The Second Punic War: The Year 217 BCE


  • Hannibal moves south from Cisalpine Gaul, crosses the Apennines and ravages Etruria;
  • Hannibal destroys a Roman army on the shores of Lake Trasimene; the consul Gaius Flaminius is killed;
  • After his victory, Hannibal marches his army towards the Adriatic Sea to rest and re-equip his men;
  • The Roman popular assembly elects Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator (or prodictator), with Marcus Minucius Rufus as his master of horse;
  • While Hannibal pillages his way from Apulia to Campania, the Romans adopt the ‘Fabian strategy’ of avoiding battle;
  • Outsmarting his opponent Fabius, Hannibal manages to break out of Campania again and returns to Apulia;
  • After a minor victory over the Carthaginians at Gerunium, the master of horse Minucius Rufus is given the same powers as the dictator;
  • Minucius Rufus is almost defeated in a second fight at Gerunium, but is saved by Fabius;
  • In Spain, Gnaeus Scipio wins a decisive victory over a Carthaginian fleet at the mouth of the river Ebro;
  • A Roman fleet commanded by the consul Gnaeus Servilius Geminus intercepts a Carthaginian fleet bound for Italy;
  • Publius Scipio travels to Spain and crosses the Ebro with his brother Gnaeus.

Remains of the Via Flaminia at Carsulae in Umbria.

On 15 March of this year, the new consuls Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus took up their offices. Since it was unknown on which side of the Apennines Hannibal would strike, the former was sent to Arretium in Etruria (now the city of Arezzo) while the latter and his troops marched to Ariminum, modern Rimini. Flaminius was a new man (homo novus). As people’s tribune he had been responsible for the distribution of former Celtic land – the Ager Gallicus – among Rome’s poorer citizens, while as one of the consuls for 223 BCE he had won a decisive victory over the Insubres and had been awarded a triumph. Flaminius was subsequently elected censor in 220 BCE and had let the contracts for the construction of the Circus Flaminius and the Via Flaminia, the road connecting Rome to Ariminum. So obviously he had distinguished himself, but his achievements had also won him many enemies. Livius claims he was the only senator to support a Lex Claudia of the previous year, which prohibited senators and their sons to own a ship with a tonnage of more than 300 amphorae (circa eight tons). This was considered enough to transport the harvest; senators were expected to live off their lands, not to dabble in base activities such as trade.

Hannibal marches south

After his defeat at the Trebia in December of the previous year, the consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus had returned to Rome to preside over the elections for the new consuls. When these had been duly elected, he returned to his army in the Po Valley. Livius claims that there was another clash between Hannibal and Longus, which supposedly ended in a draw but is not mentioned at all by Polybius. If the battle did take place, Roman casualties were severe again, as they reportedly lost several members of the equites, five military tribunes (tribuni militum) and three prefects of the allies (praefecti sociorum). During his confrontations with the Romans, Hannibal had taken many Romans, Latins and other allied soldiers prisoner. He now tried to win the hearts and minds of the Latins and the Italian allies. While the Romans were given just enough food not to starve, the Latins and allies were treated with respect and ultimately released without ransom. Hannibal had not come to Italy to wage war on them, he said, but to fight the Roman oppressors who had taken their lands and cities.

Farmland in Etruria (modern Tuscany).

Hannibal knew that he could not stay in Cisalpine Gaul: he had to move south. There were basically two options. The easy route would take him east to the Adriatic Sea and then south into Picenum. The other route was much more difficult: Hannibal and his army would have to cross the Apennines and then march through the marshes of the Arno before he could reach the fertile plains of Etruria. Since this was probably what the Romans least expected, it was exactly what Hannibal did. For four days and three nights, the Carthaginian general and his men moved through the marshlands. This took a heavy toll on his army. The sole surviving elephant died and Hannibal himself suffered badly from an eye infection. Ultimately the infection could not be cured and Hannibal became blind in one eye.

