The Annalist: The Year 215 BCE

As soon as the winter weather grew milder, probably in January or February of this year, Hannibal left his winter quarters at Capua and marched on Casilinum again. The latter city was just five kilometres north of Capua. It was defended by a garrison mostly made up of soldiers from Praeneste, an important city in Latium (modern Palestrina).[1] The garrison defended the city bravely and repulsed many attacks on the walls, but their supplies were beginning to run low. Fortunately, help was on its way. The master of horse Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (son of the consul of 238 BCE) was in the vicinity with his army and devised a clever trick. Casilinum was split into two parts by the river Volturnus. Gracchus had his men gather spelt (far) from the fields and filled a number of barrels with it. These barrels were then dropped into the river during the night, the current slowly taking them into the city.

Unfortunately for the Romans, the Carthaginians found them out when some of the barrels got stuck in the reeds growing near the shore. Gracchus now tried feeding the garrison by throwing nuts into the river, but it was not enough. Negotiations were started and a price was agreed for the defenders to go free. Half of the 570 defenders had died of wounds or starvation, but the survivors were allowed to return to Praeneste unscathed. Their leader was a certain Marcus Anicius, for whom a statue was erected on the forum of his home town. The grateful Roman Senate awarded the Praenestans double pay and five years exemption from military service. They were also offered Roman citizenship, which they refused, proud as they were of their own citizenship and Latin status. But in spite of their courage, the Romans had lost another city, and an important one if they wanted to take back Capua.

Senators and elections

Revising the roll of the senators was now a case of primary concern for the Romans. Dozens of senators had died fighting Hannibal, while others had died of old age since the last census in 220 BCE. A passage in Livius’ work seems to suggest there were 170 vacancies, but that seems a bit too much. Under normal circumstances, new senators were enrolled in the Senate by the censors, two elected magistrates. But in an unprecedented move, the incumbent senators decided to recall the surviving consul, Gaius Terentius Varro, from Apulia. He was then charged to nominate a dictator, who had to be the oldest living former censor. This was Marcus Fabius Buteo, the man who three years previously had dropped war from the fold of his toga and had been censor in 241 BCE. Varro faithfully did what was asked of him, but the appointment was very controversial, not least with Buteo himself. One of the reasons was that there were now two dictators, as Marcus Junius Pera also still held the office. Also, no master of horse had been appointed. Nevertheless, Buteo performed his task admirably, basing his choice of new senators on rank rather than name.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

After fulfilling his responsibilities, Buteo immediately laid down his office, although he could have held it for six months. Varro had slipped out of Rome again to rejoin his army in the field. Since a senior magistrate was needed to preside over the elections, the still serving dictator Pera was recalled from Campania, while his master of horse Gracchus took over command of his army. Under Pera’s direction Lucius Postumius Albinus and Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus were duly elected as the new consuls. Postumius had been elected in absentia: he was holding the office of praetor and was serving with the army in Cisalpine Gaul. It was his third consulship.

Unfortunately for the consul elect, he would never return to Rome again. Postumius and his army were ambushed by the Boii in the Litana forest, the location of which is not known. The Boii had pre-cut several trees in the forest, and when the Roman army marched through the woods, they simply pushed them over. Many Romans were crushed by the heavy tree trunks, while others were cut down by the furious Celts. Livius claims that Postumius’ army comprised 25.000 men, and that only a few were taken prisoner. The Roman column was annihilated. Postumius fought bravely, but was ultimately killed. The Boii cut off his head and then gilded his skull, using it as a vessel for libations and as a drinking cup. Back in Rome, the Senate and People were both sad and furious because of this new loss, but for the moment they decided not to send a new army to Cisalpine Gaul. Elections for a replacement consul were postponed until the auspices were favourable.

Denarius showing Marcellus dedicating the spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius (source).

Later that year, Marcus Claudius Marcellus was elected consul suffectus. He had received great support during the election and was very popular, but when he was about to take up his office, thunder was heard. The augures declared that the election had been invalid on religious grounds and the senators concluded that the gods were angered at the election of two consuls from plebeian families, the gens Sempronia and the plebeian branch of the gens Claudia (there was a patrician branch as well). This was perfectly legal since laws passed in 367 and 342 BCE, but one of the consuls had nevertheless always been a patrician and the Romans clearly considered it risky to break with tradition at the height of a war. The former dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus, from the patrician gens Fabia, was elected instead.

It was also around this time that the Roman popular assembly adopted a bill tabled by the people’s tribune Gaius Oppius. This Lex Oppia was the first of many sumptuary laws in Rome. It prohibited women from possessing more than half an ounce of gold (most likely in the form of jewellery), wearing colourful dresses or travelling in a horse-drawn cart, unless it was for some sort of religious ceremony. Soberness and modesty were what was expected of Roman women during the Second Punic War.

