A pretty place for Hannibal’s first big victory

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On the banks of the Ticinus river in Pavia are the remains of a bridge destroyed in World War II. The footings break the flow of the river and its disappearance has broken the aesthetic layout of the town.

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Pavia is built around two main streets in traditional Roman style – the new covered bridge built slightly downstream means the old Roman “via Cardo” (Corso Strada Nuova) now heads straight into the river. Well before they had founded Pavia the Roman army was in flight near here and also destroyed a bridge across the Ticinus during a hasty retreat from their first engagement with Hannibal.

Hannibal’s superior Numidian cavalry won the day and the Roman Consul Cornelius Scipio was severly wounded in the fighting – Livy claims that his son (later Scipio Africanus) bravely rode into the midst of the battle to save his father.

Today Pavia, a university town, is famous for its extraordinary towers, built by competitive rich men during the Renaissance. The taller the tower, the richer and more powerful you were. Three of them stand side by side in the middle of the university.  Unfortunately another of the town’s towers, adorning its church in the main square, made the news twenty years ago when it collapsed killing several people.  

We followed the Roman retreat to the nearby and then recently founded colony of Placentia (modern Piacenza). Hannibal followed too after skirting the ruined bridge and camped nearby hoping for battle. The other Roman Consul Longus also arrived with his army after an incredible forced march from Lilybauem in Sicily. It was December and bitterly cold and wet and Scipio’s army was mostly raw recruits. Scipio urged caution but Longus had the better of a skirmish with some Carthaginian foragers and, afraid he would miss out on all the glory when the new Consuls arrived to take over in the new year, was keen to engage.

This confidence was in spite of a defection from the Roman camp by several thousand of their Celtic allies, who went over to Hannibal. A key part of the Carthaginian general’s strategy was to win over the Celts in northern Italy who were considered important but not very reliable allies in his war against Rome. In fact, Hannibal, wary of assasination by these fickle friends, is thought to have worn wigs to avoid being recognised.

Hannibal – an expert in the psychology of war and aware of the impetuous nature of Longus – set his trap.  He sent his youngest brother Mago with a hand picked force to hide in some reeds near a bank of the Trebbia. Today there is an old stone bridge that crosses the Trebbia on the way in to the town of Rivergaro.  

The river is little more than a stream here, but this location is very atmospheric – with the Trebbia valley up to the right and the town down to the left, and plenty of undergrowth near the bank for soldiers to hide. A lovely green valley extends upriver – it so captivated Ernst Hemingway when he was here during World War II that the local sparkling water quotes him as describing it as ‘the most beautiful valley in the world.’ 

In a move that would start the battle, Hannibal sent his Numidian cavalry to harrass the Roman camp at first light and lure them out. Longus eagerly complied and sent his men across the swollen and freezing river towards the Carthaginian army. The Romans were now cold, wet and hungry (they hadn’t had breakfast) and for these reasons were perhaps beaten before they had even started fighting. They were so cold in fact, that they had trouble drawing their weapons when they reached the other side of the river after wading through its feezing rapids.

The description of this intense cold in Livy and Polybius rang true for us – our night in Rivergano was one of the coldest we have experienced so far, including our Alpine passage.  But waiting for the Romans on the other bank the Carthaginians were fresh, had breakfasted and had kept warm around their campfires. They had the better of the early engagement then Mago sprung from his hiding spot – “a manouevre which threw the whole Roman army into confusion and dismay” (Polyibus III.74) and all was lost for the Romans.

Some Romans managed to reach the safety of Placentia as rain possibly covered their retreat. Carthaginian losses during the actual battle were minimal but the cold extracted a high price. All but one of Hannibal’s elephants died in the bitter weather that day and Polybius reports (Polyibus III.74) that many men and horses also froze to death.

Longus tried to conceal the loss by claiming a storm had prevented his victory but the Senate and people of Rome soon learned the truth. The city went into a panic but the Senate managed to restore order and quickly went to work sending legions to places of strategic importance, enrolling citizens in the army and  mobilising allies.

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Hannibal still had plenty of work to do – and we still have plenty of cycling left!