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  • James Houser

207 BC - The Battle of the Metaurus River

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

SEPTEMBER 16 - 207 BC. Rome and Carthage are locked in the mortal struggle known as the Second Punic War. The Roman Republic’s most feared enemy Hannibal is still loose with his unbeaten army deep in Roman territory in southern Italy. Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal Barca, has marched from Spain with an army of his own to link up with his famous brother. If they join their forces, Rome might be finished. The fate of the West will be decided at the Metaurus River.


Let’s rewind. On August 2, I described how the Roman Republic had mustered almost its entire army to crush Hannibal once and for all at the Battle of Cannae. In one of history’s great tactical victories, Hannibal of Carthage had triumphed. Outnumbered two to one, he surrounded the 80,000 man Roman army and hacked it to pieces in a day. After Cannae, it looked like Hannibal was unstoppable. He was coming off an unbroken string of victories over one Roman army after another, and no matter what they threw at him he always seemed to come out on top. Now, with the defeat of the largest army the Republic had ever mustered in its history, Hannibal was on the verge of victory. And Rome looked like it was about to give up.


And I’ll be honest with you: they really should have. If I were in charge of Rome, I would have asked for terms. Because Hannibal was boss of Italy right now. Over the last century, the Roman Republic had conquered most of southern Italy and Sicily, forcing rival tribes, cities, and clans to submit. These included the Samnites in the south as well as the Greek cities of the Italian coast, cities like Capua and Tarentum in southern Italy or Syracuse in Sicily. With the Roman defeat at Cannae, many of these cities saw an opportunity to throw off their shackles and throw in with Hannibal and Carthage. This, in fact, had been Hannibal’s strategy all along: not to destroy Rome outright, but to tear away its allies and subjects, to reduce it to just another Italian city rather than the superpower it had become.


Along the way, Rome had suffered grievously. Within the last three years, they had lost about 150,000 men dead or captured – one fifth of their entire male population. The scale of the disaster at Cannae can be seen in one anecdote. After the battle, Hannibal sent his brother Mago back to Carthage to ask for reinforcements and supplies. Mago brought with him a bag, which he emptied on the floor in front of the Carthaginian Senate: a bag of all the golden signet rings taken from the hands of dead Roman nobles at Cannae. After Cannae Rome held a national day of mourning, since there was no family who had not lost a member in these last three years of battle against Hannibal. The Romans even resorted to a handful of human sacrifices, an old practice which had fallen out of favor in recent centuries. This looked like a society in its last days.


Or so it seemed. After a series of disastrous battlefield defeats, the death of many of their leaders, the slaughter of their men, and the scorching of their homeland, the Romans were above all DEFIANT. They refused to negotiate with Hannibal. They declared full mobilization of the whole Roman population, raised new armies, enlisted landless men and even slaves. After the mourning period was over, public mourning was prohibited, and women were even banned from crying in public. Despite being in total disarray, with no remaining army and no clear leaders, the Romans refused to give up. That does not mean they were not distraught, or suffering, or aware of how badly they had been beaten over and over again. But just like America has learned to its dismay when facing modern guerrilla warfare, no one is defeated unless they consider themselves to be defeated. Rome refused to admit defeat when any other people or nation in its place would have admitted defeat – and they were eventually proven right.


But not yet. Hard days, months, years were still ahead. The Romans began to scrape together new armies, even arming slaves or Carthaginian prisoners, to continue the war at any price. Hannibal was puzzled; he expected offers for peace or surrender after the Battle of Cannae, but the Romans simply refused to acknowledge their ultimate failure. Hannibal’s army had taken a number of Romans prisoner at Cannae, and offered to ransom them for much-needed gold for his army. The Romans, however, refused to engage in any sort of diplomatic negotiations with Hannibal as long as he remained in Italy, even to ransom their family members. Not only that – Rome actually passed a law *forbidding* anyone to *try* to ransom their relatives, on pain of death. There would be no negotiating with terrorists, to use a modern turn of phrase.


So after all this, the Romans kept fighting. Somehow. And not just for a little while – the war went on for YEARS. Hannibal rampaged around Italy, and whenever he got his hooks in a Roman army he would tear it up. He liberated any city that asked for his assistance, and soon Rome faced a full-blown disintegration of its power base in Italy. Hannibal even threatened Rome itself once or twice, and the whole Republic lived in mortal fear of his army. There is a reason that for centuries afterwards, “Hannibal at the gates” was a Roman phrase meaning imminent disaster.


