The battle of lake Thrasymene (or Trasimene) in Etruria between the Romans and Carthaginians

In the early spring (217 B.C.) Gaius Flaminius with his army advanced through Etruria and encamped before Arretium, while Gnaeus Servilius advanced as far as Ariminum to watch for the invasion of the enemy from that side. Hannibal, who was wintering in Cisalpine Gaul, kept the Roman prisoners he had taken in the battle in custody, giving them just sufficient to eat, but to the prisoners from the allies he continued to show the greatest kindness, and afterwards called a meeting of them and addressed them, saying that he had not come to make war on them, but on the Romans for their sakes and therefore if they were wise they should embrace his friendship, for he had come first of all to re-establish the liberty of the peoples of Italy and also to help them to recover the cities and territories of which the Romans had deprived them. Having spoken so, he dismissed them all to their homes without ransom, his aim in doing so being both to gain over the inhabitants of Italy to his own cause and to alienate their affections from Rome, provoking at the same time to revolt those who thought their cities or harbours had suffered damage by Roman rule.

The battleground of the Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC), looking north, as seen from the Lake

The battleground of the Battle of Lake Trasimene, looking north, as seen from the Lake

During this winter he also adopted a truly Punic artifice. Fearing the fickleness of the Celts and possible attempts on his life, owing to his establishment of the friendly relations with them being so very recent, he had a number of wigs made, dyed to suit the appearance of persons differing widely in age, and kept constantly changing them, at the same time also dressing in a style that suited the wig, so that not only those who had seen him tout for a moment, but even his familiars found difficulty in recognizing him.

Observing that the Celts were dissatisfied at the prosecution of the war in their own territory, but were eagerly looking forward to an invasion of that of the enemy, professedly owing to their hatred of the Romans, but as a fact chiefly in hope of booty, he decided to be on the move as soon as possible and satisfy the desire of his troops. As soon, then, as the weather began to change he ascertained by inquiring from those who knew the country best that the other routes for invading the Roman territory were both long and obvious to the enemy, but that the road through the marshes to Etruria was difficult indeed but expeditious and calculated to take Flaminius by surprise. As he was by nature always inclined to such expedients, he decided to inarch by this road. When the news spread in the camp that the general was going to lead them through marshes, everyone was very reluctant to start, imagining that there would be deep bogs and quagmires.

But Hannibal had made careful inquiries, and having ascertained that the water on the ground they would have to pass over was shallow and the bottom solid, broke up his quarters and started, placing in the van the Africans and Spaniards and all the most serviceable portion of his army, intermingling the baggage train with them, so that for the present they might be kept supplied with food. For as regards the future he did not trouble himself about the pack-animals at all, as he calculated that on reaching the enemy’s country he would, if defeated, have no need of provisions, and if he gained command of the open country would be in no want of supplies.

Behind the troops I mentioned he placed the Celts and in the extreme rear his cavalry, leaving his brother Mago in charge of the rear-guard This course he took for various reasons, but chiefly owing to the softness and aversion to labour of the Celts, so that if, owing to the hardships they suffered, they tried to turn back Mago could prevent them by falling on them with his cavalry. The Spaniards and Africans for their part, as the marshes were still firm when they marched over them, got across without suffering seriously, being all inured to fatigue and accustomed to such hardships, but the Celts not only progressed with difficulty, the marshes being now cut up and trodden down to some depth, but were much fatigued and distressed by the severity of the task, being quite unused to suffering of the kind. They were prevented, however, from turning back by the cavalry in their rear.

All the army, indeed, suffered much, and chiefly from want of sleep, as they had to march through water for three continuous days and nights, but the Celts were much more worn out and lost more men than the rest. Most of the pack-animals fell and perished in the mud, the only service they rendered being that when they fell the men piled the packs on their bodies and lay upon them, being thus out of the water and enabled to snatch a little sleep during the night. Many of the horses also lost their hooves by the continuous march through the mud. Hannibal himself on the sole remaining elephant got across with much difficulty and suffering, being in great pain from a severe ‘attack of ophthalmia, which finally led to the loss of one eye as he had no time to stop and apply any treatment to it, the circumstances rendering that impossible.

The battle of Lake

Having thus almost beyond expectation crossed the marshes, and, finding that Flaminius was encamped in Etruria before the city of Arretium, he pitched his camp for the present at the edge of the marshes, with the view of refreshing his forces and getting information about the enemy and about the country in front of him. On learning that this country promised a rich booty, and that Flaminius was a thorough mobcourtier and demagogue, with no talent for the practical conduct of war and exceedingly selfconfident withal, he calculated that if he passed by the Roman army and advanced into the country in his front, the Consul would on the one hand never look on while he laid it waste for fear of being jeered at by his soldiery ; and on the other hand he would be so grieved that he would be ready to follow anywhere, in his anxiety to gain the coming victory himself without waiting for the arrival of his colleague. From all this he concluded that Flaminius would give him plenty of opportunities of attacking him.

And all this reasoning on his part was very wise and sound. For there is no denying that he who thinks that there is anything more essential to a general than the knowledge of his opponent’s principles and character, is both ignorant and foolish. For as in combats between man and man and rank and rank, he who means to conquer must observe how best to attain his aim, and what naked or unprotected part of the enemy is visible, so he who is in command must try to see in the enemy’s general not what part of his body is exposed, but what are the weak spots that can be discovered in his mind. For there are many men who, owing to indolence and general inactivity, bring to utter ruin not only the welfare of the state but their private fortunes as well; while there are many others so fond of wine that they cannot even go to sleep without fuddling themselves with drink; and some, owing to their abandonment to venery and the consequent derangement of their minds, have not only ruined their countries and their fortunes but brought their lives to a shameful end.

