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Fighting in Italy 216-203 BCE

(216-203 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Hannibal accepting surrender of Romans
Hannibal accepting surrender of Romans

The period from the Battle of Cannae to the evacuation of Hannibal from the Apennine Peninsula is a time of marches and countermarches of Roman and Punic armies, often along the same roads of southern Italy. Both the armies of the Republic and Carthage fought in these areas for the control of key cities such as Nola, Capua, Taranto and Benevento. Historical sources providing information about these events are primarily the message of Livy and a few fragments from Polybius. Livy’s testimony has been repeatedly criticized by researchers and contains exaggerated descriptions of skirmishes with elements of propaganda serving the glory of Roman aristocratic families.

Military operations in Italy. The ratio of forces of both sides

Cities in southern Italy, as in other areas, were torn apart by fights between factions. In the face of the “world war” between Carthage and Rome, it became necessary for them to take sides, Factions or factions in urban centers were either for Carthage or for Rome. Many cities of Campania remained faithful to Rome, the Latin communities showed particular loyalty. Even though Hannibal conquered most of southern Italy, many of Rome’s allies remained loyal to the Republic. The strong relationship of the Republic with its allies proved to be durable even in the difficult moments of this war for the Romans. The territories loyal to them were either guarded by Roman garrisons or by the local ruling elites, who highly valued the alliance with the country on the Tiber. In order to prevent the allies from switching to the side of the enemy, the Romans maintained strong troops in Etruria for most of the war and reacted quickly to rumors of a possible rebellion in Arretium.

The situation of Carthage’s Italian allies was more complicated. They had no common identity and no sense of common purpose. Each city faithful to Hannibal had separate interests and required him to protect him from the repressions of the Roman army. In several cases, the Campanians and Samnites complained about the lack of sufficient help from the Carthaginians in this regard. The most important city that supported Hannibal after the Battle of Cannae was Capua. The Carthaginians allowed the city to maintain its autonomy and promised not to recruit its inhabitants into their army or perform other activities against their will. The city was to accept 300 Roman prisoners, who were later to be exchanged for Campanian cavalrymen serving in the ranks of the Republic in Sicily. However, the latter refused to return to their home city and received rewards for this from the Romans. Most of the cities that went over to Hannibal’s side did so only when the Carthaginian army approached their walls. Barcid tried to force some of the centers into submission. This was the case at the end of 216 BCE, when the Carthaginians twice tried to intimidate the inhabitants of Naples. Despite the crushing defeat suffered by the Neapolitan cavalry outside the city walls, its authorities did not allow any rival faction to arise in the city, opting for handing over the city to the Punics. Having achieved nothing, Hannibal dragged himself to Nuceria, trying to force this centre into submission by starvation. His attempt to conquer Nola ended without success. After the fall of Capua, Hannibal proceeded to besiege Kasilinum at the end of 216 BCE. In the spring of 215 BCE, the besiegers were supported by a large part of his army. The city was located on the Volturnus River and had roads that ran along Via Appia and Via Latina. The city was fiercely defended by 500 Latin soldiers from Preneste under the command of Marcus Anicius and 460 Perusians supported by a number of stragglers from the Roman field armies. When the defenders ran out of food supplies, it was decided to bring it in the form of roots and grass from outside the walls. The Roman army of Gracchus, operating nearby, delivered corn in jars to the city at night. However, when Hannibal discovered these supplies, he placed stronger guards on the river and thus deprived Anicius of outside help. Seeing their hopeless situation, the defenders capitulated. After paying the ransom, the crew was released. Hannibal gave the city to the Campanians and reinforced their new garrison in the city with his 700 warriors to defend Kassilinum from the Roman threat. In the period after 216 BCE, Barcid had to protect allied communities from Roman reprisals. The problem was that even the accession of a centre in Italy to an alliance with him did not significantly increase the strength of his troops. At various times, Carthaginian armies in Italy consisted mainly of Italians supported by mercenaries from Hannibal’s main army and commanded by Carthaginian officers. At the Battle of the Calor River in 214 BCE, the Romans defeated Hanno’s Punic army with 17,000 Brutian and Lucanian infantry supported by 1,200 Numidian and Mauritian cavalry. The same Carthaginian army suffered a crushing defeat at Beneventum in 212 BCE, where the Romans surprised Hanno’s men while foraging. During this battle, the Roman allies from Preneste, who was the first to break into the Punic camp, distinguished themselves. These clashes prove the military weakness of the Italian allies supporting Hannibal’s main army. Hence, the Romans were more afraid of fighting with Barcid itself than with the undemanding armies of the Italians. In addition, most of the latter did not have the numerous cavalry that contributed so much to Hannibal’s victories. The Italian communities supporting Barcid were reluctant to support him with larger groups outside their native lands. Hannibal’s difficult situation on the peninsula was aggravated by the losses of his main army, resulting from clashes with the enemy and diseases, and the need to support part of the allied forces. Only in 214 BCE, it received significant support from the outside, when the Punic fleet blew up transport with troops, supplies and war elephants in Locra.

