At the end of the First Punic War, Rome had humiliated Carthage by dictating incredibly harsh peace terms and forcing her opponent to accept them. Carthage was humiliated again when, in 238 BCE, the Romans annexed Sardinia and threatened the Carthaginians with a new war should they dare to intervene. The causes of the Second Punic war, which started 20 years later, have been hotly debated, but it is clear that the aforementioned humiliation planted the seed from which a renewed conflict between Rome and Carthage would spring. In the same way, the humiliation of Germany after World War I greatly contributed to the outbreak of World War II two decades later, although I will concede that omnis comparatio claudicat.
In any case, soon after he capturing Saguntum in Spain in late 219 BCE, the young Carthaginian general Hannibal Barcas set his sights on Italy and it is quite likely that he had already been planning this invasion for months or perhaps years. Hannibal had successfully campaigned in Spain since 221 BCE, subjugating many of the tribes in the peninsula. Hannibal – and before him his father Hamilcar and Hamilcar’s successor Hasdrubal – had basically carved out a semi-independent state. It was formally Carthaginian territory, but it was ruled by the Barcid clan. The Barcids controlled many of Spain’s famous silver mines and began minting their own coins. Hannibal’s campaigns were no doubt highly profitable and yielded a lot of booty. Alliances with the peoples in the peninsula led to many Iberians, Lusitanians and Celtiberians joining Hannibal’s ranks as allied soldiers. The core troops in Hannibal’s army were very experienced and no doubt eager to avenge the Carthaginian humiliation of two decades ago. Hannibal would soon prove to be Rome’s most lethal enemy.
The Roman response
When Saguntum fell, Rome’s two consuls had probably just returned from their campaigns against the Illyrian pirates, the so-called Second Illyrian War. The fact that these magistrates, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Marcus Livius Salinator, were engaged elsewhere is one of the reasons why the Romans were unable to send military aid to the Saguntines, apart from the fact that Saguntum – near present-day Valencia – lay way outside the Roman sphere of influence. Paullus and Livius were now added to a diplomatic delegation that was sent to Carthage to protest Hannibal’s actions against their Spanish ally. It was presumably led by the former censor Marcus Fabius Buteo and the Romans clearly expected the Carthaginians to back down in the face of Roman threats and demands. This had happened so often in the past, and the delegation assumed it would happen again. Roman behaviour was arrogant and rude, but this time the members of Carthage’s gerousia – The Council of Thirty Elders or Senate – were not intimidated.
The Romans demanded to know whether Hannibal had acted with the Council’s approval and also asked for the general’s extradition. But the Barcid clan had many supporters in the Council and this time their principal opponent – Hanno the Great, who had quarrelled with Hannibal’s father Hasdrubal – seems to have remained silent. The Carthaginians employed legal sophistries and claimed that they could not possibly be bound by the treaty signed by Hasdrubal in 226 BCE, since it had never been ratified by the Senate and people of Carthage. The Carthaginians did have a point: in 241 BCE, the Roman consul Lutatius Catulus had negotiated a treaty with Carthage, which was subsequently rejected by the popular assembly in Rome. Hence neither side was bound by it. But now it was the Romans’ turn to be unimpressed. Fabius took the fold of his toga and asked the members of the Council whether they chose war or peace. When the presiding shophet replied that Fabius himself should choose, the Roman let war fall from his toga, which was readily accepted by the Carthaginian senators.
The new consuls Publius Cornelius Scipio and Tiberius Sempronius Longus were put in charge of the war against Carthage. Scipio was given Spain as his province, while Longus was sent to Sicily to prepare for the invasion of Africa. Rome clearly expected to take the war to the enemy, but would be in for a nasty surprise when it turned out that Hannibal was actually taking the war to Italy. What was more, in Cisalpine Gaul the Celtic Boii and Insubres rebelled. Both had been defeated in previous years, but were certainly not fully subjugated nor pacified. The Celts resented the presence of Roman colonists on what they claimed were their territories and attacked the recently founded colonies of Placentia (modern Piacenza) and Cremona. Many colonists – there were about 12.000 in total – fled south to the city of Mutina (present-day Modena), which was put under siege by the Celts. The Celts even managed to capture the members of a Roman senatorial committee sent north to oversee the distribution of land in the new colonies.
