It didn’t take long for the seismic reverberations from Cannae to start tilting the playing field in Hannibal’s direction … or so it seemed. Almost immediately a number of the nearby Apulian communities—Aecae, Arpi, Herdonea, and Salapia—threw in with the Barcid, and as he moved west into the hill country of Rome’s old enemies the Samnites, most of them went over to him also.1 Grabbing momentum by the horns, he split his force for the first time, ordering his brother Mago south to pick up as much support as he could muster among the Oscans, Lucanians, Bruttians, and the Greeks in cities on the coast. Mago would then continue his journey alone back to Carthage, where he would deliver Cannae’s good tidings and press for reinforcements, which he could then lead back to Italy. Mago would return to Italy, but not before becoming sidetracked for upward of a decade, and without ever reuniting with his elder sibling.
Hannibal, meanwhile, soldiered west into fertile Campania for the second time, looking for more new friends. His first target, the seaport of Neapolis (modern Naples), rebuffed him, but there was something far better in the offing—Capua, the second city in the Roman confederation and a place notorious for its wealth and luxury, symbolized by its perfume market, the fabled Seplasia. But Capua was far more than a fleshpot; its leadership class was deeply intertwined with Rome’s through marriage and economic ties. It was a vital and valued Roman ally. Yet, despite every inhabitant holding Roman citizenship, the lower classes since the Battle of Trasimene had been restive and increasingly inclined toward secession. In the wake of Cannae and Hannibal’s approach, the pressure in this direction increased dramatically, until the only thing holding back the flood was the hesitance of the local nobility.
In particular, three hundred young cavalrymen from the city’s best families were serving alongside the Romans in Sicily, a position that would leave them hostages if Capua changed sides. Their parents, amidst the political turmoil, managed to have a delegation sent to the surviving consul, Terentius Varro, for an assessment of the military prospects. Seen through Livy’s eyes (23.5.4–15) Varro proved no better diplomat than general. “Legions, cavalry, arms, standards, horses and men, money, and supplies have vanished either in the battle or in the loss of two camps the next day. And so you, Campanians, have not to help us in war, but almost to undertake it in our stead.” In other words, you’re on your own.
But not for long. The Capuans’ next move was to send the same delegation to Hannibal. Needless to say, he was entirely more accommodating, agreeing that in return for their allegiance the Capuans would continue to rule themselves, would be under no obligation to supply him with soldiers, and were to be given three hundred Roman prisoners to exchange for their horsemen in Sicily (an unlikely prospect, as we have seen). To seal the deal Hannibal sent the Capuans a defensive garrison, and then entered the city in triumph, telling their senate that Capua would soon be “the capital of all Italy.” Intoxicated by the moment, his new allies responded by burning their remaining bridges to the Tiber, arresting the Romans in the city and shutting them up in a bathhouse, where they suffocated. Capuans would live to regret their enthusiasm, but in the shadow of Cannae the alliance must have seemed an obvious recognition of a new political reality. The Campanian city would take its place at the head of a realigned southern Italy, and Hannibal had a cornerstone upon which to begin constructing a stable edifice of control. Even more alluring, at least for the moment, he had a destination.
The Carthaginian army’s winter sojourn in Capua is the stuff of ancient legend. As French archaeologist and historian Serge Lancel explains, those three proverbial symbols of dissipation in classical antiquity—wine, women, and warm water—(not to mention soap and perfume) turned Hannibal’s fine-tuned instrument of destruction into a bunch of skulking hedonists, at least according to Livy in his famous passage on their epic sleepover. He even has Marcellus, no slouch as a luxury lover, let on that “Capua was Hannibal’s Cannae.”
None of this should be taken literally. For one thing, only a small portion of the army could have been quartered there without fatally alienating the population. Besides, this was a force destined to fight successfully in Italy for more than a decade longer.
Yet Livy’s point should not be dismissed. Every alliance comes with a price tag. By succumbing to the allure of having stable friendships—bases, a steady source of supplies, political allegiance—Hannibal took on the burden of protecting them. It would prove a heavy load for a military vagabond. Life on the road had been hard and uncertain, but it had afforded Hannibal the strategic advantage of being able to show up anywhere, a maddening possibility if you were Rome. With assets to defend, he was now tied down—cut off, for instance, from the Gauls far to the north and their supplies of fresh king-size fighters.
Not only was the fox forced to guard the henhouse, but the hens themselves had considerable strategic limitations, having been politically contaminated by their former hegemon. As mentioned earlier, Rome’s system of treaties tied allies directly to it and not to one another. Removing this dependency left no common bond, no basis for larger amalgams, and this condition was only compounded by the fierce internal factionalism of the south, especially among the Greeks.
With this came an equivalent reluctance to contribute troops, especially for duty outside of home territory. This left Hannibal reliant on his own field army to fend off a succession of Roman forces drawn from their own very deep manpower base. Over time some numbers of Italians were successfully integrated into the Punic force structure, but the structure’s core remained Libyan, Numidian, Spanish, and Gallic. As the Carthaginian traveling force was gradually eroded by casualties, by the need for garrison troops, and eventually even by age, what Hannibal needed was reinforcements.
