HANNIBAL’S INVASION OF ITALY
THE OUTBREAK OF THE WAR
THE Second Punic War has rightly been regarded by ancient and modern writers alike as the greatest in the history of Rome. The deep insight of Polybius, who lived to see Rome undisputed mistress of the Mediterranean, has noted and recorded how the issue of the struggle inaugurated a new era in Europe. A unity of ancient history begins, with Rome as the focus, which ends only when the Roman Empire split into two halves. The military history of the war down to Cannae and the outstanding personality of Hannibal are illuminated by the concise and orderly account of the Greek historian and by the literary skill of Livy.
It is true that Livy's patriotic bias, moral purpose and rhetorical color, added to a lack of any real understanding of how wars are waged and battles fought, are immediately perceptible where the crystal stream of Polybius can be used for comparison. Consequently, when Polybius is lacking and Livy becomes almost the only source, extreme caution is needed if we would endeavor to reproduce a narrative of what happened rather than a mirror of the garbled Roman tradition. But Polybius and Livy alike reflect the grandeur of the theme which so captured the imagination of the Romans that even under the Empire “Should Hannibal have crossed the Alps?” or “Should Hannibal have marched on Rome after Cannae?” were debated by boys in the schools and by mature rhetoricians. And lastly, apart from the intrinsic military interest of the battles and sieges, apart from the dramatic vividness of the personalities of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, the war reveals the Roman character and the Roman constitution tested in the supreme ordeal by fire.
Though the course of the war testifies to the high qualities of the Romans, its causes and occasions are part of a different picture. The differences extend to the sources: even Polybius was dominated by the Roman literature of justification, and at Carthage a défaitiste government towards the close of the war sought not so much to justify the action of Carthage as to shift the responsibility wholly on to the broad shoulders of Hannibal. It is, therefore, no wonder that the meager and distorted tradition or confusion of traditions about the antecedents of the war has left historians in perplexity about both the events and their true interpretation. The general course of Roman policy in the two decades that followed the close of the First Punic War has been described elsewhere. It remains to examine more closely the causes of the war, and the manner in which it came about.
In 237 BC the Romans, with no shadow of right, had forced Carthage to surrender Sardinia and to pay an additional indemnity of 1200 talents. Six years later, when the successes of Hamilcar were extending Punic power in Spain, Roman envoys, probably sent at the instance of Massilia to protest, accepted his assurances that he was seeking the means to pay the indemnity imposed by Rome. Two years later, Hasdrubal succeeded Hamilcar and by diplomacy as much as by arms continued the Carthaginian advance, until, in 226 or 225, the Romans, faced by a war with the Gauls of the Po valley, wished to set some limits to the Carthaginian Empire in Spain. Accordingly, Roman envoys came to an agreement with Hasdrubal which pledged the Carthaginians not to carry their arms north of the Ebro. We may assume that the Ebro instead of the Pyrenees was made the dividing line in order to give protection to the Massiliote colonies of Emporium land Rhode and greater protection to Massilia itself, the ally of Rome. It is to be presumed that Hasdrubal, as Hannibal after him, had with him assessors from the home government, and that the agreement was as binding as that made by Hannibal and his assessors later with Philip of Macedon, that it was, in fact, a valid treaty. As the Romans were not in a position to impose this limit on Hasdrubal by their simple fiat, it must be assumed further that they undertook in return not to carry their arms south of the Ebro, or to interfere in the Carthaginian dominion.
Saguntum, however, a smallish Iberian town of slight strategical and no great commercial importance a hundred miles south of the river, was already under Roman protection, probably brought under it through the agency of Massilia, with which city Saguntum, as her coinage testifies, had close trade relations. It is even possible that Rome had made something like an alliance with Saguntum as early as 231. This alliance was not invalidated by the Ebro treaty, which, however, carried with it the implied obligation on Rome not to use the town as an instrument to hinder Carthaginian expansion within the sphere recognized as open to her.
So long as the war with the Gauls hung in the balance, Rome was careful to respect the treaty and its implications. It is admitted that Carthage in turn had done nothing to injure Saguntum, and, if this was of deliberate policy, it points to the fact that the alliance of the town with Rome was taken account of both after and before the treaty. By 221 BC the Romans had proved victorious against the Gauls, and they now intervened at Saguntum to bring into power, not without bloodshed, a party hostile to Carthage and to promote friction with the neighboring tribe of the Torboletae, who were subjects of the Carthaginians. In fact, after enjoying the benefits of the Ebro treaty, Rome began to use Saguntum as a tool to undermine Punic power south of the river and to loosen the hold of Carthage on the enviable wealth of Spain.
This does not mean that the Senate contemplated bringing about an immediate war. For with the threat of Gallic invasion removed, it probably reckoned on repeating, if need be, in Spain the successful bullying by which Rome had secured Sardinia. And so, late in 220 BC, envoys were sent to warn Hannibal, who had succeeded Hasdrubal as governor of Carthaginian Spain, not to attack Saguntum, because the town was under the protection of Rome. But neither from Hannibal nor at Carthage, whither they then went, did they receive the submissive assurances which they probably expected. Finally, in the spring of 219 when Saguntum, relying on Rome, remained intransigent, Hannibal attacked the town, which he took after an eight months’ siege. All this time the Romans sent no force to assist the defenders. Both consuls were engaged in Illyria, and the Senate was probably undecided how far their protection of Saguntum should go. When about November 219 news came that the town had fallen, the patres took long to decide whether or not to regard it as a casus belli. Saguntum was unimportant and distant, and the material interests of Rome, and of Massilia, were protected by the Ebro treaty, which Hannibal showed no sign of violating. Many senators, no doubt, were opposed to embarking on a serious war in the West, particularly at a time when Rome might find herself involved in a conflict with Macedon. On the other hand, Roman prestige was concerned, above all in Spain, and, if Rome took no action, she would find it difficult afterwards to hinder the consolidation of Carthaginian power south of the Ebro.
Finally the plea of prestige, which really meant the claim to interfere effectively in Carthaginian Spain, prevailed, and late in March 218 envoys were sent to Carthage to demand the surrender of Hannibal and of his Carthaginian assessors who had concurred in the attack on Saguntum. The demand was the rerum repetitio which, if not complied with, led to formal declaration of war, and the Roman envoys were no doubt authorized to state definitely what would be the result of refusal. The Carthaginian Senate denied—and with justice—that they were under any formal obligation not to attack Saguntum, which was not in the list of Roman allies whom Carthage had pledged herself to respect in the peace of 241 BC. Since that date Carthage had made no engagement with Rome which could affect her dealings with Saguntum. The purely juridical case was irrefutable. Indeed, Roman apologists were later driven to the expedient of declaring that Saguntum was expressly safeguarded by the Ebro treaty, or even that it lay north of the river. This latter fiction seems to find an echo even in Polybius, and both were served by the assertion that the Carthaginian Senate denied the validity of the Ebro treaty. This assertion is probably the perversion of what may be true, that the Carthaginians limited the discussion to the precise legal point at issue, Carthage then refused the Roman demand, and the Roman envoys declared that Carthage was choosing war. Strong as was the legal and indeed moral case for Carthage, because Rome was using Saguntum to undermine her power in Spain, the fact remained that Hannibal had attacked and taken—with the approval of his government—a town which Rome had declared to be under her protection. This is the core of truth in the Roman tradition which sought to convince the legally-minded citizens that the cause of Rome was the cause of justice.