After emerging from the swamps near the ancient Etruscan settlement of Faesulae, Hannibal decided to try and slip past his opponent Flaminius, who was still in his camp near Arretium. In this he was successful. Hannibal then began to ravage the fertile Etrurian countryside. The Carthaginian army needed to live off the land, so the pillaging was understandable, but the destruction served a second purpose as well. Estate after estate went up in flames and many people – all of them Roman allies – were killed. Roman authority depended on her ability and willingness to defend her allies, so obviously Flaminius had to try and stop Hannibal as quickly as possible and this was exactly what Hannibal wanted. The Roman commander, seeing the thick black smoke from the farms that had been put to the torch, immediately marched south and began to pursue his opponent.

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

The Battle of Lake Trasimene

Lake Trasimene today (seen from Castiglione del Lago).

On 20 June, with Flaminius in hot pursuit, Hannibal had marched his army past the Etruscan city of Cortona and was advancing along the northern or eastern shores of Lake Trasimene. The Carthaginian commander realised that this was the ideal spot for an ambush. During a risky night march, he positioned his forces in a long line on the reverse slopes of the hills surrounding the lake. They were now completely invisible and all they had to do was wait for the enemy to march into the trap. Flaminius was still confident of victory and, according to Polybius, was followed by a large crowd of volunteers. These had brought fetters and chains with them and were eager to take many prisoners after the expected Roman victory and sell them as slaves.

In the early morning of 21 June, Flaminius marched his army along the shores of the lake. It was a foggy day and visibility was poor. When the Roman vanguard bumped into the extreme left flank of the Carthaginian army, Hannibal gave the signal to attack. The North Africans, Celts and Spaniards stormed down the hills and hit the Roman column in the flank. The Romans and their allies were taken completely by surprise and the outcome of the battle was never in doubt. Flaminius and his men put up some stiff resistance and the fighting continued for some three hours before the Roman commander was cut down. Perhaps as many as 15.000 Romans and allies perished and many were taken prisoner. Of those who tried to flee, many were driven into the lake and drowned or were killed by the Carthaginian horsemen. Modern place names such as Ossaia (“place of bones”) and Sanguineto (“bloody”) remind us of the carnage that was the Battle of Lake Trasimene. The Carthaginians lost between 1.500 and 2.500 men, and most of these were Celts, Hannibal’s weakest troops.

Panorama of Lake Trasimene.

Although the Battle of Lake Trasimene was an ignominious defeat for Rome, some 6.000 men in the vanguard – most likely including the elite allied extraordinarii – managed to break through the Carthaginian line and escape. These soldiers entrenched themselves in a village on the high ground, but soon surrendered when they were surrounded by Hannibal’s subordinate commander Maharbal and his troops. Maharbal promised them that their lives would be spared, a promise that angered Hannibal, who believed his lieutenant had exceeded his authority. In any case, Hannibal had all the prisoners assembled and then released the Latin and Italian allies and allowed them to go home. Once again, no ransom was required, as Hannibal had come to fight the Romans and to bring freedom to the Italians. Hannibal kept the Roman prisoners and divided them among his units. He then proceeded to bury his own dead. His casualties had been acceptable, but he also lost 30 experienced officers. Gaius Flaminius’ body was never found.[1]

More disaster and a dictator

When word of the disaster at Lake Trasimene reached Rome, the praetor Marcus Pomponius ascended the Rostra, addressed his fellow citizens and spoke the immortal words:

“Magna pugna victi sumus”.
(“We have been defeated in a great battle”)

Since he did not survive the battle, it was easy to blame Gaius Flaminius for the defeat. The consul’s career had been remarkable and controversial, and he was definitely a nonconformist. Sources hostile to him describe him as a demagogue and claimed that he should have waited for his colleague Gnaeus Servilius Geminus to arrive. Flaminius was also said to have ignored bad omens throughout his career[2] and it was believed that this disrespect for the Roman gods contributed to the disaster. Soon the Romans were struck by another disaster. As soon as he had heard about Hannibal’s invasion of Etruria, Servilius Geminus had broken camp and marched south and west. The consul had sent ahead some 4.000 horsemen led by Gaius Centenius. Hannibal’s spies spotted these men, and the Carthaginian commander again sent out Maharbal with a strong force of cavalry to confront them. Centenius’ men were quickly routed, with about half of the horsemen killed and the rest captured.

