Ancient History & Civilisation




It didn’t take long for the seismic reverberations from Cannae to start tilting the playing field in Hannibal’s direction … or so it seemed. Almost immediately a number of the nearby Apulian communities—Aecae, Arpi, Herdonea, and Salapia—threw in with the Barcid, and as he moved west into the hill country of Rome’s old enemies the Samnites, most of them went over to him also.1 Grabbing momentum by the horns, he split his force for the first time, ordering his brother Mago south to pick up as much support as he could muster among the Oscans, Lucanians, Bruttians, and the Greeks in cities on the coast. Mago would then continue his journey alone back to Carthage, where he would deliver Cannae’s good tidings and press for reinforcements, which he could then lead back to Italy. Mago would return to Italy, but not before becoming sidetracked for upward of a decade, and without ever reuniting with his elder sibling.

Hannibal, meanwhile, soldiered west into fertile Campania for the second time, looking for more new friends. His first target, the seaport of Neapolis (modern Naples), rebuffed him, but there was something far better in the offing—Capua, the second city in the Roman confederation and a place notorious for its wealth and luxury, symbolized by its perfume market, the fabled Seplasia. But Capua was far more than a fleshpot; its leadership class was deeply intertwined with Rome’s through marriage and economic ties. It was a vital and valued Roman ally.2 Yet, despite every inhabitant holding Roman citizenship, the lower classes since the Battle of Trasimene had been restive and increasingly inclined toward secession. In the wake of Cannae and Hannibal’s approach, the pressure in this direction increased dramatically, until the only thing holding back the flood was the hesitance of the local nobility.

In particular, three hundred young cavalrymen from the city’s best families were serving alongside the Romans in Sicily, a position that would leave them hostages if Capua changed sides. Their parents, amidst the political turmoil, managed to have a delegation sent to the surviving consul, Terentius Varro, for an assessment of the military prospects. Seen through Livy’s eyes (23.5.4–15) Varro proved no better diplomat than general. “Legions, cavalry, arms, standards, horses and men, money, and supplies have vanished either in the battle or in the loss of two camps the next day. And so you, Campanians, have not to help us in war, but almost to undertake it in our stead.” In other words, you’re on your own.

But not for long. The Capuans’ next move was to send the same delegation to Hannibal. Needless to say, he was entirely more accommodating, agreeing that in return for their allegiance the Capuans would continue to rule themselves, would be under no obligation to supply him with soldiers, and were to be given three hundred Roman prisoners to exchange for their horsemen in Sicily (an unlikely prospect, as we have seen).3 To seal the deal Hannibal sent the Capuans a defensive garrison, and then entered the city in triumph, telling their senate that Capua would soon be “the capital of all Italy.”4 Intoxicated by the moment, his new allies responded by burning their remaining bridges to the Tiber, arresting the Romans in the city and shutting them up in a bathhouse, where they suffocated. Capuans would live to regret their enthusiasm, but in the shadow of Cannae the alliance must have seemed an obvious recognition of a new political reality. The Campanian city would take its place at the head of a realigned southern Italy, and Hannibal had a cornerstone upon which to begin constructing a stable edifice of control. Even more alluring, at least for the moment, he had a destination.

The Carthaginian army’s winter sojourn in Capua is the stuff of ancient legend. As French archaeologist and historian Serge Lancel explains, those three proverbial symbols of dissipation in classical antiquity—wine, women, and warm water—(not to mention soap and perfume) turned Hannibal’s fine-tuned instrument of destruction into a bunch of skulking hedonists, at least according to Livy in his famous passage on their epic sleepover.5 He even has Marcellus, no slouch as a luxury lover, let on that “Capua was Hannibal’s Cannae.”6

None of this should be taken literally. For one thing, only a small portion of the army could have been quartered there without fatally alienating the population. Besides, this was a force destined to fight successfully in Italy for more than a decade longer.7

Yet Livy’s point should not be dismissed. Every alliance comes with a price tag. By succumbing to the allure of having stable friendships—bases, a steady source of supplies, political allegiance—Hannibal took on the burden of protecting them. It would prove a heavy load for a military vagabond. Life on the road had been hard and uncertain, but it had afforded Hannibal the strategic advantage of being able to show up anywhere, a maddening possibility if you were Rome. With assets to defend, he was now tied down—cut off, for instance, from the Gauls far to the north and their supplies of fresh king-size fighters.

Not only was the fox forced to guard the henhouse, but the hens themselves had considerable strategic limitations, having been politically contaminated by their former hegemon. As mentioned earlier, Rome’s system of treaties tied allies directly to it and not to one another. Removing this dependency left no common bond, no basis for larger amalgams, and this condition was only compounded by the fierce internal factionalism of the south, especially among the Greeks.8

With this came an equivalent reluctance to contribute troops, especially for duty outside of home territory. This left Hannibal reliant on his own field army to fend off a succession of Roman forces drawn from their own very deep manpower base. Over time some numbers of Italians were successfully integrated into the Punic force structure, but the structure’s core remained Libyan, Numidian, Spanish, and Gallic. As the Carthaginian traveling force was gradually eroded by casualties, by the need for garrison troops, and eventually even by age, what Hannibal needed was reinforcements.

That was to have been Mago’s job, the point of his triumphant return to Carthage. To set the stage, Hannibal’s youngest brother ordered that the baskets full of golden rings pried off the fingers of senators and equestrians at Cannae be poured out in the vestibule of the meeting hall of the elders. Addressing the elders, he spoke glowingly of victories achieved, consuls humiliated, casualties inflicted, captives held, allies won over, of Italy in revolt, and above all, as victory grew near, he spoke of aiding Hannibal with all the resources at the state’s disposal—more troops, but also money for pay, and food for the soldiers who had already served so well in Carthage’s name.9

The speech evidently went over well; it’s hard to be pessimistic in the face of such good news. Nevertheless, Hanno, by now undoubtedly aged, and still apparently at the head of the anti-Barcid faction, found reason for doubt. He wondered aloud why, if Hannibal had killed so many Romans, he needed more soldiers. Why, if he had accumulated so much booty, did he need more money and provisions? Why, if Italy was in revolt, had no Latins come over to the Carthaginian side? Still more pointedly, Hanno asked Mago if the Romans had sent any ambassadors to treat for peace. When Hanno received no satisfactory answers, he concluded, “We have on our hands, then, a war as entire as we had on the day Hannibal crossed into Italy.”10

Still, if not exactly a voice in the wilderness, Hanno was plainly in the minority. Most were apparently inclined to believe that at least moderate exertions could bring the war to a speedy conclusion. The elders voted for a small force of four thousand Numidians to be sent to Hannibal, along with more money and that Punic panacea, forty elephants. Yet Livy (23.14.1) points out that these resources were raised in a dilatory fashion. Nor would Mago be joining them. Instead, he was sent to Spain to recruit a larger force, but by the time he was ready to depart for Italy, the situation in Iberia had deteriorated and he was needed there to fight. Meanwhile, sometime in the summer of 214 the admiral Bomilcar finally delivered the Numidians and elephants at Locri on the coast of Bruttium.11 It was to be the only time during the entire war that the city of Carthage would send Hannibal reinforcements in Italy. The elders showed entirely more interest in Spain, Sardinia, and especially Sicily.

