Chapter XI: The Passage of the Rhone

The army was now moving through the passes of the Pyrenees. The labour was great; no army had ever before crossed this mountain barrier; roads had to be made, streams bridged, and rocks blasted away, to allow the passage of the elephants and baggage wagons. Opinions have differed as to the explosives used by the Carthaginian miners, but it is certain that they possessed means of blasting rocks. The engineers of Hannibal's force possessed an amount of knowledge and science vastly in excess of that attained by the Romans at that time, and during the campaign the latter frequently endeavoured, and sometimes with success, by promises of high rewards, to induce Hannibal's engineers to desert and take service with them. A people well acquainted with the uses of sulphur and niter, skilled in the Oriental science of chemistry, capable of manufacturing Greek fire -- a compound which would burn under water -- may well have been acquainted with some mixture resembling gunpowder.

The art of making this explosive was certainly known to the Chinese in very remote ages, and the Phoenicians, whose galleys traversed the most distant seas to the east, may have acquired their knowledge from that people.

The wild tribes of the mountains harassed the army during this difficult march, and constant skirmishes went on between them and Hannibal's light armed troops. However, at last all difficulties were overcome, and the army descended the slopes into the plains of Southern Gaul.

Already Hannibal's agents had negotiated for an unopposed passage through this country; but the Gauls, alarmed at the appearance of the army, and at the news which had reached them of the conquest of Catalonia, assembled in arms. Hannibal's tact and a lavish distribution of presents dissipated the alarm of the Gauls, and their chiefs visited Hannibal's camp at Elne, and a treaty was entered into for the passage of the army.

A singular article of this treaty, and one which shows the esteem in which the Gauls held their women, was that all complaints on the part of the natives against Carthaginian troops should be carried to Hannibal himself or the general representing him, and that all complaints of the Carthaginians against the natives should be decided without appeal by a council composed of Gaulish women. This condition caused much amusement to the Carthaginians, who, however, had no cause to regret its acceptance, for the decisions of this singular tribunal were marked by the greatest fairness and impartiality. The greater part of the tribes through whose country the army marched towards the Rhone observed the terms of the treaty with good faith; some proved troublesome, but were wholly unable to stand against the Carthaginian arms.

The exact route traversed by the army has been a subject of long and bitter controversy; but, as no events of very great importance occurred on the way, the precise line followed in crossing Gaul is a matter of but slight interest. Suffice that, after marching from the Pyrenees at a high rate of speed, the army reached the Rhone at the point where Roquemaure now stands, a short distance above Avignon.

This point had been chosen by Hannibal because it was one of the few spots at which the Rhone runs in a single stream, its course being for the most part greatly broken up by islands. Roquemaure lies sixty-five miles from the sea, and it was necessary to cross the Rhone at some distance from its mouth, for Rome was now thoroughly alarmed, and Scipio, with a fleet and powerful army, was near Marseilles waiting to engage Hannibal on the plains of Gaul.

During the last few days' march no inhabitants had been encountered. The Arecomici, who inhabited this part of the country, had not been represented at the meeting, and at the news of the approach of the Carthaginians had deserted their country and fled across the Rhone, where, joined by the tribes dwelling upon the further bank, they prepared to offer a desperate opposition to the passage of the river. The appearance of this mass of barbarians, armed with bows and arrows and javelins, on the further side of the wide and rapid river which had to be crossed, was not encouraging.

"It was bad enough crossing the Pyrenees," Malchus said to Trebon, "but that was nothing to this undertaking; it is one thing to climb a precipice, however steep, to the assault of an enemy, another to swim across at the head of the army under such a shower of missiles as we shall meet with on the other side."

Hannibal, however, had prepared to overcome the difficulty. Messengers had been sent up and down the river to all the people living on the right bank, offering to buy from them at good prices every barge and boat in their possession, promising them freedom from all exactions and hard treatment, and offering good pay to those who would render assistance to the army in the passage. Hannibal's offers were accepted without hesitation. That the army, which could, had it chosen, have taken all their boats by force and impressed their labour, should offer to pay liberally for both, filled them with admiration, and they were, moreover, only too glad to aid this formidable army of strangers to pass out of their country.

The dwellers upon the Rhone at this period carried on an extensive commerce, not only with the tribes of the upper river, but with Marseilles and the ports of Spain and Northern Italy, consequently a large number of vessels and barges of considerable tonnage were at once obtained.

To add to the means of transport the whole army were set to work, and, assisted by the natives, the soldiers cut down trees, and, hollowing them out roughly, formed canoes capable of carrying two or three men. So industriously did the troops work that in two days enough canoes were made to carry the army across the river; but there was still the opposition of the natives to be overcome, and when the canoes were finished Hannibal ordered Hanno, one of his best generals, to start with a division at nightfall up the bank of the river.

