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Stories from Ancient Rome by  Alfred J. Church

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[85] THE war which followed Hannibal's descent into Italy lasted for sixteen years (218-202 B.C.).

For three years Rome was in great danger. Then, for a while, the armies fought on equal terms, though to us, at least, it is quite evident that Hannibal's great effort was not going to succeed. Then the fortunes of Carthage began to decline, till in 207 B.C. occurred disasters which implied their ultimate ruin. For the five years that followed Hannibal carried on a hopeless struggle with an ingenuity and courage which no one else could have shown.

In the few weeks that intervened between the arrival of Hannibal in Italy and the retirement of the opposing armies into winter quarters, the Romans suffered two reverses. The first engagement (at the Ticinus) was nothing more than a cavalry skirmish, the second (at the Trebia) was a more serious affair. The generals were out-manœuvred, and the troops were not good enough to make up for the incompetence of their commanders. The camp was taken, and the survivors had to take refuge in the fortified towns of Placentia and Cremona: a more serious result was that all the Italian Gauls declared for Carthage.

[86] Another weakness in the Roman system was now revealed, and not for the first time. The consuls for the year 217 B.C. came into office in March. One of them, Flaminius, owed his election, if Livy is to be trusted, to political reasons. He was certainly an incompetent commander. Hannibal was greatly weakened by losses suffered in a march through the marshes of the Arno, but no advantage was taken of the opportunity by the Romans.

When Hannibal was sufficiently recruited he contrived by skilful strategy to draw the Romans into a trap. Flaminius, anxious, as we may suppose, not to lose any time, started in pursuit of Hannibal, who had marched southward. His shortest way was along the shores of Lake Trasimene, and he followed it without making any attempt to reconnoitre. On this road he encamped for the night. Hannibal had put a strong force in ambush on the hills which commanded the road, and both the entrance into the valley and the exit from it were held in force.

The result was the almost total destruction of the Roman Army. Out of 40,000 only 10,000 found their way to Rome; many lay dead on the field of battle, the consul, who had done his best to retrieve the disaster, among them. Fifteen thousand prisoners remained in Hannibal's hands.

A greater disaster was to follow, and it would seem from the same cause. The first elected of the two consuls for the year 216 B.C., was a [87] certain Terentius Varro, and here again the choice was dictated, not by military, but by political reasons. Varro was the son of a butcher, who had made himself popular by supporting democratic measures. Hannibal was now in Southern Italy, and the two consuls marched to meet him, with urgent instructions to fight.

It is clear that there were two parties in Rome, one calling for speedy action, the other, represented by Q. Fabius Maximus, who had been made Dictator after the disaster of Trasimene, insisting on a policy of caution. The former party was now the stronger.

And in the camp the consuls were nearly as much divided as at home. It was a bad custom, though quite in accord with the way in which such things were managed in Rome, that when both consuls were present with the army they commanded on alternate days. Varro forced a skirmish on one of his days and gained a slight advantage. After this delay was out of the question. Æmilius did all that he could to safeguard the position, but Varro, who had had no military experience, was resolved on action.

In the early morning of August 2nd, 216, he crossed the river on the further bank of which part of the Roman army had already encamped. The [88] battle opened with a Roman success. The legions in the centre broke the line of the Gallic and Spanish infantry which faced them. They followed up the flying foe too far, a mistake of which they soon became aware, but not soon enough. The African infantry from the two wings closed in upon them, and were followed by the Carthaginian horse, which had by this time routed the very inferior cavalry opposed to them. In a very short time the battle was hopelessly lost.

The army was almost cut to pieces. One of the consuls perished on the field. Livy tells a pathetic story of how a Roman horseman saw him sitting on a stone, and offered to carry him to a place of safety. "Suffer me," cried Æmilius, "to die amidst my slaughtered comrades. Do you save yourself." Varro escaped with a company of less than a hundred horsemen. It seemed as if the ruin of Rome was complete.

And now the noble strength of a free people came out. It refused to abandon itself to despair. The Senate took the lead. Varro was odious to it in every way, a demagogue whose foolish rashness had brought the State to the brink of ruin, but they solemnly thanked him because he had not despaired of his country.

A company of young nobles who had meditated flight from Italy were forcibly detained and encouraged to stand by their country to the last. Everyone that was of military age was enrolled in the ranks; even criminals were not rejected, and slaves were trusted with arms.

