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

The Passage of the Rhone

H ANNIBAL, after he had passed the Pyrenees, did not anticipate any new difficulty till he should arrive at the Rhone. He knew very well that that was a broad and rapid river, and that he must cross it near its mouth, where the water was deep and the banks low; and, besides, it was not impossible that the Romans who were coming to meet him, under Cornelius Scipio, might have reached the Rhone before he should arrive there, and be ready upon the banks to dispute his passage. He had sent forward, therefore, a small detachment in advance, to reconnoiter the country and select a route to the Rhone, and if they met with no difficulties to arrest them there, they were to go on till they reached the Alps, and explore the passages and defiles through which his army could best cross those snow-covered mountains.

It seems that before he reached the Pyrenees—that is, while he was upon the Spanish side of them, some of the tribes through whose territories he had to pass undertook to resist him, and he, consequently, had to attack them and reduce them by force; and then, when he was ready to move on, he left a guard in the territories thus conquered to keep them in subjection. Rumors of this reached Gaul. The Gauls were alarmed for their own safety. They had not intended to oppose Hannibal so long as they supposed that he only wished for a safe passage through their country on his way to Italy; but now, when they found, from what had occurred in Spain, that he was going to conquer the countries he traversed as he passed along, they became alarmed. They seized their arms, and assembled in haste at Ruscino, and began to devise measures of defense. Ruscino was the same place as that in which the Roman embassadors met the great council of the Gauls on their return to Italy from Carthage.

While this great council, or, rather, assembly of armies, was gathering at Ruscino, full of threats and anger, Hannibal was at Illiberis, a town at the foot of the Pyrenean Mountains. He seems to have had no fear that any opposition which the Gauls could bring to bear against him would be successful, but he dreaded the delay. He was extremely unwilling to spend the precious months of the early summer in contending with such foes as they, when the road to Italy was before him. Besides, the passes of the Alps, which are difficult and laborious at any time, are utterly impracticable except in the months of July and August. At all other seasons they are, or were in those days, blocked up with impassable snows. In modern times roads have been made, with galleries cut through the rock, and with the exposed places protected by sloping roofs projecting from above, over which storms sweep and avalanches slide without injury; so that now the intercourse of ordinary travel between France and Italy, across the Alps, is kept up, in some measure, all the year. In Hannibal's time, however, the mountains could not be traversed except in the summer months, and if it had not been that the result justified the undertaking, it would have been considered an act of inexcusable rashness and folly to attempt to cross with an army at all.

Hannibal had therefore no time to lose, and that circumstance made this case one of those in which forbearance and a show of generosity were called for, instead of defiance and force. He accordingly sent messengers to the council at Ruscino to say, in a very complaisant and affable manner, that he wished to see and confer with their princes in person, and that, if they pleased, he would advance for this purpose toward Ruscino; or they might, if they preferred, come on toward him at Illiberis, where he would await their arrival. He invited them to come freely into his camp, and said that he was ready, if they were willing to receive him, to go into theirs, for he had come to Gaul as a friend and an ally, and wanted nothing but a free passage through their territory. He had made a resolution, he said, if the Gauls would but allow him to keep it, that there should not be a single sword drawn in his army till he got into Italy.

The alarm and the feelings of hostility which prevailed among the Gauls were greatly allayed by this message. They put their camp in motion, and went on to Illiberis. The princes and high officers of their armies went to Hannibal's camp, and were received with the highest marks of distinction and honor. They were loaded with presents, and went away charmed with the affability, the wealth, and the generosity of their visitor. Instead of opposing his progress, they became the conductors and guides of his army. They took them first to Ruscino, which was, as it were, their capital, and thence, after a short delay, the army moved on without any further molestation toward the Rhone.

