Ancient History & Civilisation


The War in Italy 216-203 BC

HANNIBAL'S FIRST THREE campaigns in Italy have been described in some detail. They are well documented and included three of the largest and most important battles of the entire war. They also provide a good picture of the way in which armies moved and fought during this period. Polybius' continuous narrative of the war ends with Cannae, and only a few fragments exist for the remainder of the thirteen years Hannibal spent in Italy. Livy provides a detailed account of these years, but his reliability is often suspect. Many of the battles he describes seem to be inflated accounts of small skirmishes, perhaps exaggerated by the propaganda of senatorial families who wished to add to the reputations of their ancestors, and little reliance can be placed on Livy's descriptions of these. During these years the rival armies marched and counter-marched across much of southern Italy, frequently passing again over the same areas, both sides struggling to control the important cities and towns, such as Capua, Tarentum, Nola and Beneventum. A simple chronological account of these years would be long, wearisome and confusing to those unfamiliar with the landscape of third-century Italy. Instead, this chapter will attempt to explain why the campaigns developed in this way.

City states in the Graeco-Roman world were inherently unstable, hence the widespread admiration for the 'Mixed Constitutions' of Rome and Carthage which appeared to preserve them from political upheaval. In most communities there seemed always to be individuals or a faction which wished to dominate the state, or a group on the fringes of the established political class who were willing to raise a charismatic leader to the dictatorship if he promised to favour them. Livy presents a picture of fierce factionalism in most of the cities of southern Italy, claiming that in the majority of cases it was the poorer classes which favoured rebellion against Rome and the wealthier citizens who hoped to preserve the alliance,

although he does mention a few exceptions to this rule. Livy had little sympathy for politicians who relied on the masses for their support, blaming many of the ills which befell the Republic on such demagogues, and it may be that his association of popular politics with Rome's enemies was a deliberate attempt to condemn them. However, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the leaders wishing to supplant the existing elite were both the most likely to appeal for popular support, and also to favour revolution and so a new alliance with Carthage.1

The attitude to the Carthaginians of even those allies who did change sides seems to have been ambivalent at best, for they were alien in language and culture both to Italian and Greek. Rarely did all the communities of one region rebel simultaneously. Many Campanian cities remained loyal even after the defection of Capua and this was true in each area that rebelled, so that even some Samnites remained loyal. In some cases communities were held in check by Roman garrisons, but elsewhere the existing elites were content with Roman rule and themselves suppressed any elements favouring a change. The strength of the Roman network of alliances was demonstrated at this time of crisis, the Latin communities proving especially staunch. Although eventually much of southern Italy defected to, or was captured by, Hannibal, the bulk of Rome's allies remained loyal. In part this may have been due to fear. For much of the war the Romans maintained a strong army in Etruria, and the Senate responded very quickly to reports of discontent and potential rebellion at Arretium. In Sicily during the First War the cities had felt little affinity to either side and had tended to switch allegiances and join whoever they believed to be the stronger. Despite the appearance of invincibility gained by Hannibal after Cannae, this did not happen to anywhere near the same extent in Italy.2

Those communities which did join Hannibal had no sense of common identity or purpose. In 215 one of Hannibal's officers, Hanno, led an army primarily composed of Bruttians against Rhegium, Locri and other Greek cities in the south-west of Italy. The Bruttians were amazed when Locri surrendered and was granted allied status by the Carthaginians, for they had eagerly anticipated plundering the city as enemies. They promptly proceeded to besiege Croton without Punic aid to ensure that they alone enjoyed the prizes of this victory. The Roman system had always placed Rome at the centre of a network of otherwise unconnected communities. When allegiance to Rome was removed, then there was no common bond between the Italian communities, since none favoured the prospect of shifting their allegiance to Capua or any other big city. Each tended to look to its own interests and expected Hannibal to provide them with full protection from Roman reprisals. On several occasions the Campanians and Samnites complained that Hannibal was not doing enough to defend them against attacks and expected him to rush to their aid with his main army.3