[89] It has often been asked why Hannibal did not at once march on Rome. His own officers are said to have reproached him with his want of energy—"You know how to win a victory," said one of them, "but not how to use it." Probably he was a better judge of the situation than anyone else. When he did make an advance on the city five years afterwards, he gained nothing by the movement. The story was that the very spot on which he was encamped was sold in Rome at the very time of its occupation and fetched its full price.

One thing is quite certain, that, as Mommsen puts it, "the gradual decline of Hannibal's power dates really from his victory at Cannæ." If he could not bring the struggle to an end after so complete a victory, he was not likely to do so at all.

Five years afterwards Carthage suffered the reverse which made obvious to all that the policy of attacking Rome in Italy had failed.

Rome, indeed, recovered herself with amazing rapidity. Two years had scarcely passed when she felt herself strong enough to assume the aggressive. Hannibal was still in Italy with his strength practically unbroken, with many of the native tribes in alliance with him, and more ready to join him if the opportunity should present itself, and yet the Romans boldly transferred a large part of their force to Sicily. Their old friend, King Hiero, died early in 215. His grandson and successor, Hieronymus, repudiated their alliance. Little more than a year afterwards he was assassinated, and a [90] republic was substituted for the monarchy. The new rulers, however, were not less hostile to Rome. Action became necessary if Sicily was not to be wholly lost, and Marcellus in the spring of 214 undertook the siege of Syracuse. This was a very formidable enterprise. Some two hundred years before Athens had brought ruin upon herself by attempting it. It might well have seemed the extreme of rashness when Rome, with Hannibal, so to speak, at her gates, attempted the task which Athens with her undivided forces had failed to perform.

Marcellus began by trying active measures, but the city was extraordinarily strong, thanks to its natural position and to its elaborate fortifications. The defenders, too, could command the services of the greatest mechanician of antiquity, the famous Archimedes. Every effort of the besiegers was baffled; showers of stones and javelins from the catapults cleared the decks of their ships, and the ships themselves were seized by huge grappling irons and overturned. Then a blockade was tried; but Marcellus had not the force to make it effective. He then resolved to attack the city from the land side; and having discovered a weak spot in the fortifications, took the occasion of a city festival to deliver an attack. One portion of the city fell into his hands; the other two made but a feeble resistance, and Syracuse was gained, and the soldiers were permitted to plunder the city, but were forbidden to injure the inhabitants. The great Archimedes, [91] however, perished, much to the grief of the Roman general. A soldier forced his way into his room, could not rouse him from the study of some mathematical problem with which he was engaged, and cut him down. Before the year had come to an end, all Sicily, with the single exception of Agrigentum (Girgenti)  had submitted to Rome. It was an act of magnificent courage.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a parallel in history, ancient or modern; but we may form some idea of what it meant if we suppose that the British government, after sustaining on English soil a defeat more disastrous than that which Napoleon suffered at Waterloo, with an enemy in possession of Dorset, Somersetshire, Devonshire, and Cornwall, with the Irish ready to rise in revolt, should despatch half its available force for the conquest of the Netherlands.

But there was something in the conduct of the Roman commander which was ominous of future evil. Marcellus was personally incorruptible; but he stripped Syracuse of its treasures of art. These were intended to adorn his triumph, an honour which was not given to him, and then to be deposited in two temples which he had vowed to build. The religious motive doubtless seemed to excuse the act. But it was a bad precedent. The temples were the picture galleries of Rome. Practically the city was enriched by the spoils of Syracuse. And it was an easy step from temples to private houses. It became the practice for Roman nobles to adorn their mansions with works of art carried [92] away from conquered cities. The death of Marcellus before he could find an opportunity of dedicating the temples was regarded as a judgment on his impiety.

Hannibal had left his brother Hasdrubal in Spain in charge of the interests of Carthage in that country. Here he had lost much ground; we may be sure that such reinforcements as were to be spared had gone to Italy rather than to the less important field of action. Still he had a considerable force at his disposal, and Hannibal saw that the only chance that remained to him was to summon this to his help.

The march was effected with very little loss, though it certainly took a long time. Hasdrubal crossed the Pyrenees in the autumn of 209 B.C., spent the following year in Gaul, doubtless in gathering recuits for his army, and crossed in the spring of 207 B.C.

