The Death of Aemilius Paullus by John Trumbull

Rome Should Have Fallen Sooner

There was one early battle that should have ended Rome

Cody Trusler
May 9, 2020 · 8 min read

“Wherever fate may lead us, whether on or backward, let us follow. Whatsoever occurs, all fortune must be overcome by endurance.” The Aeneas, Virgil

ust outside the modern city of Barletta sits the ruins of a forgotten town. Like many cities of the ancient world, the ruins are preserved by being left alone. With nothing around the fields but a few houses, the ancient town is forever imprinted in history. Many centuries ago two armies fought for the dominance of what they thought was the world. The two superpowers would fight in the open field next to the river that flowed near the town.

On one side, The Roman juggernaut supported an 80,000 troop army. Almost double that of the Carthaginians. Carthaginians assumed this battle would determine the war. The Carthaginian army was ready for the fight, and a win. Carthage’s leader would devise a plan that would inspire many generals after him and etch his name into history. His name was Hannibal Barca, and he should have ended the Romans at a small forgotten town called Cannae.

From 217 BCE to 202 BCE, Roman and Carthage would battle for supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea. Twenty four years before, these two superpowers of the region ended a similar conflict. The First Punic Wars centered around the islands in the Mediterranean. The war was to show who was in command of the seas and islands of the region, but the Romans were newcomers to expansion outside of Italy.

When the First Punic War broke out, Carthage was a well know trading city. Founded by the Phonecians, Carthage thrived by trade. Often when they went to war, they would buy their soldiers. This was to increase their military forces without having to raise the troops. Of course, this was not always the case but they could afford to buy mercenaries.

Carthage would rely more on mercenaries after the conclusion of the First Punic War. This was because of many Carthaginians died during the war, as wells as in riots that ensued after the war. Having to deal with a multi-decade long war, losing it, and then quelling riots has its toll.

But during the First Punic War, there was a Carthaginian who stood out. Often overlooked by his famous son, Hamilcar Barca was a brilliant general in his own right. Having commanded troops in Sicily he was never ready to end his engagements against Rome. After the riots, which is called the Mercenary War, ended Hamilcar prepared for an invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. Before leaving his home, which he would never see again he had his son with him to take a blood oath. Hannibal, later recalled by Polybius, states:

…he(Hamilcar) took me(Hannibal) by the right hand and led me up to the altar, and bade me lay my hand upon the victim and swear that I would never be friends with Rome. So long, then, Antiochus, as your policy is one of hostility to Rome, you may feel quite secure of having in me a most thoroughgoing supporter.

This oath may be fictitious but if honest Hamilcar’s son will keep his word.

Spain

Hamilcar Barca pilfered the Iberian Peninsula. He used the land for the raw materials to pay Rome for the war amenities. He would be there for the final eight years of his life, never to see his son become the commander that history knows.

Hannibal Barca

When Hannibal aged his hatred of Rome became more apparent. The troops of Hamilcar stay with the young Barcid and promoted him once they saw his father’s genius. At the ripe age of 26, Hannibal was ready to keep his father’s oath. He would spend another ten years in New Carthage, Spain, till he decided to attack a city by the name of Saguntum.

Saguntum, while under siege, sent help to their allies and waited for the Barcid threat to the city to end. But the Threat was ignored. Rome, their ally, sent a consul, Quintus Fabius Maximus*, to Carthage. He defended Suguntum to no avail and asked Carthage the following:

“Here we bring you peace or war; what do you choose?

The Carthaginians gave their reply and paid the price with a twenty-year-long war. But one they could have won had their enemy not been Rome.

March on Italy

No turning back, the war was declared. Hannibal would strike at the heart of Rome. His goal was to knock out the alliances in Itlay, severing their manpower. Not a bad plan, but he needed to land troops in Italy. There he had a problem, he had no navy, and Rome controlled the seas. So he got ambitious. Hannibal would blindside the Romans by crossing the Alps, a feat that had never been done, until Hannibal.

Hannibal Crossing the Alps

The Romans were so shocked. The recall of forces to Italy was made. Even Publius Cornelius Scipio* came back to Italy after a small engagement with Hannibal. The threat was real.

