After the Carthaginian victory at Trebbia, Hannibal waited until the warmer months to continue his march towards Rome. He once again did what was least expected and marched through the now mostly drained Arno swamps.
It took the Carthaginians four sleepless days to traverse the marshes during which time one of Hannibal’s eyes became infected and he eventually lost it. The Roman Consul Flaminius was waiting for the invaders on the other side near Arretium (modern Arezzo).
We cycled into Arezzo from Florence – a beautiful ride through classic Italian countryside of rolling hills and vineyards, but we stayed the night in nearby Cortona – another stunning hilltop town with a well-preserved old quarter. Polybius says Hannibal marched by Cortona on his way to Lake Trasimene, about 15 kilometres away and the site of his next big clash with the Romans.
Before this encounter, Hannibal rested his army and sought intelligence on his enemy. He learned that not only was the surrounding countryside ripe with plunder – as we also discovered as we rode through it – endless olive groves, vineyards, orchards and pretty hilltop towns. But that Flaminius “had very little talent for the conduct of war and yet was absurdly over-confident about his own resources” (Polybius III.80)!
The Roman also had the reputation of playing to the gallery so Hannibal hatched a plan that would play on his opponent’s weaknesses and draw the Roman army into another disastrous defeat.
Hannibal ravaged the countryside leaving nothing in his wake, Flaminius followed with his army, his anger and impatience growing with every destructive move Hannibal made. Hannibal wanted a fight and knew that Flaminius’ ego would not allow the Carthaginians to go on like this for long. He also knew exactly where he wanted the Romans and marched along Lake Trasimene, which in this area is banked by hills and up the valley near modern Tuoro.
We cycled along an excellent historical route with informative boards which allow you to follow the progress of the battle by outlining where the Romans marched and how Hannibal arranged his troops. Flaminius tracked Hannibal, and after arriving late and camping overnight on the shores of the lake he continued his march up the valley at first light.
He was eager to catch Hannibal and continued on carelessly, without sending scouts ahead, even though a think fog meant he was marching blind. Hannibal, however, had been busy during the night. He had ranged his troops along the sides of the valley and Flaminius’ walked his army straight into the trap.
In the mist the Romans were attacked on all sides and, with no visibility, re-organising and issuing effective orders was impossible. The Romans were in complete disarray and Polybius says “death took them unawares while they were still wondering what to do” (III. 84). The Romans were slaughtered where they stood or forced back into Lake Trasimene where they were picked off by the cavalry or drowned. Fifteen thousand Romans died, Flaminius among them – stop number six on the historical route marks where he fell.
Six thousand Roman troops did actually break through the encirclement but were captured the next day. To add to the disaster, a cavalry detachment sent as reinforcements from the other consular army in the north-east was completely annihilated a few days later. All this bad news was greeted in Rome with dismay – so much so that the Republic decided to do away with their normal process of government and adopt more radical measures to meet the crisis: a dictator!
So as Hannibal headed off to the Adriatic coast unopposed the Roman Senate was installing Quintus Fabius as their dictator. A man “outstanding for his steadiness of judgement” (Polybius III.87), he was to become famous as the Great Delayer – shadowing Hannibal and his army but never offering battle.
Fabius restricted the resources available to the great general and slowly wore the Carthaginian army down. However Roman thirst for glory and impatience for a great victory was to unseat Fabius and hand Hannibal his biggest victory of all. But that is about 600 kilometres away and a long week for us on our bikes!