Polybius on the Battle of Trasimene


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Polybius, Book 3, Chapters 81-89

Livy, Book 22, Chapters 3-9

81.1  Hannibal decided that for many reasons Flaminius was bound to give him ample opportunity to attack. In this his calculations were both sound and thoroughly realistic. No-one in his right mind could reasonably argue that there is anything more important to the art of military command than an understanding of the character and temperament of the enemy general....

81.2 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, 81.3 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.  81.4 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;  81.5 while there are many others so fond of wine that they cannot even go to sleep without fuddling themselves with drink;  81.6 and some, owing to their abandonment to venery and the consequent derangement of their minds, have not only ruined their countries their fortunes but brought their lives to a shameful end.  81.7 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.  81.8 For not only do they render his army inefficient but often expose those who confide in him to the greatest perils.  81.9 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.  81.10 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.

[22.3] His next step was to investigate as carefully as he possibly could all that it was material for him to know - what mood the consul was in, what designs he was forming, what the character of the country and the kind of roads it possessed, and what resources it offered for the obtaining of supplies.

The district was amongst the most fertile in Italy; the plains of Etruria, which extend from Faesulae to Arretium, are rich in corn and live stock and every kind of produce. The consul's overbearing temper, which had grown steadily worse since his last consulship, made him lose all proper respect and reverence even for the gods, to say nothing of the majesty of the senate and the laws, and this self-willed and obstinate side of his character had been aggravated by the successes he had achieved both at home and in the field. It was perfectly obvious that he would not seek counsel from either God or man, and whatever he did would be done in an impetuous and headstrong manner.  

81.12. On this occasion Hannibal had certainly anticipated the plans of Flaminius, the Roman commander, and got the measure of his opponent. As a result his plan proved totally successful. 82.1. As soon as he had struck camp and moved off from the area of Faesulae, he advanced a short distance beyond the Roman camp and launched a raid upon the surrounding countryside. 82.2. Flaminius was immediately beside himself with rage, convinced that this was a deliberate insult by his opponents. 82.3. When they then began to devastate the countryside and the smoke rising everywhere gave evidence of the general destruction, he completely lost control of himself, utterly outraged by this intolerable turn of events.

By way of making him show these faults of character still more flagrantly, the Carthaginian prepared to irritate and annoy him. He left the Roman camp on his left, and marched in the direction of Faesulae to plunder the central districts of Etruria. Within actual view of the consul he created as widespread a devastation as he possibly could, and from the Roman camp they saw in the distance an extensive scene of fire and massacre. Flaminius had no intention of keeping quiet even if the enemy had done so, but now that he saw the possessions of the allies of Rome plundered and pillaged almost before his very eyes, he felt it to be a personal disgrace that an enemy should be roaming at will through Italy and advancing to attack Rome with none to hinder him.

82.4. Some of his officers advised that he should not immediately engage in hot pursuit of the enemy, let alone join battle with him; rather he should be on his guard and bear in mind the great strength of the enemy cavalry, and above all wait for the arrival of the other consul. They could then confront this dangerous situation with their united forces.

82.5. Not only did Flaminius refuse to take their advice, but he would not even listen to their arguments.

82.6. Instead he suggested that they should think about what would certainly be said by their fellow citizens back in the city, when they saw their countryside being laid waste almost up to the very gates of Rome, while the army lurked behind enemy lines comfortably encamped in Tuscany

All the other members of the council of war were in favour of a policy of safety rather than of display; they urged him to wait for his colleague, that they might unite their forces and act with one mind on a common plan, and pending his arrival they should check the wild excesses of the plundering enemy with cavalry and the light-armed auxiliaries.

Enraged at these suggestions he dashed out of the council and ordered the trumpets to give the signal for march and battle; exclaiming at the same time: "We are to sit, I suppose, before the walls of Arretium, because our country and our household gods are here. Now that Hannibal has slipped through our hands, he is to ravage Italy, destroy and burn everything in his way till he reaches Rome, while we are not to stir from here until the senate summons C. Flaminius from Arretium."

