The Battle of Lake Trasimene – episode notes and transcription.

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I hope the below helps with the episode. Here’s the episode in case you wanted to listen, the transcription is at the bottom.

Maps.

Hannibal started out near modern day Bologna (red pin), crossing the Apennines he arrived near Pistoia (yellow pin). Next was the march through a flooded landscape before arriving on dry land. The two purple pins show the location of the Roman consular armies, the one south of Florence is at Arezzo (or Arretium as it was then). Here Hannibal moved past and Flaminius duly followed. The green pin to the south is where the battle took place, on the northern shore of Lake Trasimene (modern day Trasimeno).

This is the via Flaminia, the road from Rome which facilitated trade via the Adriatic coast and a vital way into northern Italy.

A nice simple diagram to show how the troops were positioned. The shoreline has receded in the modern period so it’s likely much of the land to the south of the red dotted line would have been underwater. It’s also worth noting the flat land (white) versus the hills (tan).

A great view of the shoreline looking from the hills to the north of it.

Further reading/Works cited.

The War with Hannibal, Livy

Histories, Polybius

Hannibal, Lancel.

The Fall of Carthage, A. Goldsworthy.

The Role of Lake Trasimeno (central Italy) in the History of Hydrology and
Water Management, R. Burzigotti, W. Dragoni, C. Evangelisti & L. Gervasi

 

Transcription.

This should be mostly accurate but I do occasionally change a word or phrase during recording.

At Trasimene Hannibal once again savaged Rome. But how did he do this? What decisions did he make? Why was their outrage at Rome before all this happened? And what’s the deal with Hannibal and makeovers?

Find out as I talk about the Battle of Lake Trasimene on the Ancient History Hound Podcast.

Hi and welcome, my name’s Neil and I’m continuing the topic of the 2nd Punic War with a look at what happened up to and during Trasimene. My previous episode unwrapped Hannibal’s march into Italy and how he set a trap for Rome at Trebia. In this episode I’m following a similar template, I’m going to talk about the characters involved, the decisions taken, and obviously the battle itself.

Now, you can find me on twitter @ancientblogger or @HoundAncient which is the podcast twitter handle. I’m on tiktok and insta as ancientblogger and I will be transcribing this episode on my website – ancientblogger.com. It’ll be in a post along with maps, sources I’ve used and content I think might make the episode a bit more useful. Certainly this episode has me detailing routes marched and the description of the battlefield. I’ll describe as best I can but sometimes a good old map just does the trick.

Finally, all dates are BCE, which means I can save my voice and as ever, if you can rate or review this podcast on the platform you are listening to then please do – that now includes Spotify by the way. It makes a huge difference to indie podcasters like myself.

Ok, let’s begin.

In late December 218, Hannibal had brought about a masterful victory against a Roman army at Trebia. To the new Celtic allies, the tribes in northern Italy who had been old enemies of Rome, here was a bandwagon which was becoming ever more appealing. As I mentioned in the episode on Trebia northern Italy wasn’t Roman, it was the land of various tribes, some allies but mostly hostile to Rome and it had been here that Hannibal had sought to establish links and alliances. Not only would they offer him something close to a safe haven they would also be vital in supplying his army with fresh warriors. Those that had marched with Hannibal from Spain, for example the African and Iberian troops were highly valued by Hannibal in both their skills and experience. They couldn’t be replaced, but the Celtic soldiery could and at Trebia Hannibal had sought to use these to take the brunt of the Roman line and therefore take the most casualties.

Following the victory at Trebia Hannibal had made camp near Placentia, modern day Piacenza, possibly using the remnants of the Roman camp there. Though he had been successful Hannibal was certainly aware of a couple of key issues. The first was that Rome hadn’t been defeated, it had been beaten, but this was the first of many victories he would need if he was to avenge his family and the cause of Carthage. In the 1st Punic War Rome had demonstrated that it was able to draw on large reserves of manpower and from the outset Hannibal’s overarching strategy aimed to unpick Rome from its allies. The second point, and perhaps more pressing, was that though he had given the Celtic tribes a taste of victory they were hungry, in fact ravenous. They weren’t satiated with one success, they wanted more.

