Rome: The Punic Wars – The Second Punic War Rages On – Extra History – #3


Welcome back!
When we left off last time, Rome was reeling from a major defeat at
the Trebia River, bested by Hannibal’s superior generalship and the consul
Sempronius Longus’ rash pride. Today we pick up in the
aftermath of that battle, with Rome’s legions scattered,
Rome itself exposed. It’s the winter of 216 and,
luckily for Rome, ancient war simply did not happen in winter: foraging was too hard and conditions
in the field were too rough. So Hannibal set his
troops up in winter quarters and began to prepare for
the next season’s campaigns. Meanwhile in Rome, the consular elections
that Longus was so worried about took place and Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus
Servilius Geminus were elected. And here again we’re gonna see
some of the dangers of Roman politics. You see, Gaius was populist, and so
concerned that the patrician senate would try to keep him occupied if
he ever showed his face in Rome that he sped off to join the newly raised
legions without ever returning to the capital to complete the religious ceremonies that
would officially confirm his consulship. He raised four legions of fresh troops and
marched north to keep Hannibal bottled up and prevent him from ravaging
the Italian countryside. But Hannibal, ever crafty,
had different plans in mind. He once again chose an impossible route, leading his men through an uncrossable
swamp to outmaneuver the Romans. The conditions were truly horrid.
Men would drown in their sleep, sinking slowly into the waterlogged
muck as they tried to rest. Hannibal himself suffered
terribly in the crossing, his eyes becoming so infected
with a marsh disease that he eventually just
had to cut one of them out. But through all this Hannibal rode on, sitting
atop one of the last remaining elephants, taking up position in the very rear of the army so that if any man thought of
turning tail and deserting now, that man would see his general riding
quietly behind on the great Grey beast. But all of this hardship
achieved Hannibal’s aim. He emerged in Etruria far
behind the Roman lines. Nothing stood between him and Rome… Of course, we know that his
goal never actually was Rome. Hannibal never really thought that he
had the strength to take Rome anyway. Instead, he focused his campaign on
convincing the rest of Italy to join his cause, but the new consul Gaius
Flaminius didn’t know that. As soon as he heard reports
that Hannibal was in Etruria, he began a forced march
back to defend the capital. And, naturally, this is exactly
what Hannibal was hoping for. About 150 miles north of Rome,
at a place called Lake Trasimene, Hannibal prepared his ambush. Now, he chose this point
for its unique geography, it’s a wide lake whose northern shore
presses against a series of steep hills with just a shallow strip of land
between the hills and banks of the lake. In the hills around the lake, Hannibal hid his cavalry and a
sizable contingent of his infantry, stationing the rest of his foot soldiers on
the tiny path between the lake and the hills. And then he waited. As predicted, Flaminius charged through
the narrow entrance to the lake, racing to catch Hannibal
before he got to Rome. And, of course, with that goal in mind, he ordered his men to attack as
soon as he saw what he thought was the tail end of Hannibal’s
troops at the other side of the lake. But then, the second his men were out of
the entrance to the narrow lakeshore road, Hannibal’s cavalry emerged and
closed up their path of retreat. And then, before the Romans even had time to understand the dire situation
they’d just put themselves in, the Carthaginian infantry came
barreling down the hillside and crashed right into the Roman
flank. It was a slaughter. Horses and men screamed as
they were cut down and drowned in a panicked attempt
to escape the carnage. At the end of the day,
of an army of 40,000, only 10,000 men remained to
be counted among the living. With their legions scattered
and having suffered not one, but two massive defeats which would
bring any other nation to its knees, the Romans turned to an ancient
solution in times of crisis: dictatorship. Now, you have to understand that in Rome, a dictatorship wasn’t what we think
of when we hear that word today. It was a constitutional office and,
stranger still to our modern ears, it was an office democratically
ratified by the senate. You see, in Rome, a dictator was
chosen at the most dire of times, when the gridlock and faction of
Roman democracy couldn’t be afforded. A dictator was empowered to
make all decisions during a crisis. He would set state policy
and his word was law, with no checks by the
senate or the Roman people. And then, after six months, he would give the position up and
Rome would go back to its democracy. And you know what else is
weird to our modern ears? They always did. Until waning days of the republic, every
dictator voluntarily stepped aside, gave up that power and handed the reins
of the government back to the people. It really gives you a sense of the culture and Roman honor that this happened
every time for almost 500 years. And this time was no exception. The Romans elected
Quintus Fabius Maximus and, as much credit as history gives
