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The Battle of Trebia
By Alexander J. Knights, 21 March 2007; Revised
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Roman Military
The situation was complicated, though Carthage had rights to everything south of the Ebro River, Iberia, Rome was disgusted at the siege of their allies in the Greek settlement of Saguntum. Delegates were immediately sent to Carthage, in order to negotiate the crisis. Carthage ended up handing the decision over to the Roman delegation, who opted for war – and war it was.
Whilst Hannibal was making his move, Rome was raising its legions, and preparing for a naval assault. They sent Gnaeus Scipio to , as well as Publius Scipio shortly after. Hannibal continued to move north, subduing ambushes and skirmishes by hostile Gallic tribes along the way, but also gaining the support of many, enabling him to repopulate his ever diminishing army. By the time Hannibal had reached the Alps, he had 38,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, and some remaining war elephants.By gaining further support from Latins and Cisalpine Gauls, he managed to boost his numbers but was still left with half the numbers he originally departed with. After the long and costly crossing of the Alps and Rhone River (where he encountered fierce Gaulish resistance), Hannibal and his army set foot on the plains of Italia. Rome’s scouts rapidly alerted them of the strategic surprise sprung upon them by Hannibal, and Publius Scipio was immediately called back to .
Hannibal’s first Roman engagement occurred at the River Ticinus, where his cavalry contingent destroyed the consular cavalry force of Publius. Consul Titus Sempronius Longus was called from Sicily to face the threat from the Carthaginian and he reacted swiftly, marching his army up to the Apennines and into Northern Italy in just forty days. Titus was eager for battle, and battle was what he would get.The Alpine foothills were still frozen even in December, and nearby Hannibal’s camp, the River Trebia was near freezing. Longus set up camp on the opposite side of the river to Hannibal. On the eve of 17th December 218 BC Hannibal ordered his troops to rest, but rise early.
Before sunrise, his troops stirred and awoke. They were promptly ordered to eat breakfast and put oil over their skin to keep them warm in the ordeal to come. A contingent of elite Numidian horsemen was sent to provoke the slumbering Romans. As they crossed the freezing river, Hannibal’s troops were getting into formation. Hannibal had commanded his brother Mago to take 2,000 Heavy Cavalry (plus a selection of offensive infantry) to lay in ambush adjacent to his main battle line, and hidden. The Numidian cavalry approached the Roman camp and harassed them with javelins and slander. This provoked the impetuous Sempronius into rash action. Without allowing time for breakfast, or even proper organisation, he headed his army into the freezing River Trebia. By now, Hannibal’s lines were complete. In the center were his Gaulish, Ligurian and Celtiberian infantry, and flanking them on either side were the prized Libyans and Iberians. All in all, 20,000 infantry, with 8,000 cavalry evenly split on the sides of Hannibal’s thin battlefront.
This battle was the first to demonstrate Hannibal’s unrivaled tactical brilliance. Though not the climax of his tactical adeptness, Trebia was a masterpiece nevertheless. The virtue of organisation and foresight into the future are key parts of the overall result. If it were not for some parts of the plan, it would have failed as a whole. Ultimately, Trebia demonstrated Hannibal’s ability to pick a battle well, and showed his liking to fighting on his own terms, plus the ability to do so with ease. Furthermore, Hannibal’s ability to use inferior and outnumbered forces is one of his great attributes, and was further expressed at his future battles.
Though not dominant over at this stage, Hannibal had gained many defective allies from Gaul and Latinum. This boosted his forces, and he decided to head south. With extra troops, a revitalised army and added resources, Hannibal was back on the move. Hannibal was on Italian soil, and he was hostile. Now begins the road to Trasimene…
Goldsworthy, A. (2001). “The Punic Wars” - Published by Weidenfeld Military, London.
Polybius. “The Rise of the Roman Empire – The character of Hannibal” (Book IX, chapters 22-26)
Grant, R.G. (2005). “Battle – A visual journey through 5,000 years of combat” Published by Dorling Kindersley Limited, London.
Cornelius Nepos. “De Viribus Illustris – Hannibal”. trans. J. Thomas, 1995
Silverman, D.L. (1996). “Carthage and Rome - The Punic Wars” <http://web.archive.org/web/20010407062240/http://web.reed.edu/academic/departments/classics/Carthage&Rome.html> Retrieved 20/3/2007 and 21/3/2007.
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