Throughout human history, conflicts have been fought for land, resources, plunder, religion and for power. It is an unfortunate reality that war has often been the greatest driver of history and decisions made and actions taken in the midst of conflict all too often shape the course of the future. The purpose of this series is to shine a spotlight not on certain conflicts that have determined the course of history, but on specific instances where the outcome of a single battle has defined the future not just for those directly involved, but for greater mankind.
This article focuses on the greatest threat ancient Rome would ever face. For years, Rome had been tormented by the legendary Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who inflicted defeat after defeat on the Romans but had never had the troops to assault Rome itself. That was about to change. Hannibal’s younger brother was on his way with a second army. Now, the fate of Rome was poised on a knife-edge. One false move and the Eternal City’s march of destiny would falter before it really began.
It was 207 BC and it was the Battle of the Metaurus.
Since the end of the First Punic War in 241 BC, Rome had been locked in a tense rivalry with the great North African city of Carthage, the greatest foreign foe the Romans would ever face.
Traditionally a maritime city-state, defeat in the First Punic War had forced Carthage to transition into more of a land power. Under the general Hamilcar Barca, Carthaginian territory expanded greatly into the Iberian (Spanish) peninsula. By 218 BC, Carthaginian Iberia was under the command of Hannibal Barca, son of Hamilcar and among the greatest military commanders in history.
By this point, Hannibal was ready for war with Rome and he had an audacious plan to take the fight to the very doorstep of the Eternal City. After sacking the city Saguntum (a Roman ally) and thus instigating the outbreak of war, Hannibal set off from New Carthage (modern Cartagena) on a long overland march towards the French Alps.
Having learned of his approach, a Roman army blocked the coastal road into Italy, confident that the Carthaginians would have to fight their way onto the peninsula.
It would be something of an understatement to say that the Romans were surprised when Hannibal and his army suddenly appeared in the Po valley behind them. He had done the impossible. He had taken an army over the Alps. Admittedly, the crossing had cost him more than half his army, lost to the cold, rockslides and hostile mountain tribes. These losses were offset, however, when his army was reinforced by warriors from the tribes of Cisalpine Gaul (Po valley), which had only recently been subjugated by the Romans. They brought his host back up to around 40,000 men, including 37 war elephants.
It was with this army that Hannibal would win the first major battle of the war at the Battle of the Trebia later that year, where he inflicted severe losses on a Roman consular army. This was the first of three major victories in the first two years of the war. The last of these three was the famous Battle of Cannae, where Hannibal would annihilate a Roman army of over 70,000 men in the first known use of the battlefield manoeuvre known as ‘double envelopment’. The battle is considered a tactical masterpiece and is still studied at military academies around the world to this day.
In the aftermath of Cannae, several of Rome’s Italian allies (principally the Bruttians, Lucanians and Campanians as well as some Apulians and Samnites) defected to the Carthaginians.
However, this was not enough. Despite his victories and his new Italian allies, Hannibal did not have the strength to march on Rome itself, due almost entirely to the vast resources of his adversary.
Rome and her allies (who provided at least a third and usually around half of every ‘Roman’ army) suffered the loss of almost 130,000 men in the first three years of the war. One Roman citizen in five over the age of 17 was killed between 218 and 215 BC. Despite this massive haemorrhaging of manpower, modern historians estimate that Rome and her allies still had approximately 400,000 men of fighting age from which they could draw new legions. It is known that, at its most extreme effort during the war, Rome had 25 legions in the field. Combined with the accompanying Italian contingents, this would have constituted over 200,000 troops, fully half of the Republic’s military potential and an unsustainable level of mobilization. This was the behemoth that Hannibal faced during his Italian campaign.
If there is one thing the Roman Republic was unmatched in, it was the ability to replace huge losses and put new armies into the field. There is no clearer manifestation of this capacity than in the first half of the Second Punic War. After his colossal victory at Cannae, Hannibal would go on to dominate southern Italy. He mauled not one but two Roman armies at the Battle of Capua in 212 BC, destroying a Roman army at the Silarus and another at Herdonia later that year. The second Battle of Herdonia in 210 was just as disastrous for the Romans as the first.
Hannibal inflicted hammer blow after hammer blow on the Republic and still, it continued to raise fresh legions and send them out to fight not just in Italy, but Iberia, Sicily and Macedonia as well (the First Macedonian War ran concurrently to the early years of the Second Punic War).
