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The Battle of Lake Trasimene

By Livy (59 B.C.–17 A.D.)

From the Twenty-second Book of the ‘History of Rome’: Translation of Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

HANNIBAL devastated with all the horrors of war the country between Cortona and Lake Trasumennus, seeking to infuriate the Romans into avenging the sufferings of their allies. They had now reached a spot made for an ambuscade, where the lake comes up close under the hills of Cortona. Between them is nothing but a very narrow road, for which room seems to have been purposely left. Further on is some comparatively broad level ground. From this rise the hills, and here in the open plain Hannibal pitched a camp for himself and his African and Spanish troops only; his slingers and other light-armed troops he marched to the rear of the hills; his cavalry he stationed at the mouth of the defile, behind some rising ground which conveniently sheltered them. When the Romans had once entered the pass and the cavalry had barred the way, all would be hemmed in by the lake and the hills.

Flaminius had reached the lake at sunset the day before. On the morrow, without reconnoitring and while the light was still uncertain, he traversed the narrow pass. As his army began to deploy into the widening plain, he could see only that part of the enemy’s force which was in front of him; he knew nothing of the ambuscade in his rear and above his head. The Carthaginian saw his wish accomplished. He had his enemy shut in by the lake and the hills, and surrounded by his own troops. He gave the signal for a general charge, and the attacking columns flung themselves on the nearest points. To the Romans the attack was all the more sudden and unexpected because the mist from the lake lay thicker on the plains than on the heights, while the hostile columns on the various hills had been quite visible to each other and had therefore advanced in concert. As for the Romans, with the shout of battle rising all round them, before they could see plainly they found themselves surrounded; and fighting began in their front and their flanks before they could form in order, get ready their arms, or draw their swords.

Amidst universal panic the consul showed all the courage that could be expected in circumstances so alarming. The broken ranks, in which every one was turning to catch the discordant shouts, he re-formed as well as time and place permitted; and as far as his presence or his voice could reach, bade his men stand their ground and fight. “It is not by prayers,” he cried, “or entreaties to the gods, but by strength and courage that you must win your way out. The sword cuts a path through the midst of the battle; and the less fear, there for the most part the less danger.” But such was the uproar and confusion, neither encouragements nor commands could be heard; so far were the men from knowing their standards, their ranks, or their places, that they had scarcely presence of mind to snatch up their arms and address them to the fight, and some found them an overwhelming burden rather than a protection. So dense too was the mist, that the ear was of more service than the eye. The groans of the wounded, the sound of blows on body or armor, the mingled shouts of triumph or panic, made them turn this way and that an eager gaze. Some would rush in their flight on a dense knot of combatants, and become entangled in the mass; others returning to the battle would be carried away by the crowd of fugitives. But after awhile, when charges had been vainly tried in every direction, when it was seen that the hills and the lake shut them in on either side, and the hostile lines in front and rear, when it was manifest that the only hope of safety lay in their own right hands and swords,—then every man began to look to himself for guidance and for encouragement, and there began afresh what was indeed a new battle. No battle was it with its three ranks of combatants, its vanguard before the standards and its second line fighting behind them, with every soldier in his own legion, cohort, or company: chance massed them together, and each man’s impulse assigned him his post, whether in the van or rear. So fierce was their excitement, so intent were they on the battle, that not one of the combatants felt the earthquake which laid whole quarters of many Italian cities in ruins, changed the channels of rapid streams, drove the sea far up into rivers, and brought down enormous landslips from the hills.

For nearly three hours they fought, fiercely everywhere, but with especial rage and fury round the consul. It was to him that the flower of the army attached themselves. He, wherever he found his troops hard pressed or distressed, was indefatigable in giving help; conspicuous in his splendid arms, the enemy assailed and his fellow Romans defended him with all their might. At last an Insubrian trooper (his name was Ducarius), recognizing him also by his face, cried to his comrades, “See! this is the man who slaughtered our legions, and laid waste our fields and our city: I will offer him as a sacrifice to the shades of my countrymen whom he so foully slew.” Putting spurs to his horse, he charged through the thickest of the enemy, struck down the armor-bearer who threw himself in the way of his furious advance, and ran the consul through with his lance. When he would have stripped the body, some veterans thrust their shields between and hindered him.

Then began the flight of a great part of the army. And now neither lake nor mountain checked their rush of panic; by every defile and height they sought blindly to escape, and arms and men were heaped upon each other. Many, finding no possibility of flight, waded into the shallows at the edge of the lake, advanced until they had only head and shoulders above the water, and at last drowned themselves. Some in the frenzy of panic endeavored to escape by swimming; but the endeavor was endless and hopeless, and they either sunk in the depths when their courage failed them, or they wearied themselves in vain till they could hardly struggle back to the shallows, where they were slaughtered in crowds by the enemy’s cavalry which had now entered the water. Nearly six thousand men of the vanguard made a determined rush through the enemy, and got clear out of the defile, knowing nothing of what was happening behind them. Halting on some high ground, they could only hear the shouts of men and clashing of arms, but could not learn or see for the mist how the day was going. It was when the battle was decided, that the increasing heat of the sun scattered the mist and cleared the sky. The bright light that now rested on hill and plain showed a ruinous defeat and a Roman army shamefully routed. Fearing that they might be seen in the distance and that the cavalry might be sent against them, they took up their standards and hurried away with all the speed they could. The next day, finding their situation generally desperate, and starvation also imminent, they capitulated to Hannibal, who had overtaken them with the whole of his cavalry, and who pledged his word that if they would surrender their arms, they should go free, each man having a single garment. The promise was kept with Punic faith by Hannibal, who put them all in chains.

Such was the famous fight at Trasumennus, memorable as few other disasters of the Roman people have been. Fifteen thousand men fell in the battle; ten thousand, flying in all directions over Etruria, made by different roads for Rome. Of the enemy two thousand five hundred fell in the battle. Many died afterwards of their wounds. Other authors speak of a loss on both sides many times greater. I am myself averse to the idle exaggeration to which writers are so commonly inclined; and I have here followed as my best authority Fabius, who was actually contemporary with the war. Hannibal released without ransom all the prisoners who claimed Latin citizenship; the Romans he imprisoned. He had the corpses of his own men separated from the vast heaps of dead, and buried. Careful search was also made for the body of Flaminius, to which he wished to pay due honor; but it could not be found.