That was to have been Mago’s job, the point of his triumphant return to Carthage. To set the stage, Hannibal’s youngest brother ordered that the baskets full of golden rings pried off the fingers of senators and equestrians at Cannae be poured out in the vestibule of the meeting hall of the elders. Addressing the elders, he spoke glowingly of victories achieved, consuls humiliated, casualties inflicted, captives held, allies won over, of Italy in revolt, and above all, as victory grew near, he spoke of aiding Hannibal with all the resources at the state’s disposal—more troops, but also money for pay, and food for the soldiers who had already served so well in Carthage’s name.
The speech evidently went over well; it’s hard to be pessimistic in the face of such good news. Nevertheless, Hanno, by now undoubtedly aged, and still apparently at the head of the anti-Barcid faction, found reason for doubt. He wondered aloud why, if Hannibal had killed so many Romans, he needed more soldiers. Why, if he had accumulated so much booty, did he need more money and provisions? Why, if Italy was in revolt, had no Latins come over to the Carthaginian side? Still more pointedly, Hanno asked Mago if the Romans had sent any ambassadors to treat for peace. When Hanno received no satisfactory answers, he concluded, “We have on our hands, then, a war as entire as we had on the day Hannibal crossed into Italy.”
Still, if not exactly a voice in the wilderness, Hanno was plainly in the minority. Most were apparently inclined to believe that at least moderate exertions could bring the war to a speedy conclusion. The elders voted for a small force of four thousand Numidians to be sent to Hannibal, along with more money and that Punic panacea, forty elephants. Yet Livy (23.14.1) points out that these resources were raised in a dilatory fashion. Nor would Mago be joining them. Instead, he was sent to Spain to recruit a larger force, but by the time he was ready to depart for Italy, the situation in Iberia had deteriorated and he was needed there to fight. Meanwhile, sometime in the summer of 214 the admiral Bomilcar finally delivered the Numidians and elephants at Locri on the coast of Bruttium. It was to be the only time during the entire war that the city of Carthage would send Hannibal reinforcements in Italy. The elders showed entirely more interest in Spain, Sardinia, and especially Sicily.
This did not amount to a ringing endorsement for Hannibal’s great adventure. Most modern authorities seem to see this lack of enthusiasm as largely a matter of circumstance and not reticence. Still, the reluctance of Hanno appears to represent more than just Hanno. We have already seen that Carthage had been badly hurt by the First Punic War and the subsequent revolt of Hamilcar’s mercenaries. Many of Carthage’s citizens must have recognized that in terms of demographics Carthage was no match for Rome, especially in a land war. No matter how impressive Hannibal’s initial successes might have seemed, some in the Carthaginian power structure—particularly the remaining old ones who had seen Rome’s staying power in the first war—would have continued to view Hannibal’s invasion as reckless and futile. These men seem to have convinced the others to pursue the war by concentrating on areas outside of Italy, particularly those of traditional Carthaginian interest. In Spain the motives of the Barcids and the skeptics at home coincided, less so in Sicily and Sardinia. But ultimately, Hannibal was left high and dry in Italy, and was finally forced to look only to his two brothers for reinforcement. And that would cost both their lives.
The epicenter of the war, of course, stayed in Italy, and the fighting there, in and around Campania between the years 212 and 210, would in large part dictate the outcome. It was at this point, both geographically and temporally, that the power of Rome and the relentless logic of Fabian II would finally and irrevocably take hold. Hannibal would not leave the Italian peninsula for another seven years, but the impossibility of his enterprise would be revealed here in Campania, as would his subsequent confinement in the south. What made history’s conclusion so decisive was that even though Hannibal continued to operate brilliantly at the tactical and operational level—he remained virtually as tricky and lethal as ever—his strategy failed. His was a supreme overreach in the face of overwhelming power.
The application of Fabian II had almost immediately inflicted pain on those who had strayed from Rome’s embrace, for Hannibal could not be everywhere at once, and in his absence were likely to be Roman forces burning fields and threatening population centers. In one telling passage Livy has some of the battered Samnites tell Hannibal that their suffering made it seem that the Romans and not Hannibal had won the battle of Cannae, to which he could only reply that he would “overshadow the memory even of Cannae by a greater and more brilliant victory.” In other words, his only answer to their plight was to inflict tactical defeats on the Romans when and if they were willing to fight. This he would do, but in the end it would not make much difference.
By 212 the Roman vise was tightening around central Italy about a third of the way up the boot, with several separate forces abroad. The focus was on Campania and the principal turncoat city Capua. Two consular armies—one under Appius Claudius, who now had reached the highest magistracy, and the other commanded by his colleague Quintus Fulvius Flaccus—were devastating the countryside and defeating Punic efforts at food relief. The hungry Capuans sent an urgent appeal to Hannibal for support. Hannibal was at Tarentum, a great prize, most of which he had just taken through a ruse. To stop the rural depredations, he dispatched a force of two thousand cavalry to Capua, but by this time the consuls had moved to blockade Capua itself. This drew Hannibal and the rest of his army, intent now on another “brilliant victory.”