This did not amount to a ringing endorsement for Hannibal’s great adventure. Most modern authorities seem to see this lack of enthusiasm as largely a matter of circumstance and not reticence. Still, the reluctance of Hanno appears to represent more than just Hanno. We have already seen that Carthage had been badly hurt by the First Punic War and the subsequent revolt of Hamilcar’s mercenaries. Many of Carthage’s citizens must have recognized that in terms of demographics Carthage was no match for Rome, especially in a land war. No matter how impressive Hannibal’s initial successes might have seemed, some in the Carthaginian power structure—particularly the remaining old ones who had seen Rome’s staying power in the first war—would have continued to view Hannibal’s invasion as reckless and futile. These men seem to have convinced the others to pursue the war by concentrating on areas outside of Italy, particularly those of traditional Carthaginian interest. In Spain the motives of the Barcids and the skeptics at home coincided, less so in Sicily and Sardinia. But ultimately, Hannibal was left high and dry in Italy, and was finally forced to look only to his two brothers for reinforcement. And that would cost both their lives.


Back in Rome it remains an open question whether any of this was fully understood. What must have been overwhelmingly clear was that Rome’s strategy of trying to end the invasion with one knockout blow had not worked. Never again would the Romans leverage their massive manpower resources into one huge host. Armies would be raised (and frequently lost), but in the future, bets were to be hedged. It followed that, after Cannae, pitched battles became less frequent, and were fought less to destroy the adversary’s maneuver units than to defend or threaten population centers, now the key pieces on the field of play. Rome had an advantage here, because Hannibal could not allow himself the luxury of becoming stationary for a long siege. Raids and skirmishes became the most typical form of combat, in part because most of the campaigning transpired along the rugged spine of central Italy, the Apennines, terrain where it was nearly impossible to force a set-piece battle on an unwilling foe.12

All of this calls to mind the strategy of Fabius Maximus, and in the shadow of Cannae, Romans had little alternative. The consular elections of 215 marked the beginning of a three-year period when Fabius, his son, and his family (“Beanmen” all) dominated politics. Their strategy of delay was given free rein, and one, not coincidentally, when Hannibal’s Thunderbolt accomplished relatively little.13

Yet the approach had changed, had altered with circumstances, amounting to Fabian II. Fabian I had simply consisted of dogging Hannibal—avoiding battle while seeking to starve him by weakening his foragers. The updated version was more positional. Battle was still avoided and foragers attacked, but more attention was paid to geography and local politics. After Cannae and the defection of Capua, a military front was developed along the line of the Volturnus River and extended across Italy through northern Apulia between Luceria and Arpi; if at all possible Hannibal would not be allowed to stray farther north. Within this band Fabius attempted to reinstitute his “scorched earth” policy, threatening to pillage the area himself if this was not done.14 This was likely to have been more bluster than substance with regard to those who remained loyal, but Fabius and the Romans were deadly serious with regard to the less steadfast.

Defectors would be punished. Siege craft among the Romans had not reached the level of technical sophistication it was to achieve later, but Hannibal had to be wary of trying to relieve an invested ally, since the process was inherently casualty producing, and his manpower was precious. Besides, it could leave him pinned down and tactically vulnerable. His problem would only grow worse if more than two targets were under assault simultaneously and he was faced with the prospect of splitting his force. So the manpower-rich Romans had an inherent edge in this form of warfare. Targeted allies who strayed learned to their regret that Hannibal could not protect them, while the terrible price they paid kept the others in line. On the other hand, Fabius remained careful not to give confederates reason to revolt by pressing them too hard for men and money, or by overreacting to rumors of contemplated desertion.15

Nevertheless, the scale of operations maintained by the Romans was truly immense. Even in 215 they were able to field fourteen legions.16 Adrian Goldsworthy estimates that in the ten years following Cannae, more than twenty legions were regularly in the field (a high of twenty-three legions was reached in 211 and 207), supported by an equivalent number of allied troops.17 Some legions may have been undermanned and used for garrison duty, but the sheer numbers give pause. Using a conservative pre-Cannae figure of forty-five-hundred troops for each legion and each alae, this amounts to on the order of 180,000 troops raised year in and year out. This is an extraordinarily large figure for a preindustrial military, and does not even consider the manpower requirements of the Roman navy, which remained substantial throughout.

Plainly, this sort of war was expensive, and even if the study of ancient economics remains murky, it is apparent that after Cannae the primitive Roman financial system was showing signs of massive strain. As we saw at the end of the last chapter, in order to pay the soldiers (though not the Cannenses), the tax on Roman citizens, the tributum, had to be doubled in 215. This statistic, however, must be balanced against the chronic devaluation of the Roman currency. In 217 the bronze as—the basic coin, if you can call it that—weighed one Roman pound; three years later it was one sixth as heavy. This devaluation prompted the creation of a new medium of exchange based on the silver denarius, which itself had to be devalued before the war was over.18 Exactly how this economic ax cleaved Roman society is hard to say. Military contractors surely did well, and also, because there were monetized property qualifications for service in the Roman army, currency devaluation would have broadened the draft pool. But somebody had to pay the bills, and as the fighting dragged on, reconquered defectors were obvious targets. Marcellus’s epic fleecing of Syracuse and Fabius’s enslavement and sale of much of Tarentum’s population provided the archetypes. Fabian II meant war truly on a societal scale.

The updated Fabian strategy also called for better leadership. The time for amateurish generals had passed, as had single-year commands for truly competent ones. In the face of Hannibal, quick leadership turnover had to be sacrificed, even if it meant electing the same men to the consulship over and over, and extending the imperium indefinitely to efficient proconsuls and propraetors.19 This extended imperium had already been in place for the Scipio brothers in far-off Spain, but now it took hold in Italy. In particular, a group of men in their fifties and sixties, who’d reached their maturity during the First Punic War, came to dominate the Second, particularly after Cannae. In addition to Fabius Maximus himself, there was Marcellus and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, all of whom held the consulship at least four times, which was unprecedented. On a slightly less elevated tier were Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (twice consul, once master of horse), Marcus Livius Salinator (twice consul), and Gaius Claudius Nero. Not all of these men subscribed to the Fabian style of warfare—Marcellus and Nero were exceedingly aggressive—but all were excellent soldiers and capable of working together. Hannibal’s days of picking off prima donnas were not quite over, but for the most part he now had to face Team Roma, a grim and determined bunch.


Cannae’s reverberations shot out from Italy’s coasts in all directions. Hannibal’s war had already been trans-Mediterranean, given the Barcid power base in Spain and Carthage’s complicity, but now the roster of contestants broadened in the wake of Rome’s perceived vulnerability. In the rollicking world of Hellenistic geopolitics, piling on was a frequent handmaiden of defeat, emblematic of the system’s very cynicism and, in its meddling with Rome, myopia.