There was also a wider political game at play here. The tribes weren’t good neighbours to each other and Hannibal’s success had upset the balance between them. Paradoxically this may have caused resentment from those tribes who felt that Hannibal might have his favourites, for example the Boii and this could be behind one of the oddest tales involving Hannibal you will hear.

Polybius wrote that Hannibal was at risk from assassination by a Celt, perhaps funded by Rome but as likely by jealous rivals. To confuse would be assassins Hannibal changed his look daily, this included wearing different wigs. Is this true? Possibly, it sounds strange but it’s also plausible.

Hannibal’s movements during the winter were largely formed of resupplying his army and moving south to near what is modern day Bologna. The Roman historian Livy, however, has him making a series of marches in the region. This culminated in a failed attempt to cross the Appenines, a mountain range which I’ll describe shortly. This has been viewed as fiction, a nice bit of drama and echoing the dramatic account Livy gave of Hannibal crossing the Alps. But not something Hannibal would have envisaged doing, not at that time. The real drama during the winter and early spring wasn’t found in a mountain pass, it was found in the streets of Rome.

The elections for a consul at this time took place mid-winter, with each assuming office in mid March. Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Gaius Flaminius were the men chosen with the Carthaginian commander as the number one on their to do list. Geminus was from the famed Servilius family and though the Geminus branch was a a more recent one he could point to an ancestor as consul in 495 when Rome was a hatchling Republic, more recently his own father had been a consul in 252 and 248. Cut him and he’d bleed patrician blood as old as the hills Rome stood on.

In stark contrast was his his colleague, Flaminius. The story of Trasimene is as much about Hannibal’s victory as it was Flaminius fall from grace. Here was a character, like Longus before him, plucked from a Greek tragedy. As you’ll hear the sources were unfair and were always keen to show him at his worst. Yet he’s fascinating, so it’s worth understanding him and his background.

Flaminius was a novus homo, or a new man, this didn’t mean he had progressive views about equal pay, it meant that he had no political lineage. Were you to be invited round to his home there wouldn’t be a proud array of ancestral busts of consuls or famous men he could point to and recount a story.

In 232 he had arrived on the scene, becoming Tribune of the Plebs, this position required that he advocate for the lowest class and could act as a check and balance against the consuls. In 227 he became Praetor, a senior political office and not just any praetor, he was the praetor in charge of Sicily.

A few years later, in 223 he achieved the highest political office, becoming consul. It was here that we encounter a theme which was to become something both Livy and Polybius would tag him with, that he was disobedient to both the gods and the senate, a loose cannon in the heart of government.

It starts with an incident in 223 Flaminius was leading an army in northern Italy against the tribes there. The auspices on his march weren’t favourable but he carried on, the senate sent a dispatch to him to stop immediately. Flaminius, knowing what the dispatch contained carried on and defeated the Insubres in a large battle. Reading the account in Polybius you wouldn’t know he was in charge, credit is doled out to everyone involved apart from Flaminius and when he is mentioned it’s to criticise his choice of battlefield and how he arranged the troops. Returning to Rome his next battle was to earn the Triumph which was initially refused to him by the Senate but then overturned by the people.

In the episode on Trebia I compared the two consuls to an 80s sitcom involving two chalk and cheese characters and here we can extend it to the cop show where the anti-hero doesn’t do things by the book but dammit he gets results. And in the modern period the tendency has been to depict him as an agitator, a firebrand who was set against the stuffy senators and their ancestry. But this doesn’t fit as snugly as you might think. In fact Flaminius had a stellar career which found opposition in the senate at points as you might expect but was also facilitated through that same political body. Following his Triumph and Consulship he became censor, in 220 he oversaw construction of the Flaminian Way, this was a road stretching from Rome north east to Ariminum. It measured 296 km or 184 miles and opened up access into northern Italy where Rome was trying expand as well as to the Adriatic coast. A road which facilitated trade and war, how very Roman.

