Time Capsule #21

The 2nd Punic War, tea-time football, and the great vaccine heist of 1959.

Hello friends,

A big thanks to everyone who reads the newsletter. It is great to know there are people who enjoy books, history, and philosophy as much as I do. I also appreciate those who reach out and provide feedback on what they like/read in the newsletter. It helps me choose topics to write about and motivates me to keep giving 100% to the project.

Anyways, on to business.

✏️ Enemy at the Gates — The Battle of Lake Trebia (218 BC)

A Carthaginian shekel — Hannibal Barca on the left, with the features of the god Melqart, and his infamous war elephants on the right.

After a trying 6 month journey from the South of Spain, through the Gallic lands, and across the Alps — a magnificent feat given the challenging terrain and harassment from native tribes along the way — Hannibal Barca and his Carthaginian army of 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and war elephants arrived in Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy) in October 218 BC.

The Romans were surprised, to say the least. The Alps were considered a reliable natural barrier against large invasion forces, and for Hannibal to attempt a large-scale crossing so close to the start of winter was daring beyond belief — the Romans themselves were already preparing their winter quarters.

In hostile lands and far from home, Hannibal immediately set to procuring supplies and allies from the local Gallic tribes, many of whom were at war with Rome and were eager to help. Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio, the commanding officer of the army in the region, would give battle to Hannibal at the Battle of Ticinus, ending in a categorical, but not huge defeat for the Romans. Scipio himself was injured in the fighting, only being saved by his 16-year-old son (who would play a critical role in the 2nd Punic War, as we shall see later).

After the defeat at Ticinus, tensions in the Roman senate were rising. The 2nd consul, Sempronius Longus, who was assembling an army in Sicily at the time, was immediately dispatched to reinforce Scipio. He joined up with Scipio’s forces at the River Trebia, taking over command whilst Scipio recovered from his injuries. With both armies setting up camp on opposite ends of the Trebia, the stage was set for the main event.

An early skirmish battle almost resulted in a full-scale conflict, however, Hannibal was able to restrain his troops and bring the battle to a close — the Romans took confidence in this minor victory, having inflicted more casualties and forcing the Carthaginians back. But Hannibal, a master of set-piece battles, had saved his army for something greater.

It was a cold and snowy morning on 22 (or 23) December 218 BC. Before dawn, Hannibal had sent his elite Numidian cavalry across the River Trebia to the Roman camp. Whilst his army ate their breakfast and prepared for the coming battle, the Numidians ambushed the Roman camp, inflicting casualties, causing confusion, and forcing Sempronius to send out his cavalry in response. The Numidians, considered among the best cavalrymen in the world and masters of the hit-and-run, gave the Romans hell. They flew in and attacked with daring and courage, retreated swiftly, then flew back in again. With the Numidians refusing to withdraw and Sempronius eager for a fight, he sent out his light troops, then his entire army, tired and without breakfast, out after the Numidians who had withdrawn back across the Trebia.

The Roman army lumbered across the river, chest-deep in the freezing water. Some were so cold they couldn’t even hold their weapons properly. Nonetheless, they formed up opposite the Carthaginian army.

The Roman army numbered around 16,000 Roman legionnaires, 20,000 allied infantry, and 4,000 calvary — a significantly larger army than the Carthaginians. They formed up symmetrically, with the heavy Roman legionnaires in the center, allied infantry on either side, and cavalry on both flanks. The Carthaginians, too, formed up symmetrically, with the allied Gallic infantry in the center, veteran Iberian and African infantry on either side of them, and war elephants and cavalry on the flanks.

On both wings, the cavalry engaged each other with fierce charges. The Carthaginians quickly got the best of the Roman cavalry, comprehensively defeating them and sending them fleeing back across the Trebia. The infantry engagement, however, was a much different story. The heavy Roman legionnaires were chewing at the allied Carthaginian infantry in the center. Just when the Carthaginian line was about to break, Hannibal sprung his trap. A day earlier, he had hidden 2000 elite troops under his younger brother Mago in a dry riverbed just south of the battlefield. It was now when Mago and his troops emerged from the riverbed, smashing into the left rear of the Roman line. The Carthaginian cavalry, after dealing with the Roman cavalry, joined in on the rear attack on the Roman lines. The Roman legionnaires in the center were able to break through the center of Hannibal’s line, but looked back and saw their army in complete panic and disarray. The surviving legionnaires made a hasty retreat across the Trebia, leaving the rest of their army to be cut down.

The Romans sustained heavy, heavy casualties: approximately 20,000 killed, with thousands more captured. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, lost approximately 3,000-5,000 men, and many of their war elephants. It was a crushing defeat and one that would send the people of Rome into a true panic. They now knew the level of the threat they were dealing with.

For Hannibal, this victory was critically important: they were recognized as the dominant force in Cisalpine Gaul, and the victory would convince many of the surrounding Gallic tribes would support the Carthaginian cause. It would be the first of 3 major victories he would secure against the Romans during the 2nd Punic War.

Next week, we will explore the 2nd major battle between Hannibal and the Romans — The Battle of Lake Trasimene.

📸 Photo of the Week

One of my fondest travel memories is riding a jam-packed tram to the Etihad Stadium for the tea-time kick-off game vs. Aston Villa — and being heckled by Villa fans on the walk over to the station.

📖 Book of the Week — The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.

~ Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is a quick read and a great story about finding one’s own path in life. It tells the tale of a young shepherd who goes on a journey from his Spanish homeland to Egypt in search of treasure. What started out as a quest for worldly gifts turns into a journey to find the gifts within. It is a reminder that the pursuance of dreams and goals in life is what makes life worth living, and in the pursuit of those dreams, we find ourselves and write our life story. I see one’s task in life as one of authorship — it is up to you to write a story worth remembering, one you can look back on fondly in your old age.

💭 Quote of the Week

It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.

~ JRR Tolkien

🔭 Sunday Best

How to write a resume that converts

Our Strange Addiction — the history of tobacco and cannabis, and its journey to becoming an early modern global obsession.

The Great Vaccine Heist of 1959