In the mean time, the Roman consul Scipio, having embarked the troops destined to meet Hannibal in sixty ships at the mouth of the Tiber, set sail for the mouth of the Rhone. The men were crowded together in the ships, as armies necessarily must be when transported by sea. They could not go far out to sea, for, as they had no compass in those days, there were no means of directing the course of navigation, in case of storms or cloudy skies, except by the land. The ships accordingly made their way slowly along the shore, sometimes by means of sails and sometimes by oars, and, after suffering for some time the hardships and privations incident to such a voyage—the sea-sickness and the confinement of such swarming numbers in so narrow a space bringing every species of discomfort in their train—the fleet entered the mouth of the Rhone. The officers had no idea that Hannibal was near. They had only heard of his having crossed the Iberus. They imagined that he was still on the other side of the Pyrenees. They entered the Rhone by the first branch they came to—for the Rhone, like the Nile, divides near its mouth, and flows into the sea by several separate channels—and sailed without concern up to Marseilles, imagining that their enemy was still hundreds of miles away, entangled, perhaps, among the defiles of the Pyrenees. Instead of that, he was safely encamped upon the banks of the Rhone, a short distance above them, quietly and coolly making his arrangements for crossing it.

When Cornelius got his men upon the land, they were too much exhausted by the sickness and misery they had endured upon the voyage to move on to meet Hannibal without some days for rest and refreshment. Cornelius, however, selected three hundred horsemen who were able to move, and sent them up the river on an exploring expedition, to learn the facts in respect to Hannibal, and to report them to him. Dispatching them accordingly, he remained himself in his camp, reorganizing and recruiting his army, and awaiting the return of the party that he had sent to explore.

Although Hannibal had thus far met with no serious opposition in his progress through Gaul, it must not, on that account, be supposed that the people, through whose territories he was passing, were really friendly to his cause, or pleased with his presence among them. An army is always a burden and a curse to any country that it enters, even when its only object is to pass peacefully through. The Gauls assumed a friendly attitude toward this dreaded invader and his horde only because they thought that by so doing he would the sooner pass and be gone. They were too weak, and had too few means of resistance to attempt to stop him; and, as the next best thing that they could do, resolved to render him every possible aid to hasten him on. This continued to be the policy of the various tribes until he reached the river. The people on the further  side of the river, however, thought it was best for them to resist. They were nearer to the Roman territories, and, consequently, somewhat more under Roman influence. They feared the resentment of the Romans if they should, even passively, render any co-operation to Hannibal in his designs; and, as they had the broad and rapid river between them and their enemy, they thought there was a reasonable prospect that, with its aid, they could exclude him from their territories altogether.

Thus it happened that, when Hannibal came to the stream, the people on one side were all eager to promote, while those on the other were determined to prevent his passage, both parties being animated by the same desire to free their country from such a pest as the presence of an army of ninety thousand men; so that Hannibal stood at last upon the banks of the river, with the people on his  side of the stream waiting and ready to furnish all the boats and vessels that they could command, and to render every aid in their power in the embarkation, while those on the other were drawn up in battle array, rank behind rank, glittering with weapons, marshaled so as to guard every place of landing, and lining with pikes the whole extent of the shore, while the peaks of their tents, in vast numbers, with banners among them floating in the air, were to be seen in the distance behind them. All this time, the three hundred horsemen which Cornelius had dispatched, were slowly and cautiously making their way up the river from the Roman encampment below.

After contemplating the scene presented to his view at the river for some time in silence, Hannibal commenced his preparations for crossing the stream. He collected first all the boats of every kind which could be obtained among the Gauls who lived along the bank of the river. These, however, only served for a beginning, and so he next got together all the workmen and all the tools which the country could furnish, for several miles around, and went to work constructing more. The Gauls of that region had a custom of making boats of the trunks of large trees. The tree, being felled and cut to the proper length, was hollowed out with hatchets and adzes, and then, being turned bottom upward, the outside was shaped in such a manner as to make it glide easily through the water. So convenient is this mode of making boats, that it is practiced, in cases where sufficiently large trees are found, to the present day. Such boats are now called canoes.

There were plenty of large trees on the banks of the Rhone. Hannibal's soldiers watched the Gauls at their work, in making boats of them, until they learned the art themselves. Some first assisted their new allies in the easier portions of the operation, and then began to fell large trees and make the boats themselves. Others, who had less skill or more impetuosity chose not to wait for the slow process of hollowing the wood, and they, accordingly, would fell the trees upon the shore, cut the trunks of equal lengths, place them side by side in the water, and bolt or bind them together so as to form a raft. The form and fashion of their craft was of no consequence, they said, as it was for one passage only. Any thing would answer, if it would only float and bear its burden over.