Hannibal traversed the Alps with an army and elephants to ravage Italy. He dominated the Romans killing and enslaving them, but freeing non-Romans in hopes of bolstering his plan.* For two years he decimated armies more vast than his to the point the Romans would fear him in battle. Quintus Fabius Maximus shadowed him in order to gain an advantage. These setbacks and defeats became demoralizing and a new commander had an idea.

Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus were elected for consul in 216 BCE. Their plans were to raise a massive army and face Hannibal on open ground.

Hannibal accepted.

A Battle for the Ages

Hannibal, who was in southern Italy, surveyed the lands. He chose a small Italian city and prepared for the assault. Once ready he waited for his Rome opponent to accept the challenge. Hannibal with 50,000 troops, was ready to make history.

Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the elected consuls of the year, marched. They headed with an army so large that the Romans thought it impossible to lose. Each consul sat on the wings, with the calvary, ready to push through their Carthaginian menace. The bulk of their forces were in the foot soldiers, expecting victory would come when the center. The plan made sense, but it would be a fatal error.

The Department of History, United States Military Academy

Hannibal understood the Romans. He was counting on their plan to try to open the center. Hannibal widened his army to match that of his counterpart and thinned the center. He placed his most experienced troops on the edges and thinned the center. Creating a bow like front he wanted his troops to step back when the engagement started. This would be the plan to victory, losing ground. He used his enemy’s greatest strengths and made it their undoing.

Once the battle started, Lucius Aemilius Paullus foolishly engaged with the superior cavalry. He would die in the engagement. Gaius Terentius Varro, who was with the other Roman cavalry, ran off the field by the Carthaginians who had just killed Pallus. Rome was without horses or leadership, and the army was unaware. Hannibal’s moment came.

After the Romans keep pushing back the center, Hannibal sprung his trap. He surrounded the Romans on three fronts with the back open. After the Carthaginian Cavalry removed what was left of the Roman horsemen, the closed the gap. The larger Romans Army was surrounded. The slaughter was parallel to that of a World War One engagement. Of the 80,000 Romans that took the field, an estimated 10,000 escaped.* Rome was without an army in Italy.

Results

By all accounts, Rome should have lost the war right here. Every battle that Hannibal drew them into ended in one-sided defeats. How? Well, that came down to the Romans, determined not to lose. They were stubborn. Rome was a manpower state. They could afford to place many troops into battle and lose many times over. Rome’s cause was to keep their state alive because it was ambition that kept them going, even in hard times.

But this hits at another problem. Why after winning this great battle did Hannibal not march on the Eternal City? He had the troops willing to follow him, and he was skilled enough to besiege the city. That question has plagued many generals that would become fascinated by the Carthaginian.

What Livy and Plutarch state about him are that he did not want to destroy Rome but remove them from power. This questions the validity of his oath. He was never to be a friend to Rome. Rome was his Moriarty, why allow them to live? That comes down to who the Romans were. They were not going to stop the Romans, Hannibal knew this. He wanted to remove their power, not their state. Why would he push to separate the cities from Roman control, it would take from their power in the region.

Marching on Rome would have been fatal to Hannibal. He did not have the means to take a city and it would have given the Romans time to prepare. Yes, Rome was in a chaotic mess after the battle, but this would have been information out of the hands of Hannibal. Though Hannibal wanted to win the war, he never expected the Romans to decline his offer of a treaty. Rome should have accepted, but they decided to fight to the end, something the City of Carthage was not willing to do. Carthage would lose when Rome attacked Africa and threatened the city of Carthage. The Romans would learn from their mistakes to ready against Hannibal, and seel Carthage’s fate to history. Rome proved that a battle does not win a war, even if the better general fights for the other side.

A statue of Hannibal after winning the Battle of Cannae

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Footnotes

  • Quintus Fabius Maximus would later become a dictator. He would not fight Hannibal and shadowed him, letting Hannibal make the choice to fight. This gave birth to the Fabius tactic that is still used today in modern militaries.
  • This is the Father of Scipio Africanus who would defeat Hannibal at the battle of Zama.
  • Two major battles took place in this time. The Battle of the Trebia and the Battle of Lake Trasimene. These were important battles that led to the fears of the Romans. These also led to Fabius becoming dictator.

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Cody Trusler

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Articles about why history matters. Sign up at codytrusler.substack.com.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Cody Trusler

Written by

Articles about why history matters. Sign up at codytrusler.substack.com.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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