Or: The largest ambush in military history.
Rome. The name conjures thoughts of hob-nailed caligae marching across Europe and the Mediterranean, as burly, lorica segmentata wrapped bundles of pure sexual civilization planted flags in anything that wasn’t theirs. Winning battle, wooing women, enslaving anything that didn’t eat olives. The Roman Empire: a pure, righteous, marble slab laid across the face of everyone and everything.
Except … no.
Rome started small. And Rome had to pretty much fight tooth and nail for every square inch of Italian Peninsula dominance. And by the time she did it and was really beginning to flex those muscles, she realized that she wasn’t the only cool kid on the block:
Rome had a neighbor: Carthage; and both Carthage and Rome had a lot in common. Too much, in fact, for Rome’s tastes. Carthage was founded in 814 BCE, gained independence 160 years later, and proceeded to establish political will over every Phoenician settlements throughout the western Mediterranean. It was, like, THE trading hub with a handsome sprinkling of outposts scattered all over the northern African Continent. And you know what a trade network like this generates? Cash. Bags and bags of phat lewts. Part of this spondoolie went right back into protecting the source of all of this income: the trading lanes across the Med. And this quickly meant that Carthage was strutting about the place with a navy to end all navies.
It also put them in direct competition with anyone else who also wished to prosper in the same way.
The Romans, for example.
Rome had recently emerged as the leading city-state in the Italian Peninsula; it had cash, it had an army, and it had attitude. But with Carthage dominating the western Mediterranean and sporting way bigger naval muscles, Rome really wasn’t going to go any further. But it wasn’t that Rome wished to expand, ergo Carthage had to get kicked in the teeth. No, this simply came down to two expansionist empires encroaching ever closer into each other’s turf, and eventually getting to the point where they wanted to plant a flag in the same strip of land. Or at least woo the same allies.
And in this instance the flag and the ally resided here:
Just how and why Rome and Carthage came to heads over the island is a bit convoluted: In 288 BCE a group of Italian hooligans, known as the Memertines, occupied Messana in a “killed all the men and took all the wimmenfolk” kind of way. A bit of a dick move. They then proceeded to ravage across the countryside, inevitably butting heads with Syracuse.
Corsica, Sardinia, and most of Sicily belonged to Carthage, but Syracuse was independent, so thus far the roving band of Memertines are good, right? They’re basically picking fights within anyone *but* the big guys. Well, except the Memertines were like amateur MMA fighters or something, and Syracuse were all pro, so when the Memertines picked a fight with the Syracusans at the Longanus River, Syracuse elbowed, kneed, and leaping side-kicked the Memertines into a fine puree, sending them scampering away looking for help.
Help they sought from Carthage. Because, well, the island *did* mostly belong to them.
Carthage responded: “Sure, we’ll help, but you have to take a garrison of our forces in Messana.”
Now, fortunately for Rome, the Memertines paused at this prospect: they didn’t exactly want a foreign empire literally camping out inside their city. And it was fortunate for Rome, because if Carthage did plant a small army in Messana, well control of the entire island would be pretty much theirs, and just look how close Messana is to the Italy mainland.
So the Memertines turned to Rome. Syracuse turned to Carthage.
You can probably see where this is going.
Rome realized that this was a big decision: if they helped the Memertines, they’d be putting forces into Sicily, and there was no way that Carthage was going to be down with that. In fact, the senate became deadlocked over the decision, with a popular assembly ultimately coming up with the decision: Rome would accept the Mamertines’ request and Appius Claudius Caudex would be appointed commander of a military expedition with orders to cross to Messana.
Rome went to Sicily with 2 legions, plopped them down, and started causing a ruckus. Syracuse stared longingly out across the Mediterranean, didn’t see a sign of Carthage, so flipped sides.
Which apparently rubbed Carthage the wrong way, and before you know it they’re mailing across 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 60 elephants. They took their islands seriously. Seriously enough where the two powers of the Mediterranean were now at each other’s throats over it.
But despite all of these land forces being thrown around, this didn’t turn out to be a land war; this was a naval one. Which was *really* unfortunate for Rome, because their navy sucked major ones, especially compared to Carthage.
So what to do?
Well, Rome started by doing what they did best: they copied the people who knew what the heck they were doing. In this instance it was carthage themselves. “They look like they know the bow from the stern,” the Romans mused, and promptly went into over-drive copying Carthaginian galley designs uuntil wooden ships were crammed into Roman harbors like a never ending sea of floating match wood.
