Stories from Ancient Rome - Alfred J. Church

The Critical Struggle

The twenty-three years that passed between the first Punic war and the second were spent by Rome in making her position in Italy safe, especially in the northern portion, where the Ligurians, inhabiting the region now known as Piedmont, were conquered, and the Gauls much weakened. Colonies were planted and main roads constructed. The eastern shore of the Adriatic was also brought under Roman influence. Sardinia was acquired, though the tribes of the interior still remained practically independent.

It was a busy time, but there was a quiet interval in 235 B.C. when the temple of Janus was shut for the second time in Roman history. Carthage suffered a great disaster at the beginning of this period. Her mercenary troops, whose pay was greatly in arrear, revolted, and were joined by the native tribes. The rebellion was at length put down, but at one time the city was in great danger. It was the same cause that brought about the loss of Sardinia. The mercenaries mutinied and put their Carthaginian officers to death. Unable, however, to hold their ground against the native tribes they asked Rome for help. Rome replied by taking possession of the island for herself.

In another direction, however, Carthage was more successful, establishing what seemed likely to be a permanent dominion in Spain. At the close of the first Punic war a young general, by name Hamilcar, had distinguished himself by his brilliant defence of one of the last strongholds held by Carthage. He felt, and not without reason, that his abilities had not had a fair field. The hope and aim of his life was to restore the fortunes of his country. Spain was the field which he chose for this purpose; it was, indeed, the only one that was open to him.

He crossed over to it in 238 B.C. and spent there the remaining nine years of his life. In 229 B.C. he fell in an encounter with a plundering tribe which he had set out to punish. His son-in-law Hasdrubal took up his work, and carried it on with success for eight years. At the end of this time he was assassinated by a slave whose master he had put to death.

Hasdrubal had for some time been assisted by a very able second-in-command, a son of Hamilcar, Hannibal by name, who was destined to be the most formidable of the enemies whom Rome was called upon to encounter. He had been brought up from childhood to hate the Roman name. His father, when about to sail for Spain, was offering the usual sacrifices, and Hannibal, then a boy of nine, was standing near—he told the story himself in after years—"Would you go with me into Spain?" asked Hamilcar. The child, of course, assented with delight. "Then lay your hand upon the altar, and swear that you will never be the friend of Rome."

He grew up a child of the camp, and never was there a youth who took more kindly to the soldier's life. "Bold in the extreme in meeting peril he was perfectly cool in its presence. No toil could weary his body or conquer his spirit. Heat and cold he bore with equal endurance. The cravings of nature, not the pleasure of the palate, determined the measure of his food and drink. His waking or sleeping hours were not regulated by day or night. Such time as his work left him he gave to repose; but it was not on a soft couch or in stillness that he sought it. Many a man often saw him wrapped in his military cloak, lying on the ground amid the sentries and pickets. His dress was not in any way better than those of his comrades, but his arms and horses were splendid. And as he was the first to enter the battle so he was the last to leave it."

Such is Livy's picture of the man. He was a professional soldier of the very finest type, and the Roman amateurs were unfitted to meet him. But the amateurs of a nation of warriors learn their business in time, and learn it well. How much progress was made in the twenty years thus spent in bringing Spain under Carthaginian rule, we do not know. The effort would not have been persisted in so long if it had not met with a satisfactory success; that the success was not complete we may be sure. One considerable region remained independent for two centuries more. It was not before the latter half of the first century B.C. that the Cantabri (the Basques of modern times) submitted to Rome.

The Carthaginian progress, we know, attracted the notice of the Roman Government, and an agreement was arranged with Hannibal that no military operations should be carried on North of the Ebro.

The formal breach between the two powers came in 219 B.C. After a skilful attack and an obstinate defence which made the siege one of the most memorable in history, Hannibal took the town of Saguntum. It was a disputed point whether Saguntum had been included in the agreement made with Hasdrubal—it lay about a hundred miles south of the Ebro—but Hannibal felt that to attack it would be to challenge Rome, and he delayed till his plans were complete. Envoys were sent to remonstrate with him while the siege was in progress. He refused to listen to them. Nothing further had been done when tidings reached Rome that Saguntum had fallen.

Then at last the government acted. They sent an embassy to Carthage demanding that Hannibal and his principal officers and the leaders of the party in the Senate which had supported him should be given up.

It was an outrageous demand, made, one would think, that it might be refused. Refused, of course, it was. After a long and heated argument, Fabius Maximus, of whom we shall hear again, stood up. He pointed to the ample folds of the gown (toga)  which he wore and said: "Here I carry peace and war, which will you have?" "That which you choose to give," answered the President of the Senate. Then said Fabius, "I give you war."

One of the objections to what we may call popular government is to be seen in the Roman policy. There is sure to be a conflict of opinions about public policy, sometimes there are divergent interests, and the result is slow and hesitating action, sharply contrasting with the vigour and promptitude with which a single mind and will arrives at conclusions and acts upon them. No one at Rome, it would seem, saw the position of affairs truly, or had any idea of the turn which the war would take. That the wonderful genius of Hannibal should not have been discerned is not surprising. It is the way of such men to take the world by surprise.

The Roman statesmen had no other idea but that the war would be fought out in Spain; Hannibal, however, had determined to invade Italy. He had much to do, though, before he could carry out his plan. Saguntum had fallen, it is probable, in the late summer of 219 B.C., and it was not before the autumn of 218 B.C. that Hannibal arrived at the foot of the Alps. The time had been fully occupied. He had reduced the country between the Ebro and the Pyrenees to at least outward submission, had made provision for defending Africa, and, leaving Spain, had made his way over the Pyrenees, and forced the passage of the Rhone.

Doubtless it would have been impossible to do so much in a shorter space of time. It is a fact, however, that the necessary delays gave the Roman Government a chance which it failed to make use of.



One notable example is to be found in the passage of the Rhone. It was only with the opposition of the native tribes that Hannibal had to deal. The Romans must have known that Hannibal's route would be in this direction, and it seems evident that if their army had been at hand to assist the defence, the invaders might have been driven back. Scipio, the general in command of the Roman force, arrived at the river four days late. It is one of the gifts of a great general to calculate correctly the probable action of his opponents, and this Hannibal seems to have possessed in the highest degree.

The passage of the Alps was effected under many difficulties. There were hostile tribes, there was no well-defined track to be followed, and the season was dangerously late. But Rome made no effort to bar the way or to attack Hannibal's army before it had recovered from the fatigues of the passage. That these and the losses which followed them were exceedingly severe cannot be doubted.

Hannibal in Alps


Numbers are always doubtful, but Livy relates, on the authority of a Roman soldier who was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, that, with the addition of a number of recruits from the tribes on the Italian side of the Alps, the army numbered 80,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, and that Hannibal estimated his own loss in the passage of the Alps at 36,000 men. Some writers declared that the invading force only numbered 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry when it reached Italy.

Scipio Africanus


This is scarcely to be believed, but it can hardly be doubted that if Rome had acted quickly and with vigour the enemy might have been crushed at once. But again Hannibal knew with whom he was dealing, and his action was justified by the result.