Equipment of a warrior from Picenum. The Piceni were Roman allies and served in the Roman armies.

Servilius Geminus’ army was now crippled, as it had probably lost most of its cavalry. Hannibal could have moved further south against Rome itself, but judged it wiser to postpone his attack for the moment. Instead, he marched through Umbria and Picenum unopposed. After reaching the Adriatic Sea, he stopped to rest his army and allow it to recover from an outbreak of scurvy. He also re-equipped his soldiers with swords, shields and coats of mail taken from the Romans. Roman arms and armour were not necessarily of better quality than the material used by the Carthaginians, but they were presumably newer and may also have been in better condition as they had been used less extensively by their previous owners. If we are to trust Polybius’ account, Hannibal was somehow also able to put some men on a ship and send them over sea to Carthage to report on his campaigns in Italy.

In times of extreme crisis, the Romans often resorted to appointing a special kind of magistrate who wielded supreme power: the dictator.[3] The dictator was accompanied by 24 lictors, a sign of his immense authority. The other Roman magistrates continued to exercise their duties – their imperium did not lapse – but they were all subordinate to the dictator. Because his powers were so great, the dictator held his office for a maximum of six months only. He was usually nominated by one of the consuls, but after the defeat at Lake Trasimene, one of the consuls was dead and the other far away. The Romans then took the unusual step of having the popular assembly – most likely the comitia centuriata – choose a dictator. Quintus Fabius Maximus was elected, with Livius correctly emphasising that, strictly speaking, he was just a prodictator (‘pro dictatore’ = instead of a dictator). Marcus Minucius Rufus was chosen as his master of horse (magister equitum).[4]

Both Fabius and his second-in-command were very experienced. Fabius had been consul in 233 BCE and had been awarded a triumph for chasing the Ligurians into the Alps. He had been consul again in 228 BCE. Although his date of birth is not known, he was at least in his late fifties or early sixties. Minucius Rufus had been consul in 221 BCE and had also led armies, so he promised to be a good choice as well.

The Delayer

Fabius adopted a strategy that was radically different from that of his predecessors. Instead of aggressively seeking a confrontation, he kept his army – which numbered some 40.000 men – at a safe distance and ignored attempts by Hannibal to lure him out of his camp. Fabius and his army shadowed that of Hannibal, always making sure he occupied the high ground and the hilly terrain, where Hannibal’s superior cavalry was of little use. The Roman army had good supply lines, so there was little need to leave the fortified camps. Hannibal, on the other hand, had to live off the land and send out foraging parties. Fabius kept a close eye on these parties and attacked the foragers wherever he could. Although this strategy of ‘kicking the enemy in the stomach’ yielded some successes, it not likely that it amounted to more than little pinpricks for Hannibal and his men. The Carthaginian general simply kept moving along the Adriatic shore, ravaging the country wherever he came. And what was more, the Fabian strategy was also hugely unpopular with the Romans themselves, especially with Minucius Rufus, who accused the dictator of cowardice.

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

Hannibal pillaged the territory of the Praetutii in Abruzzo, destroyed estates near the Roman colony of Hadria (modern Atri) and then attacked the lands of the Marrucini and Frentani, Italian tribes allied to Rome. The Carthaginian general had now reached Apulia (modern Puglia), where he laid waste to the territories of the Iapygians, sacking the Roman colony of Luceria and reaching as far south as Arpi (near modern Foggia). After more death and destruction, Hannibal invaded Samnium and overran the Latin colony of Beneventum (present-day Benevento) and the Samnite city of Telesia.[5] And all the while the pursuing Romans did nothing, keeping a distance of one or two days’ march. In the summer of this year, Hannibal had reached the fertile region of Campania, home to famous cities such as Cumae, Neapolis, Nola and especially Capua, the wealthiest city of them all.[6] The famous Ager Falernus was thoroughly devastated, but so far not a single city in Italy had defected to Hannibal.