The Romans sent the praetor Lucius Manlius Vulso to Cisalpine Gaul with an army to drive off the invaders. Vulso chose speed over caution and failed to properly reconnoitre. As a result he was ambushed twice in densely forested country on the way to Mutina, losing over 1.000 men and six battle standards. In the end, the praetor had no choice but to order what was left of his forces to entrench themselves inside the small village of Tannetum. The Romans quickly sent another praetor named Gaius Atilius north to relieve the besieged at Mutina and Tannetum. Atilius seems to have been successful, although he had to take one of the legions intended for the consul Scipio with him. Scipio was now forced to raise a new legion before he could set out for Spain.
Hannibal marches north
In the meantime, Hannibal had not sat still. After taking Saguntum in late 219 BCE, he had marched his army to his winter quarters at Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena), a city founded by Hasdrubal. Before the start of the new war season, he had travelled to Gades (present-day Cádiz) to pray in the temple of Hercules-Melqart, an important Carthaginian deity, and to take new vows. Hannibal no doubt swore that he would emulate the deeds of Hercules, who, after capturing the cattle of a giant called Geryones in Southern Spain, had travelled to Italy over land and had defeated and killed another giant near the Aventine Hill in Rome (see Rome: Santa Maria in Cosmedin). It was always clear that Hannibal was going to take the land route to Italy. Taking an army across the sea was too risky. The Roman fleet, fresh from its victories against the Illyrians, was simply too strong, with the two consuls commanding some 220 quinqueremes. Sending an army from Africa was also next to impossible, since the Romans and their ally Hiero of Syracuse controlled all of Sicily. Roman naval superiority would certainly contribute to their ultimate victory.
Upon returning to Carthago Nova, Hannibal left his brother Hasdrubal in charge of Carthaginian Spain and probably in late Spring led his army north, across the river Ebro. Hannibal’s army was immense, although we may doubt the numbers given in our sources (90.000 infantry, 12.000 cavalry and 37 war elephants). Many of these troops would have been fresh levies from the Spanish tribes, but the core of Hannibal’s army consisted of battle-hardened veterans who had accompanied their general on many campaigns. Hannibal campaigned aggressively against the tribes who lived north of the Ebro, such as the Ilergetes, Bargusi, Ausetani and Lacetani, and managed to defeat them. Even after these campaigns, the region was still far from pacified, so before crossing the Pyrenees into Gaul, Hannibal was forced to leave behind one Hanno with 10.000 foot soldiers and 1.000 horsemen. The Carthaginian general also lost men to desertion and a few thousands Spaniards asked to be relieved so that they could protect their homes against a possible Roman attack. When he reached the river Rhône, Hannibal’s army may have shrunk to some 50.000 infantry and 9.000 horsemen.
Although reduced in size, Hannibal’s forces still comfortably outnumbered those of Publius Scipio, who commanded some 20.000 men, a standard consular army. While his colleague Sempronius had been sent to Lilybaeum on Sicily with 160 ships, Scipio had left Pisa with 60 ships, sailing for several days along the coast of Etruria and Liguria before reaching the territory of Rome’s ally Massilia (present-day Marseilles) and the mouth of the Rhône. Lacking modern satellite technology, Scipio had no idea where his opponent was, so he sent out a detachment of some 300 picked horsemen, Massilian guides and Celtic auxiliaries to locate Hannibal’s army. Little did Scipio know that Hannibal had already outmanoeuvred him. Although a tribe known as the Volcae had tried to prevent his army from crossing the Rhône, Hannibal had managed to rout them in a two-pronged attack. He subsequently crossed the river somewhere between Orange and Avignon and continued his route towards the Alps. The Carthaginian commander had even succeeded in getting his elephants across.
