Ancient History & Civilisation

Rome Resurgent

The capture of Tarentum was a heavy blow to Rome and a great, if incomplete, victory for Hannibal. Yet in the same year the Romans advanced to begin a full-scale siege of the other major city to join him, Capua. As early as 215 Fabius Maximus had mounted a series of heavy raids to ravage Campanian territory. Grain can most easily be burned for only a short period before harvest and the Romans took care to mount their attacks each year at this time. With cities such as Arpi and Casilinum back under their control both consuls were able to move against Capua itself in 212 and begin its blockade. In answer to the Capuans' appeal, Hannibal sent only 2,000 cavalry and several officers to their aid, but made vague promises of more substantial assistance. The Campanian cavalry were very good and had always been highly thought of by the Romans. Reinforced by the detachment from Hannibal's main army they won several small actions. However, the Romans' morale was restored when one of their own horsemen accepted the challenge to single combat issued by a Campanian with whom he was linked by ties of hospitality. This is the second such duel between Roman and Campanian described by Livy, in both of which he patriotically avers that the Roman proved successful.17

Soon afterwards Hannibal did march his army to the relief of Capua. Three days after his arrival he offered battle in front of the Roman camps. Livy's account of the action is confused, although not necessarily impossible, since he claims that battle was ended when both sides saw a distant column approaching and, assuming them to be enemies, broke off the action. Whatever the actual details of the fighting, it seems to have been indecisive, but at the very least discouraged the Roman consuls. Their two armies decided to part company and march in opposite directions to lure Hannibal away from Capua, knowing that he could only pursue one of them, so that the other could return. Livy tells the strange story of a former senior centurion named Marcus Centenius, who had requested a command from the Senate, claiming that his intimate knowledge of the area would allow him to raid it with great effect. With 8,000 men under his command he ran into Hannibal who had just given up his pursuit of one of the retreating consular armies. Centenius died heroically, but his men were massacred in the brief action or the ensuing pursuit so that barely 1,000 escaped.18

In the meantime both consular armies had returned to Capua to renew the blockade. Supplies were massed in a depot at Casilinum and strongholds established to control the River Volturnus so that bulky material such as grain could be carried in safety along it to feed the armies. Great care was taken to organize an effective system of supply, for large numbers of Roman troops would have to remain in one position if the blockade were to be successful. The two consular armies were joined by another commanded by a praetor, Claudius Nero, and the six legions set to work building a wall and ditch to encircle the city and another facing outwards. A last plea for assistance was sent to Hannibal by the city before the line of circumvallation was closed, but the Carthaginian was interested in other projects, hoping to capture Brundisium by treachery. The Romans offered free pardon to any Campanians who surrendered to them before the lines had been closed. None responded, although 112 equestrians had deserted to the Romans the year before.19

In 211 the siege of Capua remained the main priority of the Senate in Italy and both the consuls and Nero had their commands extended as pro-magistrates. The Campanian horse continued to enjoy frequent successes, until a Roman centurion, one Quintus Naevius, came up with the idea of forming a picked body of velites who would ride behind the Roman horsemen. In action they dismounted and fought in close support of the cavalry, acting as a solid bulwark in the shelter of which the horsemen could rally and reform to charge again. The new tactic gave the advantage to the Romans in all subsequent encounters. This incident has sometimes been depicted as a major reform of the cavalry and light infantry of the legions, but in fact it was simply a local expedient to deal with a particular situation. It reflected the growing experience of the Roman armies, rather than any fundamental change in their composition.20

Capua would inevitably fall if the blockade were not broken, so Hannibal decided that he must act. Leaving the heavier part of his baggage train with the Bruttians he hastened to Campania. The Roman armies were now in the open country around Capua where his more numerous and effective cavalry could normally be expected to have given Hannibal the advantage, but the Romans refused to leave their fortifications and fight a pitched battle. The proconsul Appius Claudius was not to be drawn out when Hannibal sent skirmishers up to the pickets outside the Roman camp in the way that he had lured other Roman commanders into unfavourable battles. Desperately Hannibal launched a direct assault on the Roman camps, whilst the Capuans sallied out to attack the defences from the other side. At one point a unit of Spanish infantry led by three elephants broke through the fortifications and threatened Fulvius Flaccus' camp, only to be repulsed as the Romans counter-attacked inspired by the heroic example set by several officers including Naevius. Hannibal's attack failed and his army quickly began to run short of food. They had carried only a small supply with them and the Romans had picked the land around clean of anything that could be foraged. It was then that Hannibal decided to march on Rome in the effort to lure the legions away from Capua described in the last chapter. When this failed, he abandoned Capua to its fate and returned via Samnium and Apulia to Bruttium in the south-east.21

