Text #9570"Battle of Ticinus", in .
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 confluence (from the north) with the Po River. The battle is named from the river, not the nearby contemporaneous settlement of Ticinum (today’s Pavia). Although the precise location is not known, it is generally accepted that a settlement known today as Vigevano is mentioned in Livy’s text and that Scipio’s camp was to the south at Gambolo, whose coordinates are given on the map. The conflict would have been west of there. It was the first battle of the war against the Romans that was fought on Italian soil and the first battle of the war to employ legion-sized forces. Its loss by the Romans, and the temporary disablement of Scipio’s command, set the stage for the Roman disaster at the Battle of Trebbia in December.
This battle was mainly a cavalry engagement. It was so fast-moving that the javelin-throwers deployed by the Romans had no chance of firing even a single volley and milled around on the field, a major cause of the Roman defeat. Scipio was wounded and barely escaped with his life. He was in fact rescued on the field by his 18-year-old son, the later Scipio Africanus.
The two main sources on the battle are the History of Rome by Livy (Book XXI) and Histories of Polybius (Book III). Polybius makes it clear in his account that he visited the places and monuments and looked at documents. The two vary in some of the details.
Events leading to the Second Punic War began with a decision by Hannibal, the new commander of troops in the Carthaginian province of Iberia, to consolidate power by provoking and defeating the surrounding Iberian tribesmen in battle. He was 26 years old. He had been voted commander by the army in Iberia on the assassination of the previous commander, Hasdrubal, in 221 BC. Hasdrubal had ruled by diplomacy rather than by victory. The military commander was also the provincial governor. He did not need the permission of the Carthaginian Senate to conduct operations.
From 226 BC, the Romans and Carthaginians were bound by a treaty specifying the Ebro River as the boundary between the two interests. The Romans were not to operate south of it nor the Carthaginians north. An exception was made for the large town of Saguntum, whose ruins are located just north of Valencia, south of the Ebro. It was to be neutral. At some unspecified time, Rome had made a separate treaty with it. This made it a key element to Carthage, but not Rome.
Having subdued all the tribes south of the Ebro, Hannibal undertook the siege of Saguntum in 219 BC with 15,000 men. After holding out for several months, Saguntum sent envoys to Rome asking for assistance. These arrived at the beginning of the consulships of Publius Cornelius and Tiberius Sempronius, who took office on March 15, 218 BC. After hearing from the envoys, the Roman Senate resolved to send Publius Valerius Flaccus and Quintus Baebius Tamphilus to Hannibal at Saguntum to demand that he cease and desist. Being turned back by him at the coast, they went on to Carthage to lodge a criminal complaint of treaty violation with the Carthaginian Senate and demand the arrest of Hannibal and his extradition to Rome. The complaint was rejected. The two envoys returned to Rome just in time to hear the news that Saguntum had fallen and was destroyed; nearly all of the population had been executed and all the moveable wealth had been removed to Carthage.
“The effect on the Roman Senate was shattering”, wrote Livy. “They knew they had never had to face a fiercer or more warlike foe… War was coming, and it would have to be fought in Italy, in defence of the walls of Rome, and against the world in arms.” They passed a decree to raise six legions: 24,000 infantry with 1,800 cavalry and enlist 40,000 allied infantry and 4,400 cavalry; they also had on hand 220 quinqueremes and 20 light ships. Then they called an assembly of all free Romans to vote on the question of war. The vote was for war. Tiberius was to take two legions to Sicily and wait there for orders to invade Carthage; Publius was given another two legions and tasked with attacking the Carthaginian forces in Iberia. The aged but experienced Lucius Manlius was given the praetorship of two more legions to be kept in reserve in Cisalpine Gaul, where issues with the Gauls were beginning to develop. Each force of two legions was supported by greater numbers of Italian and other allied troops.
