The Second Punic War: The Year 211 BCE


  • Ptolemaios IV Philopator sends grain to the Romans;
  • Introduction of the silver denarius;
  • The former praetor Gnaeus Fulvius Flaccus is put on trial for his defeat at Herdonea and forced to go into exile;
  • Unable to raise the siege of Capua, Hannibal decides to march on Rome;
  • Since the Romans do not abandon the siege of Capua, Hannibal’s march on Rome is a failure;
  • Hannibal suddenly shows up near Rhegium, but fails to capture the city;
  • Capua surrenders to the Romans; the city loses its independence and all of its territories become Roman property;
  • Publius and Gnaeus Scipio are killed in Spain;
  • Marcus Claudius Marcellus holds an ovatio for his victories on Sicily;
  • Rome and the Aetolian League form an alliance against Philippos V of Macedonia.

Since little actual fighting took place around Capua, Appius Claudius Pulcher was recalled from Campania to preside over the consular elections. The new consuls were Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus and Publius Sulpicius Galba. Both were relatively inexperienced. In fact, Galba had not even held a single curule office. The imperium of the incumbent consuls was then prorogued and as proconsuls they continued the siege of Capua. The Roman army in the field was larger than ever. There were now 25 legions, comprising 100.000-125.000 infantry and 7.500 cavalry. And that is not including the allied cohorts. Therefore, these numbers again need to be at least doubled to get an idea of the size of the army mobilised for fighting the war on all fronts, but especially in Italy.

Golden coin of Ptolemaios I, great-grandfather of Ptolemaios IV (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

With so many men under arms and serious problems with the harvest because of the ongoing war, Italy was beginning to run short of grain. It was probably in this year that the Romans sent an embassy to their ally the King of Egypt, Ptolemaios IV Philopator (221-204 BCE). A treaty of friendship between Egypt and Rome had existed since 273 BCE, and Ptolemaios willingly provided the Romans with grain on this occasion. The Romans also introduced the silver denarius this year, completing the monetary reforms started some years ago.

Another important event of this year was the trial of Gnaeus Fulvius Flaccus, who was prosecuted for his role in the defeat at Herdonea last year. The survivors of this battle had been shamed and sent to Sicily, where they were to serve under the same conditions as the so-called ‘Cannae legions’, i.e. they were not to return to Italy until the war had been won. Now the people’s tribune Gaius Sempronius Blaesus dragged Flaccus before the popular assembly and accused him of cowardice. Flaccus defended himself by arguing that Varro too had fled from the battlefield, and Varro was still serving. But when witnesses came forward and told the people that the rout had clearly started with the praetor, Blaesus asked the people for the death penalty, claiming that Flaccus was guilty of perduellio, or high treason.[1] The other people’s tribunes refused to come to Flaccus’ aid and his brother, the proconsul Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, was prohibited by the Senate from leaving the siege of Capua to plead on behalf of the accused. In the end, Flaccus had no choice but to go into voluntary exile in Tarquinii.

Capua about to fall

Veles (source: Europa Barbarorum)

Roman horseman (eques) (source: Europa Barbarorum).

The siege of Capua was going very much the way the Romans wanted it to go. The city was completely surrounded and cut off from the outside world. As a result, the citizens were starving. Attempts to break through the Roman fortifications were unsuccessful, as the Capuan infantry was constantly worsted. The famous Campanian cavalry fared a little better, winning a few skirmishes against their Roman opponents in the no man’s land between the city walls and the Roman defences. Livius claims that a Roman centurion named Quintus Navius (or Naevius) devised a novel tactic, ordering the horsemen to ride into battle with picked young men from the velites behind them. These light troops jumped off the horses at the right moment and charged the enemy cavalry, hurling their javelins at them. Then the Roman horse finished the job by charging the confused enemy. Navius’ experiment proved so successful that it was repeated many times, giving the Romans the upper hand in the skirmishes.

