Capua defected and Hannibal entered the city to a hero’s welcome. Crowds lined the streets to see the man who had brought Rome to its knees at Cannae. There is an interesting difference of opinion in the sources concerning the composition of the crowd that welcomed Hannibal that day. One source contends that Hannibal was greeted and escorted into the city by the senators and a crowd of the poor—the rabble, or turba, as the Romans called them—while the second source maintains it was the aristocrats with their wives and children who welcomed him.6 From the outset, Hannibal exerted his authority over the city. He was a tyrant and reputed to have been “naturally short-tempered,” and inclined to fits of rage. He displayed the characteristics of a self-centered autocrat from the moment he passed through the city gates. A mob, seeking to curry favor with him, rounded up all Romans in the city, permanent residents, visitors there on business or pleasure, and officials, and confined them to one of the municipal bathhouses. Then the doors were sealed and the prisoners were suffocated, dying in great agony. This story has often been regarded by modern scholars with skepticism because it was reported by Livy, who was markedly pro-Roman and critical of Capua. It was not Hannibal who ordered their deaths; they were killed by a mob. Yet Hannibal never condemned the action. A variation of the story reappears in another later source, which reports that when Hannibal captured the nearby town of Nuceria, he ordered the pro-Roman senators there locked into the baths and steamed to death. These stories might have been invented by the Roman historians for propaganda purposes, to portray Hannibal in the worst possible light, or, conversely, they may well be true.
With the most immediate sources of opposition out of the way, Hannibal’s next order of business was to address the senate. Its members prevailed upon him to postpone any serious discussions until later in his visit and spend the day sightseeing in the city. Hannibal, always inclined to get down to business first, but not wishing to offend his new allies, begrudgingly agreed. During his tour, he showed little interest in the usual sights, such as temples and marketplaces, but questioned his guides incessantly about the number of men the city had under arms; the length, height, and thickness of its walls; grain supplies; and how much money was in the treasury.
At the end of the tour, Hannibal was invited to stay in the home of two brothers, the Celeres, who were among the wealthiest and most influential senators in Capua. To honor their guest, the brothers arranged a feast “that tempted indulgence and was to be expected in a city and in a house of such wealth and luxury.”8 Banquets were held throughout the city to honor Hannibal’s soldiers. Tables were piled high with dishes of regional gastronomical splendor, and the wine that Capua was famous for flowed in unlimited quantities. At Hannibal’s insistence, the banquet at the home of the Celeres was limited to a select few: the two brothers who hosted the affair, the son of one of the brothers, and a “distinguished soldier,” Vibellius Taurea, foremost among the knights of Campania. Also present were a few of Hannibal’s most senior officers and a small contingent of his bodyguards.
During the banquet, a plot to assassinate Hannibal surfaced.9 The assassin was the son of Pacuvius, one of the Celeres who had lobbied the senators of Capua to declare for Hannibal. The young man, in opposition to his father, believed passionately that Capua should remain allied to Rome, and his views had been brought to Hannibal’s attention. Earlier that day, Pacuvius had sought pardon for his son and Hannibal had given permission for the boy to attend the banquet. That evening the boy took his father aside, showed him a dagger, and revealed his plan to stab Hannibal while he reclined at the table. The father was horrified, and implored his son not to stain the honor of his family by shedding the blood of a guest and violating the oath of fidelity to Hannibal that he had made in the senate. Then Pacuvius told his son that the dagger he would use to strike Hannibal would have to pass through him first. The father, moved by his love, embraced his son, and, with tears, implored him to recant. He warned him that Hannibal was no ordinary man but one protected by the gods and powerful bodyguards. He is too fierce a warrior to be killed by a boy, the father contended, and his armor is not made of iron or bronze, but the glory he has gained in a life of constant warfare. The boy, moved by his father’s entreaties and a strong bond of filial respect, cast aside the dagger, and the two returned, arm in arm, to the banquet.