Just before Hannibal started the crossing of the Rhône, Scipio’s scouts bumped into a Carthaginian reconnaissance party of some 500 Numidian horsemen and there was a bloody fight with exceptionally high casualties on both sides. But when Scipio marched north and reached Hannibal’s camp, he realised that the enemy commander had outsmarted him and had already moved across the Rhône three days previously. No doubt Hannibal could have fought Scipio in Southern Gaul and he would surely have defeated him given his numerical superiority, but his aim had always been to defeat the Romans on their own soil. Scipio for his part now decided to return to Italy to confront and defeat Hannibal there. He transferred command of the bulk of the army to his older brother Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus, who was serving as a legate. Calvus had been consul in 222 BCE and was an experienced commander who had won fame by capturing the capital of the Insubres, Mediolanum (present-day Milan), that year. He would prove to be a capable commander in Spain as well. Publius sailed back to Pisa, taking just a small escort with him.
Hannibal crosses the Alps
Since setting out from Carthago Nova, Hannibal’s army had marched through territories not under Carthaginian control for hundreds of kilometres. The Carthaginians had combined blunt force with clever diplomacy, sending negotiators ahead who offered precious gifts to the tribes and their leaders in exchange for safe passage through their lands. When Hannibal reached the Alps it was probably already late October or early November, and it is likely that he was already in contact with the Celtic tribes in the Po Valley in Italy and knew that the Boii and Insubres were rebelling against the Romans. Before starting the ascent of the Alps, Hannibal settled a dispute between two brothers who both claimed the leadership of a Celtic tribe that was living close to the territory of the fierce Allobroges. Hannibal upheld the claim of the oldest brother, one Braneus, and in return was rewarded with new weapons, supplies, warm winter clothing and boots. Braneus’ supporters also protected the flanks and rear of Hannibal’s column from attacks by the Allobroges, who so far had refused to negotiate with the Carthaginians.
Hannibal could now begin the most difficult part of his journey: the crossing of the Alps. Using local guides and scouts, the Carthaginians marched slowly along narrow paths and through narrow passes, crossing steep slopes and avoiding all sorts of obstacles. Weather conditions were horrible as well, and the men and animals had to endure snow and ice. The hostile Allobroges and other tribes living in the Alps constantly attacked the Carthaginian column as it slowly wound its way through difficult terrain. In some locations the enemy tribes could simply roll down rocks on their defenceless opponents.
Carthaginian casualties were appalling, especially among the horses and pack animals, but after at least fifteen days – but more likely three or four weeks – Hannibal had finally reached Italy (or rather: Cisalpine Gaul), some five months after setting out from Carthago Nova according to our sources. Even if the original size of his army has been exaggerated, it had become a shadow of its former glory, with just 20.000 infantry – 8.000 Spanish and 12.000 North Africans – and 6.000 cavalry remaining. We do not know how many of the 37 elephants – who had been instrumental in keeping the tribes at bay during the crossing – had perished, but some must have died as well. The Carthaginians were exhausted, but they had made it. They could now fight the Romans on their own turf.
The Battle of Ticinus
Hannibal’s army was small, but of excellent quality and very experienced; it was mostly the green Spanish recruits that had deserted. Hannibal could be ensured of his men’s loyalty, but nonetheless promised them land and even Carthaginian citizenship if they won the war. The Carthaginian commander now urgently needed to draw reinforcements from the Celtic tribes of the Po Valley. His army was much too small for a prolonged war in Italy. Even if he could defeat Publius Cornelius Scipio, who had taken over the legions of the praetors Manlius Vulso and Atilius and was now hurrying north towards Placentia, the Romans would simply raise a new army and wear Hannibal down in a war of attrition. Hannibal needed to get the Celtic tribes on his side and cause Rome’s Latin and Italian allies to defect, and if possible join his forces as well.
