Chapter IX: The Siege of Saguntum

A few days later the Carthaginian army were astonished by the issue of an order that the whole were to be in readiness to march upon the following day. The greatest excitement arose when the news got abroad. None knew against whom hostilities were to be directed. No one had heard aught of the arrival of messengers announcing fresh insurrection among the recently conquered tribes, and all sorts of surmises were indulged in as to the foe against whom this great force, the largest which had ever been collected by Carthage, were about to get in motion.

The army now gathered around Carthagena amounted, indeed, to a hundred and fifty thousand men, and much surprise had for some time existed at the continual arrival of reinforcements from home, and at the large number of troops which had during the winter been raised and disciplined from among the friendly tribes.

Simultaneously with the issue of the order long lines of wagons, laden with military stores, began to pour out from the arsenals, and all day long a procession of carts moved across the bridge over the canal in the isthmus to the mainland. The tents were struck at daylight, the baggage loaded up into the wagons told off to accompany the various bodies of soldiers, and the troops formed up in military order.

When Hannibal rode on to the ground, surrounded by his principal officers, a shout of welcome rose from the army; and he proceeded to make a close inspection of the whole force. The officers then placed themselves at the head of their respective commands, the trumpets gave the signal, and the army set out on a march, as to whose direction and distance few present had any idea, and from which few, indeed, were ever destined to return.

There was no longer any occasion for secrecy as to the object of the expedition. The generals repeated it to their immediate staffs, these informed the other officers, and the news speedily spread through the army that they were marching against Saguntum. The importance of the news was felt by all. Saguntum was the near ally of Rome, and an attack upon that city could but mean that Carthage was entering upon another struggle with her great rival.

Saguntum lay about 140 miles north of Carthagena, and the army had to cross the range of mountains now known as the Sierra Morena, which run across the peninsula from Cape St. Vincent on the west to Cape St. Martin on the east. The march of so large an army, impeded as it was by a huge train of wagons with stores and the machines necessary for a siege, was toilsome and arduous in the extreme. But all worked with the greatest enthusiasm and diligence; roads were made with immense labour through forests, across ravines, and over mountain streams.

Hannibal himself was always present, encouraging the men by his praises, and sharing all their hardships.

At last the mountains were passed, and the army poured down into the fertile plains of Valencia, which town, however, was not then in existence. Passing over the site where it is now situated they continued their march north until Saguntum, standing on Its rocky eminence, came into view.

During the march Malchus and his company had led the way, guided by natives, who pointed out the easiest paths. As there were no enemies to be guarded against, they had taken their full share in the labours of the army.

The Saguntines were already aware of the approach of the expedition. No sooner had it crossed the crest of the mountains than native runners had carried the news of its approach, and the inhabitants had spent the intervening time in laying in great stores of provisions, and in making every preparation for defence. The garrison was small in comparison with the force marching against it, but it was ample for the defence of the walls, for its position rendered the city well nigh impregnable against the machines in use at the time, and was formidable in the extreme even against modern artillery, for 2000 years afterwards Saguntum, with a garrison of 3000 men, resisted for a long time all the efforts of a French army under General Suchet. As soon as his force arrived near the town Hannibal rode forward, and, in accordance with the custom of the times, himself summoned the garrison to surrender. Upon their refusal he solemnly declared war by hurling his javelin against the walls. The troops at once advanced to the assault, and poured flights of arrows, masses of stones from their machines, javelins, and missiles of all descriptions into the city, the defenders replying with equal vigour from the walls. At the end of the first day's fighting Hannibal perceived that his hopes of carrying the place by assault were vain -- for the walls were too high to be scaled, too thick to be shaken by any irregular attack -- and that a long siege must be undertaken.

This was a great disappointment to him, as it would cause a long delay that it would be scarce possible to commence the march which he meditated that summer. As to advancing, with Saguntum in his rear, it was not to be thought of, for the Romans would be able to land their armies there and to cut him off from all communication with Carthagena and Carthage. There was, then, nothing to be done but to undertake the siege in regular order.

