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Political will, and the Punic Wars
Romans got things done. Why can't we?
The year is 2022 AD. The United States appears stagnant and embroiled in quagmires. Even when Congress passes the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act —an investment in American economic productivity and quality of life whose only relevant comparator is the New Deal— it is derided either as a “socialist takeover” or as “not nearly enough to overcome the government’s failure for decades to maintain and upgrade the country’s infrastructure”. Why can’t we get things done? And even when we do, why does it seem like a failure to everyone?
I’m reminded of the Second Punic War…
The year is 217 BC. The Roman Republic is about the suffer one of the most disastrous military defeats in its history. Gaius Flaminius, who holds the highest political office in the Republic, is leading an enormous Roman army along the northern edge of Lake Trasimene, in the modern-day Italian region of Tuscany.
Flaminius is pursuing Hannibal, the general of an army from Carthage, a city-state in modern-day Tunisia. Carthage had been Rome’s arch-rival for around 50 years. The two Mediterranean superpowers had fought their first major war in a contest for control over the island of Sicily. That first war, which had lasted for over 20 years, ended in Carthaginian defeat. The Carthaginians then provoked a second major war. There were some initial skirmishes, but things really heated up for Rome when, in an epic journey, the general Hannibal invaded Italy from the north. He marched his army by land from Spain to southern France and then over the snowy Alps. Hannibal’s unexpected descent into the Roman heartland, with a force that even included a few elephants that had survived the Alps crossing, gave him the strategic initiative at the start of the Second Punic War.
(These wars were called “Punic” because of the Roman word for Carthaginian, punicus. Historians sometimes remark that, had the war gone differently, we might today give the war a Carthaginian rather than a Roman name, because Western civilization might have been based on Carthaginian, rather than Roman, culture.)
The Battle of Lake Trasimene was going to be a Roman disaster, and it wasn’t the first in this war. The year before Trasimene, another Roman general had faced off with Hannibal at the Battle of the Trebia River, in northern Italy near the Alps. At the Trebia, Hannibal’s superior generalship had led to Roman defeat and the death of something around 10,000 Roman soldiers.
The enormity of the Roman loss at the Trebia requires some contextualization. In those days, the whole of Italy had around 10 million inhabitants. Ten thousand deaths out of 10 million people is one death per one thousand people. The Battle of Gettysburg killed about 2 of every 1,000 Americans. During all of World War II, 3 of every 1,000 Americans died.
The disaster at Trebia caused a short panic in Rome. Things calmed when the defeated Roman general, who held the highest political office, returned to the city and presided over the annual elections. Gaius Flaminius, who would later lead the Romans at Lake Trasimene, was elected to high office. He raised new legions to replace the ones lost at the Trebia, then set out to pursue Hannibal.
Hannibal likely could have defeated the Romans in the open field, but his supply lines were very long, and he had no prideful need to fight a “normal” battle. Instead, he set a trap for the Romans, feigning a retreat that enticed Flaminius to pursue Hannibal around Lake Trasimene. The Roman troops were marching essentially single file along the edge of the lake, in the dead of night. (Some ancient sources say there was a thick fog, although this is debated; Roman writers tried to make it seem like the deck was stacked against them.)
Hannibal’s troops swarmed down from the hills, catching the disorganized Romans between them and the lake. Some Roman legionnaires tried to swim to safety but drowned because of their heavy armor. Some got in as deep as their necks, and the Carthaginian cavalry chopped off their heads like they were playing polo. Fifteen thousand Romans, including Flaminius, died in the ambush. Another 15,000 were taken prisoner. It was a loss two or three times as great as the one suffered at the Trebia.
With the Roman armies defeated, Hannibal began marching on Rome. Now the panic in the city was intense, and an extreme measure was taken: the election of a dictator. For one year, the Republic’s normal democratic procedures would be suspended, and a single man would be in charge. The Senate chose Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. Fabius was considered old and wise: he was in his early 60s and had already served in Rome’s highest office twice.
Fabius earned the nickname Cunctator, or “Delayer”, because he believed that Hannibal was a better general than any Roman, and direct confrontation with Hannibal would lead to further losses like at the Trebia and Lake Trasimene. (Hannibal reportedly ranked himself as the third greatest general in history, after Alexander the Great and King Pyrrhus of Epirus.) For a year, he rebuilt Rome’s military strength and engaged in guerilla tactics, harassing but not openly engaging Hannibal.
But wait, why didn’t the Carthaginians just destroy Rome? They had defeated Rome’s major army, and Hannibal could have marched right to Rome. Well, Hannibal had three problems. The first was that he didn’t have siege engines like catapults to destroy Rome’s walls. The second was that sending siege engines or more troops from Carthage to Italy was very challenging. Hannibal would come to control a lot of Italian cities and territory, but not the key harbors that would be required for unloading troop transport ships.
The third problem was that Carthage would never provide Hannibal with the kind of financial or military support that Rome continued to muster in its own defense. Like Rome, Carthage was an aristocratic republic. Carthage had a Senate, elected offices, separations of powers, factions, and infighting. But Carthage was even more clannish than Rome, and the Punic Wars were fought primarily by Hannibal’s family, rather than by Carthage as a whole.
Hannibal would go on to win more victories, the greatest of which was the Battle of Cannae, which killed 60,000 Roman soldiers, more than the losses at the Trebia and Lake Trasimene combined. But the Romans kept fighting and raising more troops, sending more of their young men to die. In 204 BC, more than 10 years after Lake Trasimene, Rome was finally able to launch a counterattack, landing an army in North Africa and threatening Carthage itself. Hannibal was recalled from Italy and then defeated by the Roman general Scipio. Carthage sued for peace, the Second Punic War ended, and Carthage lost most of its overseas territories. Scipio was later nicknamed Africanus, the “Africa Guy”, in recognition of his role in defeating Carthage.
Now, to call the Romans the “heroes” of this story would overlook their dark side. Fifty years after the end of the Second Punic War, the Romans provoked another war with Carthage. In the end, they burnt Carthage to the ground and murdered or enslaved every civilian in the city.
To call the Romans “heroes” also implies that we relate to them. But to me, it seems like we are more like the Carthaginians in this story, in which Hannibal’s great achievements are not followed up on. After the Battle of Cannae, the Romans’ single greatest military defeat, the Carthaginian Senate was enthusiastic about sending reinforcements to Hannibal. One Carthaginian senator, Mago, objected: because we won, we have to send Hannibal more troops and money. But if we lost, wouldn’t we have to do the same thing? Mago was overruled, but his nagging sense of doubt about the utility of the war against the Romans eventually overcame the rest of the Carthaginian Senate too. I hypothesize that, if the Carthaginians had wanted to win as badly as the Romans did, they could have. But they didn’t.
If we’re the Carthaginians, I’m not sure who the Romans are, but I do have the sense that we, as an American people, aren’t winning.