Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > The Second Punic War: First Period, Down To The Battle Of Cannae - b.C. 218-216

The Second Punic War: First Period, Down To The Battle Of Cannae - b.C. 218-216

The Second Punic War was not so much a contest between the powers of two great nations - between Carthage and Rome - as between the individual genius of Hannibal on one hand, and the combined energies of the Roman people on the other. The position of Hannibal was indeed very peculiar. His command in Spain, and the powerful army there, which was entirely at his own disposal, rendered him in great measure independent of the government at Carthage, and the latter seemed disposed to devolve all responsibility upon him. Even now they did little themselves to prepare for the impending contest. All was left to Hannibal, who, after the conquest of Saguntum, had returned once more to New Carthage for the winter, and was there actively engaged in preparations for transporting the scene of war in the ensuing campaign from Spain into Italy. At the same time he did not neglect to provide for the defense of Spain and Africa during his absence. In the former country he placed his brother Hasdrubal, with a considerable army, great part of which was composed of Africans, while he sent over a large body of Spanish troops to contribute to the defense of Africa, and even of Carthage itself.

All his preparations being now completed, Hannibal quitted his winter quarters at New Carthage in the spring of B.C. 218, and crossed the Iberus with an army of 90,000 foot and 12,000 horse. The tribes between that river and the Pyrenees offered at first a vigorous resistance, and, though they were quickly subdued, Hannibal thought it necessary to leave behind him a force of 11,000 men under Hanno to maintain this newly-acquired province. His forces were farther thinned by desertion during the passage of the Pyrenees, which obliged him to send home a large body of his Spanish troops. With a greatly diminished army, but one on which he could securely rely, he now continued his march from the foot of the Pyrenees to the Rhone without meeting with any opposition; for the Gaulish tribes through which he passed were favorably disposed to him, or had been previously gained over by his enemies.

The Consul P. Cornelius Scipio had been ordered to proceed to Spain, but various causes had detained him in Italy, and upon landing at Massilia (Marseilles) he found that Hannibal was already advancing toward the Rhone. Meantime the Carthaginian general effected his passage across the river, notwithstanding the opposition of the Gauls; and when Scipio marched up the left bank of the river he found that Hannibal had advanced into the interior of Gaul, and was already three days in advance of him. Despairing, therefore, of overtaking Hannibal, he determined to sail back to Italy and await him in Cisalpine Gaul; but as the Republic had already an army in that province, he sent the greater part of his own forces into Spain under the command of his brother Cn. Scipio. This prudent step probably saved Rome; for if the Carthaginians had maintained the undisputed mastery of Spain, they might have concentrated all their efforts to support Hannibal in Italy, and have sent him such strong re-enforcements after the battle of Cannæ as would have compelled Rome to submit.

Hannibal, after crossing the Rhone, continued his march up the left bank of the river as far as its confluence with the Isère. Here he interposed in a dispute between two rival chiefs of the Allobroges, and, by lending his aid to establish one of them firmly on the throne, secured the co-operation of an efficient ally, who greatly facilitated his farther progress. But in his passage across the Alps he was attacked by the barbarians, and as he struggled through the narrow and dangerous defiles the enemy destroyed numbers of his men. It was some days before he reached the summit of the pass. Thenceforth he suffered but little from hostile attacks, but the descent was difficult and dangerous. The natural difficulties of the road, enhanced by the lateness of the season (the beginning of October, at which time the snows had already commenced in the high Alps), caused him almost as much loss as the opposition of the barbarians on the other side of the mountains. So heavy were his losses from these combined causes, that, when he at length emerged from the valley of Aosta into the plains of the Po and encamped in the friendly country of the Insubres, he had with him no more than 20,000 foot and 6000 horse. Such were the forces with which he descended into Italy to attempt the overthrow of a power that a few years before was able to muster a disposable force of above 700,000 fighting men.

Five months had been employed in the march from New Carthage to the plains of Italy, of which the actual passage of the Alps had occupied fifteen days. Hannibal's first care was now to recruit the strength of his troops, exhausted by the hardships and fatigues they had undergone. After a short interval of repose, he turned his arms against the Taurinians (a tribe bordering on, and hostile to, the Insubrians), whom he quickly reduced, and took their principal city (Turin). The news of the approach of P. Scipio next obliged him to turn his attention toward a more formidable enemy. In the first action, which took place in the plains westward of the Ticinus, the cavalry and light-armed troops of the two armies were alone engaged, and the superiority of Hannibal's Numidian horse at once decided the combat in his favor. The Romans were completely routed, and Scipio himself severely wounded; in consequence of which he hastened to retreat beyond the Ticinus and the Po, under the walls of Placentia. Hannibal crossed the Po higher up, and, advancing to Placentia, offered battle to Scipio; but the latter declined the combat, and withdrew to the hills on the left bank of the Trebia. Here he was soon after joined by the other Consul, Ti. Sempronius Longus, who had hastened from Ariminum to his support. Their combined armies were greatly superior to that of the Carthaginians, and Sempronius was eager to bring on a general battle, of which Hannibal, on his side, was not less desirous, notwithstanding the great inferiority of his force. The result was decisive; the Romans were completely defeated, with heavy loss; and the remains of their shattered army, together with the two Consuls, took refuge within the walls of Placentia. The battles of the Ticinus and Trebia had been fought in December, and the winter had already begun with unusual severity, so that Hannibal's troops suffered severely from cold, and all his elephants perished except one. But his victory had caused all the wavering tribes of the Gauls to declare in his favor, and he was now able to take up his winter quarters in security, and to levy fresh troops among the Gauls while he awaited the approach of spring.

Coasts of the Mediterranean, illustrating the History of the Punic
Coasts of the Mediterranean, illustrating the History of the Punic

As soon as the season permitted the renewal of military operations (B.C. 217), Hannibal entered the country of the Ligurian tribes, who had lately declared in his favor, and descended by the valley of the Macra into the marshes on the banks of the Arno. He had apparently chosen this route in order to avoid the Roman armies, which guarded the more obvious passes of the Apennines; but the hardships and difficulties which he encountered in struggling through the marshes were immense; great numbers of his horses and beasts of burden perished, and he himself lost the sight of one eye by a violent attack of ophthalmia. At length, however, he reached Fæsulæ in safety, and was able to allow his troops a short interval of repose.

The Consuls for this year were Cn. Servilius and C. Flaminius. The latter was the author of the celebrated Agrarian Law which occasioned the Gallic War, and in his first consulship he had gained a great victory over the Insubrian Gauls (see p. Route of Hannibal. (See p. 90.)
Route of Hannibal. (See p. Plain of Cannae
Plain of Cannæ

Roman Empire History

Copyright © 2007 All Rights Reserved.
Roman Empire | Sitemap | | Contact Us | Disclaimer & Credits