Chapter XIII: The Battle of the Trebia

Well was it for the Carthaginians that Hannibal had opened communications with the Gaulish tribes in the plains at the foot of the Alps, and that on its issue from the mountain passes his army found itself among friends, for had it been attacked it was in no position to offer a vigorous resistance, the men being utterly broken down by their fatigues and demoralized by their losses. Many were suffering terribly from frostbites, the cavalry were altogether unable to act, so worn out and enfeebled were the horses. Great numbers of the men could scarce drag themselves along owing to the state of their feet; their shoes and sandals, well enough adapted for sandy plains, were wholly unfitted for traversing rocky precipices, and the greater part of the army was almost barefoot.

So long as they had been traversing the mountains they had struggled on doggedly and desperately; to lag behind was to be slain by the natives, to lie down was to perish of cold; but with the cessation of the absolute necessity for exertion the power for exertion ceased also. Worn out, silent, exhausted, and almost despairing, the army of Hannibal presented the appearance of one which had suffered a terrible defeat, rather than that of a body of men who had accomplished a feat of arms unrivalled in the history of war.

Happily they found themselves among friends. The Insubres, who had been looking forward eagerly to their coming, flocked in great numbers to receive them as they issued out into the plain, bringing with them cattle, grain, wine, and refreshments of all kinds, and inviting the army to take up their quarters among them until recovered from their fatigues. This offer Hannibal at once accepted. The army was broken up and scattered among the various towns and villages, where the inhabitants vied with each other in attending to the comforts of the guests. A fortnight's absolute rest, an abundance of food, and the consciousness that the worst of their labours was over, did wonders for the men.

Malchus had arrived in a state of extreme exhaustion, and had, indeed, been carried for the last two days of the march on the back of one of the elephants. The company which he commanded no longer existed; they had borne far more than their share of the fatigues of the march; they had lost nearly half their number in the conflict among the precipices with the natives, and while the rest of the army had marched along a track where the snow had already been beaten hard by the cavalry in front of them, the scouts ahead had to make their way through snow knee deep. Inured to fatigue and hardship, the Arabs were unaccustomed to cold, and every day had diminished their numbers, until, as they issued out into the plain, but twenty men of the company remained alive.

Hannibal committed his young kinsman to the care of one of the chiefs of the Insubres. The latter caused a litter to be constructed by his followers, and carried the young Carthaginian away to his village, which was situated at the foot of the hills on the banks of the river Orcus.

Here he was handed over to the care of the women. The wounds and bruises caused by falls on the rocks and ice were bathed and bandaged, then he was placed in a small chamber and water was poured on to heated stones until it was filled with hot steam, and Malchus began to think that he was going to be boiled alive. After being kept for an hour in this vapour bath, he was annointed with oil, and was rubbed until every limb was supple, he was then placed on a couch and covered with soft skins, and in a few more minutes was sound asleep.

It was late next day before he woke, and on rising he found himself a new man. A breakfast of meat, fresh cheese formed from goats' milk, and flat cakes was set before him, and, had it not been that his feet were still completely disabled from the effects of the frostbites, he felt that he was fit again to take his place in the ranks. The chief's wife and daughters waited upon him. The former was a tall, majestic looking woman. She did not belong to the Insubres, but was the daughter of a chief who had, with a portion of his tribe, wandered down from their native home far north of the Alps and settled in Italy.

Two of the daughters were young women of over twenty, tall and robust in figure like their mother, the third was a girl of some fifteen years of age. The girls took after their German mother, and Malchus wondered at the fairness of their skins, the clearness of their complexion, and the soft light brown of their hair, for they were as much fairer than the Gauls as these were fairer than the Carthaginians. Malchus was able to hold little converse with his hosts, whose language differed much from that of the Transalpine Gauls.

His stay here was destined to be much longer than he had anticipated, for his feet had been seriously frostbitten, and for some time it was doubtful whether he would not lose them. Gradually, however, the inflammation decreased, but it was six weeks after his arrival before he was able to walk. From time to time messengers had arrived from Hannibal and his father to inquire after him, and from them he learned that the Carthaginians had captured the towns of Vercella, Valentinum, and Asta, and the less important towns of Ivrea, Chivasso, Bodenkmag, and Carbantia.

