Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The Last Chance of Victory

In Italy Hannibal still remained unvanquished in the field, though his hopes were gradually growing less. Early in the year 210 he won at Herdonia in Western Apulia a victory which may almost be reckoned with those that had made his early campaigns so famous. Cnaeus Fulvius, who had been Consul the year before, had made a sudden march on the town. It was one of those that had revolted after the defeat at Cannae, and he understood it to be badly guarded. He was the bolder because he believed Hannibal to be in the extreme south of Italy. But Hannibal had heard everything from his spies, and was there to meet him. Fulvius, as might be expected, was out-generalled. His army was unskillfully posted, and could not resist the attacks which were directed against it from several points at once. The end was a complete rout. Even the Roman camp was taken. Fulvius himself fell in the battle, and the Roman loss was estimated by some at eleven, by others at seven thousand. It was evidently a great disaster. Nothing like an army was left; only some scattered fugitives made their way to Marcellus in Samnium. It was from Marcellus, not from any officer who had been present at Herdonia, that the Senate received a dispatch describing what had happened.

During the rest of the campaign but little happened, though Marcellus is said to have fought a drawn battle with Hannibal, which was claimed as a victory when the next day he found that the enemy had decamped. The following year (209) was one of disaster to Hannibal, for he lost the second of the great gains which he had secured in Italy, the city of Tarentum. It was betrayed to the Romans by the commander of the Bruttian garrison which Hannibal had placed in it. The veteran soldier Fabius, now in his eightieth year and consul for the fifth time, had the great delight of finishing his many campaigns by this piece of good fortune. A happy jest which the old man is said to have uttered on the occasion has been recorded. Livius, when his carelessness had lost the city, had taken refuge in the citadel. The citadel had never passed out of the hands of the Romans, and this fact of course made the recovery of the town somewhat more easy. Livius was disposed to get some credit for himself out of this circumstance. "You may thank me," he said, "Quintus Fabius, for having been able to recover Tarentum." "Quite so," replied Fabius, "for if you had not lost it, I never should have recovered it." Hannibal had heard of the advance of the Romans, and had hastened by forced marches to save the city. He was too late. He pitched his camp close by, and after a few days returned to his headquarters at Metapontum. He made an attempt to entrap Fabius, who might, he thought, be tempted, after his success at Tarentum, into making a similar attempt on Metapontum. A forged letter, purporting to come from some of the principal citizens, was conveyed to him, offering to betray the place into his hands. The old Roman is said to have been deceived, but to have been deterred from making the attempt by some unfavourable signs in the sacrifices. Notwithstanding this loss, Hannibal seems to have held his own during the rest of the campaign. Livy tells us, indeed, that Marcellus fought three battles with him, and that after being beaten in the first, he drew the second, and won the third. But as it was made a complaint against him afterwards that he had kept his troops for the greater part of the year within the walls of Venusia, and had allowed the enemy to plunder the country at his pleasure, we may well doubt whether any victory was won. Rome was now showing great signs of exhaustion, for twelve out of the thirty Latin cities refused to furnish any further supplies; and the Etrurians were beginning to waver in their fidelity.

The next year (208) is chiefly marked by the death of Marcellus. Chosen consul for the sixth time, he marched with his colleague Crispinus to act against Hannibal. He was never content, we are told, except when he was engaged with the great Carthaginian leader" himself. The two consuls had ridden out of the camp with an escort of two hundred cavalry, some of them Etrurians, who had been compelled to serve to ensure the fidelity of their cities. Some African horsemen under cover of a wood which was between the two camps, crept unobserved to the rear of the Roman party, and then charged them from behind. The Etrurians fled; the rest of the escort, who were Latins, were overpowered. Marcellus was killed on the spot; Crispinus was wounded so seriously that he died not long afterward, Hannibal gave honourable burial to the body of his brave opponent.

And now came on of the critical years of the war. Hasdrubal, of whose departure from Spain I have spoken before, was now in Italy. He had found little difficulty in crossing the Alps; the native tribes had learnt that no harm was intended to them, and probably received some consideration for their neutrality. And some of the engineering works which Hannibal had constructed were doubtless still in existence. Anyhow, Hasdrubal made his appearance in Italy before the Romans, and even, it would seem, before his brother expected him. Rome made a great effort to meet this new danger. She had lost some of her best generals. Marcellus was dead, and Fabius was too old for active service. Livius, an old soldier who had distinguished himself twelve years before, but had since been living in retirement, and Claudius Nero were chosen consuls, and fifteen legions were raised to form their armies. Livius was sent to act against Hasdrubal; Nero watched the army of Hannibal.

