Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The First Campaign in Italy

Hannibal gave a few days' rest to his troops. They greatly needed it, for their toils and sufferings had given them, we are told, a look that was "scarcely human." Then he struck his first blow. If he was to succeed he must have the people of the Italian peninsula on his side against Rome. In one way or another they must be made to join him. Accordingly, when the Taurini, a tribe of Gauls, refused his proposals of alliance—they were at feud with another tribe which was friendly to him—he attacked and stormed their stronghold (the town afterwards called Augusta Taurinoruna and now known as Turin.) After this almost all the tribes of Hither Gaul joined him. They furnished him with supplies and with a number of excellent recruits.

Meanwhile Publius Scipio had landed his army at Pisa, had marched over the Apennines, and, crossing the Po at Placentia, was advancing against the invaders. Hannibal scarcely expected to meet him so soon; Scipio had never believed that the Carthaginian army would be able to make the passage of the Alps. Both made ready for battle. Among the preparations of Hannibal was a spectacle which he exhibited to his army. Some of the mountaineers who had been taken prisoners in crossing the Alps were matched to fight against each other. The conquerors were to have a set of arms and their liberty; the conquered would, at all events, be released from their chains by death. All the prisoners eagerly accepted the offer when it was made to them, and fought with the greatest courage, whilst those who had not been chosen looked envyingly on. Hannibal meant the exhibition as a parable to his own men. "This," he said, "is exactly your situation. You have this same choice—a rich reward and liberty on the one side, and death on the other. See how gladly these barbarians accept it. Do you be as cheerful and as brave as they are."

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church

Scipio crossed the Ticinus by a bridge which he had built for the purpose. Both armies were now on the north bank of the Po, the Carthaginians moving eastward and having the river on their right, the Romans coming westward to meet them. At the end of the second day's march both encamped, and on the morning of the third the cavalry of both advanced, Hannibal and Scipio commanding in person. The Romans had their light-armed troops and their Gallic horsemen in front, and the rest of their cavalry in the second line. Hannibal had skillfully arranged his heavy cavalry in a solid body in the centre; while the light and active African troopers, men who rode their horses without a bit, were on either wing. The Roman light-armed, after a single discharge of their javelins, retired hastily through the spaces of the squadrons behind them. Between the heavy cavalry on both sides there was an obstinate struggle, the Romans having somewhat the advantage. But the clouds of Africans had out-flanked the Roman line, and had fallen first on their light-armed troops and then on the rear of the heavy cavalry. A general rout followed. Not the least serious disaster of the day, as we shall see, was that Scipio himself received a disabling wound. Indeed, it was only the bravery of his son, a youth of seventeen, of whom we shall hear again, that saved his life. A body of horsemen formed round the consul, and escorted him off the field.

Hannibal waited awhile to see whether his antagonists meant to risk a general engagement. As they made no sign, he advanced, and finding that they had left their camp, crossed first the Ticinus, and afterwards the Po, where he captured six hundred men who had been left behind by the Romans. Scipio was now encamped under the walls of Placentia. Hannibal, after vainly offering him battle, took up a position about six miles off. The first result of his late victory was the crowding into his camp of the Gallic chiefs from the south side of the Po. Before long he had a stronger proof of the change of feeling in this people. A Gallic contingent that was acting with the Roman army left the camp at night, carrying with them the heads of a number of their comrades whom they had massacred, and took service with him. Scipio was so alarmed by this general movement among the Gauls that he left his camp, and moved southward to the Trebia, where he could find a strong position and friendly neighbours. Hannibal immediately sent his African horse in pursuit; and these, if they had not stopped to plunder and burn the deserted camp, might have greatly damaged the retreating army. As it was, all but a few stragglers had crossed the Trebia before the Africans came up. Scipio took up a strong position on the hills, and resolved to wait till his colleague Sempronius, who was on his way northward, should join him. Hannibal, who had followed with his whole force, pitched his camp about five miles to the north. He had received meanwhile a most welcome gain in the surrender of Clastidium, a fortress near Placentia, where the Romans had accumulated great stores of corn. The place was given up to him by the commandant, a native of Brundusium, who received, it is said, four hundred gold pieces as the price of his treachery.