It cannot be said that the war which followed was from the beginning inevitable. The first conflict between Rome and Carthage had not entailed the destruction or subjection of either. The two states could continue to exist side by side in the Western Mediterranean, but only if each was willing to respect the other’s sphere of influence. The treaty of 241 BC might have formed the basis of some such balance of power as Hellenistic statecraft had reached east of the Adriatic. The foreign policy of Carthage in the previous three centuries is evidence of the paramount importance in her counsels of commercial interests and motives, and it is extremely probable that she would have wished to keep the peace in order to exploit the immense resources of her newly reacquired and extended province in Spain. Rome, in effective possession of Sicily, might well be content to leave to her the Eldorado of the Spanish mines and Spanish markets. Indeed had the Roman Senate’s policy been sincerely pacific, there is small reason to think that the nobles of the house of Barca, great as was their influence due to the services of Hamilcar in crushing the Mercenaries revolt and to the political adroitness of Hasdrubal, would have been able to lead her into a war of revenge against Rome. The picture of the Barcids as viceroys in Spain independent of the home government is itself false. Neither Hamilcar, Hasdrubal nor Hannibal was a Wallenstein. They knew themselves to be the generals of a Republic, and their policy had to take account of the views of the Carthaginian ring of aristocrats whose hand was upon the machine of government. Many of these nobles doubtless cared more for their estates in Africa than for the old tradition of commercial and naval supremacy in the Western Mediterranean. In fact, the Carthaginian navy had been allowed to decline, partly, it may be, to avoid the semblance of a challenge to Rome, her successful rival by sea. Yet the home government, which knew well that it was the Spanish mines that had made easy the punctual payment of the indemnity and that opened to Carthage a new hope of commercial prosperity, were not likely to risk Spain for the sake of a war, though they might be ready to risk war for the sake of Spain. Finally, had it been the set purpose of the house of Barca to attack Rome, Hasdrubal would not have made the Ebro treaty, but would have urged Carthage to seize at once an opportunity more favorable than any which was likely to offer itself later.
The wrath of the house of Barca and the revenge of Hannibal belong mainly to a Roman tradition which obscures, and was meant to obscure, the extent to which the Roman seizure of Sardinia and her interference in Spain drove Carthage to war. Nor does the tradition sufficiently emphasize the effect of Massiliote diplomacy in urging Rome to challenge the eastward expansion of Carthage in Spain which, it is true, menaced the trade, if not the security, of Massilia. The Roman claim to forbid Hannibal to attack Saguntum showed that the Senate had no intention of binding itself by the implications of the Ebro treaty, and Carthage might well feel that Roman aggression which had advanced by way of Sardinia might pass by way of Saguntum to Nova Carthago and even to Africa itself. The process might be slow. Rome’s policy at this time was not consistently imperialistic: it was often vacillating, timid, inert, but her malignity, in which now fear, now jealousy, now arrogant self-confidence, now greed of wealth and power was dominant, must have seemed beyond question. It is true that it was Hannibal's attack on Saguntum, undertaken in full knowledge of the almost inevitable consequences, that precipitated the war, but the historian must decide that, so far as attack and defence have a meaning in the clash between states, the balance of aggression must incline against Rome.
The legend that the war sprang from the ambition or revengefulness of Hannibal is one with the legend that Carthage was not behind him when in 220/19 he refused to be turned aside by the menaces of the Senate. Fabius Pictor declared that none of the substantial citizens of Carthage approved of Hannibal’s action at Saguntum, but this is contradicted by the whole course of events and must be regarded as the self-deception of a Roman at war, turned to the purposes of propaganda. That at Carthage, despite a just resentment of Rome’s actions, there were nobles jealous of the house of Barca, or men who believed that Carthage should seek to placate where she could not perhaps hope to conquer, is doubtless true. But Hannibal had acted with the full knowledge and approval of the home government, he was the chosen general of the finest army and the governor of the richest province of Carthage, and to disown him and his assessors was to divide the State in the face of an enemy whose forbearance could not be trusted. Hannibal himself could not be lightly surrendered to Roman vengeance, even though the full measure of his greatness in the field had not as yet revealed itself to Carthage, much less to Rome. At the age of twenty-six he had succeeded his kinsman Hasdrubal in Spain (221 BC). To the diplomatic skill of his predecessor he added his father Hamilcar’s unbending spirit and a double portion of his father’s energy and generalship. Schooled in arms from boyhood, he had behind him the fruits of long experience in the handling of the mercenaries and levies that made up the mass of the Carthaginian armies. The siege of Saguntum showed him a worthy namesake of the conqueror of Selinus and Himera, and two lightning campaigns in Eastern Spain had confirmed his innate consciousness of a genius for command. We may well believe that the Carthaginian government had already recognized that this was the moment and the man. If Carthage was to remain secure and untroubled in the enjoyment of her commerce and of Spain she must defend herself resolutely, and to Hannibal the best defence was attack.
Herein lay the responsibility of Hannibal, not for the fact that the war happened—granted that Rome would one day set before Carthage the choice of war or the steady undermining of its power—but for the moment of its happening. Rome’s intrigues from Saguntum could be permitted for a time without serious loss; Hannibal decided to force the issue at once, and this he did on the basis of a military calculation which was probably his alone, for the essence of it was secrecy. It was enough that the Carthaginian Senate should be convinced of the need of an immediate defensive war and assured that its young general could make it not entirely hopeless.
The Roman Senate, in its turn, must have realized that the demands which its envoys took to Carthage in 218 were certain to be refused, and it prepared for the conflict with a leisurely confidence that was the legacy of victory and of the proved superiority of her legionaries in the First Punic War. In the previous year the consuls had disposed of Demetrius of Pharos and so secured the protectorate in Illyria, and the Senate might hope that the war with Carthage would be over before Philip V of Macedon, now entangled in war with the Aetolians and Sparta, would be free to translate his unconcealed hostility into action. In Northern Italy the Gauls had been defeated, and before midsummer 218 two Latin colonies, Placentia and Cremona, were settled to watch the Boii and Insubres, in addition to which there were also garrisoned posts such as Clastidium and Tannetum. The situation seemed secure, though in reality Hannibal’s agents must already have been at work among the tribesmen assuring them of an ally and deliverer from beyond the Alps. And so, when early in 218 the returning envoys brought information of the existence of Carthaginian intrigues in North Italy, the Senate saw in that no more than an attempt to embarrass their plans by a Gallic movement; a single legion was deemed sufficient to make all safe, while the consuls of the year opened campaigns in Spain and in Africa.