The loot gathered by Hannibal and his army was immense. Now that the end of the war season was approaching, the general planned to return to Apulia to make his winter camp there. However, this time Fabius had been one step ahead of him and had ordered some 4.000 men to block the pass through the Apennines leading from the Falernian Plain to Apulia. The rest of the Roman army camped in the vicinity. Fabius was smart, but Hannibal was much smarter. He had his men assemble 2.000 oxen and collect dry wood. Bundles of wood were then tied to the animals’ horns and when it was dark, the bundles were set alight. The oxen were then driven up the hill, accompanied by bands of skirmishers. The Romans assumed that this was a Carthaginian attack and left their strategic positions in the pass. The rampaging animals and skirmishers threw them into confusion, and Hannibal marched the bulk of his army safely through the pass. He then sent some of his Spanish caetrati – light infantry armed with the famous falcata sword and a small shield, the caetra – to retrieve the skirmishers. The caetrati successfully engaged the Romans, who were still reeling and lost about 1.000 men.

Replica of a falcata (image: Dorieo, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Fabius’ humiliation was complete. He had chosen not to leave his camp during the night to engage the enemy. This was probably a wise decision, as he did not have a clue where the Carthaginian army was, but it was unpopular with the men. The dictator was soon recalled to Rome to oversee religious sacrifices and command of the legions now passed to the more aggressive Minucius Rufus. Hannibal had made his camp near the city of Gerunium (or Gereonium), which he had taken and sacked. Minucius Rufus won a large skirmish here, but massively exaggerated his victory. A people’s tribune named Marcus Metilius now proposed to the popular assembly to grant the master of horse the same imperium as the dictator. This was unprecedented, but the proposal was supported by men like Gaius Terentius Varro – a former praetor and next year’s consul – and adopted by the concilium plebis. Fabius and Rufus chose to divide the army, once commanded by the dictator alone, between them. Each of them was given two legions and two allied alae.

Rufus quickly became overconfident and picked a second fight at Gerunium, which Hannibal readily accepted. The master of horse came close to suffering a crushing defeat, but was saved by Fabius, who had arrived in the nick of time. The battle ended in a draw, but Rufus had learned a valuable lesson and chose to become second-in-command again, addressing Fabius as ‘father’ in a moralistic tale told by Livius.[7] Fabius had been ridiculed by many for his strategy of shadowing Hannibal without actually fighting him, always keeping a respectful distance. Plutarchus tells us he was even mocked as Hannibal’s paedagogus, the slave who carried the books of Roman children and accompanied them to school. It was only later that the Romans realised that Fabius’ strategy made great sense. He had previously been nicknamed Verrucosus – ‘warty’ – and later received the agnomen Cunctator, ‘the delayer’. Although this nickname may not originally have been meant as a compliment, it was later certainly interpreted as such. Fabius went on to become one of the oldest, yet most successful Roman generals during the entire Second Punic War.

Meanwhile in Spain and Africa

While the Romans suffered defeat after defeat in Italy, they were still doing very well in the Iberian peninsula. This year, Gnaeus Scipio fought a naval battle with a Carthaginian fleet at the mouth of the River Ebro. Hasdrubal had provided his admiral Hamilcar (or Himilco) with 40 quinqueremes, but these seem to have been of poor quality and their crews lacked proper training and motivation. The battle between these ships and the 35 Roman and Massiliote ships was a short and one-sided affair. The Romans sank two enemy ships and damaged a further four before the Carthaginian captains turned tail and fled. They beached their ships near Hasdrubal’s land army, but the cocky Roman captains ordered their crews to row to the shore and managed to capture 25 more enemy ships by towing them away. The Battle of the River Ebro was a resounding Roman victory.