It is now time to focus on the five theatres of war of this year, if only to emphasise on how many fronts this war was being fought.

Spain

The previous year had seen little fighting between the Romans and Carthaginians in Spain. Hasdrubal suffered setback when some of his naval commanders defected to Rome and the Turdetani and Tartessii living in Southern Spain near the river Baetis (now the Guadalquivir) rose up in revolt. Hasdrubal managed to quell the rebellion, but it may have taken him the greater part of the year. Then orders reached him from Carthage to break out of Spain, march through Gaul and link up with his brother Hannibal in Italy. Himilco was sent to Spain with an army and fleet to protect it from Roman attacks while Hasdrubal was absent.

Iberian warrior (photo: Luis García (Zaqarbal)).

When Publius and Gnaeus Scipio heard of these plans, they quickly combined their forces into a single army. They crossed the river Ebro and threatened the city of Hibera (near present-day Tortosa), a Carthaginian ally. Hasdrubal rushed to the aid of his allies and both armies deployed in battle order, the Romans in their usual acies triplex formation and the Carthaginians in a single line with the Spanish in the centre and the troops from Africa and the Carthaginian colonies in Spain on the flanks. The battle was decided when the Romans managed to break through the weak enemy centre and rout the Spanish. Although the flanks held out much longer, the battle could never have turned into a second Cannae and the Roman victory was never in doubt. Hasdrubal bravely stayed with his troops until the end, but ultimately had no option but to flee. The Romans took his camp and looted it. Hasdrubal’s attempt to break out of Spain had failed miserably.

Although they – and they alone – had been winning victories for Rome for several years now, the two Scipios felt neglected by the Senate and magistrates back in Rome. The brothers sent an angry letter to the Senate, complaining that they had no more money to pay the soldiers and that there was a shortage of clothes and grain for the army and of materials for the fleet as well. The Roman logistical system was not run by the state, but by private individuals and companies known as societates publicanorum. As soon as it had received the letter, the Senate ordered the praetor Quintus Fulvius Flaccus to address the popular assembly (a so-called contio). Flaccus announced that contracts would be let to parties interested in supplying the army in Spain with provisions.

Three companies came forward, comprising a total of nineteen men (known as publicani) working together by pooling their capital. They agreed to take responsibility for the logistical operations in Spain on the condition that they would be exempted from military service and that the State would bear the financial risk if their cargoes were lost at sea because of hostile actions or bad weather. These conditions were acceptable and soon supplies started to pour in for the army in Spain. Publius and Gnaeus Scipio continued to campaign successfully during the remainder of the year, driving off Carthaginian armies near Illiturgis and Intibili (if we are to trust Livius’ account of the war in Spain).

Italy

Map of Southern Italy (copyright: Landsat/Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Google).

While Hannibal himself captured Casilinum (see above), he had ordered some of his subordinate commanders to advance on the cities of Bruttium in the toe of Italy. Most of the men under the command of these subordinates were likely local troops recruited from among the Bruttii and Lucani. They were hardly as effective as Hannibal’s own seasoned veterans and some seem to have been more interested in plunder than in fighting for the Carthaginian cause. Nevertheless, Consentia, Croton and Locri fell into Carthaginian hands. The Roman garrison in Locri managed to leave the city by sea in the nick of time. The city of Petelia was starved into submission by Himilco after an eleven-month siege. The desperate citizens of Petelia had sent a delegation to Rome the previous year to beg the Senate to come to their aid. Although the senators and people of Rome felt pity for them, it was soon concluded that Rome did not have the manpower to help the Petelians and that the city was simply too far away. The poor Petelians had to fend for themselves. They did so courageously, but were ultimately overcome.

The capture of Locri and Croton was important, because it provided Hannibal with ports, and later that year Bomilcar arrived in the former city with reinforcements from Africa (perhaps the 4.000 Numidians and 40 elephants mentioned for 216 BCE). The city of Rhegium, on the other hand, stayed loyal to Rome and so did Cumae in Campania. It was here, or rather at nearby Hamae, that the consul Gracchus won a small but important victory over an army of Campanians. The consul had staged a risky night attack, but it was a complete success and the enemy’s highest magistrate – Livius calls him the medix tuticus – was killed. When Hannibal rushed to the aid of his allies, Gracchus had already withdrawn to Cumae. After collecting his siege equipment from Capua, Hannibal marched on Cumae and started to besiege it. He was, however, repulsed after some heavy fighting in which the Roman defenders managed to knock out a siege tower and make a daring sortie.

