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Alfred J. Church

The Battle on the Isthmus

The Sacred Phalanx, as described in the last chapter, was undoubtedly a formidable body of men, one that, rightly handled, might win a battle. The difficulty was to bring its force to bear. There were, in fact, only two ways of doing this. One was to break through the lines of investment which had been drawn across the isthmus; the other was to transport the troops on shipboard to some place from which they might operate. Both methods were risky and doubtful, but both offered some hope of success.

The lines of investment had been hastily made, contained some weak places, and were not adequately guarded throughout their length. It was possible that they might be carried at one point or another by a determined attack. Of the plan of transport by sea it could only be said that it was not impossible. The new harbour-mouth had, as has been said, this advantage over the old, that it opened into deep water, where the blockading ships could find no anchorage. But if in bad weather it became impossible for the Roman fleet to watch the exit, it was also impossible, or, to say the least, highly dangerous, for any ship to venture out.

Hasdrubal determined to try both methods. He divided the phalanx into three parts. Two of these three were to assault the investing lines at widely distant points; the third was to try the adventure of transport by sea. This was by far the most risky undertaking. If the division succeeded in reaching the spot at which it aimed, there still remained the problem of getting back. As a matter of fact, there would be no getting back, except in the event of victory.

For this enterprise, therefore, volunteers were called. The volunteering, however, was by companies. It would have been against the principles on which the phalanx was constituted for any one soldier to leave the comrades to whom he was bound, either by their choice or by his own. But about the volunteering there was not difficulty. Twenty companies only were wanted, for more could not be safely accommodated in the transports, but double the number could easily have been obtained. The force was put under the command of an officer who had a high reputation for dashing courage, another of the numerous Hasdrubals, who, it might almost be said, swarmed in Carthage. Cleanor was commissioned to act as his aide-de-camp.

Of the attack on the lines of investment little need be said. It was not wholly a failure, but it was certainly not a success. Stubborn as was the resistance offered by the Romans, the assailants broke through the lines at several points. At one time as many as seven or eight companies found themselves on the further side of the intrenchment, with somewhat diminished numbers indeed, but still substantially intact. Yet, for the most part, the line was still held by the besiegers. If the object of the Carthaginians had been to cut their way through the blockading force, it was accomplished. At various points the way out of Carthage lay open, and it would have been possible for at least a large portion of the force to escape.

But much more than this was wanted, nothing less, in fact, than that the investment should practically cease to exist, that the besieged should be free to go and to return as they pleased. Nothing like this had been achieved. Those who, after a fierce struggle, had forced their way through to the open country, would have to struggle not less fiercely to force their way back. Hasdrubal could not afford to run the risk. The loss of such a force meant ruin to Carthage, which no longer possessed its old powers of recovery. He reluctantly ordered the signal of recall to be sounded, and the troops still more reluctantly obeyed.

The division to which Cleanor was attached fared better, so far, at least, as to reach the field of battle. It was exceptionally fortunate in both embarking and landing without hindrance. A strong sea-wind had been blowing for some days, and the blockading squadron had been compelled to leave the harbour-mouth unwatched. Then came a sudden change of weather, and the troops, who had been bivouacking for two days on the chance of some such opportunity occurring, were hurried on shipboard, and had actually reached their destination before the Roman ships had put to sea again.

The march to the place of meeting was effected without molestation, and a junction was made with the native allies. Diogenes, too, did not fail to perform his part in the concerted plan, arriving exactly at the right moment with a picked force of a thousand mercenaries. But the hope that something towards the relief of Carthage might be effected by this combination of forces was entirely disappointed. The native allies made one charge, but only one. Twenty thousand horsemen came down the incline, at the foot of which the Roman army was drawn up, at a gallop, their white burnooses streaming behind them, and their spear-points flashing in the sun.

