Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

Hannibal's Last Battle

What Hannibal proposed to himself by remaining in Italy after the disastrously decisive day of the Metaurus it is not easy to say. Perhaps he continued to hope against hope that the great anti-Roman combination, for which he had been working for more than ten years, might yet come into being. To us, who know what Rome became in after days, it seems strange indeed that the kingdoms which she was destined to crush one after another should not have joined with Carthage in the attempt to destroy her. If Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt could have combined while Hannibal had still a footing in Italy, she could hardly have survived. But they were too jealous of each other, or too short-sighted. Possibly they were unwilling to make Carthage, which the Greeks had no reason to love, too powerful. And what was not done after Cannæ would hardly be attempted after the Metaurus. Anyhow, Hannibal remained in Italy for four years after Hasdrubal's death. He now held only the extreme south of the Peninsula, and the limits of the region which he occupied were slowly contracted by the loss of town after town. Still he clung to his position; he could have gone at any time; but he could not bear to give up the dominating hope of his life, and he lingered on. At last, late in the year 203, in obedience to an urgent summons from home, he embarked his army. No attempt was made to hinder him. The Romans indeed were unfeignedly glad to see his departure. They had lost three hundred thousand men during the fifteen years of his stay. The huge dragon of his dream had indeed desolated Italy. It is said that when he took his last look of the land where he had met with such successes and such disappointments, he bitterly reproached his countrymen for the grudging support which they had given him. "It is not the Roman people, so often routed in the field, it is Hanno"—the leader of the Peace party in Carthage—"that has vanquished me." The charge can hardly have been true; but it is natural to one who had finally to abandon one of the most splendid schemes that man ever devised. Livy adds that Hannibal now bitterly regretted that he had not led his troops against Rome immediately after the great victory of Cannæ.

It is needless to dwell on the events that followed Hannibal's return to Africa. We have not, indeed, the means of drawing out a quite clear and consistent narrative of them. 'The romantic story in which Syphax, Masinissa, and Sophonisba (daughter of Hasdrubal, son of Gisco) play the chief parts, does not belong to my subject, and I pass on at once to the battle of Zama.

Hannibal ranged his elephants, as usual, in front of his line. Immediately behind them were the mercenaries, a mixed multitude, to whom Polybius applies the famous verse in which Homer describes the many-tongued battle-cry of the Trojans and their allies. Behind these mercenaries were the native Carthaginians, brought once more into the field by the extremity of their country, and in the rear of all, as a reserve which in the last resort might restore the fortunes of the day, the veterans whom Hannibal had brought with him from Italy. Scipio departed in one particular from the usual rules of Roman tactics. Usually the intervals in the front line were filled up in the second, and the intervals in the second filled up in the third. On the present occasion the intervals were continuous, giving a free passage from the front of the army to the rear. This was done with a view to lessening the danger from the elephants. For the same reason the space between the lines was made greater than usual. The more space these animals were allowed in which they might move, the less likely, Scipio thought, they would be to trample down the ranks of his men.

Lælius with the Roman cavalry occupied the left wing, with the native Carthaginian horse opposed to him; Masinissa on the right had a body of African horse fronting men of the same or kindred nationalities in the service of Carthage. The elephants were of even less use and did even more damage to their friends than usual. The stock of trained animals had been long since exhausted, and the untaught creatures now brought into the field were unmanageable. In this instance they turned against the Carthaginian cavalry, and put them into such disorder that Lælius won an easy victory over them. On the Roman right Masinissa, one of the best cavalry officers that the world has ever seen, defeated his antagonists. But in the centre the victory was less easily won. The mercenaries were veteran soldiers skilled in all the arts of war, and they more than held their own against the Roman infantry, largely consisting of recruits. If they had been properly backed up by the Carthaginians behind them, they might have changed the fortunes of the day. But the citizen soldiers remained stolidly in their places. It. was only when they were themselves attacked—the mercenaries, we are told, enraged at being thus deserted, turned against them—that they drew their swords. The line of veterans, under Hannibal's personal command, made a fierce and obstinate resistance. It was only when they were charged on both flanks by the victorious cavalry that they gave way. After this the rout was general. Twenty thousand men were left dead on the field of battle, and as many more were taken prisoners. Of the conquerors fifteen hundred fell. It was not a high price to pay for the victory that, as Polybius puts it, "gave to Rome the sovereignty of the world." Hannibal made his way to Adrumetum, and from thence to Carthage with a body of six thousand troops.

The terms of peace were unexpectedly lenient. Carthage was to retain its independence, and its African possessions. But it was to pay an annual tribute of two hundred talents and an indemnity of ten thousand, and it was to retain only ten ships of war. Hannibal was so strongly impressed with the necessity of accepting these terms that he forcibly pulled back into his seat a senator who had risen to speak against them.

A few lines may be given to the after history of this remarkable man, the most formidable enemy that Rome ever had, equally great as statesman and as general.

Not long after the conclusion of peace he left Carthage, avoiding by his voluntary departure a demand that Rome was preparing to make for his extradition. He was suspected, and probably with justice, of still cherishing hostile designs. He took refuge with Antiochus, of Syria, surnamed, but not for very convincing reasons, the Great. Antiochus was flattered by his presence, but showed a ridiculous jealousy of his genius. He would not employ him or even take his advice. A combination against Rome among the Eastern powers was still possible, and Hannibal strongly urged that it should be made, but he urged it in vain. In 192 he was indeed put in command of the Syrian fleet, largely consisting, it may be presumed, of Phoenician ships. He was attacked by a superior force from Rhodes, then the greatest naval power in the world, and was defeated. Two years afterwards the great battle of Magnesia was fought. Whether Hannibal was present we do not know, but he was certainly not in command. Possibly an anecdote that is told of him belongs to this time. King Antiochus showed him his army, splendid with gold and silver. "Will not this be enough for the Romans?" asked the king. "Yes, indeed," answered the veteran, "though they are the greediest people upon earth." But it was of the value of their spoils, not of the efficiency of their weapons, that he was thinking. The battle ended in the total defeat of Antiochus and his splendid army. Two years later he made peace with Rome, one of the conditions being that he should banish from his dominions all the enemies of Rome. Hannibal had anticipated the decree. He visited various places, and found at last what promised to be a final refuge with Prusias, King of Bithynia. But Prusias quarrelled with a neighbour, Eumenes, King of Pergamum, and Eumenes was a friend of Rome. Rome sent to Prusias to demand the person of his guest, and the veteran—he was now in his sixty-fifth year—took poison. He carried the drug about with him in a ring, so the story runs, to be used in such an emergency.