Hanno marched five miles, when he found a spot where the river was smooth and favourable for the passage. The troops set to at once to cut trees; rafts were formed of these, and the troops passed over. The Spanish corps, accustomed to the passage of rivers, simply stripped, and putting their broad shields of hides beneath them, passed the river by swimming. Once across Hanno gave his men twenty-four hours' rest, and then, calculating that Hannibal's preparations would be complete, he marched down the river until he reached a hill, whose summit was visible from Hannibal's camp at daybreak. Upon this he lit a signal fire.

The moment the smoke was seen in the camp Hannibal gave orders for the troops to embark. The light infantry took to their little canoes, the cavalry embarked in the larger vessels, and, as these were insufficient to carry all the horses, a great many of the animals were made to enter the river attached by ropes to the vessels. The heavier craft started highest up, in order that they might to some extent break the roughness of the waves and facilitate the passage of the canoes.

The din was prodigious. Thousands of men tugged at the oars, the roughly made canoes were dashed against each other and often upset, while from the opposite bank rose loudly the defiant yells of the natives, prepared to dispute to the last the landing of the flotilla. Suddenly these cries assumed a different character. A mass of smoke was seen to rise from the tents of the enemy's camp, and Hanno's division poured down upon their rear. The Arecomici, taken wholly by surprise, were seized with a panic, and fled hastily in all directions, leaving the bank clear for the landing of Hannibal. The whole of the army were brought across at once and encamped that night on the river.

In the morning Hannibal sent off five hundred Numidian horse to reconnoitre the river below, and ascertain what Scipio's army, which was known to have landed at its mouth, was doing. He then assembled his army and introduced to them some chiefs of the tribes beyond the Alps, who had a day or two before arrived in the camp with the agents he had sent to their country. They harangued the soldiers, an interpreter translating their speeches, and assured them of the welcome they would meet in the rich and fertile country beyond the Alps, and of the alacrity with which the people there would join them against the Romans.

Hannibal himself then addressed the soldiers, pointed out to them that they had already accomplished by far the greatest part of their journey, had overcome every obstacle, and that there now remained but a few days' passage over the mountains, and that Italy, the goal of all their endeavours, would then lie before them.

The soldiers replied with enthusiastic shouts, and Hannibal, after offering up prayers to the gods on behalf of the army, dismissed the soldiers, and told them to prepare to start on the following day. Soon after the assembly had broken up the Numidian horse returned in great confusion, closely pressed by the Roman cavalry, who had been sent by Scipio to ascertain Hannibal's position and course. The hostile cavalry had charged each other with fury. A hundred and forty of the Romans and two hundred of the Numidians were slain.

Hannibal saw that there was no time to be lost. The next morning, at daybreak, the whole of his cavalry were posted to the south to cover the movements of the army and to check the Roman advance. The infantry were then set in motion up the bank of the river and Hannibal, with a small party, remained behind to watch the passage of the elephants, which had not yet been brought across.

The elephants had not been trained to take to the water, and the operation was an extremely difficult one. Very strong and massive rafts were joined together until they extended two hundred feet into the river, being kept in their place by cables fastened to trees on the bank above them. At the end of this floating pier was placed another raft of immense size, capable of carrying four elephants at a time. A thick covering of earth was laid over the whole, and on this turf was placed. The elephants were then led forward.

So solid was the construction that they advanced upon it without hesitation. When four had taken their place on the great raft at the end, the fastenings which secured it to the rest of the structure were cut, and a large number of boats and barges filled with rowers began to tow the raft across the river. The elephants were seized with terror at finding themselves afoot, but seeing no way of escape remained trembling in the centre of the raft until they reached the other side. When it was safely across, the raft and towing boats returned, and the operation was repeated until all the elephants were over.

Some of the animals, however, were so terrified that they flung themselves from the rafts into the river and made their way to shore, keeping their probosces above the surface of the water. The Indians who directed them were, however, all swept away and drowned. As soon as the elephants were all across Hannibal called in his cavalry, and with them and the elephants followed the army.

The Romans did not arrive at the spot until three days after the Carthaginians had left. Scipio was greatly astonished when he found that Hannibal had marched north, as he believed that the Alps were impassable for an army, and had reckoned that Hannibal would certainly march down the river and follow the seashore. Finding that the Carthaginians had left he marched his army down to his ships again, re-embarked them, and sailed for Genoa, intending to oppose Hannibal as he issued from the defiles of the Alps, in the event of his succeeding in making the passage.