The Senate now sent a delegation of “all oldish men - Quintus Fabius, Marcus Livius, Lucius Aemilius, Gaius Licinius, and Quintus Baebius” with plenipotentiary powers: the right to withhold or declare war on an ad hoc basis. Having brought copies of past treaties, they asked the Carthaginian Senate to determine if Hannibal had acted as an individual or with the approval of the Senate. The Carthaginians denied that Rome had a treaty with Carthage, pointing out that they had repudiated the Ebro Treaty, claiming that it was unratified, in order to make another with Saguntum, which had previously been defined as neutral.
After hours of study and debate, nothing could be resolved concerning Hannibal’s legality. Fabius gathered a fold of his toga to his chest and offered it, saying “Here, we bring you peace and war. Take which you will.” The Carthaginians replied “Whichever you please - we do not care.” Fabius let the fold drop and proclaimed “We give you war.” The senators shouted “We accept it; and in the same spirit we will fight it to the end.”
The delegation returned through Spain, trying to encourage the tribes to revolt with little success, as Rome had lost credibility by failing to assist Saguntum. In Gaul, they were shouted down by assemblies of derisive citizens in full armor.
Regardless of whether Hannibal had intended to invade Italy during or before the siege of Saguntum, when he heard from the Senate of Rome’s declaration of war, knowing he would have to fight in Spain if not Italy, he opted for Italy. According to Polybius the total trek was 9,000 stadia, about 1,598 km (993 mi). Leaving New Carthage with 90,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, he arrived in Italy five months later with about 1/3 of that number: staggering losses never counted in reckoning the cost of the campaign. The mere 200 miles a month, averaging 6 to 7 miles a day, were consumed mainly in defeating or negotiating with the tribesmen in his path.
Having granted his men leave, Hannibal departed New Carthage for the Ebro in approximately May, 218 BC. There, says Livy, he experienced a dream in which he saw a god-like man claiming to be a messenger of the gods telling him to invade Italy and not look back. He looked back and saw a serpent spreading devastation, which the dream messenger said meant he should lay waste to Italy. Crossing the Ebro, he defeated the tribes between the Ebro and the Pyrenees and occupied the Pyrenees. He placed his brother Hasdrubal in command of Spain, dismissed 7,000 recalcitrant expeditionaries and poised with 50,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry began to send emissaries to the Gallic tribes.
At Rome, the Senate, deciding to accelerate the process of placing colonies in north Italy, gave 30 days notice to the colonists to assemble at Piacenza and Cremona to receive confiscated land. But the Boii, whose country this now was, and their allies, the Insubres, forced the colonists to take refuge in Mutina. Lucius Manlius would have come to their rescue, but he and his small force (he did not use the two legions) were forced into a defensive camp at Vicus Tannetis. The Senate removed a legion and 5,000 allies from Publius’ command and sent it north under Gaius Atilius to the relief of Manlius. Publius was instructed to raise another legion from the allies, which he did. At some undetermined time, when the Carthaginians were between the Pyrenees and the Rhone, they and the Boii made contact and promised mutual assistance. The Boii offered guides and warm clothing for the march over the Alps.
Receiving intelligence of the operation while the Carthaginians were still in the Pyrenees, the Romans sent a force commanded by one of the consuls for the year, Publius Cornelius Scipio, via naval transport along the coast of Liguria to the mouth of the Rhone River, where their unshakeable Greek allies at Marseille were located and the Gauls were all friendly to Rome. They encamped on the left bank to wait for the Carthaginians.
Bypassing Marseilles, the Carthaginians reached the Rhone four days’ march to the north, but were impeded from crossing by a Gallic force friendly to Rome (the Volcae). Sending one-third of his army north along the right bank under Hanno, Hannibal instructed them to coordinate an attack on the Gauls with his own river crossing. They crossed successfully. The two-pronged attack succeeded in driving the Gauls from their camp. The elephants were brought across on large rafts. Hearing of the crossing, Scipio sent a few hundred cavalry to the north to reconnoitre, which encountering a similar force sent south by Hannibal; the Roman cavalry routed the enemy, inflicting heavy losses on them.
