The military genius of Hannibal is testified in the extraordinary battles at Trebbia, Trasimene and Cannae, where the renowned Carthaginian general achieved startling defeats of the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). But confronting the sheer might of Rome alone was impossible.
While Hannibal fought in Italy, his brother Mago appealed for reinforcements from the Carthaginian senate. But their other brother, Hasdrubal, was at arms in Iberia, himself playing a significant role in Carthage‘s successes — and failures.
Hasdrubal in the spotlight
Since 218 BC, Hasdrubal had been preoccupied with uprisings in the Iberian peninsula. In the spring of 217 BC, Rome defeated a Carthaginian fleet at the mouth of the Ebro River, on the coast of modern Catalonia. The victory triggered rebellions against Carthaginian rule, and gave the Romans, led by the Scipios, Gnaeus Cornelius and his brother Publius, opportunities to gain a foothold in Spain.
Hasdrubal’s ambitions extended beyond Iberia, however. Following his elder brother’s great victory at Cannae in 216 BC, Hasdrubal began to plot his own dramatic advance over the Alps, quite literally in his brother’s footsteps. Should his army meet with Hannibal’s, they would put severe pressure on Rome.
The Battle of Dertosa
The Scipios’ set about keeping Hasdrubal busy. They targeted Ibera, effectively blocking Hasdrubal’s route to the Pyrenees. In response, Hasdrubal besieged the Roman ally of Dertosa. Sure enough, the Scipio brothers withdrew from Ibera for Dertosa.
Both armies were matched numerically in the ensuing battle in 215 BC. The Romans had the stronger infantry, while Hasdrubal had superior cavalry, plus twenty elephants. As they had at Cannae, the Romans committed their strongest infantry early and swiftly pushed back their opponents’ centre. This buckle was Hasdrubal’s plan: he was imitating his brother’s double envelopment by placing his weakest troops in the centre. On their flanks, formidable Libyan spearmen repelled the Roman infantry. But the plan soon faltered.
Hasdrubal’s elite troops failed to outflank most of the Roman infantry. Determined to encircle the Romans, Hasdrubal ordered his Numidian cavalry and elephants to crush the cavalry on the wings. It didn’t work. Instead, when the Roman forces broke through, they turned full circle and routed the Libyans. Hasdrubal’s miscalculation had cost him the battle.
The result was devastating. Not only did it prevent Hasdrubal from reinforcing Hannibal in Italy, but resulted in the 12,000 reinforcements Mago had mustered being diverted to Spain. All that Carthage was prepared to send to Italy was 4,000 Numidian horses and 40 elephants. Hannibal’s reliance on Carthage — and his brothers — had cost him dearly.
By 214 BC, Hannibal’s campaign had lost its impetus. Despite their victory at Dertosa, the Scipios struggled to break out from north-eastern Spain. Resources were stretched to their limits and Rome struggled to supply its various military operations.
The Scipios persuaded Syphax, a Numidian king in North Africa, to declare war against Gala, a Carthaginian ally. With Roman military training, Syphax soon prevailed, forcing Hasdrubal to come to Gala’s aid. In Hasdrubal’s absence, many towns sided with Rome. But on Hasdrubal’s return with a larger army, the stalemate resumed.
By 211 BC the Scipios sought the help of Celtic warriors inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula. By this time the Carthaginians had divided their armies into three forces to quash Iberian uprisings, led by Hasdrubal, his younger brother Mago, and Hasdrubal Gisco, a prestigious Carthaginian commander. In response, the Romans split their own forces in two. They intended to use the Celtiberian support to wipe out two of the Carthaginian armies in one devastating offensive before all three could unite.
The Battles of the Upper Baetis
Publius Scipio advanced on Mago near Castulo. As Publius drew nearer, he realised one of Carthage’s Iberian allies covered his line of retreat. So he attacked the Iberian force first, who desperately held their ground. Carthage’s cavalry soon arrived, giving Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco time to close the distance. Outnumbered, Publius Scipio’s troops were sitting ducks.
Gnaeus Scipio had begun his attack on Hasdrubal Barca’s camp. To withstand the assault, Hasdrubal bribed the Celtiberian mercenaries to abandon Gnaeus, forcing him to retreat towards Ilorca, unaware of his brother’s end. Unable to outrun the Numidian cavalry, Gnaeus made a futile stand as the three Carthaginian armies sealed his fate.
Rise of Scipio Africanus
With the Scipio brothers dead, just a few thousand Romans safely made it to north of the Ebro. The Romans were back to square one, but they were persistent. The following year another 10,000 soldiers were mustered to reignite the Iberian campaign. In command was Publius Cornelius Scipio, the future “Scipio Africanus”. He was just 26 years old.
His arrival in Spain in 210 BC bolstered Roman numbers to 30,000. Carthage had defeated the Scipios, but they were not a cohesive force. They suffered from personal animosities, were spread wide, while Iberian resistance proved an enduring nuisance.
Scipio went for the head of the snake, advancing south to Qart-Hadasht, the centre of Punic power in Iberia. With all Carthaginian armies at least 10 days away, Scipio was confident he could seize the fortress. Qart-Hadast was located on a peninsula, connected to the mainland by an isthmus to the east. To the north and west was a swamp, while a calm bay welcomed sailors from the south.
