A brief history of Hannibal’s March
The Carthaginian general Hannibal (247-182 BCE) was one of the greatest military leaders in history. His most famous campaign took place during the Second Punic War (218-202), when he caught the Romans off guard by crossing the Alps.
Rome declared war on Carthage in 218 B.C. In the Spring of that same year, Hannibal departed from New Carthage with approximately 40,000 infantry, comprised of Carthaginians, Iberians, and various other subject peoples of the Carthaginians; 8,000 cavalry; and thirty seven war elephants.
The crossing of the Alps is the most momentous and lauded of his achievements. The exact route of his crossing has been the subject of heated debate for more than 2,000 years.
Hannibal moved his army across the open plains with little resistance since the local tribes were fearful of his cavalry and troops. But once they started into the mountains, the Allobrogian chiefs gathered together a large force and planned an ambush.
The Celtic tribes attacked the Carthaginians at several points at once, and Hannibal’s army suffered heavy losses, not only at the hands of the enemy but because the road they were one was narrow, uneven and flanked by precipices. So the least disorder in the line caused the horses and baggage mules to be forced over the edge of the cliffs.
When Hannibal saw this, he realized that even those who survived this ambush would have no chance of safety if their baggage train were destroyed, and so he took command of the body of troops which had seized the enemy's positions on the previous night, and hurried to the rescue of those at the head of the column
He killed great numbers of the Allobroges, as he had the advantage of attacking them from higher ground, but the losses were equally heavy among his own troops. It was only when he had killed most of the Allobroges and driven off the rest in headlong retreat towards their own territory that the horses and the survivors of the mule train could make their way slowly and with great difficulty over the dangerous stretch of the path.
The next threat came from a large group of Gauls who came out to meet him carrying branches and wreath as tokens of friendship. Hannibal was suspicious of these advances. The Gauls explained that they had no desire to do him harm and promised to deliver up hostages from among their own people
Hannibal was reluctant to believe these assurances and hesitated for a long time; then in the end he decided to agree to their proposals and pretended to accept their professions of friendship. Hannibal trusted them so far as to engage them as guides for the next difficult section of his route. For two days they showed him the way but then the same tribe gathered their forces, and coming up behind the Carthaginians attacked them as they were passing through steep and dangerous part of the pass.
This time Hannibal's army would have been wiped out, but, for the fact that Hannibal had remained suspicious and had stationed his mule train and his cavalry at the head of the column and the heavy infantry in the rear. The infantry covered his main body and were able to check the onslaught of the barbarians, so that the disaster was less serious than it might have been, but even so, a great number of men, pack animals and horses perished in the attack. The enemy had gained the higher ground and could move along the slopes, and from there some of them rolled down rocks, while others struck down their opponents with stones at close quarters
The Carthaginians were thrown into such confusion and felt so threatened by these tactics that Hannibal was compelled to spend the night separated from his cavalry. and from the mule train, and waited to cover their advance, until after a whole night's struggle they slowly and with great difficulty made their way out of the gorge. By the next morning the enemy had broken off contact, and Hannibal was able to rejoin the cavalry and baggage animals and advance towards the top of the pass
He was no longer threatened by any concentration of barbarians, but at a few points on the route he was harassed by scattered groups who took advantage of the ground to launch attacks on his front and rear and carry off some of the pack animals.
His best resource in this situation were the elephants, for the enemy were terrified by their strange appearance, and never dared to approach the part of the column in which they were stationed.
By this date the snow was already gathering around the mountain crests. Hannibal saw that his men had lost heart because of the sufferings they had already endured and the hardships which they believed still lay ahead. So he called his troops together and tried to raise their spirits by showing them the sight of the Italian plains stretching out below them. At the same time he pointed out the direction of Rome itself, and in this way he did something to restore their confidence.
At length they reached a place where the track was too narrow for the elephants or even the pack animals to pass. A previous landslide had already carried away some three hundred meters of the face of the mountain, while a recent one had made the situation still worse.
Hannibal set his troops to work on the immense task of building up the path along the cliff. In one day he had made a track wide enough to take the mule train and the horses; he at once took these across, pitched camp below the snow-line and sent the animals out in search of pasture. Then he took the Numidians and set them in relays to the work of building up the path. After three days he succeeded in getting his elephants across, but the animals were in a miserable condition from hunger
After he had reassembled all his forces Hannibal resumed the descent, and three days after leaving the precipice I have just described he arrived at the plains.
In crossing the Alps, Hannibal took the Romans completely by surprise. They had sent an army under the command of the Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio to intercept Hannibal, which he successfully evaded. The Romans were taken aback due to the fact that they had planned to conduct the war entirely in Spain.
Hannibal was now faced with two problems. The first was that the Gallic tribe in the area of Italy he had reached, the Taurini, were unwilling to fight for him. The second was that his army was critically short of supplies after their long march. He solved both of these problems with an attack on the main hillfort of the Taurini, which he took after a three day siege, after which he massacred the inhabitants. This removed any threat from the Taurini, made other Gallic tribes more likely to aid him, and gained his army the food stored in the fort.