Cleanor always said that it was the most magnificent spectacle that he ever saw. Some of King Gulussa's squadrons were swept away by the impetuous rush of a multitude which outnumbered them many times. But the line of the Roman legions—there were three of them on the field, for Scipio had brought all his available force into action—did not waver for an instant. A few of the boldest riders hurled themselves on the Roman pikes. But not so much as a single gap was made in the ranks. Almost in a moment the huge array—like some great animal which exhausts its strength and spirit in one struggle—broke into hopeless confusion. Then the Roman cavalry, with the reserved squadrons of Numidian horse, charged the helpless mass.

The slaughter that followed was terrible. It was said that seventy thousand mountaineers were left dead on the battle-field. That is impossible. Many of the tribesmen fled as soon as they saw that the day was not to be theirs, and these must have secured such a start as to make their escape easy. But the victorious cavalry went on slaying till their arms were weary.

The safety of the mercenaries and the third division of the phalanx was now seriously compromised. They had, fortunately, effected a junction before the battle began, and it was of course a necessity that they should keep together. So much was certain, but it was not equally certain what was the best course for them to follow. The Carthaginians were anxious to return, if return was in any way possible, to the city. Their families, their friends, everything in fact that they held dear was there; it was only too probable that unless they got back at once they would never see the city or them again. The mercenaries, on the other hand, were bent on returning to the fortress of Nepheris, from which they had sallied forth. The fortress was near, so near that the legions could not bar their way, though the light-armed troops and the cavalry might molest them on the march.

A hurried council of war was held; there was no time for discussion. Each officer—there were seven of rank to vote—gave his decision without reasons. Considerations of safety, which were overwhelmingly strong in favour of a retreat on the fortress of Nepheris, carried the day. Five voted for this course, and a sixth, who had originally declared for cutting their way through to Carthage, changed his mind when he saw himself in a small minority.

Only Hasdrubal was left in opposition. "I swore to defend Carthage, not Nepheris," he exclaimed. Then, with an unconscious imitation of the obstinate Spartan at Platæa, he took a huge stone from the ground and threw it down in front of him, saying, "I give my vote for remaining."

Cleanor's private opinion was that his chief's obstinacy was nothing else than madness, but he could not leave the general to whose person he had been attached.

If Hasdrubal had thought that his opposition would determine the action of his colleagues he was mistaken. Without a word—and indeed there was no time for argument—they moved off in the direction of the fortress. Hasdrubal was brought to his senses by this decisive action, just as the Spartan had been before him. Nor could he mistake the meaning of the agitation that at once showed itself among his men. It was not difficult to see that he would soon be left almost alone.

Accordingly he gave the signal to march. Some time, however, had been lost, and a number of light-armed troops from the Roman army were within a short distance of the retreating force. It became necessary, if their attacks were to be checked, for the rear ranks to face about. There was little or no actual fighting. The pursuers fell back as soon as the retreating division showed them a firm front. Their object was to cause as much delay as possible; the Carthaginians, on the other hand, had to solve the problem of making these necessary halts interfere as little as possible with the rapidity of their retreat. In this they were greatly helped by their high discipline and what may be called their perfect coherence, and they had actually got almost within a bow-shot of the rock-fortress when they had to turn, as they hoped, for the last time.

There was now some really sharp fighting. The pursuers had been reinforced by a detachment of picked troops from the main body, men chosen for the speed with which they could move under a heavy equipment of armour and arms. The Carthaginians fell slowly back before them, keeping an unbroken line, and encouraged by the thought that if they could get within range of the walls they would be in comparative safety.

Nor was this hope disappointed. The Romans, indeed, pressed on, for the walls were to all appearance deserted, but this appearance concealed a carefully concerted surprise. Hundreds of archers and clingers were crouching behind the battlements, and there were scores of catapults, with their range carefully adjusted, ready to discharge volleys of stones and javelins. At a given signal, fire, if the expression may be allowed, was opened with overwhelming effect. The Roman line absolutely staggered under the blow. At the same time the gates were thrown open, and before the enemy could recover, the whole of the retreating force was safe within the walls.

But when, an hour or so afterwards, the roll was called, Cleanor was among the missing.