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  • James Houser

June 21, 217 BC - The Rise of Hannibal & the Battle of Lake Trasimene

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 21, 217 BC. A Roman army steps into a perfect ambush on their way through northern Italy. Hannibal, nemesis and bogeyman of the Roman Republic, unleashes a deadly assault on the shores of Lake Trasimene. The stage is set for the climactic war of the ancient world.


Hannibal. The very name conjures up images, and the most common one is of elephants crossing the Alps. To the Romans, though, the name Hannibal meant something very specific and terrifying – mortal, existential dread. In their long history, the Roman state faced many threats and challenges, but Hannibal came closer than anyone else to smashing it into pieces and wiping it from the map. He assumed demonic proportions in the Roman imagination, enough that the phrase “Hannibal ante portes” (Hannibal at the gates) became a catchphrase for centuries, used to denote imminent doom or the edge of disaster – because that was what Hannibal represented to the Roman Empire.


Hannibal was a citizen of Carthage, Rome’s major rival during its rise from small city-state to massive empire. In the First Punic War, a 23-year conflict from 264 to 241 BC, Rome and Carthage had come into conflict over the island of Sicily, midway between Carthage’s position on the North African coast and Rome’s territories in southern Italy. After an agonizing back-and-forth of victory and defeat, disaster and triumph, Rome had emerged on top. They had not been kind in victory, confiscating almost all of Carthage’s lands outside Africa, including Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. This left Carthage very sour and thirsting for revenge.


No one in Carthage wanted revenge more than her best general, Hamilcar Barca. Once the war was over, in 237 BC Hamilcar took a Carthaginian army into Spain to conquer a new empire that could replace the one Carthage had just lost. He took his family with him, including three young sons – the “lion’s brood” that would become the scourge of Rome. He taught his sons the art of war, as well as hatred for Rome. When Hamilcar died in a Spanish ambush in 222 BC, his military command, all the lands of Spain, and his army fell to his oldest son Hannibal.


Hannibal was in a strange position: though he was Carthage’s top general in Spain, he hadn’t even seen his city of origin since he was a boy. It took him several more years to complete his father’s domination of Spain, by which time he had an excellent army of North African and Spanish troops under his command. He still harbored a desire for revenge against the Romans; at his father’s wish, Hannibal and his brothers made holy promises of eternal hatred and vengeance against Rome, and he wanted to fulfill those oaths. The Carthaginian elite did not want to start a new war, so Hannibal would have to manufacture one.


The Romans were not blind to the threat this talented young general posed. They had been trying to rally up anti-Hannibal elements in Spain for some time, and made alliances with several key cities including the coastal city of Saguntum. Hannibal successfully used this as a wedge issue to rally support for his war in Carthage itself, and in 219 BC raised an open challenge to Roman power by besieging, taking and sacking Saguntum. The Romans reacted furiously, demanding that the Carthaginian senate disavow and turn Hannibal over for his violation of the peace.


The rulers of Carthage, though, were right where Hannibal wanted them. They had to choose between retaining their best general and their empire, which meant war with Rome, or giving both up, which meant permanent Roman domination of Carthage. Hannibal had forced the choice on them, but they would have had to make the decision at one point or another regardless.


When Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Roman representative, appeared before the rulers of Carthage, he declared “Here, we bring peace and war. Take which you will.” The Carthaginians, still on the fence, replied, “Whichever you please.” Fabius responded angrily, “We give you war.” The Senate shouted at him, “We accept it!” So began the Second Punic War.


The Senate expected Hannibal to remain in Spain and defend it from Roman invasion, but the brilliant general had other ideas. Hannibal understood that if Carthage sat back and let the Romans do whatever they wanted, they would use their superior resources and manpower to eventually crush their weaker rival. Hannibal believed the only way for Carthage to win was to take the war into Roman territory, tear its budding empire apart, and threaten the city itself. Just playing defense would mean a sure Roman victory; if they attacked, Carthage at least had a chance.


The problem was getting to Italy. Its victory in the First Punic War had given Rome virtual control of the western Mediterranean. It would be impossible for Hannibal to sail across the sea and land his army in Italy as long as Roman fleets patrolled the waters. The only other way into Italy was the long and perilous passage overland through Spain, southern France, and over the passes of the Alps. This was a challenging journey; there were no roads and much of the terrain was wilderness, populated by tribal Gauls and Germans. Once Hannibal reached the Alps, crossing the Alpine passes with a large army would be close to impossible – but it was the only way. Hannibal had one big advantage: it was such a crazy idea that the Romans never thought he would try it.


In May 218 BC, Hannibal started his long trek north from the coast of Spain. He brought a formidable force of about 60,000 men and 80 elephants on the expedition, and the task of taking this large army over virtual wilderness required extensive preparation and planning. Hannibal and his army had multiple clashes with Gallic tribes and small Roman detachments on their approach to the Alps, but by October they had begun to ascend the passes.


Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps has passed into legend, and for good reason. It is no small task to cross the Alps in good weather, but by October the passes were already packed with snow, and the vast army had little to no food or shelter for their pack animals, elephants and men. Only Hannibal’s leadership and the discipline he and his father had given to this army kept them together through the terrible ordeal, but this was not enough to preserve the force intact. The several week-long epic journey killed many men and animals through falls, frostbite, and attacks by mountain tribes; at some points, Hannibal’s engineers had to build paths where no paths existed.


