Battle of the Trebia
The Battle of the Trebia (or Trebbia
The Trebbia is a river predominantly of Liguria and Emilia Romagna in northern Italy. It is one of the four main right-bank tributaries of the river Po, the other three being the Tanaro, the Secchia and the Panaro...

) was the first major battle of the Second Punic War
Second Punic War
The Second Punic War, also referred to as The Hannibalic War and The War Against Hannibal, lasted from 218 to 201 BC and involved combatants in the western and eastern Mediterranean. This was the second major war between Carthage and the Roman Republic, with the participation of the Berbers on...

, fought between the Carthaginian
Carthage , implying it was a 'new Tyre') is a major urban centre that has existed for nearly 3,000 years on the Gulf of Tunis, developing from a Phoenician colony of the 1st millennium BC...

 forces of Hannibal and the Roman Republic
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 in December of 218 BC
218 BC
Year 218 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Scipio and Longus...

, on or around the winter solstice
Winter solstice
Winter solstice may refer to:* Winter solstice, astronomical event* Winter Solstice , former band* Winter Solstice: North , seasonal songs* Winter Solstice , 2005 American film...

. It was a resounding Roman defeat with heavy losses, and yet some 10,000 and more Romans, over 2.5 legions, were victorious on their part of battlefield and retreated with honor to Placentia (Piacenza
Piacenza is a city and comune in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. It is the capital of the province of Piacenza...

). In this battle Hannibal got the better of the Romans by exercising the careful and innovative planning for which he was famous. The impetuous and short-sighted opposing general, the consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus, allowed himself to be provoked into a frontal assault under physically difficult circumstances and failed to see that he was being led into a trap.

The battle took place in the flat country of the Province of Piacenza
Province of Piacenza
The Province of Piacenza is a province in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Its capital is the city of Piacenza.The province has 273,689 inhabitants . Its total area is 2,589 km². There are 48 comuni in the province, see Comuni of the Province of Piacenza...

 on the left bank of the Trebbia River, a shallow, braided stream, not far south from its confluence (from the south) with the Po river
Po River
The Po |Ligurian]]: Bodincus or Bodencus) is a river that flows either or – considering the length of the Maira, a right bank tributary – eastward across northern Italy, from a spring seeping from a stony hillside at Pian del Re, a flat place at the head of the Val Po under the northwest face...

. The battle is named for the river. Although the precise location is not known for certain it is generally accepted as being visible from the Via Emilia, now paralleled by highway A21/E70 and a railroad trunk line, all of which come from Piacenza, a contemporaneously placed Roman colony (though perhaps on an existing settlement), and cross the river north of where the Romans did in the battle. The area is possibly in the comune
In Italy, the comune is the basic administrative division, and may be properly approximated in casual speech by the English word township or municipality.-Importance and function:...

 of Rottofreno
Rottofreno is a comune in the Province of Piacenza in the Italian region Emilia-Romagna, located about 160 km northwest of Bologna and about 12 km west of Piacenza....

 at its main settlement, San Nicolò a Trebbia, in the vicinity of the coordinates given at the head of this article.Over the course of more than two millennia the precise configuration of the Trebbia and its streams as well as that of the Po have changed geologically. Although the location of Placentia (Piacenza) is believed to be roughly the same, the original surfaces are under new layers of sediment and the locations of the bends, the depths and widths of the streams all have changed. Construction in the area also has been extensive, not to mention the turning over of the soil and obliteration of features by heavy bombing when the bridges and rail lines were destroyed in World War II. The Trebbia and the Po are currently heavily diked.

Sources and solutions

The two main sources on the battle are the History of Rome by Livy
Titus Livius — known as Livy in English — was a Roman historian who wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people. Ab Urbe Condita Libri, "Chapters from the Foundation of the City," covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome well before the traditional foundation in 753 BC...

 (Book XXI) and Histories of Polybius
Polybius , Greek ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 220–146 BC in detail. The work describes in part the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece...

 (Book III). The two vary considerably in some of the geographical details and are ambiguous about some key points, especially whether the Romans were camped on the left bank or the right bank of the Trebbia and in which direction they crossed the river. Reconstruction of the disposition is the major scholarly concern regarding the battle. The sources all agree on the outcome.

Contending views stem from the confusion of real and hypothetical events, beginning with the supposed "union" of the two consular armies, which Sempronius had been ordered to effect. He was advancing "with all speed to join Publius." From the evidence, the supposed union amounted only to Sempronius having "many close conferences with Scipio, ascertaining the truth about what had occurred, and discussing the present situation with him."

Whether the union went any further is questionable. The two consuls maintained widely separated camps. Polybius assumes a union of troops would have been effected and Sempronius would be commanding four legions (he uses conditional language and not declarative statements). He explains how after the defeat Sempronius' army fell back on Placentia (Piacenza) but neglects totally to say what happened to the wounded Scipio and how he got to Placentia (Piacenza). Livy on the other hand although repeating Polybius' numbers states that after the battle Scipio quietly marched his army into Placentia (Piacenza) and went on to Cremona
Cremona is a city and comune in northern Italy, situated in Lombardy, on the left bank of the Po River in the middle of the Pianura Padana . It is the capital of the province of Cremona and the seat of the local City and Province governments...

 so that there would not be two armies wintering in Placentia (Piacenza).

If Scipio's army was intact and quietly marched into Placentia (Piacenza), it is unlikely that either consul commanded any of the troops of the other nor did they assist one another in any way; in fact, there is no evidence that Sempronius informed Scipio he was going to attack. He is reported to have asked Scipio his advice on whether to attack and was strongly advised against it. There is no account at all of Scipio handing over any troops. If, as many authors suppose, Hannibal was trying to prevent a union, he seems singularly unaware of it. He made no move to stop Sempronius coming up from the east. The consuls themselves, however, each jealously guarded his own authority.

Starting with Polybius some military writers throughout the centuries have assumed that because union was intended it was effected, which assumption leads to the problem of "the Roman Camp." There were not one, but two, Scipio's in the hills on the left bank and Sempronius' in the plains on the right bank. Neglect of this duality leaves the writers free to select either (or neither) as "the Roman Camp;" consequently, it appears now on the left bank, now on the right; now in the hills and now on the plain.The location of the battle would be a historical asset to communities that might claim it, leading to some claims that as far as the evidence is concerned might be considered outrageously different. Some encyclopedic sources list Bobbio
Bobbio is a small town and commune in the province of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy. It is located in the Trebbia River valley southwest of the town Piacenza. There is also an abbey and a diocese of the same name...

 in the Apennines, many miles upstream from Placentia (Piacenza), and accessible from Placentia (Piacenza) along the river only through steep ravines. Both Livy and Polybius place the battle within a few hours by foot of Placentia (Piacenza) and in flat country. A presentation of the problems of the number and locations of the camps can be found in

Hannibal's perception of the non-union led him to the winning strategy. Provoking Tiberius to send his men wading through the chilled winter waters of the Trebbia during a precipitation of snow and rain, he attacked the Romans from ambush with his own rested, fed and warm men and killed 2/3 to 3/4 of them, driving the lucky ones back across the river to Placentia (Piacenza). The Romans, it is said, could scarcely lift their arms to defend themselves.

The arrival of Hannibal

Hannibal began the Second Punic War in 219 BC
219 BC
Year 219 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Paullus and Salinator...

 by attacking the Roman-allied city of Saguntum just north of what is now Valencia in Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

. After destroying the city, he marched on Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

, beginning with a force of approximately 102,000 men and a few dozen war elephant
War elephant
A war elephant was an elephant trained and guided by humans for combat. Their main use was to charge the enemy, trampling them and breaking their ranks. A division of war elephants is known as elephantry....

s when he crossed the Ebro
The Ebro or Ebre is one of the most important rivers in the Iberian Peninsula. It is the biggest river by discharge volume in Spain.The Ebro flows through the following cities:*Reinosa in Cantabria.*Miranda de Ebro in Castile and León....

 river in Spain, the previous border between Roman and Carthaginian interests. Trekking over the Alps
The Alps is one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretching from Austria and Slovenia in the east through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west....

 the Carthaginian force made it through the mountains with staggering losses, being reduced to 26,000 emaciated men. Winning a completely unequal conflict against the Ligurians and the first legion-sized battle with the Romans at the river Ticinus
Battle of Ticinus
The Battle of Ticinus was a battle of the Second Punic War fought between the Carthaginian forces of Hannibal and the Romans under Publius Cornelius Scipio in November 218 BC. The battle took place in the flat country of Pavia county on the right bank of the Ticino River not far north from its...

, he had filled out his army with Gallic and other allies to the number of 90,000 men: 80,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, by the time of the Battle of Trebia. They were more than enough to be completely effective against the Romans; moreover, by that time Hannibal had turned all Gallia Cisalpina (the region in which the battle was fought) against the Romans, and the Carthaginians were prospering on enthusiastic Gallic supply and support.

The arrival of Sempronius Longus

The Roman Senate
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

, appalled by the massacre of the Ligurians, had ordered the consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus
Tiberius Sempronius Longus (consul 218 BC)
Tiberius Sempronius Longus was a Roman consul during the Second Punic War and a contemporary of Publius Cornelius Scipio. In 218 BC, Sempronius was sent to Africa with 160 quinqueremes to gather forces and supplies, while Scipio was sent to Iberia to intercept Hannibal...

, who was stationed in Sicily, to reinforce the existing Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio
Publius Cornelius Scipio
Publius Cornelius Scipio was a general and statesman of the Roman Republic.A member of the Corneliagens, Scipio served as consul in 218 BC, the first year of the Second Punic War, and sailed with an army from Pisa to Massilia , with the intention of arresting Hannibal's advance on Italy...

. Unknown to them now, Scipio had been wounded during the Battle of Ticinus
Battle of Ticinus
The Battle of Ticinus was a battle of the Second Punic War fought between the Carthaginian forces of Hannibal and the Romans under Publius Cornelius Scipio in November 218 BC. The battle took place in the flat country of Pavia county on the right bank of the Ticino River not far north from its...

 and had been driven into the hills south of Piacenza
Piacenza is a city and comune in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. It is the capital of the province of Piacenza...

, then Placentia
Placentia may refer to:* Palace of Placentia, an English Royal Palace* Placentia, California, United States* Placentia, Italy* Placentia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada* Battle of Placentia* Placentia Bay, the name of two ships of the Royal Navy...

, a contemporary colony of the Romans. The Gauls had turned against Rome now in favor of Hannibal over this very issue of colonization. Hannibal was camped in the plain below Scipio's camp, enjoying the favor of the Gauls. Placentia (Piacenza) was not being occupied by either army.

Receiving the orders of the Senate at Lilybaeum in Sicily
Sicily is a region of Italy, and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding minor islands, it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy, the Regione Autonoma Siciliana Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature,...

, Sempronius had dismissed his men after taking their oaths to reassemble at Ariminum south of the Po river. From there he probably marched along the route of the future Via Aemilia
Via Aemilia
The Via Aemilia was a trunk Roman road in the north Italian plain, running from Ariminum , on the Adriatic coast, to Placentia on the river Padus . It was completed in 187 BC...

 straight into Placentia (Piacenza).With regard to the problem of how Sempronius coming from Ariminum could have effected Livy's union with Scipio on the Trebbia's left bank if Hannibal was on the right bank, Georg Niehbur discards the Ariminum passage and conjectures that Sempronius came through Liguria. Sempronius' two legions assembled probably in early December. It wasn't long before "Tiberius and his legions arrived and marched through the city." They did not stop there, probably because Hannibal's Numidian cavalry
Numidian cavalry
Numidian cavalry was a type of light cavalry developed by the Numidians, most notably used by Hannibal during the Second Punic War. They were described by the Roman historian Livy as "by far the best horsemen in Africa."...

 had burned the Roman fort, but camped outside it to the south, at or near Hannibal's previous camp, some 40 days after they had left Sicily. Apparently Hannibal had crossed the Trebbia in his pursuit of Scipio and was camped on its left bank.Niebuhr, p. 94, a left-to-right theorist, keeps Hannibal on the right bank with an additional speculation: "We must suppose that Hannibal was on the eastern bank of the Trebia: the Romans cross the river to offer battle, consequently Hannibal, who was on the right bank of this river, must have crossed the Po somewhat below Placentia." This opinion ignores the crossing upstream from Placentia (Piacenza), stated by both sources.

Capture of Clastidium

Despite Gallic willingness to supply Hannibal, he found that the size of his army was becoming a burden on the local communities resulting in a "daily increasing scarcity." The Romans had a grain storage depot at Clastidium
Clastidium , was a village of the Anamares, in Gallia Cispadana, on the Via Postumia, 5 miles east of Iria and 31 miles west of Placentia....

 (now Casteggio), which he was planning to attack. He must have bypassed it previously on his way to Placentia (Piacenza). Instead of attacking, he found that he could bribe the commander, Dasius Brundisius, whose name indicates he was not Roman but was from Brundisium, with 400 gold coins. The garrison was subsequently treated with kindness, which suggests that good treatment was part of the deal, but none of the sources describe it in detail.

Clastidium was located on the right bank of the Po upstream from the Trebbia. That Hannibal could operate there without hindrance indicates that he was in fact camped on the left bank of the Trebbia and subsequent operations against the Gauls prove it further.

Dissent among the Gauls

For reasons unstated by either author, the Carthaginians suspected treachery from the Gauls located between the Trebbia and the Po; that is, on the left bank of the Trebbia, where his subsequent activity shows that Hannibal was certainly located. The authors make it clear that the Gauls hoped to stay on the good side of both commanders but they do not give the details. Hannibal was incensed enough to dispatch 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry to devastate their country, "district by district" and this action decided whose side they were to take. They appealed to the Romans.

Tiberius sent an unspecified number of cavalry across the river with 1,000 infantry. They caught the Carthaginians pillaging there and drove them into Hannibal's camp (clearly on the left bank). The Carthaginians acquired reinforcements and sallied out to push the Romans back across the river, where the Romans sent for reinforcements from their camp (proving a right-bank location). Hannibal stopped the Carthaginian attack because this was not the time and place of his choosing, but was happening spontaneously. Tiberius, however, concluded he had won a victory with the very arm in which Scipio had been beaten, the cavalry.

Hannibal now knew that he could provoke Tiberius and made plans to entice him across the river where his troops could be slaughtered without assistance from the camp.

The consuls confer

The cavalry action of the preceding day had inspired the Romans with confidence. Sempronius resolved to seek "a decisive battle as soon as possible." The Senate had sent him to assist Scipio, but the latter was unable to be assisted, leaving Sempronius in an ambiguous situation. According to Polybius, Sempronius felt free to act on his own: "He was, it is true, at liberty to act as he thought best owing to the illness of Scipio." Nevertheless he felt obliged to argue it out with his colleague in heated language: "What good is there in further delay and waste of time? Where is the third consul and the third army we are waiting for? ... it is from their native soil, from the land in which they were born, that the Romans are to be driven." He accuses the Romans of "cowering within their camp in the heart of Italy." Livy is unable to say, however, where this harangue took place, whether sitting "by his ailing comrade, or in the headquarters." There is no mention at all of the camp at Ripa Alta or how Scipio would have gotten to the camp near Placentia (Piacenza) or whether Sempronius had any authority to command Scipio's men.

Wherever this consultation of consuls took place, Scipio advised "that their legions would be all the better for a winter's drilling, and that the notoriously fickle Celts would not remain loyal to the Carthaginians... he advised Sempronius to let matters remain as they were." Sempronius decided to ignore Scipio and go ahead with the attack. The texts do not say that he kept Scipio informed.


When Scipio left Massilia (Marseilles) he had no or minimal forces. In north Italy he superseded Lucius Manlius
Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus
Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus was a patrician who became one of the Roman consuls in both 256 and 250 BC. The term for being consul was one year. Two consuls ruled at a time and one could serve up to two terms. It was the consuls’ job to govern provinces, lead armies in major wars, and run the Senate...

, acquiring his two legions plus 10,000 allied infantry and 1,000 cavalry (less losses inflicted by the Boii, at least 1,300), and Gaius Atilius, reacquiring the legion that had been taken from him by the Senate plus 5,000 allies. Since Livy is using 4,000 infantry and 300 cavalry as the standard complement of a legion, Scipio should have had 12,000 Roman infantry and 900 Roman cavalry plus maximum 13,700 allied infantry and 1,000 cavalry. After losses suffered at Ticinus Scipio should have had at most 27,000 men.

Sempronius had been given two legions: 8,000 infantry and 600 cavalry, but he also had several thousand allies, about 16,000 infatry and 1,800 cavalry. Scipio had the greater army and would have been senior in command if active. Neither consul, however, could supersede the other without a decree from the Senate.

Livy states the actual number of Roman troops before the battle to have been 18,000 men, to which were added 20,000 Italic allies. Polybius sets the number at 16,000 and 20,000 allies, "this being the strength of their complete army for decisive operations, when the consuls chance to be united." He does not say that they were united, only that, if they were, these would be their numbers; that is , 4 Roman legions and 4 allied alae. Both authors subsequently tack on 4,000 cavalry, evidently not part of the 36,000 or 38,000, from which it may be inferred that the latter were infantry (a circumstance not stated by the authors).

The numbers stated to have fought the battle are problematic: a combined Roman army should have had 5 legions of 20,000 men and all 30,000 allies authorized by the Senate and yet if the armies were not combined Sempronius should have had only two legions of 8,000 men. One answer is that Scipio gave up two legions and kept one and 20,000 auxiliaries in his own camp as a reserve. Livy seems to think that Scipio's wound gave the entire authority to Sempronius, but immediately after the battle Scipio commanded an army marching from his camp to Placentia (Piacenza). If Scipio could command after the battle then he was not so incapacitated as to be removed from command before it. Both authors agreed that the two consuls had sharp differences of opinion and that Sempronius acted on his own.

It is possible that the authors doubled the number of Roman legions fighting the battle and that Sempronius had only 8,000 or 9,000 Roman infantry. The authors both relate, however, that a mass of 10,000 men broke out of the Carthaginian encirclement and fell back on Placentia (Piacenza). Tiberius apparently did have more than two legions. Scipio argues in the story that Semronius' men needed the winter to train, suggesting that on the way to north Italy Sempronius may have raised two more legions of recruits, throwing them into battle under difficult physical circumstances against expert advice without training. There is no mention of any such events, however.

Yet another hypothesis for reconciling the numbers cited by Livy for combined strength of the two consular armies and the actual number of participants in the battle of the Trebia would be that Sempronius detached part of his allied contingents for garrison duty on Sicily and for naval service with Marcus Aemilius and Sextus Pomponius. Some allowance should also be made for non-combat losses. The strength of this hypothesis lies in the maximum use of ancient evidence.

The 10,000 veteran troops who did not break and run were the major survivors. The authors make it clear that not many of the others made it to Piacenza, but some did. The others were massacred, as was Hannibal's custom. They appear to have been the mysterious extra legions - perhaps recruits - the cavalry and the auxiliaries. The casualties therefore were a maximum of 32,000 men, a rate of 76%. The rate was not at maximum but the number who escaped is not known. If it was half the number who fell back in good order the rate would have been 64%, in either case a Roman disaster, but perhaps not quite the one depicted by the authors if Scipio's army was not involved. The Carthaginians did not cross the river to take Sempronius' camp. They might have been physically exhausted or concerned about the 10,000 or they could have been deterred by the army in the second camp on their flank.


Although Hannibal might have arrived at the Trebbia with as many as 90,000 men, both sources agree that he fought the battle with 40,000 men: 20,000 Celtic, Spanish and African heavy-armed infantry, 10,000 cavalry plus another 1,000 in ambush, 8,000 Balearic slingers and spearmen plus another 1,000 in ambush. The casualties are not stated, but the square of 10,000 Roman infantry that broke the Carthaginian center effected "great slaughter" of African and Celtic troops. If Hannibal had another 50,000 in reserve, his capabilities would not have been seriously diminished.


Mago's ambush

The December of 218 BC was cold and snowy. Scipio was still recovering from his wounds but Sempronius was "impetuous and headstrong." Eager to come to blows with Hannibal before Scipio could recover and assume command– and especially as the time for the election of new consuls was drawing near–Sempronius took measures looking for a general engagement, disregarding Scipio's caution not to attack with untrained men. Unfortunately for Sempronius, Hannibal was aware of this, and prepared a plan to take advantage of Sempronius' impetuosity. Hannibal's force was camped across the cold and flooded Trebbia River. Polybius
Polybius , Greek ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 220–146 BC in detail. The work describes in part the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece...

 says (translator Paton),
Hannibal was relying on a network of Gallic
Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. The Gauls were the speakers of...

 spies to keep informed of enemy activity. When they told him the Romans were ready to do battle, he sent for 100 each of the best infantrymen and cavalrymen and had them select 10 each for a special mission. This detachment of 1,100 infantry and 1,100 cavalry under the command of Hannibal's younger brother, Mago
Mago Barca
Mago, son of Hamilcar Barca, also spelled Magon, Phoenician MGN, "God sent" , was a member of the Barcid family, and played an important role in the Second Punic War, leading forces of Carthage against the Roman Republic in Hispania, Gallia Cisalpina and Italy...

, were instructed to conceal themselves in the underbrush of the above-mentioned water-course under the cover of night, and prepare an ambush
An ambush is a long-established military tactic, in which the aggressors take advantage of concealment and the element of surprise to attack an unsuspecting enemy from concealed positions, such as among dense underbrush or behind hilltops...

 for the Romans.The location of the water-course depends on one's interpretation of the disposition of troops. Dodge (p. 268), who espouses the left-to-right theory, and places the Carthaginian camp before Piacenza, sees the water-course as being the upper Trebiola, a right-bank tributary of the Po entering it downstream from that city. In the right-to-left theory it must have been (and possibly still is in some form) on the left bank of the Trebbia.

Numidian provocation

On the following morning, Hannibal sent the rest of the Numidian cavalry beyond the Trebbia to harass the nearby Roman camp and retreat, so as to lure the Romans into a position from which Mago’s hidden detachment could strike at the opportune moment. They rode up to the gates and discharged missiles at the men on duty. In response Sempronius sent out the Roman cavalry to drive them off, and shortly afterwards sent out 6,000 javelin-throwers, the light-armed infantry, to cover the formation of the main line of battle behind them. These were the 12,000 Roman heavy-armed infantry and 20,000 Italic allies, apparently heavy-armed also, as they were never used as light-armed infantry.

Roman crossing of the Trebbia

Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Ayrault Dodge
Theodore Ayrault Dodge
Theodore Ayrault Dodge was an American officer and military historian. He fought as a Union officer in the American Civil War; as a writer, he was devoted to both the Civil War and the great generals of ancient and European history....

, a United States Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

 officer of the Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 era, wrote of the battle:

Hannibal's strengthening of flanks

Hannibal now put forward his 8,000 light infantry – javelin-throwers and Balearic slingers – as a covering skirmishing line, and behind them, he formed the main battle line of 20,000 infantry of Africans, Iberians
The Iberians were a set of peoples that Greek and Roman sources identified with that name in the eastern and southern coasts of the Iberian peninsula at least from the 6th century BC...

, and Celts
The Celtiberians were Celtic-speaking people of the Iberian Peninsula in the final centuries BC. The group used the Celtic Celtiberian language.Archaeologically, the Celtiberians participated in the Hallstatt culture in what is now north-central Spain...

, with 10,000 cavalry and an unspecified number of elephants
War elephant
A war elephant was an elephant trained and guided by humans for combat. Their main use was to charge the enemy, trampling them and breaking their ranks. A division of war elephants is known as elephantry....

 split between the two flanks.

The Numidian cavalry wheeled suddenly and attacked the Roman cavalry, strung out in pursuit. Sempronius withdrew them to the flanks. The Numidians then harassed the Roman light infantry screen, or velites
Velites were a class of infantry in the Polybian legions of the early Roman republic. Velites were light infantry and skirmishers who were armed with a number of light javelins, or hastae velitares, to fling at the enemy, and also carried short thrusting swords, or gladii for use in melee...

, causing them to expend all their missiles. As the armies approached they were unable to be much of an impediment to the Carthaginians due to lack of ammunition and hypothermia
Hypothermia is a condition in which core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions which is defined as . Body temperature is usually maintained near a constant level of through biologic homeostasis or thermoregulation...

, so Sempronius ordered them to fall back through the heavy infantry.

Similarly, when the Balearic slingers and javelin-throwers began to encounter Roman heavy infantry, Hannibal withdrew them and placed them on the wings. The odds down the two lines of battle were now as follows. In the center 32,000 Roman heavy infantry were opposed to 20,000 Carthaginian heavy infantry at odds of 1.6 to 1. On each flank, however, 2,000 Roman cavalry were opposed to 5,000 Carthaginian cavalry and 4,000 light-armed infantry at odds of 1 to 4.5; in addition, the elephants were on the flanks.


After the light-armed infantry (velites) retreated through the Roman line, the heavy-armed infantry (hastati
Hastatii were a class of infantry in the armies of the early Roman Republic who originally fought as spearmen, and later as swordsmen. They were originally some of the poorest men in the legion, and could afford only modest equipment — light armour and a large shield, in their service as the...

and principes
Principes were spearmen, and later swordsmen, in the armies of the early Roman Republic. They were men in the prime of their lives who were fairly wealthy, and could afford decent equipment. They were the heavier infantry of the legion who carried large shields and wore good quality armour. Their...

) closed with their Carthaginian counterparts. Concurrently the Carthaginian wings attacked the Roman wings at odds of 4.5 to 1, forcing them back to the river and leaving the infantry, whom they intended to protect, exposed. Samuels suggests that in describing the Roman cavalry as being a withdrawal he is being tactful and a rout better describes what happened. Seeing that the Roman rear had passed their position, Mago’s hidden force emerged from the ambush and fell upon the rear of the hard-pressed Roman infantry. With their morale already sapped by cold, hunger and fatigue, the Romans on the sides and in the rear broke formation under this fresh onslaught and ran for the river. Although the sources do not say it, the retrograde movement suggests that the recruits, the least-trained men, had been placed in those positions, as Roman veterans generally did not run.

As the disorganized men were milling about the river, Hannibal used the opportunity to effect a massacre. The great majority of the casualties fell here or drowned in the river. The Roman cavalry escaped on horseback. As the Roman legionaries remained with Sempronius in the center and majority of the force were the 20,000 Italics, the men who died were probably not the core of the legionaries and were not Roman, but were on the whole the Italic allies, who were as yet untrained and untested in battle.

Roman hollow square

It is clear from the odds and from subsequent events that Tiberius intended a main attack on the center of the Carthaginian line. As he was not killed on the flanks or in the rear, he must have been commanding the center in person. It would have included his most experienced and effective infantry. In fact they behaved as professional soldiers, some of them quickly wheeling to fill in the sides and rear, forming a hollow square
Infantry square
An infantry square is a combat formation an infantry unit forms in close order when threatened with cavalry attack.-Very early history:The formation was described by Plutarch and used by the Romans, and was developed from an earlier circular formation...

. In this standard Roman infantry formation all sides faced outward leaving the center necessarily hollow, where the command post was and where the wounded were placed. This square soon deflected all Carthaginian attacks against it. The Carthaginians concentrated on the men by the river instead.

A light-infantry detachment was sent out to stop the elephants. These they dealt with by volleying dart
Dart (missile)
Darts are missile weapons, designed to fly such that a sharp, often weighted point will strike first. They can be distinguished from javelins by fletching and a shaft that is shorter and/or more flexible, and from arrows by the fact that they are not of the right length to use with a normal...

s and jabbing under the tail. The elephants became wild, attacking both sides, until Hannibal ordered them driven off to the left to attack the Gauls fighting for Rome. These must have been the Cenomani
The Cenomani or Aulerci Cenomani were a Gallic people, a branch of the Aulerci in Gallia Celtica, whose territory corresponded generally to Maine in the modern départment of Sarthe, west of the Carnutes between the Seine and the Loire...

 tribesmen, the only Gauls in that category. What Livy means by "the left" is not clear, but they cannot have been in the square and most perished.

Although he had made some unfortunate strategic decisions, Tiberius proved himself a better battlefield general, ordering his men forward against the Carthaginian center. The enemy there took great losses although the authors do not say what they were. Of the two ethnic groups, Africans and Celts, the latter are said to have lost the most men. The square soon found itself at the Carthaginian rear and looking back could see the Carthaginian army effecting a slaughter of allied troops. Tiberius did not return to their assistance – the sources offer his excuses of the river and the heavy rain – but marched his men into Piacenza, probably over a bridge that must have stood where the highway and railroad bridges now stand.

Historical problems

The positions of the combatants with regard to the battlefield's topographic features are as follows. Scipio first camped before Placentia (Piacenza) with Hannibal 50 stadia (c. 9.3 kilometers, 5.8 miles) away on the right bank of the Trebbia. Then he crossed the Trebbia and marched south to camp at Ripa Alta (the first hills).Lancel and Nevill cite Scipio's crossing of the Trebbia and encampment in the hills but then adopt Kromayer's view that the camp was at Pieve-Dugliara, a community on the right bank in the plain. Hannibal camped 40 stadia (7.4 kilometers, 4.6 miles) away, and this was his camp during the battle. The location was probably near Gragnano Trebbiense
Gragnano Trebbiense
Gragnano Trebbiense is a comune in the Province of Piacenza in the Italian region, Emilia-Romagna, located about 150 km northwest of Bologna and about 11 km southwest of Piacenza....

 on the Trebbia's left bank. If it had been on the right bank, Hannibal would have intercepted Sempronius and prevented him from camping near Scipio. But, that is what Sempronius did. Scipio was on the right bank; Sempronius on the left. When the Gauls came into Sempronius' camp to ask for help, Sempronius sent men across the Trebbia to drive the plunderers into Hannibal's camp.

The Roman start line was between Tiberius' camp and the Trebbia. The hollow square broke out on the left bank and were "prevented by the river" from their camp, so they went on to Placentia (Piacenza), followed by the other survivors. The problem is that Placentia (Piacenza) lies on the opposite bank, on the same side as the camp, so that if the river was an obstacle in reaching the camp, it must have been an obstacle in reaching Placentia (Piacenza) north of the camp. What is worse, Livy has Scipio in the same camp as Sempronius, crossing the river to enter Piacenza on the bank he had just left.

Either Sempronius' camp was on the left bank and all the narrative of events before the battle is wrong, or the description of the retreat is wrong. Both solutions (and more) have been proposed. Mommsen
Mommsen is a surname, and may refer to one of a family of German historians, see Mommsen family:* Theodor Mommsen , great classical scholar, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature* Tycho Mommsen...

 simply assumed that the square did recross the river, but closer to Placentia (Piacenza), perhaps on a bridge.Grundy recapitulates the argument, quoting Mommsen as follows: "If Placentia lay on the right bank ... and if the battle was fought on the left bank, while the Roman encampment was pitched upon the right ... the Roman soldiers must certainly have passed the Trebbia in order to gain Placentia, as well as to gain their camp ... it may even have been the case, although it cannot be proved, that a bridge led over the Trebbia at that point (i.e. near Placentia) ..." The colonists must have had bridges over both the Po and the Trebbia; however, this information has been left out of the story. If the Roman camp was on the left bank, then the early sequence is all wrong and one must presume even more information was omitted from the story.

Public reaction

The next night, according to Livy, "the camp garrison and the other survivors, mainly wounded men, crossed the Trebia on rafts." Scipio was in command. He "marched his army in perfect quiet to Placentia, whence he crossed the Po to Cremona, that a single colony might be spared the burden of two armies in winter quarters." In the single-camp interpretation of this passage Scipio must have crossed to the enemy side regardless of whether the camp was on the left or right bank. However, the narrative goes on to say that Hannibal did not cross the river to pursue them; thus, as previously, Scipio was placing the river between him and Hannibal. Following the thread of the previous narrative, Scipio must still have been in his camp at Ripa Alta. Some survivors managed to make their way upriver on the same side as the battle to Scipio's camp. Scipio broke camp at night, crossed the river and reached Placentia on the right bank, past Sempronius' now abandoned camp, or perhaps picking up the garrison left there along with additional survivors. He still had an army of such magnitude that it could not seek supplies in the same city as Sempronius'.

For a time the Romans were spared attacks by the Carthaginians, as the latter were now suffering from exposure. A cold snap had set in and the precipitation had turned from rain to snow and ice. All the elephants but one (or several in Polybius) died along with "many men and horses." When the news arrived at Rome that both consuls had been defeated at Ticinus and Trebbia the population panicked, expecting to see Hannibal at the gates. In fact the defeats were not the catastrophe they believed. Some 2.5 and more legions escaped from the battlefield, 3 more under Scipio never participated, while 2 more were in Spain; in all, the Senate still had 7.5 legions healthy and in good winter quarters.

By now the Carthaginians had recovered. Their cavalry isolated both cities, but these were easily supplied by boat up the Po. Sempronius evaded the enemy cavalry to return to Rome and conduct consular elections. The two new consuls elected were Gnaeus Servilius Geminus
Gnaeus Servilius Geminus
Gnaeus Servilius Geminus was a Roman consul, serving as both general and admiral of Roman forces, during the Second Punic War....

 and Gaius Flaminius Nepos, the latter of whom would lead the Roman army during the debacle at Lake Trasimene
Battle of Lake Trasimene
The Battle of Lake Trasimene was a Roman defeat in the Second Punic War between the Carthaginians under Hannibal and the Romans under the consul Gaius Flaminius...

. Meanwhile they were not scheduled to assume command until March 15, the first day of the Roman year in 217 BC. Sempronius returned immediately to his command. The new consul-elects recruited more legions of Romans and allies, reinforced Sardinia
Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea . It is an autonomous region of Italy, and the nearest land masses are the French island of Corsica, the Italian Peninsula, Sicily, Tunisia and the Spanish Balearic Islands.The name Sardinia is from the pre-Roman noun *sard[],...

 and Sicily
Sicily is a region of Italy, and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding minor islands, it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy, the Regione Autonoma Siciliana Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature,...

, placed garrisons at Tarentum
Tarentum may refer to:* Taranto, Apulia, Italy; on the site of the ancient Roman city Tarentum; formerly the Greek colony Taras. See also: History of Taranto* Tarentum, Pennsylvania, United States** Tarentum Bridge, in the above place...

 and other places, built a fleet of 60 quinquereme
From the 4th century BC on, new types of oared warships appeared in the Mediterranean Sea, superseding the trireme and transforming naval warfare. Ships became increasingly bigger and heavier, including some of the largest wooden ships ever constructed...

s and established supply depots at Ariminum and Arretium in Etruria
Etruria—usually referred to in Greek and Latin source texts as Tyrrhenia—was a region of Central Italy, an area that covered part of what now are Tuscany, Latium, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria. A particularly noteworthy work dealing with Etruscan locations is D. H...

 in preparation for marching north. They asked military assistance from Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, and received 1500 men. Flaminius marched into winter camp at Arretium and Servilius at Ariminum.

Final operations around Placentia

The Romans had constructed a fortified outpost near Placentia, Emporium ("trading center"). Hannibal decided to test it by attacking at night with cavalry and light infantry, but the sentries were alert. They raised the camp, which shouted so loudly that it could be heard in Placentia. At dawn the next morning Sempronius' cavalry fell upon the Carthaginians, driving them off and wounding Hannibal slightly. Of this defense Livy uses the word "brilliant."

A few days later Hannibal marched on a supply depot at Victumviae (location unknown but probably Vigevano
Vigevano is a town and comune in the province of Pavia, Lombardy, northern Italy, which possesses many artistic treasures and runs a huge industrial business. It is at the center of a district called Lomellina, a great rice-growing agricultural centre...

Vigevano as Victumulae is just north of the probable site of the Battle of Ticinus
Battle of Ticinus
The Battle of Ticinus was a battle of the Second Punic War fought between the Carthaginian forces of Hannibal and the Romans under Publius Cornelius Scipio in November 218 BC. The battle took place in the flat country of Pavia county on the right bank of the Ticino River not far north from its...

. Scipio had not chosen to camp there but escaped instead to Placentia, perhaps because more secure.
) Its population had been enhanced by anti-Carthaginian refugees from all the Gallic tribes. Untrained, they went out to meet Hannibal as a mob of 35,000 and were shortly driven back into Victumviae, which arranged a formal surrender. As soon as the garrison had turned over its weapons Hannibal's men on signal ravaged the town, committing "every kind of outrage that lust, cruelty and brutal insolence could suggest."

For a time the "cold was intolerable" but as spring began to come on Hannibal resolved to attack Etruria
Etruria—usually referred to in Greek and Latin source texts as Tyrrhenia—was a region of Central Italy, an area that covered part of what now are Tuscany, Latium, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria. A particularly noteworthy work dealing with Etruscan locations is D. H...

 following the Trebbia southward.In this part of the account Livy becomes especially self-contradictory. Consequently the Cambridge Ancient History asserts that the attempted Apennine crossing and battle with Sempronius are to be rejected. In the Apennines the army was struck by a thunderstorm of such intensity that they could not pitch camp and when rain turned to hail and snow they put the tents flat and crawled under them. The storm was followed by a cold snap. All the elephants except one, and many of the horses died. After two days Hannibal returned to the Placentia region and camped. Sempronius, in the last of his term as consul, determined to do battle, left Placentia and camped three miles from Hannibal.

Hannibal was down to 12,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, perhaps not from casualties, more likely because his army, relying on Gallic allies, was seasonal. Marching the next morning to Tiberius' camp, he was met by the Romans, who drove him back on his camp and then attacked it. Putting the bulk of his men in the center, Hannibal waited for the Roman to break in, but they never managed to do so. When they began to leave at the end of the day Hannibal sallied out in force to attack the Roman rear, hoping to effect a massacre. The fall of night prevented that event. Casualties were equal on both sides. This was the last military engagement of the consular year, a year of defeats, but perhaps not disastrous, as the next year would be.

Military assessments

The assessment of the English historian Walter Raleigh is:
Three great errors Sempronius committed, of which every one deserved to be recompensed with the loss that followed. The first was, that he fought with Hannibal in a champain, being by far inferior in horse, and withal thereby subject to the African elephants, which in enclosed or uneven grounds, and woodlands, would have been of no use. His second error was, that he made no discovery of the place upon which he fought, whereby he was grossly overreached, and ensnared, by the ambush which Hannibal had laid for him. The third was, that he drenched his footmen with empty stomachs, in the river of Trebia, even in a most cold and frosty day, whereby in effect they lost the use of their limbs.

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