Roman Republic

Events of Early 218 BC

With hindsight, the Roman decision to send two consuls against Demetrius of Pharos in 219 BC (described on the previous page) while doing nothing to punish Hannibal when he ignored their ultimatum and besieged Saguntum, can be seen as a disastrous mistake.  It can be argued that Hannibal had not yet violated the treaty of 226 BC by crossing the Ebro: his only ‘offence’ had been to ignore an arguably high-handed Roman demand.  Perhaps the real mystery lies in the fact that, having done nothing to help Saguntum during the siege, the Romans reacted as they did when they heard, probably just before the consuls of 218 BC took office, that Saguntum had fallen.  According to Livy:

  1. “So great was the senators’ alarm ... [that] they trembled rather than deliberated.   For they  ... [realised that they] would have to contend in war ... in Italy and under the walls of Rome”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 16; 2-6).

Livy then described the preparations that were made for this war: the incoming consuls, P. Cornelius Scipio and Ti. Sempronius Longus:

  1. “... were now commanded to draw lots for [their respective fields of operation]:

  2. Scipio obtained Spain; and

  3. Sempronius obtained Africa and Sicily.

  4. Six legions were voted for that year, with such allied contingents as the consuls themselves should approve and as large a fleet as could be got ready. ... The question was then laid before the people: whether it were their will and pleasure that war be declared against the people of Carthage.  When they voted in the affirmative, a supplication was held throughout the City and the gods were besought to grant a fair and prosperous outcome to the war that the Roman people had decreed.  The forces were divided between the consuls as follows:

  5. Sempronius received two legions, ... together with 160 warships and 12 swift cruisers.  With these forces, ... he was dispatched to Sicily, that he might cross by that way into Africa if [Scipio] was able to keep the Carthaginians out of Italy.

  6. Scipio was given fewer troops, since L. Manlius Vulso, the praetor, was also being sent into [Cisalpine] Gaul with a considerable army; and of ships, in particular, he received [only] 60 quinqueremes, for it seemed unlikely that the enemy would come by sea or use that kind of warfare. [Scipio] had two Roman legions with their proper complement of horse, and 14,000 infantry of the allies, with 1,600 horse.

  7. The province of [Cisalpine] Gaul received two Roman legions and 10,000 foot of the allies, with 1,000 allied and 600 Roman horse [commanded by L. Manlius], all intended for the war with Carthage”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 17).

However, these plans were not immediately acted upon: Livy noted that:

  1. “... in order that they might observe all the formalities before going to war, [the Romans] dispatched to [Carthage] an embassy consisting of certain older men:

  2. Quintus Fabius [more probably, Marcus Fabius Butteo, who was probably princeps senatus];

  3. Marcus Livius and Lucius Aemilius, [the out-going consuls of 219 BC];

  4. Caius Licinius [possibly Caius Licinius Varus, the consul of 236 BC]; and

  5. Quintus Baebius [possibly the Quintus Baebius Tamphilus whom Livy had identified as one of the legates that had been sent to Hannibal in the previous year];

  6. to demand of the Carthaginians whether Hannibal had attacked Saguntum with the sanction of the state.  If [so, they should] ... declare war on the Carthaginian people”, (‘History of Rome, 21: 18: 1-3).

The Carthaginians apparently refused to give a direct answer to this question, but argued instead that the Romans had no case for declaring war because:

  1. Saguntum had not featured in the treaty of 241 BC; and

  2. the treaty of 226 BC (which Livy believed had protected the independence of Saguntum) had not been approved by the Carthaginian senate. 

This brought the discussion to an end:

  1. “Then, [Fabius], gathering up his toga into a fold, said:

  2. ‘We bring you here both war and peace; choose which you will!’ 

  3. [The Carthaginians] cried out with no less truculence that he might give them whichever  he liked; and on his shaking out the fold again, and announcing that he gave them war, they all replied that they accepted [it readily] and were resolved to wage it in that same spirit”, (‘History of Rome, 21: 18: 13-4).

Thus, war was finally declared, probably in May/ June 218 BC, by which time Hannibal was probably already preparing to march towards the Ebro.  John Lazenby (referenced below, at p. 29) reasonably suggested that he  had been preparing for his invasion of Italy since the fall of Saguntum towards the end of 219 BC, but that he probably did not set out on his long march until June 218 BC.

War in Cisalpine Gaul (218 BC)

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

Boian Revolt (218 BC)

As noted above, the surviving summary of Livy’s lost Book 20 records that, in 220 or 219 BC:

  1. “Colonies were founded in the conquered Gallic territories at Placentia and Cremona”, (‘Periochae’  20).

