The first ray of sunlight crept up the Apennine mountain range in central Italy. Above the winding hills and jagged rocks, the bulk of the Carthaginian army was perched above Lake Trasimene, just below a higher cliff.
Standing at the edge of the cliff, staring out toward Spain, stood a man. He was wearing a faded red tunic with leathery flaps hanging down at the waist. On his head, a brass helmet sparkled with a dull illumination, reflecting off Lake Trasimene which was below him, and coming back to him in dozens of vivid shapes. A sword was sheathed at his side and a dagger was belted to his waist. His eyes were deep and sorrowful. With his right hand he twisted his deep black beard. In his other hand he held a torch. His expression was cold and sullen.
This man was the leader of the Carthaginian army, at the helm of the operation. He was the great war leader Hannibal.
He was hoping, no, praying that Spain would remain in the hands of the Carthaginian government. His youngest brother Mago was running the operations in Spain at that time, hopelessly defending it against the sieging Roman legions that encamped all across its borders.
It was 217 BC, and Carthage, a North African empire and a world power at the time, was engaged in a struggle with the emerging Roman Empire. It was the second conflict between Carthage and Rome, known as the Second Punic War.
Hannibal looked back at the sound of his men waking. He looked down again into Lake Trasimene, watching the mist rise from its cool, clear surface, and anxiously awaited his enemy’s arrival.
After Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, was defeated by the Romans in the First Punic War, the Romans had been gloating in their success. Meanwhile, Hamilcar was trying to rebuild his military. However, Hamilcar was killed in battle. His successor, Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, inherited the control of Spain. But after Hasdrubal’s assassination at the hands of a slave, Hannibal, who was next in line, took over. Not satisfied with Spain alone, he launched several campaigns for the purpose of recruiting mercenaries. He recruited cavalry and spearmen from Spain (which was where his brother Mago’s stronghold was located); cavalry and infantry from Gaul (modern France). He also recruited cavalrymen from Numidia, led by the great cavalry commander Maharbal, and slingers and pikemen from the Balearic Islands. Finally, with his huge army of 90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and 37 elephants, he was ready to begin his journey. From eastern Spain he started the huge trek through the dangerous Alps.
The trip was costly. The harsh weather of the Alps made it difficult for Hannibal. When he finally made it through the Alps into Italy, his numbers equaled about 60,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and most of his elephants had perished. But Hannibal was a brilliant leader, and with the troops he had, he remained in Italy for sixteen years, winning many major and minor battles. Significant among these was the Battle of Lake Trasimene.
On the other side of Trasimene, Hannibal’s adversary, Flaminius, the arrogant newly elected Roman Consul, and his army were just now waking from the hard bunks in their temporary legionary base which they had constructed the night before. Legionaries were just now climbing out of the pitched tents and huts. After the legionaries woke, they would put on their thick red tunics. Then began the difficult process of putting on the plate armor. One legionary would help another strap his breastplate to his chest, and also strap on the arm protection and the leg armor. Thick leather embroidered with colored beads hung down from the waist to protect the groin.
Then the legionaries would begin the grueling task of taking down base camp. Some would be assigned the task of pulling up the palisades, wooden shafts about three to four feet long with a sharp point at the end that surrounded the temporary legionary bases. Other legionaries took down and packed the tents. Finally, when the base was taken down, the legionaries would take their pilum (throwing javelin), buckle on the gladius (short sword), and strap their packs to their backs. Their packs contained palisades, utensils, rations, and personal items. Finally, after all the tasks were completed, after all the legionaries were accounted for, they began their trek through the tiny gap between Trasimene and the Apennine hills. The Roman army was now on the move.
The legionaries, under Flaminius, marched toward Trasimene in search of Hannibal. Flaminius was unaware that he was walking into a trap. Waiting for him in the hills near Trasimene, Hannibal’s men were already strategically positioned to ambush Flaminius and his army. Line after line the Romans marched through, not suspecting that many eyes were watching them from above. The thought of VICTORY was the only thing on the legionaries’ minds as they moved on. Finally, the entrance of the pass was just now disappearing behind the last legionary. The time was now right for Hannibal to act. Out of the noise of clanking armor and humming Roman soldiers came the all too familiar sound of Gallic war cries. Horrible black shapes were now descending down the mountainside. Out of the darkness they came, into the light of the Roman torches, upon the extremely vulnerable Roman force. The torchlight revealed the forms of Gallic broad swords glistening in the moonlight, and also thousands of their wielders. A horde of Gauls charged down behind Flaminius and his army, blocking the only exit. More shouting and cursing from higher up could be heard. The mass of the Carthaginian army was now making itself known on the mountainside, spreading out and revealing its power. When Hannibal gave the order, it charged. As the Romans watched the enemy descend upon them, they noticed something. Out of the storm of swords and axes, sticking up out of the maces and the slings, were the greatly feared pikes. Pikes were huge poles made of wood or steel with axe-like blades at the top of them, and a spearhead sticking straight up out of the top. The pikes had in earlier battles proved superior to the Roman gladius. The battle was in full progress. The left Roman flank was crushed already. It was plain to see that the assailing troops were going to win the day: this was clear to the Romans.
A sea of arrows and javelins whistled out of the darkness and tore into the legionaries’ unprotected right side, where they had no shield to cover them. From above, huge stones were thrown down that crushed the Roman plate armor, leaving many legionaries with crushed bones and smashed weapons. There seemed to be no end to the flood of assailing infantry which was constantly pouring down the mountainside, numbering about 60,000 men.
The Roman cavalry, in response to the attack, sped up the side of the ridge. Their intention was to mount a counterattack to kill the Carthaginian leader. When they reached the top, instead of the expected Carthaginian force, they found no one. They went to the wrong spot. They realized now where Hannibal must be, but it was too late. When the Roman cavalry looked back down into the ridge, another surprise awaited them. They saw that the nearly invisible forms of the Numidian cavalry that had been perched along the cliffside were just now emerging from the coat of darkness that surrounded Hannibal and his army. The huge Carthaginian infantry was spread out along the mountainside, towering over and surrounding the Roman force. It must have been a horrible feeling for those legionaries, looking up at their doom, knowing there was no escape, knowing that they were going to die.
Looking down on all this was Hannibal. The worries of the early morning had left him, and he was calmly looking down on the destruction of Flaminius’s consular army. It was over. The remaining legionaries fled in panic into the mountains, but were eventually put to death or captured. Scattered along the battlefield were thousands of dead legionaries. Also scattered along the rocky surface were the Roman pilums and gladiuses.
Down in the ridge, Hannibal watched as his loyal troops, who loved and respected him, raised their weapons to the sky, shouting victory cries with great joy. Hannibal’s hand left his beard and he threw the torch into the water bucket. Hannibal, always being courteous in battle, walked down into the ridge and ordered that the dead consul Flaminius, who had been killed in battle, be given a proper burial. This order was never carried out because Flaminius’s special armor, which stood out from all the other Romans, had been stripped off him by the Gauls. His body could not be identified.
15,000 Romans and their allies were killed in the battle. Only 1,500 men in Hannibal’s army died. Most of them were Gauls. It was Hannibal’s custom to send home the allies of the Romans. After Trasimene he sent home the Roman allies with the message: “My war is against the Romans alone. Go to your homes.”
Back in Rome rumors were heard about a great battle, and a great defeat. The Roman Praetor, who was an important leader in Rome, confirmed these rumors. He announced to the people and the senate, “There has been a great battle. We have been defeated.”