It was not long before Sempronius and his army arrived. The numbers of the Romans were of course greatly increased by this reinforcement; but the result was really disastrous. Scipio was a skillful general; Sempronius was nothing but a brave man, whom the accident of being consul for the year had put in command of the army. And, unfortunately, Scipio was disabled by the wound which he had received at Ticinus. His colleague could not believe but that the Romans must win a pitched battle, if the enemy should be rash enough to fight one; and he was anxious to get the credit of the victory for himself. If he was to do this he must force a battle at once. Winter was coming on, and before the beginning of another campaign he would be out of office.

If he had any doubt about success, it was dispersed by the result of a skirmish which took place between the Roman and Carthaginian cavalry. Hannibal had sent some horsemen, Africans and Gauls, to plunder the lands of a tribe which had made terms with Rome. As these were returning, laden with booty, some Roman squadrons fell upon them, and drove them to their camp with considerable loss.

Sempronius was now determined to fight, and Scipio could not hinder him. As Hannibal was at least equally anxious for a battle, which was as much to his interest as it was against the interest of his antagonists, the conflict was not long delayed. Sempronius had forty thousand men under his command, and Hannibal's army, reinforced as it had been by the Gauls, was probably equal.

Hannibal's first care was to place an ambuscade of two thousand men, picked with the greatest care, in some brushwood near the river. His brother Mago had chosen a hundred foot-soldiers and as many troopers; and each of these again had chosen nine comrades. They were to play, we shall see, an important part in the battle. Early the next morning he sent his African cavalry across the river, with orders to skirmish up to the Roman camp, and provoke an engagement. Sempronius eagerly took the bait. He sent out of his camp, first his cavalry, then his light-armed, and finally his legions, and he sent them before they had been able to take any food. It was now far on in the winter; the snow was falling fast, and the Trebia, swollen by rain, was running high between its banks. The water was up to the men's breasts, as they struggled, cold and hungry, across it. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, had had their usual meal, and had warmed themselves before fires. With ample time on his hands and perfectly at his ease, Hannibal drew up his army. Twenty thousand infantry, Africans, Spaniards, and Gauls, formed the centre; the cavalry, numbering ten thousand, were on the wings, with the elephants in front of them. The light-armed troops had been sent on in advance to support the African horse. The Roman line of battle was similarly arranged.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


And now again, as before at the Ticinus, the weakness of the Romans in cavalry was fatal. This arm was inferior both in numbers and in quality. The Carthaginian horse charged on both wings, and routed their opponents almost without a struggle. The flanks of the great body of infantry which formed the Roman centre were thus uncovered, and were exposed to fierce attacks both from the cavalry and from the light-armed troops of the enemy. Still they held their own for a long time with all the courage and tenacity of Romans. But everything was against them, and when Mago's ambuscade leapt out from the watercourse, in which it had been hiding, and fell furiously upon their rear, the day was lost. If anything was still wanting to complete their rout, it was found in the elephants, strange and terrible creatures which few of the Romans or their allies had ever seen before. The rear of the army suffered worst. Indeed it was almost destroyed. The front ranks cut their way through the Gallic and African infantry that was opposed to them, and made their way to Placentia. These numbered about ten thousand. Some stragglers from the rest of the army afterwards joined them. Others made their way back into the camp, for the conquerors did not pursue beyond the river. But it is probable that the Romans lost nearly half their force in killed, prisoners, and missing.

The Carthaginians did not win their victory without some loss. But the slain were chiefly from among the Gauls, whom Hannibal could most easily spare. His best infantry, the Spaniards and Africans, suffered little, except indeed from the cold—which the latter, of course, felt very much. The cold, too, was fatal to all the elephants but one.

With the battle of the Trebia the first campaign of the Second Punic War came to an end.