Now Hannibal intervened. He had arrived in the mountains north of Capua and attacked the Roman ramparts. Accounts of the ensuing battle differ, with Livius painting a dramatic picture of hard-pressed Romans giving ground, brave centurions grabbing standards before leading the charge and legates engaging in hand-to-hand combat against elephants. However, even Livius admits that some of his sources told a very different story and that perhaps the fighting was not so serious after all. There was “more excitement and confusion than actual fighting”. This seems to match with Polybius’ account, who tells us that the Romans refused to fight out in the open. They stayed behind their palisades and let their velites and other light troops fight off the attackers. Since Hannibal could not make use of his superior cavalry, his assault came to nothing. Livius informs us that the proconsul Appius Claudius Pulcher was seriously wounded by a javelin to the chest, an event not even mentioned by Polybius.

Hannibal advances on Rome

Hannibal now decided to do what he could – and perhaps should – have done after his great victory at Cannae in 216 BCE: march on Rome. The aim was not to attack the city. A siege of Rome was not a realistic prospect, but if Hannibal and his army advanced on the Roman capital, then perhaps the proconsuls, or at the very least one of them, would give up the siege of Capua. Staying at Capua was in any case risky, as there was not a lot of food in the vicinity and the new consuls might be coming to Campania as well. So five days after arriving at Capua, Hannibal marched north again. According to Livius, his army followed the Via Latina and pillaged the territories of cities such as Casinum and Fregellae before swinging further north to the city of Gabii. Quintus Fulvius Flaccus was recalled to Rome and followed the (southern) Via Appia to Rome with a picked force of infantry and cavalry. Appius Claudius Pulcher stayed behind to direct the siege of Capua, indicating that even if he had been wounded in the fighting, he was not incapacitated.

Rome’s Servian Walls.

Gabii was located some 18 kilometres east of Rome. According to Polybius, Hannibal made his camp at a distance of just 40 stades (7 kilometres) from the Roman capital, with Livius mentioning a slightly larger distance of 8 miles. Whichever of the two distances is correct, Hannibal was now closer to Rome than he had ever been. Livius and Polybius agree that there was a huge panic in the city, with women running to the temples, begging the gods to intervene and sweeping the temple floors with their dishevelled hair. But the Romans responded well. They strengthened their fortifications and had plenty of soldiers at their disposal to defend the city. One recently levied legion had by chance been given orders to assemble in Rome on that day and the consuls were busy recruiting a second legion. The city was therefore bristling with armed men, and that was not counting Fulvius’ troops, who were on their way from Capua. The two legions in the city were probably green and inexperienced, but they would surely be able to defend their mother city. Soon Fulvius and his army arrived, entering the city at the Porta Capena and then marching north to the Esquiline Hill. There he exited the city again at the Porta Esquilina and made his camp between this gate and the Porta Collina, Rome’s northernmost gate. It seems likely the two urban legions joined him there.

Hannibal’s Numidian scouts had been spreading terror among the rural population and had captured many prisoners. The Carthaginian commander now made his camp at the river Anio (nowadays called the Aniene), just three miles from Rome. He sent ahead a party of cavalry that rode all the way to the temple of Hercules at the Porta Collina to take stock of the Roman defences. There they were quickly chased off by the Roman defenders, but Livius tells us a strange story of how the consuls ordered a detachment of Numidian horsemen that had defected to the Romans to join the fight. These men were stationed on the Aventine Hill. They galloped down the Clivus Publicius (now the Clivo dei Publicii) and rode through the city to the Esquiline Hill. This confused some people in the citadel on the Capitoline, who assumed they were enemy horsemen who had just occupied the Aventine Hill. Again there was a huge panic in the city and riots broke out, which could not easily be controlled as the city was full of refugees from the country blocking the streets with their cattle.

View of the Forum Romanum.

It is not impossible that Livius, who provides us with the most detailed account, exaggerated the scale of the panic and riots, but surely tensions in the city must have run high; even centuries later Roman mothers still scared their children with the ominous words Hannibal ante portas (‘Hannibal at the gates’). Still, the Romans were quite confident. They allegedly even auctioned off the plot of land on which Hannibal had made his camp. In spite of the fact that the land was occupied, the price had not been lowered. In response, an offended Hannibal is said to have himself auctioned off the shops of the money-lenders (the tabernae argentariae) on the Forum Romanum.[2] Fulvius and the two consuls moved their camp to within 1.8 kilometres of that of Hannibal. Hannibal decided not to offer battle, but to pillage the surrounding areas. Livius for instance accuses him of looting the Lucus Feroniae, the sacred grove of the goddess Feronia near Capena, stripping her temple of its gold and silver. Realising that the siege of Capua had not been abandoned and that he had at least succeeded in scaring the Romans to death, Hannibal decided not to offer battle and to withdraw.

