Battles are won or lost by the side that makes the fewest mistakes. But what if the battle was for mastery of the entire world? And what if the generals on both sides, each brilliant beyond criticism, should sink into obscurity, so that knowledge of the battle itself is known only to the most consummate scholars of military history?
Just such a battle was fought on the swollen banks of Italy’s Metaurus River, on a warm, muggy day in late spring, 207 bc. It would determine whether Carthage or Rome would bring the entire ancient world under its control.
That the two greatest powers of the Mediterranean should come into mortal conflict was inevitable. Both were vigorous, aggressive, exceptionally organized and well-led. As each expanded its boundaries, ultimately there was no way that a clash of arms could be avoided. The titanic struggle between the two superpowers of the ancient world lasted more than 60 years before one side emerged the indisputable victor.
Carthage — Kardt-Hadash, or the New City — was an outpost of Phoenicia, sited on a magnificent harbor near what is now Tunis, on the northern coast of Africa. Over time it grew far mightier than its mother country.
Punic civilization was ancient. The New City, according to ancient chronology, was founded in 814 bc, three centuries before the Roman republic came into existence. The Carthaginians, to some extent justifiably, looked down their noses at the Romans, who were still living in pitiful mud huts on their seven hills by the Tiber when Phoenician civilization had been flourishing for centuries.
As were their Phoenician ancestors in their own times, the Carthaginians were the finest seafarers in the world. The Punic navy, much like Britain’s in a later era, ruled the waves. Trade made Carthage fabulously wealthy, and the Carthaginians needed their money because Carthage had a serious weakness. Although the city was rich and rapidly expanding, compared to Rome its population was small, perhaps one-fifth that of its adversary. Further, Rome had followed an enlightened policy with the peoples of Italy that it had conquered. It was so advantageous for them to be allied to Rome that their loyalty was firm and grounded in solid self-interest. Carthage, on the other hand, treated its conquered African provinces like cash cows to be milked dry. Carthage well knew that should a powerful enemy ever land an army on African shores, its subject peoples would instantly rise in revolt.
Beyond that, Carthage was unabashedly mercantile. It saw no reason to shed the blood of its sons in combat when there were men who, for a fee, would do their fighting for them. The Carthaginian armies were led by Punic officers, but the men themselves were’silver spears’ — mercenaries. As the French historian Jules Michelet wrote, ‘the life of an industrious merchant, of a Carthaginian, was too precious to be risked, as long as it was possible to substitute for it that of a barbarian from Spain or Gaul. Carthage knew, and could tell to a drachma, what the life of a man of each nation came to….’
Part of the fascination of this 60-plus years of struggle between these two great adversaries is how close Carthage came to total victory despite being outnumbered (taking Rome’s allies into consideration) on the order of 10-to-1. This is even more impressive considering that all the critical engagements save the last were fought on Italian soil, and that Carthage was sending paid mercenaries against the finest, best-trained and best-equipped citizen-soldiers in the world.
The showdown came over fair, fertile and rich Sicily, which stood in the path of Rome’s expansion toward the south and that of Carthage toward the north. In 264 bc the two mighty empires collided, and for nearly a quarter century, they tore Sicily apart in inconclusive combat. Gradually, Rome gained the upper hand, but several years before the end of the struggle a military genius arose on the Punic side: Hamilcar, surnamed Barca — ‘the thunderbolt.’ His brilliant tactics restored the military balance, and the war slowly ground down to an exhausted stalemate.
In the end, the outcome was decided at sea. The Romans initially had been no match for the Carthaginians in naval warfare, but with typical Roman ingenuity they overcame their deficiency by the invention of the corvu (crow), a long plank with a heavy spike protruding from the end that, when dropped, effectively pinned two warships together. This transformed a sea battle into a land battle, and Roman soldiers — in essence the world’s first marines — could rush over the plank and fight the enemy hand to hand. The First Punic War came to an end at the naval battle of Aegusa in 241 bc. The Roman navy won a decisive victory over the Carthaginians, and the remaining Punic strongholds on Sicily could now be blockaded.
Both sides were exhausted. Rome took Sicily, and Carthage was compelled to pay a largely symbolic tribute of 320 talents of silver per year for 10 years. The island of Sicily remained utterly devastated, and there are those who believe it still has not fully recovered even today.