THE RIVAL WAR-PLANS
The consuls for 218 P. Cornelius Scipio and Ti. Sempronius Longus, were provided, with the customary consular armies of two legions each. Scipio’s army was made up of 8000 Roman legionaries and 600 Roman cavalry with 14,000 allied infantry and 1600 allied cavalry and a fleet of 60 ships. Sempronius army received an additional 2000 allied infantry and 200 allied cavalry, and to him was allotted the major portion of the fleet, 160 quinqueremes. From the size and disposition of these forces it is possible to make a fairly certain estimate of the Senate’s intended plan of campaign against Hannibal. Scipio’s army was to sail to Massilia; from this secure base, ensuring good communication with Italy, the invasion of Spain north of the Ebro must have seemed to promise good hopes of success. Caution and concerted but carefully prepared advance are the keynotes of this strategy. The other army under Sempronius was dispatched to Sicily and was designed to invade Africa. Records of Agathocles’ invasion and tike initial success of Regulus would have left the Roman senators with no doubt about the vulnerability of Carthage in Africa, and the Roman naval supremacy, which had been maintained by steady building since the First Punic War, enabled Rome to choose her own time for the invasion. But an army of two legions was not large enough to reduce Carthage without the help of allies in Africa and it is possible that the first year was to see a base secured, and that a serious invasion with a larger army would follow in 217 BC. The Roman prospects seemed very fair indeed and in complacent confidence the Roman Republic mobilized only five legions out of the vast resources of man-power latent in Italy.
It remains to be seen how strategy dictated by methodical care and experience fared against the rapidity and daring of a great general. Hannibal’s strategy was at once political and military. The past afforded no clear refutation of the hope that the Roman political system in Italy might be broken up by the presence of a victorious enemy in the peninsula. Pyrrhus had won two battles, and then Rome had gone near to making peace with him. A Carthaginian might well suppose that it was only Carthaginian promises of help that had prevented, the Republic from yielding. Some of Rome’s allies at that time had deserted her, and a greater Pyrrhus might succeed where he had failed. In the generations that followed Pyrrhus the Italians had been bled white in Rome's quarrels, so that a Carthaginian might well fail to recognize that Rome had by now proved herself to her allies by leadership and fair dealing and had roused a national Italian spirit in the repulse of the barbarian Gauls. In the First Punic War Carthage had never been able to strike home, for she could not find a secure base in Italy nor feel confidence that her armies would win victory in the field. But if these two conditions were fulfilled, it must have seemed a reasonable calculation that Rome might be brought to make a peace which would undo the effects of the First Punic War. Of the two conditions the first might be fulfilled in the adhesion of the Gauls, who were hostile to Rome but not yet completely crushed. To wait two or three years might allow Rome to be entangled in a war with Macedon, but by then the certainty of Gaulish help might be far smaller. Politically, this was the moment to strike if the second condition, a high probability of victory in the open field, was fulfilled. The military problem was threefold, to concentrate a strong and faithful army, to bring it into Italy, and to discover tactics which would counterbalance the Roman superiority in numbers.
By the spring of 218 the first part of the military problem had been solved. After the fall of Saguntum Hannibal had spent the winter in final preparations at Nova Carthago and by granting special furlough, nursed the loyalty of his army. Commanded by Carthaginian nobles, the army which reassembled in March 218 BC was a veteran army and not, like many earlier Carthaginian armies, a haphazard collection of mercenaries engaged at short notice for particular campaign. The African subjects and allies of Carthage provided the unequalled light Numidian cavalry and also the heavy infantry which bore the brunt of Hannibal’s battles. The Spanish mercenaries and levies were good fighting stock, inured to hardships and peculiarly adapted by character and experience to ruses, ambushes and stratagems. Lastly, the whole army was hardened by the discipline and inspired by the loyalty of long service. Such an instrument had been bequeathed to Hannibal as to Alexander, and it lay ready to his hand to direct against the enemy which, it was evident, was bent on the destruction of his country.
The quality of the army is beyond question; its size it is more difficult to estimate. Rome had the command of the sea and that meant that both Spain and Africa must be held in sufficient strength to prevent any rapid Roman successes in either region. Forces amounting to 20,000 men were detailed for Africa; in Spain Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal was given 12,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry and 21 elephants1, and later Hanno was stationed with 11,000 men north of the Ebro. Polybius says that the forces with which Hannibal set out from Nova Carthago amounted to 90,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, and that he left Spain itself with 50,000 foot and 9000 horse. Neither of these statements is free from exaggeration. What Hannibal expected the march to Italy to cost him we cannot tell, but he probably reckoned on being stronger in the field than Pyrrhus had been, and on being able to recruit Gauls in Italy to make up losses incurred on the way. On the other hand, he knew he had to face the greatest difficulties of commissariat and it is probable that the army with which he left Spain did not number more than 40,000 men.
The Carthaginian navy of rather more than a hundred sail (of which fifty quinqueremes, two quadriremes and five triremes were left with Hasdrubal) was no match for the Roman; it was needed to help the defence of Spain and Africa and to keep open communications between the two; the battle of the Aegates islands had taught an unforgettable lesson of the danger of transporting a large army by sea, and there was no safe landing-place in Italy. Military and political reasons combined to compel him to invade Italy by land and to appear among the Gauls whom Rome had made her enemies. Finally, as will be seen, Hannibal, who had no doubt deeply studied the military history of Alexander and his successors, together with the reports of the tactics of the Romans, had devised methods by which his superiority in cavalry and the capacity for manoeuvre which his veterans had learned, could be used to make victory in a pitched battle almost certain. To Polybius, with his statistics of Roman man-power, his consciousness of the strength of the Roman political system and most of all, his knowledge of the event, Hannibal’s invasion of Italy was a desperate though splendid adventure. But as a political and military calculation on such evidence as Hannibal can well have had, it contained no more hazardous factors than any other course open to him. Nor was its least advantage the fact that it was a wholly effective defence against the Roman plan of attack which he foresaw. As will be seen, the Roman project of a simultaneous invasion of Africa and Spain had to be abandoned; Carthage was given time to raise a coalition against Rome and even though the coalition failed to achieve its ends, final defeat was postponed for sixteen years.
HANNIBAL’S MARCH TO ITALY
In the spring of 218, not earlier than the beginning of May, Hannibal set out from Nova Carthago. His start was late, not because he need wait for war to be declared before marching to the Ebro, but probably in order to allow the spring flooding of the Spanish rivers to subside so that he could ford them easily instead of having to bridge them. Once he had moved he must march at speed. It was, however, to take him five months to reach the valley of the Po—a longer time than he presumably expected. The task of forcing the passes of the Eastern Pyrenees and brushing aside the resistance of the Gallic tribes who were allied with Massilia cost him dearly in casualties and deserters, and he did not reach the Rhone until towards the end of August. Here he might have found himself already faced by a Roman army, had not a rising in the spring of the Boii and Insubres in North Italy, which began with the ambush of the legion set to guard the newly founded colonies, caused the Senate to dispatch thither Scipio’s two legions under a praetor, leaving Scipio to raise a new consular army for his expedition to Spain. We may fairly assume that the rising was timed by Hannibal’s agents. Even so, the consul reached Massilia while the Carthaginian army was still just west of the Rhone. There seems to be no doubt that Scipio did not realize Hannibal’s purpose; possibly he believed that it was to gain allies among the barbarians for an attack on Massilia which, if successful, would rob the Romans of their half-way house to Spain. He, accordingly, remained near the city and merely sent a force of cavalry with some Celtic mercenaries in the service of Massilia to observe the enemy’s movements.