Capua was the most important city to defect to Hannibal in the aftermath of Cannae. Its population held Roman citizenship, but without the right to vote or stand for office in Rome, and the aristocrats of the city had close connections with many senatorial families, marriage alliances being relatively common. Hannibal guaranteed that Capua should be self-governing and retain its own laws, which would be enforced by its own magistrates. No Carthaginian officer or magistrate was to have jurisdiction over the city, and neither could they compel Campanian citizens to serve in the army or perform any other duty against their will. Arrangements were also made to provide the city with 300 Roman prisoners who could be exchanged for a similarly sized detachment of Campanian horse serving with the Romans in Sicily. In fact these cavalrymen chose, or felt compelled, to remain loyal and were later rewarded by the Romans. It was clear that the city did not envisage a close, subordinate relationship with Carthage. Perhaps the leaders at Capua hoped that after the Punic victory in the war, their city would replace Rome as the dominant power in Italy. It is difficult to know to what extent the Capuans were motivated by discontent with their relationship with Rome or despair over their ally's prospects after the string of defeats culminating in Cannae. Livy claims that a deputation had been sent to Varro after the battle and that his sense of despair persuaded them that Rome's defeat was inevitable, but this may simply be another piece of propaganda intended to blacken the consul's name. Romans in Capua were arrested and imprisoned in a bath house, where they were suffocated by the extreme heat of the furnace. It is unclear whether or not this act was deliberate and, if so, who ordered it, but it is clear that feelings against Rome ran high after Capua had rebelled.4

Most of the cities which defected to Hannibal did so only on the approach of his army. When a city did not act in this way, Hannibal immediately resorted to force or the threat of force in an attempt to overawe them with his might and prompt their surrender. Twice in late 216 the Punic army swept down on Naples, hoping to force it into submission. Some Neapolitan cavalry were heavily defeated in a skirmish outside the walls, but the magistrates and senate held the population loyal to Rome and no faction willing to seize power or betray the city to the enemy appeared. Hannibal withdrew as soon as this became clear and moved off to try his luck elsewhere, starving Nuceria into submission and making the first of his unsuccessful threats to Nola. Only very small communities were ever subjected to direct assault, for an attack on a well-fortified city had little prospect of success and risked heavy casualties and the diminution of his reputation for invincibility. As in the First War in Sicily, the principal ways of taking a city were by stealth or blockade. Stealth relied on gaining knowledge of a weakness in the defences or an offer of betrayal from inside and was therefore only viable in some places. Blockade required the army to stay in one place for months or even years and the willingness of Hannibal to employ his main army in this way was usually a sign of the importance of the place under siege.5

After the fall of Capua, Hannibal began the siege of Casilinum late in 216 and reinforced the blockading force with much of his army early in the next spring. The city lay on the River Volturnus, commanding the routes north out of the Campanian plain along thevia Appia and the via Latina. It was heroically defended by a garrison of allied soldiers, a cohort of about 500 Latins from Praeneste commanded by Marcus Anicius and another of 460 Perusians with a few mixed stragglers from Roman field armies. Short of food the defenders foraged for roots and grass outside the walls, planting turnips when Hannibal ordered the ground ploughed up. A Roman army under the Magister Equitum Gracchus hovered in the area but was unwilling to close with the Carthaginian army. To aid the defenders, at night the Romans floated large jars full of grain down the river. For several nights the plan succeeded until Hannibal's men noticed the pots caught in the reeds near the river bank and established a firmer guard, sealing off this means of supply. Eventually the garrison ran out of food and surrendered after Hannibal had promised to ransom them at the rate of seven tenths of a pound of gold per man. This was duly paid - presumably by their communities although our sources are not explicit - and the men released. Livy tells us that Anicius later erected a statue of himself at Praeneste to fulfil a vow made during the siege. About half of the garrison had perished before the capitulation. The Praenestians were offered Roman citizenship by the Senate and interestingly refused the honour, a sign of the strong loyalty of many Latins and Italians to their own communities. Hannibal left Casilinum to the Campanians, bolstering their new garrison with 700 of his own men, for the Romans would need to regain control of this place if they were to threaten Capua itself.6

