Episode 3 - The Punic Wars: Rome vs Hannibal

Friday, 26 March 2021 14:21 Written by
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In the last episode, we left you with the victory of the Romans over Pyrrhus. Now Rome dominates the Italian peninsula; only Carthage can rival it in Western Mediterranean. The clash between the maritime empire of Carthage and the new power of Rome, which needs complete control of the surrounding seas, is inevitable. Their duel will drag on for over a century.

Carthage as Rome had a legend at the origin of its story. According to it, it was founded by Dido, daughter of the Phoenician king of Tyre. Her brother had killed her husband, and she had fled with a group of followers and had sailed west. They had landed near Tunis, and she had said: "here we will build our new city". In fact, they called it so, new city; in their language, it was Carta Dash, which the Romans then translated into Carthago. That's the legend. And there’s a second part, narrated by the poet Vergilius in the Aeneid: Aenea, on the way to Lazio, stopped close to Carthage and was brought to the Queen. She fell in love with the hero, but he left to fulfil his mission (the foundation of Rome, though at the time he did not know he had one), and Dido, before killing herself, cursed him and his offspring.

You can see, it was all set for a fight to the death.  

In reality, the city was founded by the Phoenicians, great merchants and navigators who went up and down across the Mediterranean with their boats, selling and buying a little bit of everything. The Phoenicians were originally from the coastal regions of the eastern Mediterranean (present-day Lebanon). They founded colonies on the northern coasts of Africa, in Spain, Sicily, Sardinia.

The term Phoenician comes from the Greek phòiniks meaning "red". This name is linked to the most precious and important commodity that the Phoenicians exported to Greece and throughout the Mediterranean: purple, a special pigment that was extracted from molluscs, that Phoenicians had learned to use very early on an industrial scale to dye fabrics. The long and complex extraction process of this substance meant that purple-treated fabrics were costly, and their use was long associated with the idea of royalty.

One of the most important legacies of the Phoenicians is the alphabet. Unlike Egypt, where hieroglyphics were used, Phoenicians were the first to adopt an alphabetic writing system, consisting of a limited number of signs, each of which served to designate a sound. Therefore, in Phoenician, a word was generally composed of several signs, just as in modern languages.

Carthage was the wealthiest Phoenician colony and was one of the richest cities in the Mediterranean: it had more than 200,000 inhabitants, who did not live in huts as in Rome, but in houses up to 12 floors. Nobles and great merchants had villas with gardens and swimming pools, and the city boasted great baths. The port had 220 piers. As in Rome, the supreme body was the Senate, also composed of 300 members. Carthage did not count very much on the army because its African neighbours did not worry her. On the sea, however, it was the strongest naval power of that time. In peacetime, its fleet had 500 quinqueremes (5 rows ships), somewhat the battleships of the time; in all the ravines of the Spanish and French coasts, the Carthaginians had construction sites, supply warehouses and informants.

Conquering southern Italy, Rome had invaded Carthage’s sphere of influence, and so the two powers began a confrontation. The step towards war was short: between 264 and 242, Rome and Carthage fought the 1st Punic war, a mostly naval war.

But, you may wonder, the Romans did not have a fleet. It is true, but after the first defeats, they set up, in a short time, a fleet of 120 quinqueremes and equipped them with so-called "crows", they were mobile walkways with hooks that were hoisted on the deck and attached themselves to enemy ships and prevented manoeuvring. Roman soldiers could assault enemy ships walking on these walkways, thus transforming the naval battle into a sort of land battle. With this equipment, Romans won several naval battles, and in 241, in the final clash between the two exhausted rivals, they defeated and destroyed the last Carthaginian ships. To achieve peace, the Carthaginians had to surrender Sicily and were compelled to pay a heavy indemnity.

After the war in the south, the Roman expansion turned north, towards the fertile lands of the Po Valley, inhabited by the Gauls. When, in 226, they dared to attempt yet another raid in central Italy, the Romans were prepared; in three years, the Po Valley was subjugated, except for the territory of the Veneti, who had always been allies of the Romans. They called this new rich province Cisalpine Gaul, occupied the capital Mediolanum, i.e. Milan and founded two strong colonies, Cremona and Piacenza.

In Carthage, the leader of the army and head of the most powerful family, Amilcare, who had already fought the Romans in Sicily in the 1st Punic war, was preparing his revenge. He was allowed by the Senate to move to Spain with the remainder of the army. Before leaving, he led his three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago, to the temple and made them swear before the altar that they would avenge Carthage one day. Within a few years, Amilcare expanded the possessions of Carthage until Spain became its main colony. The control of the richest silver mines in the ancient world allowed Carthage to pay the war allowance to Rome, and at the same time, Amilcare could rearm a mighty army.