Scipio for his final victory, this choice may actually be
the most important of the war. Because unlike everyone else in Rome, whose plan seemed to consist
of just charging at Hannibal and seeing if they could beat him to a
pulp, Fabius had a different strategy. And it was a strategy
that all of Rome hated, a strategy that wouldn’t win the
war or kick Hannibal off of Italian soil, a strategy that wasn’t glorious or heroic… but it was the strategy that almost
certainly saved Rome in the end. Against unbelievable opposition, against
calls for his head and jeers in the street, Fabius decided he wasn’t going to
fight Hannibal, at least not directly. Instead, he shadowed Hannibal’s movements, keeping his army always on favorable
ground, limiting Hannibal’s movement and picking off foraging parties or
scouts when he could catch them… but never accepting the battles that
Hannibal kept trying to lure him into, battles that almost certainly would
have meant the end of Rome. This strategy sticks with us even today. Now known as Fabian tactics, leaders from George Washington to Barclay
de Tolly have used it to pull victory from what looks to
outsiders like certain defeat. But these tactics were incredibly
unsatisfying to the people of Rome. They saw Hannibal ravaging the
countryside and felt it was cowardly to, as it seemed to them, just let that go on. But Fabian stuck to his gladius and continued trying to contain
Hannibal rather than taking him head on. This led many in Rome to start to
clamor for his Master of Horse, one Marcus Minucius Rufus, to take over
and save them from such craven acts. Hannibal himself though
had a different outlook. . He could see how much damage Fabius’
delaying tactics were doing to his army, how every passing day stretched
his already thin supply lines, how every day the Roman soldiery
regained a little of that confidence that had been shattered by the two crushing
defeats at the Trebia and Lake Trasimene. And here is where you’ve
got to love Hannibal. He had heard rumors of the Roman
discontent with their dictator, so as his army went about
devastating the country side, Hannibal would burn everything except any
lands he found that were owned by Fabius, leading people in Rome to start whispering that Fabius had made some sort
of secret deal with Hannibal. But Fabius stayed the
course and bided his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. And at last, that moment came when Hannibal
marched into Ager Falernus in Campania. You see Ager Falernus is
essentially a valley with 8 passes that an army the size of Hannibal’s
could use to enter and exit. Five of these passes were either
blocked by an unfordable river or firmly in Rome’s control and Fabius, as soon as his scouts told him
that Hannibal had entered the valley, immediately sent troops to
hold the other three passes: bottling Hannibal up inside. This should have been the end
for Hannibal, but ever crafty, he had one more trick up his sleeve. One night, the Roman sentries saw a mass of
torches approaching one of the passes and struck up the alarm. Hannibal was trying to break
through by cover of night. So of course, against the orders of Fabius,
they raced out to push Hannibal back and maybe finally have the decisive battle on their own terms Rome so desperately
needed. But when they got there? Oxen. You see Hannibal had rounded
up all the oxen in the valley and tied torches to their horns, and then
he drove them towards the Roman position. And as soon as the Romans took the bait
and rushed out to do battle with the oxen? Yeah, Hannibal and his entire army really
did slip away under cover of night. Fabian was recalled and in a measure that
would destroy the office of dictator forever Minucius, his master of horse
was chosen as co-dictator. This is something that there
was no legal formula for, it was something that had never ever
happened before in Roman history (after all it does kind of render
the office of dictator pointless once you can elect as many as you want). But that’s just how much
the Romans hated the year without a major victory
Fabius had given them. Minucius immediately took command of half of
the army and headed straight for Hannibal, and, like every other Roman general, was immediately out maneuvered
and his forces were nearly wiped out. In the end, they were only saved because
Fabian, so derided by the people of Rome, was watching from a nearby hill and decided he couldn’t allow
so many Romans to perish, and threw his forces into action,
turning the tide of the battle and rescuing the beleaguered
Minucius and his men. To his credit, Minucius, now humbled, immediately placed himself back
in a subordinate role to Fabian and let him finish out his year without the
Romans seeing another disastrous defeat. But then comes Varro… Here is a man who gets elected
consul by overwhelming acclamation running on the platform that he is gonna
stop the cowardly policies of Fabian, raise the largest army Rome has
ever seen and go crush Hannibal. You can probably already guess
how this is going to ends… Varro and his co-consul did indeed raise
the largest army Rome had ever seen: drawing up 16 new legions to march south
to hunt down and destroy Hannibal. Knowing that Hannibal