Republic forces were in a completely different situation. Rome’s demographic potential gave it an advantage over any enemy. By the end of the war, a record number of legions were called up to arms. In the spring of 215 BCE, there were probably 14 legions in service, in 214 – there were already 18. Their number steadily increased, giving the Romans in the years 212-211 BCE 25 legiones (which theoretically equalled a number of at least 100,000 infantry and 7,500 cavalry supported by an equal number of allies as usual). Most of these troops were stationed in Italy. Within ten years after the battle of Cannae, 4-7 consular armies were stationed in Italy, supported by several 1-legion units and smaller groups and garrisons. The chain of command showed greater than usual longevity in the service of senior commanders. Claudius Marcellus served in the army continuously from 216 to 208 BCE. This phenomenon was conducive to the acquisition of more experience by the commanders and better bonding with their subordinates. Cooperation between the commanders of individual armies, who supported each other, functioned well. Until 211 BCE, the Romans focused on Campania. In 215 BCE, the armies of Fabius and Gracchus moved into its territory. Gracchus’ troops liberated Kyme from the enemy’s hands, after which the armies of both consuls moved against the enemy outposts defending access to Capua. Marcellus in 214 BCE protected Fabius when he captured Kasilinum. In this war, urban centres were tried to be conquered by treason. One of the nobles from the city of Arpi offered Fabius to hand over the city in exchange for a reward. informing him of the weaknesses of the defence. Fabius started a supposed siege but secretly prepared 600 men for a night attack. There was a storm at night, which helped the Romans because visibility was poor and the guards came down from the walls. Using ladders, the legionaries broke into the weak point of the walls, entered the city and seized the entrances at the gates. Thanks to this, the rest of the army entered Arpia before dawn. The resistance of the Punic garrison and the inhabitants in the streets of the city, which finally capitulated, lasted only for a while. The Punics were allowed to join Hannibal’s main army, and about 1,000 Spaniards entered Roman service. This was the second serious case of desertion from the army of Barcid – in the previous year, 272 Spanish and Numidian cavalrymen went to the camp of Marcellus near Nola. It was not a one-sided process, as there were desertions of Roman and Italian soldiers going over to Hannibal’s side. Barcid was also successful in capturing cities in a manner similar to Fabius’ actions at Arpi, but his repeated attempts to control Nola proved unsuccessful. The Romans brutally attacked their former allies, but they cared about regaining the trust of the Italian aristocrats before they turned over to the enemy. They also sought to strengthen the loyalty of their allies. Marcellus rewarded a Martian soldier about to desert by publicly proclaiming that his achievements had not been properly assessed in the past.

