Hannibal After Cannae III

Members of the pro-Barca faction in the senate were ecstatic over the news and turned to their adversaries, taunting them and asking if they now regretted having initially opposed this glorious war to restore the greatness of Carthage. Hanno, the senator who had consistently argued against war with Rome, rose to speak, and the assembly, deferring to his seniority, fell silent. He explained that while he joined the others in rejoicing at Hannibal’s victories, he remained skeptical. Only when the war was over would the winner be known and, equally as important, its true cost. Hanno expressed concerned that Hannibal had sent Mago to ask for reinforcements and money to continue a war that should have already been concluded months earlier and should have paid for itself with the spoils of victory. While the golden rings of the slain Roman equites were impressive, they were not enough to cover the cost of the reinforcements and supplies Mago was asking for.

Then Hanno directed his attention to Mago and asked if after each of Hannibal’s victories the Romans had sent emissaries to ask for peace. Under forceful questioning, more like cross-examination, Mago was forced to admit they had not. Hanno asked how many Greek city-states and Italian towns, villages, and tribes had left the Roman confederation, and Mago had to admit that not as many had come over to their cause as they would have wished. Mago was forced to concede that the Romans still had considerable resources available to them and could continue the war indefinitely. Hanno agreed that Hannibal had been successful in the short run, but Carthage could not afford a long drawn out conflict against an opponent with such strong resolve and virtually unlimited manpower and resources. Hanno further warned of the vicissitudes of war, pointing out that today’s victory could just as easily be tomorrow’s defeat—as Carthage had found so painfully in the first war against Rome. Now, Hanno argued, was the moment to take advantage of Hannibal’s victories and offer Rome an end to the war on favorable terms. He concluded his speech with a warning to his fellow senators not to become overconfident, for so far, Hannibal had won only battles, not a war.

The senate, elated by Hannibal’s recent victories, was in no mood to listen to Hanno’s pessimism any longer. His long feud with the Barcid clan had made many in the senate leery of him and tired of his continual complaining. It was the consensus of the senate to give Hannibal the resources to continue the war, and they voted to send Mago back to Italy with four thousand Numidian horsemen, forty elephants, and a large quantity of silver. Then, as Mago was preparing to leave, everything changed. Couriers arrived with news that a Carthaginian army under the command of Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, had been defeated by the Scipios on the banks of the Ebro River in Spain.

The Romans had crossed the river early in the spring of 215 B.C. and laid siege to a small town named Ibera. Hasdrubal responded by laying siege to a nearby town, Dertosa (modern-day Tortosa), which was allied with the Romans. The Scipios lifted their siege and moved against Hasdrubal, who met them on a plain near the river. Hasdrubal had two major problems in Spain: the Roman armies, which were pressing him, and increasingly restless and discontented native tribes. Months before, when the senate at Carthage had ordered Hasdrubal to leave Spain and reinforce Hannibal in southern Italy, he warned that if his army left, the country would fall to the Romans. In response, the senate sent another army to Spain under the command of a new general, Himilco, with orders to relieve Hasdrubal and allow him to proceed to Italy.

When the Scipios learned that Hasdrubal would attempt to reach his brother in Italy, they made every effort to stop him—realizing full well that if he succeeded, Rome could lose the war. The brothers concentrated their forces at the Ebro River to stop Hasdrubal from reaching the Pyrenees—the first milestone on his march. They told their soldiers that their families at home were counting on them to prevent Hasdrubal from reaching Italy. Hasdrubal’s Spanish soldiers apparently did not have the same level of commitment. Most of them, especially the infantry, preferred remaining home, even under Roman rule, rather than marching to Italy to fight a war for Carthage. When the two armies clashed, the Spanish center gave way, while on the flanks the Carthaginian mercenaries and the Africans made a much more determined effort to hold the line. Still, their efforts were not enough to counter the Roman push through the center. Casualties among the Spaniards were heavy, and once their lines were breached, discipline broke down and desertions increased quickly. The Carthaginian cavalry, seeing their center collapse under Roman pressure, retreated, leaving the crucial flanks exposed. Hasdrubal suffered a crushing defeat and with a small contingent escaped south to Cartagena. That battle turned the tide of the war in Spain. The Spanish tribes that had been undecided now went over to the Roman side, and Hasdrubal had no hope of leading an army to Italy to relieve his brother. In fact, it would be nine years (207 B.C.) before he would be able to leave Spain and lead a relief column over the Alps to reach Hannibal.