Even the Carthaginian officers left in the city felt betrayed and abandoned by their commander, but the angry letters they dispatched to him were all intercepted by the Romans, who cut off the hands of the couriers (who had pretended to desert) and returned the men to the city. Capua's population was now facing starvation. A few of the more anti-Roman senators committed suicide, but the remainder surrendered the city, opening the gates to admit the Romans. Soon afterwards the outlying communities of Atella and Calatia also capitulated. Fifty-three Capuan senators who were held principally responsible for the rebellion against Rome were arrested. They were subsequently executed by the proconsul Fulvius, seemingly on his own authority and against the wishes of his colleague, although there were apparently several traditions concerning this incident. Later the Roman Senate decided to dissolve Capua as a city state with institutions, magistrates and laws of its own. In future it was to be governed by an official appointed by Rome.22

In 209 Hannibal's other great prize, the city of Tarentum, was recaptured by Rome. Once again the city was betrayed to an attacker. This was the last campaign fought by Fabius Maximus. During these years the Roman garrison had managed to cling onto the citadel of the city and much hard fighting had occurred as attempts were made to run supplies through the Tarentine blockade. In the spring two of the seven two-legion armies operating in Italy in that year were sent to keep Hannibal's army occupied, whilst Fabius led his own men against Tarentum. A further diversion was provided by a group of Bruttian deserters and an irregular force from Sicily based at Rhegium who were sent to raid widely, a task they carried out with considerable enthusiasm. Tarentum had surrendered on the condition that it could not be forced to accept a Punic garrison, but it is clear that it had willingly accepted one at some point. Under the overall command of Carthalo, this garrison included a band of Bruttians whose commander happened to be in love with the sister of a Tarentine man in Fabius' army. With the approval of the consul, the Tarentine pretended to desert and used the connection to befriend the Bruttian officer. (In another, even more romantic version of the story, this officer was actually in love with Fabius' former mistress.) The officer was persuaded to defect and bring his men with him. When Fabius launched an assault on the city he sent a group with ladders to the stretch of wall guarded by this unit. The Bruttians helped the Romans into the city and despite some fighting in the streets, the issue was never in doubt. Nico and some of the other conspirators died fighting, Philemenus disappeared and was presumed killed. Carthalo trusted to ties of guest friendship with Fabius, but was overtaken by a group of soldiers and cut down before he could reach the consul. The Roman soldiers ran amok, killing Tarentines and Carthaginians indiscriminately, and even some of the Bruttians were deliberately or accidentally slaughtered. An immense amount of booty and 30,000 slaves were taken. By the time that Hannibal had heard of the threat to the city and marched to its relief, it was all over.23

The brief campaign had demonstrated once again that Hannibal could not deal with all the Roman threats simultaneously. He had fought some confused and indecisive actions against the proconsul Marcellus outside Canusium not far from Cannae when Fabius had begun his drive on Tarentum. Hoping to inflict at least a minor reverse on the victorious Romans, the Carthaginian sent a false message to the consul's camp alleging that some noblemen were willing to betray Metapontum. Fabius is supposed to have taken the bait, but cancelled the expedition because of unfavourable omens, or perhaps just his instinctive caution.24

