Hannibal - Jacob Abbott

Opening of the Second Punic War

When the tide once turns in any nation in favor of war, it generally rushes on with great impetuosity and force, and bears all before it. It was so in Carthage in this instance. The party of Hanno were thrown entirely into the minority and silenced, and the friends and partisans of Hannibal carried not only the government, but the whole community with them, and every body was eager for war. This was owing, in part, to the natural contagiousness of the martial spirit, which, when felt by one, catches easily, by sympathy, in the heart of another. It is a fire which, when once it begins to burn, spreads in every direction, and consumes all that comes in its way.

Besides, when Hannibal gained possession of Saguntum, he found immense treasures there, which he employed, not to increase his own private fortune, but to strengthen and confirm his civil and military power. The Saguntines did every thing they could to prevent these treasures from falling into his hands. They fought desperately to the last, refused all terms of surrender, and they became so insanely desperate in the end, that, according to the narrative of Livy, when they found that the walls and towers of the city were falling in, and that all hope of further defense was gone, they built an enormous fire in the public streets, and heaped upon it all the treasures which they had time to collect that fire could destroy, and then that many of the principal inhabitants leaped into the flames themselves, in order that their hated conquerors might lose their prisoners as well as their spoils.

Notwithstanding this, however, Hannibal obtained a vast amount of gold and silver, both in the form of money and of plate, and also much valuable merchandise, which the Saguntine merchants had accumulated in their palaces and warehouses. He used all this property to strengthen his own political and military position. He paid his soldiers all the arrears due to them in full. He divided among them a large additional amount as their share of the spoil. He sent rich trophies home to Carthage, and presents, consisting of sums of money, and jewelry, and gems, to his friends here, and to those whom he wished to make his friends. The result of this munificence, and of the renown which his victories in Spain had procured for him, was to raise him to the highest pinnacle of influence and honor. The Carthaginians chose him one of the suffetes.

The suffetes were the supreme executive officers of the Carthaginian commonwealth. The government was, as has been remarked before, a sort of aristocratic republic, and republics are always very cautious about intrusting power, even executive power, to any one man. As Rome had two  consuls, reigning jointly, and France, after her first revolution, a Directory of five, so the Carthaginians chose annually two suffetes, as they were called at Carthage, though the Roman writers call them indiscriminately suffetes, consuls, and kings; so that, in conjunction with his colleague, he held the supreme civil authority in Carthage, besides being invested with the command of the vast and victorious army in Spain.

When news of these events—the siege and destruction of Saguntum, the rejection of the demands of the Roman embassadors, and the vigorous preparations making by the Carthaginians for war—reached Rome, the whole city was thrown into consternation. The senate and the people held tumultuous and disorderly assemblies, in which the events which had occurred, and the course of proceeding which it was incumbent on the Romans to take, were discussed with much excitement and clamor. The Romans were, in fact, afraid of the Carthaginians. The campaigns of Hannibal in Spain had impressed the people with a strong sense of remorseless and terrible energy of his character; they at once concluded that his plans would be formed for marching into Italy, and they even anticipated the danger of his bringing the war up to the very gates of the city, so as to threaten them  with the destruction which he had brought upon Saguntum. The event showed how justly they appreciated his character.

Since the conclusion of the first Punic war, there had been peace between the Romans and Carthaginians for about a quarter of a century. During all this time both nations had been advancing in wealth and power, but the Carthaginians had made much more rapid progress than the Romans. The Romans had, indeed, been very successful at the outset in the former war, but in the end the Carthaginians had proved themselves their equal. They seemed, therefore, to dread now a fresh encounter with these powerful foes, led on, as they were now to be, by such a commander as Hannibal.

They determined, therefore, to send a second embassy to Carthage, with a view of making one more effort to preserve peace before actually commencing hostilities. They accordingly selected five men from among the most influential citizens of the state—men of venerable age and of great public consideration—and commissioned them to proceed to Carthage and ask once more whether it was the deliberate and final decision of the Carthaginian senate to avow and sustain the action of Hannibal. This solemn embassage set sail. They arrived at Carthage. They appeared before the senate. They argued their cause, but it was, of course, to deaf and unwilling ears. The Carthaginian orators replied to them, each side attempting to throw the blame of the violation of the treaty on the other. It was a solemn hour, for the peace of the world, the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, and the continued happiness or the desolation and ruin of vast regions of country, depended on the issue of the debate.

Unhappily, the breach was only widened by the discussion. "Very well," said the Roman commissioners, at last, "we offer you peace or war, which do you choose?" "Whichever you please," replied the Carthaginians; "decide for yourselves." "War, then," said the Romans, "since it must be so." The conference was broken up, and the embassadors returned to Rome.

