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Hasdrubal was assassinated in the year 221 B.C., after a successful administration of the affairs of Spain during eight years; and now Hannibal, at the early age of twenty-four, by the unanimous voice of the soldiers, was called to the chief command of the Carthaginian forces in Spain; and the Senate of Carthage ratified the choice of the army. Two years were occupied with expeditions against the native tribes of the interior; but in the third year Hannibal, having matured his plans, resolved to provoke a war with Rome by besieging Saguntum.* He accordingly laid siege to that city, and although left entirely to its own resources by its covenanted protectors, it was no sooner taken, after a heroic defence of eight months, than the Romans sent ambassadors to Carthage to demand that Hannibal and his principal officers should be delivered up to them for their infraction of the treaty.
In default of compliance with that demand the second Punic war was declared B.c. 218.
This short introduction has been necessary in order to convey a clear understanding of the progress of that great struggle; for it will be seen that the event was materially influenced by the operations in Spain at different periods of the contest.
Long before the declaration of war, Hannibal had been maturing in his own mind his great project of the invasion of Italy; and had neglected no measure which could conduce to its success. He had sent emissaries through Gaul and across the Alps into Cisalpine Gaul, in order to sound the disposition of the inhabitants along the route he proposed to follow, and to secure for his army a friendly reception from the Cisalpine Gauls on its descent from the Alps. He well knew the character of that lively and fickle people and their hatred of the Romans; and he trusted to his own genius, to convert their country into a secure base of operations, and themselves into active and faithful allies.
* See Observation 1.
It was late in the month of May, B.C. 218, that Hannibal set out from New Carthage on his great undertaking; and "thus," in the beautiful language of Arnold, "with no divided heart and with an entire resignation of all personal and domestic enjoyments for ever, Hannibal went forth, at the age of twenty-seven, to do the work of his country's gods, and to redeem his early vow."
The force with which he quitted New Carthage amounted to 90,000 foot and 12,000 horse. He crossed the Iberus and might have advanced without loss of time to the Pyrenees; but the country between the Iberus and those mountains was friendly to the Romans, some of its towns held Roman garrisons, it therefore became necessary to subdue this district entirely, and thereby to deprive the Romans of a convenient base of operations from which they might otherwise attack the Carthaginian conquests in Spain.
Hannibal effected this object speedily, though with great loss of life; and having left Hanno with 11,000 men to guard his new conquest, and sent an equal number of his Spanish soldiers back to their homes*, he crossed the Pyrenees and entered Gaul with an army which was now reduced by these detachments and the losses it had sustained in the field, to 50,000 foot and 9000 horse.
* See Observation 2.
From the Pyrenees to the Rhone his progress was easy, an unmolested passage through their territories being purchased by presents to the native chiefs. But the passage of the Rhone was not to be effected without opposition, for the city of Massilia (the modern Marseilles) was a fast ally of Rome, and its influence had been successfully exerted with the neighbouring tribes of the eastern bank to induce them to oppose the progress of the invader. Besides this, P. Scipio, one of the Roman consuls for the year, had lately arrived off the mouth of the Rhone with a fleet and army on his way to Spain; and learning there that Hannibal had actually passed the Pyrenees, he disembarked his force, with the intention of opposing him on the Rhone, and in the hope of preventing his advance beyond that river.
Hannibal in his march through Gaul kept his army as far as possible away from the sea-coast, in order to conceal his movements from the Eomans; and Scipio, hearing nothing of him, and believing that his progress must necessarily be slow, lingered at the mouth of the Rhone at the very time when the friendly tribes of the eastern bank were vainly endeavouring to prevent Hannibal's passage of the river. Scipio contented himself with sending forth 300 light cavalry to ascend the left bank and to endeavour to gain some information of the movements of the invading army.*
Hannibal is supposed to have struck the Rhone at a
• See Observation 3.
point about half way between its mouth and its confluence with the Isara (the modern Isere). He immediately purchased all their boats and vessels of every kind from the inhabitants of the western shore, and having constructed others of the timber which abounded on the spot, he in two days possessed sufficient transport to ferry his whole army across the river. But he found the Gauls of the opposite shore assembled to oppose his passage, and his dispositions to effect it are well worthy of attention.
He sent off a strong detachment by night, with native guides, to ascend the river for about twenty miles, and then to cross as best they could, where there would be no enemy to oppose them. This detachment selected a part of the river where its course was divided into two narrow channels by an island, and there effected the passage without difficulty by means of rafts constructed of the timber which was found on the spot.
Hannibal, by previous concert, waited forty-eight hours from the time when the detachment left him, and then on the third morning from that time made all his preparations for the passage of his main body. The first division was assembled in the boats and only awaited the signal agreed upon to push off. That signal was the smoke of a great fire kindled by the detachment which had crossed the river, and which had now marched down to within a short distance of the barbarians on the opposite bank, whose whole attention was engrossed by the sight of Hannibal's preparations, and who crowded down to all the accessible parts of the river shore to oppose his binding. The first division now pushed off. The Rhone was full and rapid. The largest and heaviest vessels were placed highest up stream to serve as a breakwater to the others. The men pulled vigorously against the current, and as the flotilla approached the opposite bank the attention of the Gauls was directed to a mass of fire which appeared in their rear, and now the detachments which had kindled it charged upon their right flank and rear, at the same time that the flotilla stranded; and the soldiers, at whose head was Hannibal, leaping ashore, attacked the bewildered barbarians in front. These made a feeble resistance, and fled in confusion. The boats were instantly sent back for the second division, and before nightfall Hannibal's whole army, with the exception of the elephants, was encamped on the eastern bank of the Rhone.
Early next morning Hannibal sent out some Numidians to ascertain the position of Scipio's army. Not many hours elapsed before these horsemen were seen returning to the camp, as if riding for their lives from a pursuing enemy. They had indeed fallen in with the light cavalry sent out by Scipio, who had attacked and driven in the Numidians, and who now, as soon as they came in sight of the Carthaginian camp, wheeled about to carry back tidings to their general.
Scipio now no longer delayed to put his army in motion to oppose Hannibal, but he was already too late, for when he reached the place which had been the site of the Carthaginian camp, he learnt that Hannibal had quitted it three days before and had marched northwards up the Rhone. To have followed him through an