All the while, the consul Fabius had stayed at Cales and had refused to come to his colleague’s aid because of bad portents. But it was no longer necessary. After he was repulsed, Hannibal offered battle in front of the walls of Cumae, but Gracchus declined. Realising he could not take Cumae, Hannibal marched away. This was exemplary for much of the remainder of the war. Hannibal was forced to lay siege to well-fortified towns and was usually unsuccessful in taking them, unless they were betrayed to him. Meanwhile, the Romans tried to avoid fighting the Carthaginian commander in a pitched battle; if they did, the results were usually disastrous. The many defections in Southern Italy had won Hannibal new allies, but he also needed to protect these allies from the vengeful Romans. Hannibal could not be everywhere at the same time. This meant that he had to delegate command to some of his subordinate commanders and allow them to command separate armies that were mostly raised locally. None of these commanders were as capable as Hannibal.

Roman hastatus (source: Europa Barbarorum).

This soon became evident when a Roman army under the former consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus won a victory over Hannibal’s lieutenant Hanno at Grumentum in Lucania. It was probably not a decisive victory, but important nonetheless at a time when the Romans were growing used to defeat. And soon there was more good news. The proconsul (or propraetor) Marcus Claudius Marcellus again managed to prevent Nola from falling into enemy hands. Marcellus had been harassing the Hirpini and Samnites, who had defected to Hannibal. Forced to protect his new allies, Hannibal force-marched his troops to Nola and was joined by Hanno, who had brought Bomilcar’s reinforcements with him. While the Carthaginians were still busy surrounding the city, Marcellus gave to order to sally and the defenders’ attack was only broken off because of a violent rainstorm. A few days later, Marcellus attacked scattered parties of enemy troops that had gone off to pillage. The fighting developed into a formal battle and the outcome was probably a draw, although Livius tried to present it as a Roman victory. The fact that Nola had been saved again was, however, certainly a moral victory for Rome.

Winter was now rapidly approaching and Hannibal sent Hanno back to Bruttium while he himself retired to Arpi in Apulia. Fabius now finally crossed the Volturnus and advanced on Capua. It seems the Capuans panicked now that their protector was far away. Fabius pillaged their territories and fought skirmishers with the famous Campanian cavalry before retiring to his winter quarters at Suessula.

Sardinia

When the Council of Elders realised that, after so many defeats and defections, Carthage was in serious danger of losing its possessions in Spain, it decided to send Mago – Hannibal’s brother – with an army to Spain instead of Italy. Then an opportunity presented itself to take back Sardinia, which had been wrested from Carthaginian control in the aftermath of the Mercenary War when Carthage was extremely weak. The Sardinians were fed up with the Roman occupation of their island and were on the brink of rebellion. Their leader was a nobleman named Hampsicora, the wealthiest and most authoritative man in all of Sardinia according to Livius. Realising they needed to act quickly, the Elders sent a general named Hasdrubal the Bald[2] with an army to Sardinia. Luck seemed to favour the Carthaginians, as the Roman praetor sent to govern the island, Quintus Mucius Scaevola, was seriously ill and had to be replaced.

Map of Sardinia (Images © 2016 Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat, Map © 2016 Google, Inst. Geogr. Nacional).

The Romans now sent an experienced commander named Titus Manlius Torquatus to Sardinia. Torquatus had been consul twice, and during his first consulship in 235 BCE he had actually fought on Sardinia, so it is likely that he had intimate knowledge of the island. Landing at Caralis (modern Cagliari) in the south, the Roman general marched his army of some 22.000 infantry and 1.200 cavalry northwards. He soon reached Hampsicora’s camp, but the nobleman himself was absent. Livius claims he had gone off to recruit troops from among the Pelliti Sardi, the ‘goatskin Sardinians’, a term referring to the Nuragic Sardinians that had fled into the hills when the coastal areas were colonised by the Phoenicians. His son Hostus was temporarily in command and he foolishly decided to attack the Roman army. Hostus’ army was routed, thousands of Sardinians were killed and the survivors fled to Cornus (near modern Cuglieri) in the west of the island.

Hasdrubal the Bald had been delayed by a storm, which had driven his fleet to the Balearic Islands. He now arrived on Sardinia and joined forces with Hampsicora. Together they marched south and probably met the Roman army near Caralis. Torquatus won a great victory here and the combined Punic-Sardinian army was virtually destroyed after four hours of fighting. Hasdrubal was captured, as were other high-ranking Carthaginian noblemen, a member of the Barcid family among them. Hostus had been killed, and when he heard of his son’s death, Hampsicora decided to take his own life. Sardinia was safely back in Roman hands. There was more bad luck for the Carthaginians when their fleet sailing back to Carthage was intercepted by a squadron of Roman ships led by the propraetor Titus Otacilius, who had been raiding the African coast. Seven Carthaginian ships and their crews were captured.

