Gateway to the Classics: Hannibal by Jacob Abbott
Hannibal by  Jacob Abbott

Hannibal in the North of Italy

W HEN Hannibal's army found themselves on the plains of Italy, and sat down quietly to repose, they felt the effects of their fatigues and exposures far more sensibly than they had done under the excitement which they naturally felt while actually upon the mountains. They were, in fact, in a miserable condition. Hannibal told a Roman officer whom he afterward took prisoner that more than thirty thousand perished on the way in crossing the mountains; some in the battles which were fought in the passes, and a greater number still, probably, from exposure to fatigue and cold, and from falls among the rocks and glaciers, and diseases produced by destitution and misery. The remnant of the army which was left on reaching the plain were emaciated, sickly, ragged, and spiritless; far more inclined to lie down and die, than to go on and undertake the conquest of Italy and Rome.

After some days, however, they began to recruit. Although they had been half starved among the mountains, they had now plenty of wholesome food. They repaired their tattered garments and their broken weapons. They talked with one another about the terrific scenes through which they had been passing, and the dangers which they had surmounted, and thus, gradually strengthening their impressions of the greatness of the exploits they had performed, they began soon to awaken in each other's breasts an ambition to go on and undertake the accomplishment of other deeds of daring and glory.

We left Scipio with his army at the mouth of the Rhone, about to set sail for Italy with a part of his force, while the rest of it was sent on toward Spain. Scipio sailed along the coast by Genoa, and thence to Pisa, where he landed. He stopped a little while to recruit his soldiers after the voyage, and in the mean time sent orders to all the Roman forces then in the north of Italy to join his standard. He hoped in this way to collect a force strong enough to encounter Hannibal. These arrangements being made, he marched to the northward as rapidly as possible. He knew in what condition Hannibal's army had descended from the Alps, and wished to attack them before they should have time to recover from the effects of their privations and sufferings. He reached the Po before he saw any thing of Hannibal.

Hannibal, in the mean time, was not idle. As soon as his men were in a condition to move, he began to act upon the tribes that he found at the foot of the mountains, offering his friendship to some, and attacking others. He thus conquered those who attempted to resist him, moving, all the time, gradually southward toward the Po. That river has numerous branches, and among them is one named the Ticinus. It was on the banks of this river that the two armies at last came together.

Both generals must have felt some degree of solicitude in respect to the result of the contest which was about to take place. Scipio knew very well Hannibal's terrible efficiency as a warrior, and he was himself a general of great distinction, and a Roman, so that Hannibal had no reason to anticipate a very easy victory. Whatever doubts or fears, however, general officers may feel on the eve of an engagement, it is always considered very necessary to conceal them entirely from the men, and to animate and encourage the troops with a most undoubting confidence that they will gain the victory.

Both Hannibal and Scipio, accordingly, made addresses to their respective armies—at least so say the historians of those times—each one expressing to his followers the certainty that the other side would easily be beaten. The speech attributed to Scipio was somewhat as follows:

"I wish to say a few words to you, soldiers, before we go into battle. It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary. It certainly would not be necessary if I had now under my command the same troops that I took with me to the mouth of the Rhone. They knew the Carthaginians there, and would not have feared them here. A body of our horsemen met and attacked a larger body of theirs, and defeated them. We then advanced with our whole force toward their encampment, in order to give them battle. They, however, abandoned the ground and retreated before we reached the spot, acknowledging, by their flight, their own fear and our superiority. If you had been with us there, and had witnessed these facts, there would have been no need that I should say any thing to convince you now how easily you are going to defeat this Carthaginian foe.

