Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church


Hannibal spent the winter among the Ligurian Gauls. They had welcomed him among them as the successful enemy of Rome, but grew weary, we are told, of his presence, when they found that they had to support his army. He was even in danger of being assassinated, and had to protect himself by frequently changing his dress and even his wig. The winter was scarcely over when he took the field, making his way through the marshes of the Arno into the heart of Etruria. This way was the shortest that he could have taken, and by following it he avoided the Roman armies that were watching for him. But it cost him and his army dear. The floods were out everywhere, and not a spot of dry ground could be found on which his men could rest themselves. All that they could do was to pile up the baggage in the water and to rest upon that, or even upon the heaps of dead horses. Weary, without food, and without sleep, for this was their worst trouble, numbers perished on the march. Hannibal himself, who rode upon the one elephant that was left, to keep himself as far as possible above the water, was attacked with ophthalmia, and lost the sight of one of his eyes. When he reached the higher ground he gave his troops a short rest, and then marched boldly towards Rome, wasting the country, which was one of the richest parts of Italy, most cruelly as he went. One of the Roman Consuls, Flaminius, was at Arretium with about thirty thousand men; the other was at Ariminum on the east coast with as many more. Hannibal ventured to leave them in his rear, and now there was no army between him and Rome. Flaminius, who had found it hard to sit still and see the country of his allies wasted with fire and sword before his eyes, could not allow Rome itself to be attacked without striking a blow for it. He broke up his camp, and followed the Carthaginians. This was exactly what Hannibal expected and wished. And he laid an ambush for his pursuer. The road from Cortona to Perusia, along which he was marching, passed close to the northern shore of the Lake Trasumennus. Near the northwest corner of the lake the hills on either side of this lake approach close to each other; at the northeast corner again there is a still narrower passage formed by the hills on the north, and the lake itself on the south. Between these two is a level plain, somewhat like a bow in shape, if we suppose the edge of the water to be the string, and the retreating hills the bow itself. In front of the hills which commanded the eastern end of the pass Hannibal posted his African and Spanish troops; and here he himself remained. At the end of the pass itself, behind some rising ground which conveniently concealed them, he stationed his Gallic cavalry. The rest of his army he placed on the further slopes of the hills which enclosed the plain upon the north.

Flaminius reached the western end of the lake at sunset, and pitched his camp there for the night. The next morning, while the light was still dim, and without, it seems, attempting to reconnoitre his route, he continued his march. When his whole army had passed through the defile into the plain beyond, Hannibal gave the signal which had been arranged, and the Numidian cavalry with the Gallic infantry descended from the hills, and occupied the western outlet. The Roman army was hemmed in. They were surrounded, too, with mist, which rose from the lake and lay thick upon the level ground, while the sunshine was bright upon the slopes down which the enemy was moving to the attack. Before they could form their ranks in order of battle, almost before they could draw their swords, the enemy was upon them.

Flaminius did his best, but it was very little that he could do. There was no scope for a general's skill, even if he had possessed it. It was a soldiers' battle, where every man had to fight for himself; but the soldiers of Rome, newly recruited ploughmen and vinedressers, were scarcely a match for the veterans of Carthage, and were now taken at a terrible disadvantage. Still, for a time, they held their ground. For three hours the battle raged, so fiercely that none of the combatants felt the shock of an earthquake which that day laid more than one Italian city in ruins. Then the Consul fell. Conspicuous in his splendid arms, he had kept up the Roman battle, till one of Hannibal's troopers, an Insubrian Gaul, recognizing his face (for Flaminius had conquered the Insubrians eight years before), fiercely charged him. "See!" cried the man to his comrades, "this is he who slaughtered our legions and laid waste our fields. I will offer him a sacrifice to the shades of my countrymen." The Consul's armour-bearer threw himself in the way, but was struck down; and Ducarius (for that was the trooper's name) ran the Consul through with his lance. Then the Romans ceased to resist, even as the English ceased at Senlac when Harold was slain. Some sought to escape by the hills, others waded out into the lake, which is shallow to some distance from the shore. Men weighted with heavy armour could not hope to escape by swimming; yet some were desperate enough to try it. These were either drowned in the deeper water, or struggling back to the shallows were slaughtered in crowds by the cavalry, which had now ridden into the water. About six thousand of the vanguard cut their way through the enemy at the eastern end of the pass, and halted on the high ground beyond to watch the result of the battle. When the mist lifted, as the sun gained strength, from hill and plain, they saw that their comrades were hopelessly defeated, and, taking up their standards, hurried away. But without provisions, and not knowing which way to turn, they surrendered themselves next day to Hannibal. About ten thousand contrived to escape from the field of battle. These made the best of their way to Rome. Nearly fifteen thousand fell on the field or in the flight. The Carthaginians lost two thousand and five hundred, a proof that for a time at least the Romans had not sold their lives for nothing. The body of the Consul was never found, though Hannibal, anxious to give so brave a foe an honourable burial, ordered a careful search to be made for it.

A few days afterwards Hannibal had another success. Maharbal surprised a body of cavalry which Servilius was sending to help his colleague, killed half, and took the other half prisoners. He then marched south, but not, as one might expect, on Rome, though it had no army to protect it. He was afraid of undertaking the siege of such a city; indeed, when he attempted to take Spoletium, a colony, or military settlement, in Umbria, he was beaten back with great loss. He marched on in a south-easterly direction, wasting the country as he went, and gathering an immense booty, till he came to the eastern sea near a town called Hadria. There he took a few days rest and refreshed his army, for both men and horses were terribly exhausted with toil and privation. We are told that the horses, which were covered in ulcers, were bathed in old wine, and that this treatment cured them. From this place, too, he sent dispatches to Carthage with an account of what he had done. They were the first that he had written since he crossed the Ebro. Soldiers say that the most dangerous thing that a general can do is to cut himself off from his base, to launch himself into the air, as it is sometimes called—that is, to leave nothing behind him on which he can fall back. Hannibal had done this so boldly that he had never been able even to send a messenger back with a letter. Now he was at the sea, and letters could be sent to and fro without hindrance. He is also said at this time to have armed some of his African infantry with arms of the Roman fashion. From Hadria he moved still southward, ravaging the eastern part of Italy as far down as Apulia, but always showing that it was with Rome and not with the Italian subjects of Rome that he was waging war. Any Roman citizen, or child of a Roman citizen that was of age to carry arms, he ordered to be slain. The Italians that fell into his hands he not only spared, but treated with the utmost kindness.