If this is correct, then the implementation of this decision had been neglected for some time: Livy reported that, in 218 BC:

  1. “... [although] nothing was known [in Italy] other than that Hannibal had crossed the Ebro (which was the news that envoys from Massilia brought to Rome), the Boii, after rousing up the Insubres, revolted, as though he had already crossed the Alps.  They were incited to do so, not so much by their old animosity against the Romans, but by their anger at the recent establishment of colonies in Gallic territory, near the Po, at Placentia and Cremona.  Flying to arms, they made an incursion into that very district, and spread such terror and confusion that, not only the rural population, but also the Roman commissioners themselves (who had come for the purpose of assigning lands), fled to Mutina [Modena] rather than trusting to the walls of Placentia”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 25: 1-3).

Thus, we learn that the foundation of the new Latin colony at Placentia was still in progress, that the Romans had a garrison of some kind at nearby Mutina, and that the Boii was sufficiently heartened by the expected arrival of Hannibal and his army that they decided to abandon the hostages that they had given to Rome in 224 BC and had persuaded the Insubres to join them in revolt.  (As we shall see below, they kept three Roman officials as prisoners in the hope of exchanging them for the hostages of 224 BC.)

According to Livy: 

  1. “When word arrived of this affair of the envoys, and Mutina and its garrison were in danger, L. Manlius ... set out [probably from Ariminum] for Mutina with his army in loose marching order.  In those days the road led through a forest ...  and Manlius ... plunged into an ambush.  After sustaining heavy losses, he managed to reach open fields, where he set up his camp.  Since the Gauls lacked heart to attack it, the soldiers recovered their spirits, though it was no secret that as many as 500 men had fallen.  Then they resumed their march.  As long as the column advanced through open country, the enemy was not to be seen.  However, when they once more got into the woods, the Gauls attacked their rear, ... killed 700 soldiers and carried off six standards.  The ... Roman panic ended when they ... [reached] open ground,  ... [and they] hastened to Tannetum, a village lying near the Po, where, by means of temporary fortifications and supplies got in by the river (and with the help also of the Brixian Gauls [i.e., the Cenomani]) they defended themselves against the enemy, whose numbers were increasing daily”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 25: 7-14).

When news of these events reached Rome, the Senate :

  1. “... commanded C. Atilius, the praetor, to take one Roman legion and 5,000 of the allies (a force that [Scipio] had just levied) and proceed to the relief of Manlius [and the 7th legion].  Atilius reached Tannetum without any fighting, for the enemy had retired in alarm”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 26: 1-2).

Arthur Eckstein (referenced below, at p. 27) suggested that Atilius was probably able to end the siege of Mutina, allowing the scattered colonists (and any visiting Romans who had not been captured) to return home.  

Polybius described a change in mood at Rome in 218 BC, as Hannibal’s intentions became manifest:

  1. “ The praetor L. Manlius was on guard in the district with an army; and as soon as he heard what had happened, he advanced with all speed to the relief of Mutina.  But the Boii, having received intelligence of his approach, prepared an ambush and ... killed a large number of his men.  The survivors at first fled ... : but having gained some higher ground, they rallied sufficiently to enable them with much difficulty to effect an honourable retreat.  Even so, the Boii followed close upon their heels, and besieged them in a ... village called [Tannetum].  When the news arrived at Rome that the 4th legion was surrounded and closely besieged by the Boii, the people, in all haste, despatched the legions that had been voted to the consul [P. Cornelius Scipio should instead be sent to its relief] under the command of a praetor: they ordered [Scipio] to enrol two more legions for himself from the allies”, (‘Histories’, 3: 40). 

Polybius (above) had designated Mutina as a Roman colony, but Edward Salmon (referenced below, at p. 177, note 94) pointed out that it must have been simply a Roman garrison at early date. 

Thus, on the eve of the Second Punic War, the Romans’ vulnerability in Cisalpine Gaul was laid bare: we find them in tenuous control of only a narrow strip of territory that had once belonged to the Boii, which extended along the northern slopes of the Apennines from Ariminum, via Mutina to Placentia, as well as Cremona on the other side of the Padus, which had recently been confiscated from the Insubres.

Roman Deployments (218 BC)

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

Green line = Via Flaminia (220 BC), following the route described in imperial itineraries

Placentia and Cremona = Latin colonies founded in 218 BC

It seems likely that Sempronius set sail for Sicily soon after war was declared, in order to establish the base at Lilybaeum, on the western coast of the island, from which he would invade Carthage.  While there, he secured a quick success by capturing  Melita (Malta) from the Carthaginians  (‘History of Rome’, 21: 51: 1-2).

Scipio must have been delayed when one or both of his legion was/were diverted to Cisalpine Gaul.  According to Livy:

  1. “... after enrolling a new legion ..., he set out from Rome with 60 ships of war.  Coasting Etruria and the mountainous country of Liguria and the Salui, he arrived at Massilia, and went into camp at the nearest mouth of the Rhone, ... hardly believing, even then, that Hannibal could have crossed the Pyrenees.  But, when he found that Hannibal was actually planning how to cross the Rhone [at an upstream location], ... he sent out a chosen band of 300 cavalry, with Massiliot guides and Gallic auxiliaries, to make ...  a thorough reconnaissance [of enemy positions] from a safe distance”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 26: 3-6).