82.7. He ended his speech by striking camp and marching out with all his forces, without giving a thought to the timing of his movements or prior reconnaissance of the ground. He was simply eager to fall upon his enemy, as if victory was already totally assured.
82.8. He had even inspired everyone with such optimism that the camp followers, (a motley crowd who followed the army in the hope of booty, and equipped with chains, leg irons, and other such paraphernalia), actually outnumbered the regular soldiers.

During this outburst, he ordered the standards to be pulled up with all speed and at the same time mounted his horse. No sooner had he done so than the animal stumbled and fell and threw him over its head. All those who were standing round were appalled by what they took to be an evil omen at the beginning of a campaign, and their alarm was considerably increased by a message brought to the consul that the standard could not be moved though the standard-bearer had exerted his utmost strength. He turned to the messenger and asked him: "Are you bringing a despatch from the senate, also, forbidding me to go on with the campaign? Go, let them dig out the standard if their hands are too benumbed with fear for them to pull it up."

Then the column began its march. The superior officers, besides being absolutely opposed to his plans, were thoroughly alarmed by the double portent, but the great body of the soldiers were delighted at the spirit their general had shown; they shared his confidence without knowing on what slender grounds it rested.

82.9. Meanwhile Hannibal continued as before and marched through Tuscany towards Rome with the city of Cortona and its surrounding mountains to his left and Lake Trasimene on his right. 82.10. As he marched he continued to devastate the countryside with fire and sword, with the deliberate intention of provoking his opponents to battle.

[22.4] In order still further to exasperate his enemy and make him eager to avenge the injuries inflicted on the allies of Rome, Hannibal laid waste with all the horrors of war the land between Cortona and Lake Trasumennus.

82.11. He now saw that Flaminius was already getting close. As he had identified a position ideally suited to his plans, he made ready for battle.

83.1.  His route lay through a narrow pass where the terrain was level. Along the length of it on both sides there was a continuous line of high hills, but straight ahead across the front there was another hill, very steep and hard to climb, while the lake beyond and behind it allowed only a very limited passageway between the side of the hill and the lake. 83.2. Hannibal marched along the side of the lake and through the pass, and then personally led the occupation of the hill in front, on which he set up camp with his Spanish and Libyan soldiers. 83.3. He then sent his Balearic slingers and spearmen round to front and stationed them to his right on the lower slopes of the hills that lay along the line of pass.
83.4.  Meanwhile in a similar manoeuvre he led his cavalry and the Celts round the hills to his left, and stationed them in extended line so that their extreme left flank lay at the entrance to the pass itself (as already described) between the lake and the hillsides. 83.5. Having made all these preparations during the night and set up his ambush by seizing the hills around the pass, Hannibal quietly held his position.

He had now reached a position eminently adapted for surprise tactics, where the lake comes up close under the hills of Cortona. There is only a very narrow road here between the hills and the lake, as though a space had been purposely left for it. Further on there is a small expanse of level ground flanked by hills, and it was here that Hannibal pitched camp, which was only occupied by his Africans and Spaniards, he himself being in command. The Balearics and the rest of the light infantry he sent behind the hills; the cavalry, conveniently screened by some low hills, he stationed at the mouth of the defile, so that when the Romans had entered it they would be completely shut in by the cavalry, the lake, and the hills.

83.6. But Flaminius was following in hot pursuit, eager to overtake his opponent. 83.7. He had camped very late the previous night close to the lake itself. But the next day, as soon as dawn broke, in his eagerness to come to grips with his enemy he led his vanguard along the lake and into the pass, which I have already described.

Flaminius had reached the lake at sunset. The next morning, in a still uncertain light, he passed through the defile, without sending any scouts on to feel the way, and when the column began to deploy in the wider extent of level ground the only enemy they saw was the one in front, the rest were concealed in their rear and above their heads.