While Hannibal was busy bleeding the Republic on the Italian peninsula, his younger brother Hasdrubal was fighting his own campaign against the Romans in Iberia. Two Roman armies had originally been dispatched to Iberia to aid Saguntum against Hannibal. By the time they arrived, the city had fallen and Hannibal had set off on his epic journey into the history books.
However, these two Roman expeditionary armies, undermanned and undersupplied, managed to keep Hasdrubal occupied in Iberia for years by virtue of their victories at Cissa (218 BC) and Dertosa (215 BC). It wasn’t until 211 BC that Hasdrubal was finally able to decisively defeat both armies at the Battle of the Upper Baetis. Both Roman commanders were killed in the battle.
Suddenly free from his Roman opponents, Hasdrubal began drawing up plans to reinforce his elder brother in Italy by replicating his overland march. These plans were interrupted by the arrival of a new Roman army under a new, far more dangerous Roman commander, Publius Cornelius Scipio (the son of one of the previous commanders). In 209 BC, Scipio announced himself by capturing New Carthage, the Barcid capital in Iberia. The next year he marched against Hasdrubal to the north.
Despite being mauled by Scipio at the Battle of Baecula, Hasdrubal was able to slip the tightening Roman noose and set off on his overland march to Italy. However, thanks to his heavy losses at Baecula, he departed Iberia with far fewer men than planned. As a result, he spent the next year slowly making his way towards the French Alps, recruiting as many men as he could along the way.
Reports of Hasdrubal’s march prompted something approaching panic in Rome. The prospect of facing not one but two sons of Hamilcar Barca on Italian soil terrified the Roman people. The Republic had barely been able to contain the elder son in southern Italy and that had come at a massive human cost. They believed a second invasion would stretch the Republic’s considerable resources to breaking point if it were allowed to gather momentum or, in an even more nightmarish scenario, if the two brothers were able to combine their armies.
Fortunately for the Romans, there seems to have been little in the way of coordination between the Barcid brothers. All Hannibal knew (gleaned through his extensive intelligence network) was that Hasdrubal was on his way with a new army. He had no notion of what his brother would do upon arriving in Italy. Would he wait in the north for Hannibal to come to him? Would he attempt to open a sustained second front in the Italian campaign? Or would he march south to meet his elder brother and combine their forces? Hannibal had the answers to none of these questions. As a result, he was forced to wait in the south for his brother to arrive and then communications could be established.
Hasdrubal finally arrived in the Po valley in 207 BC. His crossing of the Alps was far easier than his brother’s had been eleven years earlier. This was due in part to the constructs left behind from Hannibal’s crossing and the fact that the mountain tribes had learned that the Carthaginians were only passing through and thus were not hostile to the interlopers. Some of their warriors even joined Hasdrubal’s army.
Upon descending from the Alps, Hasdrubal’s army was reinforced by warriors from Cisalpine Gaul and from Liguria, just as his brother had been. These were tribes that had been waiting ten years for another crack at the Romans since Hannibal had not ventured north of Rome in several years. According to modern estimates, these reinforcements swelled Hasdrubal’s army up to around 30,000 men, including 5000 cavalry and 15 war elephants.
For the Romans, the Carthaginian threat, contained for several years in the south, was suddenly more real than ever before. The Senate dispatched the two newly elected Consuls to fight each brother separately. Marcus Livius led eight legions north to face Hasdrubal. Claudius Nero, with an equally large army, moved south to confront Hannibal.
Livius did not engage Hasdrubal immediately, choosing instead to cautiously yield before his slow advance.
Meanwhile, Claudius Nero was the most challenging adversary Hannibal had faced in years. The two dynamic commanders engaged in a game of cat and mouse, with each army attempting to outmanoeuvre the other without success, though Nero was able to best Hannibal in a minor engagement at the Battle of Grumentum. Perhaps sensing that his opponent was seeking an opportunity to escape northwards, something that had to be prevented at all costs, Nero managed to manoeuvre his army into position in the vicinity of Canusium, a coastal city in Apulia. In this way, he was able to block Hannibal’s march north via the roads on the Adriatic coast.
Though the two armies were roughly matched in size and he had defeated far larger Roman hosts in the past, Hannibal refused to give battle. Though confident he would win any encounter, he could not risk crippling his own army (always a possibility in any battle) in the process, especially since he needed his troops for when he combined with his brother.
Eventually, Hasdrubal dispatched a small group of messengers to his brother, stating his intentions to meet him in the region of Umbria. These riders appeared to have made it almost the full journey through hostile territory to reach Hannibal when they confused the road to Roman-held Tarentum with the road to Hannibal’s base at Metapontum and were captured by a Roman foraging party. Their precious cargo was hurriedly brought to Nero near Canusium. Now aware of Hasdrubal’s plan, Nero sensed something of an opportunity, if he was bold enough to seize it.