Four days' march up the Rhone brought Hannibal to the point where the Isere runs into that river. He crossed it, and with his army entered the region called by Polybius "The Island," although the designation is an incorrect one, for while the Rhone flows along one side of the triangle and the Isere on the other, the base is formed not by a third river, but by a portion of the Alpine chain.

Malchus and his band had been among the first to push off from the shore when the army began to cross the Rhone. Malchus was in a roughly constructed canoe, which was paddled by Nessus and another of his men. Like most of the other canoes, their craft soon became waterlogged, for the rapid and angry current of the river, broken and agitated by so large a number of boats, splashed over the sides of the clumsy canoes, which were but a few inches above the water. The buoyancy of the wood was sufficient to float them even when full, but they paddled slowly and heavily.

The confusion was prodigious. The greater part of the men, unaccustomed to rowing, had little control over their boats. Collisions were frequent, and numbers of the boats were upset and their occupants drowned. The canoe which carried Malchus was making fair progress, but, to his vexation, was no longer in the front line. He was urging the paddlers to exert themselves to the utmost, when Nessus gave a sudden cry.

A horse which had broken loose from its fastenings behind one of the barges was swimming down, frightened and confused at the din. It was within a few feet of them when Nessus perceived it, and in another moment it struck the canoe broadside with its chest. The boat rolled over at once, throwing its occupants into the water. Malchus grasped the canoe as it upset, for he would instantly have sunk from the weight of his armour. Nessus a moment later appeared by his side.

"I will go to the other side, my lord," he said, "that will keep the tree from turning over again."

He dived under the canoe, and came up on the opposite side, and giving Malchus his hand across it, there was no longer any fear of the log rolling over. The other rower did not reappear above the surface. Malchus shouted in vain to some of the passing boats to pick him up, but all were so absorbed in their efforts to advance and their eagerness to engage the enemy that none paid attention to Malchus or the others in like plight. Besides, it seemed probable that all, if they stuck to their canoes, would presently gain one bank or other of the river. Malchus, too, had started rather low down, and he was therefore soon out of the flotilla.

The boat was nearly in midstream when the accident happened.

"The first thing to do," Malchus said when he saw that there was no chance of their being picked up, "is to rid myself of my armour. I can do nothing with it on, and if the tree turns over I shall go down like a stone. First of all, Nessus, do you unloose your sword belt. I will do the same. If we fasten them together they are long enough to go round the canoe, and if we take off our helmets and pass the belts through the chin chains they will, with our swords, hang safely."

This was with some difficulty accomplished.

"Now," Malchus continued, "let us make our way to the stern of the canoe. I will place my hand on the tree there, and do you unfasten the shoulder and waist straps of my breast and backpieces. I cannot do it myself."

This was also accomplished, and the two pieces of armour laid on the tree. They were now free to look round. The rapid stream had already taken them half a mile below the point where the army were crossing, and they were now entering a spot where the river was broken up by islands, and raced along its pent up channel with greater velocity than before, its surface broken with short angry waves, which rendered it difficult for them to retain their hold of the tree.

For a time they strove by swimming to give the canoe an impetus towards one bank or the other; but their efforts were vain. Sometimes they thought they were about to succeed, and then an eddy would take the boat and carry it into the middle of the stream again.

"It is useless, Nessus," Malchus said at last. "We are only wearing ourselves out, and our efforts are of no avail whatever. We must be content to drift down the river until our good luck throws us into some eddy which may carry us near one bank or the other."

It was a long time, indeed, before that stroke of fortune befell them, and they were many miles down the river before the current took them near the eastern bank at a point where a sharp curve of the river threw the force of the current over in that direction; but although they were carried to within a few yards of the shore, so numbed and exhausted were they by their long immersion in the cold water that it was with the greatest difficulty that they could give the canoe a sufficient impulsion to carry it to the bank.

At last, however, their feet touched the bottom, and they struggled to shore, carrying with them the arms and armour; then, letting the canoe drift away again, they crawled up the bank, and threw themselves down, utterly exhausted. It was some time before either of them spoke. Then Malchus said:

"We had best strip off our clothes and wring them as well as we can; after that they will soon dry on us. We have no means of drying them here, so we must lie down among some bushes to shelter us from this bitter wind which blows from the mountains."

The clothes were wrung until the last drop was extracted from them and then put on again. They were still damp and cold, but Malchus and his companion had been accustomed to be drenched to the skin, and thought nothing of this. They were still too exhausted, however, to walk briskly, and therefore lay down among some thick bushes until they should feel equal to setting out on the long tramp to rejoin their companions. After lying for a couple of hours Malchus rose to his feet, and issuing from the bushes looked round. He had resumed his armour and sword. As he stepped out a sudden shout arose, and he saw within a hundred yards of him a body of natives some hundred strong approaching. They had already caught sight of him.

