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Helmet and Spear by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

THE SECRET MARCH

[213] THE result of the victory of Cannĉ, stated broadly, was that the southern half of Italy threw in its lot with Hannibal. The Samnites, in former days the fiercest and most dangerous enemies of Rome; the Campanians, a warlike race whose name has occurred more than once in my story, and who possessed in Capua the second city of Italy; the Greek region, far less populous and wealthy than it had once been, but still formidable, and the aboriginal mountain tribes of Bruttium declared against Rome. Northern Italy, however, remained faithful, and even the disaffected territories were more or less held in check by the colonies, Latin as well as Roman, for the Latins were firm in their allegiance. On the [214] whole the effect of the disaster was not so absolutely crushing as might have been expected. Hannibal's most noteworthy gain during the remainder of the year was the accession of Capua. Rome had the profound relief of feeling that the worst was over, and that she still existed. This relief was expressed in a truly characteristic way when the Senate voted thanks to Varro "because he had not despaired of the Republic." To Varro, indeed, no thanks were due; he had done nothing more than save his own life; what the resolution really expressed was that Rome had survived what might well have been an annihilating blow.

[215] The next two years (215—214) passed without any event of great importance. One serious danger, indeed, threatened Rome, but it passed away. At Syracuse, Hiero, who had been a steady friend for nearly fifty years, had been succeeded by his grandson, Hieronymus, a foolish lad, who was under Carthaginian influence. In Macedonia Philip V. made up his mind to give active help to Hannibal. But Hieronymus was assassinated before he could do anything, and Philip, for reasons which we do not know, let the opportunity pass. In 213 Tarentum fell into the hands of Hannibal, though the citadel was held by a Roman garrison. In 212 the Carthaginians won a great victory at Herdonia in Apulia, wholly destroying a Roman army, and got possession of some important towns in Southern Italy. They had also a great success in Spain, where two Roman armies were defeated with the loss of their commanders, Cnĉus and Publius Scipio. On the other hand, Rome recovered Syracuse, which was taken by Marcellus after a siege of nearly two years' duration. Hard pressed as she was in other directions she thus accomplished what Athens and Carthage, both at the height of their power, had failed to do. And Capua was [216] invested; nor could Hannibal, victorious as he was in the field, relieve it. Much, it is evident, turned on the fate of Capua. No Italian city would venture to take up the Carthaginian cause if this important place could not be protected. In 210, accordingly, Hannibal made a vigorous effort to relieve it. In the hope of compelling the Consuls to raise the siege, he threatened Rome itself, and advanced to within three miles of the city. He even rode up with a body of cavalry to the walls. But he failed to achieve his purpose. One of the Consuls led his army from before Capua to the relief of the capital, but the other still pressed the siege. Hannibal retreated, and though he turned upon the Consul, who was following him somewhat carelessly, and defeated him with very heavy loss, he could not relieve Capua. This city capitulated before the end of the year. In 209 Hannibal won another great battle on the same spot, Herdonia, where he had triumphed two years before. In the field, it will be seen, he was always successful, but he could not be everywhere, nor could he protect all his Italian allies. In this year the two important regions of Samnium and Lucania gave in their submission to Rome, [217] which had the wisdom to grant them favourable terms. And Tarentum was lost, betrayed to the Romans, as it had been betrayed a few years before to Hannibal. The next year (208) was marked by the death of the consul Marcellus, and by other Carthaginian successes. In 207 we came to another great crisis of the war, the attempt of Hasdrubal to join his brother, ending in the decisive battle of the Metaurus.

We last heard of Hasdrubal as defeating the two Scipios in 212. What hindered him from following up this success by an immediate march into Italy it is impossible to say. Livy's account of the transactions of the next five years is wholly incredible, and Polybius' narrative is lost. It is rash to pronounce a judgment where we know so little of the facts. Still it is generally true that few commanders have the same power of perspective which Hannibal seems to have possessed. It is at least possible that Hasdrubal may have overrated the importance of what he might be able to do in Spain, and have forgotten that the war had really to be decided in Italy. It is a fact that he put off his advance in Italy for four years, and that when he made it his general prospects [218] had not improved. A very able young commander, afterwards known as Scipio Africanus, had appeared upon the scene, and had achieved the great success of capturing New Carthage. This he followed up in 209 by defeating Hasdrubal himself. This defeat, however, did not prevent the Carthaginian general from carrying out his original plan. Either in this year or in the next he crossed the Pyrenees. He spent a considerable time in Gaul, where he was able to enlist a large number of recruits, and, after an easy passage of the Alps, descended into Italy early in the year 207. And here, again, we find him neglecting, as far as we can see, the main issue, and wasting strength and time on a quite subordinate matter. He besieged Placentia, a strongly fortified colony, and so gave the Romans time to recover from the surprise of his unexpectedly early arrival. By the time he had made up his mind to raise the siege of Placentia, one of the Consuls, Livius by name, had advanced to bar his way.