Hannibal tried to win over the Insubres by capturing the main city of their sworn enemies the Taurini and slaughtering their warriors. But although the Celts felt little love for the Romans, they were as yet unsure about Hannibal’s intentions and wary about Roman repercussions. Hannibal needed to do more than just defeat one enemy tribe. But Publius Scipio desperately needed a victory as well. Hannibal had eluded him in Gaul, his cavalry had at best won a minor victory there and some of his troops were still reeling from the Celtic ambushes earlier that same year (see above). A decisive victory over Hannibal would be a boost to Roman morale.
Scipio’s colleague Tiberius Sempronius Longus had not yet arrived. He had been involved in fleet operations off the coast of Sicily and had managed to capture the Carthaginian-held island of Malta. But as soon as news reached him that Hannibal was in Cisalpine Gaul, Longus had marched his troops from Lilybaeum on Sicily to Ariminum. Although hardly as spectacular as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, it was still quite an achievement, as Longus’ army may have covered 1.500 kilometres in just 40 days. It would still take some time before both consuls could unite their armies, and Scipio decided to construct a sort of pontoon bridge across the river Ticinus, a tributary of the Po. The consul crossed the bridge with a small force, more of a large scouting party, composed of the Roman horse and a few hundred light infantry (velites). This was the opportunity Hannibal had been waiting for. Using only his cavalry, the Carthaginian commander attacked the Romans and after a sharp fight put them to flight.
The consul himself was wounded and had to be rescued by a Ligurian slave, with a rival tradition claiming the heroic saviour was actually his son, the younger Publius Scipio. The young man was just seventeen or eighteen years old at the time, and he would go on to win lasting fame later on in the war. For the moment, the Roman commander had to withdraw to Placentia, demolishing the bridge his men had built. Some 600 Romans left behind to guard the bridge – and perhaps to take it apart once the main force had crossed – were captured by the Carthaginians. The Battle of Ticinus in November 218 BCE was a small engagement, but nevertheless a crucial victory for Hannibal. After the battle, many Celts living in the area joined his ranks and – perhaps even more importantly – over 2.000 Celts serving in the Roman army defected. They slaughtered some of the guards in the Roman camp during the night and cut off their heads before making off and joining Hannibal.
The Battle of Trebia
Scipio withdrew to the river Trebia near Placentia, crossed it and decided to wait in camp for Longus to join him. Hannibal in the meantime captured the Roman supply depot at Clastidium, which was betrayed to him by its commander, an officer from Brundisium named Dasius. The Carthaginian commander was also happy with his new Celtic allies, but soon discovered that he could not fully trust them. Although they provided his troops with food and other supplies and pretended to be his friends, some tribes living between the Po and the Trebia were secretly negotiating with the Romans. Hannibal invaded their lands, which triggered the newly arrived consul Longus to intervene. Skirmishes broke out between the Romans and Carthaginians and the former managed to drive the latter back to their camp. Reinforcements then marched out of Hannibal’s camp, chasing off the Romans, who were in turn reinforced by fresh horsemen and light troops. The skirmishes never developed into a real battle, and eventually both sides disengaged.
It was a small success for the consul, since his forces had inflicted somewhat greater casualties on their opponents. Longus was now eager to fight a real battle. His term of office and that of Scipio would expire on 15 March of the next year and perhaps this was the last chance to fight a pitched battle and enjoy the glory of a victory. Longus’ colleague – still nursing his battle wound and perhaps in shock from his defeat at the Ticinus – seems to have recommended a more cautious approach. Scipio argued that many of the legionaries had only recently been levied and were still awfully green. It was much better to train them during the winter. No doubt many Celts would leave Hannibal again in the meantime, sapping the strength of his army. Of course, Scipio also hoped that his wound would heal quickly so that he himself could participate in an upcoming battle as well.
Scipio’s advice was sensible, but it went unheeded. In late December, Hannibal used his swift Numidian horsemen to lure the Romans out of their camp. Early in the morning, when the Romans had not yet had their breakfasts, the Numidians crossed the Trebia, galloped to the ramparts and began throwing their javelins at the sentries. The Romans took the bait. Longus ordered his horsemen and velites to give chase, marched his legions and allied troops out of camp and recklessly pursued the Numidians. It was a bitter cold day, it was snowing and the river was swollen from previous snowstorms. The Romans were hungry, and after crossing the river they were wet and cold as well. It took hours to deploy their battle lines and their cavalry and velites were already tired from the fruitless skirmishing with the Numidians. The bulk of Hannibal’s forces, on the other hand, were well rested and had plenty of food in their bellies. The Battle of Trebia would clearly be fought on Hannibal’s terms.