84.1. It was an unusually foggy morning. The bulk of the Roman column was now well inside the pass and their vanguard was already in contact with his troops, so Hannibal immediately gave the pre-arranged signal for attack and sent similar orders by runner to those hiding in ambush. They all launched a concerted attack on the Roman line from every side. 84.2. Flaminius and his commanders were taken completely by surprise by their sudden appearance. The foggy conditions around them made it difficult to see; in many sectors their enemy was charging into the attack from higher ground; the Roman centurions and legionary tribunes could not bring support where it was needed; indeed they had no real idea about what was actually going on. 84.3. Their men were facing a simultaneous attack from the front, the rear, and both flanks.

When the Carthaginian saw his object achieved and had his enemy shut in between the lake and the hills with his forces surrounding them, he gave the signal for all to make a simultaneous attack, and they charged straight down upon the point nearest to them. The affair was all the more sudden and unexpected to the Romans because a fog which had risen from the lake was denser on the plain than on the heights; the bodies of the enemy on the various hills could see each other well enough, and it was all the easier for them to charge all at the same time.

The shout of battle rose round the Romans before they could see clearly from whence it came, or became aware that they were surrounded. Fighting began in front and flank before they could form line or get their weapons ready or draw their swords.

[22.5] In the universal panic, the consul displayed all the coolness that could be expected under the circumstances. The ranks were broken by each man turning towards the discordant shouts; he re-formed them as well as time and place allowed, and wherever he could be seen or heard, he encouraged his men and bade them stand and fight. "It is not by prayers or entreaties to the gods that you must make your way out," he said, "but by your strength and your courage. It is the sword that cuts a path through the middle of the enemy, and where there is less fear there is generally less danger."

84.4. As a result most of them were cut to pieces while still in their marching formations and unable to support one another, betrayed, in effect by their general’s incompetence. 84.5. So they were annihilated before they even realised what was happening, and while they were still wondering how they should react.

But such was the uproar and confusion that neither counsel nor command could be heard, and so far was the soldier from recognising his standard or his company or his place in the rank, that he had hardly sufficient presence of mind to get hold of his weapons and make them available for use, and some who found them a burden rather than a protection were overtaken by the enemy. In such a thick fog ears were of more use than eyes; the men turned their gaze in every direction as they heard the groans of the wounded and the blows on shield or breastplate, and the mingled shouts of triumph and cries of panic. Some who tried to fly ran into a dense body of combatants and could get no further; others who were returning to the fray were swept away by a rush of fugitives. At last, when ineffective charges had been made in every direction and they found themselves completely hemmed in, by the lake and the hills on either side, and by the enemy in front and rear, it became clear to every man that his only hope of safety lay in his own right hand and his sword. Then each began to depend upon himself for guidance and encouragement, and the fighting began afresh, not the orderly battle with its three divisions of principes, hastati, and triarii, where the fighting line is in front of the standards and the rest of the army behind, and where each soldier is in his own legion and cohort and maniple. Chance massed them together, each man took his place in front or rear as his courage prompted him, and such was the ardour of the combatants, so intent were they on the battle, that not a single man on the field was aware of the earthquake which levelled large portions of many towns in Italy, altered the course of swift streams, brought the sea up into the rivers, and occasioned enormous landslips amongst the mountains.

84.6. This was the moment when Flaminius himself, at the height of his misfortunes and utterly at a loss, was attacked and killed by a detachment of Celts.

[22.6] For almost three hours the fighting went on; everywhere a desperate struggle was kept up, but it raged with greater fierceness round the consul. He was followed by the pick of his army, and wherever he saw his men hard pressed and in difficulties he at once went to their help. Distinguished by his armour he was the object of the enemy's fiercest attacks, which his comrades did their utmost to repel, until an Insubrian horseman who knew the consul by sight - his name was Ducarius - cried out to his countrymen, "Here is the man who slew our legions and laid waste our city and our lands! I will offer him in sacrifice to the shades of my foully murdered countrymen." Digging spurs into his horse he charged into the dense masses of the enemy, and slew an armour-bearer who threw himself in the way as he galloped up lance in rest, and then plunged his lance into the consul; but the triarii protected the body with their shields and prevented him from despoiling it.