Hannibal and his army vanished to the north, while Scipio, perceiving that he had lost them, sent the main force against New Carthage under the command of his brother, while he returned by ship to Pisa, marched through Etruria, acquired the legions of Manlius and Atilius and camped along the Po to wait for Hannibal.
Meanwhile, Hannibal was marching up the left bank of the Isère River, hoping to cross the passes from there to Italy. He found his way blocked by the Allobroges. Learning that they occupied their posts only by day, he took control of the paths by night and slipped the army by, fighting a rear-guard action all the way to the top. There they rested, while gathering stragglers of men and animals. Worse challenges waited on the descent: the road had collapsed in an avalanche, it snowed, and the animals bogged down in the snow. The army encamped, swept the snow from the ridge and rebuilt the path along a cliff. Even Livy, a pro-Roman historian, speaks admiringly of this event. The Carthaginians cut a path across a thousand-foot cliff, picking out rock that had been made friable with alternate heating in log fires and cooling with the men’s wine rations.
After a 15-day crossing, Hannibal finally arrived in northern Italy with 12,000 African infantry, 8,000 Iberian infantry and 6,000 cavalry. Many of the elephants had survived. Polybius is sure of these numbers because, he reports, he read them in an inscription on a column erected by Hannibal himself at Lacinium. Polybius says that they had begun the Alpine venture with 38,000 men and 8,000 cavalry. The survivors were emaciated, exhausted, and without supplies, having lost most of them in the mountains. Obtaining supplies wherever he could, Hannibal rested his men.
The northern tribes, being bound to Rome by treaty, knew that sooner or later they would be required to answer to Rome for their behavior regarding the hostility of the Boii and the Insubres. Intending to march on Rome, Hannibal knew that he had to secure his rear. He had entered Italy between the Insubres and a Liguriantribe called the Taurini, after whom the Romans were to name their later colony of Turin.[note 6] The two tribes were at war; however, momentarily Hannibal’s army was in no position to intervene.
The Taurini were not friendly to Carthage. After the army’s recovery, Hannibal offered them peace by formal alliance. When it was refused, he surrounded their chief settlement, levelled it and executed all his opponents as an object lesson to the other tribes in the north. This act of terror was effective for the time being in securing a nominal alliance with the other Gauls, but it caused the immediate announcement of his presence throughout Italy, rendering further surprise impossible. Hannibal looked for a victory of any sort to secure the confidence of his new found allies. Livy adds that he believes the ranks of the Carthaginians were expanded by contingents of Ligurians and Gauls to reach 80,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry (the figure given by Lucius Cincius Alimentus).
Receiving news of the massacre, Publius was incredulous that Hannibal should have crossed the Alps and be in Italy so soon. Decamping, he crossed the Po and marched upstream on the left bank looking for him. Receiving intelligence of Publius’ impending arrival, Hannibal was equally incredulous that he should have made the difficult voyage from Marseille and now be at hand with an army. The most astounded of all at the news that both Hannibal and Publius were in Italy, when they were believed to be in Spain, were the Roman Senate and People. They sent orders posthaste to the second consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus, who was conducting leisurely operations in Sicily, that he was to abandon his current project and proceed to the assistance of Publius.
Sending his fleet in advance, Tiberius determined that individuals could travel more swiftly than armies. He released his men from service, having exacted an oath that they would present themselves at Ariminum south of the mouth of the Po on a certain day. However, despite these measures, events moved too swiftly for Tiberius to be of any assistance to Publius in the coming battle.
Livy and Polybius both give accounts of the battle, which agree on the main events, but differ in some of the details.
