A big day in history: Hannibal smashes his foes "at the very gates of Rome"
Dominic Sandbrook explores the events of 21 June 217 BC
In June 217 BC, Rome waited for news. For almost half a century, the republic had been locked in a bitter rivalry with its chief Mediterranean competitor, Carthage. Now war had broken out again, and this time the outcome seemed terrifyingly uncertain. In a stunning manoeuvre, the Carthaginians’ 30-year-old commander, Hannibal, had led tens of thousands of troops, cavalry and elephants north from modern-day Spain and across the Alps into Italy. In December Hannibal had crushed a Roman army in the Po Valley, and by the spring of 217 he was in central Italy. Never had Rome’s survival seemed in greater danger.
Even Hannibal’s enemies recognised in him a worthy opponent. Centuries later, the Roman historian Livy told his readers that Hannibal took after his famous father, Hamilcar, with “the same bright look; the same fire in his eye, the same trick of countenance and features”. Crossing the Apennines, the Carthaginian general had lost an eye to conjunctivitis and thousands of men to disease. But nothing dimmed his desire for victory. The problem was that Hannibal was fighting on foreign soil. The Romans could afford to wait and hope that he ran out of food and allies. His priority, therefore, was to lure them into battle.