For nearly another quarter century an uneasy peace prevailed between the two adversaries. Rome had been too drained to finish off Carthage. Carthage, on the other hand, recovered its fortunes in Spain, more than making up for its loss of Sicily. Both knew that another test of strength was only a matter of time.
During the interregnum, Hamilcar Barca died, leaving behind three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago, ‘the sons of the thunderbolt.’ Never in history has a single family produced generals of such genius and charisma.
Hamilcar, possessing a clear, penetrating eye, knew that one day Rome and Carthage would be locked in a second contest from which, this time, only one could survive. Before he died he made his sons take a solemn oath before the gods of Carthage that they would bear implacable, eternal enmity toward Rome, an oath that all his sons would faithfully keep.
In 218 bc, the Second Punic War commenced. Historians disagree over which side was in the right regarding the casus belli, Hannibal’s siege of the Spanish city of Saguntum. It scarcely matters — had war not broken out over this issue, there would have been another.
Hannibal had a plan, a brilliant one. He knew that Roman manpower outweighed his own by an appalling preponderance. He also knew that once a Roman army landed in strength in Africa, the Punic subject allies would gladly defect. His only hope was to get his army to Italy before the Romans reached Africa. Once in Italy, if he could win a few major battles, it was Hannibal’s hope that Rome’s Italian allies, remembering their former proud independence and being too far from Africa to be oppressed by the Carthaginians, would break from Rome and either stand neutral or actively assist him.
The story of Hannibal’s epic crossing of the Alps with his elephants is well known. Rome had remained master of the sea, so the land route was the only one open to him. Uncharacteristically, the Roman Senate panicked upon hearing that Hannibal had reached Italy, and called back the legions that had been on the verge of sailing for Africa. Hannibal had achieved his first goal before a single battle had been fought.
In an amazing series of campaigns, Hannibal crushed, one after another, the finest armies in the world. Each time they were beaten, Rome raised new, larger armies, and each in turn met the same fate. At the Ticinus River, at Trebbia and at Lake Trasimene, Hannibal won annihilating victories over the Romans. Then, in June 216 bc at Cannae, outnumbered and with his back to the Aufidus River, Hannibal surrounded the largest army Rome had ever put in the field and wiped it out. At least 50,000 Romans, the flower of Roman youth, perished at Cannae. Rome was bled white.
As Hannibal had hoped, many of Rome’s allies defected to the Punic cause, and others stood aside from the conflict. But after Cannae, Hannibal had been unable to capture Rome. He lacked siege engines, and mercenaries are not the sort who take prolonged siege warfare well, since spoils are too long in coming. Nonetheless, he was able to inflict terrible damage to the Italian countryside, and no Roman general was willing to risk facing him in open combat.
While Hannibal had been winning his sledgehammer victories in Italy, his brother, Hasdrubal, had been left to hold Spain, whose vast mineral wealth continued to replenish the Punic coffers. He was given the leftovers, and none too many at that — perhaps 15,000 men in total. Carthage also sent him inferior commanders who cost him dearly. But, with the little he had, he accomplished his goal. He held Spain.
Now, in 207 bc, Hasdrubal at last received the summons he had awaited for 10 years. Hannibal was calling him to Italy with the bulk of his now-veteran army. Rome had never been able to defeat Hannibal, and now a second son of the thunderbolt, feared by the Romans as much as they feared Hannibal, was about to bring a second Punic army onto the Italian Peninsula.
These were, without question, the darkest days in the history of the Roman republic. Every general who had fought Hannibal was either dead or in disgrace. And now Rome needed two generals, one to face Hannibal and one to check Hasdrubal. Their best soldiers were dead on the field at Cannae, Lake Trasimene, Trebbia and the Ticinus. Rome was scraping up her very last armies. Her wealth was gone, too — her coinage had been debased by the cost of the war and contained only one-sixth the silver it had at the start.
It was the custom in Rome — by now hardened into what amounted to law — that of the two consuls picked each year, one would be a patrician and one a plebian. For the patrician, the Senate selected Gaius Claudius Nero, whose descendant, some 200 years later, would make a considerable name for himself as Rome’s most demented and scandalous emperor.
Nero had served in the field against both Hannibal and Hasdrubal, with no remaining record chronicling any particular success. In fact, in Spain, Hasdrubal had dealt him a considerable humiliation, using a wily stratagem to escape with his entire army from what should have been a fatal trap.
