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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 1
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Romans
on the Riviera and the Rhone

by W. H. Hall

originally published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Ch. 3

 p17  Chapter II
Hannibal in the Rhone Valley

The first important event in Roman history, coming within the scope of this work, of which any details have been handed down to us is Hannibal's invasion of Italy. It was this event which for the first time brought a Roman army into the Rhone valley (B.C. 218). On the outbreak of the second Punic War, which they had just declared against Carthage, the Romans hoped, by despatching armies by sea to operate in Sicily and Spain, that they might succeed in keeping the war out of Italy. The Consuls of the year were Tiberius Sempronius and Publius Cornelius Scipio. To the former Sicily was assigned as his province, with instructions to carry the war into Africa, if circumstances seemed to require it. Spain fell to the lot of Scipio.

When the Carthaginians had lost their supremacy at sea and with it all hold of Sicily and Sardinia, as the result of their defeat by the Romans in the first Punic War, they determined to seek compensation for this blow by extending their influence and consolidating their power in Spain. Although the Romans clearly perceived that an enormous increase of strength must inevitably accrue to the Carthaginians, from acquiring Spain as a new field for recruiting their armies, they were powerless to interfere, being fully engaged nearer home in a life and death contest with the Cisalpine Gauls on their flank. Thus Spain became the Carthaginian base at the outset of the second Punic War.

 p18  His colleague Sempronius having duly set out with his fleet and army for Sicily in the spring of the year B.C. 218, Scipio was about to embark for Spain, when news arrived of the critical state of affairs in Cisalpine Gaul. For the origin of the wars waged intermittently with the Cisalpine Gauls by the Romans for two centuries before their final subjugation in B.C. 191, we must go back to the sack and burning of Rome, B.C. 390 — a disaster brought about accidentally by the wanton interference of Romans in the struggle between the Gauls and Etruscans.

For having, about 20 years before, driven the Etruscans from the Po valley out of all but a few exceptionally strong places, such as Mantua, inaccessible from its surrounding marshes, the Cisalpine Gauls, their numbers constantly swollen by fresh swarms of their Transalpine kinsmen, had overflowed first into Umbria, and thence through the passes of the Apennines into Etruria proper.

They might have stopped short of attacking Rome, had the Roman ambassadors abstained from joining in the hostilities before Clusium. But once blood was shed between Romans and Gauls, it was destined to flow in a never-ending stream. Sometimes against the Cisalpine Gauls single-handed, at others against Cisalpines banded with Etruscans or Samnites, and sometimes in alliance with Transalpine Gaesatae, or mercenaries, the Romans waged bloody wars with fluctuating success between B.C. 390 and the final subjugation of the Boii by Scipio Nasica B.C. 191.

The defeat of the Romans 390 B.C. at the battle of the Allia, followed by the sack and burning of Rome by the Gauls, had been a rude beginning of relations between the Eternal City and the Gallic tribes. It was a lesson, which was branded deep into the flesh of Romans. As long as the Republic lasted, there was an ever present sense in Roman breasts of overwhelming danger in the background from Gallic invasion. The  p19 subjugation of Gallia Cisalpina and its constitution B.C. 191 as a Roman province by no means put an end to their fears. For what the Romans really dreaded was the vague limitless 'Gaul' outside and wrapping round Gallia Cisalpina — itself a mere reservoir fed by the vast ocean of barbarians always ready to flow over the Alps into Italy. This Gaul beyond the Alps must by no means be confined to the Roman Province Gallia Transalpina, answering to modern France. To be rightly understood, it must be conceived of as including all the countries separated from Italy by the whole semicircle of the Alps. Other wars waged by the Romans were wars, but Gallic wars were declared 'tumultus,' which required military service of old and young. A special fund was always in reserve in the Treasury to meet the expense of Gallic irruptions — a fund which was scrupulously respected and left untouched till Julius Caesar seized it at the close of his conquest of Gaul on the ground that his victories had put an end to further danger from that quarter.

