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Incidents of War - The Battle of the Metaurus, June 22, 207 B.C.

One of the most critical struggles in the history of European  civilization was the long duel between Rome, a rising Latin city state in central Italy, and her far more prosperous rival the, Punic (i.e., Semitic Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon) city of Carthage near modern Tunis.  The two cities fought three wars, known as the "Punic Wars," of which Second Punic War (218 201 B.C.) was the most desperate.

In 218 B.C. Hannibal Barca brought an army of mercenaries overland from Spain into Italy, and soon proved himself one of the premier captains of history.  After three successive massive defeats (the Trebbia, Lake Trasimenus, and Cannae) the Romans decided to ignore him and fight the Carthaginians where they were weak, which was everywhere Hannibal wasn't.  For more than a decade Hannibal ravaged and plundered in Italy, winning an occasional battle and taking an occasional city, while being constantly harassed by Roman forces.  Hannibal's army was unbeatable on the battlefield, but he could not capture and hold enough of the fortified cities in Italy, nor could he be everywhere at once.  The Romans would not quit and Hannibal was not as able a diplomat as he was a general.  Gradually the Romans bottled him up in the heel of Italy, neutralized (at great expense) but not eliminated.

Meanwhile, the Romans proceeded with the conquest of Spain, thereby cutting Hannibal off from his base.  Hannibal needed reinforcements if he was to continue his campaign in Italy, and sent to Spain for them.  This set the stage for the decisive engagement of the war, the Battle of the Metaurus, in 207 B.C.  The road to the Metaurus began with a brilliant campaign to reinforce Hannibal by his brother, Hasdrubal.  Eluding the Roman armies in Spain, Hasdrubal followed his brother’s old route from Spain, across what is now southern France, over the Alps, into the Po Valley, and then marched down the east coast of Italy.  

As Hasdrubal marched south, Hannibal endeavored to move north.  But the Roman Consul Gaius Claudius Nero out-maneuvered him, keeping him confined to Apulia, the “heel” of Italy and some adjacent areas.  Then, by a stroke of fortune, Claudius intercepted a message from Hasdrubal to Hannibal outlining the full details of his proposed line of march.  With this information in hand, Claudius decided upon a daring plan.  He would march half his army north to reinforce the two legions confronting Hasdrubal, under his co-consul, Marcus Livius Salinator, while the balance of his forces remained behind to keep Hannibal bottled up.  But how to execute this bold maneuver without risking defeat at the hands of the resourceful Hannibal?  Sextus Julius Frontinus, a Roman public official and soldier who lived during the latter portion of the first century, tells us what Claudius did in his Frontinus: Stratagems. Aqueducts of Rome. (Loeb Classical Library No. 174) .  

"Desiring that his departure should go unnoticed by Hannibal, whose camp was not far from his own, Claudius . . . gave orders to the commanders whom he left behind that the established pattern of patrols and sentries be maintained, that the number of camp fires lighted be the same each night, and that the existing appearance of the camp be maintained, so that Hannibal might not become suspicious and attempt to attack the small number of troops left behind."  

Claudius was soon on the march with 6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, Romans and allies together. while the rest of his troops did twice their normal duties, thereby misleading Hannibal, who continued to believe that the whole Roman force was still before him.  Meanwhile, Claudius and his troops marched some 240 miles in seven days, one of the more heroic forced marches in history, to join Livius along the Metaurus, a small river flowing from central Italy northeast of Rome into the Adriatic.  Upon arrival, Claudius again resorted to deception.  As Frontinus notes, "When he joined Livius in Umbria, Claudius forbade any enlargement of the Roman camp, lest this give some indication of the arrival of additional forces." 

Thus the Romans used two deceptions. One to keep Hannibal from realizing that half the Roman troops confronting him had marched off, and the second to deceive Hasdrubal as to the size of the Roman forces facing him.

Within a day or so of combining their forces, which now amounted to some 20,000 men, Claudius and Livius offered battle, apparently on June 22, 207 BC (May 19th by the highly peculiar Roman calendar). 

Although he had a river at his back, Hasdrubal, an able and experienced commander, deployed his forces rather well.  Holding his cavalry in the rear, he placed his most reliable troops, his Spanish infantry, on his southern, or right flank, with his less reliable Ligurian infantry in the center, and his formidable, but brittle Gallic mercenaries on the left, where the terrain was most favorable to the defense.  Across his front Hasdrubal posted his light infantry and about a dozen elephants.  The Romans posted some cavalry on their right (northern) flank, facing Hasdrubal's Gauls.  To the left of these were Claudius and his legion from Apulia, while the Roman center and left flank were held by Livius' two legions and their supporting allied contingents, with the balance of the Roman cavalry posted on the extreme left, and their light infantry spread across their front.

The battle began with a series of small clashes between the light forces.  The Carthaginian elephants soon panicked, fleeing into a gully, where they were all captured.  Meanwhile, the battle quickly became very intense in the center and on the southern end of the lines, where the Roman left became heavily engaged with the Carthaginian right.  At the other end of the front, however, Claudius found the terrain extraordinarily difficult, so that it proved impossible for him to come to grips with the Gallic troops to his front.  Reasoning that if the ground prevented him from getting at the enemy, it would also prevent the enemy from getting at him, Claudius decided to take his troops and reinforce the Roman left.  Leaving his cavalry to screen the Roman right, he made a rapid march with his legionaries behind the rear of the entire Roman army, passing beyond its southern flank before turning and deploying so as to strike Hasdrubal's exposed right.  The resulting attack demoralized the enemy.  After a vain attempt to rally his men, Hasdrubal plunged into the midst of a Roman cohort and died fighting.  His army perished with him, perhaps 10,000 falling and the rest being taken or fled: only 2,000 Romans and allies fell.

The Metaurus was a brilliant victory, but the war was not yet won.  With only a day or so of rest, Claudius' weary troops were once again on the march, heading south, where Hannibal was still inactive.  After another grueling march, Claudius and his army returned to their original camp, near the modern Canosa de Puglia.  Hannibal had been so completely fooled that the first news he received of the disaster on the Metaurus came when his brother’s head was hurled into his camp.  As Frontinus put it, “By the same plan, Claudius stole a march on one of the two sharpest Carthaginian generals and crushed the other.”

After the Metaurus, it was only a matter of time.  Without reinforcements, Hannibal was unable to break out of Apulia and eventually had to abandon his campaign in the Roman heartland. Meanwhile, Roman armies mopped up the remnants of Carthaginian territory in Spain.  In 204 BC a Roman army under Publius Cornelius Scipio was operating in North Africa, and Hannibal was recalled to defend the capitol, going down to defeat in the Battle of Zama (c. October 19, 202 BC). 

Carthage sued for peace, and the Romans imposed severe terms.  Roman fear and hatred of Carthage lingered, however, and in the Third Punic War (149 146 B.C.), they destroyed their rival forever.  

BookNote: The best account of the Second Punic War remains J.F. Lazenby’s 1998 Hannibal's War: A Military History of the Second Punic WarRichard Gabriel’s  new Hannibal: The Military Biography of Rome's Greatest Enemy is an excellent look at the great captain’s military career.

 


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