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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 3
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. 5

 p36  Chapter IV
Invasions of Cisalpine Gaul and Liguria by Hasdrubal and Mago

For the next ten years of the second Punic War, B.C. 217‑208, during which the Romans were actively engaged with Hannibal in central and southern Italy, nothing of importance occurred in the regions within the range of this work. But the spring of B.C. 207 is notable for the rapid march of Hasdrubal from Spain through the western passes of the Pyrenees into Gaul, and across the Rhone valley to the Alps. On this occasion, not only did the Gauls, as Livy tells us,1 everywhere receive him favourably, but contingents of the powerful Arverni and other tribes followed him into Italy.

The Alpine nations too, who had given Hannibal so much trouble, allowed Hasdrubal to pass unmolested, realizing by this time that the Carthaginians only wanted a road through the Alps by the passage which Hannibal had opened up, probably over the Mont Cenis. For the Durance valley route, as I explained in the preceding chapter, leading over the Mont Genèvre pass from the lower Rhone valley, lay much too far south to have ever served as a convenient passage from central Gaul into Italy.

When the news of Hasdrubal's unexpected arrival in the valley of the Po, and of a contingent of 8000 Ligurians being prepared to join him, was sent to Rome by L. Porcius, the praetor, who commanded a weak  p37 force in Cisalpine Gaul, the greatest consternation prevailed. If the junction between Hasdrubal and Hannibal could only be effected, the Romans, barely able to hold their ground against Hannibal alone, must inevitably be crushed.

If Hasdrubal had only pushed on at once, there was nothing to have stopped him from joining his brother. But his evil star drove him to waste the precious time gained by his rapid march, in laying siege to the now impregnable fortress of Placentia, which, even with its incomplete defences, had defied Hannibal ten years earlier. It was this delay which enabled the consul Claudius Nero, who commanded against Hannibal in southern Italy, to form and carry out the daring conception of rapidly transporting 7000 of his picked troops to reinforce his plebeian colleague Livius, who with an inadequate force was fearfully awaiting Hasdrubal's advance in Umbria. It was the crushing defeat of Hasdrubal at the battle of the river Metaurus, resulting from this brilliant manoeuvre, which practically decided the second Punic War in favour of the Romans. However, in the summer of B.C. 205, two years after the defeat and death of Hasdrubal, while Hannibal still held on to the Lacinian promontory in Bruttii, the Carthaginians determined to make one more attempt to create a diversion in Liguria by exciting a rising of Ligurians and Gauls.

This time it was to be the turn of the youngest brother Mago to try his hand at retrieving the failing fortunes of Hannibal. Thrice, in the first year of the war, had Mago distinguished himself by his daring. First, after the cavalry engagement on the Ticino, where Publius Scipio was wounded and driven back, it was Mago who had swum the Po with his Numidians in pursuit of the retreating enemy; at the Trebia, it was he who decided the battle by rising in the rear of the Romans from ambush, and throwing them into confusion; and it was Mago to whom Hannibal confided the hard task of keeping the Gallic contingent up to the  p38 mark in the trying march through the Etruscan marshes, which cost Hannibal the loss of an eye.

Sailing from the island of Minorca, where he had passed the winter, with 30 war-ships and a fleet of transports conveying 12,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry, and a number of elephants, Mago made a sudden descent on Genoa, which he captured without striking a blow.2 However, not feeling strong enough to retain possession of so important a place — for, like Marseilles, Genoa was in intimate alliance with Rome, and used as a friendly port by the Romans — he set fire to the town and withdrew with his rich booty to Savona, where he deposited it in the custody of his allies, the Ligures Alpini.

At this time the Ligurians of the Western Riviera were engaged in internecine warfare. The lowland Ingauni — a comparatively civilized tribe occupying the coast at Albenga, were at war with the Epanterii — a highland people dwelling among the Ligurian Alps. By making an alliance with the Ingauni Mago secured at once a footing on the coast and access to the pass over the Apennines by the valley of the Centa, which falls into the sea at Albenga. His first step was doubtless to seize the rocky island of Gallinara, which lies like a guardship off the shore.

Occupying the widest and most fertile plain to be met with on the whole Riviera, the Ingauni could always supply the necessaries of life to coasting navigation, and were brought earlier into contact with traders than their less fortunate neighbours. It was for this reason that Mago selected Albenga for the base of his operations, reckoning on finding there abundance of corn,º fresh food, and forage, of which his men and beasts must have stood in urgent need after their long sea voyage.

Joining in a successful attack on the Epanterii Montani, Mago got his share of the prisoners captured, whom he at once despatched to Carthage with the plunder secured at Genoa, being anxious to lose no time  p39 in sending home proof of the success of his expedition. Unluckily, however, for him, 80 of his merchantmen were made prizes by the Roman admiral, Cnaeus Octavius, who kept a sharp look-out from his station off the island of Sardinia.

