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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review
Vol. 12 (1898), pp11‑16.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p11  The Use of Place-Names in History.
An Illustration.​a

In the attempt to solve topographical problems of antiquity, what may perhaps be called Geographical Tradition is one of the methods of research not infrequently employed, at least in addition to or in default of better. This Tradition, or the use of Place-names as a proof of the site of some event, has for instance been used as a favourite instrument in dealing with the well-nigh desperate topographical problems of the Second Punic War. And indeed if ever a historian be justified in employing all the means at his disposal, good, bad, and indifferent, it is surely when these particular problems confront him and demand some attempt at solution. Controversy is the happy mother of a family of arguments of this kind. Thus local Tradition and local Place-names have been recently involved to demonstrate the Little St. Bernard to have been the Pass whereby Hannibal crossed the Alps. They have been used to support the (to me) more than doubtful Sanguineto site for the Battle of Lake Trasimeno. And recently in studying the question of the site of the Battle of the Metaurus river I have been again and again confronted with this same question, viz: what is the value of this local Tradition? In the absence of many precise topographical details in our literary authorities for this battle, the question of the justification of the appeal to the place-names of the district becomes even more urgent than in cases where, as in the Trasimene question, our literary information is perhaps but too plentiful. The district on both banks of the Metaurus teems with names of villages, of hills, of bridges, which might conceivably be dragged in to support some theory of the site of the battle. Four such sites at least have been suggested, two on the right, two on the left, bank of the river, between Urbania and the mouth near Fano. In three of these the neighbouring place-names may be urged as additional evidence. It is not my purpose now to discuss this question of the site. That perhaps I may perhaps hope to do later.​b But this which is really a question preliminary to such a discussion seemed to demand some attempt at an estimation of its value, to clear the ground before the main struggle, if this may haply be the result. Even 'finds' too may be partly included in this general subject of the value of Tradition, when all that is left to us is not the 'find' but only a traditional account of the locality of the 'find.'

It is hardly worth while to repeat here the literary account of the battle of the Metaurus, as given in Livy XXVII.43‑49 supplemented by Polybius XI.1‑3, Appian, Hannib. 52, Dio-Zonaras, IX.9, and various passages in such authors as Frontinus, Florus, Eutropius, Valerius Maximus and Ampelius. All put together, the information affords  p12 much scope for topographical controversy in virtue of its deficiency. This much however is directly asserted. Hasdrubal's camp was pitched 500 paces distant from the Roman, possibly (this is a point of dispute), near the city of Sena. On his discovery of the arrival of Nero in Livius's camp (i.e. accepting the tale of the great march, which is quite another question and does not affect my purpose in this paper, though it does concern the topographical dispute,) Hannibal retreated in the night up the banks of the Metaurus, seeking vainly to find a ford. On being overtaken by the Romans next day he was compelled to fight, and after a desperate engagement Nero's strategy won the day for the Romans. Hasdrubal, seeing all was lost, charged the foe and fell fighting bravely. His army, save for a few survivors whom it was not thought worth while to pursue, was cut to pieces or made prisoner.

In the year 1613 one Sebastian Macci 'Durantinus' published at Venice a work in four books entitled 'De Bello Asdrubalis.' Book III (pp34‑56) is a comprehensive effort to supplement and correct the literary account of the Metaurus Battle by the use of local place-names. It is necessary to make the preliminary remark that Macci intended his work to be a serious contribution to history. He had previously published a disquisition 'De historia' which proposed to reduce the art of writing history and the principles of evidence to a scientific certainty of rule and demonstration, even as Aristotle had treated rhetoric. And Macci's 'De Bello Asdrubalis' seems to have been written to exemplify his Theory. In his Dedication too Macci explains fully his intent is to fill a gap in historical studies and supplement the literary sources. After commenting on the meagre information supplied us by Livy and Polybius he continues: 'Quapropter ego, cui potissimum tota haec Metaurensis regio ab summo Apennini dorso usque ad mare Hadriaticum probe esset nota, non parum semper dolui hanc tantam nostram provinciam . . . fecisse historiae jacturam; ita nempe scripta est ut per jocum quodammodo ad nos transmissa esse videatur.' Wherefore 'ad hanc unam Asdrubalis historiam ex vetustis monumentis eruendam omnes nervos intendi . . . Non discessi ab Livio, sed quae illi in hac re deesse sensi, ad historiae integritatem superaddidi etc.'