The army formed an encampment in a circle round the town. A strong force was left to prevent the garrison from making a sortie, and the whole of the troops were then marched away in detachments to the hills to fell and bring down the timber which would be required for the towers and walls, the bareness of the rock rendering it impossible to construct the approaches as usual with earth. In the first place, a wall, strengthened by numerous small towers, was erected round the whole circumference of the rock; then the approaches were begun on the western side, where attack was alone possible.

This was done by lines of wooden towers, connected one with another by walls of the same material; movable towers were constructed to be pushed forward against the great tower which formed the chief defence of the wall, and on each side the line of attack was carried onward by portable screens covered with thick hide. In the meantime the Saguntines were not idle. Showers of missiles of all descriptions were hurled upon the working parties, great rocks from the machines on the walls crashed through the wooden erections, and frequent and desperate sorties were made, in which the Carthaginians were almost always worsted. The nature of the ground, overlooked as it was by the lofty towers and walls, and swept by the missiles of the defenders, rendered it impossible for any considerable force to remain close at hand to render assistance to the workers, and the sudden attacks of the Saguntines several times drove them far down the hillside, and enabled the besieged, with axe and fire, to destroy much of the work which had been so labouriously carried out.

In one of these sorties Hannibal, who was continually at the front, overlooking the work, was seriously wounded by a javelin in the thigh. Until he was cured the siege languished, and was converted into a blockade, for it was his presence and influence alone which encouraged the men to continue their work under such extreme difficulties, involving the death of a large proportion of those engaged. Upon Hannibal's recovery the work was pressed forward with new vigour, and the screens and towers were pushed on almost to the foot of the walls. The battering rams were now brought up, and -- shielded by massive screens, which protected those who worked them from the darts and stones thrown down by the enemy, and by lofty towers, from whose tops the Carthaginian archers engaged the Saguntines on the wall -- began their work.

The construction of walls was in those days rude and primitive, and they had little of the solidity of such structures in succeeding ages. The stones were very roughly shaped, no mortar was used, and the displacement of one stone consequently involved that of several others. This being the case it was not long before the heavy battering rams of the Carthaginians produced an effect on the walls, and a large breach was speedily made. Three towers and the walls which connected them fell with a mighty crash, and the besiegers, believing that the place was won, advanced to the assault. But the Saguntines met them in the breach, and for hours a desperate battle raged there.

The Saguntines hurled down upon the assailants trunks of trees bristling with spearheads and spikes of iron, blazing darts and falariques -- great blocks of wood with projecting spikes, and covered thickly with a mass of pitch and sulphur which set on fire all they touched. Other species of falariques were in the form of spindles, the shaft wrapped round with flax dipped in pitch. Hannibal fought at the head of his troops with desperate bravery, and had a narrow escape of being crushed by an enormous rock which fell at his feet; but in spite of his efforts and those of his troops they were unable to carry the breach, and at nightfall fell back to their camp, having suffered very heavy losses.

Singularly enough the French columns were repulsed in an effort to carry a breach at almost the same spot, the Spaniards hurling among them stones, hand grenades of glass bottles and shells, and defending the breach with their long pikes against all the efforts of Suchet's troops.

Some days passed before the attack was renewed, as the troops were worn out by their labours. A strong guard in the meantime held the advanced works against any sorties of the Saguntines.

These, on their side, worked night and day, and by the time the Carthaginians again advanced the wall was rebuilt and the breach closed. But Hannibal had also been busy. Seeing that it was impossible for his troops to win an entrance by a breach, as long as the Saguntines occupied every point commanding it, he caused a vast tower to be built, sufficiently lofty to overlook every point of the defences, arming each of its stages with catapults and ballistas. He also built near the walls a great terrace of wood higher than the walls themselves, and from this and from the tower he poured such torrents of missiles into the town that the defenders could no longer remain upon the walls. Five hundred Arab miners now advanced, and these, setting to work with their implements, soon loosened the lower stones of the wall, and this again fell with a mighty crash and a breach was opened.

