Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood


Hannibal's Great Victory over the Romans

Hannibal, the Carthaginian, stands out as one of the mighty men of the world's history. His father, Hamilcar, had led the Carthaginians in their first Punic War, when Rome had triumphed; had smashed an armed rebellion of his own mercenaries; and had then, as Livy says "for nine years employed himself in augmenting the Carthaginian Empire in Spain, though it was obvious that his mind was occupied with the thoughts of a greater war than he was then engaged in." He had his eye on Rome. But Death stepped in and put an end to his dream. Hasdrubal, his son-in-law, then took command of the army, Hannibal being still but a youngster.

Then came Hannibal's turn. Hasdrubal died, and at twenty-six years of age Hannibal was Commanderin-Chief of the Carthaginian army in Spain. Soon after he assumed the command he made war upon the Saguntines, allies of Rome, and besieged and captured their city. Rome took umbrage at what they regarded as a breach of the treaty arranged after the first Punic War, and sent messengers to Carthage, demanding the person of Hannibal, and threatening war.

The Carthaginians cared not for the threat of Rome, and to the message, "Here we bring to you peace and war; take which you will," replied: "Give what you choose." Rome gave them war; Carthage accepted it with thanks; and the die was cast.

Meanwhile Hannibal had been making preparations for his invasion of Italy, for he was determined to be the aggressor. He sent his messengers into Gaul and across the Alps, to glean information as to the disposition of the Gauls, and as to the character of the country through which he had resolved to lead his army. His messengers brought him news that the Gauls were friendly, but that the passage of the Alps was likely to be attended with many, though not insurmountable, difficulties.

With the preparations of Hannibal we will not concern ourselves; suffice it to say that in May, 218 b.c. , he crossed the Iberus with ninety thousand foot soldiers and twelve thousand cavalry, drawn from Africa and Spain, subdued some tribes in the north of Spain who were friendly to Rome, carried cities and towns by assault, left eleven thousand men under Hanno to hold the conquered country, sent others home, and with fifty-nine thousand foot and horse crossed the Pyrenees and encamped on the right bank of the Rhone.

To pursue his journey he had to cross the Rhone, but although many of the Gaulish tribes had professed friendship for the Carthaginians, others took up arms against them. Thus it was that, standing on his side of the Rhone, Hannibal looked across the river and saw masses of Gauls arrayed against him on the other, who, brandishing their arms, defied him to attempt the passage.

To Hannibal it was a small obstacle. Quickly he got his friendly tribes to lend him all their boats and to build him others—rough-hewn from the trunks of trees, but sufficiently good to carry his men and their baggage.

But the Gauls waited for them, and were distinctly at the advantage. Hannibal adopted a ruse. During the night he sent out a detachment of his army, with native guides, to ascend the right bank of the river to a point a day's journey off. There they were to cross, and make their way through the woods as quickly as they could and take the Gauls in the rear.

The outposts marched as ordered, crossed the river, and next day marched down towards the Gauls. Arrived within a short distance of the point where Hannibal was going to cross, they gave the signal agreed upon—a column of smoke—and Hannibal embarked his men in their trumpery boats.

All unsuspecting of the trap into which they were being led, the Gauls lined the opposite bank, singing and shouting defiance, shaking their swords and shields above their heads, and bidding the invaders to come on—if they dared.

The foe dared.

The smaller boats were filled with the infantry, the cavalry crossing in the larger boats, and swimming their horses across behind them. It was not an easy crossing, for the current ran strong, the boats were well loaded, and the horses were often difficult to manage; but, pulling with all their strength, the soldiers forged through the stream, and were almost at the farther bank when, with a shout, the ambushed troop burst through the woods and fell upon the Gauls.

In a moment all was confusion; the Gauls were caught in the trap; behind them—they knew not how large a foe; before them an almost numberless host. Still they had not defied without cause; they were brave men, and quickly gathering together in some sort of battle array, they faced the foe who had taken them unawares, fought them bitterly, and failed.

Then the boats disgorged their burdens, the Carthaginians and Spaniards leaped ashore, and fell upon the other side of the Gauls, who, fighting inch by inch, at last had to turn and flee wherever they saw an opening.

Hannibal now brought across the remainder of his army, finally transporting his elephants—thirty-seven in number. It was ticklish work, but at last, by means of huge rafts, the great beasts were got over, though not before some of the drivers had been drowned.

Meanwhile, Hannibal had been busy in other directions. He had sent out five hundred Numidian horsemen to reconnoitre Scipio's position, that Roman general having camped at the mouth of the Rhone, taking the precaution of sending out three hundred mounted scouts.

These two small bodies of cavalry met in a sanguinary conflict, and the Numidians were compelled to fly, reaching the Carthaginian camp with the victors on their heels. These, however, seeing the massed army in front of them, immediately wheeled round and hurried off to their camp with the news of Hannibal's arrival on the left bank of the river.

Scipio immediately set out to meet him, but missed him by three days, for Hannibal had taken the bull by the horns, and, giving his men no time to ponder over the difficulties in front of them, had started on his journey northwards. He had no intention of fighting a pitched battle until he reached Italy; he wanted to meet the Romans on their own ground.