Of course, here’s a fine, fine looking armada, but they were never going to match centuries of Carthaginian naval experience; the Romans were surely going to get their teeth knocked out if they got into a scrap on water. So instead they sought to turn the forthcoming naval battles into a land battle. Enter: the Corvus.
Build a bridge, plop it on the front of the galley, smack a whopping 12’ spike into the end, and when you get close to the enemy drop the whole contraption down into the deck of the enemy. The spike snares both ships together, men go pouring across the bridge, and before you know it: land battle.
The new weapon proved its worth in the Battle of Mylae, and continued to do so in the following years, especially in the huge Battle of Cape Ecnomus, where almost 700 ships clashed in what could be history’s largest naval battle.
The corvus was so successful, that it forced Carthage to rethink their entire naval doctrine, but this stuff was encased in centuries of experience; you can’t just decide to do something else one day. Well, Carthage couldn’t, anyway. And this, my fine feathered friends, put the naval arena into Rome’s advantage.
The first Punic war dragged on, with Rome and Carthage going toe-to-toe in Sicily, ram to “oh was that your hull?” on the seas, and even saw Rome decide “you know what, let’s go kick in the doors of the City of Carthage itself!”
Rome won the First Punic War after 23 years of conflict and in the end became the dominant naval power of the Mediterranean. In the aftermath, both states were financially and demographically exhausted. Although uncertain, the casualties were heavy for both sides. Polybius commented that the war was, at the time, the most destructive in terms of casualties in the history of warfare. Analyzing the data from the Roman census of the 3rd century BCE, Adrian Goldsworthy noted that during the conflict Rome lost about 50,000 men. This excludes auxiliary troops and every other man in the army without citizen status, who would be outside the head count.
But it was the peace treaty that proved to be the real kick in the wedding tackle for Carthage:
- Evacuate Sicily and the small islands west of it.
- Return prisoners of war without ransom, while paying a heavy ransom of their own.
- Refrain from attacking Syracuse and her allies.
- Transfer a group of small islands north of Sicily (the Aeolian Islands and Ustica) to Rome.
- Evacuate all of the small islands between Sicily and Africa (Pantelleria, Linosa, Lampedusa, Lampione and Malta).
- Pay a 145,000 pounds of silver indemnity in ten annual instalments, plus an additional indemnity of 66,000 pounds immediately.
Further clauses determined that the allies of each side would not be attacked by the other, no attacks were to be made by either side upon the other’s allies and both sides were prohibited from recruiting soldiers within the territory of the other. This denied the Carthaginians access to any mercenary manpower from Italy and most of Sicily.
From having BANK, Carthage was now pretty strapped.
Worse, they had a bunch of unpaid mercenaries on their doorstep with no means to pay them. And you know what happens when you have a whole bunch of guys without pay, who happen to be armed, and camped all together, on your turf? They fucking revolt, that’s what they do. They take all of their gadamned military prowess that you hired them for in the first freaking place, and they use it to shove a 9 foot pike well and truly up your pucker hole until gold coins come sprouting out of your head.
Queue: The Mercenary War.
From “top dog”, Carthage suddenly looked like the old, fat, out of shape jock from school who now spends his days drinking beer on the front porch dreaming about the days when he ruled the playground.
After a hard struggle from the combined efforts of Hamilcar Barca, Hanno the Great and others, the Punic forces were finally able to annihilate the mercenaries and the insurgents. But, during this conflict, Rome took advantage of the opportunity to strip Carthage of Corsica and Sardinia as well.
Everything was falling apart.
Under the burdensome indemnity, Carthage was forced to look elsewhere for income, and they chose the Iberian Peninsula. In 237 BC, the Carthaginians, led by Hamilcar Barca, began a series of campaigns to expand their control over the peninsula, extending their power towards the Ebro valley and founding “New Carthage” ten years later. And you may not know this, boys and girls, but Spain – as we will refer to it – was basically one big, fat mound of silver waiting to be mined.
Things were looking up for Carthage.
But, of course, you know who was watching all of this? Rome. That’s who.
They sat on their marble chairs, senatorial robes a-flowin’, and scrunched up their furrowed brows as their former enemy planted flags deeper and deeper into the Iberian Peninsula. Eventually they leant forwards, drew a line in the sand, and said: “no further than that, m’kay? That bit is ours.” And that demarcation line was a lovely little seaside town of Saguntum.
