Saturday, April 14, 2012

2nd Punic War

           In 1938, democratic Czechoslovakia was assailed by Germany that it treats its German minority badly. When the Prague government tried to give in to the demands, the demands became bigger and less palatable. Hitler in Germany was agitating against Czechoslovakia, and was preparing for war, unless Czechoslovakia cedes Sudetenland with German majority to Germany. Small Czechoslovakia was prepared to defend itself, because it had a pact with France and Great Britain for military help. However, prime ministers of Great Britain, Chamberlain and of France, Daladier, were not eager to fulfill their treaty obligations. Great Britain send a “fact finding” lord Runciman, instead of weapons in August. At the end of September, the Munich pact was signed, and Czechoslovakia was abandoned to Hitler. By this action, or inaction, the peace was not saved, but led to a most devastating war in the history of mankind.

Part of Forum Romanum today

 Part 1.

           The 2nd Punic war started with something closely resembling the Munich Agreement of WWII.  The city of Saguntum in Spain was a Roman Friend and Ally and was attacked by Hannibal in 219 BC. Saguntum sent envoys to Rome asking for help and for honouring the treaty of friendship. Roman Senate, as mentioned above, was deeply involved in Illyria and keeping an eye on Macedon. Therefore sending legions to the other end of the Mediterranean to help a city, about which most of the Romans knew nothing, did not seem like an expedient move. The Senate sent a fact finding commission of inquiry.
Hannibal Barca

             The envoys in the commission pointed out to Hannibal and Carthaginian council that Saguntum has a treaty with Rome. Hannibal considered it interference in Carthaginian sphere of influence. The commission returned without any visible result, and the siege of Saguntum continued. Rome did nothing, except for  preparing two consular armies for expedition to Illyria. Saguntum fell to Hannibal after 8 months siege with attending burning and enslaving of the population. Just to make the Romans feel really guilty, the leading Saguntine citizens heaped their property in the square, set fire to it and jumped into the flames.

            Public opinion in Rome was stirred. A Roman ally with a treaty was destroyed! What a surprise, that an earnest commission did not chase Hannibal from Saguntum's walls! An embassy of leading Roman senators and both consuls went to Carthage to demand the surrender of Hannibal and compensation for the Saguntines. The Roman historian Livy vividly described the scene in the Carthaginian council.  The Romans gave Carthage the choice between peace and war, between surrendering Hannibal and keeping him. The Carthaginians, still smarting from their losses more than 20 years before, chose war.
Citadel of Saguntum today

              Carthage never regained her naval power, and Roman fleets were roaming the western Mediterranean at will, therefore the logistics how to get to Italy and into an actual war became formidable. Hannibal solved it brilliantly. He went by land, north in Spain and marched through the sunny southern French coast, known in 21st century for the gambling Monte Carlo, film festival in Nice and the generally peaceful area of Provence.

             Hannibal knew that the north Italian Gallic tribes did not reconcile themselves yet to being a province of Rome, and hoped to find allies there. His Carthaginian experience also suggested, that the Roman allies up and down the Italian peninsula will happily throw off their shackles of Roman overlordship and welcome him as their liberator, probably with flowers liberally strewn under the feet of his Spanish mercenaries by pretty maidens.

        Two consular armies, that is 4 legions altogether were prepared for further action in Illyria. They were diverted to prevent Hannibal from reaching Italy. Consul Scipio hurried to southern France, to prevent Hannibal from crossing the river Rhodanus (Rhone). However, not having good intelligence, satellite surveillance and GPS, he missed Hannibal and stood at the river, looking like a fool, while Hannibal continued on to Italy. But… Scipio was Roman and not a fool. He realized that the important thing now would be to cut Hannibal off his supplies of material and men from his base and recruiting ground in Spain. Scipio knew, in difference to Hannibal, that Rome's Italian allies will not desert Rome in hurry. Scipio sent his brother to Spain with an army and he himself returned to Italy with two legions to help with stopping Hannibal.

               Hannibal meantime went with his men and elephants over the Alps into Italy. Some Gallic tribes, as could have been expected, attacked his army for booty, others joined him for booty. Hannibal defeated consul Scipio and the consul retreated behind the Po River and waited for reinforcements, mainly the consul Sempronius with his army. The Roman Senate was very clever and wanted to bring the war to Carthage, and Sempronius with his legions was waiting for transport to Africa. This suggested that the Senate was still not clear about the fact that they are dealing with a brilliant commander and that the Romans would need all the help they could get just to survive, and not to think yet about sending any troops away.
Battle of Lake Trasimene

             To prove it, consul Sempronius let himself to be lured into a trap and lost most of his army in 218 BC. It seemed, that the Roman Republic lost its luck and that the best commanders were retired. Another consul, Flaminius, bit the dust with most of his men in 217 BC at the Lake Trasimene in Etruria, today Tuscany.  Afterwards, Hannibal waited for delegations from Roman allies who would eagerly join him. None were coming. That was unfortunate for him, because without some material and manpower support from the locals, he could not hope to attack Rome itself, like Pyrrhus before him.
Lake Trasimene today

             The Trasimene thrashing instilled enough panic into Romans and the consul named a Dictator, the aging Quintus Fabius Maximus.  Fabius already realized Hannibal’s tactical brilliance and decided that the Romans will lose any direct battle. His tactics could be called guerrilla tactics, shadowing Hannibal’s army from one town to another and preventing him from regrouping and cutting him from supplies, and cutting down all foraging parties or detached units. This was smart, but the Roman SPQR wanted a decisive victory and ridiculed Fabius with a nickname “Cunctator”, the hesitant one.

            In this spirit, the Romans elected new consuls for the year 216 BC, who were definitely decisive. Consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus had together 80 thousand men, whom they led into a REALLY decisive disaster.  At the village of Cannae they lost most of the men, only 15 thousand saved themselves, and consul Paullus died. Among the officers who saved some men and themselves was fortunately young Publius Cornelius Scipio, son and nephew of the two men who commanded the Roman army in Spain.
Battle of Cannae

         This was a real test of the Roman Friends and Allies, because 40 thousand of those men were supplied by the Rome's Italian allies.

Cannae today


  1. Dear Eva: Thank you for another insightful story from classical times, which you parallel with similar events of 20th century; I did my share of reading about WW2, but as I remember, it was never pointed in such a way that there is "nothing new under the sun" like you did. Please, keep writing, I am curious about the second part of this war. I am eagerly waiting. (And I hope that many readers of your blog). How do you promote it to mass audience?

  2. The second part will show how the name Cunctator transformed into a positive one.