He had secured the assistance of a large number of natives as guides. In four days he arrived at the confluence of the Isere and the Rhone, made friends with a strong Gaulish chief by upholding his claim to authority, received provisions in plenty, then crossed the Isere, "continued to ascend the Rhone, and, striking off to the right across the plains of Dauphine, he reached the first ascent of the Alps at the northern extremity of that ridge of limestone mountains, which, rising abruptly from the plain to the height of four thousand or five thousand feet, and filling the whole space between the Rhone at Belley and the Isere below Grenoble, first introduces the traveller coming from Lyons to the remarkable features of Alpine scenery."

Above them the mountains reared their majestic heads, and the mountaineers held guard. Fortunately for the invaders, it transpired that the watchers relaxed their outlook during the night, thinking themselves secure when darkness fell. Hannibal at once moved his army forward, as if resolved to pass through the defile by day. Night coming on, he encamped again, and the mountaineers left their posts for the night. Hannibal immediately went forward with the bravest of his troops, passed through the defile, and took up his position on the heights where the enemy had been during the day.

The way was now clear for the passage of the main army, and in the morning it moved forward. With daylight, however, the mountaineers sallied out to take up their old posts, found to their dismay that the enemy had forestalled them, and for a while watched with consternation the advance of the mighty army.

Presently, however, they saw that the narrowness of the path and the treacherous nature of the ground were causing great confusion in Hannibal's army. Then, somewhat recovered from their amazement, they scrambled up the rocky sides of the mountains, of which they knew every nook, fell upon the struggling army, rolled masses of rock and stone upon them, and made confusion worse confounded. Over the rocky sides of the defile went men and horses into the valley below; the jostling, struggling crowd did more damage to themselves than did the enemy, and at last Hannibal realised that the only thing that could save his army from disaster was to swoop down upon the marauders. Down, therefore, he went, threw himself upon them, drove them off, and incidentally put his own army into greater disorder. This, however, was soon remedied, for with the withdrawal of the foe the Carthaginians and Spaniards quickly collected themselves and their wits, marched forward in better order, and eventually reached a wide and fertile valley, where Hannibal encamped his men, sacked a city, and augmented his provisions, and then marched forward again up the right bank of the Isere.

Here he was met by the natives, who professed friendship but proved treacherous. As he came into a narrower pass, his elephants and cavalry leading the van, they suddenly appeared on the heights above and began tumbling down rocks and stones, which did great damage to the army. They cut off the cavalry and baggage for some hours, but were at last compelled to turn back.

From that time onward the men of the hills worried the invaders from a safe distance; but the Carthaginians refused to be obstructed in their passage, and nine days after they had commenced the ascent of the Alps, reached the summit. It was October; snow lay all round; the cold was intense; the winds were bitter and keen, and many days' hard travelling were yet before the adventurous army. For two days they rested themselves after their arduous climb, almost downhearted. Hannibal, quick to feel the pulse of his army, gathered them together on the mountain-top, pointed them to Italy and the valley of the Po, crying:

"We are now surmounting not only the ramparts of Italy, but also of the city of Rome! The rest of the journey will be smooth and downhill, and after one, or at most, a second battle, we shall have the citadel and capital of Italy in our power."

Their general's words gave them fresh courage, revived their drooping spirits, and spurred them on. They began the descent.

But they found that, although their foes did not now press them, the way downward was more difficult than the way upward. The passes were narrower, steeper, slippery and more treacherous, so that horses and men could scarce secure a sure foothold.

Then, to make matters worse, they came to a place where an avalanche had swept down on its destructive course, carrying the road away for about a thousand feet. To go straight on was impossible; to go round also proved out of the question, for the snow was so deep that the mountain sides were unclimbable, and all that remained was to repair the road.

By felling trees and hewing rock they managed, after four days, to build the road, and the army once more moved on its way, three days later arriving on the broad plains of Northern Italy, where they joined some friendly tribes.

The Alps had been crossed. But at what a cost! Thirty-three thousand men had been lost, some by privation, some by cold, some by the foes who had beset them on their way, and when Hannibal arrived in Italy he had only twelve thousand African infantry and eight thousand Spanish, and six thousand cavalry, and of these, hardly a man was fit for the conflicts that awaited them.

They needed rest, and Hannibal gave it them. Meanwhile what of the Romans?

When Scipio arrived and found that Hannibal had left his camping place on the Rhone, he sent off the main body of his army into Spain, and he himself sailed off for Pisa. Arrived there, he hurried across the Apennines, took command of the army there, crossed the Po at Placentia, and marched up the left bank of the river.

The two armies met at Ticinus. The Romans were defeated, Scipio himself narrowly escaped with his life, and Hannibal, as he had anticipated, received reinforcements from the Gauls.

Later the armies met at Trebia, the Romans were routed, and Rome was shaken to her foundations when she received the news of the conquering invader who, it seemed, would soon be within sight of her hills.

Hannibal spent the winter in camp, and with the first indications of spring, attempted to cross the Apennines, pitched his camp at Placentia, met the Consul Sempronius, and drove him back on Lucca, and himself retired into Liguria to await further developments.