There were few more enthusiastic practitioners of piling on than the young king of Macedon, Philip V, a perennial kibitzer in the affairs of Greece, and any other place he thought he saw an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. According to Polybius (5.101.6–8), ever since Philip had heard of the debacle at Trasimene, he had been eying Rome’s protectorate on the east coast of the Adriatic. The protectorate had been established in 229 to thwart the Illyrian pirates, and was a continuing thorn in the side of Macedon’s monarchs, who resented the presence of outsiders but were afraid to do anything about it. Now with word of Cannae, Philip’s horizons broadened, his fear of the Romans evaporated, and the possibility of an alliance with Rome’s apparent subjugator loomed large.

Philip’s diplomacy may have been adroit, but it was hardly discreet. According to Livy, the delegation he sent to Hannibal was captured twice by the Romans.20 On the first occasion they were let go, having given the excuse that they were actually on their way to negotiate an alliance with the senate. The second time, they were caught red-handed with Carthaginian officers and a text of the treaty, which was delivered to the Roman archives, where Polybius found and preserved it.21

An odd combination of Greek and Old Testament–like diplo-speak, the treaty mentions as signatories not only Hannibal but Carthaginian elders Mago, Myrkan, and Barmocar. The presence of these names has been sometimes seen as indicating that the metropolis and not the Barcid was in charge, even in Italy.22 But if this was the case, why didn’t Philip send the delegation to Carthage rather than to Hannibal to seal the alliance? If nothing else, Hellenistic monarchs had an eagle eye for who held the initiative. And in that regard this was a document typical of the “great game” mentality, promising very little up front beyond bland assurances of mutual support, and getting specific only about transfers of Greek properties to the Macedonians once the war was won. Most significant, the treaty foresaw the continued existence of Rome, even in defeat. While Livy’s (23.33.10–12) far less convincing rendition of the treaty envisions a Macedonian invasion of Italy, probably Hannibal looked upon the whole thing as a potentially useful way of distracting the Romans, another problem for them to cope with that would drain their strength. The treaty—Polybius’s version at least—is worth considering, since it is about as close to a first-person look at the motivation of Rome’s enemies as we have left. What emerges is more calculating than deadly serious. The Romans, for their part, were utterly committed to the war, and they would neither forgive nor forget this alliance of convenience.

As it turned out, the Romans easily handled the extra burden of the First Macedonian War, which mainly played out in raids and quick sieges. The Romans engineered it so that Greek mostly fought Greek, and Rome seldom had to commit more than a legion of their own troops, supported by elements of their ample fleet.23 For his part Philip badly underestimated the Romans’ ability to practice divide-and-rule politics among the fractious Hellenes.

Critical in this success was Marcus Valerius Laevinus, who during his propraetorship beginning in 215 set the conditions of victory—parrying Philip, keeping him on the defensive, and distracting him from any contemplated linkup with Hannibal in Italy. In 211, Laevinus concluded a treaty with Macedon’s recent adversaries the Aetolian League, having convinced them that Rome was winning the war with Carthage. There commenced a series of joint raids against Philip and his friends that kept him and his army racing from threat to new threat to yet another threat.24

But after Laevinus left for home to assume a well-deserved consulship, Philip and his friends staged a comeback. In 207, Philip led a massive raid into the Aetolian League’s territory, while Philip’s allies in the Achaean League smashed the Spartans at Mantinea—yet another decisive drubbing, on perhaps the most famous battlefield in ancient Greece.25 Reeling, the Aetolians had had enough, and, like any sensible Hellenistic player would do, they cut their losses by making a separate peace with Philip. The Romans were not pleased with their former ally, but neither were the Romans about to give up. They threw an additional ten thousand infantry, one thousand horse, and thirty-five quinqueremes back into Illyria.26

In the face of the resulting stalemate, representatives from the Epirote League (Pyrrhus’s former home base) interceded and managed to negotiate an end to the hostilities, the Peace of Phoinike in 205. Philip got to keep most of what he had grabbed, and unlike other treaties with the Romans, this one was negotiated between equals. Philip probably thought he had won.

But the Romans had always fought with an eye to Hannibal, making sure he derived absolutely no benefit from what they must have considered a most unholy alliance with Philip V. For Philip, the alliance with Hannibal had been Hellenistic business as usual; for Romans a stab in the back, which would be avenged virtually as soon as they finally disposed of their Barcid tormentor. For mainland Greeks—Macedonians and all the rest—this Cannae-inspired treaty with Hannibal was a disaster of the first order, marking the beginning of the end of their independence. Once drawn into the Greeks’ affairs, the Romans would not leave them alone.


Already in Rome’s sway, the Greeks of Sicily proved no more sagacious in Cannae’s aftermath, allowing themselves, through their own vicious factionalism, to be drawn into a conflict that much more clearly pitted Rome against Carthage rather than against Hannibal. For their part, the Carthaginians waged a kind of parallel struggle that complemented Hannibal’s, one oriented toward areas of traditional interest, and fought with the same on-again, off-again military inefficacy characteristic of Carthage’s overseas imperial adventures in the past.

This was most evident in Sicily but was also paralleled in 215 by an abortive effort to snatch back Sardinia, whose seizure by the Romans in 240 during the revolt of Hamilcar Barca’s former mercenaries had so embittered Carthaginians. Believing the place was ripe for revolt, Carthage sent a fleet under Hasdrubal the Bald, who was delayed long enough by bad weather that the Romans were able to reinforce Sardinia with a legion under hard-core T. Manlius Torquatus, who was last heard from in the senate denouncing the Romans taken prisoner at Cannae.27 When Hasdrubal finally came ashore, Torquatus made short work of the operation, hammering Hasdrubal’s landing force, capturing him, and stamping out the nascent rebellion. Even the retreating Carthaginian fleet was roughly handled by a naval squadron under Fabius Maximus’s nephew lurking off the African coast. It was the last Punic move in this direction.28 The effort in Sicily was to be much more sustained, if ultimately no more successful.

The battle in Sicily began and essentially ended in Syracuse, which controlled a band of territory basically running the length of the island’s east coast, the rest of Sicily being administered by Rome as a result of its victory in the First Punic War. Syracuse’s longtime ruler, Hiero, was a trusted Roman ally, but he was also old—at least in his seventies and quite probably in failing health. Hiero’s eldest son, Gelon, his head turned by Cannae, was on the brink of denouncing Syracuse’s alliance with Rome, when he suddenly disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Hiero didn’t survive much longer. His heir, Gelon’s feckless fifteen-year-old son named Hieronymus, following his father’s inclination, and under the influence of his entourage, sent a delegation to Hannibal so that an agreement could be roughed out. The wily Barcid also sent back two scheming Carthaginian brothers of Syracusan descent who had served in his army in Spain and Italy—Hippocrates and Epicydes. If there was ever a poison pill, it was these two, who sowed dissent from the moment they arrived in Sicily.

