The Battle of Trebia fought on the 18th of December was to be the first major battle of the second Punic war, a conflict between the Carthaginians and the Romans. Rome around the end of the 3rd century B.C was very much the fledgling empire, whereas the Carthaginians controlled most of the west Mediterranean, holding the east coast of Spain, Sicily, both Corsica and Sardinia as well as all the way down to the modern day Gulf of Sidra in Libya.
The first Punic war had ended with Carthage surrendering its holdings in Sicily; the second began in part due to provocations from the Romans however the start is most commonly landmarked by Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and arrival into Italy. Here is an account of the Battle of Trebia.
Hannibal Barca after crossing the alps in winter and achieving a small victory against Publicus Cornelius Scipio, consolidated his forces and prepared for the roman counter attack around the Province of Piacenza. Although Hannibal lost a lot of men in the crossing he was in a comfortable position, receiving the warm hospitality of roman colonies unhappy with their Latin rulers and having his ranks swelled by Gallic troops flocking to his cause.
In Rome the news of Scipio’s defeat angered the senate and so a new army was conscripted and placed under the command of Tiberius Sempronius Longus a consul and experienced military commander with the orders to support the recovering army of Scipio and crush the advance of Hannibal.
Setting out north the newly assembled and mostly untrained troops of Sempronius would have been feeling the cold bite of a harsh winter. Frequent snow and rain had swollen the surrounding rivers and the march north would have been anything but pleasant.
As the Romans where advancing Hanibals position in north Italy was slipping, the Gauls now fearfull of Roman reprisals thought to appease both sides of the conflict. Hannibal incensed by these reports sent out both infantry and cavalry to ravage the land on his side of the river Trebia. The Gauls in response sent an appeal to the romans and Sempronius sent out his cavalry, which drove the Carthaginians back to camp. Rallying back, the Carthaginians pushed the romans back to the river and then halted there advance preferring a battle of their choosing to a spontaneous one.
Sempronius camped now across the opposite bank of the river Trebia sees this initial exchange as a victory. Where Scipio was wounded and suffered a defeat, Sempronius had succeeded. Full of confidence he appeals to his peers, with aim to convince them that Scipio’s extra legions where not needed and that now is the time to strike.
On the morning of the 18th under the slight cover of darkness Hannibal does two things. First he sent his brother Mago and 2,000 men to a craggy overgrown patch south of the ford in the river to lay in ambush, secondly he sent his light cavalry across the ford to harass the Roman camp.
Before even breakfast the roman sentry’s where being pelted by missiles and taunted to battle.
Roused early and still eager to battle from yesterday’s victory, Sempronius orders his 36-48 thousand men to make ready and march upon Hannibal’s position.
Hannibal across the river his 40 thousand men well fed and oiled to protect from the cold, waits for the romans to fall into his trap.
The romans reaching the ford found the river icy cold and swollen, Sempronius gives the command to cross. Each man up to his armpits in freezing water is soon chilled to the bone, barely able to hold their weapons. The Romans cross, Hannibal waits, the Romans reform ranks, Hannibal still waits. Only after the battle lines have been drawn does Hannibal advance. Engaging the Romans as a line and beating them at their own game, Hannibal knows a victory in this style will give his men the most confidence.
As they engage Mago attacks from the rear flanking the romans, while Hannibal’s cavalry drive off the inferior Roman mounted troops. Sempronius seeing his flanks crumble does the only thing he can, pull his most elite 10,000 units into a hollow square and try to force his through the Carthaginian line.
Hannibal’s troops preoccupied with the slaughter of the routing romans in a lapse of judgment allow for Sempronius to break through and retreat.
Although most of Sempronius’ elite troops survived the battle it was still a crushing defeat for the Romans, and sealed Semproniu’s fate, he later lost his re-election to consul.
The Romans where known to have lost all men bar the 10,000, leaving casualties in the region of 60% – 80% depending on the source.
The battle of Trebia was Hannibal’s first great victory firmly cementing him in history as one of the most skilled and admired strategists of all time.