When Hannibal entered the hall, he initially disapproved of the extravagance of the feast: it was not, he commented to his hosts, in accord with “Carthaginian military discipline.” He reposed on his dining couch and ate in silence. As the evening wore on, Hannibal began to relax, and settled back to enjoy the singers and lyre-players—slowly allowing himself to succumb to the comforts of Capuan luxury. Later, as the guests turned to pleasures of a more sensual nature, Hannibal began to show a preference for one of the young male singers. According to the sources, Hannibal preferred this young man’s company to the sexual debauchery unfolding between the other guests and the female slaves. Unbeknownst to Hannibal, death reclined only a few feet away from him. He had narrowly escaped a turn of events that could have ended his life and altered not only the course of the war, but perhaps the very course of history itself.
The next day Hannibal addressed the senate, and in a pleasant and amicable tone of voice reiterated that when the war ended Capua would be the capital of a new Italian federation and Rome would no longer be the dominant political and economic force in Italy. Following his address, Hannibal took a seat on a judicial panel known as the “tribune of the magistrates.” His tone changed from affable to stern as he ordered the arrest and immediate trial of one of Capua’s leading citizens, Decius Magius, an outspoken advocate of loyalty to Rome. This man had openly displayed his support for Rome and had been noticeably absent when the other senators assembled with their families to welcome Hannibal into the city. Magius had actively encouraged resisting Hannibal’s entry into Capua, even urging his fellow citizens to block the Carthaginian’s way with corpses if need be. He protested the murder of the Romans in the bathhouse and openly advocated killing the Carthaginians assigned to garrison Capua. Magius was brought before the tribunal in chains, and Hannibal, acting as prosecutor, exploded in a tyrannical outburst of invective against the accused. The senate sat silently. Hannibal was clearly in charge. When his guilt was announced, Magius called out to the senators, asking rhetorically if this was now what constituted justice for Capuans under their new Carthaginian master.
The plight of Magius resonated with many in the senate, and even more so among the crowd that had gathered outside at the news of his arrest and trial. Hannibal had tried and condemned a citizen in violation of the terms of the new treaty, which specified that a citizen of Capua could only be tried under the city’s own laws and by its own magistrates. Magius had not violated any law of Capua, but Hannibal brushed the legality aside and pronounced him too dangerous to be allowed to remain in the city—“a fomenter of insurrection and riots.” Hannibal preferred to execute Magius, but given the sentiments of the people, it was a politically dangerous option. Magius’s death might further inflame the people and would certainly turn him into a martyr. Anxious to avoid any civil dislocations, Hannibal ordered Magius transferred to a ship bound for Carthage. After putting to sea, the ship was caught in a storm and, blown off its course, made port in Alexandria, Egypt. Magius received political asylum from the pharaoh, Ptolemy IV, and apparently lived out the remainder of his life in Egypt.
Capua would prove to be a double-edged sword for Hannibal. While he had gained an influential and prosperous ally, there is no extant record of any Capuans serving in his army as their Italian neighbors in Bruttium and Lucania did. Hannibal incurred the costly obligation of protecting his new ally from Roman retaliation, which would be forthcoming and harsh. For Capua, the alliance with Hannibal offered some short-term prospects of increased prosperity and the long-term promise of prestige and independence in the ancient world when the war ended. But what actually came to pass was the destruction of the city during the war as Hannibal could not prevent the Romans from eventually exacting their revenge.
Leaving Capua, Hannibal moved south to Nuceria, where he surrounded the city and offered its defenders safe conduct out—if they surrendered without resistance. Then, after they agreed and left the city, Hannibal had them ambushed and slaughtered—his archers killing many of the women and children who were accompanying them as well. When asked why he had gone back on his word, Hannibal offered the same excuse Alexander the Great had when he did virtually the same thing in India over a hundred years earlier. While he had guaranteed the defenders safe conduct out of the city, he had said nothing about what would happen to them once they cleared the gates. Taking control of Nuceria, Hannibal had its senators shut in a public bath and suffocated.