And now we come to one of the boldest and most skillful achievements in the history of Roman war. A dispatch from Hasdrubal to his brother, announcing his intention of joining him, fell into the hands of some Ronan scouts and was brought to Nero. It was written in the Carthaginian language, but there were, of course, prisoners in the camp who could read it to the consul. He conceived at once a bold design. He would take his best troops, join his colleague by forced marches, and crush Hasdrubal before he could effect the junction with his brother. The force which he selected numbered seven thousand men. Even they were not at first let into the secret. They were to surprise a garrison at Lucania, he told them. It was only when they were well on their way that he discovered his real design. He reached the camp of Livius in safety, and it was agreed between the two consuls that battle should be given at once.

But the keen eyes of Hasdrubal had discovered what had happened. The Romans seemed more numerous than before; his scouts noticed that of the watering-parties which went down to the river some were more sunburnt than the rest. Finally it was observed that the clarion was sounded twice in the camp, showing that both consuls were present. He resolved to avoid, if he could, an engagement, and left his camp during the night. But when he attempted to march southward his difficulties began. His native guide escaped, and he could not find the ford over the river Metaurus, which lay in his route. He thus lost the start which he had gained by his stealthy departure, and the Romans came up with him. He had begun to fortify a camp, but seeing the enemy advance prepared to give battle. He put his elephants in front. The Gauls, recent levies whom he could not trust, he posted on his left, protecting them as much as he could by the elephants. His own place was on the right wing. Here he had his Spanish infantry, veteran soldiers whom he had often led to victory. The left wing of the Romans which was opposed to him was led by the Consul Livius. Here the struggle was long and obstinate. The elephants at first did good service to their side. Afterwards, maddened by the wounds which they received, they trampled down friend and foe alike. After a while, Nero, repeating the same tactics which had made him leave his own weakened army facing Hannibal to help his colleague, withdrew some of the troops from the Roman right wing, and charged the flank of the enemy. The Spaniards could not resist this new attack. The Gauls, who had broken into the stores of wine and had drunk to excess, were cut down where they stood, or lay helpless on the ground. The rout was complete. Hasdrubal would not survive so terrible a defeat. He set spurs to his horse, charged the Roman line, and fell fighting with the courage that became the son of Hamilcar and brother of Hannibal. The loss of the Carthaginians is said to have been 56,000. This is a manifest exaggeration, for Hasdrubal could not have had so many in his army. Whatever were the numbers, it was a decisive victory. There could now be no doubt that Rome, not Carthage, was to be the conqueror of the Second Punic War. I may conclude this chapter by quoting part of the splendid ode in which Horace, singing the praises of another Nero (Tiberius Claudius Nero, afterwards the Emperor Tiberius), dwells on the achievement of his great ancestor.

What thou, Rome, dost the Neros owe,

Let dark Metaurus river say,

And Hasdrubal, thy vanquished foe,

And that auspicious day

Which through the scattered gloom broke forth with smiling ray.

When joy again to Latium came,

Nor longer through her towns at ease

The fatal Lybian swept, like flame

Among the forest trees,

Or Eurus' headlong gust across Sicilian seas.

Thenceforth, for with success they toiled,

Rome's youth in vigour waxed amain,

And temples, ravaged and despoiled

By Punic hordes profane,

Upraised within their shrines beheld their gods again.

Till spoke forth Hannibal at length:

"Like stags, of ravening wolves the prey,

Why rush to grapple with their strength,

From whom to steal away

Our loftiest triumph is, they leave for us to-day?

"That race, inflexible as brave,

From Ilium quenched in flames who bore,

Across the wild Etruscan wave,

Their babes, their grandsires hoar,

And all their sacred things to the Ansonian shore;

"Like oak, by sturdy axes lopped

Of all its boughs, which once the brakes

Of shaggy Algidus o'ertopped,

Its loss its glory makes,

And from the very steel fresh strength and spirit takes.

"Not Hydra, cleft through all its trunk,

With fresher vigour waxed to spread,

Till even Alcides' spirit shrunk;

Nor yet hath Colchis dread,

Or Echionean Thebes more fatal monster bred.

"In ocean plunge it, and more bright

It rises; scatter it, and lo!

Its unscathed victors it will smite

With direful overthrow,

And Rome's proud dames shall tell of many a routed foe:

"No messenger in boastful pride

Shall I to Carthage send again;

Our every hope it died, it died,

When Hasdrubal was slain,

And with his fall our name's all-conquering star did wane."

from Sir Theodore Martin

Nero returned in haste to his army, and ordered the head of Hasdrubal to be thrown in front of the Carthaginian outposts. It was carried to Hannibal, and recognized by him. "I see," he said, "the doom of Carthage." The next day he retreated into the extreme south of Italy.