Despite its losses - 500 of his best Numidian cavalry were killed or captured when Salapia was betrayed to the Romans in 210 - Hannibal's army still remained a formidable force. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Livy's accounts of the many minor Roman victories, or battles ended by nightfall or weather before a decision could be reached, conceal tactical defeats, but even he records a number of outright Punic victories. In 212 the praetor Cnaeus Fulvius Flaccus was defeated with the loss of 16,000 men outside Herdonea, when Hannibal repeated his trick from Trebia of concealing men behind the enemy line. In 210 the proconsul Cnaeus Fulvius Centumalus was defeated near the same city, losing 7,000 or 13,000 men depending on the source. Although the coincidence of the Roman commanders' names and the location has sometimes led to suggestions that Livy has mistakenly described the same battle twice, there is no good reason to accept this and some evidence to corroborate his version. In the second battle, the Romans are supposed to have deployed not just in the usual triplex acies but with entire legions in reserve, a practice which Livy claims was followed in other battles in these years. If these accounts are accurate, the tactic may simply be a reflection of the lack of reasonably open ground in the hilly country in which the armies chiefly operated during these years, so that there was rarely space to deploy all the units of an army side by side. It is also worth remembering that when the Roman army deployed from column of march it did so by wheeling its three parallel columns to the right to form the triplex acies. If the enemy was encountered unexpectedly, it may well have been easier and quicker to wheel each ala and legion separately into line where it stood, so that at least the lead units could present an organized fighting line to any enemy threat. Many of the actions appear to have been unanticipated encounter battles without the days of cautious manoeuvring and observation of the enemy which had preceded battles like Trebia and Cannae.25

The survivors of the disasters at Herdonea were sent to replenish the ranks of the Cannae veterans fighting in Sicily and obliged to serve under the same conditions as these. The praetor Fulvius was prosecuted for his incompetence and exiled, only narrowly escaping the death penalty. Serious though these defeats were, a far greater psychological shock came in 208 when both of the consuls, Marcellus again and Titus Quinctius Crispinus, were ambushed by Hannibal whilst carrying out a reconnaissance.
Marcellus was killed in the initial attack, along with a tribune and two prefects, and his colleague mortally wounded. Hannibal treated Marcellus' corpse with respect, but also tried to take advantage by using the consul's signet ring in an attempt to recapture the town of Salapia. A letter was sent
bearing Marcellus' seal and instructing the local authorities to receive him and a body of troops. A column was formed headed by a group of Roman deserters still dressed in their old uniforms. However, Crispinus had realized the danger and sent messages warning all the towns in the area to be
on their guard. The garrison of Salapia let the leaders of the approaching column pass through the gate and then dropped the portcullis behind them. Six hundred men, mostly the deserters, were massacred in the confined space.26

By this time the area still controlled by Hannibal had been reduced to the extreme south of the country. In spite of his continued successes, the pressure of Roman numbers and the constant aggression of the annually appointed Roman commanders gradually reduced his allies. More and more individuals and whole communities returned to their original allegiance to Rome, encouraged by the good treatment which such defectors received in comparison to the punishment of states recaptured by force. In 209 the Hirpini and Lucanians surrendered and were reprimanded, but not
punished for their earlier defection. The Bruttians were offered the same
treatment if they too returned to Rome, and some of their noblemen welcomed this. The drift was not entirely in one direction. As the Salapian incident showed, there was still a tiny minority of Roman soldiers willing to fight for the enemy, as there were Libyans, Spanish, and Numidians willing to desert and serve against their former comrades. Yet overwhelmingly the trend in defections was now in favour of Rome.27

The mobilization of so many soldiers and the maintenance of a war fought on a huge scale and on many fronts simultaneously had placed Rome under tremendous strain. Not all citizens had patriotically devoted themselves to serve the interests of the state. In 213 a scandal occurred when it was revealed that the contractors paid by the state to supply the armies in Spain had been falsifying their returns and scuttling empty ships to claim massive compensation for losses to storms. In 209 the censors made an example of those equestrians from the highest centuries who had been 17 or older in 218, but who had failed to serve in the army for a single campaign during the war, by downgrading them to a lower class. (These were exceptions to the general rule, for an overwhelming majority of Roman citizens proved remarkably willing to submit to long years of legionary service and sacrifice themselves to defend their state.) A more disturbing incident had also occurred in 209 when twelve out of the thirty Latin colonies which formed the heart of Rome's network of allies declared that they could no longer contribute soldiers or funds to the war effort. This seems to have been a result of exhaustion more than disloyalty and the remaining colonies stressed their loyalty and the willingness to fulfil their obligations. Rome was winning the war of endurance, but that does not mean that the city and her allies were not feeling the strain of maintaining the struggle for so long.28

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