Leaving Nuceria garrisoned, Hannibal moved against several nearby cities, among them Nola, Acerrae, and Casilinum. Nola was a fortress city just east of Naples, and its citizens were divided along economic lines as to which side they favored in the conflict. The prosperous and aristocratic elements in the city were strongly in favor of remaining loyal to Rome, while the common people saw in Hannibal the harbinger of change and the potential for improvement in their lot. Hannibal sent emissaries to negotiate, and the aristocracy, seeking to buy time to arrange for Roman assistance, agreed to discuss terms. The senate secretly sent their own group of emissaries to the praetor Marcellus Claudius at nearby Casilinum to ask for his help while they filibustered the terms with Hannibal. A praetor was the second-highest elected official in the Roman administrative hierarchy and often in command of an army.
Marcellus agreed to help and, avoiding Hannibal, took a shortcut through the mountains, reaching Nola without incident. He arrived at the right moment—beating Hannibal to the city and before those elements among the common people who favored an alliance with Hannibal could overthrow the government. The gates were opened to the Romans, and with the help of the pro-Roman aristocratic faction in the senate, as well as the presence of his soldiers, Marcellus managed to keep the city loyal to Rome. Yet Marcellus was apprehensive. He was suspicious of the common people, especially a young activist named Lucius Bantius, who, while he had fought on the side of the Romans at Cannae, now agitated in favor of joining Hannibal. Bantius had been wounded at Cannae and buried under a pile of the dead. Hannibal’s soldiers found him and nursed him back to health. When he had recovered, Hannibal released him to return home with gifts and honors. As a result, Bantius held him in high regard and encouraged his fellow citizens, especially the poor and working classes, to join the Carthaginian cause. Marcellus, rather than arrest Bantius, undertook to win him over by recognizing and praising his bravery at Cannae and then rewarding him with money. It worked, and while Marcellus succeeded in winning the young man over, elements hostile to Rome remained within Nola.
When Hannibal arrived, Marcellus withdrew his troops within the city walls. He was now caught between the enemy outside and a faction within which could turn on him at any time. He was able to contain the hostile forces within the city, and, at the same time, launch several successful attacks against Hannibal. While Marcellus did not win at Nola, he forced Hannibal to abandon the effort and move against an easier target. With Hannibal gone, Marcellus turned his attention toward those within the city whom he suspected of supporting Hannibal, and over seventy were beheaded.
Leaving Nola, Hannibal moved against Acerrae (Acerra, some twelve miles northeast of Naples). As was his pattern, he sent emissaries ahead to persuade the leaders of the city to come over to his side voluntarily, or at least surrender without a fight. When the people heard Hannibal was approaching, many of them, including most of those responsible for defending the city, escaped under cover of darkness. Hannibal entered the city without a struggle and turned it over to his soldiers to be looted and burned.
The fortified town of Casilinum was Hannibal’s next target because of its strategic position at the junction of two important Roman roads: the Via Appia and the Via Latina. Just three miles west of Capua, remains of the ancient city have been excavated to some twenty-five feet below the current ground level. Once again Hannibal sent emissaries to try to negotiate a voluntary surrender of the small five-hundred-man garrison composed of soldiers from the Latin town of Praeneste, just south of Rome. These soldiers had been on their way to fight at Cannae, when word of the defeat reached them and they returned to Casilinum. They garrisoned the town and massacred the residents who showed pro-Carthaginian inclinations. The garrison was subsequently reinforced by another five hundred men from the town of Perusia.
Casilinum was close to Nola, but Marcellus and his army were held in the area by the inhabitants who were terrified that if the Roman army left, the Italian tribes allied with Hannibal would descend on them. Hannibal sent an advanced detachment to negotiate the surrender of the town, or if that failed, begin the assault. The defenders at Casilinum sallied forth from the gates, driving Hannibal’s advance force back. When reinforcements arrived, led by Hannibal’s famed cavalry commander and critic Maharbal, they too were driven back. Then the main force under Hannibal arrived and launched a relentless assault against the town. According to the ancient sources, Hannibal had trouble motivating his men to fight. Utilizing a combination of sharp rebukes intended to shame them, alternating with references to their bravery at Cannae and Trasimene and promises of gold prizes for those who scaled the walls first, another assault was launched. Still the defenders, heavily outnumbered, held out. They launched counterattacks against Hannibal’s army even though his assault force now included elephants, which had arrived from North Africa at the port of Locri on the southern Adriatic coast.
