This series has eleven easy five minute installments. This first installment: Historical Context of Metaurus.
After Hannibal invaded the Romans’ homeland in Italy he had the Romans against the wall. Cities conquered by the Romans, especially those which had been Greek, sided with Hannibal. Then a second Carthage army crossed the Alps and entered Italy.
The celebrated military historian Edward Creasy tells us what happens next.
This selection is from The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo by Edward Creasy published in 1851. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Time: 207 BC
Place: Metaurus River, Italy
About midway between Rimini and Ancona a little river falls into the Adriatic, after traversing one of those districts of Italy in which a vain attempt has lately been made to revive, after long centuries of servitude and shame, the spirit of Italian nationality and the energy of free institutions. That stream is still called the Metauro, and wakens by its name the recollections of the resolute daring of ancient Rome, and of the slaughter that stained its current two thousand and sixty-three years ago, when the combined consular armies of Livius and Nero encountered and crushed near its banks the varied hosts which Hannibal’s brother was leading from the Pyrenees, the Rhone, the Alps, and the Po, to aid the great Carthaginian in his stern struggle to annihilate the growing might of the Roman republic, and make the Punic power supreme over all the nations of the world.
The Roman historian,* who termed that struggle the most memorable of all wars that ever were carried on, wrote in no spirit of exaggeration; for it is not in ancient, but in modern history that parallels for its incidents and its heroes are to be found. The similitude between the contest which Rome maintained against Hannibal, and that which England was for many years engaged in against Napoleon, has not passed unobserved by recent historians. “Twice,” says Arnold, “has there been witnessed the struggle of the highest individual genius against the resources and institutions of a great nation, and in both cases the nation has been victorious. For seventeen years Hannibal strove against Rome; for sixteen years Napoleon Bonaparte strove against England: the efforts of the first ended in Zama; those of the second in Waterloo.”
One point, however, of the similitude between the two wars has scarcely been adequately dwelt on; that is, the remarkable parallel between the Roman general who finally defeated the great Carthaginian, and the English general who gave the last deadly overthrow to the French Emperor. Scipio and Wellington both held for many years commands of high importance, but distant from the main theatres of warfare. The same country was the scene of the principal military career of each. It was in Spain that Scipio, like Wellington, successively encountered and overthrew nearly all the subordinate generals of the enemy before being opposed to the chief champion and conqueror himself. Both Scipio and Wellington restored their countrymen’s confidence in arms when shaken by a series of reverses, and each of them closed a long and perilous war by a complete and overwhelming defeat of the chosen leader and the chosen veterans of the foe.
Nor is the parallel between them limited to their military characters and exploits. Scipio, like Wellington, became an important leader of the aristocratic party among his countrymen, and was exposed to the unmeasured invectives of the violent section of his political antagonists. When, early in the last reign, an infuriated mob assaulted the Duke of Wellington in the streets of the English capital on the anniversary of Waterloo, England was even more disgraced by that outrage than Rome was by the factious accusations which demagogues brought against Scipio, but which he proudly repelled on the day of trial by reminding the assembled people that it was the anniversary of the battle of Zama. Happily, a wiser and a better spirit has now for years pervaded all classes of our community, and we shall be spared the ignominy of having worked out to the end the parallel of national ingratitude. Scipio died a voluntary exile from the malevolent turbulence of Rome. Englishmen of all ranks and politics have now long united in affectionate admiration of our modern Scipio; and even those who have most widely differed from the duke on legislative or administrative questions, forget what they deem the political errors of that time-honored head, while they gratefully call to mind the laurels that have wreathed it.
Scipio at Zama trampled in the dust the power of Carthage, but that power had been already irreparably shattered in another field, where neither Scipio nor Hannibal commanded. When the Metaurus witnessed the defeat and death of Hasdrubal, it witnessed the ruin of the scheme by which alone Carthage could hope to organize decisive success — the scheme of enveloping Rome at once from the north and the south of Italy by two chosen armies, led by two sons of Hamilcar. That battle was the determining crisis of the contest, not merely between Rome and Carthage, but between the two great families of the world, which then made Italy the arena of their oft-renewed contest for preëminence.
The French historian, Michelet, whose Histoire Romaine would have been invaluable if the general industry and accuracy of the writer had in any degree equaled his originality and brilliancy, eloquently remarks: “It is not without reason that so universal and vivid a remembrance of the Punic wars has dwelt in the memories of men. They formed no mere struggle to determine the lot of two cities or two empires; but it was a strife on the event of which depended the fate of two races of mankind, whether the dominion of the world should belong to the Indo-Germanic or to the Semitic family of nations. Bear in mind that the first of these comprises, besides the Indians and the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Germans. In the other are ranked the Jews and the Arabs, the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians. On the one side is the genius of heroism, of art, and legislation; on the other is the spirit of industry, of commerce, of navigation.
The two opposite races have everywhere come into contact, everywhere into hostility. In the primitive history of Persia and Chaldaea, the heroes are perpetually engaged in combat with their industrious and perfidious neighbors. The struggle is renewed between the Phoenicians and the Greeks on every coast of the Mediterranean. The Greek supplants the Phoenician in all his factories, all his colonies in the East: soon will the Roman come, and do likewise in the West. Alexander did far more against Tyre than Shalmaneser or Nebuchadnezzar had done. Not content with crushing her, he took care that she never should revive; for he founded Alexandria as her substitute, and changed forever the track of the commerce of the world. There remained Carthage — the great Carthage, and her mighty empire — mighty in a far different degree than Phoenicia’s had been. Rome annihilated it. Then occurred that which has no parallel in history — an entire civilization perished at one blow — banished, like a falling star. The Periplus of Hanno, a few coins, a score of lines in Plautus, and, lo, all that remains of the Carthaginian world!
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