Livy also recorded that, at about this time, Hannibal received:

  1. “... Boian envoys, with their chief Magalus.  These assured him that they would guide his march [across the Alps] and share its perils, and urged him to avoid a battle [with Scipio before leaving, in order] to keep his forces whole and unimpaired for the invasion of Italy”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 26; 3-6).

Livy digressed at this point to describe Hannibal’s successful crossing of the Alps, before recording that:

  1. “... some three days after Hannibal had left the bank of the Rhone, [Scipio] marched in fighting order to the enemy's camp, intending to offer battle without delay.  But, finding it deserted and perceiving that he could not readily overtake the enemy ... , he returned to ... his ships, thinking that he would ... confront Hannibal as he descended from the Alps.  However, so that he might not leave Hispania stripped of Roman defenders, ... he  sent Gnaeus Scipio, his brother, with the main part of his troops, to deal with Hasdrubal [Hannibal’s brother] ... He himself, with extremely scanty forces, sailed back to Genua [Genoa], proposing to safeguard Italy with the army [that was already deployed] in Cisalpine Gaul]”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 32: 1-5).

John Lazenby (referenced below, at p. 54) reasonably suggested that Scipio set sail (probably for Pisae (Pisa) rather than for Genua) in October 218 BC, and that the Senate recalled Sempronius to Ariminum at about the same time. 

Hannibal’s Invasion of Italy (218 -7 BC)

Asterisks mark the sites of the battles of Ticinus and Trebbia

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

John Lazenby (referenced below, at p. 49) estimated that Hannibal arrived in the plain of northern Italy in about mid-November of 218 BC.  It is not clear whether he first arrived in the territory of the Insubres (Polybius, ‘Histories’, 56: 3) or of the Taurini (Livy, ‘Roman History’, 21: 38: 5), whom Livy characterised as Ligurian.  Both sources agree that relations between these these two tribes were strained, and that this presented Hannibal with an opportunity: Polybius, for example, reported that he:

  1. “... first made overtures for [the] friendship and alliance [of the Taurini] but, on their rejecting these, he encamped round their chief city [probably near the later Augusta Taurinum, modern Turin] and reduced it in three days.  By massacring those who had been opposed to him, he struck such terror into the neighbouring tribes of barbarians that they all came in at once and submitted to him”, (‘Histories’, 3: 60: 8-10).

This is usually taken to mean that Hannibal’s action against the Taurini won him the support of the Insubres, among other nearby tribes.  However, again according to Polybius, although yet other tribes (presumably including the Boii, to the east):

  1. “... were impatient to join the Carthaginians,  ... the Roman legions [under Scipio] had advanced beyond most of them and cut them off, [so] they kept quiet, some even being compelled to serve with the Romans.  In view of this, Hannibal decided not to delay, but to advance and try [to do something that would] encourage those who wished to take part in his enterprise”, (‘Histories’, 3: 60: 11-12).

Battle of Ticinus and its Aftermath

Scipio crossed the Po, marched westwards along its northern bank and then crossed the Ticinus.  Thereafter, he confronted Hannibal’s army, which was marching along the Po towards him.  According to John Lazenby (referenced below, at p. 53):

  1. “... the engagement near the Ticinus was only a skirmish..., [but it] gave the Romans due warning that [Hannibal’s] superiority in cavalry could be very dangerous in the right conditions.”

Scipio was wounded in the encounter, but the Romans were able to retreat across the Po and on towards Placentia, taking the wounded Scipio with them.  Polybius then reported that:

  1. “... the Boii came to [Hannibal] and delivered up to him the three Roman officials [who had been] charged with the partition of their lands, whom they had captured a few months earlier at Placentia].   Hannibal welcomed their friendly advances and made a formal alliance with them ... However, he gave the three Romans back to them, advising them to [use] them to get their own hostages back, as had been their original design.  [Scipio] was much concerned at this act of treachery, and  ... in consequence, ... marched towards the river Trebbia and the hills in its neighbourhood, relying on the natural strength of the country and the loyalty of the neighbouring allies. ... [When Hannibal followed in his footsteps, Scipio crossed] the Trebbia, encamped on the first hills that he reached, fortified his camp... [and] awaited the arrival of [Sempronius]”, (‘Histories’, 3: 67:8- 68:6).

He added that:

  1. “Hannibal encamped at a distance of about forty stades [7 km] from the enemy.  The numerous Celtic population of the plain, enthusiastically taking up the cause of the Carthaginians, kept the camp furnished with abundance of provisions and were ready to take their part in any of Hannibal's operations or battles”, (‘Histories’, 3: 68: 7-8).