After 216 Hannibal was faced with the permanent problem of protecting his new allies and their territory. Defections to him did not greatly increase the number of soldiers at his disposal. At various times predominantly Italian forces were formed, sometimes bolstered by detachments of mercenaries from the main army and commanded by a Carthaginian officer. The army defeated at the River Calor in 214 consisted of 17,000 Bruttian and Lucanian foot supported by 1,200 Numidian and Moorish light horse under the leadership of Hanno. This army had earlier enjoyed some success in persuading the Greek cities of the south-west to submit. In 212 it was again heavily defeated near Beneventum, when the Romans surprised Hanno whilst the bulk of his men were out foraging. At this action, a cohort from Praeneste once more played a distinguished role, being the first to break into the Punic camp. Most of Hannibal's Italian allies were unwilling to commit large numbers of their troops to campaigning outside their own territory, another sign of the lack of common cause between these communities as well as the fear of Roman reprisals. It was rare for there to be more than one sizeable force available to operate in support of Hannibal's main army and, as Hanno's defeats showed, their performance was poor. The Romans fought with great determination against their former allies and were certainly not in awe of them, as they still were of Hannibal and his army. Few Italians had ever exercised high command, since such posts were the preserves of Roman citizens, and Carthaginian officers could only gradually create a bond with Italian soldiers and develop some sort of command structure to control these new armies. As at the River Calor, most of these predominantly Italian armies were weak in cavalry, denying them one of the greatest advantages Hannibal himself had always enjoyed over the Romans. This meant that the only force which could consistentiy face and defeat Roman armies in battle was Hannibal's own main army. Some Italians were incorporated into this and performed well, but its heart remained the Libyan, Numidian, Spanish and Gallic contingents. Its numbers were steadily cfiminished by casualties, disease, and the need to detach groups to bolster allied resistance. Only once, in 214, did Hannibal receive a significant reinforcement when Bomilcar and a Punic fleet managed to land troops, elephants and supplies at Locri.7 The Roman situation was utterly different. We have already seen how quickly they had mustered new legions in the months after Cannae, making use of slaves and criminals. There is some suggestion that during these years the minimum property qualification for service in the legions was significantly reduced, adding to the already large pool of citizen manpower which was to prove Rome's great advantage in these years. Record numbers of legions were enrolled for the remaining years of the conflict. Livy is our main source for the number of legions fielded in each year, although there are some problems and apparent contradictions in these passages, for instance the inconsistency with which he includes the armies in Spain in his figures, so that certain scholars have modified his total. There were at least twelve and probably fourteen legions in service in the spring of 215 and eighteen in 214. The number continued to rise until there were twenty-five legions at the peak of Roman mobilization in 212-211, representing a theoretical strength of at least 100,000 infantry and 7,500 cavalry, supported as always by a similar number of allied soldiers. The bulk of these troops were invariably deployed in Italy. However, they were not concentrated into one or two great armies intended to confront and defeat Hannibal in open battle. In the decade after Cannae there were between four and seven consular-sized, two-legion armies operating in the Italian Peninsula, supported by several single-legion forces as well as smaller garrisons and detachments. The increase in the number of active field armies made it relatively easy for the Romans to threaten defecting Italian states.8

There was also far more continuity in the Roman command. Fabius Maximus held his third consulship in 215 with Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the dictator Pera's Magister Equitum, as his colleague. In 214 he was again consul, this time with Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who had held the office in 222. The next year Fabius' son, also called Quintus Fabius Maximus, was elected consul in what was seen as a gesture of favour for his father, and Gracchus won his second term of office. Marcellus held the consulship again in 210 and 208, and the elder Fabius once more in 209. In 212 and 209 Quintus Fulvius Flaccus held his third and fourth consulships, over twenty years after he had first held the post in 237. All of these men also held pro-magisterial commands during the years between their office, so that Marcellus served without a break from 216 until his death in 208. The electorate's preference for experienced men to hold the senior posts indicated a realization that the current crisis required able commanders, but was also a result of the appalling casualties suffered by the major senatorial families in the first years of the war. The Senate's ranks had been replenished by men with distinguished records, but these were invariably too young or too poor to stand for the highest magistracy with any chance of success. Marcellus, Fabius and Fulvius Flaccus were all in their late fifties or sixties, members of the generation which had grown up and fought during the First Punic War. Serving with the same legions for several years in succession gready increased the bond between commander and soldiers. The legions of volones, the slaves recruited after Cannae, showed particular affection for Gracchus, dispersing and having to be reformed after he was ambushed and killed in 212.9