The Roman authorities, though they could hardly have been ignorant of his purpose, had made no preparations to meet him. But this neglect was repaired by the energy of the men who were in command of the armies in the field.

Hasdrubal himself lost some of the advantage which had fallen to him. His best plan, as far as we are able to judge, would have been to lose no time in effecting a junction with Hannibal; what he did was to lay siege to Placentia (Piacenza), hoping, we may suppose, to find there some of the supplies which he needed. The siege failed and he resolved to march southward, [93] sending four mounted Gauls to announce his purpose to Hannibal, and to arrange for a junction of the two armies. The Gauls lost their way, fell into the hands of the Romans, and were compelled to give up the despatch which they carried.

Claudius Nero, who was watching Hannibal, took a bold resolve. He left his camp in charge of his second-in-command, and marched northward with a picked force of 7,000 men to reinforce the consul Livius, who was by this time facing Hasdrubal in Northern Italy. He effected the junction without meeting with any mishap, and the two consuls resolved to give battle at once.

But Hasdrubal, a veteran who had had many years' experience in the field, and who knew something about Roman ways, had at least some suspicion of the truth. His scouts had observed in the enemies' watering parties men and horses that bore marks of a recent journey, and he noticed that the trumpets sounded twice in the Roman camp, showing that both the consuls were present. He left his position, and marched, probably with the intention of joining his brother, but his guide deceived him, he lost his way, and found himself compelled to give battle. The place was the left bank of the river Metaurus, a name which was thenceforward to be famous in Roman history.

The battle which followed was stubbornly fought. Hasdrubal did all that skill and courage could suggest, but his army was inferior in [94] number to his enemy, and though some of his troops were of excellent quality his new recruits were worth but little. His elephants did at least as much harm to their own side as to the enemy, and the Gauls made but a feeble resistance to the charge which, though Hasdrubal had been careful to put them in the strongest available position, the Romans contrived to deliver.

The Carthaginian loss was heavy. Hasdrubal fell fighting in the midst of the Roman line; he had no wish to survive the ruin of his hopes. The greater part of his army, it is true, made its escape, but they were not fighting for their country, and they never cared again to face the conquerors in the field. Nero started the same night for his command in the south, carrying with him the head of Hasdrubal, which he is said to have thrown into Hannibal's camp.

In 203 B.C. Hannibal left Italy, where he had for some time been keeping up a hopeless resistance to the Roman army. In the following year the final battle of the war was fought at Zama (Jama), and ended in a defeat so disastrous that nothing was left for Carthage but to make peace on such conditions as Rome was willing to grant. These were not as severe as might have been expected.

Carthage retained her independence, but she ceased to be a rival of Rome. Her actual end was delayed for more than fifty years, but the sobering effects of her rivalry now ceased to work.

A great Roman historian puts down to this cause the country's debasement. "Those who had [95] lightly borne toils and dangers, doubtful fortunes and desperate straits, found leisure and wealth a pitiable burden. At first the lust of money, then the lust for power increased, and these were the source of every evil."

It was, perhaps, the thought of what might come to pass in the future that troubled the mind of one of Rome's noblest sons, the Younger Scipio. Carthage, after a desperate resistance, had fallen into his hands and had been given up to plunder. This seemed to him punishment enough. But there came to him an express command from the authorities at Rome that the city and its suburbs should be entirely destroyed, its site ploughed up, and a solemn curse pronounced on anyone who should attempt to rebuild it. Scipio knew perfectly well that as a rival power Carthage had ceased to exist, that the motive for this monstrous decree was commercial jealousy, the same base cupidity which in the very same year was to bring the same fate on Corinth. He turned to his old friend and teacher, Polybius—it is Polybius who tells the story—and said: "O Polybius, this is a great deed, but I shudder to think that some day a conqueror may pass the same doom on Rome." And as the fire raged—it lasted, the same authority tells us, seventeen days—he murmured the lines of Homer:—

"The day wherein Ilium the holy shall perish will come;

it is near

Unto Priam withal, and the folk of the king of the

ashen spear."

[96] The dominions of Rome were yet to increase for more than three centuries.

She was yet to produce great soldiers, great statesmen, even great patriots; but it was not for the noblest of her sons that place and power were reserved. The lessons that we learn from her history are thenceforward of what we should avoid rather than of what we should imitate.



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