The energetic consul left most of his army in position at Canusium, but took 7000 of his best men, including 1000 cavalry, and undertook a forced march northwards. Nero and his men covered an extraordinary 250 miles, much of it in the mountainous foothills of the Apennines, in just seven days, reaching Marcus Livius’ camp under cover of nightfall. It is a testament to Nero’s leadership that he was able to get such an outstanding effort out of his men. With the addition of Nero’s troops, Livius’ army now numbered around 45,000 men.
The two opposing armies were now encamped a short distance from each other. Confrontation appeared inevitable. However, the next morning Hasdrubal noticed that something had changed. He knew from experience in Iberia that each morning, a Roman army under the command of a consul sounded a specific trumpet call. On that particular morning, that trumpet call sounded twice (since both consuls were present) and Hasdrubal realized he was now facing not one but two Roman armies, though he had no idea that Nero’s ‘army’ was only 7,000 men.
Still, Hasdrubal determined that he was outmatched and gave the order to withdraw, intending to cross the Metaurus River fifteen miles to the north. Hasdrubal’s opportunity to slip away from the Romans evaporated upon reaching the river when his local guides, pressed into service, escaped their handlers and vanished. With the Romans now in hot pursuit, Hasdrubal marched west, inland along the river in search of a safe place to cross.
For their part, the Romans were determined not to allow the Carthaginians to escape. They marched hard for a day and a night before finally managing to pin the enemy army against the river.
Now Hasdrubal had no choice but to fight.
Hasdrubal drew up his army with the Metaurus to his right. The Carthaginian right flank was comprised of Iberian warriors, his best troops. The Ligurians, fierce fighters though of lesser quality than the Iberians, formed the centre while the Gauls, the least reliable of Hasdrubal’s troops, were on the left flank. He deployed his army so that the entire left flank was protected from a Roman attack by an untraversable ravine. His cavalry was positioned on the right wing, between the Iberians and the Metaurus. The elephants, as was custom, were positioned in front of the army in anticipation of a charge early in the battle.
The Romans essentially matched the Carthaginian deployment; with three infantry formations and the cavalry near the river. Marcus Livius commanded the Roman left wing, while Claudius Nero led the right, facing the Gauls across the deep ravine.
The initial combat favoured the Carthaginians, with the elephants succeeding in breaking the Roman lines, causing mass confusion before they were driven off or killed.
By then both cavalry contingents were engaged in a fierce contest beside the river. However, for the first time in the war, the Roman cavalry was able to steadily get the better of their outnumbered Carthaginian counterparts, pushing them back passed the front lines.
The Roman centre and left wing advanced in good order against the Carthaginians, with ferocious fighting erupting along the battle line. Despite being outnumbered, the Carthaginians held their ground against the Roman infantry. Neither side was able to gain the upper hand.
Meanwhile, on the Roman right flank, Claudius Nero quickly recognized that the ravine separating his forces from the Gauls was impassable and it was a waste of time and effort to even attempt to cross it. He also recognized that just as it was impassable for him, so it was for the Gauls. Not content to simply stand idle while the rest of the Roman and Carthaginian armies duked it out, Nero withdrew half his men (leaving the rest in place as a precaution and to conceal his manoeuvre) and swung them around behind the Roman lines and onto the left wing.
With the Carthaginian cavalry having been pushed well behind the rest of Hasdrubal’s army and on the brink of destruction, his right flank was dangerously exposed and Nero took full advantage. Suddenly Roman troops that were supposed to be stoppered by the ravine appeared on the opposite wing and, led by Nero himself, crashed into the flank of the Iberians. Initially, the ferocious and battle-hardened warriors withstood the combined assault from both the front and the right, but soon they began to break under the pressure. Before long, Hasdrubal’s entire right wing collapsed, with the fleeing Iberians colliding with their Ligurian comrades in the Carthaginian centre. The Roman left pursued them, crashing into the Ligurians’ exposed flank just as Nero had done earlier, while the man himself swung his troops around to attack from behind.
Suddenly, the already weakening Carthaginian centre was under assault from the front, the right and the rear. It was too much. No fighting force, no matter their quality, can withstand such an attack for long. Soon, Hasdrubal’s centre collapsed and a general rout began, with what remained of the Carthaginian host fleeing for their lives and the Romans in pursuit. The Gauls fled with the rest of the army, having taken almost no part in the fighting. According to some ancient sources, the Romans found a large number of heavily intoxicated Gauls in the half-assembled Carthaginian camp. They were all put to the sword.