Several of the elections in these years were controversial. In 215, Gracchus and Lucius Postumius were originally elected consuls, and the Assembly voted for Marcellus to replace the latter when he was ambushed and killed in Gaul. However, on the day that Marcellus formally assumed the office, the college of augurs reported hearing thunder and his election was declared invalid on religious grounds. Another election was held and Fabius Maximus chosen. It is difficult to know what lay behind this incident, although manipulation of the State religion for political ends was not unknown at Rome. Those who understand Roman politics purely in terms of factions have had trouble reconciling Fabius' apparent desire to prevent Marcellus holding office, with his willingness to have him as a colleague the next year. Fabius himself presided over the election for 214 and is supposed to have asked the leading centuries of the Comitia to reconsider, when they had initially chosen two former praetors whom he considered to be unsuitable for the current situation. Livy tells us that the Senate informally stated that it was improper to have Marcellus and Gracchus as colleagues, since both were plebeians and it was traditional to reserve at least one of the consulships for a patrician. If this was in fact behind the whole business, then it would indicate the same sort of emphasis on scrupulous normality in spite of the current crisis which also characterized the regulation of the State religion at this time. The continuation of the normally fierce competition for office throughout the Hannibalic war is another indication of the strength of the Roman political system. Roman senators battled furiously to gain magistracies and senior commands against the State's most dangerous enemy. None ever dreamed of joining that enemy and seeking his aid to gain power in a defeated Rome.10

Although the Roman armies fielded in these years did not mass together, they often operated in mutual support. Campania was the main focus of Roman attention until 211. In 215 Fabius and Gracchus both went there, whilst Marcellus based himself with another two legions at Nola. Gracchus relieved Cumae on his own, but afterwards both consuls acted together against the outposts protecting the approaches to Capua. In 214 Marcellus brought his army into the area to cover Fabius whilst he besieged and eventually captured Casilinum. Later, near the end of Fabius' year of office, a nobleman from the city of Arpi in northern Apulia came to him and offered to betray the city to the Romans in return for a reward. This man, one Dasius Altinus, informed them of a weakness in the city's defences. Fabius approached as if to conduct a regular siege, but then employed a picked body of 600 men in a night attack. The weather favoured the Romans as a thunderstorm reduced visibility and forced most of the sentries to seek shelter. Setting ladders against the weak spot in the wall, the Roman force climbed into the city and moved silently to seize the gates and admit the remainder of the army into the city just before dawn. For a while the population and the Punic garrison tried to resist in the streets, but the Arpini surrendered and turned on their erstwhile allies. The Carthaginians in turn capitulated and were allowed to rejoin Hannibal's main army, but nearly 1,000 Spanish deserted to the Romans who rewarded them with double rations, perhaps an indication of one of their grievances with Carthaginian service conditions. This was the second serious desertion suffered by Hannibal's army, for 272 mixed Spanish and Numidian cavalrymen had defected to Marcellus' camp outside Nola the previous year. Such losses in the years when Hannibal's strength and fortune appeared at its greatest are striking, but this was not entirely a one-way process, for some Roman and Italian deserters proved willing to fight with the enemy. On the whole Hannibal's soldiers of all nationalities proved remarkably loyal.11