In the mean time, the enemy upon the opposite shore looked on, but they could do nothing to impede these operations. If they had had artillery, such as is in use at the present day, they could have fired across the river, and have blown the boats and rafts to pieces with balls and shells as fast as the Gauls and Carthaginians could build them. In fact, the workmen could not have built them under such a cannonading; but the enemy, in this case, had nothing but spears, and arrows, and stones, to be thrown either by the hand, or by engines far too weak to send them with any effect across such a stream. They had to look on quietly, therefore, and allow these great and formidable preparations for an attack upon them to go on without interruption. Their only hope was to overwhelm the army with their missiles, and prevent their landing, when they should reach the bank at last in their attempt to cross the stream.

If an army is crossing a river without any enemy to oppose them, a moderate number of boats will serve, as a part of the army can be transported at a time, and the whole gradually transferred from one bank to the other by repeated trips of the same conveyances. But when there is an enemy to encounter at the landing, it is necessary to provide the means of carrying over a very large force at a time; for if a small division were to go over first alone, it would only throw itself, weak and defenseless, into the hands of the enemy. Hannibal, therefore, waited until he had boats, rafts, and floats enough constructed to carry over a force all together sufficiently numerous and powerful to attack the enemy with a prospect of success.

The Romans, as we have already remarked, say that Hannibal was cunning. He certainly was not disposed, like Alexander, to trust in his battles to simple superiority of bravery and force, but was always contriving some stratagem to increase the chances of victory. He did so in this case. He kept up for many days a prodigious parade and bustle of building boats and rafts in sight of his enemy, as if his sole reliance was on the multitude of men that he could pour across the river at a single transportation, and he thus kept their attention closely riveted upon these preparations. All this time, however, he had another plan in course of execution. He had sent a strong body of troops secretly up the river, with orders to make their way stealthily through the forests, and cross the stream some few miles above. This force was intended to move back from the river, as soon as it should cross the stream, and come down upon the enemy in the rear, so as to attack and harass them there at the same time that Hannibal was crossing with the main body of the army. If they succeeded in crossing the river safely, they were to build a fire in the woods, on the other side, in order that the column of smoke which should ascend from it might serve as a signal of their success to Hannibal.

This detachment was commanded by an officer named Hanno—of course a very different man from Hannibal's great enemy of that name in Carthage. Hanno set out in the night, moving back from the river, in commencing his march, so as to be entirely out of sight from the Gauls on the other side. He had some guides, belonging to the country, who promised to show him a convenient place for crossing. The party went up the river about twenty-five miles. Here they found a place where the water spread to a greater width, and where the current was less rapid, and the water not so deep. They got to this place in silence and secrecy, their enemies below not having suspected any such design. As they had, therefore, nobody to oppose them, they could cross much more easily than the main army below. They made some rafts for carrying over those of the men that could not swim, and such munitions of war as would be injured by the wet. The rest of the men waded till they reached the channel, and then swam, supporting themselves in part by their bucklers, which they placed beneath their bodies in the water. Thus they all crossed in safety. They paused a day, to dry their clothes and to rest, and then moved cautiously down the river until they were near enough to Hannibal's position to allow their signal to be seen. The fire was then built, and they gazed with exultation upon the column of smoke which ascended from it high into the air.

Hannibal saw the signal, and now immediately prepared to cross with his army. The horsemen embarked in boats, holding their horses by lines, with a view of leading them into the water so that they might swim in company with the boats. Other horses, bridled and accoutered, were put into large flat-bottomed boats, to be taken across dry, in order that they might be all ready for service at the instant of landing. The most vigorous and efficient portion of the army were, of course, selected for the first passage, while all those who, for any cause, were weak or disabled, remained behind, with the stores and munitions of war, to be transported afterward, when the first passage should have been effected. All this time the enemy, on the opposite shore, were getting their ranks in array, and making every thing ready for a furious assault upon the invaders the moment they should approach the land.