Hannibal arrived at the Rhone at a point four days’ march from the sea and found the opposite bank of the river soon thronged by large numbers of hostile tribes prepared to oppose his passage. Though well provided with wherries by friendly tribes he yet judged after two days’ halt that to force a crossing in view of the numbers of the enemy would be a hazardous undertaking attended by severe losses. Accordingly on the next day he sent Hanno with local guides and a force of cavalry twenty-five miles upstream. Building rough rafts they crossed where the river was divided by an islet and rested. Then on the fifth day they rode down the far bank of the stream. Hannibal meanwhile had completed his preparations and had constructed special rafts to carry over his elephants. When in the afternoon a column of smoke arising in the distance on the far shore announced that his manoeuvre was complete he gave orders for the army to cross. The barbarians who lined the river seeing their encampments fired in their rear by a detachment of Hanno’s force broke in flight and Hannibal completed the crossing without loss. Immediately after this Scipio’s scouting force fell in with a Numidian rearguard. They won a slight success in a skirmish but it was small consolation for the sight of Hannibal’s deserted camp and the knowledge that he had safely crossed the Rhone. By a narrow margin Hannibal missed a pitched battle with the Roman army. Scipio marched north to investigate and arrived at Hannibal’s camp three days after he had left for the Alps.
Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps has stirred the imagination and provoked the discussion of succeeding ages. It is impossible to determine with any approach to certainty which pass he chose. The accounts of Livy and Polybius conflict and are vague, making the identification of topographical features impossible. Both contain much rhetorical coloring such as the absurd story of the view of the plains of Italy from the top of the pass. The problem, intriguing as it is, is not to be solved ambulando, and even if it were solved, we have not the necessary data to relate Hannibal’s choice to his strategy or to estimate its wisdom.
The feat of crossing the Alps was in itself nothing remarkable, as Napoleon noted—“les elephants seuls ont pu lui donner de l’embarras”. Indeed, whole tribes of Celts with their womenfolk and children had crossed in the summer by the passes farther east into the north of Italy. Hannibal’s difficulties were in the first place military, owing to the hostility of the Allobroges—difficulties which beset armies marching in column in narrow defiles—but more important was the fact that it was now past the first week of September, and a heavy fall of new snow made the descent on the southern side particularly hazardous for the transport and the elephants. Polybius’ picturesque description of the difficulty of crossing hard avalanche snow covered by this new melting layer is vivid, and bears the stamp of painful experience perhaps recorded by Silenus. But it seems certain that a month earlier the pass could have been crossed without these added risks and dangers, and one is left to surmise that Hannibal had been too long delayed by the resistance offered north of the Ebro till August, or was misled by false information about the Alpine passes. His losses in the Alps were such that he arrived in Italy with no more than 20,000 foot and 6000 horse.
THE TICINUS AND TREBIA
About a month had passed since Hannibal crossed the Rhone, and now he marched on the chief town of the Taurini (the modern Turin), who were hostile to the Insubres and so to the Carthaginians. The weak fortifications of a Gallic town in the plains were taken after three days, and the massacre of the fighting men in the garrison conveniently proved Hannibal to be a bad enemy to those who would not accept him as a friend. But more important for the purpose of winning over the Gauls was to defeat the Romans in the field, and Hannibal advanced to seek an opportunity. He probably knew that he had to meet the two legions which the Senate had sent to North Italy, and the Gauls soon informed him that the Roman forces were marching west from Placentia. He was, however, surprised to find that Publius Scipio was in command, having travelled nearly 1000 miles by land and sea in little more than a month.
His presence was possible because he had come alone. Faced by the fact that Hannibal’s objective was Italy, he had taken the momentous decision to send his army and part of the fleet with his brother Gnaeus to invade Spain, while he himself returned to Italy to take command of the troops which would face Hannibal as he came down from the Alps. His action has been interpreted as being no more than a reasonable carrying out of his instructions from the Senate, combined with the wish to be at the disposal of the State for any service which the changed strategical position demanded. He could not be condemned by the Senate for carrying out their instructions so far as his army was concerned, nor for getting into touch with them for new instructions which could be sent to him in northern Etruria as he traversed it on his way to North Italy. It is no doubt true that the Senate did approve his action, and the desire for the Senate’s approval may have been his dominating motive. But the energy of his movements and the strategic skill which he displayed now and later suggest that he returned to guide the Senate s policy rather than to be guided by it, and that the decision to go forward with the expedition to Spain was truly his own and dictated by a far-sighted appreciation of what the interests of Rome demanded.
The decision has been impeached by those who, regarding the Italian front as all-important, urge that he should have brought his army with him in order that he and his colleague might confront the invader with a superior force. If Hannibal were defeated, Spain would fall of itself. The first answer to this criticism is that Scipio might hope to engage Hannibal before his troops were rested and reinforced by Gauls, if he himself did not sacrifice the time needed to move his army from the Rhone to the Po. His calculation was refuted by the speed with which, though at a great cost, Hannibal crossed the Alps, but that fact does not prove that the calculation was not the best possible. The second and more decisive answer was that a Roman army north of the Ebro would weaken Hannibal in Italy by denying to him reinforcements from Spain. There was no fear that Hannibal would be south of the Apennines before the year ended, and neither Scipio nor the Senate had any reason to doubt that in the spring of 217 Rome would have enough troops to deal with any situation in Italy which they could imagine. But a footing in Spain must be secured without delay.
By this time Sempronius had concentrated his 26,400 men at Lilybaeum with the fleet to cover their crossing. In that region operations had so far been by sea, for the Carthaginians sought to take advantage of the slow mobilization of the Roman main force. While Sempronius was still in Italy they sent 20 ships to raid Southern Italy, while 35 more were to attempt to surprise Lilybaeum, then held by the praetor Emilius with a squadron of perhaps as many ships. Three of the 20 ships were captured off Messana owing to a storm, the remainder carried out a raid on Vibo and then escaped home. Warned by their prisoners the Romans informed Emilius, who beat off the Carthaginian attack, capturing seven ships. These minor operations attested the naval superiority of the Romans and, incidentally, the loyalty of Hiero the king of Syracuse who though ninety years of age was unresting in the support of Rome. Sempronius himself, as a counterstroke, sailed to the island of Malta and captured it with its Carthaginian garrison. As he prepared to set out for Africa with enough ships to brush aside the remnant of the Carthaginian navy, he may well have thought that it was simply the First Punic War again in miniature. But then came from Rome a message of recall.
News had reached Rome from Scipio that Hannibal had crossed the Rhone and was marching to the Alps and that the consul’s army was being sent on to Spain. Word was at once sent to inform Sempronius so that he might transfer his army to North Italy. The Senate was well aware that the troops already in the Po valley were no more than enough to make head against the Gauls alone. The Senate’s dispatch must have reached Sempronius about the time that Hannibal was entering Italy. The consul acted forthwith. Emilius with 50 ships at Lilybaeum was left to cover Sicily while Sext. Pomponius with 25 protected Vibo and Southern Italy. The army was moved, perhaps by sea from Lilybaeum to the Straits of Messina and thence marched in less than two months the seven hundred miles to Ariminum, whither the consul transferred his headquarters. Towards the end of November he was able to march on to join his colleague. The two consuls might then either fight a battle, if victory seemed probable, or hold their hand, knowing that winter would protect Central Italy from immediate invasion.