In the midwinter elections following Trebia he had again come to the consulship, perhaps with those military successes he had in mind. Yet things didn’t go smoothly. It was expected, well actually required that a new consul needed to be sworn in and to undergo a number of rites before he could take up his position in the spring. Once these had been undertaken he could then go about his business and link up with his army.

But Flaminius was suspicious that he’d be stalled in Rome, that his political enemies might delay the needed rites or interpret the auspices as unclear. In short anything to keep him from getting out into the field and to face Hannibal. So Flaminius faked a much needed visit out of Rome, met up with his army and made camp near Arretium, or modern day Arezzo. For Livy this caused outrage back at Rome, the senate voted for his immediate recall and to quote Livy “dragged back if necessary and compelled to perform in person all the duties of his office”. Two individuals were even sent to demand his return, you can guess how that went.

Omens and bad portents were seen around Italy and reported to Rome which undertook a number of rituals to placate the gods. One was the expansion of a festival which would take place the following December that year. It would have a lectisternium added, this was a Greek ritual in which the gods were represented at a feast in the form of wooden idols. The festival is called the Saturnalia and you might have heard of it, yes, of course I have done a podcast episode on it, so Flaminius in a way helped found a drunken midwinter party which is often referred to nowadays. Not all bad then.

Whether Flaminius ever did march out and avoid his obligations is questionable, Polybius, fails to mention it. It’s possible to imagine a situation where Flaminius either sped through the rites, performed some or performed them all before getting his army into place. What is certain is that impiety and impetuousness were qualities which become his thematic soundtrack and we’ll hear more of this later.

Both Consuls took their respective armies, approximately 25,000 in size to strategic points. Flaminius as mentioned, set his at Arretium, whilst Geminus was stationed at Ariminum, modern day Rimini. I’ll go into why in a moment but now I’m going to turn to Hannibal.

In the episode on Trebia I was able to give a generally accepted figure for the size of Hannibal’s army, specifically the army which descended the Alps. With the addition of the Celts it was estimated to have been around 40,000 when Hannibal defeated Rome at Trebia. The Roman army that day had been around the same size but differed in composition. Rome had far more infantry and this reflected their preferred tactic of bulldozing the enemy. Hannibal’s army had more lighter troops and cavalry, which he used to devastating effect.

Hannibal would have known that any marching army would lose men through attrition. The challenge was the balancing act between an army which could stack up numerically against those Rome could throw against it and mobility. Hannibal would be operating in enemy territory with his march south. Large armies would be logistically difficult to supply and slow.

It’s spring in 217 and Hannibal is moving his army, estimated at around 40,000, south. But where would they go and what were the choices Hannibal had? I’ll try and explain as clear as I can but don’t forget those maps I’ve included in the shownotes on ancientblogger.com.

I’ll start with the basics, the Italian peninsula, the narrow strip of land which measures around 200 km or 124 miles in width and ends up in the famous boot shape, is split more or less down the middle by a mountain range called the Appenines. There are in fact separate ranges, but form what is best described as a spine. This spine doesn’t attach to the Alps at the top of Italy, but instead curves to the west. When Hannibal had descended from the Alps and fough at Trebia he’d been above the curve but as he moved south to Bologna he now sat in the eastern side of the mountain range. He now had to choose to either stay on the eastern side of the mountains and move south or cross and move down the western side of the Italian peninsula.

If Hannibal chose to stay on the eastern side he wouldn’t need to cross the mountains. He could then gain access to the south of Italy. In addition he might be able to draw support from across the Adriatic sea to the east. Here Rome had been fighting a series of wars, known as the Illyrian Wars, and Rome’s enemies there might be of use.

The western option involved crossing the Appenines and moving south past Rome. There was some excellent farmland here, it also had a number of wealthy regions, from a logistical perspective it was very attractive. Both options offered what I think was Hannibal’s key strategic objective, to dislocate Rome from its allies. You see Rome didn’t expanded in a vacuum, it had absorbed and defeated a number of tribes in the Italian peninsula and like any growing empire relied on them. Hannibal could weaken Rome severely by reorientating the political map, fewer allies meant less for Rome in all aspects, from manpower to general goods. It could also start a chain reaction with Rome eventually diminishing to becoming a minor player that it once was.