But cowardice and stupidity are vices which, disgraceful as they are in private to those who have them, are when found in a general the greatest of public calamities. For not only do they render his army inefficient but often expose those who confide in him to the greatest perils. Rashness on the other hand on his part and undue boldness and blind anger, as well as vaingloriousness and conceit, are easy to be taken advantage of by his enemy and are most dangerous to his friends; for such a general is the easy victim of all manner of plots, ambushes, and cheatery Therefore the leader who will soonest gain a decisive victory, is he who is able to perceive the faults of others, and to choose that manner and means of attacking the enemy which will take full advantage of the weaknesses of their commander. For just as a ship if deprived of its pilot will fall with its whole crew into the hands of the enemy, so the general who is his opponent’s master in strategy and reasoning may often capture his whole army. And in this case too, as Hannibal had correctly foreseen and reckoned on the conduct of Flaminius, his plan had the success he expected.

For as soon as he left the neighbourhood of Faesulae and advancing a short way beyond the Roman camp invaded the country in front of him, Flaminius swelled with fury and resentment, thinking that the enemy were treating him with contempt. And when very soon they began to lay waste the country, and the smoke rising from all quarters told its tale of destruction, he was still more indignant, regarding this as insufferable. So that when some of his officers gave it as their opinion that he should not instantly pursue and engage the enemy, but remain on his guard and beware of their numerous cavalry, and when they especially urged him to wait until his colleague joined him and to give battle with all their united legions, he not only paid no attention to the advice, but could not listen with patience to those who offered it, begging them to consider what would be said in Rome if, while the country was laid waste almost up to the walls, the army remained encamped in Etruria in the rear of the enemy. Finally, with these words, he broke up his camp, and advanced with his army, utterly regardless of time or place, but bent only on falling in with the enemy, as if victory were a dead certainty. He had even inspired the people with such confident hopes that the soldiery were outnumbered by the rabble that followed him for the sake of the booty, bringing chains, fetters, and other such implements.

Hannibal in the meantime while advancing on Rome through Etruria, with the city of Cortona and its hills on his left and the Thrasymene lake on his right, continued to burn and devastate the country on his way, with the view of provoking the enemy. When he saw Flaminius already approaching him and had also observed a position favourable for his purpose, he made his plans for battle.

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The road led through a narrow strip of level ground with a range of high hills on each side of it lengthwise. This defile was overlooked in front crosswise by a steep hill difficult to climb, and behind it lay the lake, between which and the hill side the passage giving access to the defile was quite narrow. Hannibal coasting the lake and passing through the defile occupied himself the hill in front, encamping on it with his Spaniards and Africans; his slingers and pikemen he brought round to the front by a detour and stationed them in an extended line under the hills to the right of the defile, and similarly taking his cavalry and the Celts round the hills on the left he placed them in a continuous line under these hills, so that the last of them were just at the entrance to the defile, lying between the hillside and the lake.

Having made all these preparations during the night and thus encompassed the defile with troops waiting in ambush, Hannibal remained quiet. Flaminius was following close on his steps impatient to overtake him. He had encamped the night before at a very late hour close to the lake itself; and next day as soon as it was dawn he led his vanguard along the lake to the above-mentioned defile, with the view of coming in touch with the enemy.

It was an unusually misty morning, and Hannibal, as soon as the greater part of the enemy’s column had entered the defile and when the head was already in contact with him, giving the signal for battle and sending notice to those in the ambuscades, attacked the Romans from all sides at the same time. The sudden appearance of the enemy took Flaminius completely by surprise, and as the condition of the atmosphere rendered it very difficult to see, and their foes were charging down on them in so many places from higher ground, the Roman Centurions and Tribunes were not only unable to take any effectual measures to set things right, but could not even understand what was happening. They were charged at one and the same instant from the front, from the rear, and from the flanks, so that most of them were cut to pieces in marching order as they were quite unable to protect themselves, and, as it were, betrayed by their commander’s lack of judgement. For while they were still occupied in considering what was best to do, they were being slaughtered without realizing how.

Flaminius himself, who was in the utmost dismay and dejection, was here attacked and slain by certain Celts. So there fell in the valley about fifteen thousand of the Romans, unable either to yield to circumstances, or to achieve anything, but deeming it, as they had been brought up to do, their supreme duty not to flee or quit their ranks. Those again who had been shut in between the hillside and the lake perished in a shameful and still more pitiable manner. For when they were forced into the lake in a mass, some of them quite lost their wits and trying to swim in their armour were drowned, but the greater number, wading into the lake as far as they could, stood there with only their heads out of the water, and when the cavalry approached them, and death stared them in the face, though lifting up their hands and entreating to be spared in the most piteous terms, they were finally dispatched either by the horsemen or in some cases by begging their comrades to do them this service.

About six thousand of those in the defile, who had defeated the enemy in their front, were unable to render any assistance to their own army or to get to the rear of their adversaries, as they could see nothing of what was happening, although they might have been of very material service. They simply continued to press forward in the belief that they were sure to meet with someone until they found themselves isolated on the high ground and on reaching the crest of the hill, the mist having now broken, they perceived the extent of the disaster, but were no longer able to help, as the enemy were now completely victorious and in occupation of all the ground. They therefore retired in a body to a certain Etruscan village. After the battle, on Maharbal being sent by the general with the Spaniards and pikemen to surround the village, finding themselves beset by a complication of dangers they laid down their arms and surrendered on condition of their lives being spared.

Such was the result of the battle in Etruria between the Romans and Carthaginians.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.II, Book III, Loeb Classical Library)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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