Using his elephants, Hannibal pressed the attack even harder, but to no avail. Mines were dug to try to collapse sections of the defensive wall, and countermines were in turn sunk by the defenders to try to collapse the main shafts of the attackers. Even with his elephants and mines, Hannibal could not take what Livy mockingly referred to as the “little town with its little garrison.” In frustration, Hannibal abandoned the effort, leaving a smaller force to keep pressure on the town while he returned to Capua with the rest of the army for the winter. It would not be until the following spring that Casilinum surrendered and Hannibal garrisoned the town with seven hundred of his men.
The winter at Capua ruined Hannibal’s soldiers, just as, over a hundred years earlier, Babylon had ruined Alexander’s army following their victory over the Persian king at Gaugamela. Easy living was the problem in both instances. While Hannibal’s soldiers had been toughened by the hardships of the march over the Alps and in combat in Italy, the “immoderate pleasures” at Capua undid everything. Quartered in plush surroundings, the soldiers consumed too much rich food and drank copious amounts of wine in an environment of continual leisure and debauchery. If food, drink and leisure were not enough, Venus finished the task by sending in an army of harlots.
Hannibal, too, succumbed to the easy living and luxury. The inactivity and debauchery during the winter was a serious failure of leadership on his part, equal perhaps to his failure to march on Rome after Trasimene or Cannae. In the spring, Hannibal left Capua with his army and tried once more to take Neapolis. But he was commanding a different army than the one that had crossed the Alps with him and fought at the Trebbia, Trasimene, and Cannae. Drained by the harlots and the easy living, none of the old esprit de corps among the soldiers survived the winter. On the march, many would give out in both body and spirit; there was constant complaining, and they resembled raw recruits more than seasoned veterans. Desertions increased substantially, and with no place to go, many of Hannibal’s soldiers simply drifted back to Capua, seeking out their old haunts. Among those who left and went over to the Romans were some of his Numidian calvalry and Spanish soldiers. The Romans had recently brought Spaniards to Italy to fight Hannibal, and fifth-column elements apparently managed to infiltrate his army to persuade their compatriots to switch sides.
The only thing that protected Hannibal’s army from the Romans now was their reputation. Their attempt to take Neapolis failed a second time, and the sources suggest it was not just the strength of the city’s walls, but the easy living the winter before and an army that now suffered from a lack of discipline and enthusiasm for fighting. Apparently, not all of Hannibal’s army had spent the winter at Capua enjoying the good life, as units were actively engaged maintaining the siege of Casilinum, which eventually fell that spring when starvation drove the inhabitants to the point of chewing leather and boiling bark to stay alive.
In Bruttium, Hanno and Himilco continued their efforts to bring the Italian tribes and the Greek towns and cities in the area under their control and increase the size of their army. Following the fall of Petelia, Himilco led his army west into the interior against the town of Consentinus (Cosenza)—a town that had remained loyal to Rome but that fell quickly. The Greek cities of Crotone and Locri, farther to the south along the eastern seaboard, fell to Hanno and his Bruttian allies. Only Rhegium (Reggio di Calabria), at the very tip of the peninsula across from Sicily, managed to hold out.
Mago left southern Italy, probably from the port of Locri, which was now under Hanno’s control, and sailed to Carthage to announce the news of Hannibal’s victory at Cannae and pressure the senate for reinforcements and money. When Mago entered the senate chamber, he poured onto the floor golden rings pried from the fingers of Roman knights slain at Cannae. It was a dramatic gesture, as there were reputed to have been so many rings that they filled nearly four pecks. Mago recounted to the enraptured senate his brother’s victories over the Roman consuls Scipio the elder at the Ticinus, Sempronius at the Trebbia, Flaminius at Trasimene, and Paullus and Varro at Cannae. Two of the five consuls had been slain on the battlefields. Then Mago told how Hannibal had escaped the trap set by the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus in Campania and how not only Greeks, but Italians from Bruttia, Apulia, Samnia, and Lucania had deserted Rome and flocked to their standards—a slight exaggeration designed to win support in the senate. Hannibal, Mago exclaimed, was close to victory, and it was imperative he be given the resources he needed to finish the war: money, soldiers, and grain.