The Roman generals must have been aware that the main object of Hasdrubal's descent into Italy was to effect a junction with his brother. And now, by a lucky chance, they found out how this was to be done. Has- [219] drubal sent a party of six horsemen charged with a letter to his brother, in which he announced his arrival in Italy, and suggested that they should meet in Umbria. These messengers traversed nearly the whole of Italy in safety, only to fail at the last. When they were some thirty or forty miles from Metapontum, where Hannibal was encamped, they took the wrong road, and made for Tarentum. They fell into the hands of a foraging party, and were brought before the officer who was in local command. To him they confessed, under threats of torture, that they carried despatches to Hannibal. The officer sent them on to the Consul Nero, who was watching Hannibal. Nero at once conceived a bold design. The junction of the two Carthaginian armies must be prevented at any cost, and the best means of doing this would be to strengthen the army of the north, and crush Hasdrubal before he could unite his forces with his brother's. But there was no time to be lost. Nero picked seven thousand men out of his army, the very best troops that he had, and hurried northwards. No one knew of his plan; even the authorities at Rome were hood-winked. Nor did he hamper himself with transport. He would be passing through a [220] friendly population, and he judged it sufficient to send messengers before him with directions that ready-cooked provisions should be brought down for the use of the army, with such horses as would suffice to carry what was absolutely necessary.

Everything turned out well. The soldiers made forced marches of extraordinary length, and reached their journey's end without mishap, entering the camp at night, as it was desirable to keep their coming a secret. This, however, was not effectually done. Hasdrubal had at least some suspicion of what had happened. Riding up to the Roman camp, he observed some shields of unfamiliar pattern. Some of the horses were leaner than those he had seen before, and there were, as he thought, more of them. Another suspicious circumstance was one for which he had been on the lookout. There were, it should be explained, two Roman camps, one in charge of the Consul Livius, the other commanded by the prĉtor Porcius. In the Consul's camp the signal was sounded twice, indicating that both consuls were there. On the other hand there was the perplexing circumstance that the limits of the camps had not been extended. If a large reinforcement had arrived, where could they have been put away? Above all, was it [221] possible that a general so consummately skilful as Hannibal had allowed such a manœuvre to be made? Or was it possible that Hannibal had been destroyed? The general result of these questionings was great discouragement. He declined the battle which the Consuls, who had made up their minds to fight without delay, offered him as soon as possible after Nero's arrival, and in the course of the following night struck his camp and moved away. It is not easy to say what was his object in thus retreating, for a northward movement was a retreat, the Metaurus river, which he wished to cross, being some miles to the north of his camp. Possibly he wished to get to a region where the population would be friendly. Anyhow, the movement ended in disaster. Two guides whom he had pressed into his service contrived to disappear in the night-march, and the ford of the Metaurus could not be discovered. The army proceeded slowly up the right bank of the river. It was a fatiguing march; many men fell out, and all were wearied and dispirited.

Early in the next day the Roman army came up, and Hasdrubal saw that he must fight. He posted his elephants as usual in front of the centre, with the Ligurians behind them. On the right were [222] his Spanish troops, veteran soldiers of his own, and of the very best quality. These were under his personal command. The Gauls were on the left, but seem to have taken but little part in the battle that followed. The Spaniards acquitted themselves in a way worthy of their military reputation, and maintained the struggle for some time on equal terms. The result of the day was in a great measure decided by a bold movement of Nero. He judged that he might safely neglect the Gauls, who were his special antagonists, and wheeling rapidly from the left, fell upon the enemy with crushing effect. The elephants behaved as usual. Formidable at first, they threw the lines of the enemy into disorder; then becoming unmanageable did not less damage to their friends. Livy says that more were killed by their drivers than by the enemy. The battle was long and fierce. So much is amply testified by the amount of the Roman loss. No less than eight thousand men were slain, a very large proportion, it is certain, of the number engaged. The Carthaginian army, of course, suffered more. Probably few of the Spanish troops survived. Some of the Ligurians escaped, and many of the Gauls. They were not far from their own country, and the Romans [223] were probably too much exhausted to make an energetic pursuit. "Let some be left alive," said the Consul Livius, when he was urged to follow the Gauls, "to carry home accounts of the enemy's losses, and of our valour." These could hardly have been his real reasons. But the total loss in killed and prisoners is put at sixty thousand. Hasdrubal fell in the battle. As long as there was any hope of victory he had done his best, reforming the line again and again, encouraging the wearied, and putting fresh spirit into the discouraged. When all was lost, he set spurs to his horse and charged the enemy's line. Seven days afterwards his head was thrown among the advanced guards of Hannibal's camp.


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