Scipio, meanwhile, with forces amounting to about 20,000 infantry and 2000 cavalry set himself to his task of limiting as far as possible the enemy’s progress. Crossing the Po at Placentia, he advanced along the north bank to the Ticinus across which he threw a bridge of boats. Leaving his legions in a camp made on the west of the river he pushed forward with his cavalry and some light-armed troops to reconnoiter as far, perhaps, as the modern Lomello, but he did not cross the Sesia. Here in the country, still to this day screened by light scrub and trees, a cloud of dust gave the first indication of the enemy’s presence. It was the cavalry covering Hannibal’s advance. Scipio cannot have wished to commit himself to a conflict against odds, but the superior speed of the enemy’s horse forced an engagement in which nightfall alone saved him. Scipio himself was wounded, and he only escaped death or capture through the bravery of his son, who thus dramatically enters the stage of the war.
Retreating under cover of night, Scipio moved his army across the bridge, breaking it down after him only just in time, for the Carthaginian cavalry came up at once and captured the detachment left to cover the work of destruction. He had done well to withdraw his army without greater losses, but he realized that he must now escape from the open country north of the Po and wait for his colleague’s arrival. Yet he did not wish to leave to Hannibal all the Celts west of Placentia. Accordingly he crossed the Po by the Placentia bridge and pushed forward to the strategic position of the Stradella, which gave him security against the enemy’s cavalry and covered his communications with Placentia some twenty miles away.
Hannibal, divining his opponent’s intention, crossed to the south bank near the modern Tortona after marching two days upstream to make sure of an unchallenged or easier crossing. He then turned eastwards again and on reaching Scipio’s new position encamped and offered battle. Scipio refused it, and his refusal convinced the Gauls in his army that it was time to abandon the losing-side. In the night, after killing their Roman officers, they went over to the Carthaginians. This blow forced Scipio to withdraw behind the Trebia, the stream which joins the Po from the south just west of Placentia. The withdrawal was skillfully conducted, but its success owed something to the avidity with which the Numidian cavalry turned aside to plunder the deserted Roman camp. The Gallic tribes hastened to take the Carthaginian side, and to bring in supplies, which were presently augmented by the betrayal to Hannibal of the Roman store depot at Clastidium, 26 miles west of Placentia. Scipio’s new position on the Trebia was well chosen for defence and here he was able to nurse his wound and restore the morale of his troops. Hannibal meanwhile advanced and encamped on the opposite western bank of the Trebia, and, probably by design, made no attempt to hinder the arrival of Sempronius’ army.
Sempronius arrived, and a success in a skirmish emboldened him to accept the battle which his adversary desired. After laying a skilful ambush, Hannibal sent his Numidians across the stream to harry the Roman camp. Contrary to the judgment of his colleague Sempronius led the four legions, some Gallic auxiliaries and about 4000 cavalry, against Hannibal’s army, which now numbered about 38,000 of whom some 10,000 were cavalry. On a December morning breakfastless the legionaries waded waist-high across the icy stream to fight with their backs to the river on ground chosen by the enemy. Hannibal’s few elephants and cavalry drove back the Roman wings, while his brother and Mago fell upon the rear of the centre from the ambush. All happened as Hannibal had planned, except that the Celts who formed the centre of the Carthaginian line were not strong enough to prevent 10,000 Romans from breaking through and reaching Placentia by recrossing a bridge over the Trebia near the town. The rest of the Roman army was driven into the river.
It was a disaster, for all that Sempronius described it as a battle in which the weather had robbed the Romans of victory. The combined armies of the two consuls had been defeated with the loss of at least two-thirds of their strength. Hannibal’s casualties were almost entirely Gauls, and were more than compensated by the accession of those Celts who had so far followed the fortunes of Rome. At the same time Placentia afforded a safe shelter for the remnants of the Roman army, and it was represented at Rome that the legionaries of the centre had once more proved their superiority by cutting their way through the enemy’s line. The Senate rewarded the services of Scipio, to whom no blame attached for the battle of the Trebia, by prolonging his imperium and sending him to Spain. Meanwhile winter protected Central Italy from attack.
The Roman people, though their confidence in the legions was unshaken, had too good an instinct for war to be content with the campaign of 218, and at the consular elections they chose, together with Cn. Servilius Geminus, their favorite, C. Flaminius. Six years before, he had returned victorious over the Insubres, and the people, despite the Senate’s opposition, had voted him a triumph, ignoring or refusing to credit hostile rumors that the valor of the legions and the skill of the military tribunes had alone covered his military incompetence. Since that day, his reputation and popularity had increased rapidly. His censorship in 220 had been marked by a new census and the beginning of the great road to Ariminum. Further, he had been the only senator to support a Lex Claudia (c. 218 BC) restricting senators from maritime trade. This action enrolled in his support the increasing body of middle-class merchants. But it was a moment fraught with danger to the Roman state and commoner in Greece than in Rome when, at a crisis, a general was elected by a popular majority on the grounds of his political acumen and devotion to the interests of a class rather than for his proved military experience and ability.
According to the hostile tradition which Livy has preserved, he neglected to observe the customary religious ceremonies. If the account is not falsified, as is certainly the case with the story of his entering on his consulship at Ariminum, it is beyond doubt that senatorial opposition was so bitter that even if he had not acted thus, the patres would have used every obstruction derived from the religious machinery to prevent him from exercising his command, as they had sought to do in 223 BC. Political dissension was accompanied by a severe outbreak of popular superstition. Livy’s list of prodigies copied from the pontifical records, including a phantom navy seen in the sky and an ox which climbed to the third storey of a house, is an interesting document of war fever and an indication of the crass superstition of the populace.
For the campaign of 217 Rome disposed of eleven legions, at least 100,000 men including the allied contingents. Two of these legions were in Spain, four were to meet Hannibal in the field, while two were in reserve at Rome, two in Sicily and one in Sardinia. The defeated army of the Po strengthened to two legions was taken over at Ariminum, to which it had retired, by the new consul Cn. Servilius, while Flaminius with two newly-raised legions marched to Arretium in Etruria. The Senate had decided not to meet Hannibal in the plains of the Po, where his cavalry could move freely and where the Gauls were an added danger. The colonies of Cremona and Placentia were left to their own resources, since Hannibal had not the siege-train for an assault or the time for a protracted blockade. The Roman plan of campaign was to defend Central Italy, supported by loyal allies and with assured supplies. The details of the plan were conditioned by the mountain barrier which sweeps in a semicircle from Liguria to the backbone of Central Italy. Hannibal might elect to choose the normal route into Italy skirting the north side of this barrier by the Po valley to Ravenna, and then along the Adriatic as far as Ariminum, where first there is an easy breakthrough by the Furlo pass and the route of the Via Flaminia. It was to guard against this possibility that Servilius was sent to Ariminum.