On the day before the battle, Scipio was encamped in the base (castra) at Piacenza, where the colonists had planned to build. This settlement being in a loop on the right bank of the Po river, he had to construct a bridge to access it from the left bank, which is confused in Livy with the bridge constructed over the Ticinus some miles away. Polybius makes it clear that there were two bridges, one from the right to the left bank of the Po at Piacenza and one from the left to the right bank of the Ticinus, location unknown, but the best crossing is at Pavia, which was founded by Roman colonists as Ticinum, perhaps at the site of the fortifications Publius threw up to protect his new bridge. A fine permanent bridge stands there today. The ground on the right bank of the Ticinus north of there was swampy, no place for an army to become bogged down.
After building the bridge over the Ticinus and crossing it, Scipio entered the level plain (farmland today) and camped five miles from Victumulae, in the country of the Insubres, believed to be Vigevano now. There is a town to the south of Vigevano, between Pavia and it, Gambolo, which still has some of the features of a large Roman camp, such as the ditch. The main road to Milano passes to the south of Gambolo. From it, 19th-century travellers were told that they could see the battlefield.
As a consul, Scipio superseded the praetors Manlius and Atilius. He could therefore have commanded three legions, about 12,000 infantry and several thousand allies, possibly around 20,000 men. The regular cavalry of three legions amounted to 900. In addition, there were some 2,000 Gallic cavalry, which fought in the battle but later defected, and 1,000 allied cavalry attached to Manlius at Rome, a total of about 4,000 cavalry.
At the same time as Scipio was making camp, Hannibal was camping upstream along the Po. The two were unknown to each other but making the discovery through scouts the next day both commanders decided on the same tactic: a reconnaissance in force to discover and test the strength of the enemy. Hannibal probably took the majority of the 6,000 cavalry that remained after crossing the Alps, while Scipio took all of his cavalry and a small number of velites (light infantry armed with javelins). This last decision was not in keeping with a fast-moving reconnaissance and was to cost Scipio the battle and nearly his life.
Finally coming within observation distance of each other, the two armies stopped to form ranks. Hannibal offered his strongest motivations to the troops if they would fight to win: tax-free land in Italy, Spain or Africa, Carthaginian citizenship to allies and freedom to all slaves. He then placed his heavy, or “bridled”, cavalry in the center and the light and swift-moving Numidian cavalry on the wings: a classic formation in which the wings would break off to ride around and attack the enemy rear. Scipio’s less effective technique used the cavalry more like the infantry in a fixed line. The Gallic cavalry would be out front screening a line of javelin-throwers, who would cast volleys into the front of the advancing enemy and then retreat through the ranks to the rear.
Hannibal, seeing the infantry beginning to form, ordered an immediate, all-out charge, which rode down on the javelin-throwers before they could cast a single volley and sent them running for their lives through the ranks behind them. Livy portrays this retreat as some sort of cowardice, but Polybius gives the additional detail. The main cavalry ranks then fought until the Numidian cavalry performed their planned envelopment and attacked the rear. Unable to maneuver because of the infantry milling about them, the Roman cavalry broke into small groups, some dismounting and fighting as infantry. Scipio was wounded and soon found himself surrounded, with only a few to defend him.
It was in this setting that the consul’s 18-year-old son, the future Scipio Africanus, evidenced his first aptitude for the res militaris, military matters. Livy says only that he rescued his father, that Coelius Antipater, chronicler of the second Punic war, attributes the rescue to a Ligurian slave, but the general belief and opinion of most historians identifies the rescuer as the young Scipio.
Polybius reports that Gaius Laelius, a close friend of the young Scipio since boyhood, “narrated” (apparently in person) that his friend, “Having, it is likely, his 17th year” (age 16 if one does not count the birth year) and “having entered the field for the first time” (that is, on campaign or on expedition) and “his father having assigned to him a turma of top cavalrymen” (about 30 veterans) performed his first “remarkable exploit” in the “cavalry engagement” against Hannibal “in the vicinity of the Po”. Seeing that his father was in danger with only two or three to defend him, Scipio the younger “called upon those with him to go to the assistance of his father”.