Carthaginian naval ram (photo: Sb2s3, CC BY-SA 4.0 license).

At about the same time a fleet of 70 ships was sent from Carthage to Sardinia. Its aim was not to invade the island, firmly in Roman hands, but to continue its voyage to Pisa in Etruria. There the crews were to disembark and link up with Hannibal’s forces, although it is very unclear whether the Carthaginians had any idea of where their famous general was at that moment. It did not matter much, for the fleet was intercepted by the consul Servilius Geminus. After Fabius had been nominated dictator, Geminus had been sent to Ostia to take charge of a fleet of some 120 quinqueremes. He comfortably outnumbered the Carthaginians, who had no choice but to turn around and sail back to Africa. Geminus now begin raiding the African coastal areas and islands, but apart from destroying Meninx (now the island of Djerba), extorting money from the inhabitants of Cercina (in the Kerkennah Islands) and capturing the island of Cossyra (now Pantelleria), he achieved very little. His raiding parties in Africa were badly cut up and driven back to their ships with great loss, and one of those killed was a quaestor. Nevertheless, the Romans had once again demonstrated their naval superiority, which would prove to be so crucial during the Second Punic War.

There were more successes in Spain this year. Gnaeus Scipio successfully raided the island of Ebusus in the Balearic Islands (modern Ibiza) with his fleet and then his brother Publius Scipio arrived in the peninsula. His imperium had been prorogued so that he was now a proconsul. Scipio had also brought a few thousand reinforcements with him and three dozen extra ships. The two brothers, Publius and Gnaeus, decided to risk a crossing of the Ebro. They marched south with their army while their fleet sailed along the coast. Having met no opposition from Hasdrubal at all, the brothers almost got as far south as Saguntum, camping a mere 40 stades (7 kilometres) from the city according to Polybius.

Map of Spain (bron: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Saguntum had not only been the city that had sparked off the Second Punic War, it was also the place where the Carthaginians kept many hostages from the various Iberian, Lusitanian and Celtiberian tribes that had been given to them to ensure the loyalty of their peoples. By a stroke of good fortune, these men – mostly sons of chieftains – were delivered to  the Romans on a silver platter. A Spaniard named Abelux double-crossed the Carthaginian commander Bostar and convinced him to set the hostages free as a sign of goodwill. Abelux then turned them over to the Romans, who allowed them to return to their tribes. These communities were of course very grateful and many decided to switch sides. Abelux was richly rewarded, and the only motivation for his action seems to have been the fact that he considered the Romans to be the stronger party at that moment.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 181-196 and p. 248-249;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 270-274.


[1] Marcus Atilius Regulus was elected suffect consul in his stead. He had been consul before in 227 BCE.

[2] Livius claims he was thrown by his horse when breaking camp at Arretium. Furthermore, one of the legionary standards could not be pulled out of the ground by the signifer. Instead of heeding these signs, the consul ordered the standard to be dug out and went after Hannibal anyway (Livius 22.3).

[3] The last person to hold the dictatorship had been Aulus Atilius Calatinus in 249 BCE. He had been appointed after the disastrous Roman defeat in the naval battle of Drepana.

[4] An ancient taboo prohibited the dictator from riding a horse in combat, obliging him to stay with the infantry. Hence the creation of the master of horse as a second-in-command. In Quintus Fabius Maximus’ days, the dictator was given special dispensation to mount a horse.

[5] Venusia in Polybius’ account, but he seems to have been mistaken.

[6] Livius claims that Hannibal got lost on the way when his guide misheard him because of his Punic accent and took him to Casilinum instead of to Casinum. When Hannibal discovered that he had been led to the wrong place, he had the guide scourged and crucified (Livius 22.13).

[7] Rufus’ men were told to address the soldiers in Fabius’ army as patroni, referring to the patron-client relations in Roman society (Livius 22.29).


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