"Nessus," he exclaimed, without looking round, "lie still. I am seen, and shall be taken in a minute. It is hopeless for me to try to escape. You will do me more good by remaining hid and trying to free me from their hands afterwards."

So saying, and without drawing his sword, Malchus quietly advanced towards the natives, who were rushing down towards him with loud shouts. Flight or resistance would be, as he had at once seen, hopeless, and it was only by present submission he could hope to save his life.

The natives were a portion of the force which had opposed Hannibal's landing, and had already killed several Carthaginians who had, like Malchus, struggled to the bank after being upset in the passage. Seeing that he attempted neither to fly nor to defend himself, they rushed upon him tumultuously, stripped him of his arms and armour, and dragged him before their leader. The latter briefly ordered him to be brought along, and the party continued their hurried march, fearing that the Carthaginian horse might at any moment pursue them. For the rest of the afternoon they marched without a halt, but at nightfall stopped in a wood.

No fires were lit, for they knew not how close the Carthaginians might be behind them. Malchus was bound hand and foot and thrown down in their midst. There was no sleep that night. Half the party remained on watch, the others sat together round the spot where Malchus lay and discussed the disastrous events of the day -- the great flotilla of the Carthaginians, the sudden attack in their rear, the destruction of their camp, the capture of the whole of their goods, and the slaughter and defeat which had befallen them.

As their dialect differed but little from that of the Gauls in the Carthaginian service, Malchus was enabled to understand the greater part of their conversation, and learned that the only reason why he was not put to death at once was that they wished to keep him until beyond the risk of pursuit of the Carthaginians, when he could be sacrificed to their gods formally and with the usual ceremonies.

All the time that they were talking Malchus listened anxiously for any sudden outbreak which would tell that Nessus had been discovered. That the Numidian had followed on their traces and was somewhere in the neighbourhood Malchus had no doubt, but rescue in his present position was impossible, and he only hoped that his follower would find that this was so in time and would wait for a more favourable opportunity. The night passed off quietly, and in the morning the natives continued their march. After proceeding for three or four hours a sudden exclamation from one of them caused the others to turn, and in the distance a black mass of horsemen was seen approaching. At a rapid run the natives started off for the shelter of a wood half a mile distant. Malchus was forced to accompany them. He felt sure that the horsemen were a party of Hannibal's cavalry, and he wondered whether Nessus was near enough to see them, for if so he doubted not that he would manage to join them and lead them to his rescue.

Just before they reached the wood the natives suddenly stopped, for, coming from the opposite direction was another body of cavalry. It needed not the joyous shouts of the natives to tell Malchus that these were Romans, for they were coming from the south and could only be a party of Scipio's cavalry. The natives halted at the edge of the wood to watch the result of the conflict, for the parties evidently saw each other, and both continued to advance at full speed. The Roman trumpets were sounding, while the wild yells which came up on the breeze told Malchus that Hannibal's cavalry were a party of the Numidians.

The Romans were somewhat the most numerous; but, had the cavalry opposed to them consisted of the Carthaginian horse, Malchus would have had little doubt as to the result; he felt, however, by no means certain that the light armed Numidians were a match for the Roman cavalry. The party had stopped but a quarter of a mile from the spot where the rival bands met, and the crash of bodies driven violently against each other and the clash of steel on armour could be plainly heard.

For a few minutes it was a wild confused melee, neither party appearing to have any advantage. Riderless steeds galloped off from the throng, but neither party seemed to give way afoot. The whole mass seemed interlaced in conflict. It was a moving struggling throng of bodies with arms waving high and swords rising and falling. The Romans fought in silence, but the wild yells of the Numidians rose shrill and continuous.

At last there was a movement, and Malchus gave a groan while the natives around him shouted in triumph as the Numidians were seen to detach themselves from the throng and to gallop off at full speed, hotly followed by the Romans, both, however, in greatly diminished numbers, for the ground on which the conflict had taken place was thickly strewn with bodies; nearly half of those who had engaged in that short but desperate strife were lying there.

No sooner had the pursuers and pursued disappeared in the distance than the natives thronged down to the spot. Such of the Numidians as were found to be alive were instantly slaughtered, and all were despoiled of their clothes, arms, and ornaments. The Romans were left untouched, and those among them who were found to be only wounded were assisted by the natives, who unbuckled their armour, helped them into a sitting position, bound up their wounds, and gave them water.