Sicily

Up until now, Sicily had been firmly under Roman control. This was in large part due to King Hiero of Syracuse. He had been a staunch supporter of the Roman cause ever since switching sides in the early stages of the First Punic War. Throughout the second conflict with Carthage, Hiero had provided the Romans with sound advice, grain and troops, mostly archers and peltasts. But Hiero was more than ninety years old and no one knew how much longer the aged king would live. His son Gelo may have betrayed his father and defected to Carthage after the Battle of Cannae, but whether this is true or not, he died before he could entice the Syracusans to open rebellion. For the moment the Roman hold on Sicily seemed to be secure.

Modern Syracuse. The island of Ortygia is visible to the south (photo: cc-by-2.0).

However, then the king himself died at the ripe old age of 92 or 93. He was succeeded by his grandson Hieronymus, son of Gelo, a boy aged about fifteen. The new king was dominated by his guardians, two of them being his aunts’ husbands, who were known for their pro-Carthaginian sympathies. A pro-Roman guardian was falsely accused of having joined a plot to murder the young king and was summarily executed. The pro-Carthaginian guardians now persuaded Hieronymus to send envoys to Hannibal. Hannibal had two brothers serving in his army, Hippocrates and Epicydes, who held Carthaginian citizenship, but whose grandfather was from Syracuse (he had fled to Carthage when he was accused of murder). These brothers were sent to Sicily to negotiate with Hieronymus.

After these talks, envoys were sent to Carthage to conclude a formal treaty. The Carthaginians promised to come to the aid of Syracuse with their land and naval forces, and when the Romans had been driven of the island, it would be divided between the two allies, with the Carthaginians getting the part west of the river Himera and the Syracusans the rest. This was a dangerous agreement, for it robbed the Romans of one of their most important allies. Soon the Carthaginians would begin to raise an army and transport it to Sicily to reclaim it. It seems fair to assume that they never took young and boastful Hieronymus seriously and had every intention of occupying the whole island for themselves.

 Macedonia

In the aftermath of the Second Illyrian War, Rome’s disgraced former ally Demetrios of Faros had fled to the court of the young King of Macedonia, Philippos V. The Romans had tried to pressure the king into extraditing the man, but Philippos had refused to give in. For a while he had been wary of Roman expansion in Illyria and Epirus. After the Roman defeat at Cannae, the king realised that he could profit from an alliance with Hannibal. He sent a diplomatic delegation led by the Athenian Xenophanes to Italy to negotiate with the Carthaginians there. Xenophanes had to avoid the ports of Brundisium and Tarentum, which were still in Roman hands, so he landed at Croton further to the south. While travelling to Hannibal, the Macedonians were intercepted by the praetor Marcus Valerius Laevinus. Xenophanes managed to deceive the Romans by claiming that he had come to forge an alliance between Macedonia and the Roman Republic. This was of course far from the truth, but the diplomat was released and allowed to continue his voyage. Instead, he went straight to Hannibal’s camp.

Map of Epirus and Illyria (copyright Landsat/Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, Gebco, Google).

Hannibal was delighted when he was offered an alliance with the young but energetic king. Probably in the summer, he agreed to sign a treaty, with the Carthaginians and Macedonians pledging mutual military assistance. The Macedonians were to use their fleet and army to ravage the coast of Italy. In return, the Carthaginians would not make peace with Rome until she agreed to renounce her claims on the territories that she controlled since the Illyrian Wars, such as Kerkyra, Apollonia, Epidamnos and Faros. Much of the text of the treaty has survived and can be found in the seventh book of Polybius’ Histories. This is easily explained, as the ship carrying Xenophanes back to Macedonia was intercepted by a Roman fleet. When a letter from Hannibal to Philippos and Punic envoys were discovered on board, everyone was arrested and sent to the consul Gracchus at Cumae. Gracchus sent the Macedonians on to the Senate in Rome. The senators were alarmed and decided to have new ships built to strengthen the Roman fleet in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.

Apparently, some of the Greek envoys managed to escape back to Macedonia, allowing King Philippos to send a second delegation to Hannibal. But before it was back at his court, the war season had already come to an end.

Sources

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 222-229, p. 249-251 and p. 253-261;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 289-292.

Notes

[1] Other soldiers were from Perusia (present-day Perugia in Umbria), complemented with a few Roman and Latin stragglers.

[2] Calvus in Latin. Many Romans were also nicknamed Calvus.