After the hardships they had endured while crossing the Alps Hannibal and his army were forced to rest. But in a short time Hannibal was ready to lead his men along the left bank of the river Po, having sent a corps of cavalry forward to reconnoitre.
Scipio, you remember, had determined to await Hannibal in the valley of the Po, and he was now also marching along the left bank of the river.
As he crossed the Ticinus, a tributary of the Po, he suddenly found himself face to face with the cavalry of the enemy.
A fierce struggle at once took place, but before long the Roman soldiers turned and fled, in spite of all the Consul could do to rally them. He himself showed the greatest courage, fighting in the forefront of the battle and so being wounded. Had it not been for the bravery of his young son, he would indeed have been captured or killed.
Seeing that his father was wounded and surrounded by the enemy, the lad, who was only sixteen years of age, dashed into their midst. He was followed by his men, who were ashamed to linger behind their young leader. His daring attack scattered the foe, and the Consul was carried off the field in safety. This lad of sixteen was the Scipio who afterwards became known as Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal.
The battle at the Ticinus was in reality only a skirmish. But Scipio was warned by this defeat to be cautious, and he determined to withdraw across the Po. There he would await his colleague Sempronius, who had been recalled from Sicily, when it became known that Hannibal meant to invade Italy.
Although the fight at Ticinus was only a skirmish, yet the victory of Hannibal's cavalry encouraged many Gallic tribes to throw off their fear of Rome and join the Carthaginians.
Even those Gauls who had joined the Roman camp were eager to escape, and one night more than two thousand of them mutinied, and, overpowering the sentinels, left the Romans to join Hannibal.
After the flight of the Gauls, Scipio thought it would be wise to move to a safer position, so he marched to the upper Trebia, another tributary of the Po. Here he was joined by Sempronius.
Hannibal was eager to fight while the Gauls were still faithful to him, for he, as well as the Romans, knew their unstable character. Scipio on the other hand, wished to delay meeting the enemy, for he was still wounded. Moreover, he thought that if a battle did not take place soon, the Gauls would be more than likely to forsake their new ally.
But Sempronius, who had entire charge of both the Roman armies since Scipio was wounded, could brook no delay.
The Carthaginian general had already discovered that it would be easy to tempt the second Consul to fight. He therefore determined to entice him to cross the river Trebia.
It was winter. Heavy rains and sleet had fallen, and the river was flooded, when, early one bleak morning, Hannibal ordered his brave young brother Mago, with a large number of troops, to lie in ambush in a dried-up watercourse, where they were hidden by high banks and tall bushes. Until a signal bade them dash out upon the enemy, they were not to stir.
Meanwhile a body of Carthaginian cavalry had been sent across the river, close to the Roman camp. The cavalry was to tempt Sempronius to leave his camp and offer battle.
The Consul no sooner saw the enemy, than without waiting for his men to have breakfast, he ordered the horsemen to advance at once, and the infantry to follow as soon as possible.
Cold and hungry, the Roman army obeyed, and the Punic cavalry retreated across the river before the enemy.
The Roman foot soldiers were ordered to follow, although the water was cold as ice, and reached almost to their shoulders. When they scrambled up on the other bank, they were chilled to the bone as well as faint for want of food. More miserable bedraggled Roman soldiers had never been seen. They were scarcely fit to attack a small body of the enemy, much less to face the main body of the Carthaginian army, which, well fed and warm, awaited them in battle array.
Hannibal, with his usual care for his soldiers, had seen that they had a good meal, after which he had bade them rub their bodies with oil in front of the camp fires, before they buckled on their armour.
It was soon plain that the Romans were not fit to cope with the comfortable Carthaginian troops.
Yet in spite of the elephants, that trampled them underfoot, and in spite, too, of the Punic cavalry which was stronger than their own, the Roman legions held their ground.
It was only when the signal had been given, and Mago, with two thousand men rushed from his ambush, and attacked them in the rear, that the Romans gave way.
Then they turned and fled towards the Trebia, hoping to be able to cross it and to regain their camp. But many of them were cut down before they reached the river, while, of those who attempted to recross the cold and swollen waters, many were drowned.
Only ten thousand in the centre of the Roman army succeeded in keeping their ranks unbroken. These brave soldiers pushed their way through the enemy and retreated to Placentia, a town on the river Po, which had already been taken and fortified by their own legions.
Before the day was over the Carthaginians, too, had suffered severely from the weather. Showers of rain and snow forced them at length to give up the pursuit of the Romans and hasten to their tents for shelter and warmth. Many of the elephants perished in the storm.
When Rome heard of the defeat of her two armies, and that both her Consuls were shut up in Placentia with a remnant of their soldiers, she was dismayed at the greatness of the disaster. Moreover, she was well aware that this victory would make the Gauls cleave more steadfastly than before to the successful general.
Thus the year 218 b.c. drew to a close, while signs of evil omen added to the anxiety of the citizens of Rome.
Rain fell; no gentle, refreshing showers, but rain of red-hot stones. In the market-place a bull ran up the third story of a house and leapt from thence into the street. And who ever heard of a child of six months old being able to speak! Yet one of just such tender age was heard to shout "Triumph."
Even the least superstitious saw in these strange portents the hand of the gods, and they trembled for what might next befall.