But for all that, Hannibal’s position actually began to deteriorate after Cannae. Fabius Maximus – the famous “Delayer”, whose tactics of avoidance and attrition had been abandoned right before the Battle of Cannae – returned to power in Rome. Rome never again put all its armies into one big bunch; instead, multiple smaller armies harassed and raided Hannibal’s forces as they struggled to survive within Italy. The Romans always had the advantage of numbers, but by avoiding battle with Hannibal whenever possible they avoided serious tactical defeat. Instead, they would pick off his detachments, raid his supply lines, and most importantly punish mercilessly any city that defected from Roman authority.


The situation has been described as a giant bear being hounded by a pack of dogs. The bear alone is stronger than any of the dogs, even the biggest dog, and the bear will probably tear up one or two of the mutts in the struggle. Eventually, though, the dogs will tire the bear out; the outcome is inevitable. Hannibal was the bear, but the Roman dogs were starting to cut away at him little by little.


Hannibal had crossed into Italy in 218 BC, and had won his great victory at Cannae in 216 BC, but ten years later – 208 BC – Hannibal’s fortunes had fallen markedly. Most of the cities he had won over had fallen back to the Romans, by persuasion or by force. The problem with winning a city’s allegiance was that Hannibal now had to defend the city, which meant dividing his army. Since the Romans always attacked where Hannibal wasn’t, the Carthaginian general was reduced to playing whack-a-mole. All this time, his army steadily declined, his veteran soldiers died or deserted, and reinforcements came in a mere trickle.


Even worse, Rome was waging its real war elsewhere. Carthage drew most of its reinforcements and supplies from its overseas empire in Spain, and several Roman leaders had pinpointed Spain as Carthage’s weak point. Among them was the young Publius Cornelius Scipio, a brilliant young Roman noble who had survived Cannae and led a band of refugees away from the disaster. Scipio’s father had been killed fighting the Carthaginians in Spain, and Scipio – not even 30 – was sent to take up his father’s command. Scipio arrived in Spain and just started WINNING, smashing up the Carthaginian armies in every battle he fought.


Scipio’s chief opponent in Spain was Hannibal’s younger brother Hasdrubal. When Hannibal had left Spain for his long march across the Alps way back in 218 BC, he had left his brother in charge, instructing him to send reinforcements and supplies when he got the chance. Instead of getting the chance, Hasdrubal had been mobbed by Roman armies pretty much immediately. He had held his own for a while, killing Scipio’s dad, but then Scipio himself arrived and started making life hell for Hasdrubal. In 209 BC, he beat Hasdrubal in a large battle at Baecula, and captured Carthage’s chief naval base at Carthago Nova.


The naval base in particular was important, because Rome had one ace in the hole throughout the Second Punic War that delivered their victory: command of the sea. Ever since Rome had beaten Carthage’s fleets in the First Punic War back in the 240s BC, the Roman navy held an iron grip on the Western Mediterranean. The reason Hannibal had to march overland over the Alps, the reason only a trickle of reinforcements could reach him, the reason Carthage was never able to land another army in Italy – all of this boiled down to Rome’s control over the sea. To bring serious reinforcements to Hannibal, Carthage’s troops would have to take the same route Hannibal had taken back in 218 BC – over the Alps and into northern Italy.


Hannibal had realized his strategy was not working, and also learned of Carthage’s defeats in Spain. Putting two and two together, the great general realized that time was not on his side; he would only grow weaker, and the Romans would only grow stronger. It was time to bring Carthage’s two main armies together in a final bid to capture Rome and destroy his nemesis once and for all. In 208 BC, Hannibal sent a message asking Hasdrubal in Spain to join him in Italy. This would require Hasdrubal slipping past Scipio, making his way through the Alps, and somehow winding his way through Italy to link up with his brother. This would also ultimately mean abandoning Spain to Scipio – but it would be worth it if their armies could link up and strike a fatal blow against Rome.


Very soon, though, he made progress. Hasdrubal was able to sneak his army past Scipio’s scouts, and by the time Scipio got wind of his foe’s movements, the Carthaginian general was well on his way into southern France. He spent the winter picking up recruits from the local tribes. By spring of 207 BC, Hasdrubal was crossing the Alps with a veteran army and a whole horde of war elephants. Unlike his brother, Hasdrubal had an easy crossing, thanks to new allies and the old path that Hannibal had carved out of the mountains. Soon Hasdrubal was loose in northern Italy, and heading south to rendezvous with his brother, hopefully forming an unstoppable sledgehammer of an army.


The Romans lost their shit. To them, this was the biggest emergency since Cannae nine years before: the idea of facing Hannibal with his experienced brother, twice the numbers, fresh horses and men, and another pack of war elephants was almost too terrifying to think about. Rome’s two Consuls (elected generals) quickly headed off to face their foes. Marcus Livius took his army north to stop Hasdrubal, while Gaius Claudius Nero headed south to distract and head off Hannibal. If the Romans could prevent the brothers from linking up, they might be able to save the Republic.