There was something like silence and order during the period while the men were embarking and pushing out from the land, but as they advanced into the current, the loud commands, and shouts, and outcries increased more and more, and the rapidity of the current and of the eddies by which the boats and rafts were hurried down the stream, or whirled against each other, soon produced a terrific scene of tumult and confusion. As soon as the first boats approached the land, the Gauls assembled to oppose them rushed down upon them with showers of missiles, and with those unearthly yells which barbarous warriors always raise in going into battle, as a means both of exciting themselves and of terrifying their enemy. Hannibal's officers urged the boats on, and endeavored, with as much coolness and deliberation as possible, to effect a landing. It is perhaps doubtful how the contest would have ended, had it not been for the detachment under Hanno, which now came suddenly into action. While the Gauls were in the height of their excitement, in attempting to drive back the Carthaginians from the bank, they were thunderstruck at hearing the shouts and cries of an enemy behind them, and, on looking around, they saw the troops of Hanno pouring down upon them from the thickets with terrible impetuosity and force. It is very difficult for an army to fight both in front and in the rear at the same time. The Gauls, after a brief struggle, abandoned the attempt any longer to oppose Hannibal's landing. They fled down the river and back into the interior, leaving Hanno in secure possession of the bank, while Hannibal and his forces came up at their leisure out of the water, finding friends instead of enemies to receive them.

The remainder of the army, together with the stores and munitions of war, were next to be transported, and this was accomplished with little difficulty now that there was no enemy to disturb their operations. There was one part of the force, however, which occasioned some trouble and delay. It was a body of elephants which formed a part of the army. How to get these unwieldy animals across so broad and rapid a river was a question of no little difficulty. There are various accounts of the manner in which Hannibal accomplished the object, from which it would seem that different methods were employed. One mode was as follows: the keeper of the elephants selected one more spirited and passionate in disposition than the rest, and contrived to teaze and torment him so as to make him angry. The elephant advanced toward his keeper with his trunk raised to take vengeance. The keeper fled; the elephant pursued him, the other elephants of the herd following, as is the habit of the animal on such occasions. The keeper ran into the water as if to elude his pursuer, while the elephant and a large part of the herd pressed on after him. The man swam into the channel, and the elephants, before they could check themselves, found that they were beyond their depth. Some swam on after the keeper, and crossed the river, where they were easily secured. Others, terrified, abandoned themselves to the current, and were floated down, struggling helplessly as they went, until at last they grounded upon shallows or points of land, whence they gained the shore again, some on one side of the stream and some on the other.

This plan was thus only partially successful, and Hannibal devised a more effectual method for the remainder of the troop. He built an immensely large raft, floated it up to the shore, fastened it there securely, and covered it with earth, turf, and bushes, so as to make it resemble a projection of the land. He then caused a second raft to be constructed of the same size, and this he brought up to the outer edge of the other, fastened it there by a temporary connection, and covered and concealed it as he had done the first. The first of these rafts extended two hundred feet from the shore, and was fifty feet broad. The other, that is, the outer one, was only a little smaller. The soldiers then contrived to allure and drive the elephants over these rafts to the outer one, the animals imagining that they had not left the land. The two rafts were then disconnected from each other, and the outer one began to move with its bulky passengers over the water, towed by a number of boats which had previously been attached to its outer edge.


The Elephants crossing the Rhone

As soon as the elephants perceived the motion, they were alarmed, and began immediately to look anxiously this way and that, and to crowd toward the edges of the raft which was conveying them away. They found themselves hemmed in by water on every side, and were terrified and thrown into confusion. Some were crowded off into the river, and were drifted down till they landed below. The rest soon became calm, and allowed themselves to be quietly ferried across the stream, when they found that all hope of escape and resistance were equally vain.

In the mean time, while these events were occurring, the troop of three hundred, which Scipio had sent up the river to see what tidings he could learn of the Carthaginians, were slowly making their way toward the point where Hannibal was crossing; and it happened that Hannibal had sent down a troop of five hundred, when he first reached the river, to see if they could learn any tidings of the Romans. Neither of the armies had any idea how near they were to the other. The two detachments met suddenly and unexpectedly on the way. They were sent to explore, and not to fight; but as they were nearly equally matched, each was ambitious of the glory of capturing the others and carrying them prisoners to their camp. They fought a long and bloody battle. A great number were killed, and in about the same proportion on either side. The Romans say they  conquered. We do not know what the Carthaginians said, but as both parties retreated from the field and went back to their respective camps, it is safe to infer that neither could boast of a very decisive victory.

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