The Battle of the Metaurus: The Day that Saved Rome?

It’s 207 BC. For 11 years, Hannibal has rampaged in Italy, slaughtering Romans with fire and sword. He is already a living legend, having guaranteed his fame for all time by giving the Romans the deadliest day in their history, slaughtering 50,000 on the field of Cannae.

Now, Hannibal has help – possibly from someone even greater than him. Rome despairs. For a decade, it has hung on against only one hound of Hamilcar Barca, now it has to face two. How could the republic possibly survive? The question would be answered at the Battle of the Metaurus, which was fated to be one of the most decisive battles of all time.

Background

Ever since Cannae, the Romans had trembled at the thought of facing Hannibal again. They instead stuck to Fabius Maximus’ strategy of attrition, isolating him in southern Italy and slowly whittling his strength away.

This strategy was smart, as it took advantage of Rome’s superior resources and avoided a pitched battle with one of the most talented commanders in history, so the Romans didn’t suffer another disastrous defeat. At the same time, though, the strategy guaranteed that the Romans wouldn’t win a decisive victory.

Over the next decade, Hannibal didn’t gain any more ground, while the Romans enacted limited offensives in other theaters, like in Spain. Yet, the balance of power was precarious, and it was about to get a major shakeup.

Hamilcar’s second hound enters Italy

After Hannibal left Spain in 218, his younger brother Hasdrubal took command. Now Hasdrubal moved to join his older brother in Italy with another Carthaginian army. Stunning everyone, he made the same journey over the Alps that his older brother had made with no trouble at all, in contrast to the dire straits it put Hannibal’s army in. To the Romans, this was a masterful feat, and they whispered among themselves that Hasdrubal was even greater than his brother.

Second Punic War Italy
The state of affairs in Italy at the time of the Battle of the Metaurus.

There was no choice but to confront both of the hounds of Hamilcar. In the south, the Consul Nero moved to take command of the army opposing Hannibal. The other Consul, Marcus Livius, moved against this imposing new threat. Everywhere, the Roman people chattered among themselves in woe, believing that their cause was doomed.

Livy tells the tale of Rome’s dire psychological state at this stage of the Second Punic War:

The setting out of the consuls from the city in opposite directions, as though for two wars at the same time, had drawn men’s anxious thoughts both ways, while they not only remembered what disasters the first coming of Hannibal had brought into Italy, but also were tormented by this anxiety: what gods were to be so kindly disposed to the city and the empire that the state should meet with success at the same time in both quarters? It was with a balancing of defeats so far by victories, they thought, that matters had dragged on up to that time. When in Italy at Trasimene and Cannae the Roman state had gone down to defeat, victorious campaigns in Spain had saved her from falling. Later, when in Spain one disaster after another had partially destroyed two armies with the loss of two extraordinary generals, many successes in Italy and Sicily had supported the tottering state. And the very distance, they said, in that one of the wars was fought in the remotest part of the world, had given time to recover breath. But now two wars had been admitted into Italy, two generals of the greatest celebrity were encircling the city of Rome, and upon one spot the whole mass, the entire weight of the danger had settled. (27.40)

If Rome was to survive, Hannibal and Hasdrubal must never unite their armies. If they did, Fabius’ attrition strategy would be moot. The balance of power would shift decisively against the Romans in Italy and Rome itself might even fall. There was no way that it would be able to sustain offensives in Spain or elsewhere, and Carthage would be able to dictate terms.

Fortunately for Rome, Hasdrubal wasn’t as imposing as he appeared.

The Road to the Metaurus

After arriving, Hasdrubal didn’t march rapidly southward to join Hannibal, as he should have. Instead, he settled in for an unsuccessful siege of Placentia, giving his enemies more time to set up a strategic defense. Livius made ample preparations to receive Hasdrubal. He would soon have help.

In an even worse error than the siege, Hasdrubal now wrote down his plans and sent them south to Hannibal. The messengers were captured in the area by Nero’s scouts. The Consul could now see exactly what the Carthaginians had in mind. This was a great turn of fortune, but it also signaled the danger Rome was in. Nero now decided on a daring operation that he hoped would solve the crisis in one stroke. Time had been on Rome’s side after the disaster at Cannae, but it wasn’t now. Hasdrubal needed to be defeated rapidly before the Carthaginians could gain any more strength.

Nero took 7,000 of his best troops and marched rapidly northward, leaving the rest behind in a defensive posture to monitor Hannibal. Secrecy and speed were of the essence. Each day, Nero would move rapidly through towns, ordering provisions to be prepared ahead of time. His soldiers were to march only with their weapons.

Despite the rapidity and secrecy of the march, Nero picked up some more men along the way, and he reached his consular colleague Livius in just a week. The battle to decide Rome’s fate was now at hand.

The Battle of the Metaurus

Hasdrubal tried to cross the Metaurus, so that he could put the river between himself and his enemies, but failed. Simply put, he was surprised that the Romans appeared so strong (unbeknownst to him, thanks to Nero’s march). He wanted to avoid an engagement, even if it meant retreating north, and find another route southward later. His failure to cross the Metaurus left him no choice but to fight, however, as Nero and Livius were hot on his heels.

Doing his honest best, Hasdrubal chose some elevated ground to defend, with his best troops, his Spanish infantry, on his right. The unreliable Gauls were on his left. He left these near a ravine to further obstruct the Roman advance. In the center, he placed his Ligurians and handful of African troops, along with 10 war elephants.

The Roman line was comprised of Nero on the right, Livius on the left, and their subordinate, the Praetor Porcius in the center.

Battle of the Metaurus

Despite the Romans having the initiative, the Battle of the Metaurus wouldn’t be easy. The psychological terror that the Carthaginians inspired was immense. There were some successes in Spain, but to that point, Rome had yet to defeat a major Carthaginian field army in Italy. No doubt, the ghosts of Hannibal’s early blitzkrieg spooked the men of the legions on that day.

Furthermore, Hasdrubal had chosen his ground well and defended it ably, forcing the Romans to fight uphill. For a while, things looked like they might go his way, and yet another Roman army would get mauled by a Carthaginian force.

Then, suddenly, Nero showed he was as great a tactician as he was a strategist. He took some cohorts from his own wing, moved them behind the Roman line and then, taking friend and foe alike completely by surprise, hit the Carthaginian right in a surprise flank assault. Their position collapsed in short order and the battle turned into a massacre.

After the battle, Nero left the Metaurus and moved south as quickly as he had come. Hannibal didn’t even know his opponent had left. Nero had Hasdrubal’s head thrown into the Carthaginian camp. In reaction, Hannibal is supposed to have groaned aloud that he knew Rome would reign supreme.

Whether it happened that way or not, there’s no doubt that the Battle of the Metaurus was a decisive encounter. It ended the threat that Hannibal posed to Rome, leaving the Eternal City supreme in Italy. There was now no way that Carthage could win the war. The moment of Rome’s peril had finally passed. In the meantime, Carthage would lose ground overseas, while Hannibal was increasingly hemmed in in southern Italy.

Before the Battle of the Metaurus, Rome was a hesitant power, doing its best to regain the ground that it lost. Cannae still haunted it. Afterward, Roman morale finally recovered from that darkest of days, and in only five years, Carthage would be subdued, leaving Rome as the only power that could dictate the future of the Mediterranean.

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