To exterminate the Senones, the nearest of Gallic settlers to Roman territory, and wipe out the insult of the burning of Rome, required a hundred years of intermittent fighting. It was not till B.C. 283 that the first Roman colony — Sena Gallica on the coast of the Adriatic — was founded on soil won back from Gallic invaders of Italy.

It was next the turn of the gallant Boii, and their allies the Insubres, to encounter the Roman arms. The first period of the war against these tribes had lasted about 60 years, when, despairing of holding out longer, after their chief centre Mediolanum (Milan) had fallen into the hands of the Romans, the Boii and Insubres sued for peace, giving hostages as a guarantee of abstention from further hostilities. As the territory of these two tribes was the most fertile and central of Cisalpine Gaul, the Romans determined to plant at Placentia on the south bank of the Po, and at Cremona  p20 a few miles to the north of that river, strong military colonies, which should hold the Gauls in check.

Hardly were the hostages handed over, and peace concluded, when emissaries from Hannibal arrived to announce his projected invasion, and excite the Gauls of the Cisalpine to fresh insurrection. Without hesitation, the Gauls, responding to Hannibal's summons, threw themselves in overwhelming numbers on the three Roman commissioners, engaged in the act of parcelling out the confiscated Gallic territory amongst the newly arrived colonists, 6,000 of whom were destined to occupy Placentia, and 6,000 Cremona.1

Of neither of these places were the defences sufficiently completed to offer adequate protection to the colonists, who were taken completely by surprise. The sight of these chains forging for their future subjection excited the Gauls to such a degree, that they drove the commissioners and colonists clean off the ground; they fled for their lives as far as Mutina (Modena), where they at last found shelter.

To aid in rescuing the beleaguered commissioners, and in re-establishing Roman authority in Cisalpine Gaul, the consul Publius Cornelius Scipio found himself under the necessity of detaching under the praetor Atilius one of the two legions with which he was about to start for Spain. It was clear that the Romans had got a Gallic, as well as a Carthaginian, war on hand. If the two should combine, and the Gauls find in Hannibal a leader capable of welding their forces into a solid mass, the outlook for the Romans would be desperate. It was more than ever urgent to keep Hannibal out of Italy.

However, to raise a new legion was a work of time, and the summer was well advanced, when at last Scipio got under way with his flotilla of sixty quinqueremes, conveying 8,000 Roman and 14,000 allied infantry, with 600 Roman and 1,600 allied cavalry. Of Scipio's voyage  p21 we read in Polybius (I quote from Mr Shuckburgh's translation), "Publius Cornelius Scipio coasted along Liguria, and crossing in five days from Pisae to Marseilles, dropped anchor at the most eastern mouth of the Rhone, called the mouth of Marseilles, and began disembarking his troops."2 From Livy we learn that during the latter part of the voyage the Roman flotilla sailed past the mountains of the Salyes (Salluvii), and that the sea being rough, the troops were on their arrival incapacitated by sea-sickness for immediate operations.3

From the classical narratives, one would be inclined to infer that Marseilles was situated at the mouth of the Rhone.4 As a matter of fact, that city lies at least twenty miles to the eastward of its most easterly branch, and is completely separated from the Rhone by the Étang de Berre, a vast salt-water lake, and by several ranges of limestone hills. Along the foot of the hills which shut in the city of Marseilles on the north there intervenes a sheltered undercliff some five miles in width, forming a picturesque approach to the sea, in pleasing contrast to the bare plateau traversed to the north of the range. To cultivate and at the same time garrison this fertile band of territory, the Phocaean traders took into their service friendly Celts, who served as a convenient buffer between them and their persistent assailants the Ligurian Salyes. The city itself was originally confined to the peninsula to the west of its almost land-locked harbour, which was unconnected with any fresh-water inlet.