In response to the defeat at the Ebro, the Carthaginian senate ordered Mago and his army to Spain and sent a similar-size force to the island of Sardinia to foment a revolt against the Romans there. Had Hasdrubal won at Ibera and subsequently been able to reach his brother, there would have been four Carthaginian armies in Italy by 214 B.C.—those of Hannibal, Hasdrubal, Mago, and Hanno—and the war may well have taken a different course. The defeat at Ibera meant that Hannibal had effectively lost the resources he needed from Spain, and it devalued most of the political capital he had won in Carthage by his victory at Cannae. The Scipio brothers now divided their forces, with Gnaeus taking charge of the ground troops while Publius commanded the navy. They followed a conservative policy of not directly confronting the Carthaginians, but concentrated on winning over or subjugating the Iberian tribes while raiding Carthaginian strongholds and blockading the coast.

Philip V, the king of Macedon, was pleased when he learned that Hannibal had crossed the Alps, and he was even more so when he received subsequent reports of Hannibal’s triumphs at the Trebbia and Lake Trasimene. Philip had acceded to the throne in 221 B.C. at the age of seventeen, a young monarch with an aggressive disposition. He was eager to drive the Romans from his northern borders—the area called Illyricum (modern-day Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia) and expand his kingdom south into Greece. Philip saw in Hannibal an ally to help him realize his ambitions, but he was careful to remain outwardly neutral so as not to provoke the Romans who were just to his north or those on the Italian mainland just a short sail from his kingdom across the Ionian Sea. Watching the struggle between Carthage and Rome unfold, Philip waited until after Hannibal’s victory at Cannae before he sent envoys to southern Italy to approach him about a formal alliance.

Philip’s envoys set sail from Macedon in the early summer of 215 B.C. They avoided the Italian ports of Brundisium and Tarentum because they were heavily patrolled by the Roman fleet, and landed farther south along the coast, just below Crotone, at the Temple of Lacinian Juno. From there, they made their way overland north into Apulia, and, while looking for Hannibal, were captured by a Roman foraging party. Taken to the praetor Valerius Laevinus near Luceria (slightly northwest of Foggia) for questioning, the most senior ambassador among the Macedonians, one Xenophanes, managed to deceive the praetor by convincing him that the group was on a mission to negotiate an alliance of friendship and mutual assistance between Rome and Macedon. Taken in by the story and impressed with the importance of the mission, Laevinus provided Xenophanes with detailed information on the safest route to Rome and marked which roads and passes his group should follow to avoid falling into Hannibal’s hands. The Macedonians made their way through the Roman lines with a safe conduct, and then into Campania to find Hannibal.

The delegation met with Hannibal and reached agreement on a treaty by which Philip pledged to send a large fleet of two hundred ships to ravage the Adriatic coastline of Italy. The army on board that fleet would then march inland to help Hannibal in subjugating the rest of Italy. At the war’s end, Italy, and all its wealth, would belong to Hannibal who in return pledged to wage war against the enemies of Philip in Greece. By the terms of the treaty the city-states conquered on the Greek mainland and the islands that line the Macedonian coast would become a part of Philip’s new kingdom. The terms are interesting because they reveal Hannibal’s intentions regarding Rome at the end of the war. Indications are that he did not intend to destroy the city, only to reduce its power to a par with the other city-states in Italy.

Three representatives from Carthage were present when Hannibal negotiated the treaty with Philip’s envoys, an indication that Hannibal might not have had unilateral authority to bind Carthage. They might have been part of a permanent political delegation attached to Hannibal’s army or sent to Italy specifically for the purpose of negotiating or approving this particular treaty. But if the latter were the case, why not send them directly from Carthage to Macedon, a much safer venue for the negotiations than Italy? In any case, the bargain having been struck, the delegation set out to return to Macedon, accompanied by the representatives from Carthage. The group made its way south undetected as far as Cape Lacinia, where they boarded a ship that awaited them in a hidden anchorage. While making for the open sea, they were intercepted by Roman ships and, unable to outrun their pursuers, were captured and taken to the consul at Tarentum.

