The Punic Wars: On the Edge
by: Q. Claudius Locatus Barbatus
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V | PARS VI | PARS VII | PARS VIII | PARS IX | PARS X | PARS XI
In another port there was another battle going on: in the harbour of Syracuse 60 Roman vessels were slowly sailing towards the city walls at night. The decks of the ships were loaded with legionnaires. They would climb the city walls with ladders. The defences of Syracuse were designed by Archimedes. At that time Marcellus was the commander of the Romans. The soldiers were silently preparing for battle, but they didn't know the Greeks were doing so, too.
The Roman ships passed the large stone hurling machines at the entrance of the harbor without resistance. But once within it they were attacked by lead balls, shot from catapults and iron tentacles of strange machines who turn over the ships. These machines were designed by Archimedes too. The Roman invasion failed. They tried again from the landside. But the attack failed again, and once more they were attacked by strange hurling machines, hurling stone and other projectiles. The Romans decided to besiege the city. After a while they finally were able to enter Syracuse, thanks to treachery of some of its citizens. Many Greeks were killed, one of them being Archimedes. Rome finally possessed the whole of Sicily.
Hasdrubal (the brother of Hannibal) tried to cross the Ebro to advance towards the Alps, but was defeated by Gnaeus and Publius Scipio. Hasdrubal and his army was driven back towards Southern Spain. Carthago sent 20 000 men, first intended as reinforcements for Hannibal, to defend Carthagena. Rome succeeded to capture the ship with legates from Philippus of Macedonia, and with them the full text of the treaty between Philippus and Hannibal. A Roman army was sent out to intercept the Macedonian army, heading for Italy.
A message came from Spain: The Scipiones were totally unexpectedly defeated by the Carthaginians. The Gauls' desertation of the Roman army had caused this and now Hasdrubal had a free way to the Alps. In Italy, at the same time, the Carthaginians had managed to kill the Consul, Gracchus. That year (211 BC) Rome drew up the balance-sheet after 8 years of war: No grain had to be expected from Sicily or Sardinia. There was an outbreak of the plague. There were 23 legions sent out and still 270 000 men who were able to join the army, but: in the year Hannibal crossed the Alps there still were 770 000 available soldiers. Who would do the harvest, the trade and other necessary things? A man stepped forwards in the Senate and said: "You only think about Hannibal, but your real enemy is Carthago." That man was Publius Cornelius Scipio, 25 years old and the son of the commander in Spain. He had fought in both battles (Trebia and Cannae), but never had been in command of any army. His opponents replied: "Carthago is in Africa, and Hannibal can be here, in Rome within a few days!". Scipio answered: "That is true, but if we destroy Carthago, what will be left of Hannibal?"
Publius Cornelius Scipio was 25 years old, and the son of the commander in Spain. He had fought at Trebia and Cannae. He was used to go to the temple of Jupiter at night to think the situation over until the sun rose. His explanation was: "one is never less lonely than when one is completely alone". The superstitious people of Rome saw a messenger of the Gods in Scipio; a hero of Cannae who was in contact with the Gods. The senate deliberated on the next elections. Scipio was too young even to be praetor, but he came from gens Cornelia, a gens that had had many consuls before. He was also very certain of himself. The Senate decided that the only candidate to become proconsul would be Scipio, assisted by an older commander and adviser. And -- surprise -- Scipio was chosen to be proconsul with the majority of the votes. Scipio made up his plans: by conquering Spain he would travel to Africa, and finally to Carthago.
Scipio travelled to Spain immediately to encounter the remnants of the Roman army who were left there after the defeat against Hasdrubal's and Mago's troups. Scipio used the winter to drill and train his troops, 1000 legionaries and 2000 auxilii. He discovered that Mago and Hasdrubal were more than 10 days away from their capital, Carthagena. Scipio advanced immediately to Carthagena. He was followed by parts of the Roman navy. Scipio attacked Carthagena, but was repelled several times by Carthaginian counterattacks. Then Scipio took 500 of his legionaries and went to the north side of the city walls. He had to wade through a meter of water but he reached the walls without any resistance of the Carthaginians, who were busy to defend the southern walls. The Romans entered the city by the use of ladders, and Carthagena was taken. Rome was overjoyed. At the same time trophies of Marcellus from Syracuse reached Rome. A golden globe made by Archimedes was part of those trophies.
As expected Rome tried to retake Capua. Nothing had embarrassed Rome so much as the treachery of their Greek city. The army of the proconsuls besieged the city. A cry for help was sent out by the citizens of Capua to Hannibal. He reacted immediately by a quick attack from his cavalry and his elephants, helped by a sort of army from Capua. But the Romans resisted. Hannibal swiftly changed his tactics and headed for Rome.
The Carthaginians were heading on the Via Latina in the direction of Rome. On his way through enemy territory he burned villages and ruined the harvest. At Cassinum (at the place were nowadays is Monte Cassino, known from WWII) he gave his army a rest of two days. His aim was to lure the army of the proconsuls away from Capua. The people of Rome were panicking: "Hannibal ad portas!". The Senate gathered on the forum, so they could see Hannibal coming. The Cornelii demanded that the Roman army should retreat to defend Rome. But Fabius Maximus said: "Hannibal is not coming to besiege Rome, but to end the siege of Capua". The Senate sent a message to the Proconsuls to send all the men they could miss, but to continue the siege of Capua. 15 000 men were sent to Rome. At that time 35 000 soldiers were available to defend Rome. Hannibal had a camp on a distance of only 4,5 km (or about 3 miles) from the city walls. His cavalry inspected the walls without any resistance. Hannibal was ransacking Latium. Rome was bleeding to death. All the citizens of Rome had to turn in their gold and silver, including jewellery and dinner things. The women were allowed to keep one ring. Rome called Marcellus back to stop Hannibal ransacking Latium.