Like so many of the other strongholds to fall during the Punic Wars, Arpi was captured by treachery and stealth. Hannibal had some successes elsewhere during these years, usually by the same means, but his repeated attempts to capture Nola, which lies on the edge of the Campanian plain, failed. The Romans were ruthless in their attacks on allies who had rebelled, but their commanders paid careful attention to winning back the loyalty of the disaffected Italian noblemen before they committed themselves to the enemy. At Nola Marcellus rewarded and lavished praise on the bravery of Lucius Bantius who had been captured at Cannae and released as part of Hannibal's plan to win over the Italians. Fabius also took care to foster the loyalty of his allied soldiers, for instance rewarding a Marsian soldier, who was believed to be planning to desert, and publicly stating that the man's achievements had been unfairly overlooked in the past.12

The Fall of Tarentum

Hannibal was especially eager to capture a port. The Roman refusal to concede defeat after Cannae and the continued loyalty of most of her allies had made it clear that the war would not be won quickly. In the struggle to control the walled towns and cities of southern Italy, Hannibal was at an increasing disadvantage as the Romans mobilized more and more soldiers. His main army remained undefeated in any serious engagement and he repeatedly led it against the strongholds loyal to Rome, hoping to force their defection or discover a means of capturing them. The Roman armies kept to the higher ground on the fringes of the Apennines as far as possible and avoided the plains where the superiority of the Carthaginian cavalry was unchallenged. Roman commanders offered battle only from strong defensive positions, which the Carthaginian was rarely willing to attack. In the hilly country around places such as Beneventum and Nola it was hard to fight a decisive battle. Rarely were the open plains wide enough to deploy large armies and there was always higher ground for a beaten side to retire to and recover. Even a general of Hannibal's genius could not force a reluctant enemy to fight pitched battles in this country. His army needed to remain concentrated if it was to threaten the Romans. Wherever it appeared, the Romans' movements had to become cautious, but the army could only be in one place at a time and the Roman forces elsewhere inevitably became very aggressive. Unprotected, his allies were attacked and their fields raided. Hannibal's rapid and unexpected marches during these years displayed all his familiar genius and the continued efficiency of his army, but even this could not entirely overcome the enemy's vastly superior numbers.

Late in 216 Hannibal had sent his brother Mago to report to the Carthaginian Senate. There, perhaps in the same hall where Fabius Buteo had let slip war from the fold of his toga, Mago ordered his attendants to pour onto the floor heaps of the gold rings taken from the bodies of slain Roman senators and equestrians as evidence of the slaughter Hannibal had wrought on the state's enemies. He ended with an appeal for immediate reinforcement and supplies of grain to feed the army. Livy claims that Hanno, the old opponent of the Barcid family, mocked the catalogue of Hannibal's achievements, complaining that the general was asking for aid as if he was losing rather than winning the war. In spite of this criticism, the majority voted to send support to the army in Italy as well as reinforcing the position in Spain. The problem was how to get reinforcements and supplies to Italy. Without a port, and some degree of control over the waters off Sicily, no sizeable reinforcement could reach Hannibal without following the land route he had taken himself.13

Hannibal had failed at Cumae and Naples. In 214 five noblemen from the great maritime city of Tarentum came to the Punic camp. All had been captured at Trasimene or Cannae and released. They claimed that they had the support of most of their city and that it would immediately defect if the Carthaginian army approached in force. Hannibal was currently on the west coast outside Cumae and made another attempt at Naples, before marching once more on Nola. From there he set out at night, reaching Tarentum whilst the Roman armies were all occupied elsewhere. The Roman garrison were on their guard and had recently been reinforced by the fleet from Brundisium. No rising occurred in the city and none of the noblemen appeared to fulfil their promises, so after a few days Hannibal withdrew.14

In 212 hostages from Tarentum and Thurii attempted to escape from Rome and were arrested and executed, enraging opinion in these and many other Greek cities. Another conspiracy was formed at Tarentum by a group of young aristocrats led by Philemenus and Nico (Nikon in Greek). Hannibal had placed his winter camp three days' march from the city and before the spring he was approached by the conspirators, who were ostensibly on a hunting expedition. Hannibal accepted their offer and sent them back, driving cattle from his baggage train which they claimed to have found grazing and captured. In the next weeks the ruse was repeated on several occasions as the noblemen negotiated the conditions of their betrayal. Tarentum was granted much the same terms as Capua, being guaranteed freedom to be ruled by its own laws and magistrates, that the city would not pay tribute to Carthage nor accept a Punic garrison against its will. Only the property of Roman citizens living in the city was to be seized by Hannibal and these, as well as the Roman garrison, would be taken prisoner by the Carthaginians who could then ransom or sell them as they wished.15