They returned, however, by the way of Spain. Their object in doing this was to negotiate with the various kingdoms and tribes in Spain and in France, through which Hannibal would have to march in invading Italy, and endeavor to induce them to take sides with the Romans. They were too late, however, for Hannibal had contrived to extend and establish his influence in all that region too strongly to be shaken; so that, on one pretext or another, the Roman proposals were all rejected. There was one powerful tribe, for example, called the Volscians. The embassadors, in the presence of the great council of the Volscians, made known to them the probability of war, and invited them to ally themselves with the Romans. The Volscians rejected the proposition with a sort of scorn. "We see," said they, "from the fate of Saguntum, what is to be expected to result from an alliance with the Romans. After leaving that city defenseless and alone in its struggle against such terrible danger, it is in vain to ask other nations to trust to your protection. If you wish for new allies, it will be best for you to go where the story of Saguntum is not known." This answer of the Volscians was applauded by the other nations of Spain, as far as it was known, and the Roman embassadors, despairing of success in that country, went on into Gaul, which is the name by which the country now called France is known in ancient history.

On reaching a certain place which was a central point of influence and power in Gaul, the Roman commissioners convened a great martial council there. The spectacle presented by this assembly was very imposing, for the warlike counselors came to the meeting armed completely and in the most formidable manner, as if they were coming to a battle instead of a consultation and debate. The venerable embassadors laid the subject before them. They descanted largely on the power and greatness of the Romans, and on the certainty that they should conquer in the approaching contest, and they invited the Gauls to espouse their cause, and to rise in arms and intercept Hannibal's passage through their country, if he should attempt to effect one.

The assembly could hardly be induced to hear the embassadors through; and, as soon as they had finished their address, the whole council broke forth into cries of dissent and displeasure, and even into shouts of derision. Order was at length restored, and the officers, whose duty it was to express the sentiments of the assembly, gave for their reply that the Gauls had never received any thing but violence and injuries from Rome, or any thing but kindness and good-will from Carthage; and that they had no idea of being guilty of the folly of bringing the impending storm of Hannibal's hostility upon their own heads, merely for the sake of averting it from their ancient and implacable foes. Thus the embassadors were every where repulsed. They found no friendly disposition toward the Roman power till they had crossed the Rhone.

Hannibal began now to form his plans, in a very deliberate and cautious manner, for a march into Italy. He knew well that this was an expedition of such magnitude and duration as to require beforehand the most careful and well-considered arrangements, both for the forces which were to go, and for the states and communities which were to remain. The winter was coming on. His first measure was to dismiss a large portion of his forces, that they might visit their homes. He told them that he was intending some great designs for the ensuing spring, which might take them to a great distance, and keep them for a long time absent from Spain, and he would, accordingly, give them the intervening time to visit their families and their homes, and to arrange their affairs. This act of kind consideration and confidence renewed the attachment of the soldiers to their commander, and they returned to his camp in the spring not only with new strength and vigor, but with redoubled attachment to the service in which they were engaged.

Hannibal, after sending home his soldiers, retired himself to New Carthage, which, as will be seen by the map, is further west than Saguntum, where he went into winter quarters, and devoted himself to the maturing of his designs. Besides the necessary preparations for his own march, he had to provide for the government of the countries that he should leave. He devised various and ingenious plans to prevent the danger of insurrections and rebellions while he was gone. One was, to organize an army for Spain out of soldiers drawn from Africa, while the troops which were to be employed to garrison Carthage, and to sustain the government there, were taken from Spain. By thus changing the troops of the two countries, each country was controlled by a foreign soldiery, who were more likely to be faithful in their obedience to their commanders, and less in danger of sympathizing with the populations which they were respectively employed to control, than if each had been retained in its own native land.

Hannibal knew very well that the various states and provinces of Spain, which had refused to ally themselves with the Romans and abandon him, had been led to do this through the influence of his presents or the fear of his power, and that if, after he had penetrated into Italy, he should meet with reverses, so as to diminish very much their hope of deriving benefit from his favor or their fear of his power, there would be great danger of defections and revolts. As an additional security against this, he adopted the following ingenious plan. He enlisted a body of troops from among all the nations of Spain that were in alliance with him, selecting the young men who were enlisted as much as possible from families of consideration and influence, and this body of troops, when organized and officered, he sent into Carthage, giving the nations and tribes from which they were drawn to understand that he considered them not only as soldiers serving in his armies, but as hostages, which he should hold as security for the fidelity and obedience of the countries from which they had come. The number of these soldiers was four thousand.

Hannibal had a brother, whose name, as it happened, was the same as that of his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal. It was to him that he committed the government of Spain during his absence. The soldiers provided for him were, as has been already stated, mainly drawn from Africa. In addition to the foot soldiers, he provided him with a small body of horse. He left with him, also, fourteen elephants. And as he thought it not improbable that the Romans might, in some contingency during his absence, make a descent upon the Spanish coast from the sea, he built and equipped for him a small fleet of about sixty vessels, fifty of which were of the first class. In modern times, the magnitude and efficiency of a ship is estimated by the number of guns she will carry; then, it was the number of banks of oars. Fifty of Hasdrubal's ships were quinqueremes, as they were called, that is, they had five banks of oars.