The words for “call upon” are unfortunately not clear; they could mean “to give a military order to” or just “to exhort”. The interpretation of this passage to those outside the time and place is problematic. On the one hand, it could portray the young Scipio as an honored guest of the consul roaming about the battlefield under the protection of a whole troop with nothing else to do but guard him. This is an unlikely scenario in the Roman Republic, which did not pamper the sons of generals. These sons were looking to get a start by occupying the lowest ranks of the military and the government. The interpretation most in keeping with the culture is that the young Scipio was under military discipline; he was in the army, and this was his first command as a junior officer.
When the troop failed to respond to the order, fearing, Polybius speculates, the large number of enemies around the consul, Scipio drove his horse into the enemy. The others “were forced to charge” and opened a path through the “frightened enemy” to the consul. They escorted him off the field, which would have been to the fort. The younger Scipio was subsequently publicly honored by the consul, which was the beginning of public confidence in him. According to Pliny, he was offered a civic crown before the men in camp at Piacenza, but for some reason turned it down (see under Civic crown).
Hannibal scattered the Roman forces, but he did not press his victory that day, perhaps because his forces were far outnumbered by the Roman infantry still in the fort. He left the field and Scipio’s men gradually returned to base. Scipio had discovered the intelligence he wanted to know. He knew Hannibal would be back the next day with his whole army, would interpose himself between the Roman fort and the bridge and Scipio and all his men would be trapped, a set-up for another massacre. He therefore broke camp in the night, hastened to get over the bridge before dawn and was in Piacenza before Hannibal knew he had left camp. Finding the camp empty the next morning, Hannibal followed the Roman trail to the river, capturing the 600-man guard over a torn-up bridge. He decided not to force a subsequent crossing of the Po under hostile fire at Piacenza, but turned, went up its left bank, found a convenient crossing and descended the right bank to camp before Piacenza two days later.
After Hannibal’s arrival in the early morning, before first light, some 2,200 Gallic allies in the Roman camp attacked the Romans closest to them sleeping in their tents, took the heads of the slain and crossed to the Carthaginian camp, where they were well received. Hannibal subsequently sent them as emissaries to raise all the Celts in Italy. Meanwhile, Scipio, again anticipating the consequences, immediately broke camp before dawn on that same night (or the next, in Livy) and slipping up the right bank of the Po to the west in the same direction from which Hannibal had come crossed the Trebia River, a right-bank tributary of the Po. Then he headed south along its left bank to the hills from which it flows, keeping the river between him and Hannibal. The Numidian cavalry sent in pursuit made the mistake of burning the camp first, giving all but Scipio’s rear guard time to cross the river. A day’s march to the south, Scipio reached the hills, fortified the slope of one of them and settled down to rest and wait for the arrival of the second consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus. The most likely site is a 4.5 km (2.8 mi) ridge on the left bank across from Rivergaro some 20 km (12 mi) south of the Po. The locality was called ripa alta, “high bank”, by the Romans, becoming Rivalta Trebbia. It is noted for the Castello di Rivalta, built over a permanent Roman castra of unknown origin. South of Rivalta, the mountains offer no opportunity for cavalry to deploy or armies to march or fight in the open. Hannibal camped at a distance in the plain below, enthusiastically supplied by the Gallic population.
Fortune did not smile on the Romans that year. The result of Longus’ arrival would be the Battle of the Trebia, another Roman disaster.
Grundy, G.B. (1896). “The Trebbia and Lake Trasimene”. The Journal of Philology 24: 83–118.
Livy (1965). The War with Hannibal: Books XXI-XXX of the History of Rome from Its Foundation. Aubrey De Selincourt (trans.) (reprint, illustrated ed.). Penguin Classics. ISBN 9780140441451.
Polybius; William Roger Paton, Translator (1922). The Histories. The Loeb Classical Library (in Ancient Greek and English) 2. London, New York: William Heinemann, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Rickard, John (31 March 2002). “Battle of Ticinus, November 218 BC”. History of War.