By the time he was cured he was able to talk freely with his hosts, for he soon mastered the points of difference between their language and that of the Gauls, with which he was already acquainted. The chief, with the greater part of his followers, now started and joined the army of Hannibal, which laid siege to the town of Turin, whose inhabitants were in alliance with Rome. It was strongly fortified. Hannibal erected an intrenchment at a distance of sixty yards from the wall, and under cover of this sank a well, and thence drove a wide gallery, the roof above being supported by props.

Divided in brigades, each working six hours, the troops laboured night and day, and in three days from its commencement the gallery was carried under the walls. It was then driven right and left for thirty yards each way, and was filled with wood, combustibles, and explosives. The workers then retired and the wood was fired, the props supporting the roof were soon burned away, the earth above fell in bringing down the walls, and a great breach was made, through which the besiegers, drawn up in readiness, rushed in and captured the town.

On the same day that Hannibal captured Turin, Scipio entered Piacenza. After finding that Hannibal had escaped him on the Rhone, he had despatched the principal part of his army, under his brother Cneius, to Spain, their original destination, and with the rest sailed to Pisa and landed there. Marching with all haste north he enlisted 10,000 troops from among the inhabitants of the country, many of them having already served in the Roman army. He then marched north to Tenneto, where he was joined by the praetors Manlius and Attilius with over 20,000 men, with whom he marched to Piacenza.

Hannibal, after, as usual, rousing the enthusiasm of his soldiers by an address, marched towards Scipio. The latter, with his cavalry, had crossed the Ticino and was within five miles of Vercella, when Hannibal, also with his cavalry, came within sight. Scipio's front was covered with a swarm of foot skirmishers mixed with irregular Gaulish horsemen; the Roman cavalry and the cavalry of the Italian allies formed his main body.

Hannibal ordered the Carthaginian horse to charge full upon the centre of the enemy, and the Numidians to attack them on both flanks. The Romans, in those days, little understood the use of cavalry, the troops frequently dismounting and fighting on foot. Hannibal's soldiers were, on the other hand, trained to fight in tactics resembling those of modern days. No sooner was the word given to charge than the Carthaginian horse, delighted at being at last, after all their toils and sufferings, within striking distance of their foes, gave a mighty shout, and setting spurs to their splendid horses flung themselves at the enemy.

The charge of this solid mass of picked cavalry was irresistible. They swept before them the skirmishers and Gaulish horse, and fell with fury upon the main body, cleaving a way far into its ranks. Before the Romans could recover from their confusion the Numidian horse burst down upon their flanks. The charge was irresistible; large numbers of the Romans were killed and the rest fled in panic, hotly pursued by the Carthaginians, until they reached the shelter of the Roman infantry, which was advancing behind them. Scipio, who had been wounded in the fight, at once led his army back to Piacenza.

The news of this battle reached Malchus just as he was preparing to depart. The messenger who brought it brought also a lead horse, which Hamilcar had sent for his son's use. Resuming his armour Malchus mounted and rode off at once, after many warm thanks to his friends, whom he expected to see again shortly, as they, with the rest of that section of the tribe, were about to join the chief -- the Gaulish women frequently accompanying their husbands in their campaigns.

Malchus was delighted to rejoin the army, from which he had now been separated more than two months. He saw with pleasure that they had now completely recovered from the effects of their hardships, and presented as proud and martial an appearance as when they had started from Carthagena.

The issue of their first fight with the Romans had raised their spirits and confidence, and all were eager to enter upon the campaign which awaited them. Malchus, upon his arrival, was appointed to the command of the company of Gauls who formed the bodyguard of the general. Hannibal moved up the Po and prepared to cross that river at Gambio, two days' easy march above its junction with the Ticino. The army was accompanied by a considerable number of the Insubres. The work of constructing a bridge was at once commenced.

Malchus, riding through the camp, came upon the tents of his late host, who had been joined that day by his family. To them Malchus did the honours of the camp, took them through the lines of the Carthaginian cavalry, showed them the elephants, and finally conducted them to Hannibal, who received them most kindly, and presented them with many presents in token of his thanks for their care of his kinsman. The next day the bridge was completed and the troops began to pass over, the natives crowding to the banks and even venturing on the bridge to witness the imposing procession of the troops.