There was some talk that, given the gravity of the situation, the rule should be waived and the best men picked to command, whether patrician or plebeian. But the plebeians would have none of it. There were no obvious nominees, and at last the Senate turned to Marcus Livius Salinator, a man who had been awarded a triumph for his victory over the Illyrians, the last since Hannibal had come to Italy. There was a problem, however. He had been impeached and exiled for a term of years for speculation and unfair division of the spoils of the Illyrian campaign, and Nero had been one of his most vocal accusers. The two men were complete enemies. When offered the post, Salinator said bitterly: ‘If I am innocent, why did you place such a stain on me? If guilty, why am I more fit for a second consulship than I was the first?’ Only with the greatest difficulty could Salinator be persuaded to accept the post. And when they attempted to reconcile him with Nero, he rejected the notion out of hand, stating that it was best for Rome that he and Nero continue to hate each other, because each would do his duty better under the watchful eye of a determined enemy. Thus, in its most perilous hour, Rome’s last two field armies were commanded by men who despised each other. Under nearly any circumstances imaginable, this was a prescription for disaster. They drew lots, and it fell to Salinator to command in the north against Hasdrubal, and Nero against Hannibal in the south. It was Salinator’s task to block the Alpine passes from which Hasdrubal would have to emerge, but the ingenious Carthaginian outwitted him. In order to leave Spain, he also outwitted Publius Cornelius Scipio, who would later be given the cognomen ‘Africanus,’ and who was regarded by many as one of the most outstanding generals in history. Scipio was supposed to keep Hasdrubal penned up where he was, and he therefore blocked the eastern passes of the Pyrenees. But Hasdrubal left Spain via the western Pyrenees and wintered in Gaul, recruiting heavily as he went. It was Scipio’s failure to pen Hasdrubal in Spain that led to this terrible crisis. Rome knew that, come spring, Hasdrubal, with his augmented army, would cross the Alps as Hannibal had done and debouch into Italy with his formidable forces.
Salinator supposed that Hasdrubal would require the same length of time as Hannibal to make his passage through the Alps. He was wrong. Hasdrubal moved much more swiftly; his army and his elephants arrived in Italy well before Salinator had moved his own army into a blocking position. Hasdrubal’s elephants suffered cruelly in the Alpine cold, and only 10 survived. Hannibal had experienced the same difficulty. Still, even 10 elephants, massed, were an imposing striking force.
In one of the great ironies of history, Hasdrubal was a victim of his own success. He had outwitted Salinator and reached the plain of the Po River unchecked. Nevertheless, he was in Italy well before Hannibal was expecting him. To coordinate their armies, it was vital that Hannibal know he had arrived.
He sent messengers to his brother with strict instructions that, should they be in peril of capture, his letters be destroyed. The messengers traversed nearly the entire route in safety, but by mischance, when almost within reach of Hannibal, they were seized by a Roman detachment. It happened so swiftly that they were unable to destroy the letters in time. Thus Nero, rather than Hannibal, had in his hands the entire plan of the Punic campaign.
Hannibal’s intelligence network had been superb, and had helped him gain many of his triumphs. This was the first time in the war that Rome had held this priceless advantage. But for Nero it posed an agonizing dilemma. The Carthaginians had employed stratagem after stratagem, with stunning success. Was this another Punic trick?
Everything about the captured messengers and messages had the ring of authenticity. The men and horses were obviously fatigued, as though from a very long journey. Further, the horses were covered with heavy dust, and it had been raining in southern Italy. But what if this was actually an elaborate Punic ruse? Nero decided to treat the intercepted letters as genuine. But, possessed of this vital knowledge, and assuming it to be true, what to do with it? It was a cruelly difficult decision. Nero, after all, faced Hannibal, the general who always seemed to know everything, whose prowess as a commander had now reached mythic proportions.
Nero made a desperate decision. From his army, perhaps 45,000 strong, he took 6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, telling them they were going on a night raid against Hannibal. Obviously, he was doing everything possible to keep Hannibal in the dark, fearing his ubiquitous spy system.
The Roman historian Livy says these men were individually picked — the best in the army — but this is unlikely. To destroy unit cohesion and send these men into battle under officers they did not know would have been exceptionally unwise. The numbers of men chosen would equal two somewhat understrength legions, and it seems almost certain that Nero simply picked his two best legions for the expedition.