In selecting this site for their city, the Phocaeans shewed the greatest sagacity. For every Mediterranean river-mouth gets sooner or later silted up and rendered useless as a harbour. Such is notably the case with the  p22 Rhone, the navigation of which even in the days of Caius Marius was so difficult, that that commander, while awaiting the invasion of the Cimbri and Teutones, had to cut a separate channel, by which to convey supplies from the sea to his camp on Les Alpinesº — a jagged and picturesque range of hills cutting the Rhone valley at a right angle near Tarascon.

Considering the friendly relations existing between the Romans and Massiliots, it was only natural that Scipio should call at Marseilles on his way to Spain, with the view of getting news of Hannibal's latest movements. Being in constant communication by means of swift despatch boats with their important trading station Emporia, at the foot of the Pyrenees, the Massiliots were well posted in the proceedings of the Carthaginians in that quarter.

Great was the astonishment and disappointment of Scipio, when he learned from the friendly Massiliots that their common enemy Hannibal, whom Scipio still fondly hoped to encounter in Spain, had not only crossed the Pyrenees, but had already reached the Rhone. This must have happened about the end of July or early in August.

Upon receiving this intelligence, Scipio at once despatched up the Rhone valley a cavalry reconnaissance, consisting of 300 legionary horsemen with some of the friendly Celts5 in the pay of the Massiliots as guides, with orders to find out the exact whereabouts of the Carthaginian army. For Scipio did not yet despair of co-operating with the Volcae in effectually opposing Hannibal's passage of the Rhone.

But the Carthaginian general had again been too quick for the Romans. For after his descent from the Pyrenees on Illiberis, Hannibal, by means of bribes and persuasion, was so successful in winning over the Gallic kinglets ('reguli') assembled at Ruscino (Roussillon),  p23 that they not only allowed him to pass unmolested, but supplied him with timber for the construction of rafts and canoes for the transport of his forces across the Rhone.6 However, at the actual point of his crossing, Roquemaure, on a level with Orange, four days' march from the sea (so arranged as to take him above the junction of, and avoid the difficult passage of, the Durance at Avignon), Hannibal ultimately found himself opposed by some Volcae, who at that period appear to have occupied territory on the left bank of the Rhone, opposite their main settlements on the right bank.

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The Rhone, near Roquemaure where Hannibal crossed

To overcome this show of opposition to his passage of the Rhone in front, Hannibal sent round a party, chiefly consisting of Spaniards under Hanno, to a point higher up the river, where a large island facilitated the passage. Having crossed successfully, the Spaniards floating over on their clothes stretched out on bladders, Hanno, descending the left bank, threw the ranks of the Volcae into confusion by setting fire to the camp in their rear. So Hannibal effected his passage practically unopposed, the 37 elephants being got over last.

While the somewhat tedious operation of conveying the elephants over was in progress, Hannibal, who had meanwhile been informed of the disembarcation of Scipio's army at the Massiliot mouth of the Rhone, despatched a body of 500 Numidian horsemen to reconnoitre the enemy. So completely was the Numidian rider at one with his horse, that he used no bridle to guide him. Falling in with the cavalry sent forward by Scipio, the Numidians attacked them with their usual impetuosity. A desperate mêlée ensued, in which about 200 were slain on either side. But the Romans eventually got the better of it, and drove the Numidians back to the Carthaginian camp. This was the first Roman blood shed in Transalpine Gaul.

While Hannibal hesitated between accepting the  p24 battle which Scipio was anxious to force upon him and continuing his march direct to the Alps, Magalus, one of their chiefs, and other envoys of the Cisalpine Boii, arrived in camp in the nick of time, offering themselves as guides, and protesting their readiness to share the risks of the passage. As the envoys of the Boii had themselves just crossed the Alps, their presence was the best proof which could be offered to the hesitating Carthaginians of the feasibility of the passage. The Boii, being in the habit of getting over Gaesatae or Transalpine mercenaries to assist them in their wars with the Romans, naturally made light of the difficulties of the Alps. Yielding to these representations, the Carthaginians broke up their camp, pitched at the point, four days' march from the sea, where the crossing of the Rhone had been effected. In four more days they reached the junction of the Rhone and the Isère, forming the fertile island described by Polybius,7 making together eight days' march.