Malchus remained with Hannibal in the rear, but seeing that there was a delay as the elephants crossed, he was ordered to ride on to the bridge and see what was the matter. Finding the crowd too great to enable him to pass on horseback, Malchus gave his horse to a soldier and pressed forward on foot. When he reached the head of the column of elephants he found that one of the leading animals, entertaining a doubt as to the stability of the bridge at this point, obstinately refused to move further. Ordering the mahout to urge the animal forward, and telling some soldiers to prick the beast with a spear from behind, Malchus entered into conversation with the wife and daughters of the Insubrian chief, who had received from Hannibal a special order allowing them to take up their position on the bridge to witness their crossing.

While he was speaking to them the elephant suddenly wheeled round and, trumpeting loudly, tried to force his way back. A scene of wild confusion ensued. The crowd gave way before him, several soldiers were thrust off the bridge into the river, and Malchus and his companions were borne along by the crowd; there was a little cry, and Malchus saw the youngest of the girls pushed off the bridge into the river.

He flung off his helmet, unbuckled the fastenings of his breast plate and back piece, undid the belt of his sword, and leaped in. As he rose to the surface he heard a merry laugh beside him, and saw the girl swimming quietly close by. Although mortified at having so hastily assumed that she was unable to take care of herself he joined in her laugh, and swam by her side until they reached the bank some distance down. Encumbered by the trappings which he still retained, Malchus had far more difficulty than the girl in gaining the shore.

"What, did you think," she asked, laughing as he struggled up the bank, "that I, a Gaulish maiden, could not swim?"

"I did not think anything about it," Malchus said; "I saw you pushed in and followed without thinking at all."

Although they imperfectly understood each other's words the meaning was clear; the girl put her hand on his shoulder and looked frankly up in his face.

"I thank you," she said, "just the same as if you had saved my life. You meant to do so, and it was very good of you, a great chief of this army, to hazard your life for a Gaulish maiden. Clotilde will never forget."

By the time they reached the bridge the column had moved on. A more docile elephant had been placed in front, and this having moved across the doubtful portion of the bridge, the others had quickly followed. Just as Malchus and his companion reached the end of the bridge they met her mother and sisters coming to meet them.

There was a smile of amusement on their faces as they thanked Malchus for his attempt at rescue, and Clotilde's sisters whispered some laughing remarks into her ear which caused the girl to flush hotly, and to draw her slight figure indignantly to its full height. Malchus retired to his tent to provide himself with fresh armour and sword, for he doubted not that those thrown aside had been carried over the bridge in the confusion. The soldier had returned with his horse, and in a few minutes he took his place at the head of the Gauls who were drawn up near Hannibal's tent.

The general himself soon appeared, and mounting his horse rode forward. Malchus followed with his command, waving an adieu to the party who stood watching the departure, and not ill pleased that those who had before known him only as a helpless invalid, should now see him riding at the head of the splendid bodyguard of the great commander.

Hannibal was marching nearly due east, with the intention of forcing Scipio to give battle south of the Po. A strong Roman fortress, Castegglo (Clastidium), lying at the foot of the hills, should have barred his way; but Hannibal, by the medium of one of his native allies, bribed the Roman commander to abstain from interrupting his march. Then he pressed forward until on the third day after crossing the Po he came within sight of Piacenza, under whose walls the Roman army were ranged.

Scipio, after his disastrous cavalry conflict, had written to Rome urging his inability, with the force under his command, to give battle single handed to Hannibal, and begging that he might be at once reinforced by the army under Sempronius, then lying at Ariminum (Rimini). The united consular armies, he represented, should take up their position on the river Trebia.

This river rose in the Apennines but a short distance from Genoa, and flowed nearly due north into the Po at Piacenza. The Roman army there would therefore effectually bar Hannibal's march into the rich plains to the east, and would prevent him from making across the Apennines and following the road by the coast, as they would, should he undertake such a movement, be able to fall on his rear.