Which was really kinda unfortunate, because the Carthaginians were all “What? Saguntum? The place with the lovely little coffee shop on that plaza overlooking the Med? The place with the little knick-knack shop on the temple square? THAT Saguntum?”
“Yeeeeessssss,” replied Rome, “Why? What have you done with Saguntum?”
“Uh, nothing” replied Carthage, while simultaneously watching the entire population commit suicide rather than live under Carthaginian rule after a long and brutal siege.
“Oh, it’s on now” muttered Rome, thus ushering in the 2nd Punic War.
Also known as The Hannibalic War by the Romans themselves. Why?
Hannibal Barca: “Hold my beer, I’ve got an idea, BRB! P.S. Do you have any spare elephants?”
Meet Hannibal Barca: wooer of women, besieger of your wife, studly-McStuddlison of Carthage, and all around General Supreme. He hacked battleplans before anyone invented hacking, and had a PhD in psychology and “I know what your next move is going to be” from Harvard. The guy wasn’t a god on the battlefield, he WAS the battlefield. If there was a fight, and he was standing on the other side, you’d already lost.
And Hannibal had a bold plan: why hang around in Spain waiting for the Romans to come and party when you could scoop up your hombres and march into Italy itself? Not only “take the war to them”, but literally and figuratively shove it so far up their collective senatorial arses that they’d be pooping Carthaginian steel for the rest of their sorry little days.
The problem with this plan?
Now here’s the deal: we’re not generals. We’re certainly not ancient generals concerns with ancient trials and tribulations in moving tens of thousands of guys around on the battlefield, or between countries, but I think we all can recognize that if you happen to have close to fifty thousand men, and you need to get them from A to B, then there’s a significant amount of logistics involved in that; what will they eat? What obstacles will be in the way? Any hostile tribes intent on causing harm? Is the weather likely to turn to shit and cause all sorts of problems on the way?
This is the era of “going home for winter”, when the land can’t feed your men anymore and you are, literally, going to starve to fucking death unless you get to warmer climes, disband the army, and wait out the bad shit until the weather turns nice again.
What this is not an era of is marching across these mother-fuckers, at the end of the campaign season, while hostile tribes attempt to shove molten “fuck you” down your throat:
No one does that. No one does that in the winter. No one does that with angry twat heads causing havoc all around you. No one does that WITH THIRTY EIGHT BLOODY ELEPHANTS IN TOW.
So when he pops up, full blown army behind him, Rome is kinda “whhhaargghh?”
Panic ensued, of course; who wouldn’t be just a tad perturbed when the enemy is not only on your doorstep, but is actively tromping through your living room while stealing your wifi?
Whatever consternation the Romans had evolved into “oh dayuuuuuummmm” when Hannibal set up a pad in the Po Valley and promptly wooed the tribes there over to his cause. And by “woo” I mean “punched them in the face until they offered some kind of reluctant support.” But, still, support was support, and after they got over the face pummeling, the tribes there helped boost Hannibal’s numbers (which were somewhat diminished after such an arduous crossing).
Rome had to do something, and “do something” real fast. The man elected for the job was Publius Cornelius Scipio; and when you are the father of the (to-be famous) “Scipio Africanus” you just know that you’re going to bring the hurt. It’s in the genes, you see: “ass kicking” and “marching armies all over your face.”
Scipio gathered up his men – who were actually out of country at the time of the calling – called Lyft, threw them on some boats, and promptly got his army to the Po Valley is super-swift time. Here he snuggled in next to the Ticinus river, built a bridge so he could get to the other side, and planned his Carthaginian ass-kicking in minute detail. He knew Hannibal was out there, and Hannibal knew Scipio was around, but Scipio knew he had THE SHIT: 12,000 infantry, several thousand allies, 900 Roman cavalry, and 4,000 Gallic and allied cavalry.
Livy reports he wrote in his battleplan: “BRING EHT!” (but in Latin, of course). Totally true.
The catch? Hannibal was scratching the same thing into his diary; both generals were basically planning the same thing: a reconnaissance in force to discover and test the strength of the enemy.
Hannibal rounded up 6,000 mounted hombres, while Scipio gathered all of his cavalry, and – because he was awesome – his javelin wielding velites at the same time.
Wait, hold on, a recon mission using cavalry … but you send in a bunch of guys on foot as well?
Uh, okay … I guess “Scipio”, you know what you’re doing, right?