But he was unable to force a decisive engagement, and the two consuls moved away from the city in different directions, knowing he could follow only one and that the other could return. Hannibal decided to pursue Appius Claudius, but the Roman commander outfoxed the fox, leading him in circles, and both Roman armies ended up back at the distressed city, this time for good.
Soon they were joined by a third army under Claudius Nero (not yet dispatched to Spain), and together their six legions set about constructing an encircling inner wall, a ditch, and an outer wall, a traitor’s noose around what had been Hannibal’s most prized spoil of Cannae. Strategically, the Romans had won hands down.
There was more to the story. Roman armies kept disappearing. Livy, our sole source, records much of this, but ever the patriot, he may have put the best face on it. Most mysterious was the demise of the force of slaves (volones) that had been hastily organized after Cannae and subsequently employed to good effect by the able T. Sempronius Gracchus. Then abruptly the historian reports the death of Gracchus at the hands of treacherous Lucanians and the sudden dispersal of his army, causing one modern source to wonder if Livy was masking a defeat.
Next there was the odd tale of a senior centurion, M. Centenius Paenula, who had talked the senate into giving him an army of eight thousand Romans and allies (later supplemented by an equivalent number of local volunteers) on the grounds that he was intimately familiar with Lucanian territory and could succeed where other commanders had not. Unfortunately, according to Livy, Hannibal chanced upon Paenula having abandoned the chase after Appius Claudius, and annihilated the force—though the Romans were characterized as having fought bravely until their centurion was killed and they scattered. More probably, Hannibal knew exactly what he was doing, saw a chance to pick off an isolated Roman force, and slaughtered them with his usual efficiency, killing fifteen thousand out of the original sixteen thousand.
But Hannibal was not through. Before the year 212 was out, he returned to Apulia rather than Capua, and, like a fox on the move, began stalking another plump Roman prey. The praetor Cnaeus Fulvius Flaccus, brother of the consul, was there with an army of eighteen thousand, twisting arms and dragging a number of defector towns back into the Roman fold. According to Livy (25.20.6–7), success had eroded the caution of both Flaccus and his men, always a bad idea when Hannibal was in the neighborhood. In the vicinity of the town of Herdonea, the Carthaginian set his trap. Hiding three thousand light troops in the surrounding farms and woods and cutting off the avenues of flight with cavalry, he offered battle at dawn, and when the Romans accepted, Hannibal gobbled them up. Following the Terentius Varro precedent, Flaccus fled the field immediately with two hundred horsemen, but of those remaining, barely two thousand escaped with their lives. They apparently scattered in all directions since their camp had also been taken. This was Hannibal’s most decisive win since Cannae, and a drubbing Romans very apparently found humiliating. Unlike Varro, who was congratulated for not having given up on the republic, Flaccus was tried by the senate for high treason and barely escaped with his life. However, the same fate as the legiones Cannenses was accorded to the survivors of Herdonea, indefinite banishment to Sicily.
As if this were not bad enough, two years later, in 210, another Fulvius (proconsul Cnaeus Fulvius Centumalus) was caught and defeated by Hannibal, again at Herdonea. The Romans lost their camp and a consular army (two legions—the 5th and 6th—and two alae), as many as thirteen thousand men. This Fulvius would not be tried, since he fell in the field along with eleven military tribunes, but yet again the survivors were exiled to Sicily for the duration to join the ghosts of Cannae.
Quite plainly, at the operational and tactical levels of war Hannibal and his army had lost none of their edge, but that edge was nearly irrelevant strategically. Rome persevered and would persist in replacing armies lost; meanwhile, Rome’s relentless grasp would continue to narrow Hannibal’s playing field and circumscribe his future.
Symbolically and actually, all of this was epitomized by the wretched fate of Capua. The year 211 found the Romans fully committed to the siege under Appius Claudius and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus (both now proconsuls), with about half of the legions that were stationed in Italy participating. A vast logistical structure had been emplaced to support them, and the surrounding territory had also been stripped of foodstuffs, while inside the city the population grew hungrier as the triple line of circumvallation was pushed to completion. For a while the Campanian horsemen were able to sally out with some success, but then a centurion named Quintus Naevius came up with the idea of using picked velites who would ride in tandem with the Roman cavalry and then support them on foot when they came upon a Capuan horseman. This plan effectively shut down the last remaining morale builder. The Capuans were sealed off.
Realizing that the city would inevitably fall unless he did something, Hannibal marched up from Bruttium with only a picked force without baggage, looking to fight the Romans in the field. But the Romans refused to budge from behind their lines. Thwarted, Hannibal decided on a direct assault and coordinated with the Capuans, who were to attack from the inside while he sought to break through from the outside. The Capuans were quickly turned aside, but a cohort of Hannibal’s Spaniards led by three elephants broke through the Roman lines and threatened Flaccus’s camp. But then the Romans, rallied by the same Naevius, threw the Spaniards back, and the Carthaginians retreated with a considerable loss of precious troops. Worse perhaps for those inside the city, there was no way that Hannibal could stay, since the Romans, following the relentless logic of Fabius Maximus, had already removed virtually everything edible from the countryside.