The fate of Capua

Publius Sulpicius Galba attacked the Carthaginians when they were wading across the Anio – the consul had destroyed the bridge there – and managed to get back some of the booty. He then pursued Hannibal too carelessly and suffered a reverse when the Carthaginians attacked his camp at night. This was a setback, but what really counted was that Hannibal no longer threatened Rome. In a lightning quick march, Hannibal led his men south again, unexpectedly showing up near Rhegium in the toe of Italy. This city had remained staunchly loyal to Rome so far, and Hannibal’s sudden appearance almost caught it off guard. The inhabitants just managed to close the gates before Hannibal’s troops could storm into the city, but the Carthaginians did manage to capture a lot of people that were trapped outside.

Capua was lost now. When the proconsul Fulvius Flaccus returned to take charge of the siege, an edict was promulgated that proclaimed that Capuan citizens who were prepared to go over to the Romans would be exempted from punishment. No one came forward. The Carthaginian commanders Bostar and Hanno felt betrayed by Hannibal and sent him an angry letter. The letter was given to some Numidians who pretended to defect, but they were found out and the letter was confiscated. The Numidians’ hands were cut off before they were sent back to Capua. When the city was about to surrender, 27 Capuan senators took poison and committed suicide. The next day the gates were opened and the Romans took possession of the city. The Carthaginian defenders were taken prisoner, Bostar and Hanno among them. Over 50 senators were arrested and sent to Cales and Teanum. Appius Claudius Pulcher proposed to be merciful, but Fulvius Flaccus was less forgiving: he had the prisoners scourged and beheaded.

Amphitheatre in Capua from the time of Augustus (photo: Rico Heil, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Now the Romans had to decide on the question of what to do with Capua. Some were in favour of razing it to the ground. But since it was located in one of the most fertile regions in all of Italy, it was quickly decided to spare the city. Capua nevertheless lost all of its independence. Its territories and buildings became Roman property and the city was also stripped of its administration. Instead of having its own senate, a popular assembly and magistrates, the city was to be governed by a prefect appointed each year by Rome. Many of Capua’s citizens were sold into slavery, others were forcefully evicted and divided among other communities. Only non-Campanians – farmers, freedmen, traders and craftsmen – were allowed to remain behind. Capua became a settlement the sole purpose of which was agricultural production.

The surrender of Capua can be considered a turning point in the war. Now that the principal city of the Campanians had fallen to Rome, other cities in Campania and other parts of Italy began to waver in their loyalty to Hannibal. Hannibal had been unable to protect Capua, and this was a blow to his prestige. He had many allies to protect and the Romans had many armies in the field. Hannibal could not be everywhere at the same time and splitting up his own army to confront these forces was risky. Meanwhile, things were not going so well for the Carthaginians at Tarentum either. The previous year, they had failed to capture the citadel. The Carthaginian admiral Bomilcar had now arrived with his ships and joined the blockade, but he proved to be of little value to the Tarentines. The Romans defending the citadel had ample supplies, while the sailors used up all the food of the citizens of Tarentum. It was not long before the Tarentines implored Bomilcar to leave again. The Carthaginian admiral had not achieved anything.


Some Celtic war gear.

Spain had been fairly quiet since Gnaeus and Publius Scipio had prevented Hasdrubal Barcas from breaking out of the peninsula and joining his brother in Italy in 215 BCE. The brothers seem to have mostly resorted to diplomacy to win more Spanish tribes over to the Roman side. Their policy of diplomacy had resulted in the addition of some 20.000 Celtiberians to their forces, either mercenaries or allied troops. Gnaeus and Publius now felt strong enough to go on the offensive. The Carthaginians had three armies in the field, led by Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, Mago Barcas and Hasdrubal Barcas respectively. Plans were made that Gnaeus would attack the latter, while Publius would focus on the other Hasdrubal and Mago, who had combined their armies. The brothers split their forces at a place called Amtorgis.