Amilcare died in Spain, and his son-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded him at the head of the army for eight years. When he, in turn, died, the soldiers hailed Amilcare's son Hannibal as their commander in chief. He was only 26 years old: he would become the most famous general of antiquity.

Before his father took him to Spain, Hannibal had received an excellent education. He knew history, the Greek and Latin languages, he was an admirer of Alexander the Great and had studied his strategies and tactics, and from Amilcare's tales, he had come up with a relatively clear idea of Rome, its strengths and weaknesses; he was convinced that Rome was invincible far from Italy, due to her strong ties with Italic allies, but a defeat in Italy would take them away from her. Hence, war should be fought on Italian soil.

He was robust, frugal, clever and courageous. The Roman historian Livy says that he was the first to enter the battle and the last to leave. But he also insists on his greed, cruelty and lack of scruples. His soldiers loved him and believed in him blindly. He dressed like them, ate with them and shared all their inconveniences.

In 218, he assaulted the city of Saguntum. By the time of Hasdrubal, Rome had recognized the territories south of the river Ebro as an area of Carthaginian influence. In turn, Carthaginians would not expand north of the river. Saguntum was south of the river but, being an ally of Rome, was protected by her. Hannibal knew that, by assaulting Saguntum, Rome would react, and that’s the casus belli he was looking for. He spent eight months around the walls of Sagunto before conquering it; then, when the Romans ordered him to retreat, he crossed the river Ebro and headed for Italy with 50,000 infantrymen, 9000 cavalrymen and 30 elephants.

Crossing the Pyrenees and bypassing Marseille, he began the climb to the Alps, avoiding a Roman army sent to block his way to the coast.

We do not know where he passed exactly: some say through St. Bernard, some Monginevro. However, around the beginning of September 218, he reached the summit; the descent was even more difficult, especially for elephants. Eventually, he arrived in the Po Valley with only 26,000 men, less than half of those who had left. But here, the Gauls welcomed him, supplied him with food and allied with him, slaughtering the Romans in Cremona and Piacenza.

The Senate realized that this second war was much more dangerous than the first. It called to arms 300,000 infantrymen and 14,000 cavalrymen and entrusted part of them to the first of the many Scipios we’ll encounter, later on, Publius Cornelius. He faced Hannibal on the Ticino River and lost the battle. He would have died if it was not for his son, who came to his rescue and saved him. We’ll meet him again, many years later. It was October 218 B.C.

After two months, another army was sent to face Hannibal and intercepted him on the Trebbia river. The army was led by the two consuls, Scipio and Sempronius; Sempronius was eager to fight, while Scipio was more prudent after the defeat on the Ticino river. Now, to let you understand Hannibal’s cunning, let me tell you something about this battle (it’s the only one I am going to describe, I promise). 

The Romans had 40,000 men and the Carthaginians about 30,000 soldiers. The two armies were more or less of equal strength, but with a big difference: Hannibal had 10,000 cavalrymen against less than 5,000 roman cavalrymen.

The two Roman generals did not agree on the strategy to follow: Scipio preferred to wait and study his enemy, Sempronius wanted to attack immediately. The two generals led the army every other day.

The night before the battle, December 24th, the temperature was below 0°C, and it rained heavily. Before the sun rose on the 25th, Hannibal ordered that all men be fed and keep warm around the fires; he also ordered them to smear their bodies with oil to fight the cold and rain and keep muscles flexible. Also, he told his brother Mago, the head of the cavalry, to choose 1,000 infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen, lead them to a nearby islet, remain hidden there in the bushes, and wait for his signal.

In the morning, Hannibal ordered a few hundred cavalrymen to descend into the river, cross it, climb to the opposite bank and harass the Romans, making a big noise. Sempronius was the commander in chief that day. Could he tolerate this kind of mockery? No way! He decided to send his cavalry out on the field. The Carthaginians then began to retreat to the river, but slowly. Sempronius, feeling that the situation turned in his favour, sent out the light infantry. The more the Carthaginians withdrew, the more the Romans came out of their camp to support the front line.

To press the enemy, Roman infantrymen had entered the river with water at chest level. Unlike the Carthaginians, Romans were unprepared for this situation: cold, without having eaten, their hands numb. Several were carried away by the strong current; others drowned. However, the bulk of the front line arrived on the other side. To press the enemy even more and perhaps think of giving him the final strike, Sempronius ordered the other half of the troops to move to the opposite shore.