Smelling defection, the praetor Appius Claudius—last seen at Canusium as one of the surviving tribunes who backed the young Publius Scipio against the cabal of defeatists—had his suspicions confirmed when the ambassadors he sent to renew the alliance were asked mockingly by Hieronymus “How had they fared at the battle of Cannae?”29 The new treaty would be confirmed in Carthage, but plainly it was already a done deal. Not that it mattered for Hieronymus or the entire royal family; they were quickly murdered in a spasm of bloodcurdling political violence that left the interlopers Hippocrates and Epicydes vying for predominance with a ragtag force of mercenaries and fully two thousand Roman deserters.

Realizing the situation was deteriorating fast, the senate in 214 sent Marcellus, currently serving his second consulship, to Sicily, where he joined forces with Appius Claudius. When Hippocrates and Epicydes moved their band to the nearby city of Leontini, Marcellus followed them and stormed the place, taking it on the first assault. Unfortunately, while the consul busied himself with the traditional punishment for deserters—the Roman men were stripped naked, flogged, and then beheaded—the two Syracusan brothers escaped. On their way back to Syracuse, they met up with a pro-Roman relief column, whom they won over by convincing them that Marcellus was actually butchering Leontini’s citizenry.30 This group the brothers then led back to Syracuse, where, after a short struggle, they managed to kill their rivals and assume control, putting the city firmly in the ranks of Rome’s enemies.

“Hannibal had certainly picked his men well,” writes one modern historian31 of the brothers and their brilliant manipulation of the political chaos within the walls of Syracuse. But Marcellus’s actions during the Leontini episode, actions which gave Hippocrates and Epicydes the opening they needed, could be inferred to have been as much motivated by the desire to punish Roman deserters as the desire to get his hands on Hippocrates and Epicydes, and around the political situation in general. Marcellus certainly did not intend it, but letting Syracuse slip through his fingers was a heavy price to pay for punishing some apostates—though two thousand is a very substantial number.

Deserters are not much dwelled upon by patriotic historians such as Livy. But the question looms: Could more than a few of these deserters actually have been members of the legiones Cannenses, exiled to Sicily, shunted to the side without a combat role, angry and disgusted at their treatment? It certainly seems possible, and could account for the continuing senatorial bitterness toward these ghosts of Cannae.32 But it does not seem likely; more probably the deserters were garrison troops gone native. For while he was in Sicily Marcellus seemed favorably disposed toward troops he had already commanded in Italy. Later, when the Cannenses petitioned Marcellus to be removed from the sidelines and included in the operations against Syracuse, he immediately wrote the senate requesting permission to use them. The wording of the reply, which Livy quotes, is interesting:

The senate saw no reason why the interests of the republic should be entrusted to the hands of soldiers who had deserted their comrades, in battle, at Cannae. If Marcus Marcellus, the proconsul, thought otherwise, that he should act as he deemed consistent with the good of the state and his own conscience, with this proviso, however, that none of these men should be exempt from service, or be decorated for valor, or be brought back to Italy, so long as the enemy should be in the land of Italy.33

The indications are that Marcellus had every need for the Cannenses, for the siege of Syracuse proved a gigantic enterprise. It appears that Marcellus and Appius waited until the spring of 213 to begin operations. In the meantime they gathered resources and modified their equipment for what was to be one of the few attempts in any of the three Punic wars to take a strongly fortified place by direct assault.34 And it failed utterly.

Syracuse was vast compared to most ancient cities, and the Roman generals were perfectly aware of the strength of its encircling walls, girding it both inland and along the coast and the harbor district, the products of a succession of paranoid tyrants with penchants for public works. What the Roman generals hadn’t counted on was the ancient equivalent of a rocket scientist organizing the city’s defense … none other than Archimedes, one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived and, unfortunately for the Romans, a weapons designer of rare creativity. So, when the attackers began their assault—Appius on the landward side and Marcellus along the harbor district or Achradina—they found a physics instructor, or at least his mechanisms, lying in wait for them.

Marcellus had modified some of his quinqueremes into siege craft, lashing them together and mounting on their bows scaling ladders that could be raised by pulleys and then lowered against the walls—a kind of thematic variation on the First Punic War’s “crow” boarding bridges, which the Romans now called sambucae, for their resemblance to harps. In this case the harps played only sour notes, as chronicled in a fragment by Polybius, himself an expert on siege craft and an obvious fan of Archimedes.35

As Marcellus’s sambucae approached supported by sixty quinqueremes filled with assault troops, the Romans found themselves barraged by a hail of projectiles launched from a succession of catapults carefully calibrated to cover all ranges. Forced to attack at night, it only got worse as they drew closer and were raked incessantly by “small scorpions”36 (probably crossbows) shot from narrow loopholes cut in the fortifications. When the attackers finally got the sambucae into place and their extensions deployed, great beams pivoted out from the walls and dropped stones and lead weights to shatter the ladders. These beams also released clawlike devices to catch the prows of the ships themselves, which were then ratcheted upward until they were nearly vertical. Then the ships were suddenly released, which caused them to capsize and sink. All told, it was a debacle that left Marcellus joking ruefully at his helplessness in the face of Archimedes, and left his troops prone to panic if they saw so much as a plank or a rope projecting from a wall.37 Appius did no better with his landward component, being subject to much the same treatment. They were not about to give up, but from now on they would rely on blockade and eventually subterfuge.

Enter the Carthaginians. Specifically, a large force sent over from Africa under Himilco (twenty-five thousand foot soldiers, three thousand horse, and twelve elephants) landed on the south coast of the island and quickly took Agrigentum, an important base in the First Punic War that had been lost to the Romans after a long siege. Marcellus, too late to prevent the fall of Agrigentum, did intercept a column of approximately ten thousand Syracusans led by Hippocrates that had broken the Roman blockade and was on its way to join the Carthaginians. Although most of the infantry was killed or captured, Hippocrates and around five hundred cavalry managed to reach Himilco, who then advanced to a river just south of Syracuse. Worried, Marcellus had already fallen back on Roman lines when a force of fifty-five Punic quinqueremes commanded by Bomilcar sailed into the Syracuse harbor, making it look like the Roman blockade would soon be broken.38

But as usual the Carthaginians dithered. Himilco and Hippocrates, rather than pressing the issue at Syracuse, wandered off—first failing to intercept a reinforcing Roman legion that was marching from the northwest coast, where it had landed, and later concentrated on sowing rebellion inland. Bomilcar, worried about his fighting strength, retreated to Africa.39

Marcellus, uncertain in the spring of 212 whether to pursue Himilco, finally resolved to tighten the noose around Syracuse. Since Marcellus’s troops had already been augmented by one legion, it seems likely that he began employing the Cannenses at this point, for he would need troops, because he had a plan to get into the city. The plan was based on two vital bits of intelligence: the Romans had learned that one part of the wall was lower than previously thought, and the Syracusans, who were in the midst of celebrating a three-day festival to the goddess Artemis, had been given lavish quantities of wine by Epicydes to compensate for a general lack of food. Drinking on an empty stomach being what it was and is, Marcellus and most of his army managed to break in on the last night of the blowout and seize nearly the entire city—with the exception of the Achradina and a nearby citadel—before the stupefied population realized what had happened.40