From the present distance of about 120 miles from the mouth of the Rhone to the so‑called island at its junction with the Isère, we must deduct at least eight to allow for the alluvial deposit brought down by the Rhone in 2000 years. This would leave 112 miles, which at the rate of 14 miles a day would just require eight days to accomplish. The four days' march of 56 miles from the sea would thus agree with fixing the site of Hannibal's passage of the Rhone at the village of Roquemaure, on a level with Orange.

The first day's march from Orange northwards lying across a level plain, the Carthaginians would have encountered no serious obstacle, as the channels of the not-unfrequent torrents would have been dry in the late summer. As it was now Hannibal's immediate object to avoid an encounter with the Romans, he doubtless availed himself of the favourable nature of the ground to put as great a distance as possible between himself  p25 and Scipio by exceeding his average marching-distance on the first day.

It is therefore probable that he pushed on as far as Donzère, some twenty miles north of Orange, where the wide plain of Provence suddenly ceases, and the Rhone enters the first of the narrow gorges which recur at intervals for the rest of its course. It is at Donzère, where a picturesque line of mediaeval towers and fortifications now crowns the heights commanding the entrance of the gorge, that the brightness of the Midi ends, or begins, according to the direction in which the traveller is proceeding.

As one surveys the almost limitless plain stretching southward, and presenting quite oriental features, one realizes how completely the white burnooses of the Numidians, the turbans of the Africans, and the line of the elephants must have harmonized with the landscape. One reflects too that if Hannibal had meant fighting, the plain was his opportunity with his vast superiority of cavalry. But he knew how much depended on his getting safely over the Alps before the weather broke up, and wisely determined to allow nothing to detain him on the lower Rhone. Had he adhered to this prudent resolution, instead of wasting precious weeks in the country of the Allobroges, Hannibal would have avoided the loss of half his army in crossing the Alps.

Once the gorge of Donzère was entered, the marching must have become more difficult and the rate slower. The second camping ground was probably Montelimar, and the third the junction of the Drôme with the Rhone, between Livron and Loriol. That no mention is made of even so considerable a river as the Drôme, shows how meagre was the information about the local geography possessed either by Polybius or Livy. The fourth day's march brought Hannibal to the junction of the Isère with the Rhone — the only point we can determine with absolute certainty on the whole march.

 p26  On the third day after Hannibal had quitted it, Scipio arrived in order of battle at the deserted Carthaginian camp on the Rhone opposite Roquemaure. Recognizing the hopelessness of overtaking the enemy, the Roman commander at once decided to march back to the mouth of the Rhone. There he immediately re-embarked his army, which he despatched to Spain under his brother Cnaeus, realizing the importance of cutting Hannibal off from his base in that country. Retaining but a handful of followers, Publius Scipio himself sailed back to Genoa, purposing to take over from the praetors Manlius and Atilius the legions under their orders in Cisalpine Gaul. It was Scipio's intention to be ready with these troops to oppose Hannibal on his descent from the Alps into the Po valley.

The Author's Notes:

1 Polyb. III.40.

2 Polyb. III.41.

3 Livy XXI.26. The mountains of the Salluvii are now called 'Les Maures,' extending from Hyères to valley of the Argens.

4 See Maps of Bouches du Rhône and Plan of ancient Marseilles.

5 Probably the Albici referred to in Caesar's De Bello Civili, I c. 34, inhabitants of the modern city of Riez, Dept. Basses Alpes.

6 Polyb. III.42.

7 Polyb. III.49.

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Page updated: 26 Aug 16