Both sides rode out and came within sight of each other, where they did the text-book “oh shit, they’re here, form up!” maneuver.
Hannibal offered up some choice words for his men: land in Italy, Spain or Africa, citizenship, and freedom for all slaves. Boom: men were pumped. He then threw his heavy cavalry in the center (‘cos why the fuck not?) and his swifter Numidians on the flanks; a solid formation that would allow the faster, lighter cavalry to break out of the main formation and ride around the flanks or rear of the opposition.
This was solid shit right here, but Scipio had other ideas.
Scipio figured that you _could_ use cavalry as a fast moving, ever-changing amorphous mass of spear skewering mayhem hellbent on riding your skull into the dirt, or …. OR … and hear me out here … you could line up your cavalry like a static line of infantry with a line of javelins in front of them; javelins toss … um … javelins at encroaching enemy, retreat through the cavalry behind, then the cavalry charge! Bish-bash-bosh: dead Carthaginians. War? Won!
Hannibal, of course, was all “what the living fuck?” scratched out his battle notes and shouted “CHARGE!”
Six thousand mounted dudes hurled themselves across the plains, while the Romans were still forming up. So effective was this most basic of moves, that the velites were still getting into position: not one javelin was thrown that day. The javelineers ran for their fucking lives, while the Gallic cavalry met the Carthaginian heavy face-to-face. Here they duked it out until someone said “hold on, weren’t there Numidians on the flanks?” and only then did they realize that they had a severe dose of “Numidians in the posterior”.
And you know what you don’t want to have all around your business when Numidians are trying to shove a spear up your arse? Velites milling around you, for starters. But, unfortunately for the Romans, that’s exactly what they had. The Romans, unable to mass-maneuver, ended up breaking into smaller groups, some even dismounting and fighting on foot.
It’s about this point that you go “Yeah, this plan of yours Scip, me buddy, not working out …”
And “Scip” would agree with you, because “Scip” managed to get himself wounded in the melee that took place. In fact, small side show here, this is when the future Scipio Africanus rode back into the fray and rescued his pops from the shit that was going down. Basically this 18 year old took his dick out for the world to see, and made it perfectly clear what an all-out stud muffin he was going to be.
Scipio (the elder) was driven from the battle; out-played, out-fought, and surrounded, he was forced to evacuate the field to lick his wounds.
But all was not lost, while Rome had been absolutely beaten in this engagement, reinforcements were on their way under Consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus, who was bringing his army back from Sicily to help Scipio. This would put both men, and both armies against Hannibal, which surely to Mars would be more than enough to well and truly trounce the upstart Carthaginian, amirite?
Near the Trebia River, the Romans managed to royally screw thing up (which I write about here, so check that out and then come back here).
Now Hannibal had two victories under his belt and proceeded to march deeper into Italy, and you just KNOW that this was raising some eyebrows within Roman society. Let’s call them “alarmed”.
New consuls were elected, ‘cos: old ones sell-by date had expired. Enter into the fray Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Gaius Flaminius. And it’s Flaminius we’re going to stick with here. Because Flaminius was given the remnants of an army, a few new recruits, and told to “BEJESUS PROTECT US FROM HANNIBAL!” and promptly was given a patch of turf to protect. The problem? Hannibal was rampaging all across that very same turf burning villas, chopping down fig trees, and generally being a right, royal dick.
He hoped, of course, to lure the consul into a fixed battle, thus handing the Roman an inglorious defeat, and do so before the two consuls and two armies could be united. He burned farms. Flaminius remained in camp. He burned the countryside all around and raised settlements until all about Flaminius was a sight of smoke reaching into the heavens. Still he stayed at camp. Hannibal then proceeded to march his entire army around the Romans and positioned himself between them and Rome, the type of strategic punch to the throat that would surely cause great angst amongst the Romans. Still they remained in camp.
It was only as pressure mounted from Rome that Flaminius started to edge towards meeting Hannibal in battle; an unfortunate slide into open conflict, as it happens, as he would have been well served to wait for Servilius to arrive with his own army, something that all of Flaminius’ aides encouraged him to do.
But the mounting pressure from Rome, the Twitter hazing, and the viral Facebook campaign finally got to him: the Romans would break camp and they would march on Hannibal! Glory would be theirs!
But picture this for a moment: Hannibal knows the Romans are coming in hot pursuit, so the initiative is his; he can pretty much dictate where battle will take place. Now while considering WHERE to shove an elephant tusk up your enemy’s backside, one option would be to select a nice open plain for some cavalry action. Maybe you would even pick some hills as a strong defensive position.