While Mago still lay with his fleet off Albenga he received direct from Carthage a reinforcement of ships and men, which contrived to escape the vigilance of the Roman admiral. On the strength of this accession of strength,º the Carthaginian general at once summoned a council of the chiefs of the Gauls and Ligurians, of both of which nationalities an immense host had flocked into Albenga.3

Addressing the assembled chiefs, and pointing to the ships just arrived from Carthage, as a proof of the determination of his government to assist them to the utmost of its power in attaining their independence of the Romans, Mago strongly urged the immediate enrolment of the largest possible force of Gauls and Ligurians.

To this appeal, however, neither Gauls nor Ligurians responded with much alacrity. While both nationalities professed willingness to assist, the Gauls begged to be allowed to aid secretly in supplying stores, while the Ligurians asked for two months' delay before enlisting fresh soldiers.

It must have soon become clear to Mago that neither Gauls nor Ligurians were as ripe for revolt or as ready to take up arms as the Carthaginian government had reckoned on. Having astutely availed themselves of Mago's assistance in their campaign against their highland enemies the Epanterii, the Ingauni considered that they had had enough of fighting for that year (B.C. 205).

Like their neighbours the Gauls, the Ligurians were averse to sustained efforts or prolonged campaigns. More than once Roman armies had been saved from annihilation by the withdrawal of the Transalpine Gaesatae, bent on lodging safely at home, or immediately  p40 enjoying the booty of a first victory. Irresistible in their first onslaughts, the Gauls failed in the long run to reap any permanent fruit from the terror with which they inspired the Romans at first.

As far as we can gather from Livy, the year B.C. 204 also passed without any active hostilities taking place, although we read of the "imperium" of the commanders M. Livius and Spurius Lucretius being prolonged for the purpose of opposing Mago's expected invasion of Gallia Cisalpina. At all events, it was not till the following year, B.C. 203, by which time Mago had crossed the Apennines4 and penetrated into the territory of the Insubres, that a decisive battle was fought.

M. Livius and Spurius Lucretius had by this time given up their commands to Quinctilius Varus and M. Cornelius, whose united forces consisted of 16,000 Roman and 28,000 allied infantry, with about 3600 cavalry.

We are not told what numbers Mago was able to get together to oppose to the Romans. The battle, however, was most obstinately contested, and the issue doubtful up to the last. It was begun by the infantry, which on both sides held its ground tenaciously, the advantage being rather on the side of the Carthaginians. Observing this, the praetor Quinctilius seized the occasion to hurl the whole of his cavalry on the unbroken ranks of the enemy. Led by his high-spirited son Marcus, the Roman cavalry charged home and were carrying all before them, when Mago opportunely brought up his elephants. Terrified by the trumpeting and smell of the monstrous brutes, the Roman horses, becoming unmanageable, galloped back into the ranks  p41 of the infantry, pursued by the Numidians, whose discharges of javelins told with deadly effect on the confused ranks of the Romans.

Having so far borne the chief brunt of the fighting, the 12th Roman legion was now reduced to a skeleton, and would have been swept off the ground, to which it clung more from shame than from strength5 (as Livy picturesquely expresses it), had not the 13th legion, which had been kept in reserve, come up to the rescue. Upon this Mago, on his side, brought up his reserve, consisting of Gauls. These, however, proved no match for the fresh legion, which promptly changed the aspect of affairs. Warding off the down stroke of the Gallic swords with their spears, and driving back the elephants by discharging their pila into them at close quarters, the gallant 13th promptly cleared the ground of the enemy in front of them.

Now was the time for a fresh cavalry charge, which was brilliantly executed. But the battle was not yet won. As long as Mago was there to direct operations his Carthaginian infantry maintained the advantage it had gained, in spite of the disorder occasioned by the flight of the Gauls and the elephants. When, however, the brave Mago fell at his post before the standard, fainting from loss of blood, his thigh pierced through, there was no one left to rally round, and Carthaginians, Gauls and Ligurians were mingled in common flight. On the Carthaginian side the killed amounted to 5000; on the Roman to 2300, chiefly belonging to the 12th legion.

When darkness set in the wounded Mago was borne off the field and carried, as rapidly as the nature of his wound admitted of, up the valley of the Tanaro and over the Col de San Bernardo to his ships, which still lay off Albenga. There he found awaiting him Carthaginian envoys, sent to summon him back to Africa, where every  p42 soldier was now required to cope with the desperate situation at home.

Having suffered grievously, in his wounded state, from the shaking inseparable from his transport over the mountains, Mago was in no condition to turn a deaf ear to the orders from Carthage. The enemy too was pressing on his heels, and the Ingauni, finding themselves about to be abandoned by the Carthaginians, were naturally disposed to make the best terms they could with the Romans. So Mago, having hurriedly embarked his troops, had himself carried on shipboard, and set sail for Carthage, hoping that the sea-voyage would alleviate the suffering of land carriage. But his wound proved fatal when off the southern point of Sardinia. Thus died Mago, Hannibal's youngest brother and third son of Hamilcar Barca.