As for Hasdrubal, he refused to quit the field. As soon as it became clear that his army was lost, he determined that he would rather die than be captured by the enemy and paraded like a trophy through the streets of Rome before being publicly strangled to death. Likely accompanied by a few veterans who had served with him and his brother in Iberia and who had similar thoughts about being captured, Hasdrubal plunged into the thickest of the fighting. There he perished, sword in hand, head held high and with the blood of his family’s most hated enemies on his blade.
At the end of the day, some 10,000 Carthaginians lay dead on the battlefield alongside their fallen commander. Thousands more were captured, though these were mostly Gauls or Ligurians rather than Iberians or Punics (ethnic Carthaginians).
However, Claudius Nero was not finished. He decapitated Hasdrubal’s body and rushed back south with his men. He was concerned that the elder Barcid may have realized his absence and taken advantage. Only six days later he arrived at the Roman camp near Canusium, which had been completely untroubled during his absence. Hannibal had not moved from his base at Metapontum.
The first Hannibal learned of the fate of his brother was when a troop of Roman cavalrymen performed a ‘drive-by’ of his camp and tossed Hasdrubal’s head inside.
By this point, Hannibal would have now realized that his Italian campaign was doomed. His audacious foray into the Roman heartlands had, despite the numerous crushing defeats he had inflicted, failed to achieve its goal, brought undone by the massive resources the Republic was able to bring to bear. However, the war was not over. Indeed, Hannibal would remain in southern Italy for a further four years. Those Italian allies that had joined him in the aftermath of the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC were, one by one, brought back into the Roman fold, either by force or by diplomacy. Having ensured he did not have the men to break free of the Roman armies containing him, the Romans were content to allow Hannibal to remain in his base in Bruttium. After all, with Hannibal and his battle-hardened army bottled up on the peninsula, the Romans were able to focus their attention on the Iberian campaign with more confidence and more resources.
Unfortunately for Claudius Nero, whose dynamic and energetic leadership made the victory at the Metaurus possible, he would be consigned to a fate as a footnote in history, his achievements consumed in the shadow of another, later, far more infamous man known simply as Nero.
Scipio, having studied, learned from and adapted Hannibal’s tactics in Italy, sealed the fate of the Carthaginian presence in Iberia when he inflicted a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 BC. By 205, the Iberian campaign had been brought to a successful conclusion and Scipio was ready for the endgame.
From the outset, the Romans had always planned that when war with Carthage began once more (they considered it inevitable), a large Roman army would invade North Africa to threaten Carthage itself. It was Hannibal’s great overland march to Italy that had the Romans scrambling to change their plans. The expeditionary army slated for the North African invasion was diverted to northern Italy and it was this army that was mauled at the Battle of the Trebia in 218 BC.
In 204, they were finally able to put those plans into action. Scipio landed in North Africa with 35,000 men. His army was smaller than expected due to heavy opposition to the plan in the Senate, where many influential figures had wanted Rome’s greatest living general to deal with Hannibal once and for all. Nonetheless, Scipio’s presence in North Africa prompted Carthage to recall Hannibal, at long last, from Italy in 203BC. He was able to bring less than half his army home with him.
In 202 BC, Scipio and Hannibal finally met at the Battle of Zama, where the Roman general was able to inflict on the Barcid the only decisive defeat of his entire career. This, in combination with the Iberian campaign, sealed Scipio’s reputation as one of the greatest generals of antiquity. For his achievements, he would become forever known to history as Scipio Africanus.
By 201, the Second Punic War was over. Having fought for so long with a metaphorical knife at her throat, Rome had finally emerged victorious. It would be over 400 years before the Eternal City faced such an existential threat from abroad again and no adversary would ever again test Rome as punishingly as Carthage had done.
The war spelt the end of Carthage’s time as a regional power. As part of the peace treaty, their navy was restricted to just 10 vessels, they could not raise an army without permission from Rome, all diplomatic disputes with neighbours had to be mediated by Rome and had imposed upon them a war indemnity of a colossal 10,000 talents of silver (300 tonnes), to be paid in annual instalments for 50 years.