On the other hand, there were several though more difficult passes direct from the Po valley into Etruria, and Flaminius was sent to Arretium to block the most southerly of these. The Roman division of forces has been severely criticized, and at first sight it is difficult to see why Ariminum should be held, if the Po valley were abandoned. But the Metaurus campaign later will show how suited this area is for crushing an invading army where the mountains come close down to the Adriatic and the lateral valleys have no exits. It was also traditional roman policy to operate with small armies commanded by independent consuls and the application of this policy had recently proved successful against Gallic armies invading from the north. Finally, popular sentiment was too strong to allow any further abandonment of territory. Thus the plan of defence was to block both sides of the Apennines at the risk of leaving the two armies, with no communication and liable to be defeated in detail. But it was possible that if all went well, Hannibal might end by being caught between the two, as the Gauls had been at Telamon.
Hannibal intended to invade Central Italy once he had raised in revolt the Po valley. In the winter he had moved to Bologna; this left it hard for the Romans to decide whether he would march down the Po valley or cut through the Apennines. So soon as he got news that the passes were clear of snow, he crossed the Apennines, probably on the route Bologna-Porretta-Pistoia by the pass of Collina (3040 feet), in order to surprise Flaminius at Arretium. Between Pistoia and Florence very great difficulties were experienced owing to marshes formed by the melting snows and flooded Arno. Polybius describes from a Carthaginian source the horrors of four days and three sleepless nights; Hannibal himself, mounted on the one elephant that had survived the winter, pushed on despite a severe inflammation which destroyed the sight of one of his eyes. But his iron frame and unyielding spirit enabled him almost at once to take the field.
The campaign which Hannibal now conducted exhibits in the highest degree his audacity of conception and masterly coordination of accurate topographical appreciation with insight into his adversary’s character. It is probable that he had intelligence that one Roman army had been sent to Ariminum before he crossed the Apennines. Now, when his troops had been rested after the crossing of the marshes he sought to exploit the headstrong nature of Flaminius, his immediate opponent. He first endeavored to entice him into a battle in the plain by marching past Arretium, exposing his flank and ravaging far and wide the luxuriant Roman allied territory. When this lure failed—a fact which proves that Flaminius was not the utterly incompetent and rash general which Livy’s hostile sources make him out to be—Hannibal set a far subtler trap. For from the information of his cavalry scouts and perhaps of Etruscan peasants who knew the district, he must have formed a remarkably accurate estimation of the terrain. He knew that Servilius would be hastening south in response to urgent messages from his colleague. Consequently with consummate audacity he deliberately placed his own army between the two Roman armies, making it almost certain that Flammius would follow him. Instead of marching on Rome, he turned due east, disappearing in front of Flaminius by a narrow defile (Borghetto) along the north shore of Lake Trasimene.
Inside this defile the mountains lie back from the lake leaving a small enclosed plain five miles long until they come down again at Montigeto. Nature never designed a better theatre for a battle and Hannibal proceeded before nightfall to prepare the stage. He placed his light cavalry and Gallic troops along the foothills back from Borghetto to enclose the Roman column when it had entered. His light-armed Balearic troops were to occupy the steep hill where it approached the lake at the other end of the plain. He himself with his African and Spanish troops held the central hills. Meanwhile Flaminius had halted long enough to lose touch with Hannibal and, without reconnoitering the route, he followed him through the narrow pass of Borghetto into the enclosed plain early in the morning while a heavy mist effectually screened the hills from view. His whole army marched in column into the small plain before Hannibal gave the signal for attack. The surprise was complete, and the battle was decided before a blow was struck. Hannibal had achieved one of the most remarkable coups in the history of warfare.
The valor of the Roman legionaries prolonged the fighting or two or three hours and Flaminius fell, fighting bravely, by the hand of a Gaul. A body of 6000 men in the van cut through the Carthaginian troops near Montigeto and pushed on to the rising ground behind Passignano, but they were later surrounded and breed to surrender. Hannibal’s losses were small and fell mainly on the Gauls. Whatever the exact number of the killed and prisoners, Hannibal had put out of action a complete Roman army of two legions. The Roman allies were ostentatiously given their freedom, being told that Hannibal’s quarrel was with Rome alone. When the news reached Rome it was impossible to deceive the people and concoct a victory, as had been done after Trebia. The praetor assembled the people and announced with Roman bluntness “we have been defeated in a great battle”.
Meanwhile Hannibal by brilliant reconnaissance was continually informed of the movements of Servilius’ army. He learned that Servilius cavalry 4000 strong had been sent on ahead under C. Centenius. Detaching from his own cavalry a sufficient force under Maharbal, he sent him beyond Perugia perhaps into the valley of the Topino near Assisi. Centenius was surprised, half his force was destroyed, and the remainder surrendered.
The route lay open for Hannibal to march on Rome. But he had never deceived himself by hopes of capturing the city. His plan of war was to force the proud city to make peace, by confronting her with a victorious enemy marching at will through her lands, supported by the general revolt of her allies and subject cities. He had good precedents for the success of such strategy in Carthaginian history. He would be a new Agathocles in Italy. Consequently he immediately crossed the Apennines to Picenum and arrived ten days later at the Adriatic coast, where in the rich well-watered land his army could plunder at will and rest amid plenty after the strenuous spring campaign. From Picenum he moved south into Apulia traversing all the richest territory on the east of the Apennines. Although he met with no resistance, it is clear that there was no revolt in Hannibal’s favor, and walled cities such as Luceria and Arpi closed their gates to him. For the first time Hannibal must have learned the strength of Rome’s Italic confederation, and perhaps have doubted his ultimate success.
In the crisis following the disaster, the Romans had recourse to the traditional measure of appointing a dictator. No dictator with full imperium had been created since A. Atilius Calatinus in 249 BC. Now one consul was dead and the other cut off from the city by Hannibal’s army. The usual constitutional practice of nomination by a consul was thus impossible, and the Senate wisely decided that the election should be by the centuriate assembly. Q. Fabius Maximus was elected dictator, a patrician of tried experience (he had been consul in 233 and 228 and dictator sine imperio in 221 BC). At the same time, instead of following constitutional practice and allowing the dictator to nominate his Magister Equitum the people elected M. Minucius Rufus, also a man of experience, who had seen service as consul in 221 BC. This separate election of the second-in-command, due to the hampering distrust of the popular party desirous of having a partisan in power, curtailed in an important way the absolute powers of the dictator. For, instead of being a pure subordinate nominated by the dictator to carry out his wishes, Minucius Rufus held an independent, if inferior, position. It was a compromise between dual and sole command which contained the weaknesses of both.
Fabius enrolled two new legions at Tibur and marching along the Via Flaminia met Servilius near Ocriculum and took over his two legions. He then turned south with four legions into Apulia and, finding Hannibal at Vibinum, camped five miles away at Aecae. When the Carthaginians offered battle Fabius refused it; whereupon Hannibal decided to move into Samnium and Campania in order to force a pitched battle or demonstrate to the Allies the weakness of Rome. He crossed the Apennines into Samnium, ravaged the lands of Beneventum, and marched down the Volturnus valley, followed by Fabius. Descending by Allifae, Caiatia and Cales into the heart of Campania, he began to spread destruction in the Ager Falernus and Campus Stellas.