Just after his death some of the Carthaginian vessels, getting separated from the main flotilla, were captured by the Roman admiral, who had now a fleet of 40 cruisers under his orders. About the same time, i.e. towards the end of the year B.C. 203, also in obedience to the summons of the Carthaginian senate, Hannibal, after sixteen years' struggle with the Romans in Italy, abandoned his impregnable lines on the Lacinian promontory — a sort of Italian Torres Vedras — and set sail for Carthage.

Only four years before Hannibal had received the first intimation of the defeat and death of Hasdrubal by the horrible spectacle of his brother's head hurled into his camp by the Romans. And now, by the death of his younger brother Mago, who had died at sea at no great distance from Hannibal's flotilla, his last hope was shattered. So Hannibal landed in Africa with a heavy heart to meet his crushing and final defeat at Zama at the hands of Scipio Africanus, son of the Publius Cornelius Scipio who had failed to intercept him in the Rhone valley sixteen years before.

By the terms of the treaty of peace concluded with  p43 Carthage at the close of the second Punic War, B.C. 202, the Carthaginians bound themselves to abstain from further intervention in the Cisalpine Province and Liguria. It was therefore with the utmost astonishment that in B.C. 200 the news was brought to Rome of a general insurrection of Gauls and Ligurians at the instigation of another Carthaginian leader named Hamilcar.

This officer, who had been left behind either by Hasdrubal or Mago, observing the weakened state of the Roman garrisons in the Cisalpine Province, in consequence of the outbreak of the Macedonian war, conceived the daring plan of seizing Placentia and Cremona. Throwing himself with a mixed multitude upon Placentia, so suddenly that there was not even time to shut the gates, Hamilcar carried the place by storm and set fire to the city, taking prisoners the 2000 inhabitants who escaped from the flames.6 In a few hours the great Roman stronghold in the north, which had successfully resisted the attacks of both Hannibal and Hasdrubal, was reduced to a heap of ashes.

Crossing the Po and pressing on to Cremona, some twenty-five miles distant (the two places are now connected by a steam tramway), Hamilcar found the goes shut and the walls manned, the garrison having been warned of his approach in time. Instead of carrying the place by storm as he had hoped, he was reduced to laying siege to it, a tedious operation by no means to the taste of his Gallic and Ligurian followers. This gave breathing time to the Romans, who, by means of extraordinary levies, got together a sufficient force to advance to the relief of Cremona.

A pitched battle, ending in the complete victory of the Romans, was fought under the walls. Their leader Hamilcar being killed, the Gallic and Ligurian host went to pieces, and the Cisalpine Province was once more recovered. The two thousand colonists, taken prisoners by Hamilcar at Placentia, were restored to  p44 their former homes, and the city sprang up from its ruins. Thus Placentia recovered its position as the great Roman centre in the Cisalpine Province.

After the death of Hamilcar the Gauls and Ligurians of Gallia Cisalpina received no further outside assistance in their resistance to the Romans. We hear no more of their invitations to Transalpine Gaesatae to come over to share in the spoils of Italy, nor of the presence of Carthaginian emissaries amongst them. But the Boii held out for another ten years. At last, in the year B.C. 191, the consul Scipio Nasica, whose father Cnaeus thirty years earlier had inflicted a decisive blow on their allies, the Insubres, achieved the distinction of putting an end to the resistance of the Boii.

Brilliant as was the victory won by Scipio Nasica, it was sullied by the excessive cruelty displayed in the extermination of his valiant opponents. For Scipio was not ashamed to boast that he had left only old men and boys alive. According to Strabo, the entire remainder of the Boii sought fresh and distant homes on the banks of the Danube.7 In any case, this was the end of the Boii as a fighting power in Italy, and the end of organised Gallic resistance to the Romans in the valley of the Po.

The triumph of Scipio Nasica was the necessary complement of that of his cousin Scipio Africanus over Hannibal and the Carthaginians eleven years earlier. The Romans were now at last completely freed from the supreme danger of a successful coalition between their two most dreaded foes. One half of the territory of the Boii was immediately confiscated, and within a few years the colonies of Bononia, Mutina, and Parma became centres of Roman civilization. It is from the victory of Scipio Nasica, B.C. 191, that we must date the real beginning of Roman administration in Gallia Cisalpina, with which province Liguria was at first officially included.

The Author's Notes:

1 Livy, XXVII.39.

2 Livy, XXVIII.46.

3 Livy, XXIX.5.

4 Two passes — those of Pieve de Teco and Santo Bernardo — lead from Albenga across the Apennines into Piedmont. The former pass may also be reached from Oneglia. Both passes lead into the valley of the Tanaro. I reached the summit of the San Bernardo after a delightful three hours' drive from Albenga. The view here given was taken at a point midway between the coast and the top of the pass.

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Pass of San Bernardo in the Apennines behind Albenga

Thayer's Note: This Col di San Bernardo (more correctly) should not be confused with either of the two much higher and more famous passes, the Little St. Bernard and the Great St. Bernard, which are well north of here.

5 Livy, XXX.18, "pudore magis quam viribus."

6 Livy, XXXI.10.

7 Strabo, p212.

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Page updated: 26 Oct 18