was encamped at Cannae with his 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, Varro immediately took his army of
80,000 and marched straight at him. When they got to Cannae, a dispute
occurred between the two consuls. Paullus, the elderly patrician co-consul
of Varro was nervous about that flat, open terrain around Cannae. He wanted to move the army to the nearby
hills to neutralize the Carthaginian Calvary. Varro, on the other hand, saw the
numerical advantage the Romans held and wanted to engage Hannibal in
battle before he could get away. So, of course, similar to what we saw at the
Trebia, regardless of Paulus’ misgivings, when it was Varro’s day
to command the army, he deployed them on the field
and engaged the Carthaginians. And what happens next is one of the most
famous battles in all of military history. This is where we get to see Hannibal
at the height of his genius. This is where we find out why Cannae goes down in the annals of
military scholarship as the battle. Why throughout time many
of the greatest generals – right down to the 20th century –
have referred to it as a “work of art”; though if there can be art in something that
involves so much slaughter, I really don’t see it. But this is where we at last get to
see Hannibal’s greatest moment, achieving something often termed
impossible in the study of military tactics: the encirclement of a
greater army by a lesser army. This is where Hannibal pulls off one
of the greatest mind games of all time… For you see, Hannibal deployed
his troops in an inverted crescent with his weakest infantry
in the center of the arc, protruding towards the Roman line,
and his strongest infantry on the flanks. As soon as Varro saw this,
he redeployed his troops. Normally, Roman infantry is spread
out in a checkerboard like pattern in order to give them
more room to maneuver, but seeing the weakness
of the Carthaginian center Varro massed his troops in the
middle packing them close, hoping to use them as a ram to drive straight
through the less reliable forces opposite them. But what he didn’t know was
the Hannibal had placed himself and his brother Mago in the center,
as if to say to these troops “We haven’t abandoned you, if
you die, we die too. So don’t flee.” And it worked. The roman hammer smashed into the front
line but – instead of causing a total route – it simply forced the Carthaginian
center back, step by step. And the Romans, seeing the
center giving ground, kept pushing, until that inverted crescent began to
right itself and then started to push in. But during all of this, the
better Carthaginian infantry, the ones on the flanks,
hadn’t given an inch. They were still where they
were at the start of the battle, which now meant they
were on the Roman flanks. Suddenly infantry on the
wings wheeled around and encircled the now over
extended Roman center; at the same instant, the
Carthaginian cavalry which had driven the Roman Cavalry off the
field swept into the back of the Roman line. The net was closed. That already tight
Roman formation was pressed so close that men couldn’t even raise
their arms to swing their swords. It was a total slaughter: hundreds of men
were butchered each minute, until sunset. Livy tells us the panic was so
great that at the Roman center there were men who out of manic terror dug
holes in the dirt and buried their heads up to the neck in the ground so
they would suffocate to death. Of the 80,000 Romans who took the field
that day, only three thousand escaped. After the battle, the rings of the
roman nobles were collected and six thousand of them were poured
upon the floor of the Carthaginian senate. Among them were the rings
of Gnaeus Servilius Geminus, the consul who tried to temper Flaminius and
keep him from engagement at Lake Trasamine, Marcus Minucius Rufus, Fabius’ Master
of Horse who only the previous year had been humbled at the hands of Hannibal
and came to understand the wisdom of Fabius, and poor Lucius Aemilius Paullus, Varro’s
co-consul who just the previous day had counseled Varro not to
engage Hannibal on open ground. Poor Paullus who, when wounded,
ordered his cavalry to dismount and formed one of the great
last stands of Cannae. Poor Paullus who, when offered a horse
by one of the few military tribunes to escape the battle, said:
“Cornelius, do not waste in useless pity the few moments left in which to
escape from the hands of the enemy. Go, announce publicly to the senate
that they must fortify Rome and make its defence strong before
the victorious army approaches, and tell Fabius privately that I have ever
remembered his precepts in life and in death. Suffer me to breathe my last
among my slaughtered soldiers…” But among all those rings there
was one conspicuously absent: Varro’s, for he had no such
compunction about taking a horse. So there we will leave off for today,
the flower of Roman youth destroyed, their leaders all dead and gone,
their armies scattered, and nothing between Hannibal and Rome… So join us next time for the
conclusion of the Second Punic War. Thanks for watching. Subtitled by: Louis Lenders

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Most of the research for these videos comes from:

Polybius’ The Histories

Livy’s History of Rome

…but if you just want an overview, here’s a wikipedia link:

Author: dhobson