Hannibal pitched his camp on the Nure, about five miles from Piacenza, but Scipio remained immovable in his lines waiting for the arrival of his colleague. Hannibal's position was a difficult one. He had traversed the Pyrenees and the Alps that he might attack Rome; but between him and Southern Italy lay yet another barrier, the Apennines. Scipio had missed him after he had crossed the Pyrenees, had been too late to attack him when, exhausted and worn out, his army emerged from the Alps; but now, united with Sempronius, he hoped to crush him at the foot of the Apennines. Hannibal wished, if possible, to prevent a junction of the two Roman armies, but if that could not be done he determined to fight them together.

Scipio perceived the danger of his position; and in order to be able the better to join Sempronius he left Piacenza under cover of night, and took up a strong position on the banks of the Trebia. Here he could maintain his communications direct with Rome, and, if absolutely necessary, fall back and join his colleague advancing towards him. Hannibal, when he perceived Scipio's change of position, broke up his camp and took post on the Trebiola, a little stream running into the Trebia and facing the Roman camp at a distance of four miles.

He was now powerless to prevent the junction of the two Roman armies, and for nearly a month Scipio and Hannibal lay watching each other. By that time Sempronius was within a day's march of Scipio. Hannibal had not been idle during this time of rest. He had been occupied in cementing his alliance with the Gaulish tribes inhabiting the Lombard plains. These, seeing how rapidly Hannibal had cleared the province of the Romans, believed that their deliverance would be accomplished, and for the most part declared for the Carthaginians.

Hannibal's agents had also been at work at Clastidium, and the prefect of the garrison was induced by a bribe to surrender the place to him. This was of enormous advantage to Hannibal, and a corresponding blow to the Romans, for Clastidium was the chief magazine north of the Apennines. The news of the fall of this important place filled Sempronius, an energetic and vigorous general, with fury. He at once rode down from his camp to that of Scipio and proposed that Hannibal should be attacked instantly.

Scipio, who was still suffering from the wound he had received in the cavalry engagement, urged that the Roman army should remain where they were, if necessary, through the coming winter. He pointed out that Hannibal's Gaulish allies would lose heart at seeing him inactive, and would cease to furnish him with supplies, and that he would be obliged either to attack them at a disadvantage or to retire from the position he occupied. But Sempronius was an ambitious man, the time for the consular election was approaching, and he was unwilling to leave for his successor the glory of crushing Hannibal.

The fact, too, that Scipio was wounded and unable to take part in the battle added to his desire to force it on, since the whole glory of the victory would be his. He therefore told his colleague that although he saw the force of his arguments, public opinion in Rome was already so excited at Hannibal having been allowed, without a battle, to wrest so wide a territory from Rome, that it was absolutely necessary that an action should be fought. The two armies were now united on the Trebia, and opinion was among the officers and troops, as between the consuls, widely divided as to the best course to be pursued.

Hannibal's spies among the natives kept him acquainted with what was going on in the Roman camp, and he determined to provoke the Romans to battle. He therefore despatched two thousand infantry and a thousand cavalry to ravage the lands of some Gaulish allies of the Romans. Sempronius sent off the greater part of his cavalry, with a thousand light infantry, to drive back the Carthaginians.

In the fight which ensued the Romans were worsted. Still more furious, Sempronius marched to support them with his army. Hannibal called in his troops and drew them off before Sempronius would arrive. The disappointment and rage of the Roman general were great, and Hannibal felt that he could now bring on a battle when he would. He determined to fight in the plain close to his own position. This was flat and bare, and was traversed by the Trebiola. This stream ran between steep banks below the level of the plain; its banks were covered with thick bushes and reeds, and the narrow gap across the plain was scarce noticeable.

On the evening of the twenty-fifth of December Hannibal moved his army out from the camp and formed up on the plain facing the Trebia, ordering the corps commanded by his brother Mago to enter the bed of the Trebiola, and to conceal themselves there until they received his orders to attack. The position Mago occupied would bring him on the left rear of an army which had crossed the Trebia, and was advancing to attack the position taken up by Hannibal. Having thus prepared for the battle, Hannibal proceeded to provoke it.