Hannibal chose, as he was wont to do, the less obvious. Rather than stay on the eastern side he chose to cross the Apennines and push through on a march as arduous as anything he had done. We don’t know the exact rationale for his decision, but Lancel makes a very good point when he considered a significant danger of marching on the eastern side, not that it was too hard to move across, but that it was too easy. The land scouth of Bologna was nice and flat, easy for any army to move across and this would be the same for the Roman armies. Earlier I mentioned that these had been stationed at Ariminum under Geminus and at Arretium under Flaminius and now it’s important to understand why.

The army at Ariminum under Geminus was there to check against Hannibal moving south down the eastern side of Italy. Likewise the army under Flaminius at Arretium was there in case Hannibal made to cross the Apennines and moved down the western side. With the easy terrain on the eastern side so close to Ariminum the danger was that Hannibal might be caught by both forces, Geminus could move quickly to intercept him knowing that Flaminius could make a quick move to join up. Hannibal would then be facing an army numerically the same as his or more. And though he had a far better quality of troops he couldn’t risk an encounter with both armies because even if he won he’d likely suffer a large amount of casualties and this would hamstring his campaign.

The western route meant the opposite, Geminus wouldn’t be able to move as quickly and join with Flaminius. It would be a tough march, in fact a hellish one.

Before I begin this torrid tale here’s a podcast you might want to listen to….

After departing Bologna or near it Hannibal took his army across the Apennines, the exact route isn’t known though the Passo della Peretta or Passo della Collina is strongly suggested. This wasn’t particularly demanding, a mere speed bump compared to the march many of Hannibal’s men had been on. This brought him out near modern day Pistoia, around 30km or 18 miles north west of another but more famous modern city. Florence.

1500 or so years after Hannibal arrived north of Florence one of it’s most famous sons, Dante, composed the Divine Comedy. This consisted of the Inferno and the famous 9 circles of Hell. The 3rd circle was kept for the gluttons and, like the others, wasn’t somewhere you’d want to visit. It was described as a freezing mire of slush and filth. It was this type of landscape that Hannibal now had to cross as the Po River had flooded the land to the south.

For 3 days the army were denied rest as there was no dry ground, the only time you could sleep was on the corpse of a dead pack animal. The Celts had no experience of this type of march and this was added to by them being placed at the back of the column. They waded through mud which had been churned by thousands in front of them and added to with both animal and human faecal matter.

Though the Celts received the brunt of the march Hannibal also suffered. An eye infection caused the loss of one of his eyes. But as he arrived on firm ground he might have been happy with his progress. The pack animals lost could be replaced and Celts recruited. The march had also ensured that he would only be facing one consular army, not two, and his prize troops hadn’t suffered too much. It had been tough but the tactical objective had been achieved.

The next decision was what to do about Flaminius and his army in nearby Arretium.

Attacking a consular army which was dug in would be suicide for any number of reasons. Sieges were costly, they required specialist equipment and Hannibal had a force which wasn’t rich in heavy infantry, the necessary cannon fodder in sieges. It would also leave him wide open for an attack. Perhaps Flaminius wondered might happen next and top of his list of fears would have been what Hannibal did, he just waltzed on by and moved south.

The lands here, roughly modern day Chianti, were bursting with villas and farmland, all now ripe for plundering and Hannibal ensured that his supplies were restocked. But there was more than simple logistics at play. As I mentioned earlier there was that overarching political strategy. Rome had expanded and absorbed these lands due to its military muscle which was now very evidently absent. Here was Hannibal showing that Rome wasn’t the protector it claimed to be. In Chianti Hannibal may have lacked fava beans but he was eating well all the same.

From Arretium Flaminius rightly seethed at what was going on around him. As a consul with a triumph behind him and as a man of action he couldn’t stand by and watch. But here Livy and Polybius portray him ignoring the advice of his officers to hold and wait for Geminus to join him. Worse still disagreement came from the gods themselves in the form of bad omens. The horse Flaminius mounted to give the orders threw him and one of the army standards stuck fast in the ground, resisting those who tried to pull it out.