"We have had a war with this same nation before. We conquered them then, both by land and sea; and when, finally, peace was made, we required them to pay us tribute, and we continued to exact it from them for twenty years. They are a conquered nation; and now this miserable army has forced its way insanely over the Alps, just to throw itself into our hands. They meet us reduced in numbers, and exhausted in resources and strength. More than half of their army perished in the mountains, and those that survive are weak, dispirited, ragged, and diseased. And yet they are compelled to meet us. If there was any chance for retreat, or any possible way for them to avoid the necessity of a battle, they would avail themselves of it. But there is not. They are hemmed in by the mountains, which are now, to them, an impassable wall, for they have not strength to scale them again. They are not real enemies; they are the mere remnants and shadows of enemies. They are wholly disheartened and discouraged, their strength and energy, both of soul and body, being spent and gone, through the cold, the hunger, and the squalid misery they have endured. Their joints are benumbed, their sinews stiffened, and their forms emaciated. Their armor is shattered and broken, their horses are lamed, and all their equipments worn out and ruined, so that really what most I fear is that the world will refuse us the glory of the victory, and say that it was the Alps that conquered Hannibal, and not the Roman army.

"Easy as the victory is to be, however, we must remember that there is a great deal at stake in the contest. It is not merely for glory that we are now about to contend. If Hannibal conquers, he will march to Rome, and our wives, our children, and all that we hold dear will be at his mercy. Remember this, and go into the battle feeling that the fate of Rome itself is depending upon the result."

An oration is attributed to Hannibal, too, on the occasion of this battle. He showed, however, his characteristic ingenuity and spirit of contrivance in the way in which he managed to attract strong attention to what he was going to say, by the manner in which he introduced it. He formed his army into a circle, as if to witness a spectacle. He then brought in to the center of this circle a number of prisoners that he had taken among the Alps—perhaps they were the hostages which had been delivered to him, as related in the preceding chapter. Whoever they were, however, whether hostages or captives taken in the battles which had been fought in the defiles, Hannibal had brought them with his army down into Italy, and now introducing them into the center of the circle which the army formed, he threw down before them such arms as they were accustomed to use in their native mountains, and asked them whether they would be willing to take those weapons and fight each other, on condition that each one who killed his antagonist should be restored to his liberty, and have a horse and armor given him, so that he could return home with honor. The barbarous monsters said readily that they would, and seized the arms with the greatest avidity. Two or three pairs of combatants were allowed to fight. One of each pair was killed, and the other set at liberty according to the promise of Hannibal. The combats excited the greatest interest, and awakened the strongest enthusiasm among the soldiers who witnessed them. When this effect had been sufficiently produced, the rest of the prisoners were sent away, and Hannibal addressed the vast ring of soldiery as follows:

"I have intended, soldiers, in what you have now seen, not merely to amuse you, but to give you a picture of your own situation. You are hemmed in on the right and left by two seas, and you have not so much as a single ship upon either of them. Then there is the Po before you and the Alps behind. The Po is a deeper, and more rapid and turbulent river than the Rhone; and as for the Alps, it was with the utmost difficulty that you passed over them when you were in full strength and vigor; they are an insurmountable wall to you now. You are therefore shut in, like our prisoners, on every side, and have no hope of life and liberty but in battle and victory.

"The victory, however, will not be difficult. I see, wherever I look among you, a spirit of determination and courage which I am sure will make you conquerors. The troops which you are going to contend against are mostly fresh recruits, that know nothing of the discipline of the camp, and can never successfully confront such war-worn veterans as you. You all know each other well, and me. I was, in fact, a pupil with you for many years, before I took the command. But Scipio's forces are strangers to one another and to him, and, consequently, have no common bond of sympathy; and as for Scipio himself, his very commission as a Roman general is only six months old.

"Think, too, what a splendid and prosperous career victory will open before you. It will conduct you to Rome. It will make you masters of one of the most powerful and wealthiest cities in the world. Thus far you have fought your battles only for glory or for dominion; now, you will have something more substantial to reward your success. There will be great treasures to be divided among you if we conquer, but if we are defeated we are lost. Hemmed in as we are on every side, there is no place that we can reach by flight. There is, therefore, no such alternative as flight left to us. We must conquer."