An attempt to capture Tarentum by Hannibal

The mountainous terrain of the battles was not conducive to great battles in which Hannibal’s cavalry could develop their full abilities. The Romans were ready to fight the Punics only from their position on the hills. Hannibal kept his entire army with him to be a threat to the enemy, but elsewhere the Romans were more aggressive. The ranks of Barcid were melting, unlike the Romans, so support from Carthage became necessary. At the end of 216 BCE, Hannibal sent his brother Magon to the Carthaginian Senate with a report on the course of the fighting and a request for reinforcements. Most of the council voted with the countrymen in Italy. However, to send reinforcements in the form of troops and food, a port in Italy was needed and Carthage’s control of the waters around Sicily. Barcid failed to capture Naples and Kyme. Hopes were pinned on Taranto, from where in 214 BCE 5 noblemen came to Hannibal’s camp. They proclaimed that the majority of the inhabitants supported them and that as soon as the Carthaginian troops approached the walls, the city would open the gates for them. However, the Roman garrison in the city was reinforced, and no uprising broke out within its walls. So after a few days, Barcid departed from Taranto. Another opportunity to conquer the city came when two of its inhabitants – Philomenos and Nikon offered help in sneaking over this centre. The two came to Hannibal’s camp and promised to lead him through the gates of Taranto. Upon arrival at the city, a detailed plan of action was established. The Roman crew led by Marcus Livius was concentrated in the citadel, and Roman posts were watching on the walls and at the gates. It was agreed that the Carthaginian infantry would enter the city through two gates – one entrance would be secured by Philomenos, who was known by the Roman guards, and the other by Nikon. When the latter overpowered the guards at the gate, Hannibal entered the city, reaching the market square. Meanwhile, Philomenos at the second gate allowed the Punics to enter the city from this side. However, the citadel was not captured and the Carthaginian fleet could not enter the port. Thus, the opportunity to organize a Carthaginian naval base and landing place for reinforcements and supplies disappeared.

Conquest of Capua by the Romans

As early as 215 BCE, Fabius Maximus launched a series of strong attacks against Campania. With Arpi and Kasilinum under control, in 212 BCE the consuls moved against Capua, beginning its blockade. Hannibal sent 2,000 cavalry and some officers to the city’s relief, promising more reinforcements in the future. The Campanian cavalry, appreciated by contemporaries, and supported by troops from Hannibal’s army, won several smaller clashes near the city. However, Roman morale rose again when one of their horsemen accepted a challenge from a Campanian with whom he was bound by bonds of hospitality. Soon Hannibal himself marched to the city’s aid. Upon his arrival, he offered the Romans a battle opposite their camp. According to Livy, both sides stopped the clash when they saw an approaching army column, which both Punics and Romans considered enemies. The two armies of the consuls marched in opposite directions to draw Hannibal away from Capua, and a group of former centurion Marcus Centenius, 8,000 strong, ran into his troops. Centenius himself fell in the battle, and his soldiers were massacred – only 1,000 managed to survive. Meanwhile, the consuls began to besiege Capua again, and their armies were supported by the praetor Claudius Nero’s column. The construction of the embankment and ditch surrounding the city and the same structures to repel attacks from outside began. Capua could not count on the help of Hannibal, who was then busy trying to control Brundisium. Despite this, the defenders did not take advantage of the opportunity to surrender. Campanian cavalry continued to be successful during the fighting until the centurion Quintus Naevius came up with the idea of combining velites and cavalry combat. The light-armed was to ride behind the Roman cavalry and dismount after the start of the clash, to support the cavalry in the fight and to provide a cover for it. This tactic, showing the greater experience of Roman soldiers in combat, gave them an advantage in all future clashes. Hannibal, seeing the siege, decided to act. On the flat ground around Capua, his cavalry could succeed. However, despite attempts to draw the Romans into a general battle, they did not leave their fortifications. Finally, Barcida struck the Roman camps while the besieged made a sortie out of the city. On one stretch of the front, Spanish infantry led by three elephants broke through the fortifications and threatened the camp of Fulvius Flaccus. However, she was repelled by a counterattack inspired by the example of Nevius and other officers. Meanwhile, Hannibal’s army was running out of food. The desperate Punic commander went to Rome to draw the enemy away from Capua. When that didn’t work, he abandoned the city to its fate and retreated to Bruttium. Even the Carthaginian officers in Capua felt betrayed, and their angry letters were intercepted by the Romans, who cut off the hands of the couriers and sent them back to the city. The people of Capua stared into the eyes of hunger. Senators with anti-Roman views committed suicide, the rest were determined to capitulate. After the entry of the Romans, 53 senators believed to be responsible for the rebellion were arrested and executed. As punishment, the Senate abolished Capua’s autonomy as a city-state. In the future, it was to be administered directly by an official appointed by Rome. The capture of Capua influenced the attitude of other cities – soon Calatia and Atella fell under the rule of Rome.