Thus the enemy camps were both south of Placentia,on opposite sides of the Trebbia.

Battle of Trebbia

John Lazenby (referenced below, at p. 55) estimated that Sempronius and his army would have reached Scipio in mid-December 218 BC or shortly thereafter.  It seems likely that, since Scipio was incapacitated, Sempronius found himself in command of two consular armies.  Polybius recorded that:

  1. “At about the same time, the [Roman garrison] of Clastidium was betrayed to Hannibal by a native of Brundisium, to whom the Romans had entrusted it, ... and all the stores of grain fell into his hands. ... After this, on observing that some of the Gauls who lived between the Trebbia and the Po had made alliance with himself but were nevertheless  negotiating with the Romans, ...  he dispatched [a raiding party] to ravage their country ... [so that] a large amount of booty secured.  {As a result.] the Gauls at once came into the Roman camp asking for help”, (‘Histories’, 3: 69: 1-7).

Polybius then recorded that Sempronius sent a detachment across the Trebbia, and that it surprised the raiders and relieved them of their booty, causing them to flee back to their camp.  Fortunately for them:

  1. “Those in command of the advanced posts [there] ...  sent out a covering force ... , [and] the Romans in their turn were put to flight and fell back on their camp. ... [Since Hannibal] he was not prepared for a general battle at this time,  ... he would not allow [his men] to advance and engage the enemy, calling them back [to the safety of the camp].  The Romans, after waiting for a short time, retired, after losing [only] a few of their own number while inflicting a larger loss on the Carthaginians”, (‘Histories’, 3: 69: 10-14).

Any elation in the Roman camp was short-lived: soon after, Hannibal sent his cavalry across the Trebbia to trick the unprepared Romans to engage.  According to Polybius, since Scipio was incapacitated, Sempronius led his whole army out of the camp, which:

  1. “... numbered about 16,000 Romans and 20,000 allies”, (‘Histories’, 3: 72: 11-12).

They followed Hannibal’s cavalry across the icy cold river and into an ambush: Hannibal’s cavalry peeled off, his main force confronted them, while a detachment under his brother Mago appeared at their rear (an engagement described in detail by Polybius, ‘Histories’, 3: 72-6).  The result was a rout: although the sources are confusing, it seems likely that the bulk of both consular armies was lost.  The survivors, who included Sempronius, fell back on Placentia, while, according to Livy:

  1. “... Scipio led his army ... to Cremona, so that that one town might not be overburdened with furnishing winter quarters for two armies”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 56: 9).

Thus the Romans’ hard-won control of the Po valley had proved to be illusory, and the threat of a Carthaginian invasion of Rome itself was very real indeed.

Events of March - June 217 BC

Red= Hannibal’s likely route from Cisalpine Gaul to Lake Trasimene

Blue = Flaminius’ likely route from Arretium to Lake Trasimene

Green = Via Flaminia, from Ariminum to Forum Flaminii, according to itineraries from the imperial period

Brown = - alternative route from Ariminum to Forum Flaminii (see below)

Asterisk = likely site of the Battle of Lake Trasimene

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

Roman Deployments (March 217 BC)

According to Livy, when news reached Rome towards the end of the consular year:

  1. “... that two consuls and two consular armies had been beaten, [the Romans wondered] what other commanders and what other legions had they to call upon.  In the midst of this alarm, ... Sempronius arrived [from the main Roman camp, which was at] Placentia.  Taking tremendous risks, he had made his way through the enemy's cavalry  (which was widely dispersed in quest of booty) ... The election of [new] consuls was the greatest need of the hour.  having accomplished thsi, Sempronius returned forthwith to his winter quarters. The choice had fallen on Gnaeus Servilius and (for the second time) on Caius Flaminius (who had commissioned Via Flaminia as censor some three years earlier).

Meanwhile, while what remained of the consular armies was safely in winter quarters at Placentia, Hannibal had to supply his army by raiding the surrounding territory while he waited for the Apennine passes to become passable.

The task of the new consuls was to prevent Hannibal from crossing from crossing the Apennines.  Hannibal had two possible routes across the these mountains:

  1. through the pass that led to Etruria (which the Gauls had used in 225 BC); or

  2. via Ariminum, which was within easy reach of Placentia and was also now connected to Rome by the Via Flaminia. 

According to Livy, Flaminius had received by lot the command of the army at Placentia, which suggests that Servilius’ first task was to recruit another army that was to be based at Ariminum.  The Senate had probably assumed that both consuls would leave Rome after their ritual inauguration.  However, Flaminius he defied tradition by leaving Rome without observing the inaugural rites, having ordered Sempronius to bring his army to Ariminum, where Flaminius would assume its command on 15th March.  He then:

  1. “... [stole] away furtively without his insignia of office, and without his lictors ... and had quitted his native soil to go into exile.  He [apparently thought it] more consonant with the greatness of his office to enter upon it at Ariminum rather than in Rome, and to put on his official dress in some wayside inn, rather than at his own hearth and in the presence of his own household gods”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 63: 9-11).  