Here we find that soundtrack I spoke about earlier. Flaminius the impious and impetious, but most likely none of this happened or if there were bad omens they were exagerrated. The truth was that Flaminius couldn’t allow Hannibal to pass by him, his whole purpose was to prevent exactly what was going on. It’s quite an achievement on Livy’s part to paint a perfectly rational response in such a way as to make Flaminius seem foolish. In truth his later actions can be seen this way, but not in doing what he did next. Flaminius got his army of some 25,000 men and started the pursuit of Hannibal.

Though Flaminius had a smaller force it didn’t mean it was as mobile as Hannibal’s. The Roman army wasn’t anywhere near as well drilled.  Flaminius might hope to chase him down but Hannibal could only be caught when he wanted to be.

The question on everyone’s lips must have been where Hannibal was heading to, Rome was only 175km or 108 miles to the south, no real distance to an army which had set out from Southern Spain. But this can’t have been a serious proposition, an army unable to take Arretium with Flaminius in camp wasn’t about to try and take a huge city with a large garrison and a consular army following behind. Hannibal continued south presumably sending his scouts ahead or connecting with any intelligence he had in the area. Soon the news arrived and he had the perfect location for what was next. Swerving east he made for Lake Trasimene or Trasimeno as its known today.

Today the lake covers approximately 128 km2 that’s 50 square miles and is around 6 metres in depth. The northern shoreline of the lake has receded in the modern age and it was here where the action took place. Needless to say the sources didn’t come with GPS co-ordinates and given the change of the shoreline there is some debate as to the exact location of the battle. However, there is a generally agreed map we can pin to the events and of course these will appear in the shownotes.

When Hannibal arrived at Lake Trasimene he did so near modern day Borghetto. He then marched east, through a gorge or defile which opened up into a narrow plain along the northern shore of the lake. This curved round to the southeast as as far as modern day Toricella. Overlooking this plain was a chain of hills.

It was at the end of this hills that Hannibal made camp, the exact location wasn’t clear exactly but he did so the the objective of being seen. In fact this was vital.

Flaminius now knew where Hannibal was and realised that he finally had the Carthaginian army where he could get at it. He set up camp near to what is now Terontola. The next day he would march through the gorge, lead his men along the plain and form up ready to take on Hannibal. Even prior to the march we are told that his troops were licking their proverbial lips at the prospect of victory, some even weighed down with chains which they’d be using to secure all the prisoners they could sell.

That night, whilst Flaminius’ men slept, Hannibal moved some of his units from the camp and along those hills north of the plain. The cavalry were sent to the western end, overlooking where the gorge opened into the plain. The Celts and light infantry were stationed east of them. If you were seeing this from above you would see Hannibal’s men dotted along those hills overlooking the plain, the cavalry at the far left and the Celts and light infantry along the centre. These were to remain in cover, Hannibal’s plan hinged on the Roman column marching by them unaware.

The African and Iberian troops were stationed at the eastern end of the plain on a hill along with Hannibal, unlike the others these weren’t hidden, in fact it was important they were seen. It would be these troops, Hannibal’s most experienced, who would be tasked with holding the line against Rome.

On the morning of the 21st of June, Flaminius broke camp and moved his army out. As they marched through the gorge and into the plain they would have been able to make out a force, which we know as the Iberian and African troops, to the east. Flaminius hadn’t sent out scouts because why did he need to, there after all was the enemy. You could see them. The Roman column measured some 5 miles in length according to Goldsworthy and this snaked along the plain. As they marched a few might have paused to admire the fog hanging on the hills and on the lake, it must have seemed picturesque.

But out of this fog came the noise of hooves, men shouting in strange languages, and was that a Celtic war cry? Before the Romans could begin to form up Hannibal’s hidden forces attacked from their concealed position and smashed into the left flank of the Roman column.

Armies in this period, at least trained ones, needed time to form up before engaging the enemy. This could take a while, depending on the size of the army and their skill. In fact this was often the way of assessing an army, not just how good they could fight on the big screen, but the boring stuff. How soon a man could find his allotted place and how quickly a section could reform to a new position at a given signal, this was the real measure of an army.