Conquest of Tarantum by the Romans

In the spring of 209 BCE, two Roman armies, each with 2 legions, were sent to engage Hannibal while Fabius moved his men to Taranto. In conquering this city, the Romans were helped by the relationship between the commander of the Bruttii serving as a crew in Taranto and the sister of a Tarentian serving with Fabius. With the consent of the consul, this man feigned desertion and used his connections to forge a friendship with Commander Bruttiow. Thanks to this, he persuaded the latter to betray him. So when Fabius went to storm the walls. some of the people on the ladders got to the section of the walls protected by the aforementioned Brutti unit. They helped the attackers enter the city. Despite the fighting in the streets, the fate of Taranto was sealed. Nikon was killed in the battle and Philomenos was lost. After conquering the city, the Romans organized a slaughter in it – both Carthaginians and Tarentines died. The consul’s soldiers captured a large amount of booty, and 30,000 prisoners were taken.

Hannibal’s successes and his appeal to Italy

Despite further failures (the fall of Salapia in 210 BCE, where the Punics lost 500 men from the Numidian cavalry), the Barcid army was still a considerable force in Italy and was successful. In 212 BCE, the praetor Gnaeus Fulvius Flaccus was beaten, losing 16,000 men near Herdonea. In this battle, Hannibal repeated his tactics at Trebia, hiding his reserve behind the enemy battle line. In 210 BCE, the proconsul Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus suffered a defeat near Herdonea, losing 7,000 or 13,000 men, depending on the sources. In this second battle, the Romans gave up fighting in triplex acies and left entire legions in reserve. For his incompetence, praetor Fulvius was exiled. The real defeat came in 208 BCE when both consuls – Marcellus and T. Quincius Crispinus were ambushed during reconnaissance. During the initial attack, Marcellus was killed. The same fate befell the tribune and the two prefects. The second consul was mortally wounded. However, the successes of Hannibal could not hide the slow decline of his rule in Italy. Over time, the areas under his control were limited to the extreme southern lands of the peninsula. The aggressive attitude of the annually appointed consuls and the numerical pressure of the Roman army systematically reduced the number of his allies in Italy. This phenomenon was facilitated by the mild treatment of their former allies by the Romans, who were returning to the alliance with the Sons of the She-Wolf. In 209 BCE, the Hirpin and Lucanian peoples laid down their arms and were only reprimanded for their alliance with Hannibal. Some representatives of the Bruttii people took advantage of the same proposal. On the other hand, only a small minority of the Romans went over to Hannibal’s side. Barcid’s chances of getting help from the outside were shattered by Hasdrubal’s defeat on June 22, 207 BCE on the Metaurus River in northern Italy. He was not helped by the landing of Magon near modern Genoa in 205 BCE with an army of 12,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Part of this force came from recruiting in the Balearic Islands. Magon then sent a detachment of 800 cavalry and 6,000 infantry to recruit the Ligurians. However, Magon’s campaign never gained momentum and was rather geared to support fighting on other fronts. In 203 BCE he suffered a defeat in the fight with the 4 legions of the praetor P. Quintilius Varus and the proconsul M. Cornelius Cetegus, after which he was ordered to return to Africa. It was the period after the final victories of the Romans in Spain and Sicily. In these circumstances, Hannibal was also called to leave Italy and defend his homeland.


Hannibal’s war in Italy was fought with varying fortunes for both sides. However, in the end, the Romans turned out to be the victors in this clash. They had a better commanding staff than the opposing side. Only Hannibal was able to scare away and defeat the enemy on the battlefield, while other Carthaginian commanders suffered defeats in the clash with the legions. Also, Barcid’s allies on the peninsula were not united and could not help the Carthaginians enough due to the low combat value of their troops. And finally, the demographic factor – the Romans had a huge human reservoir for recruitment, while Hannibal was doomed to small landings in Italy. It seems that even Hannibal’s victorious campaign in Italy would not have changed the outcome of the war. It could only prolong the fighting, which would exhaust the weakening troops of Barcid anyway.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Goldsworthy A., The Fall of Carthage. The Punic Wars 265-146 BC, London 2006
  • Sikorski J., Kanny 216 p.n.e., Warszawa 1984

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