Rachel Feig Vishnia (reference below, 2012, at p. 43) reasonably asserted that:

  1. “The allegation that Flaminius left [Rome] for his province before officially assuming office and [that he] neglected his religious duties is exaggerated. ... After two embarrassing defeats in the Po valley, and in view of Hannibal's imminent invasion, time was running short.  Accordingly, ... it is not implausible that Flaminius, who knew the prospective battle zone well, left [immediately for the front, while Servilius stayed in Rome] to perform all the religious ceremonies.  [Flaminius] went to Ariminum first ... where he checked on the preparedness of the colony and received the legions [sent to him from Placentia].  After assuming office [there], he then left for Arretium, where he arrived in early or mid April [217 BC].”

Rachel Feig Vishnia is surely correct in her assessment of Flaminius’ actions on taking office.  However, it is difficult to resist the feeling that his trip to Ariminum along his new road, now consul for the second time and the prospective saviour of Rome, also had a sadly-misplaced air of self-congratulation about it.

When Flaminius’ extraordinary inauguration was complete, he:

  1. “... took over the two legions from Sempronius ... and the two from C. Atilius, the praetor [at Ariminum] and began his march to Etruria through the passes of the Apennines”, (‘History of Rome’, 21: 63: 15). 

It seems likely that the properly inaugurated Servilius reached Ariminum with his army shortly thereafter

Battle of Lake Trasimene (June 217 BC)

It seems that Roman intelligence failed spectacularly, and that Hannibal had passed Arretium before Flaminius even realised what was happening.  Flaminius belatedly marched after him, but Hannibal ambushed him on the shores of Lake Trasimene.  Within a matter of a few hours, Flaminius and most of his army were dead.  According to Livy:

  1. “Such was the famous battle of Trasimene, one of the most memorable disasters in Roman history.  15,000 Romans were killed on the field; 10,000 were scattered in flight over all Etruria and made their way by different roads back to Rome.  2,500 the enemy fell in the battle and many perished subsequently of their wounds.  .... I have taken [these statistics from] Fabius [Pictor], who lived at the time of this war ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 22:1-4).]

According to Ovid:

  1. “If you ask the date of that ancient disaster, incurred through recklessness, it was the 10h day from the end of the month [i.e., 20th June]”, (‘Fasti’, 6: 767-8, translated by James Frazer, referenced below, at p. 379).

Servilius in Cisalpine Gaul (March - June 217 BC)

As we have seen, Servilius proably arrived at Ariminum soon after his inauguration in March.  According to Livy, he soon:

  1. “... engaged in skirmishes with the Gauls and had taken one insignificant town by assault, when he learned of the destruction of [Flaminius] and his army ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 22: 9: 6).

It seems odd that, with Hannibal in winter quarters in Cisalpine Gaul, Servilius had allowed himself to be distracted by ‘skirmishes with the Gauls (by which Livy, presumably meant the Boii).  However, a later passage by Livy suggests that they held one of his relatives as a prisoner: the passage in question records that Caius Servilius Geminus (the father of the eponymous plebeian aedile in 209 BC):

  1. “ ... who was believed to have been killed by the Boii near Mutina as one of the three land-commissioners [at Placentia] nine years before[i.e., in 218 BC], was in fact alive ... and [still] in the hands of the enemy”, (‘History of Rome’, 27: 21: 10).

Livy also recorded that, as consul in 203 BC, the younger Caius:

  1. “... [finally] rescued his father, [the older Caius] and also Caius Lutatius, after 16 years of servitude, the result of their capture by the Boii at Tannetum”, (‘History of Rome’, 30: 19: 7).

Arthur Eckstein (referenced below, at p. 32) suggested that the older Caius was:

  1. “... a close relative (either a brother or a cousin) of Cnaeus, the consul of 217 BC,... [who therefore] had a personal motive for pursuing an active defence at Ariminum, at least as far as the Boii were concerned.”

It is possible that, when Servilius became aware that Hannibal had crossed the Apennines, he sent an advanced party under C. Centenius (see below).  According to Livy:

  1. “...when he [subsequently ?] learned of the destruction of [Flaminius] and his army, and being now alarmed for the safety of the capital, he set out for Rome, lest he should be absent in the very climax of its peril”, (‘History of Rome’, 22: 9: 6).