It is hardly probable that Hannibal could have really and honestly felt all the confidence that he expressed in his harangues to his soldiers. He must have had some fears. In fact, in all enterprises undertaken by man, the indications of success, and the hopes based upon them, will fluctuate from time to time, and cause his confidence in the result to ebb and flow, so that bright anticipations of success and triumph will alternate in his heart with feelings of discouragement and despondency. This effect is experienced by all; by the energetic and decided as well as by the timid and the faltering. The former, however, never allow these fluctuations of hope and fear to influence their action. They consider well the substantial grounds for expecting success before commencing their undertaking, and then go steadily forward, under all aspects of the sky—when it shines and when it rains—till they reach the end. The inefficient and undecided can act only under the stimulus of present hope. The end they aim at must be visibly before them all the time. If for a moment it passes out of view, their motive is gone, and they can do no more, till, by some change in circumstances, it comes in sight again.

Hannibal was energetic and decided. The time for him to consider whether he would encounter the hostility of the Roman empire, aroused to the highest possible degree, was when his army was drawn up upon the banks of the Iberus, before they crossed it. The Iberus was his Rubicon. That line once overstepped, there was to be no further faltering. The difficulties which arose from time to time to throw a cloud over his prospects, only seemed to stimulate him to fresh energy, and to awaken a new, though still a calm and steady resolution. It was so at the Pyrenees; it was so at the Rhone; it was so among the Alps, where the difficulties and daggers would have induced almost any other commander to have returned; and it was still so, now that he found himself shut in on every hand by the stern boundaries of Northern Italy, which he could not possibly hope again to pass, and the whole disposable force of the Roman empire, commanded, too, by one of the consuls, concentrated before him. The imminent danger produced no faltering, and apparently no fear.

The armies were not yet in sight of each other. They were, in fact, yet on opposite sides of the River Po. The Roman commander concluded to march his troops across the river, and advance in search of Hannibal, who was still at some miles' distance. After considering the various means of crossing the stream, he decided finally on building a bridge.

Military commanders generally throw some sort of a bridge across a stream of water lying in their way, if it is too deep to be easily forded, unless, indeed, it is so wide and rapid as to make the construction of the bridge difficult or impracticable. In this latter case they cross as well as they can by means of boats and rafts, and by swimming. The Po, though not a very large stream at this point, was too deep to be forded, and Scipio accordingly built a bridge. The soldiers cut down the trees which grew in the forests along the banks, and after trimming off the tops and branches, they rolled the trunks into the water. They placed these trunks side by side, with others, laid transversely and pinned down, upon the top. Thus they formed rafts, which they placed in a line across the stream, securing them well to each other and to the banks. This made the foundation for the bridge, and after this foundation was covered with other materials, so as to make the upper surface a convenient roadway, the army were conducted across it, and then a small detachment of soldiers were stationed at each extremity of it as a guard.

Such a bridge as this answers a very good temporary purpose, and in still water, as, for example, over narrow lakes or very sluggish streams, where there is very little current, a floating structure of this kind is sometimes built for permanent service. Such bridges will not, however, stand on broad and rapid rivers liable to floods. The pressure of the water alone, in such cases, would very much endanger all the fastenings; and in cases where drift wood or ice is brought down by the stream, the floating masses, not being able to pass under the bridge, would accumulate above it, and would soon bear upon it with so enormous a pressure that nothing could withstand its force. The bridge would be broken away, and the whole accumulation—bridge, drift-wood, and ice—would be borne irresistibly down the stream together.

Scipio's bridge, however, answered very well for his purpose. His army passed over it in safety. When Hannibal heard of this, he knew that the battle was at hand. Hannibal was himself at this time about five miles distant. While Scipio was at work upon the bridge, Hannibal was employed, mainly, as he had been all the time since his descent from the mountains, in the subjugation of the various petty nations and tribes north of the Po. Some of them were well disposed to join his standard. Others were allies of the Romans, and wished to remain so. He made treaties and sent help to the former, and dispatched detachments of troops to intimidate and subdue the latter. When, however, he learned that Scipio had crossed the river, he ordered all these detachments to come immediately in, and he began to prepare in earnest for the contest that was impending.