Himilco and Hippocrates raced back, intent on relieving the situation, but fate intervened in the form of a virulently infectious disease that swept through their encampment, killing both of them and most of their soldiers. The infection spared Marcellus’s and Appius’s forces, whose tightly organized camps and sanitary procedures may have saved them.41

Yet when it came to Sicily, the Carthaginians were proverbially persistent. Back in Africa, Bomilcar, who had been running the blockade and bringing in at least some food to what remained of Punic Syracuse, convinced the leadership to send him back with a massive relief force—130 warships and 700 transports stuffed with supplies. Fleet in hand, Bomilcar crossed quickly from Carthage but then hesitated to round Cape Pachynus just south of Syracuse, apparently held up by unfavorable winds. Afraid that Bomilcar would return home, Epicydes sailed out and convinced him to risk a naval engagement. Marcellus—outnumbered and with no naval combat experience to speak of, but forever belligerent—ventured forth, willing to fight the Carthaginians.

For a few days the fleets lay at anchor on either side of the cape. Finally, Bomilcar came out and appeared ready to pass beyond the promontory—one modern historian calls it “perhaps, the supreme moment of the war.”42 But Livy reports (25.27.12) that when the Carthaginian admiral saw “the Roman ships bearing down on him, terrified by something unforeseen, he made sail for open water, and, after sending messengers to Heraclea to command the transports to return to Africa … headed for Tarentum.”

Epicydes quickly fled to Agrigentum, as Syracuse was now beyond hope of relief. Resistance continued for a while, in large part motivated by the Roman deserters, who knew what would happen to them if captured, but the betrayal of a key citadel and the surrender of the Achradina marked the end of what remains one of the most famous sieges in world history. Marcellus was inclined to be merciful but, being a Roman, let his men pillage the city. He also had given orders that Archimedes be spared, but a legionary cut the old man down, the story being that he had refused to be drawn away from his calculations.43 Property rights were given the same regard as academic freedom by the rampaging Romans, who picked the place clean—so clean that the haul brought home by Marcellus for his ovation was said to have kick-started the city’s passion for Greek art!44

The plight of the Cannenses continued. Later, when he was back in Italy serving his third consulship, Marcellus would upbraid the senate for not allowing him, in return for his many services to the state, to redeem Cannae’s survivors. Yet the senate remained unmoved and had already sent the remnants of the army defeated at the First Battle of Herdonea to join the Cannenses in exile, both groups to suffer the additional indignity of not being allowed to set up their winter camp within ten miles of any town.45

Nonetheless, it appears that it was largely these troops, this band of military pariahs, who were expected to put down the remaining Carthaginian resistance in Sicily, which sputtered anew after the fall of Syracuse. The resistance was now focused on Agrigentum under Himilco’s replacement, Hanno; the ever-resilient Epicydes; and a newcomer, sent over by Hannibal from Italy, named Muttines, a Libyan cavalry commander of considerable skill and energy. Leading a force of Numidians, Muttines raised sufficient havoc to force Marcellus, who had yet to return to Rome, inland to confront the threat. Near the Himera River, Muttines waged several successful skirmishes against Marcellus’s outposts, but then was drawn away to deal with a mutiny. In his absence, Epicydes and Hanno—the latter apparently particularly envious of his colleague’s success and disdainful of Muttines’s lack of pure Carthaginian blood—decided to give battle and were crushed, losing thousands of troops and eight elephants. Marcellus might have followed up his victory and put an end to the conflict, but since he was a Roman, the lure of high office apparently caused him to leave Sicily in late 211 to stand for consul.46

The Cannenses were left to hold down the fort—in their eyes more probably left holding the bag—and without their general, the situation deteriorated. For back in Africa, still clinging to the vision of a Carthaginian Sicily, the leadership anted up one more time, sending eight thousand infantry and three thousand Numidian horsemen.47 Muttines used them ruthlessly to ravage the countryside, a matter of no little importance, since rural Sicily was a massive producer of grain, and since Rome, with Hannibal loose in Italy, needed all the food it could get. Roman troop morale was low, and without adequate defense, towns began to defect to the Carthaginian side. The situation was in limbo, sufficiently serious that the senate was ready to send Marcellus back to Sicily. But Sicilians in Rome, mortified by Marcellus’s prior lust for loot, protested so vociferously that he was persuaded to exchange commands with Marcus Valerius Laevinus, whose steady hand we saw holding Philip V in check.48

Laevinus proved equally effective in Sicily, perhaps more so since luck was on his side. After settling some disorder in Syracuse, he went straight for Agrigentum, where he found the enemy in disarray and, in the case of Muttines, positively mutinous. Hanno, still jealous and contemptuous of Muttines’s origins, had replaced him and given his own son command of the Numidians. Outraged, the Libyan was ready to deal, so when Laevinus and his army marched up to the city wall, the gate swung open and legionaries poured in. Hanno and the everlasting Epicydes slipped out another portal and made it to Africa, but their forces were liquidated, the city fathers were beheaded, and the population was sold into slavery. The rest of Sicily quickly got the message.

The war here was over. Rome was firmly in charge. Carthage had proved exceedingly persistent in its attempts to regain a foothold on the island, especially when compared to the lack of support for Hannibal in Italy, but the Carthaginians’ time here was at an end. So was any pretense of Sicilian Greek independence. The Greeks had squandered their independence here, as they would elsewhere. Sicily would become a breadbasket for Rome, Laevinus being careful to reestablish agriculture before departing the island in triumph. Muttines too prospered. Granted Roman citizenship and taking the name of his patron, Laevinus, he would command troops twenty years later in the war against Antiochus. There was even an inscription at Delphi to him and his four sons—Publius, Caius, Marcus, Quintus … Romans through and through.49 The legiones Cannenses, on the other hand, got nothing. They remained on the island for another six years, as invisible as ghosts, figuratively sitting on their shields, waiting for a break.


Spain was critical and always had been. For it was not only Hannibal’s launching pad, but his familial base of support since his father had turned it into Barca land. Carthaginian and even Phoenician presence had long preceded them, however, having been drawn to Spain’s precious metals. These factors would now leave the authorities in Africa more inclined to send reinforcements here than directly to Hannibal in Italy. Money and habit—these seemed to matter most to the elders back home; so the Barcids and the authorities in Carthage were to be united in their determination to hold on to Spain.

Romans may have missed some of the subtleties of this condominium; but they certainly understood from the beginning that the source of their Hannibal problem was Spain. And they recognized the importance of neutralizing it lest it reinforce him.50 Hence, as the Second Punic War opened, they launched the older Publius Scipio and his brother Cnaeus along with two legions in this direction. When the two brothers chanced upon but missed Hannibal at the Rhône, Publius had Cnaeus and most of the army continue on to Iberia, while he backtracked to Italy to await the invaders. Late in 217, recovered from the wound he’d gotten for his troubles at the Ticinus, Publius was sent west again with eight thousand fresh troops to join his brother. This was just the beginning of a long and frustrating conflict. But Rome would never give up on Spain, even if it took two generations of Scipios to strip the area of Punic influence.