Defeat of Caius Centenius (217 BC)

Black = Hannibal’s likely route before and after Lake Trasimene

Green = Centenius’ likely route from Ariminum to Plestia

Red = Via Flaminia, according to itineraries from the imperial period

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

According to Polybius, when Servilius:

  1. “... heard that Hannibal had entered Etruria and was encamped near Flaminius, [he] planned to join the latter with his whole army.  However, finding himself hampered by the difficulty of transporting so heavy a force, he sent Caius Centenius forward in haste with 4,000 horse [as an advance party].  However, soon after the battle of Trasimene, Hannibal, having received intelligence of this [attempted] reinforcement of the enemy, sent Maharbal with his lightly-armed troops and a detachment of cavalry.  Maharbal ... killed nearly half [of Centenius’] men at the first encounter; and, having pursued the remainder to a certain hill, took them all prisoner on the following day.  The news of the battle of [Trasimene] was only three days' old at Rome, and the sorrow caused by it was, so to speak, at its hottest, when this further disaster was announced” (‘Histories’, 3: 86).

Livy gave a similar account of this second disaster:

  1. “[Soon after the defeat at Trasimene] ...  another disaster was reported [at Rome], for which they were quite unprepared.  4,000 horse under the propraetor Caius Centenius had been sent by the Consul Servilius to join his colleague; but on hearing of the battle at Trasimene,  they had turned aside into Umbria and had there fallen into the hands of Hannibal”, (‘History of Rome’, 22:8).

There are small but important differences between these two accounts:

  1. Livy did not record the place from which Servilius had sent Centenius.   However, Livy  recorded that he sent him from Ariminum.

  2. Polybius did not record the location of Centenius’ defeat.  However, Livy  recorded that, when Centenius learned of Flaminius’ defeat, he headed for Umbria was defeated there.

  3. Polybius had Centenius defeated by Maharbal, while Livy had him defeated by Hannibal himself.

Appian was more specific (although not necessarily more accurate) about Centenius’ movements at this time: according to t=his account, when Hannibal (in Cisalpine Gaul) became aware of Flaminius’ position at Arretium, he:

  1. “ ... moved secretly [across the Apennines], devastated Etruria and advanced toward Rome.  The citizens [there] became greatly alarmed as he drew near, for they had no force at hand fit for battle. Nevertheless, 8,000 of those who remained were brought together, over whom Centenius, one of the patricians, although a private citizen, was appointed commander (there being no regular officer present) and sent into Umbria, to the Plestine marshes, to occupy the narrow passages that offered the shortest way to Rome”, (‘War against Hannibal’, 9).

Thus, according to this account, as soon as it was clear that Hannibal had by-passed Flaminius’ camp at Arretium, the Romans sent out Centenius at the head of his 8,000 recruits.  Even if this had been the case, it is difficult to see why they would have been sent to occupy the Apennine pass at Plestia, which was certainly not on Hannibal’s shortest route from Etruria to Rome.

  1. William Smith (see this extract of his ‘Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology), reasonably suggested that Appian here confused Caius Centenius with the centurion Marcus Centenius Paenula, to whom (according to Livy, ‘History of Rome’, 25: 19: 9), 8,000 men were given by the Senate in order that he might block Hannibal’s march on Rome from Campania in 212 BC. 

  2. However, Ronald Syme (referenced below, at p. 285) argued that, while Appian was:

  3. “... prone to all manner of error and confusion, he need not be accused of ‘inventing’ the [otherwise undocumented] lake of Plestia.  The very oddity of the detail inspires a certain confidence.  How the story came to include the lake baffles conjecture.  Perhaps Centenius had marched [from Ariminum] not by the Flaminia [shown in red in the map below], but by the Camerinum road [to Plestia].”

Thus, we might reasonably assume, following Polybius, that Servilius sent Centenius ahead from Ariminum, and that he initially took up at a position in the Plestine marshes.

Excavations at Plestia (on the shores of the ancient lacus Plestinus), with Monte Orve on the horizon

(The site was probably first urbanised in the Augustan period)

Hypothetical location of the Lacus Umber and and Lacus Plestinus (my suggestion)

Via Flaminia  assumes both Umbrian branches existed and that the

road crossed the Apennines via the Gola del Furlo (to the north of Nuceria)

Adapted from R. Colacicchi and R. Bizzarri (referenced below, at p. 112, Figure 5

My additions: Plestia and the lacus Plestinus; and  the likely routes of Hannibal (red) and Centenius (green)

Appian described the defeat of Centenius’ army after his account of Flaminius’ defeat at Trasimene:

  1. “Centenius, with his 8000 men, had already occupied the narrow passage [at Plestia] previously mentioned.  When Hannibal saw the Plestine marsh and the mountain overhanging it, with Centenius between them guarding the passage, he ... sent a body of lightly armed troops under the command of Maharbal to explore the district and to pass around the mountain by night.  When he judged that [these troops] had reached their destination, he attacked Centenius in front.  ... The Romans, thus surrounded, took to flight, and there was a great slaughter among them: 3,000 being killed and 800 taken prisoners, while the remainder escaped only with difficulty” (‘War against Hannibal’, 10-11).