At first, they weren’t able to accomplish much. Hannibal refused to be penned up, and he and Nero engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse across southern Italy. In the meantime, Hasdrubal’s army continued to march south, and the cautious Livius was unable to offer serious resistance. The big break for the Romans finally came when some of Nero’s scouts intercepted a note from Hasdrubal to Hannibal: Hasdrubal wanted to link up with Hannibal in east-central Italy.


With this note in hand, Nero left a force to shadow Hannibal and broke off with half his army, racing north to join Livius. Since Hannibal never received the note, he didn’t know to march off and save his brother – and since the Romans DID get the note, they knew exactly where Hasdrubal was headed. On the way, Nero picked up recruits and volunteers along his route, many of whom realized that this might finally be the critical moment in the war.


Nero arrived to reinforce Livius and convinced his fellow Consul to offer battle as quickly as possible, before Hasdrubal or Hannibal picked up on the sudden change in plans. Hasdrubal, though, had already noticed that his foe’s army was much larger than it had been before – and had no intention of fighting in these conditions. He withdrew under cover of darkness with the intent of retreating back up the Italian Peninsula and trying another route. Hasdrubal’s Italian guides deserted him, however, just as he reached the banks of the Metaurus River. Hasdrubal and his army searched fruitlessly for a ford to cross the river as Nero and Livius approached with their combined Roman army.


As the next day dawned, the Romans arrived to find Hasdrubal trapped with his back to the Metaurus. The Carthaginians reluctantly prepared for battle. By this point Hasdrubal had 30,000 men, and the Roman generals had combined about 40,000 – with Nero’s reinforcements and volunteers providing that additional edge.


The Battle of the Metaurus River was weighted against Hasdrubal from the start, but the Carthaginian forces came out roaring. Hasdrubal placed his forces in three units: allied units of Gauls on his left behind the protection of a ravine, Italian recruits in the center behind a protective screen of war elephants, and the hardened Spanish veterans under his command on the right. The Romans drew up in a mirroring formation, with Nero’s reinforcements and recruits on the Roman right – facing the Gauls. As the battle commenced, the main Roman and Carthaginian forces engaged in a bitter, confused melee. The heavily armored legionaries crashed into tough ranks of armored Iberian swordsmen and fierce Ligurian warriors. No one was winning the battle by midday, and it looked like Hasdrubal might still escape his bloody stalemate.


On the Roman right, though, Nero was having trouble. He could not make any headway against the Gauls due to the ravine that separated them. As he peered closely at his foes, he realized that many of the Gallic soldiers were drunk. Nero made a quick, brilliant tactical decision that turned the tide of the battle. Leaving a thin screen facing the Gauls, he marched the bulk of his force all the way behind his own lines to wheel around onto the Carthaginian flank. Much like a “castling” move in chess, this maneuver turned a previously successful portion of the battle into a sudden crisis for Carthage.


Like a swinging door, Nero’s legionaries slammed around onto the flank and rear of Hasdrubal’s infantry. Despite Hasdrubal’s charismatic and brilliant leadership, the Spanish spearmen buckled under the weight of the charge. As they were slowly driven back into the river, struggling and screaming to escape in the muddy banks of the Metaurus, Hasdrubal rode alone into the Roman lines in order to die fighting. The Romans obliged him. The Carthaginian elephants, gone mad, had to be killed by their riders when they became uncontrollable. The Carthaginian army finally collapsed by nightfall.


The Battle of the Metaurus River was a devastating defeat for Carthage, and one that finally turned the tide of the war. Nero wasted no time before hustling back to rejoin his own army facing Hannibal, and after only six days had resumed his post. In those six days, Gaius Claudius Nero’s quick and decisive thinking on TWO occasions had ended any hope Hannibal may have had of defeating Rome. News of the victory caused momentous celebration in Rome; it was their first ever victory over the Carthaginians in Italy.


Allegedly, the first news Hannibal received of the battle was when a lone rider approached his camp and tossed a weighted sack into the Carthaginian lines. When it was taken to Hannibal and opened, Hasdrubal’s head was found inside. (“WHAT’S IN THE BAAAAG?”) Either way, the message was clear: your brother is dead. His army is dead. No hope is coming.


Hannibal had had his own way in Rome for 11 years, defeating everything Rome had thrown at him, but his losses and declining fortunes meant that he needed reinforcements to finish his victory, and Hasdrubal’s defeat meant that would never happen. Even worse, Hasdrubal had made an enormous gamble by abandoning Spain to Scipio, who next year would finish conquering the province for Rome, destroying Carthage’s final power base in the Mediterranean.


It was the beginning of the end for Carthage. Five years later, Scipio and Hannibal – the two greatest generals of their age – would face off in North Africa for the final battle of the war. Tune in on September 20 for the end of the Second Punic War and the Battle of Zama.

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