Despite these crippling conditions, Carthage soon began to recover some of her strength, due in large part to the leadership of Hannibal, who proved as capable an administrator as he was a general. Rome felt sufficiently threatened that Hannibal was soon forced into exile, taking refuge in the court of the Seleucid Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. He advised the Seleucid King Antiochus III the Great during his own war with Rome and, upon Rome’s victory, preferred to commit suicide by poison (either in 181 or 183 BC) rather than falling into the hands of his oldest, greatest adversary. He left behind a letter declaring, “Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.”
Such was Hannibal’s legacy of terror among Romans that from then on, whenever disaster struck Roman Senators would exclaim, “Hannibal is at the gates!” By the same token, the fact that they had overcome such a brilliant, implacable enemy gave the Roman people a sense of military confidence that would endure for centuries and played no small role in the expansion of the Empire.
The Third Punic War erupted in 149 BC and ended in 146 with the Romans wiping Carthage off the face of the Earth and, supposedly, salting the ground so that the area could never again support a significant population.
How it shaped history
Despite having withstood defeat after defeat after defeat, there can be little doubt that, by 211 BC, Rome was stretched to something approaching breaking point by Hannibal alone. The news of Hasdrubal’s approach to Italy had prompted the Senate to bolster all the Roman field armies in Italy with additional troops. Having already lost thousands of men in battle, twelve Roman colonies refused to provide their quota of soldiers.
The Senate was also forced to extend the requirement of furnishing troops to the coastal cities, which had traditionally manned the navies and were therefore exempt from providing soldiers. This triggered significant unrest. The cracks in the Republic’s social and political fabric were beginning to widen.
If Hasdrubal had managed to combine his army with that of his brother, the Carthaginian host in Italy would have numbered in the vicinity of 70,000 men. It is also possible that the Italian allies that had remained faithful to Rome might have changed sides in face of such a threat (or opportunity, depending on how you look at it), drastically reducing the Republic’s pool of manpower. With such an army at his command, Hannibal would have been able to dispose of any force Rome had in the field at the time, though this was likely still too few men to actually take the city by storm. The most likely outcome would, therefore, have been a peace treaty highly favourable for the Carthaginians. Given the Barcids’ own antipathy towards Rome and that of Carthage itself, there is little doubt that any conditions of peace would have been very harsh. Of course, this is all speculation, but it is entirely reasonable that a harsh treaty would have stunted the growth of the Roman state to such an extent that it did not achieve the glorious heights that it is eternally famous for.
It is difficult to truly grasp the magnitude of ancient Rome’s legacy to the modern world. The Roman language of Latin would give birth to the so-called Romance languages of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. Roman principles of law, in combination with that of democratic Athens, would become the basis from which most modern European (and by extension much of the modern world) law codes are derived. While for most of its history Rome would be a polytheistic society, ultimately the conversion of several late Emperors to Christianity would facilitate the spread of that faith across Europe and beyond. The official alphabets of the Empire (Latin and Greek) would between them become the predominant script in most of the world.
The Roman Republic’s political system would become the basis of the modern concept of a republic. The Congress of the United States was formed in the image of the Roman Senate, with the President roughly equivalent to the office of the Consuls.
Many of the colonies Rome would go on to found throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, such as London, Paris, Istanbul and many others, would eventually become some of the greatest cities in the world and the centre of their own empires.
The very calendar used by almost the entirety of the world, the Gregorian calendar, is a refined (via a 0.002% correction to the length of the year) version of the Julian calendar, which dates to the last years of the Roman Republic under Julius Caesar. Even the seven-day week is derived from the Roman system, whereby the seven planetary bodies that were known at the time were each given their ‘own’ day.
All of this is just a fraction of what is owed to ancient Rome. Roman civilization is the literal foundation upon which Western civilization would be built.
It is important to remember that, at the outbreak of war in 218 BC, Rome’s effective influence did not extend far beyond the Italian peninsula. It was the victory in the Second Punic War that began to transform the Republic into the dominant power it would later become. Even so, the Roman state would not reach the height of its power (politically, militarily and culturally) for another 300 years and would not officially end until a further 300 years after that (not including the Eastern Roman Empire which would endure for another thousand years).
It was Monty Python that sarcastically asked, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” If it weren’t for the victory at the Battle of the Metaurus, the answer may well have been very little at all.
In this way, the Battle of the Metaurus shaped history.
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- Lazenby, John Francis. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
- Roberts, Mike. Hannibal’s Road: the Second Punic War in Italy 213-203 BC. Pen and Sword Books, 2017.
- Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Fall of Carthage: the Punic Wars 265-146 BC. Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2007.
- Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient civilisation. Penguin Books, 2012.