The Iberian Peninsula was a tricky place on which to operate, a country where large armies starved and small armies got beaten, Henry IV of France would later comment.51 At this point it was inhabited by three separate groups—Lusitanians in the west, Iberians in the south, and Celtiberians inland to the north—all of them tribal. But loyalties among these groups were far weaker than among the Gauls, the essential allegiance here being to locality, generally small fortified villages, effectively atomizing the power structure. Raiding was continuous, and amalgams formed around chieftains perceived to be dominant, but loyalty did not generally extend much beyond success or failure in the last battle. This was important, because in this campaign both Carthaginians and Romans would depend heavily on indigenous mercenaries, and each side would be victimized when their force structure melted away with disastrous suddenness.52

Nevertheless, even before his brother’s arrival, Cnaeus Scipio campaigned effectively. After establishing a rear base at the Greek city of Emporion, he sailed along the coast of what is now Catalonia, landing at several points and easily winning over the locals, until he ran into the force Hannibal had left with the commander Hanno shortly before he crossed the Pyrenees. They met in battle at a place known as Cissa, where Cnaeus routed the Carthaginians, and captured Hanno, all the baggage that Hannibal had entrusted to him, and one Indibilis, a powerful local chieftain whose shifting loyalties would come to epitomize the treacherous political terrain upon which the war here would be waged. For the moment, however, it was clear sailing for the Romans all the way down to the Ebro River.

Hasdrubal, the Barca brother who’d been left in Spain to mind the family enterprise, raced northward with a limited number of troops when he heard of Hanno’s misfortune. catching and destroying some isolated elements from Cnaeus’s fleet, but then withdrew to New Carthage rather than risk an engagement with the main Roman force.53 Held to the standard set by most Carthaginian captains, the middle Barcid sibling was competent enough; yet he also proved a kind of pale shadow of his elder brother, attempting a number of the same feats and almost always falling short. But he certainly had staying power, and never ceased trying to further Hannibal’s interests, until it cost him his head a decade later.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 217, Hasdrubal traveled north again with a much larger force—a fleet of forty war galleys led by a commander named Hamilcar, and an army directly under himself. They worked their way along the coast until they reached the Ebro. But to no avail. When Cnaeus heard they were nearby, he went straight for them with his own fleet, fortified by warships from Rome’s ally Massilia, and made short work of the ensuing sea battle. After losing two ships and having the oars and marines sheared off four others, the Carthaginians fled ashore, banking on the protection of their army, but the Romans, full of confidence, rowed right after them and towed away nineteen of the beached ships with no apparent Punic intervention.54 After this maritime humiliation, the Carthaginians would not again contest Rome’s command of the waters off the Spanish coast. Livy even has Hasdrubal retreating all the way to Lusitania (modern Portugal) and the Atlantic, and being defeated several more times by tribes at the instigation of Cnaeus,55 but more likely the Roman rested on his laurels and awaited the arrival of his brother.

Publius Scipio reached Spain in the grim shadow of Rome’s defeat at Trasimene, and both brothers were given the proconsular imperium to take the offensive and at all costs keep the Carthaginians here off balance and unable to gather the men and resources to reinforce Hannibal.56 For nearly six years they did just that—according to the sources, at least—outwitting and outfighting their adversaries, piling success upon success. Unfortunately, their successes were all based on the quicksand of Spanish tribal politics and were ultimately confounded by Carthage’s increasing determination to build up its own forces in Spain.

To accomplish their purpose the Scipio brothers worked out a strategy not altogether different from the one pursued triumphantly by their successor, Scipio Africanus—not necessarily making Spain Roman, just not Carthaginian, and sealing it off from Italy. To do so they had to hold the Ebro and the approaches to the Pyrenees and then extend control along the coastal road southwest toward the fertile valley of the Baetis River (modern Guadalquivir) and the seat of Punic power.57 Along the way to Saguntum, the town where Hannibal had started the war, the Scipio brothers received an unexpected boon when a Spanish chieftain named Abilyx persuaded the Carthaginian commander here to turn his hostages over to him, and then Abilyx treacherously turned them over to the Romans, who won the allegiance of the locals by returning them to their homes. Or so the story went, as recounted at some length by Polybius (3.98–9) as indicative of the sagacity and magnanimity of the Scipios compared to the Carthaginians, but really illustrating just how quickly the tables could turn on either side in this complex environment.

Meanwhile, Hasdrubal Barca had been endeavoring to put his house’s house in order. After suppressing a tribal rebellion, in 216 he received, along with a small contingent of reinforcements, orders from Carthage to join his brother in Italy. Acting every bit a Barcid, he replied that if the elders were really serious about such an invasion and wanted to keep control of Spain in his absence, they had better send him a more substantial force, which they promptly did under Himilco. Duly fortified, Hasdrubal set out with his relief expedition along the coast road moving toward the Ebro, probably in early 215.58

This was exactly what the Scipio brothers had been sent to prevent, and in the wake of Cannae, it was imperative that they make a stand. They concentrated their forces just south of the river near the town of Ibera. The battle that ensued has been compared to Cannae, or more properly to Cannae gone wrong. It appears that Hasdrubal used the same type of alignment as his brother, with a strong force of Africans and local Carthaginians on either wing flanking a middle consisting of unenthusiastic Spaniards. The Spanish center could not hold. The Romans broke through in the middle, but despite being attacked from both sides, they were able to pivot outward and wrench apart the jaws of the trap.59 What followed was near annihilation, capped by the Scipios’ taking the Carthaginian camp and the expeditionary baggage train. Hasdrubal escaped with a few retainers, but Ibera had pushed him back to square one, and the dream of reinforcing his brother faded into the distance.

As recorded by Livy, the next four years down to 211 were filled with Scipionic victories that seem exaggerated or don’t make much sense because they put the brothers too far south, especially since it appears that the brothers didn’t manage to finally recover Saguntum (less than a hundred miles down from Ibera) until 212.60 More likely, with their supply of legionaries diminished by time and battle, the Scipio brothers spent the years treading water, content with their primary mission of blocking a Barcid reunion in Italy, while Rome devoted most of its energy and troops to the fighting in Campania and Sicily. In 211, with these campaigns winding down, the Scipios felt confident enough to strike out toward the heart of Punic power in and around the Baetis valley and along the southern coast. Unfortunately, their hopes were vested not in Roman reinforcements from home but in twenty thousand Celtiberians they had recently hired.61

Meanwhile, their adversaries were considerably enhanced, reconstituted through Carthaginian cash, the ready supply of Spanish swords for hire, and significant additions of Africans, particularly Numidian horsemen. Not only had Hasdrubal managed to rebuild his own army, but in the wake of Ibera, he was joined by his younger brother Mago and the force of thirteen thousand Mago had originally recruited for Italy,62 and by a third element under another Hasdrubal, this one the son of Gisgo. Now there were three armies facing the Scipio brothers where there had been only one.