The Carthaginians at once swarmed in and took possession of the wall; but while the besiegers had been constructing their castle and terrace, the Saguntines had built an interior wall, and Hannibal saw himself confronted with a fresh line of defences.

As preparations were being made for the attack of the new defences messengers arrived saying that the Carpatans and Orotans, furious at the heavy levies of men which had been demanded from them for the army, had revolted. Leaving Maharbal to conduct the siege in his absence, Hannibal hurried away with a portion of his force, and returned in two months, having put down the revolt and severely punished the tribesmen.

While the siege had been continuing the Romans had been making vain efforts to induce the Carthaginians to desist. No sooner had the operations commenced than agents from the Roman senate waited on Hannibal and begged him to abandon the siege. Hannibal treated their remonstrance with disdain, at the same time writing to Carthage to say that it was absolutely necessary that the people of Saguntum, who were insolent and hostile, relying on the protection of Rome, should be punished. The envoys then went to Carthage, where they made an animated protest against what they regarded as an unprovoked attack upon their allies. Rome, in fact, was anxious at this moment to postpone the struggle with Carthage for the same reason that Hannibal was anxious to press it on.

She had but just finished a long struggle with the Gaulish tribes of Northern Italy, and was anxious to recover her strength before she engaged in another war. It was for this very reason that Hannibal desired to force on the struggle. His friends at Carthage persuaded the senate to refuse to listen to the envoys of Rome. Another embassy was sent to Hannibal, but the general would not give them an interview, and, following the instructions they had received, the ambassadors then sailed to Carthage to make a formal demand for reparation, and for the person of Hannibal to be delivered over to them for punishment.

But the Barcine party were for the moment in the ascendancy; long negotiations took place which led to nothing, and all this time the condition of the Saguntines was becoming more desperate. Five new ambassadors were therefore sent from Rome to ask in the name of the republic whether Hannibal was authorized by the Carthaginians to lay siege to Saguntum, to demand that he should be delivered to Rome, and, in case of refusal, to declare war. The Carthaginian senate met in the temple of Moloch and there received the Roman ambassadors. Q. Fabius, the chief man of the embassy, briefly laid the demands of Rome before the senate. Cestar, one of the Barcine leaders, replied, refusing the demands. Fabius then rose.

"I give you the choice -- peace or war?"

"Choose yourself," the Carthaginians cried.

"Then I choose war," Fabius said.

"So be it," the assembly shouted.

And thus war was formally declared between the two Republics. But Saguntum had now fallen. The second wall had been breached by the time Hannibal had returned from his expedition, and an assault was ordered. As before, the Saguntines fought desperately, but after a long struggle the Carthaginians succeeded in winning a footing upon the wall.

The Saguntines, seeing that further resistance was vain, that the besiegers had already won the breach, that there was no chance of assistance from Rome, and having, moreover, consumed their last provisions, sought for terms. Halcon, the Saguntine general, and a noble Spaniard named Alorcus, on the part of Hannibal, met in the breach. Alorcus named the conditions which Hannibal had imposed -- that the Saguntines should restore to the Torbolates the territory they had taken from them, and that the inhabitants, giving up all their goods and treasures, should then be permitted to leave the town and to found a new city at a spot which Hannibal would name.

The Saguntines, who were crowding round, heard the terms. Many of the principal senators at once left the place, and hurrying into their houses carried the gold and silver which they had there, and also some of that in the public treasury, into the forum, and piling up a vast heap of wood set it alight and threw themselves into the flames. This act caused a tremendous commotion in the city. A general tumult broke out, and Hannibal, seeing that his terms were refused, poured his troops across the breach, and after a short but desperate fight captured the city. In accordance with the cruel customs of the times, which, however, were rarely carried into effect by Hannibal, the male prisoners were all put to the sword, as on this occasion he considered it necessary to strike terror into the inhabitants of Spain, and to inflict a lesson which would not be forgotten during his absence in the country.