Then things went horribly wrong. Publius’ army was constantly harassed by a young Numidian prince named Masinissa. Two years previously, the Scipios had sent a delegation to Africa to make an alliance with King Syphax of the Masaesyli, a tribe that lived in the west of Numidia. Livius claims that the Romans even left behind a centurion to train the Numidian infantry, which up until then had not been very effective in battle. Syphax then attacked the Carthaginians and won a victory with his new model army, causing the latter to turn to King Gala of the Massylii in eastern Numidia. The Massylii and Carthaginians combined their armies and Syphax was heavily defeated, forcing him to flee west to the Mauri. Gala then delegated command of the war to his son Masinissa, now in his mid-twenties, who was ultimately sent to Spain. This explains his presence there. Masinissa attacked the column led by Publius Scipio and forced the Romans to stay in their camp.

Numidian cavalry (source: Europa Barbarorum).

When it was reported to Publius that an army of enemy Suessetani was rapidly approaching, he decided to march out of camp in the middle of the night and confront it. The Suessetani were led by Indibilis, a local chieftain who had been captured in 218 BCE and who had subsequently been released. Publius’ gamble could have worked out, but when his column was fighting that of Indibilis, Masinissa suddenly appeared with his cavalry and joined the fray. When Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, and Mago Barcas also arrived, the fate of the Romans was sealed. Publius Scipio was hit by a javelin and died soon afterwards. Many Romans were killed, but it was a small comfort that Publius’ legate, one Tiberius Fonteius, had been left behind in camp with a sizeable force and eventually managed to reach Roman-controlled territory again.

Meanwhile, Gnaeus Scipio was still in Amtorgis, where the brothers had started their operations. During secret negotiations, Hasdrubal Barcas had managed to bribe the 20.000 Celtiberians, who left their camp and marched back to their own lands. Gnaeus was heavily outnumbered, as he had been given only a third of the Roman forces. At first, Gnaeus stayed near Amtorgis and waited for news about his brother’s campaign. When more and more enemy troops started to arrive, he began suspecting a Roman defeat. Gnaeus now decided to retreat, but his column was constantly harassed by the agile Numidian cavalry. In the end, the Roman commander had no option but to entrench his army on a hill, building a barricade of saddles and other baggage. When the Carthaginians stormed the hill, Gnaeus and many of his men were killed, exactly 29 days after the defeat of his brother.

The Romans now clung on to just a small part of the Spanish peninsula north of the river Ebro. They were basically back to where they had started in 218 BCE. All the efforts of Gnaeus and Publius Scipio had been undone in two consecutive battles. The Carthaginians were jubilant, but they soon became overconfident. Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, had already crossed the Ebro, where he was surprised by stiff Roman resistance. The Romans were led by a talented young knight (eques) named Lucius Marcius, who may have been serving as a tribune or a senior centurion. Marcius had rallied many of the survivors and had collected more troops from local garrisons. He had then joined forces with Tiberius Fonteius’ men and repulsed Hasdrubal’s first attack. Marcius built upon his success by storming Hasdrubal’s camp. Hasdrubal in fact had two camps, and copying the tactic of the Carthaginians – ars Punica in Livius’ work – the Roman knight had hidden some infantry and cavalry in the valley between these camps. When the first camp was stormed and the Carthaginians fled, they were ambushed in the valley and cut to pieces.

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The second camp may have been taken as well. Among the booty was a silver shield with Hasdrubal Barcas’ image, which was sent to Rome and kept in the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill until it was destroyed in a fire in 83 BCE. The Romans had suffered two sharp defeats and had lost two very experienced commanders, but they were far from beaten. And what was more, there were soon conflicts between the Carthaginian commanders and between the Carthaginians and their Spanish allies. Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, got into a feud with Indibilis, and this led to estrangement between the two peoples, causing some of the tribes to renew their contacts with the Romans.