As the campaign kicked off, the forces of Mago and Hasdrubal Gisgo were operating together about five days’ march from the Romans, while Hasdrubal Barca’s army was closer, at a place called Amtorgis. It was the Scipios’ intention to hit both elements simultaneously, lest Mago and Hasdrubal Gisgo, hearing of an initial Carthaginian defeat at Amtorgis, escape into the wilderness to wage prolonged guerilla warfare. This meant that the Scipios had to split their forces. Publius took two thirds of the Roman and Italian allied troops and headed off toward Mago and Hasdrubal Gisgo, leaving Cnaeus with the remaining regulars plus the Celtiberians to deal with Hasdrubal Barca. It was a fatal mistake.

Hasdrubal Barca, raised in this environment, knew that Celtiberians who’d been bought once could be bought twice, and immediately entered into secret negotiations with their leaders. Before Cnaeus realized what was happening, money had talked and the Celtiberians had walked, leaving Cnaeus abandoned, vastly outnumbered, and with little choice but to head for the hills, the Carthaginians in hot pursuit.63

By this time, brother Publius was already dead. As his column had approached Mago and Hasdrubal Gisgo, it had been harassed relentlessly by Numidian cavalry, brilliantly led by a young African prince, Masinissa. This prince was destined to play a major role in the eventual collapse of Carthage, but at this point he was a Punic retainer and was doing his job with ruthless efficiency. To make matters worse, Publius had found out that the Carthaginians were about to be joined by seventy-five hundred more tribesmen under the same Indibilis whom we last heard of as a captive and presumed thrall of Cnaeus after the battle of Cissa. Desperate to recapture the initiative, Publius Scipio had ducked out of camp at midnight—leaving only a small garrison—and headed toward Indibilis, found him, and engaged in a running fight. But then Masinissa and the Numidians, whom Publius had thought he’d slipped by, had appeared on his flanks, followed shortly by the forces of Mago and Hasdrubal Gisgo. Soon enough Publius, in the thick of the fighting, had been fatally skewered by a lance, and upon hearing the news, his troops had broken, only to be run down and slaughtered by Masinissa’s horsemen.64

Cnaeus fared no better. Now the victorious Carthaginian commanders raced to unite with Hasdrubal Barca, bringing with them Masinissa and the lethal Numidians. Attempting a getaway, Cnaeus and his troops quietly broke camp and staged a night march, but before the sun set, the Numidians were upon them. Forced to fight on the move, the Romans’ pace slowed, and with the main Punic element not far behind, Cnaeus led his men to a marginally defensible position on a barren rocky hilltop. The Romans were surrounded by an overwhelming force, had no timber available, and were unable to dig a trench, so they took refuge in a circle behind their baggage and packsaddles. It was a scene reminiscent of Little Bighorn, Cnaeus’s Last Stand, though a few survivors did somehow manage to escape and reach the small garrison Publius had left in his camp.65

An equestrian who had served with Cnaeus named L. Marcius Septimus managed to reconstitute what was left of the Scipio brothers’ legionaries. With these men, Marcius was able to hold some ground north of the Ebro, but Livy’s recounting of a series of his victories over Carthaginian forces does not seem plausible.66 There were just not enough legionaries left alive in Spain at this point to do much more than cling to a foothold. Still, Marcius plainly had some success. The men took the unusual step of electing him their commander, and he reported his exploits back to the senate, referring to himself as propraetor—apparently annoying this very traditional body. So in the late fall of 211 they sent out between ten thousand and twelve thousand infantry and around one thousand horse under C. Claudius Nero, the highly aggressive and innovative leader, who assumed overall command.67

Characteristically, the Carthaginians seem to have lost momentum. They failed to make a concerted effort to expel the Romans, apparently dispersing instead to reassert control over their traditional Iberian territories. This gave Nero an opening to fall upon Hasdrubal Barca, trapping him when he foolishly camped in a defile called the Black Stones. Ensnared, and perhaps aware of Hannibal’s escape from Fabius Maximus in the canyon of the Volturnus, Hasdrubal promised to leave Spain with his army and return to Africa if Nero would let him go, but then he kept postponing negotiations while filtering his troops out at night, ultimately making his own getaway in the morning mist.68 It was a vanishing act worthy of Bugs Bunny. But Nero was no Elmer Fudd; four years later he would trap Hasdrubal once again, and this time there would be no escape.

For now, however, Nero apparently had other items on his agenda, and he returned to Rome at the end of the year. Yet Spain was too important to leave in limbo. Barcid power was still intact, and with it the most plausible and dangerous source for Hannibal’s reinforcement. The seven-year project of the Scipio brothers was unfulfilled, and their deaths remained unavenged. All of these things Rome would soon address with one gigantic leap of faith; they would send to Spain both a dutiful son and destiny’s child—another Scipio, the one who later would be called Africanus.


The epicenter of the war, of course, stayed in Italy, and the fighting there, in and around Campania between the years 212 and 210, would in large part dictate the outcome. It was at this point, both geographically and temporally, that the power of Rome and the relentless logic of Fabian II would finally and irrevocably take hold. Hannibal would not leave the Italian peninsula for another seven years, but the impossibility of his enterprise would be revealed here in Campania, as would his subsequent confinement in the south. What made history’s conclusion so decisive was that even though Hannibal continued to operate brilliantly at the tactical and operational level—he remained virtually as tricky and lethal as ever—his strategy failed. His was a supreme overreach in the face of overwhelming power.

The application of Fabian II had almost immediately inflicted pain on those who had strayed from Rome’s embrace, for Hannibal could not be everywhere at once, and in his absence were likely to be Roman forces burning fields and threatening population centers. In one telling passage Livy has some of the battered Samnites tell Hannibal that their suffering made it seem that the Romans and not Hannibal had won the battle of Cannae, to which he could only reply that he would “overshadow the memory even of Cannae by a greater and more brilliant victory.”69 In other words, his only answer to their plight was to inflict tactical defeats on the Romans when and if they were willing to fight. This he would do, but in the end it would not make much difference.

By 212 the Roman vise was tightening around central Italy about a third of the way up the boot, with several separate forces abroad. The focus was on Campania and the principal turncoat city Capua. Two consular armies—one under Appius Claudius, who now had reached the highest magistracy, and the other commanded by his colleague Quintus Fulvius Flaccus—were devastating the countryside and defeating Punic efforts at food relief.70 The hungry Capuans sent an urgent appeal to Hannibal for support. Hannibal was at Tarentum, a great prize, most of which he had just taken through a ruse. To stop the rural depredations, he dispatched a force of two thousand cavalry to Capua, but by this time the consuls had moved to blockade Capua itself. This drew Hannibal and the rest of his army, intent now on another “brilliant victory.”