He called together an assembly of his soldiers, and announced to them finally that the battle was now nigh. He renewed the words of encouragement that he had spoken before, and in addition to what he then said, he now promised the soldiers rewards in land in case they proved victorious. "I will give you each a farm," said he, "wherever you choose to have it, either in Africa, Italy, or Spain. If, instead of the land, any of you shall prefer to receive rather an equivalent in money, you shall have the reward in that form, and then you can return home and live with your friends, as before the war, under circumstances which will make you objects of envy to those who remained behind. If any of you would like to live in Carthage, I will have you made free citizens, so that you can live there in independence and honor."

But what security would there be for the faithful fulfillment of these promises? In modern times such security is given by bonds, with pecuniary penalties, or by the deposit of titles to property in responsible hands. In ancient days they managed differently. The promiser bound himself by some solemn and formal mode of adjuration, accompanied, in important cases, with certain ceremonies, which were supposed to seal and confirm the obligation assumed. In this case Hannibal brought a lamb in the presence of the assembled army. He held it before them with his left hand, while with his right he grasped a heavy stone. He then called aloud upon the gods, imploring them to destroy him as he was about to slay the lamb, if he failed to perform faithfully and fully the pledges that he had made. He then struck the poor lamb a heavy blow with the stone. The animal fell dead at his feet, and Hannibal was thenceforth bound, in the opinion of the army, by a very solemn obligation indeed, to be faithful in fulfilling his word.

The soldiers were greatly animated and excited by these promises, and were in haste to have the contest come on. The Roman soldiers, it seems, were in a different mood of mind. Some circumstances had occurred which they considered as bad omens, and they were very much dispirited and depressed by them. It is astonishing that men should ever allow their minds to be affected by such wholly accidental occurrences as these were. One of them was this: a wolf came into their camp, from one of the forests near, and after wounding several men, made his escape again. The other was more trifling still. A swarm of bees flew into the encampment, and lighted upon a tree just over Scipio's tent. This was considered, for some reason or other, a sign that some calamity was going to befall them, and the men were accordingly intimidated and disheartened. They consequently looked forward to the battle with uneasiness and anxiety, while the army of Hannibal anticipated it with eagerness and pleasure.

The battle came on, at last, very suddenly, and at a moment when neither party were expecting it. A large detachment of both armies were advancing toward the position of the other, near the River Ticinus, to reconnoiter, when they met, and the battle began. Hannibal advanced with great impetuosity, and sent, at the same time, a detachment around to attack his enemy in the rear. The Romans soon began to fall into confusion; the horsemen and foot soldiers got entangled together; the men were trampled upon by the horses, and the horses were frightened by the men. In the midst of this scene, Scipio received a wound. A consul was a dignitary of very high consideration. He was, in fact, a sort of semi-king. The officers, and all the soldiers, so fast as they heard that the consul was wounded, were terrified and dismayed, and the Romans began to retreat. Scipio had a young son, named also Scipio, who was then about twenty years of age. He was fighting by the side of his father when he received his wound. He protected his father, got him into the center of a compact body of cavalry, and moved slowly off the ground, those in the rear facing toward the enemy and beating them back, as they pressed on in pursuit of them. In this way they reached their camp. Here they stopped for the night. They had fortified the place, and, as night was coming on, Hannibal thought it not prudent to press on and attack them there. He waited for the morning. Scipio, however, himself wounded and his army discouraged, thought it not prudent for him to wait till the morning. At midnight he put his whole force in motion on a retreat. He kept the camp-fires burning, and did every thing else in his power to prevent the Carthaginians observing any indications of his departure. His army marched secretly and silently till they reached the river. They recrossed it by the bridge they had built, and then, cutting away the fastenings by which the different rafts were held together, the structure was at once destroyed, and the materials of which it was composed floated away, a mere mass of ruins, down the stream. From the Ticinus they floated, we may imagine, into the Po, and thence down the Po into the Adriatic Sea, where they drifted about upon the waste of waters till they were at last, one after another driven by storms upon the sandy shores.

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