So, the trap was complete. Now, Hannibal ordered his men to advance towards the river. They were fed, dry and fresh; the enemy was empty-bellied, wet and tired. The Carthaginian cavalry hit the wings of the Romans. At the centre of the battle, the Roman formation was still well united. Finally, Hannibal gave the signal to Mago and his 2,000 men, you remember, to attack. They charged the Roman army in the back. Romans were surrounded. In a last desperate effort, 10,000 managed to break out finally and head towards Piacenza, finding refuge within the walls. The Carthaginians were also tired and wet by the persistent rain, could not pursue the Romans and returned to their camp.

Another eight months passed, with Hannibal heading south. Now consul Flaminius with 30,000 men, moved to meet Hannibal’s army. Despite the two battles lost by his predecessors, he was so sure to win that he had taken a load of chains with him to put them at the feet of the prisoners. Hannibal seemed to want to avoid the battle, but instead, he was preparing another trap. In fact, with a skilful game of patrols and skirmishes, he attracted the enemy to a plain on the northern shores of Lake Trasimeno, in Umbria, surrounded by hills of woods where he had hidden his cavalry. The Romans, eager to reach him and attack, moved early in the morning when the area was shrouded in thick fog, without avantgarde. And here they were surrounded, with no way out. Almost no one remained alive, not even the Consul.

Now, Hannibal was getting closer to Rome, but for the time being, the strategy behind his military victories, to separate Rome from her allies, was not working. In Tuscany and Umbria, the cities closed in front of his army, and he did not know how to resupply. Hannibal even sent non-Roman prisoners home, but in vain, Italy was backing Rome. And all he could do was to divert to the Adriatic Sea in search of more hospitable lands. After three consecutive battles, his soldiers were tired, and he himself suffered from an infection that had made him blind in one eye. Now that they were moving away from their regions, the Gallic allies began to desert; he asked Carthage for reinforcements, but the Senate refused. So, he resumed his march southwards, but now there was a true strategist, Quintus Fabius Maximus, in front of him.

Romans had resorted to appointing a “dictator”, and Fabius was now the commander in chief with unlimited military powers, though only for a limited time. He inaugurated a new strategy: inaction. For this, he will be known as "cunctator". He set up skirmishes and ambushes, but he did not let himself be drawn into battle. He waited for the difficulties, the hunger, the weariness to work against the enemy, who was in despair. His strategy was working, but his fellow citizens could not stand to stay inactive and see Hannibal devastate the territories of Central and Southern Italy, with Rome’s allies turning to the Carthaginian for fear of being burnt down. They wanted a victory and grew tired too soon.

With the new year came the new Consuls, Varro and Paulus, who wanted what their voters wanted, a quick success. They led 80,000 infantrymen and 6,000 cavalrymen against Hannibal who, despite having only 20,000 veterans, 15,000 Gauls and 10,000 cavalrymen, drew a sigh of relief. He feared only Fabius Maximus. It was a huge army, but also difficult to direct: in ancient times, armies over 50,000 men were almost impossible to manoeuvre, and in addition to that, the Romans, being not one but two consular armies together, alternated the commander every day, one day Varro and one day Paulus.

The battle, the biggest of antiquity, took place in Cannae, in Puglia, not far from Barletta, on August 2nd, 216, BC. Hannibal, as usual, attracted the enemy to flat ground, suitable for the game of his cavalry. Then he put the Gauls in the centre, he was sure they would retreat soon, and so they did, but slowly, they managed to contain the fury and impetuosity of the legions. Varro's troops slowly threw themselves into the hole, and Hannibal's cavalry on the wings closed around them. The other consul, Paulus, who prudently had suggested not to engage, fought bravely and fell. At the end of the day, 50,000 Romans, including 80 senators, laid on the ground, and 19,000 were taken prisoners. Only 15.000 could escape, among them the consul Varro.
The Carthaginian lost only 6,000 Gauls, 1,500 Hispanics and Africans, and only 200 cavalrymen. He had achieved the most brilliant victory of his career as a general, which consecrated him as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. The battle of Cannae remains a never topped example of military strategy and is studied in all military schools in the world, many generals in WWII and even in recent wars took inspiration from his manoeuvres of 2,000 years ago.

Cannae was Hannibal’s masterpiece. But it would also be his last; with this battle, the secret of his success, the superiority of his cavalry, was uncovered, and after so many battles lost, the Romans will never be retaken by surprise.


Read 1840 times Last modified on Monday, 17 May 2021 06:14
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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