Hannibal now learnt of the presence of Publius Scipio in the area. Both sides advanced towards each other along the River Po, both obviously intending to give battle. Hannibal's plan relied on his gaining support amongst the Gauls, and he could not back down from this first Roman threat, while Scipio acted as all Roman generals of the time did, secure in his belief that his troops were superior. When the two armies finally met, Hannibal's force was the larger, and his cavalry probably superior, and he came out victorious. Scipio, now injured, retreated across the River Trebia and encamped, awaiting reinforcements. This visible sign of Roman weakness encouraged many Gauls to join Hannibal, some deserting from Scipio's army.
Despite this first setback, Roman morale remained good. The other Consul for the year, Sempronius Longus, was ordered north from Sicily with his army, and once he had joined with Scipio’s forces, the Romans once again prepared to attack.
The ground between the two armies was an apparently flat plain, with no risk of ambush, but Hannibal found a hidden gully, where towards the end of December 218 BC he placed a force of 2,000 men under his brother Mago. The next day he was able to provoke the Roman's into giving battle. The resulting battle of the Trebia saw Hannibal defeat a larger Roman force, probably of some 42,000 men. Mago's attack in the Roman rear was the turning point of the battle, although the Roman defeat was still not as severe as those to come. The superior skills of both Hannibal and his army were by now starting to become clear. At the Trebia he had managed to choose both the time and place of battle, and with an unorthodox plan was able to defeat a larger Roman force.
Roman morale was still not badly shaken. Neither consul had been killed, and their successors were appointed as normal. Moreover, Hannibal only had two options. The Apennine mountains which divide Italy forced him to either move down the east coast into Picenum, or cross the Appenine passes into Etruria in the west. To guard against this, one consul, Servilius Geminus was sent to the east coast, the other, Caius Flaminius to guard the passes, each with a normal consular army. Despite pointedly rapid movement by Flaminius, Hannibal still managed to get over the passes unopposed, and once again take control of the situation, this time by marching straight past Flaminius, burning and pillaging as he went, and forcing the Romans to chase him.
Across the end of May and June 217 BC, the two armies marched across Etruria, until Hannibal found an ideal location for an ambush at Lake Trasimene, where the road passed along a narrow stripe on land between the lake on one side and some hills on the other. Hannibal marched through this natural trap, and made camp. Once the Romans were in place at the other end of the defile, Hannibal marched his troops back around the hills, where by daybreak they were in place on the reverse side of the hills, hidden to the Romans, who marched straight into the trap.
The resulting battle of Lake Trasimene (21 June 217 BC) was a crushing defeat for the Romans. Hannibal was able to hold back his attack until almost the entire Roman army was stuck in the trap, only attacking when the front of the Roman column encountered his troops at the exit from the defile. The Romans were trapped against the lake, unable to make any organized resistance. The Roman disaster was made complete a few days later when Hannibal destroyed Geminius's cavalry, coming ahead of the rest of his army, and effectively stopping him in his tracks.
Finally, Rome was panicked. Their reaction was to appoint the 58 year old Quintus Fabius Maximus as Dictator, a post that gave him near total authority for a period of six months. His immediate concern was the defence of the city itself, for many expected Hannibal to march straight to Rome.
Fabius with a new 40,000 strong Roman army came back into contact with Hannibal, but this time he was determined not to offer battle. Instead, his plan was to shadow Hannibal, never giving him a chance for another battle, but snipping away at Punic foragers and restricting the freedom of Hannibal and his men to plunder the areas they passed through.
Hannibal responded by moving back west across the Apennines, and moving into the Ager Falernus, a fertile and prosperous area. Hannibal hoped to provoke Fabius into an attack, but he was not to be shifted from his plan, and simply watched Hannibal ravage the area from the safety of the surrounding mountains. This soon left Hannibal with the problem of how to escape from the area. He chose to return over the same pass he had used to enter the area, a move that was anticipated by Fabius, who blocked the pass.
Hannibal's response has become a classic of military history. At night, he gathered together all the oxen captured by his army, tied burning torches to their horns, and drove them along a ridge near the pass. The Romans guarding the pass saw the lights, and chased off after the oxen, allowing Hannibal and his main army to slip through the pass unopposed.
The two new consuls, Caius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, were each given a double sized consular army, which gave them a combined force of 80,000 men, and once their army was ready this massive force moved off towards Hannibal.
The two consuls caught up with Hannibal near Cannae in mid July 216 and quickly established a camp only a couple of miles from that of Hannibal, a clear sign that battle was desired. The massive Roman force outnumbered Hannibal by close to 30,000 men, and the battlefield would give no obvious advantage to Hannibal.
Hannibal's plan relied on the fighting ability of his men. The Spanish and Celtic infantry were to slowly retreat in the face of the Roman legions, while the Punic cavalry defeated the Roman and Latin horse. Once the Romans had advanced far enough, the heavy Libyan infantry was to plunge into the sides of the by then disordered Roman legions, while the Punic cavalry attacked the rear.
Hannibal's plan was successful. The battle of Cannae (2 August 216 BC), was one of the worst defeats in Roman history. Several hours of fighting saw 50,000 Roman soldiers killed.
-This history is for entertainment purposes only and should never be used as a reference in any academic report or paper.