Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church


The great battle was still delayed for a few days. But when Hannibal's cavalry cut off the Roman watering-parties from the river, and left the army without water at the very height of an Italian summer, the impatience of the soldiers could not be restrained. On the morning of the 1st of August, Varro, who that day was in command, hoisted on his tent the red flag as a signal of battle. He then ordered the army to cross the river Aufidus, and to draw up their lines on the right bank. Hannibal at once took up the challenge, and fording the stream at two places, drew up his army opposite to the enemy. His army was but half as large; if he should be defeated his doom was certain; but he was confident and cheerful. Plutarch tells us a story—one of the very few which show us something of the man rather than of the general—of his behaviour on the morning of the battle. He seems to have been one of the soldiers whose spirits rise in danger, and who become cheerful, and even gay, when others are most serious. "One of his chief officers, Gisco by name, said to him: 'I am astonished at the numbers of the enemy.' Hannibal smiled and said: 'Yes, Gisco; but there is something more wonderful still.' "What is that?' said he. 'That though there are so many of them, not one of them is called Gisco.' The answer was so unexpected that everybody laughed." And he goes on to tell us that the Carthaginians were mightily encouraged to see this confident temper in their chief.

The Aufidus, bending first to the south, and then again, after flowing nearly eastward for a short distance, to the north, makes a loop. This loop was occupied by Hannibal's army. The left wing consisted of eight thousand heavy cavalry, Spaniards and Gauls. Hasdrubal (who must not be confounded with Hannibal's brother of the same name) was in command. They had the river on their left flank and on their right. Behind them was one half of the African infantry. "One might have thought them a Roman army," says Livy, "for Hannibal had armed them with the spoils of Trebia and Trasumennus." Next in the line, but somewhat in advance" so as to be about on a level with the heavy cavalry, were posted the Spanish and Gallic infantry, with their companies alternately arranged, and under the immediate command of Hannibal himself and his brother Mago. These troops were still armed in their native fashion. The Spaniards wore white linen tunics, dazzlingly bright, and edged with purple. Their chief weapon was the sword which they used, of a short and handy size, and with which they were accustomed to thrust rather than strike. Nevertheless it was fitted for a blow, for it had, of course, an edge. The Gauls were naked from the hips upwards. They used very long swords, without a point. Both had oblong shields, and both seemed to the Romans and Italians, whose stature seldom exceeded the average height of men, to be almost giants in size. Still further to the right, but thrown back somewhat so as to be on a level with their countrymen on the left wing, stood the other half of the African infantry. And then on the extreme right wing of the whole army, were the African light horsemen under the command of Mago. These, to use the military phrase, "rested upon nothing;" that is, they had nothing to support their right flank. There were but two thousand of them, for they had had some of the hardest of the fighting since the army had entered Italy; but they were confident of victory. The whole army numbered fifty thousand, but ten thousand had been detached to guard the camp. The right wing of the enemy consisted of the Roman horse, who thus fronted the heavy cavalry of Carthage; next to these came the infantry of the legions, more than seventy thousand strong, yet drawn up in so dense an array—in column, in fact, rather than in line—that they did not overlap the far smaller force of their adversaries. On the left wing were posted the cavalry of the allies. It was here that Varro commanded. Paullus was on the right of the army. The whole force numbered about eighty thousand, allowing for the detachment which had been told off to guard the camp. Their faces were turned to the south. This was a great disadvantage to them, not so much on account of the glare of the sun, for it was yet early in the day, but because the hot wind, which the country people called Vulturnus, rolled such clouds of dust in their faces that they could scarcely see what lay before them.

The battle began as usual with the skirmishers. Here the Carthaginians had the advantage. The slingers from the Balearic islands were more expert and effective than any of the Roman light-armed troops. The showers of stones which they sent among the legions did much damage, wounding severely, among others, the Consul Paullus. Then the heavy-armed cavalry of Carthage charged the Roman horse that was ranged over against them. The Romans were some of the bravest and best born of their nation; but they were inferior in numbers, in the weight of men and horses, and in their equipment. They wore no cuirasses; their shields were weak; their spears were easily broken. Probably they had no special skill in cavalry tactics; had they possessed it, there was no opportunity of showing it, for there was no room to manoeuvre. It was a fierce hand-to-hand fight; many of the Spaniards and Gauls leapt to the ground, and dragged their opponents from their horses.

In the centre of the field where the Roman legions met the Gallic and Spanish infantry, Hannibal seemed for a time to be less successful. He had advanced these troops considerably beyond the rest of his line. When charged by the heavy columns of the' enemy they were forced to fall back. The Romans pressed

on in a dense and unmanageable mass. And in what seemed the moment of victory they found themselves assailed on both flanks and in the rear. On either side the two bodies of African infantry, who had hitherto taken no part in the battle, fell upon them. Almost at the same time came Hasdrubal with his heavy horsemen. After routing the Roman cavalry of the right wing, he had charged that of the allies upon the left. These had been already thrown into confusion by the stealthy attack of five hundred Africans, who had pretended to surrender, but came up in the critical moment and hamstrung their horses. Hasdrubal completed their rout, and leaving the Africans to pursue the fugitives, charged the rear of the Roman infantry. These were now surrounded on all sides, for the Gauls and Spaniards in their front had rallied, and checked their advance. Upon this helpless mass the Carthaginians used their swords till they were fairly weary of slaying. How many men lay dead upon the field when darkness came on it is impossible to say. Polybius gives the number at seventy thousand, and he is probably a better authority than Livy, who reduces it to fifty thousand. Among them were one of the consuls, the ex-consul Servilius, twenty-one military tribunes (officers of a rank about equal to that of a colonel), and eighty members of the Senate. Varro had fled from the field with seventy horsemen. Hannibal's loss was something under six thousand.

The question was, "What was he to do?" He had destroyed the enemy's army, for even the force left to guard the camps had surrendered, and there was no other army in the field. Most of his officers, while they crowded round to congratulate him, advised him to give himself and his army some rest. Maharbal, who was in chief command of the cavalry, thought otherwise. "Do you know," he said, "what you have done by this day's victory? I will tell you. Four days hence you shall be supping in the Capitol of Rome. Let me go on in front with my cavalry. They must know that I have come before they know that I am coming." Hannibal was not so sanguine. He praised Maharbal's zeal, but must take time to consider so grave a matter. Then Maharbal broke out: "I see that the gods do not give all their gifts to one man. Hannibal, you have the secret of victory, but not the secret of using it."

It will never be decided whether Hannibal, with his cautious policy, or the bold Maharbal was in the right. But one is disposed to believe that so skillful a general, one, too, who was not wanting in boldness (for what could be bolder than this whole march into Italy?), knew what could and what could not be done better than anybody else. He could not hope to succeed unless the allies of Rome deserted her, and he had to wait and see whether this would happen. Till he was sure of it he could not, we may well believe, afford to risk an advance. One defeat would have been fatal to him. It would have been almost as fatal to sit down in vain before the walls of Rome. But, however this may be, it is certain that the opportunity, if it was an opportunity, never came back to him. He did indeed come near to Rome, as I shall have to tell hereafter, but this was a feint rather than a serious attack. That midsummer day in the year 216 saw the highest point which the fortunes of Carthage ever reached. Then only, if even then, she might have been the mistress of the world.