Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hannibal stuns Rome: The Second Punic War


If Carthage were to defeat Rome, it would have defeated Rome in the Second Punic War. Having recovered its strength after the First Punic War, and now with healthy respect for the Roman navy, Carthage was further expanding onto the Iberian Peninsula.  Rome was invading from the north. The trigger of open hostility again took form in the manner of an appeal. An independent Greek city in Carthaginian territory named Saguntum, allied with Rome, requested Roman help to counter a siege by Carthage. Rome agreed, and the war commenced in 219 BC when one of the most talented military leaders in history, Hannibal, launched an invasion of Italy via the Alps. With battle elephants and an army of more than 26,000, supplemented by Gauls, for 16 years Hannibal marched in Italy wreaking havoc on the countryside and defeating Roman army after Roman army.


The Romans met their first setback at Ticinus on the north side of the Poe River. During the next engagement at the river Trebia, Hannibal fooled the Romans. He feigned an attack and lured the Roman army to his side of the river, where it was overwhelmed by attacks on their front, rear and flanks. The Romans recuperated and interposed more forces between Hannibal and Rome, blocking two roads leading to their capitol city. Hannibal bypassed these routes and crossed the Appennine mountains, driving south through the marshes of Etruria. The Roman army followed, but Hannibal had laid a trap on the heights of the northern shore of  Lake Trasimene, over a passage through which the Romans had to enter to continue pursuit. The ensuing Carthaginian ambush [217 BC] killed 15,000 Roman soldiers and destroyed their army. Rome felt vulnerable. The Senate appointed a dictator named Fabius who ordered a policy of disengagement. Rome would harass Hannibal but not do battle. Some wonder why Hannibal didn’t march on Rome then and there. Instead he turned east and entered the fertile valley of Campania, laying waste with intent to provoke Fabius to battle. The dictator chose to block the surrounding mountain passes; Hannibal ordered a stampede of cattle with burning fagots tied to their horns up a mountain side, and the Romans guarding the pass fled at the unexpected and alien demonstration. Hannibal escaped, moving his army into Apulia, and Rome, disaffected with Fabian, selected two aggressive Roman consuls to pursue the war. The Italian cities remained loyal, and Rome raised armies anew.

Battle of Cannae

Eighty thousand Roman infantry and six thousand Calvary eventually drew opposite Hannibal in 216 BC at the small town of Cannae on the Aufidus River. Hannibal commanded forty thousand infantry and ten thousand calvary. He placed his weakest Spanish and Gallic infantry in front. On both flanks he put hardened African infantry. He positioned his Calvary troop on the left flank. When the legions attacked it drove the front line defenders back deep into the field of battle. The steady Carthaginian flank forces subsequently attacked and their Calvary circled and assaulted from the rear. The battle turned into no less than a massacre; in some circles seventy thousand Romans are reported to have been slain.

Every abode in Rome filled with gloom. No greater defeat had been inflicted in two hundred years, and Rome staggered at the loss of so many men.

Some Italian allies now switched allegiance. The Apulians, the Lucanians, the Samnites and the Bruttians declared for Carthage, as did Syracuse. Sicilian cities wavered in loyalty. The prosperous Italian city of Capua defected and Tarentum was deceived into Carthaginian hands. The king of Macedonia, Philip V, further threatened Rome by making an alliance with Carthage.

In the annals of history it appears clear. The question of whether Carthage might have defeated Rome is not idle. If it were, the debate would not continue today.  

To be continued next post...

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