84.7. About 15,000 Romans fell that day in the narrow pass. Unable to adapt to the situation or take any effective action, they stuck doggedly to their traditional code of military honour, refusing either to flee or to break ranks. 84.8. But those who had been trapped between the lake and the steep hillside perished somewhat less honourably and certainly much more wretchedly, 84.9. for they were driven into the lake. Some of them totally lost their heads and tried to swim in full armour and consequently drowned; but most of them waded into the lake as far as they could and simply stayed there with only their heads above the water, until the cavalry went after them. 84.10. Faced with the prospect of certain death, they raised their hands in surrender and begged for their lives in any way they could. But in the end some of them were slaughtered by their enemies; others at their own request were killed by their comrades.

Then began a general flight, neither lake nor mountain stopped the panic-stricken fugitives, they rushed like blind men over cliff and defile, men and arms tumbled pell-mell on one another. A large number, finding no avenue of escape, went into the water up to their shoulders; some in their wild terror even attempted to escape by swimming, an endless and hopeless task in that lake. Either their spirits gave way and they were drowned, or else finding their efforts fruitless, they regained with great difficulty the shallow water at the edge of the lake and were butchered in all directions by the enemy's cavalry who had ridden into the water.

84.11. Some 6000 of those trapped in the pass had managed to defeat the troops confronting them. But they could not bring support to their own men, nor could they work their way round behind the enemy lines to launch an attack, since they could not see what was happening. Had they been able to do so, they might have provided valuable support to the rest of their army. 84.12. Instead they pressed steadily forward, advancing in the conviction that sooner or later they would come across further enemy positions. In the end they broke through to the high ground unchallenged. 84.13. Once they reached the summit of the ridge, as the fog began to disperse, they became aware of the scale of the disaster. But there was nothing they could now do because the enemy had already achieved a total victory over the whole army and were in complete control of the battlefield. So they wheeled about and retreated to one of the nearby Tuscan villages.

About 6000 men who had formed the head of the line of march cut their way through the enemy and cleared the defile, quite unconscious of all that had been going on behind them. They halted on some rising ground, and listened to the shouting below and the clash of arms, but were unable, owing to the fog, to see or find out what the fortunes of the fight were. At last, when the battle was over and the sun's heat had dispelled the fog, mountain and plain revealed in the clear light the disastrous overthrow of the Roman army and showed only too plainly that all was lost. Fearing lest they should be seen in the distance and cavalry be sent against them, they hurriedly took up their standards and disappeared with all possible speed.

84.14. When the battle was over, Maharbal was sent with the Spanish troops and the spearmen to lay siege to the village. The situation for the Romans was hopeless, whichever way they looked at it. So they laid down their weapons and having made a truce surrendered, on condition that their lives were spared. 84.15. These events marked the end of the whole campaign in Tuscany, fought between the Romans and the Carthaginians.

85.1. The soldiers who had surrendered under the terms of the truce were brought to Hannibal, who assembled them together, along with all the other prisoners, numbering over 15,000 in total. 85.2. He began by announcing that Maharbal had no right to grant safe conduct to those who had surrendered on terms without his authority, and then delivered a scathing denunciation of the Romans generally. 85.3. When he had finished, he handed over the Roman prisoners to his various regiments to be kept under guard, but released the allied troops without ransom and sent them all home 85.4. declaring, as he had on previous occasions, that he had not come to make war on the Italians but to fight for their freedom against the Romans. 85.5. He then allowed his own troops time for rest and recuperation and gave formal burial to the most high-ranking casualties in his own army, about thirty in all. Total fatalities came to about 1500, of whom the majority were Celts. 85.6. Having dealt with those matters, he held a council of war with his brother and colleagues to discuss where and how he should launch his main assault, since he was now wholly confident of ultimate victory.

Maharbal pursued them through the night with the whole of his mounted force, and on the morrow, as starvation, in addition to all their other miseries, was threatening them, they surrendered to Maharbal, on condition of being allowed to depart with one garment apiece. This promise was kept with Punic faith by Hannibal, and he threw them all into chains.