Xenophanes tried once more to bluff his way out of the situation by explaining that his group had been unsuccessful in reaching Rome and were returning to Macedon when they were captured. When the Carthaginian ambassadors were questioned, their speech raised suspicions. Their slaves were tortured to extract confessions about the identity of their masters and the real purpose of their mission. Then the group, Macedonians and Carthaginians alike, were chained and placed on a ship bound for Rome. After clearing the Straits of Massena, the ship put in at Cumae, and the prisoners were sent overland to Rome. When the senators at Rome learned what had transpired between Hannibal and Philip, they voted funds to raise a fleet of fifty ships and send them with an army to keep Philip occupied in Illyricum and out of Italy. Philip had no idea his envoys had been captured, and after several weeks passed and they failed to appear, he sent a new group. While this group succeeded in reaching Hannibal and confirming the terms of the treaty, Philip was now distracted by Roman movements on his northern borders and their attempts to form an anti-Macedonian league among the Greek states to his south. The moment had passed, and now Philip was too preoccupied to support Hannibal. From 214 B.C. until 207 B.C., Philip had plenty of his own problems in Macedon and Greece to worry about and was little help to Hannibal.

Hannibal still needed a major port, and, frustrated in his attempts on the western coast around Neapolis, he turned to the southern Adriatic coast, where there were two possibilities: Tarentum (Taranto) and Brundisium (Brindisi). Brundisium was directly on the Adriatic, across from Illyricum, and provided quick and relatively easy access to Greece—but it was garrisoned by the Romans and heavily patrolled by their ships. Tarentum was located some fifty miles farther inland, on the Gulf of Taranto—an inlet of the Ionian Sea. The port had one of the largest and most protected harbors along the entire eastern coast of Italy and had become an indispensable stop for ships moving between Greece and the western Mediterranean. The city had been founded by the Spartans centuries earlier as a place of exile for their women who had consorted with slaves while their men were at war and who were pregnant or had given birth. The city was built on a peninsula that was separated from the mainland by a waterway, the entry to which was guarded by a citadel, as it still is today. With its double harbors for commercial and military shipping, Tarentum was remarkably like Carthage in appearance. The bay was bountiful in fish and hosted one of the richest purple beds in the Mediterranean waters. These beds contained shellfish and snails that excreted a substance from which a precious purple dye could be made. The color was long associated with royalty, and clothes with purple in them conveyed high status in the ancient world. Wool, brought in from the countryside and dyed with the purple from those beds, transformed the city into the main seat of the ancient textile industry in Italy. Even today, as polluted as the waters are, the bay is still bountiful and the city has spread onto the adjacent mainland.

The port’s only shortcoming was its distance from Carthage. It was considerably longer than the distance from Neapolis and required sailing around the often treacherous and stormy southeastern coast of Sicily. On the positive side, the port was close to Macedon and the king who Hannibal thought would be his new ally—Philip.

In the spring of 214 B.C., Hannibal moved from Arpi, where he had wintered, to Campania. There he probed the fortifications at Neapolis once more, gave up, and then ravaged the small towns and villages along the coast. During that summer, a small delegation of noblemen from Tarentum made their way to his camp at Lake Avernus, just south of Naples, with a plan to hand over their city. All these young men had fought Hannibal as allies of Rome, some at Trasimene and others at Cannae. They survived, were captured, and were later released under Hannibal’s policy of mercy toward Roman allies. As a result, they held him in high esteem. They explained that Tarentum was garrisoned by the Romans, who were supported by many of the aristocrats with ties to Rome, but the common people hated them both and would rise in revolt as soon as he approached the city walls. Trusting in their assurances, Hannibal moved his army east—some 180 miles across Italy from the Lake to Tarentum. But when he arrived at the walls of the city, no revolt took place. After a few days, Hannibal gave up the idea of taking the port and moved back across central Italy for another attempt at taking Neapolis. Frustrated once more in his attempt to take that port city, he ravaged the countryside and returned to Apulia, where he wintered on the Adriatic coast at Salapia (Manfredonia).

