(ROME STAGGERS to EMPIRE – continued)
Carthage expanded its enterprises in Spain in compensation for its losses of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, and Carthage's success in trade and mining operations in Spain prompted Rome to establish an embassy there. A prosperous Greek colony on the Mediterranean coast in Spain, Saguntum, quarreled with neighboring towns. And lacking friendship with Carthage and desperate for an ally, Saguntum sought help from Rome – an historical repetition of sorts. Seeing Rome as becoming involved in the dispute, the leader of Carthage, Hannibal, welcomed the opportunity to launch a war of revenge against Rome. More than twenty years had passed since the end of the first war between Rome and Carthage, and Hannibal felt that Carthage could now challenge Rome and that he could succeed where others before him had failed.
Hannibal was as aggressive as Hitler would be in opening the Second World War in Europe. While Rome was negotiating with Carthage, Hannibal sent an army against Saguntum, with orders to spare no male of military age. Saguntum fell, leaving Rome's Senate and the public enraged and regretting that they had not responded in time to help Saguntum. The Romans saw Carthage's attack on Saguntum as a challenge to their prestige, and they matched Hannibal's willingness for war.
The war against Hannibal would be a new kind of war for Rome. Previously, Romans fought only summer campaigns. Against Hannibal, the number of Romans fighting would increase ten fold and they would fight through the entire year. This was to be Rome's most intense war.
Hannibal sent armies to Sicily and Italy by sea. He and a force with cavalry and elephants moved north from Saguntum, across the coast of France, through the Alps and down into the Po valley in northern Italy. For some two and a half years in Italy, Hannibal produced victory after victory, as he and his troops lived off the lands they conquered. But rather than try to win allies among the Italians, he burned and destroyed as he went, and not one Italian city joined him against Rome.
Hannibal tried to keep himself informed about the Roman leaders sent against him, and occasionally he found weaknesses in these Romans. He took advantage of the untalented consul, Flaminius, who wanted to prove himself to his fellow Romans. Flaminius allowed Hannibal to choose where the battle between them would be fought, and he marched his army into a trap at Lake Trasimenus, where all but the few who were captured were cut down. In the wake of this disaster, Rome introduced a festival called Saturnalia to lift the morale of its citizens, which became an annual Roman holiday.
It did not help. Hannibal had another great success, at Cannae in 216 BCE. There, Rome lost five out of every six soldiers it sent to battle. It seemed that Rome was on the verge of defeat, and now some Italian cities, wishing to be on the winning side, opened their gates to Hannibal. In Sicily, Syracuse went over to the side of Carthage. Macedonia's king, Philip V, offered Carthage an alliance.
It was Rome's darkest hour. In 211, with Hannibal thirty miles from Rome, Roman women appealed to the gods by sweeping the floors of their temples with their hair. Rome's gods aside, it was a military consideration that moved Hannibal. Rather than attack Rome and confront the two armies that Rome had placed before him, Hannibal decided to burn the nearby countryside and withdraw to fight elsewhere.
Hannibal was trying to wear Rome down – a war of attrition. He continued to destroy Italian lands and to destroy villages that his forces could not hold. To starve Hannibal's forces the Romans scorched the earth in front of Hannibal's advancing army, and they moved people from the countryside to towns. The Romans plundered towns they believed had befriended Hannibal and beheaded men they believed had fought on the side of Carthage.
Avoiding a direct clash with Hannibal in Italy, Rome moved a force to Sicily. There, the Roman general Marcellus beheaded 2,000 of his troops whom he claimed had been deserters. Other soldiers under his command pillaged Syracuse, destroying and plundering treasures that had accumulated there for centuries. A soldier in Syracuse came upon the philosopher Archimedes and ran a sword through him.
In this war of attrition, Rome gained the upper hand. It benefited from fighting closer to home and having access to more manpower, and it benefited from the egocentricity and shortsightedness of Carthage's oligarchs. For a while at least, the oligarch's concern over the security of their positions of power made them fear success by Hannibal. They were reluctant to send him reinforcements. Hannibal was merely the leading military commander. He resorted to recruiting Gauls into his army, which offended the Italians, who remembered that Rome had been a bulwark against the Gauls. Carthage finally sent reinforcements to Hannibal from Spain, but the Romans intercepted them at the Metaurus River in northeastern Italy.
Rome managed to reconquer Sicily. And Rome's navy defeated Carthage's forces in Spain and North Africa and cut Hannibal from his supplies. Rome moved the war to North Africa, near Carthage, and Hannibal pulled out of Italy to defend home territory.
Carthage sued for peace. A council of twenty Roman priests – which governed treaties with foreigners – went to Carthage to present Rome's demands. The priests called on the god Jupiter to witness that the demands were just. This time, Rome wanted to weaken Carthage substantially. And Carthage agreed to reduce its territory to an area that approximates what is now Tunisia. It agreed to withdraw from participation in the affairs of Spain, to pay Rome a huge indemnity and to surrender to Rome all but twenty of its warships.
Hannibal's attempt at revenge had failed. In the year 201, after sixteen years of fighting, the war ended. Rome wanted Hannibal's head, and he found refuge with the Seleucid king in Syria, Antiochus III.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.