There is much scholarly debate about the likely location of this engagement, and thid is still a matter for scholarly debate: for example:

  1. Nereo Alfieri (referenced below, a paper that I have not been able to consult directly) argued that the Lacus Plestinus should be retained as the location of the battle.  As is shown in the illustrations above, the local topography is consistent with Appian’s description. 

  2. However, according to Ronald Syme (referenced below, at p. 285):

  3. “... it seems unlikely that [Centenius’ defeat] occurred precisely at the lake of Plestia: the time interval for:

  4. Maharbal to get from Trasimene [after the defeat of Flaminius] to Plestia; and

  5. for the news [of Cenenius’ defeat there] to be carried to Rome;

  6. will not fit Polybius’ indication [that only three days separated the arrival of the news of these two defeats at Rome].  Most scholars therefore discount Plestia and put the disaster of Centenius further westwards, in the direction of Perusia.” 

  7. Guy Bradley (referenced below, at p. 148) pointed out that some scholars think that Appian had confused the Lacus Plestinus with the Lacus Umber (albeit that Bradley himself was unconvinced).  

In order to pursue these hypotheses further, we need to examine Hannibal’s route after his victories over Flaminius and Centenius.   Both Polybius and Livy have him marching into Umbria, and there is circumstantial evidence that he did so by following the northern shore of the lacus Umber, below Monte Subasio:

  1. Paul Fontaine (referenced below, at p. 39) described  a Roman road that linked Perusia to Asisium and Hispellum, from which point he could easily have reached either Picenum (via the Apennine pass at Plestia) or Spoletium; and 

  2. Guy Bradley (referenced below, at p. 167) observed that the new circuit of walls  at Asisium, which has been dated roughly to the middle of the 3rd century BC:

  3. “... followed a course determined in places by defensive considerations rather than by the extent of habitable space.  The scale of the wall and the antiquity of its conception has a great significance for this allied town.  The immediate motive for the construction of the fortification may have been the renewed sense of danger emphasised by the invasion of Hannibal, who probably passed near Asisium after the battle of Trasimene.”

Assuming that this was the case, then either hypothesis might stand:

  1. Centenius might have advanced to meet Hannibal (perhaps assuming that Servilius was pursuing Hannibal from the opposite direction).  If so, then he might have been defeated under Asisium or Hispellum. 

  2. Alternatively, he might have remained at Plestia and been defeated there.

Hannibal’s Attack on Spoletium ? ( June 217 BC)

Detail of the map above

Red asterisks indicate the possibly sites of the defeat of Centenius

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

In order to decide between these two hypotheses, we need to consider Hannibal’s movements after he had defeated Centenius.  Again, the sources differ:

  1. According to Polybius:

  2. “Feeling now entirely confident of success, Hannibal rejected the idea of approaching Rome for the present.  [Instead, he] traversed the country plundering it without resistance, and directing his march towards the coast of the Adriatic.  Having passed through Umbria and Picenum, he came upon the coast after a 10 days' march ... Though Hannibal shifted his quarters from time to time  ... , he remained in the neighbourhood of the Adriatic; and by bathing his horses with old wine, of which he had a great store, cured them of the scab and got them into condition again. By a similar treatment he cured his men of their wounds, and got the others into a sound state of health and spirits for the service before them.  After traversing with fire and sword the territories of [Interamnia Praetuttiorum and Hadria, he continued south]” (‘Histories’, 3: 86-8).

  3. The most obvious route would have taken him across the Apennines at Plestia   to Camerinum (Camerino) and along the syncline valley towards Sentinum: a series of passes along the river valleys here would have taken him to the coast.

  4. However, Livy suggested a less direct route:

  5. “Hannibal, marching directly through Umbria, arrived at Spoletium ... and commenced an assault upon the city: having been repulsed with great loss,[he decided against an immediate attempt on Rome.  Instead, he] turned aside into the territory of Picenum ... There he continued encamped for several day ... When sufficient time for rest had been granted for [his] soldiers ... , [he turned south and laid] waste the territories of  [Interamnia Praetuttiorum] and Hadria”, (‘History of Rome’, 22:9: 1-5).

John Lazenby (referenced below, at p. 66) observed that:

  1. “Although there is no direct conflict [between these two accounts] ..., a march from Lake Trasimene to the Adriatic via Spoletium [as reported by Livy] is well nigh impossible to reconcile with Polybius’ statement that Hannibal reached the sea [only 10 days after his defeat of Centenius] ...”

Again, scholars are divided about how to reconcile these accounts.  For example:

  1. John Lazenby (as above) followed Polybius’ in assuming that Hannibal marched directly to the coast, although he conceded that he might  have sent a raiding party to Spoletium. 