Hanno, with an army of twelve hundred Numidians and seventeen thousand recently recruited Italian allies (Bruttians and Lucanians), made his way north to coordinate with Hannibal, who was moving from Salapia across central Italy, back into Campania. As Hanno and his army passed Beneventum, the Roman praetor Tiberius Gracchus approached the city from the other side with a hastily recruited army of slaves. Gracchus had promised any slave who brought him the head of Hanno his freedom and a monetary reward. During the battle, which was fought just outside the city, the slaves began decapitating every dead body they could find and then running with the severed heads to find their commander and claim their freedom. Most of Hanno’s army was killed or captured, or deserted. Hanno managed to escape and reach Hannibal, who now without reinforcements, was forced to return to the safety of Salapia.

Even though Rome had reserves of manpower to draw on, the demands to meet the threat from Hannibal began to stress the free Italian labor market. So many free men, mostly small farmers and laborers, were being conscripted that this resulted in a greater dependence on slaves, especially on the large plantations. There was a constant supply of slave labor to meet the demand, owing to the sale of prisoners of war. The widespread use of slaves began to supplant the use of free hired labor. Thus, small farmers and laborers in Italy, unable to recover from the destruction of their land as a result of the ravages of war and compete with the influx of cheap slave labor, simply went under. This radical altering of the labor pool was one of the lasting effects of the war with Hannibal and would lead to a revolution in the next century. By the end of the war, there were so many slaves in Italy that violent revolts began to occur with increasing frequency. While those revolts were suppressed, an era of enslavement began in Italy on a scale never before seen in the western part of the Mediterranean world and which would become a defining feature of the Roman Empire.

For Hannibal’s soldiers, the winter in Salapia was like the one they had enjoyed in Capua. Even the usually stoic and Spartan Hannibal apparently succumbed when he fell under the spell of a local prostitute. According to one ancient source, Hannibal remained faithful to his wife Imilce and, “in spite of his African birth,” treated women, especially female captives, humanely. Unlike Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, with whom Hannibal is often compared, there are few references to his relationships with women beyond these two. Both Alexander and Caesar, at the other extreme, had as many liaisons with other men and women as they had battles.

From Salapia, Hannibal moved his army south, spending most of the summer of 213 B.C. in an area just west and south of Tarentum, where unforeseen circumstances changed his plans. A group of prominent young nobles from Tarentum were being held under a loose form of house arrest at Rome—probably to insure the allegiance of their city. They managed to escape but were quickly recaptured. The senate ordered them scourged, the usual first step in Roman punishment, and then hurled to their deaths from the infamous Tarpeian Rock—a steep cliff on the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill used for the execution of murderers, traitors, captured runaway slaves, and those who had perjured themselves in court. When news of the execution of these young men reached Tarentum, there was general outrage among the people and a conspiracy formed against the Roman garrison there. A group of young men left the city under the guise of a hunting party to find Hannibal. They offered to help him take the city by subterfuge, and in return he pledged that the people of Tarentum would remain free to live under their own laws and would be ruled by their own elected officials. None of Tarentum’s citizens would be compelled to serve in the Carthaginian army against their will, nor would the city be required to pay tribute to Carthage or accept a Carthaginian garrison. The Romans living in the city would be imprisoned and held for ransom, sold as slaves, or executed as Hannibal saw fit.

The young men had a simple plan for handing over their city. They would return to Tarentum with cattle and explain to the Roman garrison that they had found them while hunting for game. Then over the next several weeks they would establish a pattern of leaving the city at night, through the same gate, on similar hunting expeditions and returning just before dawn with their kills. They set the plan in motion and, when they returned, each time made it a practice to share a portion of their game with the guards on duty and their officers. After several weeks, their hunting expeditions became so routine that the Roman sentries on duty opened the gate at their approach without question or concern for security.

Hannibal assembled a force of some ten thousand men and hid them in a gorge a few miles from the city. On a night agreed upon, the Roman garrison commander was invited to a dinner party at the home of some prominent Tarentines, where he was plied with wine. The young men, returning from their hunting party, approached the gate before dawn carrying a boar. Just as they passed through the gate, a small Carthaginian force behind them pushed its way in, killing the guards and then opening the main gate to the city. Hannibal’s soldiers quickly entered and took control of the streets. Those Roman soldiers who managed to avoid being killed in the initial attack retreated to the safety of the citadel. Once Hannibal was inside, the Tarentines surrendered the city, but the citadel was another matter. Its walls were thick and high, and manned by a garrison that numbered about five thousand. Because the citadel commanded the entrance to the city’s harbor, the garrison could be supplied indefinitely by Roman ships, making a long siege out of the question. Hannibal left the problem in the hands of the Tarentines and returned to Campania where the Romans had begun a siege of Capua. Although the loss of Tarentum was a major setback for the Romans, they eventually retook the city in 209 B.C.

