After suffering catastrophic defeat at the Battle of the Trebia, two new Roman armies were formed under the command of two new consuls: Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus. These armies were to guard the northern passes through the Apennine mountains into Etruria, a mountain range Hannibal would have to cross if he was to invade the Roman heartlands.
Their plan appeared sound. Wherever Hannibal attempted to cross these mountains, he would find himself trapped between the two Roman armies – Flaminius being in the West at Arretium and Geminus to the East at Ariminum. With Hannibal confined in Etruria, Flaminius and Geminus could then slowly tighten the noose, uniting their forces and overwhelming their foe. But Hannibal was not going to be so easily cornered.
As expected, in the spring Hannibal crossed the Apennines into Etruria, taking the western path to Arretium. Despite Hannibal’s attempts to lure Flaminius into the open field, the Roman consul did not budge. A seasoned and popular general, Flaminius was patiently waiting for Geminus’ arrival. Hannibal, knowing this all too well, persisted.
Marching around Arretium, he goaded Flaminius into pursuing him. Not only did he cut off Flaminius’ communications with Rome, but he also began setting the nearby settlements ablaze. Though Flaminius had so far restrained from rash action, this latest terror policy proved too much.
Abandoning the plan to wait for Geminus, he marched his forces from the defences of Arretium. This was exactly what Hannibal wanted; once again, his tactics had riled his Roman opponent into fighting a battle on his terms.
Setting the Ambush
On the northern bank of Lake Trasimene, Hannibal prepared his trap. He ordered a small part of his army to set alight campfires on the hill ahead to deceive his foe into believing his army had continued east in escape of their pursuers. Meanwhile, Hannibal moved most of army into the woods north of the lake, above the path. There, Hannibal and his army of Celts, Carthaginians, Iberians and Numidians, awaited the Romans to pass below.
Who won the battle of Lake Trasimene?
Flaminius fell for Hannibal’s deception. Believing he was closing in on the Carthaginians, he hastened the army’s pace. As the legions marched along the track, the Carthaginians sprung from their concealments, surrounding the Romans on three sides. Disorganised and taken by complete surprise, the Romans were slowly forced back into the lake.
There was no escape, with many soldiers drowning in their attempts to swim to safety, weighed down by their armour. Flaminius and his men were annihilated. This may well be the biggest ambush in military history.
A new strategy
After two devastating defeats by Hannibal in their own country, the exasperated Romans took radical action. They appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus, an experienced statesman, as dictator. This position, in times of military crisis, allowed the holder to wield the military command of the entire state for six months.
Fabius decided to alter Roman tactics. During his tenure, the Romans never faced Hannibal in open battle but constantly tailed him, limiting engagements to minor skirmishes. By embracing guerrilla warfare and scorched earth tactics, Fabius intended to defeat Hannibal by eroding his strength.
Heavily rebuked for what his political rivals considered a cowardly strategy, Fabius was nicknamed ‘the Delayer.’ Yet very quickly, the new strategy started to produce results. Hannibal knew that one of the greatest weaknesses in his army was his lack of siege equipment. Having failed to bring any of these destructive war machines with him on his Alpine crossing, any attempt at a frontal assault on Rome would prove futile.
Hannibal had thus planned to defeat his foe a different way: he intended to ravage the Italian peninsula to persuade the socii states to join his cause. But with the Fabian strategy now in place, Hannibal’s army began to struggle to live off the land and maintain this strategy. Hannibal was running the risk of being isolated without supplies.
The tide turns twice
Just as the tide was turning back in Rome’s favour, Fabius’ six month term as dictator ended. The start of 216 BC saw the election of the consuls again – Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus.
Concerned that the Fabian strategy might compel their allies to defect in the long-term, Varro and Paullus wished to bring the war to a swift resolution. And so, they gathered together not the usual four but eight legions to confront the Barcid. It was the largest army Rome had ever fielded.
Ignoring Fabius’ warnings of provoking Hannibal, the two consuls departed for Apulia – the region which Hannibal had targeted as essential for supplies. Fabius’ strategy was abandoned.