At daybreak on the twenty-sixth he despatched a strong body of horsemen across the river. Crossing the Trebia partly by ford and partly by swimming, the Carthaginian horse rode up to the palisade surrounding the Roman camp, where, with insulting shouts and the hurling of their javelins, they aroused the Roman soldiers from their slumber. This insult had the desired effect, Sempronius rushed from his tent, furious at what he deemed the insolence of the Carthaginians, and called his troops to arms. With their accustomed discipline the Romans fell into their ranks. The light cavalry first issued from the palisade, the infantry followed, the heavy cavalry brought up the rear. The insulting Numidians had already retired, but Sempronius was now determined to bring on the battle. He marched down the river and crossed at a ford.

The water was intensely cold, the river was in flood, the ford waist deep as the soldiers marched across it. Having gained the opposite bank, the Roman general formed his army in order of battle. His infantry, about forty-five thousand strong, was formed in three parallel lines; the cavalry, five thousand strong, was on the flanks. The infantry consisted of sixteen thousand Roman legionary or heavy infantry, and six thousand light infantry. The Italian tribes, allied to Rome, had supplied twenty thousand infantry; the remaining three thousand were native allies. The infantry occupied a front of two and a half miles in length; the cavalry extended a mile and a quarter on each flank. Thus the Roman front of battle was five miles in extent.

Hannibal's force was inferior in strength; his infantry of the line were twenty thousand strong. He had eight thousand light infantry and ten thousand cavalry. The Carthaginian formation was much deeper than the Roman, and Hannibal's line of battle was less than two miles long. In front of it were the elephants, thirty-six in number, divided in pairs, and placed in intervals of a hundred yards between each pair.

While the Romans, exposed to a bitterly cold wind, chilled to the bone by their immersion in the stream, and having come breakfastless from camp, were forming their long order of battle, Hannibal's troops, gathered round blazing fires, were eating a hearty breakfast; after which, in high spirits and confidence, they prepared for the fight.

Hannibal called the officers together and addressed them in stirring words, which were repeated by them to the soldiers. The Roman preparations had occupied a long time, and it was afternoon before they advanced in order of battle. When within a short distance of the Carthaginians they halted, and the trumpets and musical instruments on both sides blew notes of defiance. Then the Carthaginian slingers stole out between the ranks of their heavy infantry, passed between the elephants, and commenced the battle.

Each of these men carried three slings, one of which was used for long distances, another when nearer to the foe, the third when close at hand. In action one of these slings was wound round the head, one round the body, the third carried in hand. Their long distance missiles were leaden bullets, and so skilful were they that it is said they could hit with certainty the face of a foe standing at slinging distance.

Naked to the waist they advanced, and with their long distance slings hurled the leaden bullets at the Roman infantry. When closer they exchanged their slings and discharged from them egg shaped pebbles which they had gathered from the bed of the Trebia. When within still closer distance with the third slings they poured in volleys of much larger and heavier stones, with such tremendous force that it seemed as though they were sent from catapults. Against such a storm of missiles the Roman skirmishers could make no stand, and were instantly driven back.

Their Cretan archers, after shooting away their arrows with but small effect, for the strings had been damped in crossing the river, also fled behind the heavy troops; and these in turn were exposed to the hail of stones. Disorganized by this attack, the like of which they had never experienced before, their helmets crushed in, their breastplates and shields battered and dented, the front line of the Romans speedily fell into confusion. Sempronius ordered up his war machines for casting stones and javelins, but these too had been injured in their passage across the river.

The hail of Carthaginian missiles continued until the Roman light infantry were forced to fall back; and the slingers were then recalled, and the heavy infantry of the two armies stood facing each other. The Carthaginians took up close order, and, shoulder to shoulder, their bodies covered with their shields, they advanced to meet the legions of Rome. As they moved, their music -- flute, harp, and lyre -- rose on the air in a military march, and keeping step the long line advanced with perfect order and regularity. In the centre were the Carthaginian foot soldiers and their African allies, clothed alike in a red tunic, with helmet of bronze, steel cuirass and circular shield, and carrying, besides their swords, pikes of twenty feet in length. On the left were the Spaniards, in white tunics bordered with purple, with semicircular shields four feet in length and thirty-two inches in width, armed with long swords used either for cutting or thrusting.

On the left were the native allies, naked to the waist, armed with shields and swords similar to those of the Gauls, save that the swords were used only for cutting.