The Romans reacted to the fall of Tarentum by laying siege to Capua (212 B.C.). Capua in turn asked Hannibal for help, and he responded by leading his forces once more across central Italy to the walls of the city. There an indecisive struggle took place between Hannibal’s forces and the two consular armies that had laid siege to the city. When a third Roman army arrived on the scene, Hannibal withdrew, moving his army back to the Adriatic coast around Brundisium, nearly 250 miles away. There, either unable or unwilling to besiege Brundisium, he returned to Capua the following year (211 B.C.) and made another unsuccessful attempt to relieve the siege. It is difficult to understand what was going through Hannibal’s mind as he moved his army, seemingly in haphazard fashion, from one coast to the other, and then back again—failing each time to accomplish his objective.

The country around Capua was open, which would have given Hannibal, with his cavalry and elephants, a tactical advantage over the Romans. But the Romans had constructed double walls, a circumvallation, around Capua and remained securely behind them, ignoring Hannibal’s repeated challenges to come out and fight on the open ground. In frustration, Hannibal launched an assault against the outer walls of the Roman encampment, coordinated with an attack from within the city by the Capuans. Both failed, and, in frustration, Hannibal broke off the assault and moved his army north against Rome. While the move might have been intended to draw the legions surrounding Capua away to defend Rome, it failed as the Romans remained within their defensive walls and continued the siege.

With Hannibal gone, Capua was left on its own. With a double wall and three Roman legions surrounding the city, the Carthaginian garrison inside and the Capuans who supported them felt abandoned. The garrison complained that “the Roman as an enemy is more steadfast and trustworthy than the Carthaginian as a friend.” Couriers were able to make their way out of the city, carrying messages begging Hannibal for help. Most were captured by the Romans, had their hands cut off, and then were sent back to the city. With supplies running dangerously low and no prospect of help from the outside, Capua faced slow but inevitable starvation.

When Hannibal arrived outside Rome, he took one look at the city’s formidable defenses and left. He had neither the numbers nor the siege machinery necessary to breach those walls, and if his intent was to draw off the forces besieging Capua, it failed. When the Romans learned Hannibal was near, initially they feared that he must have destroyed their armies at Capua; otherwise, they thought, he never would have been bold enough to attack them. But Hannibal had played his gambit, and it failed. His decision to march on Rome appears to have been impulsive or born of frustration. Later Roman writers maintained that Rome was saved in 211 B.C. because the gods favored the city and sent a hailstorm to drive Hannibal away.

The prospect of starvation finally drove the Capuans to surrender. The most strident of the anti-Roman senators in the doomed city committed suicide. One group attended a lavish dinner party the night before the Romans entered, and after a sumptuous feast with copious amounts of wine, the host served poison to his guests in little dessert dishes—of which all willingly partook. Others died by their own hands the next day. The Romans occupied the city and set about arresting those senators they suspected of having sided with Hannibal and agitated for Capua to leave the confederation. Fifty-three senators were tried, convicted, scourged, and beheaded, all within the same day. The inhabitants of the city who survived were sold on the slave markets, while their property was confiscated in the name of the people and senate of Rome. The senate at Rome ordered the city-state politically dissolved, and Capua was quickly overrun by a horde of Roman speculators, all looking to profit from its misfortune. Capua fell because the Romans were persistent in maintaining and pressing their siege—something that proved greater than Hannibal’s ability to rescue the city. The city was severely punished because in Roman eyes, its people had been cowardly and duplicitous. They simply had bet on the wrong horse and lost. Over time, a century or two later, the Roman attitude toward the city moderated. Capua recovered and prospered, even becoming a principal center for the training of gladiators. In 73 B.C., it was the site of the largest slave revolt in Roman history, led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus.