Battle of the Metaurus River
The Roman victory in the Battle of the Metaurus River in northern Italy in 207 BCE during the Second Punic War (218–202) prevented Carthaginian reinforcements from reaching Hannibal Barca to the south. In 218, 28-year-old Hannibal led Carthaginian forces against Saguntum in Spain, the leaders of which appealed to Rome for aid. Following an eight-month siege Hannibal was victorious, but this action began the Second Punic War. In the spring of 218 Hannibal set out to invade Italy. Crossing the Pyrenees, he pushed through southern Gaul and then across the Alps, reaching northern Italy by October. For the next 16 years Hannibal campaigned throughout Italy. Even his brilliant success at Cannae in 216, however, could not bring him victory.
While Hannibal defeated all the Roman armies sent out against him, he was also desperately short of manpower and, in effect, was pinned in southern Italy, where he could not bring about the defeat of Rome. To win the war he would need substantial reinforcements, and he therefore called on his brother Hasdrubal in Spain to join him.
Although Roman galleys controlled much of the Mediterranean, Carthage was able to send supplies across the Strait of Gibraltar and through Spain. As a consequence, Rome sent men to Spain under Publius Cornelius Scipio in the hopes of severing the Carthaginian supply line. Scipio managed to regain territory lost earlier to Carthage north of the Ebro and then moved south of that river to engage Hasdrubal. In 208 the two fought a battle near Baecula (Bailén) that was a tactical victory for Scipio. Hasdrubal, mindful of the need to reinforce his brother, managed to withdraw.
Even though it meant abandoning Spain to Scipio, Hasdrubal crossed the Pyrenees with about 10,000 men and spent the winter in southern Gaul gathering reinforcements. In April 207 he crossed into northern Italy over the Alps via the Cenis Pass. The exact size of his force is unknown but may have been as many as 50,000 men, certainly too small to oppose the 15 Roman legions (perhaps 150,000 men) that now lay between the Barca brothers.
Hasdrubal initiated a siege of Placentia, probably to placate the Gauls in his army, but this was unsuccessful, and he then proceeded south to Fanum Fortunae (Fano) on the Adriatic Sea, where he encountered Roman forces under Consul Livius Salinator. Hannibal, having learned of his brother’s siege of Placentia, moved slowly north to join him, closely watched by a Roman army of four legions under Consul Caius Claudius Nero. Unaware of the threat to his brother, Hannibal established camp at Canusium (Canora); Nero interposed his army between the two Carthaginian forces. Fortunately for the Romans, they captured two Carthaginian couriers proceeding south and learned of Hasdrubal’s intention to link up with Hannibal in Umbria.
Leaving a force to keep watch on Hannibal, Nero struck north with his best troops—some 6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry—to join Livius. Moving quickly and instructing towns in advance of his troops to render all possible assistance, Nero reached Fanum Fortunae in about a week’s march and secretly joined Livius at night. Nero convinced Livius that they should attack Hasdrubal before he learned of the arrival of the Roman reinforcements. Both armies were drawn up for battle when Hasdrubal sensed the increase in Roman numbers and decided to withdraw up the Via Flanania. Hasdrubal’s local guides may have deserted during this difficult night movement, which delayed him in gaining the road. Nero caught up with the Carthaginians near the Metaurus River.
Hasdrubal hastily deployed his forces for battle. He placed his Gauls on the left (northern) flank behind a deep ravine. His Ligurian troops held the center with 10–15 war elephants in front, while Spanish troops were on the right. The Romans were also in three bodies. Nero commanded the Roman right, opposite the Gauls. The three bodies of troops on both sides were somewhat separated from one another and thus were not able to offer mutual support. The Romans probably had 40,000 men, and the Carthaginians had far fewer.
The battle began with an attack on the Roman left by the Spaniards. To the north meanwhile Nero discovered that the ravine kept him from closing with Hasdrubal. Nero therefore made a bold decision. Leaving only a small part of his force to hold his opponent in place, he marched most of his men southward behind the Roman lines and then turned into the rear of the attacking Spaniards. Hasdrubal’s men could not hold against this Roman pincer. Sensing defeat, Hasdrubal drove directly at the Romans to die fighting, which occurred. His army was largely destroyed. The battle probably claimed some 10,000 Carthaginian dead, while the Romans lost only 2,000. Six elephants were also killed and the remainder captured.
Nero wasted no time but swiftly retraced his steps, in only six days. News of the victory, the first time the Carthaginians had been defeated in Italy, was received with joy in Rome, the Senate decreeing three days of public thanksgiving. Legend has it that Hannibal first heard of the battle when a Roman horseman approached the Carthaginian camp and hurled a sack at their lines. It was found to contain the head of Hasdrubal. However he learned of events, Hannibal broke camp on the news and took his army south to the port of Bruttium.
The Carthaginian defeat on the Metaurus River meant that Hannibal had little hope of actually defeating Rome. Although Mago, his remaining brother, landed near Genoa in 205 with 12,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, Mago seems to have made no real effort to link up with Hannibal. Wounded in battle, Mago was ordered home to defend Carthage but died of his wound en route.
Hannibal remained in Italy, undefeated, for six years after the Battle of Metaurus River, but even his brilliance could not compensate for his dwindling resources. Eventually he was ordered home. Scipio meanwhile defeated all Carthaginian forces sent against him and secured Spain. Rome would control Spain for the next 600 years.
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Lazenby, J. F. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.