All this he did without energetic interference from the dictator’s army, and it is easy to imagine how opposition grew in the army, in the country round, and at Rome, to Fabius’ strategy of inaction. It was as though the Roman troops occupying the hills sat in the seats of a vast theatre watching the destruction of the fairest region of Italy, the Phlegraean plains for which even gods had contended in rivalry. Equally it is difficult not to admire the Roman tenacity of Fabius in holding to the strategy which alone, he thought, could save Rome. He earned opprobrious sobriquets such as “Hannibal’s lacquey” and “Cunctator”, which was only later converted by a poet biased by family ties into a term of praise,
cunctando restituit rem.
Fabius was clearly right in avoiding a battle in the plains with an army very little larger than Hannibal’s and fatally weak in cavalry. But the real justification of Fabian tactics would have been to outmarch and outmaneuver Hannibal so as to force a battle where the Punic cavalry could not operate and the sturdiness of the Roman legionary in close fighting might assert itself. For a policy of pure inaction must be highly damaging to the Roman prestige in her Confederation. However, finally, it seemed as if Fabius’ patience was to be rewarded, and Hannibal would be forced to an engagement in one of the passes which provide exits from Campania.
As autumn approached, Hannibal wished to return to Apulia for winter quarters, since he possessed no secured base in Campania, which, furthermore, bristled with hostile walled cities into which corn and provisions could be safely gathered and stored from the countryside. And his army had already collected all the cattle and portable booty from this area which had not been withdrawn into safety. It was too dangerous to cross the Volturnus in the face of the enemy, for Fabius could march on interior lines, and to move this heavy-laden army back to Apulia without being forced to battle in one of the passes of north Campania taxed the genius of Hannibal to produce a strange and brilliant manoeuvre. Fabius had sent Minucius to occupy the northernmost pass, that of the Via Latina, and he had placed sufficient troops to bar the very narrow exit of the Volturnus itself, while he himself camped on the foothills to watch the pass between Teanum and Cales by which Hannibal had entered Campania. Hannibal’s audacious plan was deliberately to force this pass in face of Fabius by a night march. Two thousand bullocks with lighted faggots tied to their horns were driven by pioneers and light-armed troops as a decoy up towards Fabius camp on to the higher ground on the north of the pass. In the confusion the Roman pickets on the pass abandoned their positions and made to stem what they supposed to be the attack, while Fabius, ever cautious, disliking a night engagement, kept to his camp. Meanwhile Hannibal led the whole of his army with the booty unopposed direct through the pass by Cales (now Taverna Torricella). Crossing the Apennines, he marched to near Luiceria in Apulia and captured the small town of Gerunium, which he made into a supply depot. Fabius was recalled to Rome on the pretext of holding religious sacrifices; the Senate clearly wished to confer with the dictator in consequence of the rising popular opposition to men policy.
While Fabius went to Rome, Minucius marched after Hannibal into Apulia and encamped on the heights of Galena in the territory of Larinum close enough to Gerunium to be able to harass the Carthaginian foraging parties as they gathered in the harvest. To protect these Hannibal moved his camp forward two miles from Gerunium, occupying a low hill facing the Roman camp, and a small force of 2000 was sent still farther forward by night as an outpost to seize a point of vantage between the two camps. Minucius next day attacked this force and, capturing the hill, occupied it himself. Although the armies were now very close to one another, Hannibal was unwilling to desist from completing his foraging operations for the winter. This gave Minucius an opportunity of making an attack which cut off and caused considerable losses to the Carthaginian foragers, whereupon Hannibal retreated to Gerunium. When the news of this slight success arrived at Rome it was magnified into an important Roman victory and the popular dissatisfaction with Fabian tactics and the Senate’s direction of operations came to a head.
Fabius’ attempt to allay the excitement by having an aged senator M. Atilius Regulus elected consul in place of Flaminius had no effect. The Senate had temporarily lost political control, and the people proceeded to the extraordinary and unconstitutional course of electing Minucius Rufus co-dictator with Fabius with equal powers. In this way the whole value of dictatorship was stultified, and one of the oldest institutions of the Roman constitution, which had saved Rome so often in her struggle for supremacy in Italy, received a blow from which it never recovered. Fabius joined Minucius at Galena, and the Roman army was split into two halves and even into two camps a mile and a half apart.
Hannibal, fully informed of the dissension in the Roman army and the over-confidence of Minucius, saw a favorable opportunity to force an engagement. The ground between his camp and that of Minucius was very broken and unsuitable for cavalry, which made him all the more certain that Minucius would risk a battle. During the night Hannibal occupied with light troops a small eminence and disposed considerable bodies of troops in hollows and ravines on the flanks. Minucius expecting to repeat his previous success fell into the trap and attacked the eminence in full force. His legions were at once assailed on three sides and a disaster was only avoided by the prompt appearance of Fabius in support. We may well believe, with the Roman annalists, that Fabius forgave his colleague for having proved him right, and that Minucius drew the correct deductions from his narrow escape. The engagement is interesting since it illustrates again Hannibal’s tactical skill in enticing his adversary to fight on ground he has chosen and prepared. But the scales were unevenly balanced when a master of strategy who had commanded armies since he was a stripling found such inexperience pitted against him. The six months imperium of Fabius was now at an end, and the two consuls, Servilius and Atilius Regulus, took over the command at Gerunium.
Although the Senate deliberately delayed the elections—Livy notes the interregnum—they were unable to make headway against the tide of popular feeling, and by the side of L. Aemilius Paulus, a noble who had been brilliantly successful in Illyria three years before, was elected C. Terentius Varro, the son of a rich merchant. A hostile tradition represents him as a vulgar braggart. Yet he cannot have gained the consulship in face of aristocratic opposition without real capacity. But the qualities which enabled him, as they had enabled Flaminius, to rise to party leadership were ill suited for the conduct of a campaign against Hannibal. In Polybius’ account much has to be discounted, since the bias in favor of Emilius the grandfather of his friend Scipio is very patent, so that Varro is made responsible for all the decisions which in the campaign led directly to the disaster which ensued. That such an ill-assorted pair of consuls worked harmoniously together is unlikely, and there is no reason to doubt the friction upon which the sources lay great stress, but the blame for the disaster must be apportioned more equally between them or rather must be charged against this Roman system of dual command where neither general held precedence over the other except by the primitive arrangement of maius imperium on alternate days.
The Roman army of four legions at Gerunium had been commanded through the winter and early spring by Servilius and Regulus. Suddenly they informed the Senate that Hannibal had moved away south towards the coast and had captured a Roman supply depot, Cannae, on the Aufidus. Hannibal no doubt knew from his spies that the Romans had decided to fight a pitched battle, and he was choosing in the plains by the Adriatic the battlefield he desired for his cavalry. The Senate sent the two new consuls to take over the command at Gerunium, and Regulus was permitted to retire from the active service for which his age unfitted him. Part of the Roman army was composed of veteran troops which had cut through Hannibal’s center at Trebia; the two newer legions had been trained by the summer campaign of 217 BC under Fabius and seasoned by the skirmishes at Gerunium. All four legions were augmented to a special strength of perhaps 12,000 each, including allies, by a draft which the consuls brought from Rome.
