modern lake and possible that it has changed considerably.23

Flaminius' army was ready to move at dawn on the 21st, clearly expecting to close with his quarry today. The morning was misty, the line of hills mostly obscured, but it is possible that he could see the Punic camp at the far end of the defile. He may well have formed his army into the three columns ready to wheel into the triplex acies which was the normal way to approach the enemy, but our sources are vague, and much would depend on the width of the level ground between hills and lake in the third century BC. Had the army been in a single column this would have stretched for at least 5 miles and probably considerably more, making it unlikely that the whole force could have fitted into any of the likely ambush positions. Flaminius did not send out scouts, but it was rare for Roman armies at this time to take much care over reconnoitring their line of advance. It was normally assumed that in daylight any enemy numerous enough to present a threat would be clearly visible for some distance.24

As the Roman army marched steadily along the lakeside Hannibal's waiting soldiers maintained admirable discipline. It was only when the Roman vanguard - usually composed of Roman and allied cavalry and the extraordinarii followed by one of the Latinalae - bumped into the left of

the Punic line, either the skirmishers or the Libyans and Spanish, that Hannibal sent orders for the remainder of his army to attack. Soon attacks began to come in downhill from all directions. The Roman army was thrown into confusion. The soldiers could see little, since the mist still lay heavy in the defile and visibility was limited, and instead they heard enemy war cries and the sounds of fighting from many different directions simultaneously.

From the moment that the ambush was sprung Hannibal's victory was certain, for the Roman army was in a hopelessly bad position. Nevertheless there were to be three hours of heavy fighting before that victory was complete. The Romans may well have been marching in three columns, but it took time and considerable supervision to turn this formation into anything resembling a proper fighting line. At Trasimene there was little or no time, and anyway none of the officers knew where and facing in which direction to form a line. In some places there was panic as the soldiers fled from real or imagined foes looming out of the mist. Elsewhere the legionaries clustered together, often led by their centurions, sometimes by tribunes, and held their ground with that grim determination which so often characterized the Roman soldier. The fighting was especially heavy in the centre where the Gallic warriors suffered heavy losses as they gradually beat down the Roman resistance.

Polybius claims that Flaminius panicked and fell into despair, until he was killed by unnamed Gauls, but Livy, who has little else to say in favour of the consul, describes behaviour more appropriate for a Roman senator in the face of crisis. In this version, Flaminius galloped around the army, shouting out encouragement to the soldiers and trying to organize their resistance. Rallying a group of the bravest soldiers, he charged to the aid of his men wherever he saw them sorely pressed. Easily recognizable by his splendid equipment, the consul became the focus for enemy attacks, particularly from Hannibal's Gallic allies, who are supposed to have recognized him as the man who had defeated their warriors and laid waste their lands in 223. According to Silius Italicus' epic poem, Flaminius had adopted the further provocation of wearing a Gallic scalp on the crest of his helmet. This work is often fanciful and this may simply be a lurid invention, although if it is true it presents a far more savage image than we normally associate with the civilized Roman aristocracy. Finally, an Insubrian cavalryman, whom Livy names Ducarius, charged the Roman lines, killed Flaminius' personal bodyguard and then impaled the consul himself with his spear. However, a group of legionaries,triarii according to Livy although he may have been using the term generally, drove the Gauls back and saved the consul's corpse from being despoiled and beheaded.

The confusion may not all have been on the Roman side. Hannibal's army had started the battle spread over a wide area of hilly ground and had to cope with the same problems of visibility as the Romans, so their attacks may not have been as perfectly co-ordinated as our sources suggest. The Roman vanguard broke through the enemy opposing them, perhaps the light infantry, and pushed on up the road. At some point they had lost contact with the troops behind them, perhaps as some officer drew them off to form a line facing one of the other threats. About 6,000 men pushed on in this way and found no more enemies in front of them, but it was only as they climbed out of the defile and the mist began to thin that they were able to look back and see the scale of the disaster which had befallen the rest of the army. Organized resistance had largely collapsed with the consul's death. Men were killed as they ran, abandoning their weapons, or drowned as they tried to swim to safety across the lake. Others waded out into the water, submerging up to their necks, and later the Punic cavalrymen amused themselves by swimming their horses into the water and hacking at the bobbing heads. The vanguard could do nothing useful by turning back, so marched on to take sanctuary in a nearby village. Later in the day, Hannibal sent Maharbal with some Spanish troops supported by the javelin-men to surround the place. The vanguard surrendered on the promise that their lives be spared and, according to Livy, that they be allowed to go free with the clothes they wore, but nothing else. Hannibal did not approve the agreement made by his subordinate. The Romans were enslaved, but as usual the allies, who probably formed the bulk of this group, were well treated and allowed to return home with the assurance that he was fighting on their behalf against their Roman masters.

Fabius Pictor claimed that 15,000 Romans were killed, whilst 10,000 men were dispersed and gradually made their way back to Rome. It is unclear whether this figure included prisoners, such as the 6,000 men of the vanguard, but Polybius says that Hannibal captured around 15,000 men. He also gathered a great quantity of booty and in particular military equipment. Soon the Libyan infantry were re-equipped as Roman legionaries, each man being given mail, a bronze helmet and an oval scutum, although it is unclear whether they also adopted Roman pila or swords. Hannibal's own losses were much less, either 1,500 or 2,500 depending on the source, the vast majority Gauls, but including thirty senior officers. A loss of 3-5 per cent was not too high a price to pay for the annihilation of the enemy as an effective force, but, given the tactical advantages enjoyed by the Punic army, it testifies to the ferocious resistance put up by many of the Roman and allied soldiers. Hannibal buried his own dead, and particularly his officers, with some care and attempted to locate the body of Flaminius in order to pay the consul the same courtesy, but was unable to find it. Perhaps the Insubres had disposed of it after their own fashion, but it may simply have been lost amongst the many dead, or quickly stripped of its armour and clothing by looters thus becoming unrecognizable.25

Within a few days the Romans suffered another disaster. Geminus had been hurrying to join his colleague and had sent on ahead 4,000 cavalry under one Gaius Centenius. Hannibal learned of their approach before the Romans knew of Flaminius' defeat. Maharbal took another column out and launched a surprise attack on the Roman horsemen. Those who were not killed in the first onslaught retired to some high ground, but were surrounded and surrendered the next day. The loss of its cavalry effectively removed whatever threat had been posed by the other Roman army in the field.26

Few commanders have been able to repeat Hannibal's feat of ambushing and effectively destroying an entire army He had dictated the course of the entire campaign, luring Flaminius on into a hopeless position. These operations highlighted not only Hannibal's superiority as a general, but the greater flexibility of his army. Not only had his troops had the skill to move into ambush positions under the cover of darkness, without getting lost or ending up in the wrong place, and then demonstrated their discipline by not attacking prematurely, but the ability of his subordinates was demonstrated by the two successful columns taken out by Maharbal. The Romans still expected battles to be open and formal, where the courage of their legions, closely controlled by their officers, would win the day, and did not take the same care as their opponent to keep the enemy under constant surveillance and always, where possible, to surprise him.

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