Highly satisfied with the booty they obtained, and having no longer any fear of pursuit, the natives halted to await the return of the Romans. Malchus learned from their conversation that they had some little doubt whether the Romans would approve of their appropriating the spoils of the dead Numidians, and it was finally decided to hand over Malchus, whose rich armour proclaimed him to be a prisoner of importance, to the Roman commander.

The main body of the natives, with all the spoil which had been collected, moved away to the wood, while the chief, with four of his companions and Malchus, remained with the wounded Romans. It was late in the evening before the Romans returned, after having, as has been said, followed the Numidians right up to Hannibal's camp. There was some grumbling on the part of the Roman soldiers when they found that their allies had forestalled them with the spoil; but the officer in command was well pleased at finding that the wounded had been carefully attended to, and bade the men be content that they had rendered good service to the public, and that Scipio would be well satisfied with them. The native chief now exhibited the helmet and armour of Malchus, who was led forward by two of his men.

"Who are you?" the commander asked Malchus in Greek, a language which was understood by the educated both of Rome and Carthage.

"I am Malchus, and command the scouts of Hannibal's army."

"You are young for such a post," the officer said; "but in Carthage it is interest not valour which secures promotion. Doubtless you are related to Hannibal."

"I am his cousin," Malchus said quietly.

"Ah!" the Roman said sarcastically, "that accounts for one who is a mere lad being chosen for so important a post. However, I shall take you to Scipio, who will doubtless have questions to ask of you concerning Hannibal's army."

Many of the riderless horses on the plain came in on hearing the sound of the Roman trumpets and rejoined the troop. Malchus was placed on one of these. Such of the wounded Romans as were able to ride mounted others, and a small party being left behind to look after those unable to move, the troops started on their way.

They were unable, however, to proceed far; the horses had been travelling since morning and were now completely exhausted; therefore, after proceeding a few miles the troop halted. Strong guards were posted, and the men lay down by their horses, ready to mount at a moment's notice, for it was possible that Hannibal might have sent a large body of horsemen in pursuit. As on the night before, Malchus felt that even if Nessus had so far followed him he could do nothing while so strong a guard was kept up, and he therefore followed the example of the Roman soldiers around him and was soon fast asleep.

At daybreak next morning the troops mounted and again proceeded to the south. Late in the afternoon a cloud of dust was seen in the distance, and the party presently rode into the midst of the Roman army, who had made a day's march from their ships and were just halting for the night. The commander of the cavalry at once hastened to Scipio's tent to inform him of the surprising fact that Hannibal had already, in the face of the opposition of the tribes, forced the passage of the Rhone, and that, with the exception of the elephants, which had been seen still on the opposite bank, all the army were across.

Scipio was greatly mortified at the intelligence, for he had deemed it next to impossible that Hannibal could carry his army across so wide and rapid a river in the face of opposition. He had little doubt now that Hannibal's intention was to follow the Rhone down on its left bank to its mouth, and he prepared at once for a battle. Hearing that a prisoner of some importance had been captured, he ordered Malchus to be brought before him. As the lad, escorted by a Roman soldier on each side, was led in, Scipio, accustomed to estimate men, could not but admire the calm and haughty self possession of his young prisoner. His eye fell with approval upon his active sinewy figure, and the knotted muscles of his arms and legs.

"You are Malchus, a relation of Hannibal, and the commander of the scouts of his army, I hear," Scipio began.

Malchus bowed his head in assent.

"What force has he with him, and what are his intentions?"

"I know nothing of his intentions," Malchus replied quietly, "as to his force, it were better that you inquired of your allies, who saw us pass the river. One of them was brought hither with me, and can tell you what he saw."

"Know you not," Scipio said, "that I can order you to instant execution if you refuse to answer my questions?"

"Of that I am perfectly well aware," Malchus replied; "but I nevertheless refuse absolutely to answer any questions."

"I will give you until tomorrow morning to think the matter over, and if by that time you have not made up your mind to give me the information I require, you die."

So saying he waved his hand to the soldiers, who at once removed Malchus from his presence. He was taken to a small tent a short distance away, food was given to him, and at nightfall chains were attached to his ankles, and from these to the legs of two Roman soldiers appointed to guard him during the night, while a sentry was placed at the entrance. The chains were strong, and fitted so tightly round the ankles that escape was altogether impossible. Even had he possessed arms and could noiselessly have slain the two soldiers, he would be no nearer getting away, for the chains were fastened as securely round their limbs as round his own. Malchus, therefore, at once abandoned any idea of escape, and lying quietly down meditated on his fate in the morning.