When spring was fully come, Hannibal, who had suffered much at the hands of many of the Gauls (they having turned against him), moved from his winter quarters, crossed the marsh formed by the Arno over-flowing its banks, laid waste the country between Cortona and the Lake of Trasemenus, while Consul Flaminius, now commanding the Roman army, moved forward from Arretium to meet him.

Hannibal at last took up a strong position near Trasemenus. "It was," says Livy, "formed by nature for an ambuscade, where the Trasemenus comes nearest to the mountains of Cortona. A very narrow passage only intervenes, as though room enough just for that purpose had been left designedly; after that a somewhat wider plain opens itself, and then some hills rise up. On these Hannibal pitched his camp, in full view, where he himself with his Spaniards and Africans only might be posted. The Baliares (slingers) and his other light troops he led round the mountains; his cavalry he posted at the very entrance of the defile, some eminences conveniently concealing them, in order that, when the Romans entered, the cavalry could advance and every place be enclosed by the lake and the mountains."

Flaminius and his army arrived shortly after Hannibal had secured himself in his position, carelessly marched into the defiles in broad daylight without sending scouts to reconnoitre, and debouched his troops into the plains beyond. Before him he could see only Hannibal and the troops he was using as a decoy; he knew nothing of the ambush which had been laid in his rear and above him on the hills.

As soon as Flaminius had moved his army into the plain and so was surrounded by the lake and the hills, Hannibal gave the word, his army raced in at all points, and fell upon the Romans before the latter could even seize their arms.

They had not expected so sudden an onset; they looked for strategy, and found action; they looked for a matching of armies on equal footing, and found cunning. To make matters worse, the white mist rising from the lake enveloped the Roman army in its shroud, while it left the hillsides fairly clear, so that the Carthaginians were able to move with regularity and in combination.

In a moment all was confuson; the trapped Romans turned and faced the enemy as quickly and as orderly as they could, but the suddenness of the attack had thrown them into disorder, and instead of fighting in solid phalanxes they fought in little groups, every man for himself, every man his own officer.

Wooden shields, brass helmets, coats of mail of iron plates or rings, received the blows of the African short swords or the thrust of spear; Roman javelins hurtled through the air at the attacking force, and Roman swords crossed Spanish spears. The din of battle, the cries of wounded men, the shouts of enraged combatants filled the air. The men from Africa, who had fought these Romans before and been defeated, fought now with a courage that boded ill for Rome; they fought for vengeance, aye, for liberty; they fought with all the heat of their own deserts, their Spanish comrades emulating them in courage and determination.

Yet did the Romans fight as became their heritage. The past conquests of Rome called to them—they answered with acclamations of patriotism, with thrust of sword and with throw of javelin. For hour after hour they fought—fought to stem the tide of the conquering Carthaginian, fought to hold him off from fair Rome, fought to uphold the glory of their fatherland.

Grim, dogged, determined, the combatants both stood their ground; neither gave way before the other; neither asked nor received quarter; neither had ears nor eyes for aught but the battle. "So great," says Livy, "was the ardour of the conflict, so intent were their minds upon the battle, that not one of the combatants felt an earthquake which threw down large portions of many of the cities of Italy, turned rapid rivers from their courses, carried the sea up the rivers, and levelled the mountains with a tremendous crash."

Around Flaminius himself the battle raged in greater fury than elsewhere on the field. With him were the fairest of the sons of Rome; here, there, and everywhere he seemed to be, urging his troops on when arms ached and heads throbbed beneath the blows that fell incessantly.

A conspicuous figure in his armour, he was quickly marked down for death, and towards him there pressed the bravest of the Carthaginians.

Presently, an Insubrian horseman, named Ducarius, cried: "Lo! this is the consul who slew our legions and laid waste our fields and city! Now will I offer this victim to the shades of my countrymen, miserably slain!" and, urging his horse forward, alone he dashed into the dense masses of the Romans, fought his way to the standard beneath which Flaminius was fighting, slew the bearer, poised his lance, and ere he could be stopped had run it through the consul.

Next he would have stripped the fallen general of his arms, but the bodyguard gathered round when it was too late to stay the lance of death, and held the warrior off.

But the fall of Flaminius sent dismay into the ranks of the Roman army. They turned and fled; they hewed their way through the pressing Carthaginians, flying in all directions, yet finding no outlet anywhere. Into the lake some of them plunged, followed by the enemy's cavalry. Up the hills they scrambled, to fall down the precipitous sides, to be dashed to pieces on the rocks. Six thousand of them, nearer the opening of the defile than the others, fought their way through the Carthaginians, and so escaped, all unconscious that their general was dead, and that in their rear their comrades were panic-stricken as a result. Had they known, they must have returned, but as it was they lingered in the neighbourhood, hearing the crash of the battle, but ignorant of its fortune until too late, when, fearing the coming of the Carthaginian cavalry, they retreated, only to be followed next day and compelled to surrender.

Thus ended the battle of Trasemenus; fifteen thousand Romans lay dead on the field, fifteen hundred Carthaginians and Spaniards keeping them company in death.

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