But he was unable to force a decisive engagement, and the two consuls moved away from the city in different directions, knowing he could follow only one and that the other could return. Hannibal decided to pursue Appius Claudius, but the Roman commander outfoxed the fox, leading him in circles, and both Roman armies ended up back at the distressed city, this time for good. Soon they were joined by a third army under Claudius Nero (not yet dispatched to Spain), and together their six legions set about constructing an encircling inner wall, a ditch, and an outer wall, a traitor’s noose around what had been Hannibal’s most prized spoil of Cannae. Strategically, the Romans had won hands down.

There was more to the story. Roman armies kept disappearing. Livy, our sole source, records much of this, but ever the patriot, he may have put the best face on it. Most mysterious was the demise of the force of slaves (volones) that had been hastily organized after Cannae and subsequently employed to good effect by the able T. Sempronius Gracchus. Then abruptly the historian reports the death of Gracchus at the hands of treacherous Lucanians and the sudden dispersal of his army, causing one modern source to wonder if Livy was masking a defeat.71

Next there was the odd tale of a senior centurion, M. Centenius Paenula, who had talked the senate into giving him an army of eight thousand Romans and allies (later supplemented by an equivalent number of local volunteers) on the grounds that he was intimately familiar with Lucanian territory and could succeed where other commanders had not. Unfortunately, according to Livy, Hannibal chanced upon Paenula having abandoned the chase after Appius Claudius, and annihilated the force—though the Romans were characterized as having fought bravely until their centurion was killed and they scattered. More probably, Hannibal knew exactly what he was doing, saw a chance to pick off an isolated Roman force, and slaughtered them with his usual efficiency, killing fifteen thousand out of the original sixteen thousand.72

But Hannibal was not through. Before the year 212 was out, he returned to Apulia rather than Capua, and, like a fox on the move, began stalking another plump Roman prey. The praetor Cnaeus Fulvius Flaccus, brother of the consul, was there with an army of eighteen thousand, twisting arms and dragging a number of defector towns back into the Roman fold. According to Livy (25.20.6–7), success had eroded the caution of both Flaccus and his men, always a bad idea when Hannibal was in the neighborhood. In the vicinity of the town of Herdonea, the Carthaginian set his trap. Hiding three thousand light troops in the surrounding farms and woods and cutting off the avenues of flight with cavalry, he offered battle at dawn, and when the Romans accepted, Hannibal gobbled them up. Following the Terentius Varro precedent, Flaccus fled the field immediately with two hundred horsemen, but of those remaining, barely two thousand escaped with their lives. They apparently scattered in all directions since their camp had also been taken.73 This was Hannibal’s most decisive win since Cannae, and a drubbing Romans very apparently found humiliating. Unlike Varro, who was congratulated for not having given up on the republic, Flaccus was tried by the senate for high treason and barely escaped with his life.74 However, the same fate as the legiones Cannenses was accorded to the survivors of Herdonea, indefinite banishment to Sicily.75

As if this were not bad enough, two years later, in 210, another Fulvius (proconsul Cnaeus Fulvius Centumalus) was caught and defeated by Hannibal, again at Herdonea. The Romans lost their camp and a consular army (two legions—the 5th and 6th—and twoalae), as many as thirteen thousand men. This Fulvius would not be tried, since he fell in the field along with eleven military tribunes, but yet again the survivors were exiled to Sicily for the duration to join the ghosts of Cannae.76

Quite plainly, at the operational and tactical levels of war Hannibal and his army had lost none of their edge, but that edge was nearly irrelevant strategically. Rome persevered and would persist in replacing armies lost; meanwhile, Rome’s relentless grasp would continue to narrow Hannibal’s playing field and circumscribe his future.

Symbolically and actually, all of this was epitomized by the wretched fate of Capua. The year 211 found the Romans fully committed to the siege under Appius Claudius and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus (both now proconsuls), with about half of the legions that were stationed in Italy participating.77 A vast logistical structure had been emplaced to support them, and the surrounding territory had also been stripped of foodstuffs, while inside the city the population grew hungrier as the triple line of circumvallation was pushed to completion. For a while the Campanian horsemen were able to sally out with some success, but then a centurion named Quintus Naevius came up with the idea of using picked velites who would ride in tandem with the Roman cavalry and then support them on foot when they came upon a Capuan horseman. This plan effectively shut down the last remaining morale builder.78 The Capuans were sealed off.

Realizing that the city would inevitably fall unless he did something, Hannibal marched up from Bruttium with only a picked force without baggage, looking to fight the Romans in the field. But the Romans refused to budge from behind their lines. Thwarted, Hannibal decided on a direct assault and coordinated with the Capuans, who were to attack from the inside while he sought to break through from the outside. The Capuans were quickly turned aside, but a cohort of Hannibal’s Spaniards led by three elephants broke through the Roman lines and threatened Flaccus’s camp. But then the Romans, rallied by the same Naevius, threw the Spaniards back, and the Carthaginians retreated with a considerable loss of precious troops.79 Worse perhaps for those inside the city, there was no way that Hannibal could stay, since the Romans, following the relentless logic of Fabius Maximus, had already removed virtually everything edible from the countryside.

But if the republican hedgehog knew the value of his “scorched earth” policy, the Punic fox was never without a plan B. Hannibal decided to march on Rome. At this point Polybius briefly reenters the picture in a fragment and there are some discrepancies with Livy over which route Hannibal took, whether he was followed, and what transpired when he arrived.80 What remains clear is that Hannibal was waging psychological warfare, endeavoring to use his own terrifying image along the Tiber to induce the Romans to release their stranglehold around Capua and rush to the relief of their own capital. The days of Roman impulsiveness, credulously falling for Hannibal’s tricks, were largely over. Both historians agree that there was panic abroad within the city but not among the leadership. They called his bluff; the grip around Capua was not to be relaxed. Money also spoke. Livy tells us that the very land adjacent to Rome on which Hannibal was camped was sold at this time without a diminution in price; very apparently the purchaser considered the Barcid little more than a squatter.81

Shortly before he retreated back to Bruttium, abandoning project Capua, Hannibal was heard to say that he had twice missed capturing Rome—once because he had lacked the will, the other because he had lacked the opportunity.82 He was right on both counts. Had he listened to Maharbal after Cannae, he might have overawed the distraught Romans. Now he had no chance.

As Polybius (9.26.2–6) explains, after Capua’s fall it became clear to all that Hannibal could not watch over widespread allies; nor could he afford to subdivide his army and scatter garrisons among them, due to his numerical inferiority. Instead, he was obliged to abandon still more newly acquired friends in order to consolidate his forces and holdings in what would become a slowly diminishing domain in the south. The war was far from over, but its outcome in Italy was all but decided.

As for the Capuans, their fate would instruct the others. Without hope they threw themselves upon the mercy of the Romans, frequently an oxymoron. Those city fathers who had not had the good sense to commit suicide were beaten with rods and beheaded; the rest of the population was sold into slavery—war paying for war, and fools paying with their lives.

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