The idea was for Nero to take these reinforcements, join Salinator and defeat Hasdrubal before Hannibal knew he was gone. It was a terrible risk. If Hannibal sensed what had happened and attacked Nero’s army, weakened by the absence of its best legions and the army’s supreme commander, all would be over.
There was another problem. What Nero was doing was against the law. Under Roman law, a consul was forbidden to leave the front assigned to him without permission from the Senate. Nero obviously felt that if he lost it would not matter, and if he won he would certainly be forgiven.
Hannibal was in the extreme south of Italy, Hasdrubal far to the north. The march took many days, and one can only guess at the torment Nero must have experienced every hour, not knowing the fate of the army he had left behind. He sent messengers forward to alert Salinator to his plan, and he arrived with a much stronger force than when he had departed, since along the way volunteers offered themselves for service. He selected sturdy, though overage, veterans of past campaigns.
At Salinator’s wise suggestion, Nero timed his march to reach Salinator’s camp at nightfall. By prearrangement, Salinator’s men accepted Nero’s troops into their tents according to their ranks, so that, without seeing additional tents and campfires, Hasdrubal would have no idea that Salinator had been heavily reinforced.
Despite the long, fatiguing march, Nero insisted on offering battle the very next day, acutely aware that Hannibal at any time might attack his forces in the south. The plan was to form up for battle, and at the very last minute, with the contending armies committed, to display both consular banners. This way Hasdrubal would know he faced both consuls, not one, and would assume that Hannibal must have been beaten for such an event to be possible.
It was an excellent plan, had their opponent been anyone but Hasdrubal. Like his brother, Hasdrubal had an eagle eye. He was intimately familiar with the sights and sounds of a Roman army. As the Punic forces formed up to meet the challenge, Hasdrubal noticed that the enemy’s numbers had seemed to increase, and that many had dull and stained armor, and were unshaven. He saw that many of the horses looked ill-groomed and out of condition. And then his trained ear detected that the trumpet sounding the consular call blew an additional time. Immediately, he deduced that he faced both consuls, not just one. What could possibly have happened? Had Hannibal indeed been defeated?
Hasdrubal was not a man to panic. He withdrew his army into their entrenchments, and the Romans, disappointed, opted not to attack him in such a strong encampment. Hasdrubal sent out new messengers to determine the truth.
During the night, Hasdrubal silently retreated northward toward the Metaurus River, which he had previously crossed on his march into Italy. Once across, he would be safe, and would have time to discover the facts of his situation.
One can well imagine the shock felt by Nero and Salinator when they woke next morning to find the Punic army gone. All seemed absolutely lost. If Hasdrubal was across the Metaurus, they were helpless. They could not cross after him because he would wait on the shore and cut them down as they emerged from the water. And they could not move back toward Hannibal. A retreat would destroy the army’s morale, and Hasdrubal would recross the river and fall on their rear. Above all, they couldn’t stay irresolutely in place. Hannibal would learn that Nero’s army had been weakened and would attack and destroy it, then crush the forces of Nero and Salinator between himself and Hasdrubal. The least undesirable alternative was to pursue Hasdrubal.
They did so, and the gods of Rome were with them. The Metaurus was in flood, probably from spring rains and snow melt, and Hasdrubal was trapped on the south shore, unable to ford the river. The ancient historians say he was deliberately led astray by his guides, but this is absurd. An army leaves a wide track, and surely Hasdrubal would have had no trouble finding his way back down a road he had already traversed. Also, what guide would be fearless enough to lead an army up against an unfordable river, with no means for the guides themselves to escape?
The unexpected barrier of an uncrossable river threw the Punic forces into disorder and confusion. Frantically, scouts searched up and down the riverbank for a place to cross, to no avail.
For Hasdrubal, it was a nightmare. His army stood pinned against an unfordable river. He had no idea whether Hannibal had been beaten or not, but he knew both consuls faced him. In the wooded, hilly country his army was beginning to disintegrate, particularly the Gauls, who, not having had much time to come under Hasdrubal’s magnetic sway, lost all discipline, becoming drunk and nearly unmanageable. Cavalry, the one arm that was far superior to the Roman forces and which had been vitally important in every Punic victory, was useless in this type of country. And Hasdrubal’s army was outnumbered.
