Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Battle of Lake Trasimene (21 June 217 BC) was a major battle in the Second Punic War. The Carthaginians under Hannibal defeated the Romans under the consul Gaius Flaminius. Hannibal’s victory over the Roman army at Lake Trasimene remains, in terms of the number of men involved, the largest ambush in military history. In the prelude to the battle, Hannibal also achieved the earliest known example of a strategic turning movement.
Incompetence isn’t a word we normally associate with the armies of republican Rome, armies led by such greats as Marius, Pompey and Caesar. But like any nation, they had their share of failures at the top. The Carthaginian general Hannibal’s success against the Romans was largely down to his own skill, but Romans also played their part.
When an army led by Consul Flaminius pursued Hannibal through Italy in 217 BC, Flaminius was in such a rush to catch the invaders that he failed to set up proper reconnaissance. Marching blindly into the valley of Lake Trasimene, he was ambushed by Carthaginian forces hidden on the valley side. Flaminius’s army was smashed, and Hannibal continued roaming the Roman Empire unchecked.Andrew Knighton, War History Online
The Romans, greatly alarmed and dismayed by Tiber Sempronius Longus’s defeat at Trebia, immediately made plans to counter the new threat from the north. Sempronius returned to Rome and the Roman Senate resolved to elect new consuls the following year in 217 BC. The new consuls were Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Gaius Flaminius. The latter was under threat of recall from the Senate for leaving Rome without carrying out the proper rituals after being elected consul. The Senate commissioned Servilius to replace Publius Cornelius Scipio and take command of his army, and Flaminius was appointed to lead what remained of Sempronius’s army. Since both armies had been weakened by the defeat at Trebia, four new legions were raised. The new forces, together with the remains of the former army, were divided between the two consuls. After the battles of Ticinus and Trebia, Flaminius’ army turned south to prepare a defence near Rome itself. Hannibal immediately followed, but marched faster and soon passed the Roman army. Flaminius was forced to increase the speed of his march to bring Hannibal to battle before reaching the city. Another force under Servilius was due to join Flaminius.
Before that could happen, Hannibal lured Gaius Flaminius’ force into a pitched battle by devastating the area that Flaminius had been sent to protect. Polybius wrote that Hannibal calculated that he could draw out Flaminius into battle and that “no sooner had he left the neighborhood of Faesulae, and, advancing a short way beyond the Roman camp, made a raid upon the neighbouring country, then Flaminius became excited, and enraged at the idea that he was despised by the enemy: and as the devastation of the country went on, and he saw from the smoke that rose in every direction that the work of destruction was proceeding, he could not patiently endure the sight.” At the same time, Hannibal tried to sever the allegiance of Rome’s allies, by proving that the Republic was powerless to protect them. Flaminius remained passively encamped at Arretium. Unable to goad Flaminius into battle, Hannibal marched boldly around his opponent’s left flank and effectively cut Flaminius off from Rome, providing the earliest record of a deliberate turning movement in military history. Military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge describes the significance of the maneuver and its intended effects on the campaign:
We are told nothing about it by the ancient authors, whose knowledge of war confined them solely to the description of battles. But it is apparent enough to us […] By this handsome march Hannibal cut Flaminius off from Rome … as he was apt to move by the flank past the Roman camp [so as] to taunt the Roman general. Here is shown … the clear conception of the enemy’s strategic flank, with all its advantages […] Nor by his maneuver had Hannibal recklessly cut himself loose from his base, though he was living on the country and independent of it, as it were; the fact is, that the complete integrity of his line of communication … was preserved. A more perfect case of cutting the enemy from his communications can scarcely be conceived. . . . If he [Flaminius] fought, it must be under morally and materially worse conditions than if his line was open; and the effect on his men of having the enemy between them and Rome… could not but be disastrous.
Still, Flaminius stubbornly kept his army in camp. Hannibal decided to march on Apulia, hoping that Flaminius might follow him to a battlefield of his own choosing.
Flaminius, eager to exact revenge for the devastation of the countryside and facing increasing political criticism from Rome, finally marched against Hannibal. Flaminius, like Sempronius, was impetuous, overconfident, and lacking in self-control. His advisors suggested that he send only a cavalry detachment to harass the Carthaginians and prevent them from laying waste to any more of the country, while reserving his main force until the other consul, Servilius, arrived with his army. It proved to be impossible to argue with the rash Flaminius. Livy wrote, “Though every other person in the council advised safe rather than showy measures, urging that he should wait for his colleague, in order that joining their armies, they might carry on the war with united courage and counsels… Flaminius, in a fury… gave out the signal for marching for battle.”
As Hannibal passed Lake Trasimene, he came to a place very suitable for an ambush, and hearing that Flaminius had broken camp and was pursuing him, made preparations for the impending battle. To the north was a series of heavily forested hills where the Malpasso Road passed along the north side of Lake Trasimene. Along the hill-bordered skirts of the lake, Hannibal camped where he was in full view of anyone entering the northern defile, and spent the night arranging his troops for battle. Below the camp, he placed his heavy infantry (Iberians and Africans) upon a slight elevation. Here, they had ample ground from which they could charge down upon the head of the Roman column on the left flank, when it should reach the position.
His cavalry and Gallic infantry were concealed in the hills in the depth of the wooded valley from which the Romans would first enter, so that they could quickly sally out and close the entrance, blocking the Roman route of retreat. Then he posted his light troops at intervals along the heights overlooking the plain, with orders to keep well hidden in the woods until signalled to attack. Also, the night before the battle commenced, Hannibal ordered his men to light campfires on the hills of Tuoro, at a considerable distance, so as to convince the Romans that his forces were further away than they actually were.