Lucius Marcius sent letters to Rome about the situation in Spain, referring to himself as a propraetor. Many senators were annoyed at this, since Marcius was not a magistrate and did not hold any imperium. Nevertheless, the Senate was pleased that the Roman knight had managed to stabilise the situation on the Iberian peninsula and it promised to send clothes and grain to the army in Spain. Later, the Senate sent Gaius Claudius Nero to take charge of the troops there and to relieve Marcius and Tiberius Fonteius. Nero took much-needed reinforcements with him, some 12.000 infantry and 1.100 cavalry.


Marcellus returned to Rome this year, and under normal circumstances he would no doubt have been allowed to hold a triumph. But because the war on Sicily was still unfinished, the Senate after some debate decided to give him the lesser honour of holding an ovatio, a ceremony during which the victorious commander rode through the streets on horseback instead of in a chariot. The ovatio was nevertheless impressive. Marcellus had an image of captured Syracuse paraded through the city, as well as captured war material and items taken from the royal treasure. Roman citizenship was granted to Sosis, a Syracusan who had helped capture the fortress of Euryalos, and to Moericus, the Spaniard who had betrayed Ortygia to the Romans. Each was also given 500 iugera of public land (some 125 acres), the maximum amount of land a Roman citizen was allowed to possess according to the Lex Licinia Sextia of 367 BCE.

The war on Sicily was now led by the capable praetor Marcus Cornelius Cethegus. There were still many problems on the island. The Carthaginians had landed a new army composed of some 8.000 infantry and 3.000 Numidian cavalry and more cities had defected, although most of these were relatively unimportant. Muttines and his men were ravaging the territories of Roman allies and there was a lot of discontent in the Roman army as well. Many soldiers were angry that they had not been allowed to return to Rome with Marcellus, while the survivors of the Cannae and Herdonea legions resented the fact that they were prohibited from passing the cold Sicilian winters in cities (which was part of their punishment). Cethegus, however, managed to solve all these problems. The men were calmed or reprimanded and most of the Sicilian cities brought back under Roman control.


Map of Epirus and Illyria (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

Rome had formally been at war with Macedonia since 215 BCE, but the fighting so far had mostly consisted of raids and skirmishes. There were no pitched battles, and in fact, most of the fighting was between King Philippos V and the Roman allies in Illyria and Epirus. Marcus Valerius Laevinus, the Roman commander in the region, had mostly been fighting a defensive war, rushing to the aid of allies that were threatened by Philippos. Laevinus had generally been successful, although he had not been able to prevent the city of Lissos (now Lezhë in Albania) from falling into enemy hands.[3] Laevinus had also been active on the diplomatic front and now managed to make an alliance with the Aetolian League in Central Greece. The Aetolians had already fought a war against Philippos between 220 and 217 BCE, the so-called Social War. It had not gone well for them. During the conflict, the Macedonian king had devastated their political and religious centre of Thermon. The League therefore still had an axe to grind with Philippos.

The treaty between Rome and the Aetolian League entailed that the latter were to start a land war against Macedonia immediately which the former would support with her fleet. Cities that were captured were to become property of the Aetolians while the Romans would get the booty. Although it would take another two years for the treaty to be ratified, the Aetolians started the war right away. Laevinus captured Zakynthos and two cities in Akarnania, including the important coastal city of Oiniades. But Philippos responded energetically and his army seemed to appear from out of nowhere everywhere. Now he raided the territories of Apollonia and Orikos, then again he fought the Thracians and caused the Aetolians to break off their invasion of Akarnania. The young king would prove to be a formidable opponent. He had his allies as well: the Achaean League (a traditional enemy of the Aetolian League), the Akarnanians, Boeotians and Thessalians joined his side, while the Romans eventually got support from Messene, Elis and Sparta, as well as from King Attalos of Pergamum and several Illyrian and Thracian leaders.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 234-235, p. 237, p. 251-253 and p. 257-259;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 292-296.


[1] Livius 26.3. This was certainly not a proper perduellio case, which had to be judged by duumviri, two judges appointed by drawing lots. If the accused was convicted, he could appeal to the people.

[2] See Livius 26.11.

[3] Philippos captured the city either in 213 BCE or in 211 BCE.