It looked hopeless, except to the son of Hamilcar Barca. He formed for battle. On high ground on his left he posted the Gauls. They were useless, but the Romans could not know that. And the prospect of battle with an uncrossable river at your back was remarkably sobering.
By force of personality, combined with ruthless, judicious execution of stragglers, Hasdrubal managed to browbeat the Gauls into a semblance of battle order, with their extreme left flank anchored against the river. In the center, he posted his Ligurians, savage and dependable, and in front of them he stationed his 10 battle elephants.
It was on his right that all hope depended. Here he positioned himself, with his Spaniards and Africans, veterans all and fanatically loyal. The hill on which the Gauls were posted was steeper than it looked; the Romans would be unable to assail them but, not knowing their condition, were forced to post a substantial portion of their army against them lest they swoop down from the hill and roll up the Roman right.
All the Punic center, with its fearsome elephants, needed to do was to keep the Roman center in check. If his right, his trustworthy Africans and Spaniards, could break the Roman left, he could wheel inward and, with a flanking attack, totally smash the entire Roman army. After all, Hannibal had been in much the same position at Cannae — outnumbered, with a river at his back. And Hasdrubal had the advantage of the high ground. For a Barca, all was not yet lost.
Nero and Salinator must have been elated to discover the Punic army trapped on the south side of the river. Wasting no time, they immediately drew their forces into battle order, Salinator commanding the Roman left, Nero the right, and the praetor Porcius the center.
The battle commenced as Nero planned. Nero tried to attack the Gauls, but the steep, crumbling hill made it impossible for him to get at them. For all practical purposes, Nero and the right wing of the Roman army were out of the battle.
In the center, the elephants and Ligurians attacked downhill. Facing 10 trained battle elephants charging side by side is a frightening prospect for any man. The Roman center fell back. The Ligurians pressed forward, and in the center the battle became fiercely contested. One by one, the elephants went down, but they were serving their purpose. They were holding the Roman center in check. The decision would come on the right, where Hasdrubal commanded.
His Spaniards and Africans attacked with savage ardor, and the battle raged furiously. Both sides knew what was at stake. If the Carthaginians lost, they had no line of retreat. If the Romans lost, their nation would perish. Nero continued trying to close with the Gauls, to no avail. He could hear the sounds of dreadful combat coming from the Roman center and left. He then made a decision unprecedented in Roman military annals. This was, after all, Salinator’s army, and no Roman general could abandon the position assigned to him without the express order of the army commander. But Nero’s forces were unengaged, while to his left the Punic army was gradually forcing the Roman line back. Nero detached four cohorts — roughly half a legion — and personally led them behind the entire Roman line. The battle on the Roman left was hanging in the balance, and the Roman line was giving ground. Nero struck, throwing the Carthaginian troops into confusion. They were arm-weary, fatigued, and their ranks broke. Hasdrubal was everywhere, trying in vain to force them back into line. But the Carthaginian line disintegrated. The day was lost.
Hasdrubal had done all he could. No man could have done more. Scorning to survive the defeat of his army, he spurred his horse forward, charging straight into the Roman line, and died a death worthy of a brother of Hannibal and son of Hamilcar.
In all their victories over the Romans, both Hannibal and Hasdrubal had been scrupulous about burying fallen Roman consuls and generals with full military honors. The Romans, however, cut off Hasdrubal’s head in the true spirit of brutality that had become virulent in the Roman character.
They marched southward against Hannibal, who, uncharacteristically, had remained passive in front of Nero’s screening army. The first knowledge Hannibal had of Hasdrubal’s defeat was when Nero ordered Hasdrubal’s head thrown into his brother’s camp.
Ten years had passed since Hannibal had last seen his brother’s face. It has been claimed that he groaned aloud that he recognized his country’s destiny in Hasdrubal’s lifeless countenance.
Afterward, Hannibal remained in Italy, a land that recognized his power was broken and that the crisis had passed. For a few years more he managed to keep a grip on southern Italy. However, Rome would never again be in danger from Hannibal and would face no other adversary that was his equal. Even the Roman historians acknowledged the greatness of Hasdrubal and agreed that at the Metaurus River he had done everything splendid generalship could do. But Nero had matched him move for move. Considered as a military exploit and given its consequences for civilization, the Battle of the Metaurus River remains to this day unequaled.
This article was written by Lee Levin and originally published in the June 2002 issue of Military History magazine.
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