[22.7] This was the famous battle at Trasumennus, and a disaster for Rome memorable as few others have been. Fifteen thousand Romans were killed in action; 1000 fugitives were scattered all over Etruria and reached the City by divers routes; 2500 of the enemy perished on the field, many in both armies afterwards of their wounds. Other authors give the loss on each side as many times greater, but I refuse to indulge in the idle exaggerations to which writers are far too much given, and what is more, I am supported by the authority of Fabius, who was living during the war. Hannibal dismissed without ransom those prisoners who belonged to the allies and threw the Romans into chains. He then gave orders for the bodies of his own men to be picked out from the heaps of slain and buried; careful search was also made for the body of Flaminius that it might receive honourable interment but it was not found.

85.7. When the news of this defeat reached Rome, the political leaders were unable to gloss over or play down the truth of what had happened. It was a major disaster and they had no choice but to report to the people what had happened, so they summoned them to an Assembly. 85.8. The Praetor addressed the Plebs from the Rostra, announcing that, “We have lost a battle – a big one”.

The immediate reaction of those who heard these words was utter dismay – so much so that those who had been present at both these key events (the battle and the assembly) felt that the defeat now seemed a far more significant event than it had during the actual battle itself. This was entirely predictable. 85.9. For many years they had neither heard of nor experienced an openly acknowledged defeat. As a result they now proved unable to accept such a reversal of fortune with appropriate restraint or self-control. 85.10. Nevertheless, the Senate at least kept their heads as their status required. They gave careful thought for the future, debating what they should all do and how best they should do it.

As soon as the news of this disaster reached Rome the people flocked into the Forum in a great state of panic and confusion. Matrons were wandering about the streets and asking those they met what recent disaster had been reported or what news was there of the army. The throng in the Forum, as numerous as a crowded Assembly, flocked towards the Comitium and the Senate-house and called for the magistrates. At last, shortly before sunset, M. Pomponius, the praetor, announced, "We have been defeated in a great battle."

Though nothing more definite was heard from him, the people, full of the reports which they had heard from one another, carried back to their homes the information that the consul had been killed with the greater part of his army; only a few survived, and these were either dispersed in flight throughout Etruria or had been made prisoners by the enemy. The misfortunes which had befallen the defeated army were not more numerous than the anxieties of those whose relatives had served under C. Flaminius, ignorant as they were of the fate of each of their friends, and not in the least knowing what to hope for or what to fear. The next day and several days afterwards, a large crowd, containing more women than men, stood at the gates waiting for some one of their friends or for news about them, and they crowded round those they met with eager and anxious inquiries, nor was it possible to get them away, especially from those they knew, until they had got all the details from first to last. Then as they came away from their informants you might see the different expressions on their faces, according as each had received good or bad news, and friends congratulating or consoling them as they wended their way homewards. The women were especially demonstrative in their joy and in their grief. They say that one who suddenly met her son at the gate safe and sound expired in his arms, whilst another who had received false tidings of her son's death and was sitting as a sorrowful mourner in her house, no sooner saw him returning than she died from too great happiness. For several days the praetors kept the senate in session from sunrise to sunset, deliberating under what general or with what forces they could offer effectual resistance to the victorious Carthaginian.

87.1 Hannibal now established an encampment on the shores of the Adriatic. The countryside was outstandingly fertile, offering all kinds of produce, and he made a serious effort to restore the health and well-being of his soldiers – and of his horses also.  87.2. In Gaul they had had to spend the winter in the open, suffering from cold and poor hygiene together with ill-health resulting from their subsequent route through marsh land. As a result virtually all the horses and the soldiers likewise were afflicted with scurvy (so-called) and associated diseases.  87.3. As a result, now that he controlled such a prosperous territory, he set about getting his horses into peak condition and restoring both the fitness and morale of his men. He altered the equipment of his African troops, giving them the best possible Roman weaponry, of which he now had ample supplies from his captured spoils.  87.4. At the same time he sent messengers to report back to Carthage on the turn of events, despatching them by sea, because this was the first time he had reached a coastline since invading Italy.  87.5. The Carthaginians were delighted by the news, and with great enthusiasm set about organising support for their armies in Italy and in the Iberian peninsula.