The Romans, on the other hand, did not neglect their own preparations. Though reluctant to enter upon the war, they still prepared to engage in it with their characteristic energy and ardor, when they found that it could not be averted. They resolved on raising two powerful armies, one for each of the consuls. The plan was, with one of these to advance to meet Hannibal, and with the other to proceed to Sicily, and from Sicily to the African coast, with a view of threatening the Carthaginian capital. This plan, if successful, would compel the Carthaginians to recall a part or the whole of Hannibal's army from the intended invasion of Italy to defend their own African homes.

The force raised by the Romans amounted to about seventy thousand men. About a third of these were Roman soldiers, and the remainder were drawn from various nations dwelling in Italy and in the islands of the Mediterranean Sea which were in alliance with the Romans. Of these troops six thousand were cavalry. Of course, as the Romans intended to cross into Africa, they needed a fleet. They built and equipped one, which consisted of two hundred and twenty ships of the largest class, that is, quinqueremes, besides a number of smaller and lighter vessels for services requiring speed. There were vessels in use in those times larger than the quinqueremes. Mention is occasionally made of those which had six and even seven banks of oars. But these were only employed as the flag-ships of commanders, and for other purposes of ceremony and parade, as they were too unwieldy for efficient service in action.

Lots were then drawn in a very solemn manner, according to the Roman custom on such occasions, to decide on the assignment of these two armies to the respective consuls. The one destined to meet Hannibal on his way from Spain, fell to a consul named Cornelius Scipio. The name of the other was Sempronius. It devolved on him, consequently, to take charge of the expedition destined to Sicily and Africa. When all the arrangements were thus made, the question was finally put, in a very solemn and formal manner, to the Roman people for their final vote and decision. "Do the Roman people decide and decree that war shall be declared against the Carthaginians?" The decision was in the affirmative. The war was then proclaimed with the usual imposing ceremonies. Sacrifices and religious celebrations followed, to propitiate the favor of the gods, and to inspire the soldiers with that kind of courage and confidence which the superstitious, however wicked, feel when they can imagine themselves under the protection of heaven. These shows and spectacles being over, all things were ready.

In the mean time Hannibal was moving on, as the spring advanced, toward the banks of the Iberus, that frontier stream, the crossing of which made him an invader of what was, in some sense, Roman territory. He boldly passed the stream, and moved forward along the coast of the Mediterranean, gradually approaching the Pyrenees, which form the boundary between France and Spain. His soldiers hitherto did not know what his plans were. It is very little the custom now  for military and naval commanders to communicate to their men much information about their designs, and it was still less the custom then; and besides, in those days, the common soldiers had no access to those means of information by which news of every sort is now so universally diffused. Thus, though all the officers of the army, and well-informed citizens both in Rome and Carthage, anticipated and understood Hannibal's designs, his own soldiers, ignorant and degraded, knew nothing except that they were to go on some distant and dangerous service. They, very likely, had no idea whatever of Italy or of Rome, or of the magnitude of the possessions, or of the power held by the vast empire which they were going to invade.

When, however, after traveling day after day, they came to the foot of the Pyrenees, and found that they were really going to pass that mighty chain of mountains, and for this purpose were actually entering its wild and gloomy defiles, the courage of some of them failed, and they began to murmur. The discontent and alarm were, in fact, so great, that one corps, consisting of about three thousand men, left the camp in a body, and moved back toward their homes. On inquiry, Hannibal found that there were ten thousand more who were in a similar state of feeling. His whole force consisted of over one hundred thousand. And now what does the reader imagine that Hannibal would do in such an emergency? Would he return in pursuit of these deserters, to recapture and destroy them as a terror to the rest? Or would he let them go, and attempt by words of conciliation and encouragement to confirm and save those that yet remained? He did neither. He called together the ten thousand discontented troops that were still in his camp, and told them that, since they were afraid to accompany his army, or unwilling to do so, they might return. He wanted none in his service who had not the courage and fortitude to go on wherever he might lead. He would not have the faint-hearted and the timid in his army. They would only be a burden to load down and impede the courage and energy of the rest. So saying, he gave orders for them to return, and with the rest of the army, whose resolution and ardor were redoubled by this occurrence, he moved on through the passes of the mountains.

This act of Hannibal, in permitting his discontented soldiers to return, had all the effect of a deed of generosity in its influence upon the minds of the soldiers who went on. We must not, however, imagine that it was prompted by a spirit of generosity at all. It was policy. A seeming generosity was, in this case, exactly what was wanted to answer his ends. Hannibal was mercilessly cruel in all cases where he imagined that severity was demanded. It requires great sagacity sometimes in a commander to know when he must punish, and when it is wisest to overlook and forgive. Hannibal, like Alexander and Napoleon, possessed this sagacity in a very high degree; and it was, doubtless, the exercise of that principle alone which prompted his action on this occasion.

Thus Hannibal passed the Pyrenees. The next difficulty that he anticipated was in crossing the River Rhone.