The morning of June 21, the Roman troops marched eastward along the road running near the northern edge of the lake. Eager for battle, Flaminius pushed his men hard and hurried up the column in the rear. Hannibal then sent a small skirmish force to draw the vanguard away from the front of the line, in order to split the Roman forces.
The Carthaginian cavalry and infantry swept down from their concealed positions in the surrounding hills, blocked the road and engaged the unsuspecting Romans from three sides. Surprised and outmanoeuvred, the Romans did not have time to draw up in battle array, and were forced to fight a desperate hand-to-hand battle in open order. The Romans were quickly split into three parts. The westernmost was attacked by the Carthaginian cavalry and forced into the lake, leaving the other two groups with no way to retreat.
As described by Livy:
For almost three hours the fighting went on; everywhere a desperate struggle was kept up, but it raged with greater fierceness round the consul. He was followed by the pick of his army, and wherever he saw his men hard pressed and in difficulties he at once went to their help. Distinguished by his armour he was the object of the enemy’s fiercest attacks, which his comrades did their utmost to repel, until an Insubrian horseman who knew the consul by sight—his name was Ducarius—cried out to his countrymen, “Here is the man who slew our legions and laid waste our city and our lands! I will offer him in sacrifice to the shades of my foully murdered countrymen.” Digging spurs into his horse he charged into the dense masses of the enemy, and slew an armour-bearer who threw himself in the way as he galloped up lance in rest, and then plunged his lance into the consul.Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 22.6
In less than four hours, most of the Roman troops were killed. The Roman advance guard saw little combat and, once the disaster to their rear became obvious, fought their way through the skirmishers and out of the forest. Of the initial Roman force of about 30,000, about 15,000 were either killed in battle or drowned while trying to escape into the lake—including Flaminius himself, who was slain by the Gaul Ducarius. Another 10,000 are reported to have made their way back to Rome by various means, and the rest were captured. Polybius reports losses of 1,500 killed for Hannibal, most of them Gauls, while Livy gives 2,500 killed and “many” who died of their wounds. About 6,000 Romans escaped, under the cover of fog, only to be captured by Maharbal the following day. Both Livy and Polybius wrote that Maharbal promised safe passage (“with a garment apiece”) if they surrendered their weapons and armour, but Hannibal had them sold into slavery irrespective of the promise made.
The disaster for Rome did not end there. Within a day or two, a reinforcement force of 4,000 under the propraetor Gaius Centenius was intercepted and destroyed.
According to Basil Liddell Hart, Hannibal, emerging from another brilliant victory, had successfully planned and executed “the greatest ambush in history.” Similarly, historian Robert L. O’Connell also writes, “[It was] the only time an entire large army was effectively swallowed and destroyed by such a maneuver.”
News of the defeat caused a panic in Rome. Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus was elected dictator by the Roman Assembly and adopted the “Fabian strategy” of avoiding pitched conflict, relying instead on low-level harassment to wear the invader down, until Rome could rebuild its military strength. Hannibal was left largely free to ravage Apulia for the next year, until the Romans ended the dictatorship and elected Paullus and Varro as consuls.
- Livy states that so terrible was the massacre at Lake Trasimene, that neither army was aware of the occurrence of an earthquake, which at the very moment of the battle “overthrew large portions of many of the cities of Italy, turned rivers, and levelled mountains with an awful crash.”
- An ancient tradition says that, because of the blood, which for over three days filled the water, a small stream feeding the lake was renamed Sanguineto, the “Blood River”. In the vicinity of Lake Trasimene, there are further areas that retain a particular meaning, including Ossaia (“Charnel House, Place of Bones”), Sepoltaglia (“Sepulchre”), Caporosso (“Cape Red”), Piegaro (“Subdued Place”), Preggio (from peggio, “worse”), Pugnano (“Place of Battle”), and Pian di Marte (“Field of Mars”).
- P. S. Derow, “The Roman Calendar, 218-191 B. C.”, Phoenix, 30 (1976), p. 275
- Battle of Lake Trasimene, M.R. van der Werf, Ground Warfare: H-Q, ed. Stanley Sandler, (ABC-CLIO, 2002), 486.
- Battle of Lake Trasimene, M.R. van der Werf, Ground Warfare: H-Q, 486.
- Polybius, The Histories, 3.85
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita 22:7.3-4 (citing historian Quintus Fabius Pictor who fought in and wrote on the war)
- Livy, 22:7.2-4 (citing Pictor)
- 1001 Battles That Changed the Course of World History
- Livy, Ab urbe condita, 21:64
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita, 21.63
- Polybius, The Histories, 3.82.
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita, 22.3
- Polybius, The Histories, 3.81–3.
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita, 22.4
- Polybius, The Histories, 3.80
- Polybius, The Histories, 3.83.
- Polybius, The Histories, 3.84.
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita, 22.6-7 (who for the casualty figure cites Quintus Fabius Pictor, a historian who fought in and wrote on the Second Punic War)
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita, 22.7 (citing Pictor)
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita, 22.6.
- Polybius, The Histories, 3.84-5.
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita,22.8; Polybius.
- The Histories 3.86
- Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1991). Strategy. Meridian. p. 26.
- Livy, Ab Urbe condita, 22.5
- Hannibal Barca and the Punic Wars Archived March 24, 2006, at the Wayback Machine by Hilary Gowen.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 10.25.2003, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.