Roman ships bombarded the city while Scipio attacked from the eastern isthmus. This provided a diversion for Roman troops to wade through the swamps, resulting in a four-pronged assault which Qart-Hadast could not endure. In one stroke, Scipio usurped Carthage’s hold on Spain’s eastern coast. He had also established a permanent base south of the Ebro.
The Battle of Baecula: 208 BC
With his opponents scattered, Scipio closed in on Hasdrubal Barca. Hasdrubal occupied a plateau near Baecula which offered protection – a river covered his rear with ravines guarding his flanks. Scipio’s light infantry advanced directly towards the enemy line under a shower of missiles. Entrusting his defensive position, Hasdrubal had delayed assembling his forces, believing Scipio was merely offering a skirmish. With time against Scipio, he used the rest of his forces to encircle Hasdrubal’s troops, spreading panic. The battle was already over.
According to Polybius, Hasdrubal had already persuaded himself that if Fortune chose he should lose the battle, he would no longer hesitate to combine forces with Hannibal in Italy. Determined therefore to minimise his losses, Hasdrubal withdrew with his heavy infantry and elephants, abandoning his light infantry and Iberian allies to a slaughter.
Hasdrubal crosses the Alps
When Hasdrubal first attempted to join Hannibal in Italy seven years previous, he failed to reach the Pyrenees. After his humiliating defeat at Baecula, Hasdrubal had already lost a third of his army. But thanks to his brother’s initial Alpine crossing, the scale of the feat which stood before Hasdrubal was not as daunting. Hasdrubal faced no serious opposition from tribal chieftains, as Hannibal had. In fact, passing through only served to reinforce Hasdrubal’s numbers with Gallic allies. In the late spring of 207 BC, Hasdrubal finally reached Italy.
Successfully combining forces with Hannibal was a difficult task in enemy territory, where communications were easily intercepted. The Romans shied away from major battles with the Barca brothers, despite their home advantage and a levy of 40,000 troops under the consul, Claudius Nero. Rome sought instead to contain Hannibal in southern Italy with a minor engagement at Grumentum.
Hasdrubal proceeded southwards. The other consul, Marcus Livius, checked Hasdrubal’s advance and allowed him to cross the Metaurus River. Roman patience soon won out. Shortly Grumentum, Carthaginian messengers were intercepted. Hasdrubal’s aim to meet his brother in Umbria was exposed to Claudius Nero. With breath-taking speed, Claudius Nero marched north through the night to crush Hasdrubal.
Carthage in disarray
Hasdrubal was caught off-guard. He only realised Rome’s forces had grown when his formations assembled for battle. Though the exact size of Hasdrubal’s forces is unclear, Claudius’ additional 7,000 troops were enough to deter Hasdrubal. Hasdrubal retreated towards the Metaurus River at night.
According to Livy, Hasdrubal’s guides abandoned him, leaving his army in disarray. However the blunder was likely accidental. Hasdrubal reached the river during the night, but could not cross to the northern bank. When sunrise came, his troops were exhausted and on the wrong side of the river. Hasdrubal ordered his troops to set up camp – a costly mistake.
The Battle of the Metaurus: 207 BC
The southern bank of the Metaurus River seems the most likely spot for the ensuing battle. Its uneven terrain favoured the Romans who had grown accustomed to the guerrilla warfare against Hannibal in southern Italy. As battle commenced, Marcus Livius engaged the Carthaginian right whilst Hasdrubal’s elephants charged the Roman centre. Panic spread in the Roman line. On the other wing, Nero could not hope to make a successful head-on assault against the Gauls: Hasdrubal had stationed them on high ground that was impossible to outflank. Nero made a bold move. He sent half of his forces to the Roman left wing to outflank Hasdrubal who was fighting amid the Spanish ranks.
Overwhelmed by this two-pronged assault, the Carthaginian right flank crumbled. The rest followed. Hasdrubal himself died in the throes of battle.
The ancient sources for the battle are frustratingly contradictory. Livy makes the extraordinary claim that 61,000 Carthaginian troops were killed or captured. Polybius’ figures are more reasonable: 10,000 Carthaginian and 2,000 Romans dead. The Romans are unlikely to have fielded over 40,000. Hasdrubal’s aversion for a pitched battle suggests he was outnumbered.
Metaurus’ place in history
The victory at Metaurus was joyously received in Rome. Livius – the consul in charge on the day – was awarded a triumph. Claudius Nero was granted the smaller honour of an ovation, though it was his daring decisions which were pivotal in achieving victory. In six days, Nero had Hasdrubal’s severed head thrown into the Carthaginian camp – a blow to Hannibal with clear symbolism: you’ll be next.
The battle of Metaurus is easy to overlook from a distance. More impressive clashes took place during the Second Punic War. But if Hasdrubal’s reinforcements joined Hannibal, might their forces have been enough to capture Rome? Certainly the battle was pivotal. It forced Carthage to effectively abandon Spain to Scipio Africanus. Rome exploited this, using the Iberian peninsula as a springboard to North Africa towards Carthage’s final defeat.