A larger army could without doubt have been put into the field, but tradition dictated the size of a Roman consular army as two legions and no army larger than two consular armies combined had ever operated as a unit. The Senate, composed mainly of men with military experience, may have foreseen in any larger combination than four legions practical difficulties of commissariat and of tactical control which might easily outweigh any advantages to be gained by adding legion to legion. Confidence in the valor and fighting qualities of the Roman legionary was unshaken, since both at Trebia and at Trasimene a Roman force had cut their way through the enemy, and they attributed the defeats to the incompetence of the commanders or to ill-fortune. In a fair fight the Romans were still confident that success was assured, the success of superior heavy-armed troops. For with four legions of this augmented strength, 48,000 men, they would considerably outnumber Hannibal’s infantry—35,000, his veteran nucleus now reduced to perhaps 19,000 infantry, the remainder unstable Celts whom the Romans knew well and had begun to despise. Cavalry was the weak spot. Even if the Roman horse amounted to 6000, as Polybius’ source asserted, it was definitely inferior in numbers and quality to Hannibal’s 10,000. But the Romans had ever believed that battles are won by infantry, and only late in the war did the insight of Scipio Africanus appreciate to the full this defect in the Roman military system.
The Roman army marched from Gerunium along the road through Arpi to Salapia, where supplies had been collected. The flat bare plain surrounding the town suggested to Aemilius Paullus the need of moving next day to a more protected position in the rolling hills of the Aufidus valley between Cannae and Canusium. On the march there was a skirmish and Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry was beaten off. The Romans then crossed the river and with secure communications to Canusium made their camp on the right bank about three miles or less above Hannibal’s camp which was opposite to Cannae on the left bank. A smaller Roman outpost was encamped lower down the river on the left bank to protect the Roman foraging parties and to threaten those of Hannibal. At this Hannibal moved his main camp over to the right bank to forestall any possible attempt upon Cannae. Further by this move he calculated that the Romans would be more likely to be enticed into battle in the plain between Salapia and the Aufidus if they were persuaded that they would not be fighting, as at Trebia, upon ground prepared by him. Both armies were now eager for battle; for Hannibal had brought the Romans to terrain he had himself chosen and the Roman generals had not the skill or confidence to attempt to outmaneuver him.
At daybreak on a summer morning early in August the main armies both crossed the river and were drawn up for battle. The Roman right flank rested on the river, and here was stationed the small force of Roman citizen cavalry; the major part of the cavalry including all the allies was placed on the left flank which lay exposed in the plain, the infantry were massed in deeper files than usual, since all the Roman hopes centered upon breakthrough tactics, a victorious Trebia. Hannibal drew up his infantry in a crescent formation with an advanced center of Gauls stiffened by his Spanish veterans; his African troops were stationed on either side of the centre, but held well back; and the flanks were extended by cavalry, Spanish and Gallic next to the river and Numidians in the plain. Polybius’ Greek source describes the effect made by the alternate companies of half-naked Celts and Spaniards, with their short linen tunics bordered with purple stripes, and he notes that the African troops were now entirely armed in Roman fashion from spoils taken in previous battles.
The battle opened with the attack of the Roman infantry upon Hannibal’s forward center. As the Romans had hoped, the weight of the maniples was too much for the Gauls and they were pressed steadily back until the convex line of Hannibal’s formation became concave. If it broke, the day was lost, and here in the center Hannibal had posted himself and his young brother Mago. The result of this movement, which Hannibal had deliberately calculated, was to narrow still further the Roman front as they crowded into the pocket left by his receding Gauls and at the same time his African infantry came into action with their full weight on the flanks of the Roman infantry. Meanwhile the Spanish and Gallic cavalry annihilated the weak Roman horse between the river and their infantry, and began to encircle the Roman rear, while part was detached to the other flank to assist the Numidians and to put to flight the Roman allied horse. The double victory of Hannibal’s cavalry completed the outflanking tactics of the infantry battle. Only by breaking through the center could the Roman army be partially saved. But this they were not able to effect, both owing to the diversion caused by the attack on their flanks and because Hannibal’s heavy Spanish and African infantry displayed, magnificent fighting qualities, while his Gauls, on whom fell the heaviest losses, did not fail their alien commander. The Roman legions were held until encirclement brought about the inevitable disaster. Emilius fell, Varro rode away: of the whole army perhaps 10,000 men escaped. The battle is the supreme achievement of Hannibal, exhibiting in its perfection of timing and in its coordination of cavalry and infantry tactics an example of military art unsurpassed in ancient warfare.
The Carthaginians had lost no more than 6700 men, 4000 of whom were Gauls—a low price for the victory. Hannibal was urged by his officers headed by Maharbal to march immediately on Rome or at least to send forward a strong cavalry force: “in five days we shall dine in the Capitol”. But his deep strategic insight recognized at once the futility of such an empty demonstration before the walls of Rome, which would have lessened the moral effect of his victory and would have abandoned the opportunity of obtaining more important gains. Instead, he made a leisurely and triumphant progress through Samnium into Campania to raise the Roman allies in revolt, while his brother Mago was sent with a small force into Lucania and Bruttium.
The Roman confederation in Italy was profoundly shaken and one tithe of Hannibal’s hopes was fulfilled. Arpi, in Apulia, one of the most important cities of Central Italy, and Salapia came over to him, and the strongholds of Aecae, Herdonea and Compsa followed suit with most of the tribes of the Samnite mountain regions including the Hirpini, Pentri and Caudini. They were the toughest stock of Italy with strong feelings of independent nationalism which had resisted vigorously the spread of Roman power and had never borne with resignation the Roman domination. In Lucania and Bruttium, with the exception of the Greek cities, the revolt was universal; only Petelia maintained a desperate defence during eleven months’ siege by Mago, and Consentia submitted after the fall of Petelia. But the most important of all the successes of Hannibal after Cannae, significant of real danger of disruption in the Roman confederation, was the revolt of Capua in the autumn, the second city in Italy.
The causes of revolt were numerous. Capua was the industrial centre of Italy, far surpassing Rome itself at this time in wealth, and the Roman market had depended largely on the products of Campanian artisans. The numerous democratic party in the city saw their opportunity to overthrow an aristocracy whose power had been strengthened by intermarriage with the leading families of Rome. The demands of Roman conscription in a century of continual wars had been peculiarly irksome to the luxury-loving burghers. And the measure of self-government which the city enjoyed under its two Meddices had been seriously curtailed by the jurisdiction of a Roman Praefectus, in whose election the Campanians had no say. The burden of the civitas sine suffragio seemed greater than its privileges, and the desire for immediate and selfish advantages was strong enough to drown the national Italian patriotism which Rome had been so successful in fostering in the Confederation. Hannibal wisely agreed to liberal conditions no conscription for his army, complete autonomy, and the present of three hundred Roman prisoners to be exchanged against the Capuan cavalry serving with the Romans in Sicily.
The example of Capua was followed by smaller Campanian towns—Atella, Calatia, Nucena and Acerrae. But there the movement ended. The solid core of Roman strength, Latium, Umbria and Etruria stood firm. In Sicily the aged king Hiero, whose unwavering loyalty to Rome had brought to Syracuse fifty years of unparalleled peace and prosperity, hastened to demonstrate it, as he had done after Trebia and Trasimene. The Roman fleet off Sicily, strengthened to seventy-five quinqueremes, held the seas. And finally, as will be seen later, the Scipios had won a great victory in Spain. The skies were dark, but it was not the hour to despair of the Republic.