Even for an experienced army the situation the Roman column found itself in would be near impossible, but for a non-professional outfit it was hopeless. Panic set in, each man fighting not so much for his life but to delay death. At the eastern end the column met the Iberian and African infantry and then came the slingers who moved round and inflicted countless injuries with every volley. The Celts had charged with their gods behind them and were pushing the middle portion of the column back into the lake. The cavalry at the western end either charged the Romans down or stung them with missiles.

Death came for the Romans in many guises that day, some drowned in the lake, preferring a suicidal swim in armour to what was behind them. Others were cut down on the shore. Some just waded out and waited for the cavalry to pick them off in a macabre training drill, their hooves frothing up the red water.

The battle, if you can call it that, lasted three hours and this has been cited as proof of Roman resolve. True, but it could also be just how long it takes to butcher thousands of men in a time before bullets. The only success was sparse and ephemeral, a unit of 6,000 men broke through the line at the eastern end of the shore and seeing what was happening just carried on. They were later captured by the cavalry.

Of Flaminius, well, he died fighting and in fact received rare praise by the sources. Yet even the manner of his death seemed fastened to that theme of impiety and impetuousness. According to Livy he was run through by a warrior from the Insubres tribe, the same tribe he’d disobeyed the gods and senate to defeat and win a triumph against back in 223.

What can we make of Flaminius? As I’ve pointed out he’s a character the sources loved to revile, but lifting him up and away from the pages of Polybius and Livy we might think of him as a general just out-thought by one of the greats. He couldn’t have let Hannibal pass him and there was no way Geminus could get to him quickly enough. But he did make errors, perhaps he could have tailed Hannibal a bit more and tried to co-ordinate an attack with Geminus, but as you’ll hear in the next episode Rome didn’t have much truck with generals who were patient.

Certainly he should have sent out scouts on the day, but it seems as if he was unprepared for the army he faced, not in terms of their being an army. Just the nature of it. Flaminius had experience of fighting and defeating Celtic tribes, not well-drilled professional outfits. Hannibal’s army was something the Roman military ecosystem wasn’t prepared for, a new apex predator. Flaminius just didn’t get out of the water quick enough.

The consul prior to Flaminius who had lost to Hannibal was Longus who did so at Trebia, now here was a character who was far more guilty of unecessary mistakes. But Longus survived and presumably had friends who could mitigate his defeat into a bizarre set of circumstances rather than what it was. With Flaminius dead later writers might point to his death as the natural outcome for one who had made so many mistakes in dealing with Rome and the consular office.

Where Rome had lost a consul, albeit one it wasn’t sure it could recognise, it had also lost a lot of men. As with any estimates of this period it’s largely guesswork but the figure often arrived at is 15,000 dead and the rest of the army either captured or dispersed. Chasing the details on this is in someways irrelevant. Another Roman army had been comprehensively dismantled.

Through his ruse Hannibal had reduced his casualties to between 1,500 and 2,500 and perhaps this was as important as anything to him. An interesting aside is that following the victory Hannibal was able to re-equip his army with the armour and weapons taken from the dead. This is a good indication that the Carthaginian infantry fought in a similar fashion to the Roman, namely that it was sword based.

Geminus, the other consul hadn’t been totally inactive, realising what was happening but understanding that he wasn’t able to catch up he sent a force of 4,000 cavalry to help. These arrived too late and were also captured, adding to the misery Rome now faced. And what a misery it was.  Rome was strung between shock and panic, in such a situation it invoked an old tradition, the appointment of a single figure to manage this crisis, a position known as a dictator.

In the next episode I’ll pick up the story of what happened next, how did the dictator fare and what did Hannibal do next. If Rome thought things couldn’t get much worse they were sorely wrong, because the battle I’ll cover next and the lead up to it has gone down in the annals as one of Rome’s darkest days. It’s known as the battle of Cannae and cemented Hannibal’s status as one of the great generals.

I hope you enjoyed the episode – if you can please rate and review or just find me and say hello. Till next time keep safe and stay well.

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