The siege had lasted eight months. The booty taken was enormous. Every soldier in the army had a rich share of the plunder, and a vast sum was sent to Carthage; besides which the treasure chests of the army were filled up. All the Spanish troops had leave given them to return to their homes for the winter, and they dispersed highly satisfied with the booty with which they were laden. This was a most politic step on the part of the young general, as the tribesmen, seeing the wealth with which their countrymen returned, no longer felt it a hardship to fight in the Carthaginian ranks, and the levies called out in the spring went willingly and even eagerly.

Hannibal returned with his African troops to spend the winter at Carthagena He was there joined by the emissaries he had sent to examine Southern Gaul and the passes of the Alps, to determine the most practicable route for the march of the army, and to form alliances with the tribes of Southern Gaul and Northern Italy. Their reports were favourable, for they had found the greatest discontent existing among the tribes north of the Apennines, who had but recently been conquered by the Romans.

Their chiefs, smarting under the heavy yoke of Rome, listened eagerly to the offers of Hannibal's agents, who distributed large sums of money among them, and promised them, in return for their assistance, not only their freedom from their conqueror, but a full share in the spoils of Rome. The chiefs replied that they would render any assistance to the Carthaginians as soon as they passed the Alps, and that they would then join them with all their forces. The reports as to the passes of the Alps were less satisfactory. Those who had examined them found that the difficulties they offered to the passage of an army were enormous, and that the tribes who inhabited the lower passes, having suffered in no way yet at the hands of Rome, would probably resist any army endeavouring to cross.

By far the easiest route would be to follow the seashore, but this was barred against the Carthaginians by the fact that the Massilians (the people of Marseilles) were the close allies of Rome. They had admitted Roman colonists among them, and carried on an extensive trade with the capital. Their town was strong, and their ports would be open to the Roman fleets. The tribes in their neighourhood were all closely allied with them.

Hannibal saw at once that he could not advance by the route by the sea without first reducing Marseilles. This would be an even more difficult operation than the siege of Saguntum, as Rome would be able to send any number of men by sea to the aid of the besieged, and the great struggle would be fought out in Southern Gaul instead of, as he wished, in Italy. Thus he decided to march by a route which would take him far north of Marseilles, even although it would necessitate a passage through the terrible passes of the Alps.

During the winter Hannibal laboured without intermission in preparing for his expedition. He was ever among his soldiers, and personally saw to everything which could conduce to their comfort and well being. He took a lively interest in every minute detail which affected them; saw that their clothing was abundant and of good quality, inspected their rations, and saw that these were well cooked.

It was this personal attention to the wants of his soldiers which, as much as his genius as a general, his personal valour, and his brilliant qualities, endeared him to his troops. They saw how anxious he was for their welfare; they felt that he regarded every man in his army as a friend and comrade, and in return they were ready to respond to every appeal, to make every sacrifice, to endure, to suffer, to fight to the death for their beloved leader. His troops were mercenaries -- that is, they fought for pay in a cause which in no way concerned them -- but personal affection for their general supplied in them the place of the patriotism which inspires modern soldiers, and transformed these semi barbarous tribesmen into troops fit to cope with the trained legionaries of Rome.

Hannibal was far in advance of any of the generals of his time in all matters of organization. His commissariat was as perfect as that of modern armies. It was its duty to collect grain from the country through which the army marched, to form magazines, to collect and drive with the troops herds of cattle, to take over the provisions and booty brought in by foraging parties, and, to see to the daily distribution of rations among the various divisions.

Along the line of communication depots were formed, where provisions, clothing, and arms were stored in readiness for use, and from which the whole army could, in case of necessity, be supplied with fresh clothing and shoes. A band of surgeons accompanied the army, at the head of whom was Synhalus, one of the most celebrated physicians of the time. So perfect were the arrangements that it is said that throughout the long campaign in Italy not a single day passed but that the troops, elephants, and animals of all descriptions accompanying the army received their daily rations of food.