Sempronius brought up his second line to fill the intervals in the first, and the Romans advanced with equal steadiness to the conflict; but the much greater closeness of the Carthaginian formation served them in good stead. They moved like a solid wall, their shields locked closely together, and pressed steadily forward in spite of the desperate efforts of the Roman centre in its more open order to resist them; for each Roman soldier in battle was allowed the space of a man's width between him and his comrade on either side, to allow him the free use of his weapon. Two Carthaginians were therefore opposed to each Roman, in addition to which the greater depth of the African formation gave them a weight and impetus which was irresistible.

While this fight was going on the Numidian horsemen, ten thousand strong, charged the Roman cavalry. These, much more lightly armed than their opponents and inferior in numbers, were unable for a moment to withstand the shock, and were at once driven from the field. Leaving the elephants to pursue them and prevent them from rallying, the Numidian horsemen turned and fell on the flanks of the long Roman line; while at the same moment the Carthaginian slingers, issuing out again from behind the main body, opened a tremendous fire with stones heated in furnaces brought to the spot.

Although taken in flank, crushed under a storm of missiles, with their cavalry defeated and their centre broken, the Romans fought steadily and well. Hannibal now launched against their ranks the elephants attached to the infantry, which, covered in steel armour and trumpeting loudly, carried death and confusion into the Roman ranks. But still the legions fought on obstinately and desperately until the sound of wild music in their rear filled them with dismay, as Mago, with his division of Numidian infantry, emerged from his hiding place and fell upon the Romans from behind.

Struck with terror at the sudden appearance of these wild soldiers, of whose ferocity they had heard so much, the Romans lost all heart and strove now only to escape. But it was in vain. The Carthaginian infantry were in their front, the cavalry on their flank, the Numidians in their rear.

Some ten thousand Roman soldiers only, keeping in a solid body, cut their way through the cavalry and reached Piacenza.

Thirty thousand were slaughtered on the plain. Many were drowned in trying to swim the Trebia, and only the legion which had remained to guard the camp, the broken remains of the cavalry, and the body which had escaped from Piacenza remained of the fifty thousand men whom Sempronius commanded.

The exultation of the victors was unbounded. The hitherto invincible legions of Rome had been crushed. The way to Rome was clear before them. All the fatigues and hardships they had undergone were forgotten in the hour of triumph, and their native allies believed that their freedom from Rome was now assured.

The verdict of great commanders of all ages has assigned to the battle of the Trebia the glory of being the greatest military exploit ever performed. The genius of Hannibal was shown not only in the plan of battle and the disposition of his troops, but in the perfection with which they were handled, in the movements which he had himself invented and taught them, and the marvellous discipline with which he had inculcated them.

Napoleon the First assigned to Hannibal the leading place among the great generals of the world, and the Trebia was his masterpiece. But the Carthaginians, exulting in their victory, did not gauge the extent of the stubbornness and resources of Rome. Sempronius himself set the example to his countrymen. At Piacenza he rallied the remnants of his army, and wrote to Rome, saying that he had been victorious, but that a sudden storm had saved the enemy from destruction.

The senate understood the truth, but acted in the spirit in which he had written. They announced to the people that a victory had been won, and ordered the consular election to take place as usual, at the same time issuing orders to all parts of the Roman dominion for the enrolment of fresh troops.

Hannibal attempted to surprise Piacenza, but Scipio issued out with his cavalry and inflicted a check upon him, Hannibal himself being slightly wounded. The Carthaginians then marched away and stormed the town of Vicumve, and during their absence the two consuls evacuated Piacenza and marched south. Scipio led his portion of the little army to Ariminum (Rimini), Sempronius took his command to Arretium (Mezzo), where they both speedily received reinforcements. Hannibal made an attempt to cross the Apennines, but the snow lay deep among the mountains, and, unable to effect his purpose, he fell back again to winter in the plain.

In the meantime Cneius Servilius Geminus and Caius Flaminius had been elected consuls. Flaminius succeeded Sempronius in command of the Roman army at Arretium, while Geminus took the command of that at Rimini. Between these consuls, as was usually the case in Rome, a bitter jealousy existed. Geminus was the nominee of the aristocratic party, while Flaminius was the idol of the populace, and, as has often been the case in war, this rivalry between two generals possessing equal authority wrought great evil to the armies they commanded.