All this meant that when Hannibal’s army emerged on the other side of the Alps in November 218 BC, he had suffered staggering losses – over half his men and nearly all of his elephants. The men who survived were exhausted and demoralized. In spite of all of this, they had accomplished their mission: they were now in northern Italy and on Roman territory.


There was no time to rest. A Roman patrol ran into Hannibal’s force, and the news went out across Italy like a thunderbolt. The Romans were shocked that Hannibal had suddenly appeared at their backdoor with any kind of army, and soon had about 40,000 men barreling north to intercept him. Hannibal was able to beef up his own army by recruiting among the Gallic tribes of northern Italy, who had long been enemies of Rome and had suffered major defeats at Roman hands recently. This was to be a major hallmark of Hannibal’s strategy: aiding and recruiting cities and tribes that still chafed under the thumb of Roman rule.


Hannibal planned a battle with the Roman army in northern Italy. Rather than avoiding battle like many commanders would when they were outnumbered, Hannibal deliberately sought battle, confident his tactical abilities and diverse army would triumph over the Roman militia legions. He decided to fight his first battle on a plain near the Trebbia River, which divided his force from the Roman camp.


The Battle of the Trebbia was a disaster for Rome, and possibly one of the greatest tactical victories in military history. Even though his army was exhausted and weakened by the crossing of the Alps, Hannibal used the Romans’ trademark aggressiveness to his advantage by baiting the glory-seeking Roman general to attack before his troops were prepared. The result was that the Romans walked straight into Hannibal’s trap. As his light infantry wore them down and his elephants kept the cavalry at bay, Hannibal unleashed a hidden force from the woods that threw the Romans into a panic. Many were killed on the field, and many more drowned in the icy, swollen waters of the Trebbia.


The victory at the Trebbia was only the first step. Hannibal and his men spent the winter among the Gauls, and the climate was so bleak that they suffered almost as badly in camp as they had in the Alps. Nevertheless, by spring Hannibal was ready to take his army and march south. Almost all his elephants were now dead, and his 40,000-man army was a patchwork from all parts of the Mediterranean: North African cavalry, Spanish infantry, and light Gallic troops from Italy and France.


Regardless, the Romans treated him seriously. It had been a long time since a serious threat had challenged them in their homelands; the last was Pyrrhus of Epirus, and he had never won a smashing victory like the Trebbia. The Romans sent an army north under Gaius Flaminius Nepos, a political opponent of Rome’s elite and a popular reformist politician. Flaminius was excessively concerned with his political prospects, and was worried that any mistake or error would ruin his public career. Hannibal gained wind of this and planned on making the most of it.


Flaminius took up position on the north-south road through Italy with his own army of 40,000 Roman soldiers, placing himself between Hannibal and Rome. Flaminius left the allegedly impenetrable Arnus Marshes to his west unguarded, assuming that no army could pass through it. If he had taken a moment to think, he might have remembered that no one thought Hannibal could pass through the Alps in winter either.


Hannibal led his army through the marshes, completely bypassing his foe’s legions. He paid a price. Hannibal contracted a swamp disease during the difficult crossing, and his troops mounted their leader on the last remaining elephant to allow him to recover. Hannibal survived the illness, but lost an eye in the process, giving him the haunting visage that the Romans were already coming to know and fear.


Flaminius had been caught completely off guard, and realized with shock that Hannibal was now between him and Rome. He came racing south with his army to intercept the invader, throwing caution to the wind and barely bothering to keep security on his column. This was exactly what Hannibal wanted: to throw his conscientious, inexperienced enemy into panic.


There was an ideal ambush position on the road to Rome as it wound past Lake Trasimene. At this spot, the road passed narrowly between some wooded hills and the shores of the lake. Hannibal positioned his army behind the hills and blocked the southern end of the road with obstacles and some infantry. Flaminius ran into the roadblock and believed that he had caught up with the tail end of Hannibal’s army: he might win the race to Rome!


There was no race to Rome. Hannibal’s target wasn’t the city itself, but the Roman army. As Flaminius’s men crowded forward in an attempt to overwhelm the blockade, Hannibal’s army exploded from the forest. His cavalry cut the road leading north. This pinned the entire Roman army between Hannibal’s onrushing assault and the shore of the lake. Thousands of Romans fled into the water, where their heavy armor caused many to drown. Those of the Romans who did not drown were hacked to death in the road or escaped into the woods. Flaminius himself died at the hands of a Gallic warrior.


If Trebbia had been a Roman defeat, Lake Trasimene was a catastrophe. The entire Roman army had been virtually annihilated, and the survivors trickled into Rome itself spreading news of panic, a terrible slaughter, and the imminent approach of the Carthaginian hordes. It was only the latest in a series of terrible shocks for Rome. If the arrival of Hannibal in Italy hadn’t been bad enough, and his first victory a rude awakening to the new reality of this war, the massacre at Lake Trasimene cemented Hannibal’s place as Rome’s arch-nemesis: the deadliest threat they had ever faced.


New of the defeat caused panic in Rome, but the elites of the Senate remained firm. There would be no peace, no negotiations, and no end to the war until Hannibal was defeated and out of Italy. Where many other ancient cities and civilizations would have thrown in the towel and made terms after such a series of terrible defeats, Rome would not yield. This war was only beginning.


Hannibal moved on. He would bring Rome to his knees even if it cost him everything. The unstoppable force had met the immovable object. The Romans probably figured things couldn’t get any worse…but they could. Tune in on August 2.


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