Or … or … you could decide “you know what, I’m going to get right down and dirty and I’m going to jump out of some trees in a leaping spinning side kick to the Roman kisser.” And this is exactly the option Hannibal selected, and in so doing ushered in the largest ambush history has ever seen.
Hannibal spotted a place near Lake Trasimene. The north was a series of heavily forested hills, and then – on the other side of the road – there was the lake itself. In other words, there was a narrow strip of land, with a lovely series of hills next to it, with enough foliage to hide an army in it, and no where to retreat to, because: A DOCK OFF LAKE WAS SITTING THERE.
It is exactly the type of area you really don’t want to be leading an army through, and if you’re going to, and if you are pursuing a known enemy, well GADAMN you better send out some scouts, because this is the type of area where you are just begging to get an ambush kick to the wedding tackle.
Flaminius didn’t bother with any of that nonsense. You see, Hannibal had lit some fires up ahead, which gave the illusion that the Carthaginian army was someway distant and the pursuit was still on. What the Romans didn’t realize is that there was a whole bunch of cavalry and Gallic infantry sitting at the entrance to the valley just waiting for the army to enter, where they’d ride down and lock down any retreat, and the hills and forests were literally crawling with Iberians, Celts, and Africans just ready to spew down the hillside like a vomit of Carthaginian lava.
And it was with this trap set, and the distant “camp fires” lure giving the Romans a false sense of security, that on the morning of June 24th they marched eastward along the road at the edge of the lake.
What they didn’t know was that they were fuuuuuuuucked.
And, to make matters worse, it was a foggy morning; visibility was non-existent. Which is exactly what you don’t want in these conditions. You know what else you don’t want? To hear Carthaginian horns blowing signaling an all-out attack, and 50,000 men screaming down the slopes towards you.
But that’s exactly what the Romans got for breakfast that morning.
Now I’d love to go into graphic detail here about feints, attacks, retreats, hill-top struggles, and the general ebb-and-flow of a hard fought struggle. But there was none of that here. 30,000 Romans and allies found themselves strung out in marching formation with literally nowhere to go.
The rear was hit hard and were forced into the lake itself, the head of the column was stopped dead in its tracks and ended up in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, and the middle – where Flaminius himself was positioned – were pounced on by the Gauls, who systematically pulled the Romans apart for three hours straight.
This wasn’t a battle, it was an iron-shod enema where the sun doesn’t shine.
I’ll let Livy sum this one up –
“For almost three hours the fighting went on; everywhere a desperate struggle was kept up, but it raged with greater fierceness round the consul. He was followed by the pick of his army, and wherever he saw his men hard pressed and in difficulties he at once went to their help. Distinguished by his armor he was the object of the enemy’s fiercest attacks, which his comrades did their utmost to repel, until an Insubrian horseman who knew the consul by sight – his name was Ducarius – cried out to his countrymen, “Here is the man who slew our legions and laid waste our city and our lands! I will offer him in sacrifice to the shades of my foully murdered countrymen.” Digging spurs into his horse he charged into the dense masses of the enemy, and slew an armor-bearer who threw himself in the way as he galloped up lance in rest, and then plunged his lance into the consul (Livy 22.6)”
The carnage was so great, so absolute, and so fierce, that neither side noticed that as they tore each other’s throats out, and earthquake was at that very time shaking Italy itself.
In less than four hours half of the Romans – 15,000 men – were slain or drowned in the Lake as they attempted to flee. About 10,000 managed to force their way onwards to Rome herself, and the rest were captured.
Only about 2,000 Carthaginian allies perished.
And, just to add insult to injury, within just days a 4,000 strong reinforcement band under propraetor Gaius Centenius was also intercepted and destroyed.
For the Romans, things were looking extremely bleak … and Hannibal was yet to have his greatest victory, that of Cannae.
News of the defeat caused a panic in Rome. Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus was elected dictator by the Roman Assembly and adopted the “Fabian strategy” of avoiding pitched conflict, relying instead on low-level harassment to wear the invader down, until Rome could rebuild its military strength. Hannibal was left largely free to ravage Apulia for the next year, until the Romans ended the dictatorship and elected Paullus and Varro as consuls. The result would be the Battle of Cannae, the worst defeat the Romans would suffer throughout the Second Punic War.