I have returned as promised with part two of the Punic War series. I like this format — perhaps I will continue doing essay series on different historical topics in the future. But for sure, I will be finishing the 2nd Punic War battle series.
Congratulations to Chelsea FC on winning the Champions League. With the club football season over I can now rest easy — being a fan is emotional and I don’t know if I would recommend it.
On to business.
✏️ Ambush! The Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC)
Two weeks ago we left off at the Battle of the River Trebia, where Hannibal would hand the Romans a decisive defeat. Little did they know that much worse was to come.
Just after Trebia, winter fully set in. Hannibal wintered amongst his Gallic allies, whilst the Romans returned to winter quarters. As was customary, new consular elections were held to elect the two new consuls who would head the Roman armies — for 217 BC, Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus were elected. Immediately, they set to work raising new legions and preparing for the campaign ahead. This year, Rome would field a total of 20 legions, 2x more than last.
At the start of spring 217 BC, the two Roman armies moved into position. The first army under Flaminius (he inherited the defeated army at Trebia) stationed themselves at Arretium (modern-day Arezzo), whilst the second army under Geminus moved to the Adriatic coast. This effectively positioned the Roman armies on either side of the Apennine mountains, guarding the passage into Italy and providing a launching point for future movement into Cisalpine Gaul.
Hannibal, whose army had swelled after the swathes of Gallic recruits he received following the Battle at the River Trebia, had other plans. To bypass both armies undetected and split their forces, he and his army completed another remarkable march through the watery marshes around the River Arno. The forced march was gruelling, taking 4 days and 3 nights, much of which was through difficult terrain and high water. His men, particularly the Gallic allies, suffered greatly during the march, many of whom died; soldiers would fight over dead horses in order to have a resting place where they could lie down and rest above the marshy water. Hannibal himself rode the last surviving elephant and got an eye infection that ended up blinding him in 1 eye. Nonetheless, when the trek was complete, Hannibal had completely outmaneuvered both Roman armies, isolating Flaminius’ army at Arretium and placing himself between Flaminius and Rome.
Hannibal began devastating the countryside, plundering and setting fire to villages and killing all the adult males in the region. The locals of the region were incensed that the Romans, who were supposed to be protecting them, had let this happen. Flaminius’ army, which had been defeated handily at Trebia, was eager to restore their honour and clamoured for battle. This led Flaminius, against his advisors’ opinion, to give a strong chase after Hannibal. He marched so rapidly that proper scouting could not be carried out, and at times got within a 1-day march of Hannibal’s army. Eventually, the armies would reach Lake Trasimene, where Hannibal would set another brilliant trap for his Roman adversaries.
Hannibal was a clever and intuitive commander. He did much of his own scouting and found Lake Trasimene to be the perfect spot for an ambush. The road led along the north shore, and to the north of the road was a range of low hills behind which troops could be concealed. At the eastern end, a narrow defile climbed away from the river and made a great choke-point and campsite. This was where he could annihilate the Romans. The night before the battle, Hannibal sent his cavalry, Gallic allies, and light troops on a night march behind the low hills to the north of the road, where they would flank attack the Romans. He kept his experienced Iberian and African infantry close to him at the camp on the eastern end. The campfires were kept hot and burning to give off the impression of a full army for the Romans.
On the morning of 21 June 217 BC, a mist rolled off the lake as the Romans prepared themselves for another day’s march. They set off in the early morning, marching eastward along the road — it was then when they saw the Carthaginian infantry in battle formation near their camp. Given the haste of the march and lacklustre scouting practices at the time, the Romans had not performed advance cavalry reconnaissance ahead of the army and effectively ran headfirst into the Carthaginian line. Just as the head of the Roman column made contact, Hannibal sprung his trap. The Gallic infantry behind the hill unleashed themselves on the centre of the Roman column, whilst his cavalry raced around the back of the column to prevent a retreat and proper army deployment. For 3 hours, a fierce battle ensued, all in the fog of war. Fighting was particularly fierce around the consul Flaminius, who was valiantly protected by his troops but would eventually be struck down by a Gallic soldier.
The Roman army completely collapsed. Many men drowned trying to swim across the lake, and those who feared the long swim were chopped down in the neck-deep water by the Carthaginian cavalry. When the carnage and fog lifted, 15,000 Romans laid dead. Roughly 10,000 near the front of the line were able to fight through and make an escape, however, many would-be captured in the following days by Hannibal’s cavalry commander Maharbal. Hannibal’s losses were minimal, between 1,500 and 2,500, most of which were Gallic allies.
This was a crushing Roman defeat and a masterclass of military ingenuity. It is one of the only recorded ambushes of an entire army by another, and its consequences would lay the groundwork for one final stunning victory for Hannibal and the Carthaginians.
Next week, we will cover the last of the 3 great military defeats the Romans suffered at the hands of Hannibal during the 2nd Punic War — the Battle of Cannae.
📸 Photo of the Week
I’m all for thinking ahead and planning for the future. But ultimately, you can only live life one day at a time.
All you own is the present.
📖 Book of the Week — Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
This book is a fantastic account of the author’s experience in the Nazi concentration camps as well as his theory of logotherapy, which describes the paths one can take to find meaning in life. Logotherapy proposes that the search for meaning in life is the primary motivational force for humans, that life has meaning in all circumstances, and that we have the freedom to find that meaning by changing our attitude to our situation, even in the most miserable conditions.
By committing our lives to work bigger than ourselves, by giving ourselves fully to others, and by our attitude to unavoidable suffering, we are able to find the will to face life. I wrote a book review on Man’s Search for Meaning, which you can find here.
[…] everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.
💭 Quote of the Week
Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.
🔭 Sunday Best
Naval Ravikant x Joe Rogan — one of my favourite podcasts which I revisit frequently. Full of life wisdom.
Moral Letters to Lucilius — a collection of letters written by Seneca on the inner-life, virtue, death, and morality.
50 Ideas That Changed My Life — not my life, David Perell’s. But they are great ideas to use as guide-rails for life, work, and the like. Additionally, he has some fantastic essays on his website as well as a great newsletter, both of which I highly recommend.
💡 Food for Thought
Self-righteousness is the highest form of arrogance.