The detailed accounts of the capture of Tarentum provide a good example of the type of operations which occurred when other cities were betrayed and are worth recounting in detail. Philemenus took to hunting at night, allegedly to avoid Punic patrols, and regularly returned with prizes which he liberally shared with the sentries and commander at the side gate he used. So familiar did the guards become with this routine that they happily opened the gate whenever they recognized his whisde. Hannibal picked 10,000 mixed horse and foot for their speed and agility to form his attack column, issued four days' rations, and led them out in the middle of the night. Interestingly they included three bands of Gauls, a total of 2,000 men, which shows how effectively these warriors had been absorbed into the army, when compared with the criticisms of the Gauls' lack of speed and stamina in marching during the 217 campaign. The column was screened by 80 Numidian horsemen, who had orders to capture or kill anyone they met but otherwise give the impression that they were no more than a normal foraging party. Hannibal's force marched them to within 14 or 15 miles of the city, keeping the men tightly under control and not permitting any straggling. He rested them for the remainder of the day in a gorge where they were hidden from view, holding a briefing for his officers in which he stressed that they must keep their men tightly under control and obey his orders to the letter.

The commander of Tarentum's Roman garrison, one Marcus or Caius Livius, was attending a feast when he received a report of the marauding Numidian cavalry. He saw no serious threat in their actions and merely ordered a cavalry patrol to be sent out the next day. The conspirators had deliberately chosen this day in the belief that Livius would be distracted and some of them kept him drinking after the celebration and escorted him home in no state to command. That night Hannibal was guided towards the city by Philemenus and made the prearranged signal by lighting a bonfire. When the conspirators answered with a fire-signal of their own, Hannibal extinguished the beacon and divided his force into three. The 2,000 cavalry were to remain outside, ready as a reserve to cover their retreat or exploit their success. Philemenus led 1,000 Libyans towards the gate he habitually used for his hunting expeditions, whilst Hannibal led the remainder cautiously up the main road towards the Temenid Gate. The conspirators surprised the guards there and massacred them, killing the majority in their sleep, and admitted the Carthaginians when they arrived. In the meantime Philemenus and three others approached the other gate carrying a boar as if returning from the hunt. Hearing Philemenus' whistle, the sentry admitted them through the postern door next to the main gate. As the man leaned over to view their prize, Philemenus killed him with a hunting spear. Thirty Libyans had followed close behind the four men and swiftly entered, dealing with the guards and opening the main gate for the rest of the force. Pushing into the city, the whole body joined Hannibal, who had by this time reached the Forum. From there he dispatched the three bands of Gauls guided by some of the conspirators to take control of all the routes into the marketplace. All Romans encoun tered were killed, most without managing much resistance. Further confusion was added when the conspirators brought out some Roman military trumpets and began to sound contradictory orders. Livius escaped in a rowing skiff to the citadel which lay on a narrow promontory and was the only part of the town to remain in Roman hands. The Tarentines, faced with an enemy already controlling their streets, were assembled and soon accepted the terms presented to them by the conspirators.

Hannibal took immediate steps to reduce the citadel, which commanded the entrance to Tarentum's harbour. A wall and ditch were constructed cutting the promontory off from the main city, and a Roman sally to hinder the work was heavily defeated. However, the Roman garrison remained confident and was able to draw supplies and reinforcements from the sea. The entire garrison of Metapontum was shipped into the citadel, although their withdrawal prompted the defection of that city. A direct assault failed and Hannibal left the blockade largely in the hands of the Tarentines. He once again demonstrated his ingenuity by showing the citizens how to drag their galleys from the harbour and down one of the main streets to float them again in the open sea, allowing them to close the blockade by sea.16

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