The Battle of the Trebia River (218 B.C.E.)


The Battle of the Trebia River was the first
of a string of three major victories won by Hannibal over the Roman Republic, during the
Second Punic War. During this war, Hannibal of Carthage audaciously
launched a secret invasion of Italy, and for three years in a row, faced off against everything
that Rome could muster, winning every time. I’m not going to explain what the Second Punic
War was, because if I started down that road I would never get to this battle. Hannibal
was in Italy and the Romans wanted him out of Italy. You can look it up if you want more
than that. So, the Battle of the Trebia River was the
first major set piece battle of Hannibal’s invasion. There had already been one skirmish
between Hannibal’s army and a small Roman army commanded by a Consul, but the Romans
had been forced to retreat. The other Consul was marching up from the south, commanding
a large army of his own. The two consuls joined forces in December
of 218 BCE. They tracked down Hannibal, who was encamped near the Trebia River in Northern
Italy. They closed in on him, encamping on the opposite side of the river, and preparing
for battle. Let’s look at the strengths of the two armies. They were almost equal in strength. The Romans
slightly outnumbered the Carthaginians, but not by much. The Carthaginians had 38,000 men. 10,000 of
them were high quality cavalry, 20,000 were armoured heavy infantry, and 8,000 light infantry.
Allied Gauls made up a third of this army. The Romans had 40,000 men. This consisted
of 4,000 cavalry, 16,000 Roman heavy infantry, and 20,000 assorted infantry from their Italian
allies. Hannibal spent some time exploring his side
of the river. He discovered an old dried out riverbed that had overgrown with very long
grass. He now knew where he wanted to fight. In the middle of the night, he ordered 1,000
infantry and 1,000 cavalry to silently sneak into the grassy riverbed. Early the next morning, Hannibal initiated
the battle. He sent all of his remaining cavalry across the river to attack the Romans at dawn.
By the way, the river was only like 4 feet deep, just so we’re all clear. Nobody was
swimming, okay? The Romans frantically ran around trying to get people up and ready to
fight. By the time they threw together a meaningful defense, the Carthaginian cavalry was already
heading back across the river. It was a hit and run attack. As the infantry continued to form up, the
Romans sent the cavalry in pursuit. As you can see, the Carthaginian cavalry significantly
outnumbered their Roman counterparts by over 2 to 1. I can’t help but wonder what the Romans
thought they were accomplishing when they went after the Carthaginians like this. What
were they going to do if they ever caught them? It seems like somebody gave an impulsive
order in the midst of the surprise attack. Look at them, they’re out in the middle of
nowhere, they’re sitting ducks. Fortunately for them, Hannibal wasn’t interested
in them right now. The Carthaginians led them on a wild goose chase, and refused to engage.
The Roman cavalry eventually gave up, exhausted, as their heavy infantry began to cross the
river. Hannibal arranged his men in a single defensive
line. He placed his African heavy infantry on his right, his Spanish heavy infantry on
his left, and his Gallic allies in the centre, his cavalry assembled on the wings. The Romans arranged themselves in the standard
three line formation, common during the Republic. They placed the Roman heavy infantry in the
centre, with their Italian allies on the right and left. The cavalry were on the wings. After lots of waiting around and shivering
in the cold, the battle begins. 10,000 Carthaginian cavalry immediately charge forward and go
after the 4,000 mounted Romans. Some lightly armoured Carthaginian infantry followed, and
the Romans, exhausted and outnumbered, didn’t put up much of a fight. The veteran Roman heavy infantry from the
first two lines advanced to meet the Gauls. They hit them hard, the Gauls begin to slowly
lose ground. The Carthaginian cavalry and infantry on the
wings have finally chased off the last of the Romans. They suddenly turned, and collapse
in on the enemy flanks. The Roman allies on both sides are now fighting in two directions
at once. They were starting to get nervous. This was not good. The Roman heavy infantry in the centre were
oblivious to all of this. They heard the crash of battle all around them, but they were doing
great, and were tearing through the Gauls, gaining more and more ground. At this point, as if they planned it or something,
the hidden Carthaginian troops crashed out of their grass concealment. 1,000 cavalry
and 1,000 infantry charged the Roman rear. Fortunately for the Romans, they still had
an uncommitted third line, who turned to meet the enemy. This was enough to stop the Carthaginians
in their tracks, but as you can see, the Romans were now fighting in all directions. Not an
ideal. But finally, the Romans had a major breakthrough!
The heavy infantry in the centre, still oblivious to what was going on around them, finally
cut through the last of the Gauls. They were now on the other side of the enemy, with no
orders. But…I don’t even know how to describe what happens next. They made it through the
Gauls, and then they kept going. And going. And going. I don’t know if this was cowardice
or stupidity, but they…just…kept…going…forward… right off the edge of the map. When they arrived
in the nearest town they started telling people that they won the battle. Maybe these meatheads
actually believed it, I don’t know. Way to ruin everything, idiots. The Roman allies, who were already fighting
on two fronts, finally clued in to the fact that they were being attacked to the rear
as well. This was too much for them. Units started to ignore orders, and everything kind
of turned into a free for all. The Cargaginians closed in, and easily finished the job. The
Roman third line kept its cool, and were last seen heroically making a last stand, fighting
in all four directions at once. They were eventually overwhelmed. The battle was now
over. The Romans lost a lot of men. By a lot I mean
least 20,000. Probably more like 30,000. It was a disaster. The Carthaginians lost around 5,000 men, mostly
Gauls. The funny thing is, after such a resounding victory, these losses were easily replaced
by new Gauls flocking to Hannibal’s banner. What I want you to take away from this battle
is how well Hannibal knew his enemy. Know that saying “no plan survives first contact
with the enemy?” Doesn’t really apply here, does it? If you go back and look, he accurately
predicted almost every move his enemy made in the battle. Two things didn’t go exactly
according to plan. First, he probably didn’t anticipate that the Romans would have a third
line available to meet his ambush. But at that point he had them surrounded anyways,
so it didn’t really make a difference. Second, I’m sure he had hoped the Gauls to hold their
own against the Romans. But in the end it worked out because they inexplicably removed
themselves from the battlefield. During the next campaigning season, Hannibal
would do it all again at the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Stay tuned for that.

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