During the battle, a Roman army of some 40.000 men – among them one of the last Celtic tribes still loyal to Rome, the Cenomani – confronted a much smaller Carthaginian force, but it was easily cut to pieces. Hannibal had shown his tactical brilliance by hiding a reserve force of 1.000 infantry and the same number of horsemen in an overgrown riverbed with high banks. These men, led by Hannibal’s brother Mago Barcas, attacked the Romans in the rear, but when they struck, the battle was presumably already won by Hannibal’s superior cavalry, aided by the famous Balearic slingers. Roman casualties were dreadful. Although the consul managed to get away with his life and some 10.000 Romans managed to break through the Carthaginian centre and return to Placentia, many of the remaining 30.000 soldiers were either killed or captured. Carthaginian casualties were comparatively light, although in the aftermath of the battle many men and horses died of the cold. The harsh climate was too much for the elephants as well, and soon only one of these animals was still alive.
Meanwhile in Spain
The year 218 BCE saw a disastrous start to the war for the Romans, but it was not completely lost. Gnaeus Scipio’s operations in Spain were actually very successful. Gnaeus’ forces operated in the region between the Ebro and the Greek colony of Emporiae (also known as Emporion or Ampurias), a city with close ties to Massilia. The Roman commander convinced many of the tribes that had been defeated by Hannibal earlier that year to defect to Rome. Scipio also began recruiting Iberian auxiliaries to boost the strength of his army.
As stated above, Hannibal had left behind Hanno with a small force, and the two armies met at a place known as Cissa late in 218 BCE. The Romans outnumbered their opponents at least two to one, and the Battle of Cissa was a resounding Roman victory. The Carthaginians lost some 6.000 men killed and wounded, while another 2.000 were taken prisoner. With his army annihilated, Hanno himself was captured, as was a local leader of the Ilergetes named Indibilis. The Romans subsequently stormed the town of Cissa, which was a wasted effort, as they found little booty there, in the words of Livius just “the barbarians’ household goods and some worthless slaves”. But the Romans had also captured Hanno’s camp and had discovered many valuable items from Hannibal’s baggage train here. These had been left behind when Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees earlier that year.
The victory was somewhat marred when Hasdrubal marched north with a small force, crossed the Ebro and attacked parties of Roman sailors that had scattered to pillage. The raiding parties were badly cut up, but casualties were probably not that high. Gnaeus Scipio decided to punish the sailors’ officers that had been negligent and then moved to his winter quarters at Tarraco. Rome was still in the game.
- Livius, Ab urbe condita, Book 21.17-21.63;
- Polybius, The Histories, Book 3.20-3.35, 3.40-3.56, 3.60-3.76 and Book 10.3.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 143-181 and p. 247-248;
- Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 235-270.
 Livius claims it was Quintus Fabius (Maximus), but this is disputed by Goldsworthy, p. 145.
 Not to be confused with his father’s political opponent.
 140-160 Romans and Celts and over 200 Numidians were said to have been killed.
 Polybius mentions contacts with a chieftain named Magilos and other Celtic leaders from the Po Valley when Hannibal was still in Southern Gaul.
 A number given by Polybius, probably accurate because it was based on an inscription set up by Hannibal himself in Lacinium (modern Capo Colonna) in Southern Italy.
 The Taurini were a Celto-Ligurian people. The modern city of Turin (Torino; from Colonia Julia Augusta Taurinorum) is named after them.
 Part of the army may have travelled by sea.
 16.000 Roman infantry (including the velites), 20.000 allied infantry and 4.000 horsemen according to Polybius 3.72. Livius mentions 18.000 instead of 16.000 Roman infantry.