  2. Guy Bradley (referenced below, at p. 130) pointed out that Polybius gave no indication of Hannibal’s route across Umbria: it could have included:

  3. “”... rapid thrust towards Spoletium .... , [which] is particularly plausible if a detachment was sent from the main body of the army.  ... [In any case,] Polybius could be taken as referring to ten days from the [failed] siege of Spoletium ... [for Hannibal’s army to reach the Adriatic coast]”.

  4. Simone Sisani (referenced below, at p. 58) suggested that:

  5. “Following Polybius, Hannibal did not intervene in person [in the engagement with Centenius], but sent Mahrabal with a small, fast-moving force of spearmen and cavalry.  The intent of this move can only have been to allow the main army to march south.  It is at this point that we must place [Hannibal’s] attack on Spoletium ...” (my translation).

  6. He argued (at p. 125) that Via Flaminia passed through Spoletium at this time, which placed it on the most convenient route for a rapid attack on Rome. (See my page on Via Flaminia for a discussion of the dates of the two branches of the road in Umbria.)  As he pointed out:

  7. “... it is hard to believe that [Spoletium] remained unconnected to Rome for very long [after its foundation in 241 BC], and that Flaminius had not directed his road in such a way as to bring this stronghold ... under his control” (my translation).

  8. He continued (at p. 58)) that Hannibal’s :

  9. “ ... failure [to take Spoletium] and his need for further supplies forced him to fall back towards the Adriatic, perhaps crossing the Apennines by the pass at Plestia that Mahrabal had liberated” (my translation).

  10. This implies that he retraced his steps along Via Flaminia.

I have to say that I doubt that Livy or his source invented the siege of Spoletium.  It is also, in my view, unlikely that Hannibal sent only a small detachment to effect this difficult undertaking.  I therefore think that Hannibal and Mahrabal temporarily parted company at Forum Flaminii:

  1. Mahrabal marched on Centenius’ camp at Plestia; while

  2. Hannibal marched along Via Flaminia to Spoletium.

However, I doubt that, having failed to take Spoletium, Hannibal returned along Via Flaminia: as Luca Donnini and Valerio Chiaraluce (referenced below, at p. 29) pointed out:

  1. “The systemisation of the direct route between Spoletium and Plestia [Via della Spina] probably  dates back to the period immediately following the deduction of the Latin colony [at Spoletium].  In all likelihood, it had a certain importance from the military point of view for the movement of troops between the Rome and the recently conquered territories of the Agro Piceno Gallico.  In the following decades this function was taken over by the Flaminia ...” (my translation).

In other words, once Mahrabal had cleared the pass at Plestia, Hannibal would have been able to fall back along Via della Spina, thereby avoiding Servilius’ army, which might well have been using this branch of Via Flaminia as it returned from Ariminum to Rome (see below). 

Read more:

R. Syme (died in 1989) and F. Santangelo (editor of these papers from the Ronald Syme archive), “Approaching the Roman Revolution: Papers on Republican History”, (2016) Oxford

L. Donnini and V. Chiaraluce, “I Rinvenimenti Archeologici nell’ Area del Cantiere della Strada delle Tre Valli Umbre (2007-10)”, in:

  1. G. Guerini and L. Rambotti (Eds), “Spina e il suo Territorio: Storia, Ambiente e Tradizione”, (2013) Perugia, at pp. 19-40

R. Feig Vishnia, “A Case of "Bad Press"? Caius Flaminius in Ancient Historiography”,

Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 181 (2012) 27-45

R. Colacicchi and R. Bizzarri, “Correlation between Environmental Evolution, Historical Settlement and Cultural Heritage Upgrading in Valle Umbra (Central Italy)”, Geogr. Fis. Dinam. Quat., 31 (2008) 107-18

S. Sisani,  “Fenomenologia della Conquista: La Romanizzazione dell' Umbria tra il IV sec. a. C. e la Guerra Sociale”, (2007) Rome

G. Bradley, "Ancient Umbria", (2000) Oxford

P. Fontaine, “Cités et Enceintes de l'Ombrie Antique” (1990) Brussels

A. Eckstein, “Senate and General: Individual Decision-making and Roman Foreign Relations (264-194 BC)”, (1987) Berkeley, Los Angeles and London

N. Alfieri, “La Battaglia del Lago Plestino", Picus, 6 (1986) 7-22

J. F. Lazenby, “Hannibal's War: A Military History of the Second Punic War”, (1978) Warminster

E. T. Salmon, “Roman Colonisation under the Republic”, (1970, Ithaca

J. G. Frazer (translator, revised by G. P. Goold), “Ovid: Fasti”, (1931), Cambridge, MA

Foreign Wars (3rd century BC)



Foreign Wars (3rd century BC)

Second Punic War I

From Hannibal’s Invasion (218 BC) to

the Defeat at Trasimene (June 217 BC)

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