In fact, the author has set out in all good faith to give for the first time a full and complete account of the battle of the River Metaurus, supplementing the deficiencies of the literary authorities by a use of local tradition, local names, local finds. This account I propose in the remaining part of this paper to give, though compressed and summarised, and for this reason: not because it becomes at times so amusing as even to raise the question of the author's good faith, were this not (as I have said) so clearly beyond dispute: but because it is by far the best illustration known to me of the method of this use of tradition and place-names to help decide topographical controversy, and of the extreme danger and uncertainty of the whole proceeding. Perhaps it is not fair to argue 'Ab hoc uno disce omnes.' But I do think it a lesson and an amusing lesson which may teach the eager topographical controversialist not to place reliance on 'Traditional sites,' when the tradition or local place-name is opposed to, or even uncorroborated by, literary evidence. And also I hope it will be of some assistance in any future discussion as to the site of the battle.

[image ALT: A map of the general area of the battle of the Metaurus.]

The method Macci employs of argument from place-name to event is so evident from his actual account as to need no introductory explanation. I proceed then to give that account shortly, as an illustration of the use of place-names and tradition in history. Where I have been able to identify the places of Macci's time with those existing to‑day, I enclose the modern name in square brackets, as also one or two remarks of my own. The rest is but an English version and a summary of Macci's own account.

The Roman consuls then (according to this author) were encamped at Sena. Hasdrubal's own camp however was on the Metaurus, 16 Roman miles away to the North. That only 500 paces separated the camps is clearly impossible, when we consider the seize of the armies and the strategic abilities of the generals. 'Even if Sena could mean the district, and not the town, yet the boundary of the district to the north is the River Cesano, 3 miles from Sena. Thus if Livius had occupied the whole district, 13 miles would still have separated his camp from Hasdrubal's.' Thus the river, in any case, "unde aquabantur," was the Cesano. [It is interesting to note that this interpretation of 'Ad Senam' is at least suggested as early as 1613 in the annals of the controversy. Oehler, for instance, seems to think Tarducci invented it in 1888, vid. 'Der letzte Feldzug des Barkiden Hasdrubal,' p6‑7.]

Hasdrubal advanced over the Metaurus  p13 to make a reconnaissance, but, observing the increased numbers of the Romans, retreated again in the night. Next morning the consuls crossed the Cesano in pursuit. They overtook the retreating Carthaginians and forced him to give battle. This 'first battle' took place on the 'plain of Bastia,' situated on the coast south of the Metaurus and north of the Cesano, the Carthaginian rear resting on the former river. A level space for fighting was left free between the armies. This was afterwards called 'Maurotta' 'a superatis Mauris.' [La Posta Marotta is on the coast, 3 Roman miles north of the Cesano, and thus some 10 miles south of the Metaurus.]

Hasdrubal indeed had attempted to fortify a hill near the Metaurus, but, stayed in this attempt by Livius, was forced to fight on the plain without fortification of any kind. His left wing, the Gauls, he posted, not on a hill (as Livy and Polybius), but on the sea, 'non tam quod illis magnopere confideret, quam quod rebatur eos ab Romanis mirandum in modum pro nomine nationes timeri.'

Livy indeed says that the Gauls were stationed on a hill. But how can this be, when all admit that they formed the left wing of Hasdrubal's army, and that the Carthaginians fought in that part of the plain nearer Fano, the Romans nearer Sena? 'Ad sinistrum igitur cornu, ubi erant Galli adversus Claudium, nullus est collis, tota namque planities ab ea parte conjungitur cum mari.' It follows therefore that Livy wrote 'ex locorum ignorantia.'

Owing therefore to the Roman dread of the Gallic name and not to any obtrusive hill, the battle began between Livius and the Carthaginian right wing. In the excitement of the conflict first the respective centres were drawn into the fray to help their engaged wings, and finally the Gauls and Claudius to help their respective centres. From sunrise to midday the battle raged furiously, till at last the Punic troops gave way. Thereupon Hasdrubal 'existimans se, si se ipsum incolumem servaret, facile posse novum exercitum comparare, ac bello iterum Romanos infestare, se coepit recipere ex pugna ac fugam cum quamplurimis militibus in summos colles petere.' It is true that Livy says he charged the foe and fell fighting. 'Sed judicio tam meo quam eorum omnium qui hanc historiam diligenter perpenderunt, fugam arripuit, atque in aliud tempus et locum magis opportunum, obitum suum distulit, ut constat ex pluribusº monumentis, quae paullo infra suis locis a nobis referentur.' [In fact so many place-names in the district claim henceforth Hasdrubal's presence as to leave him no room for a glorious and speedy death on the plain of Bastia.]

Thus Hasdrubal fled, but in his flight the Metaurus barred his way and he journeyed up the river in search for a ford. But the Romans pursued hard after, and compelled him to stand on a hill, called in after years Mons Maurus 'ab ipsis Mauris in eo colle occisis.' [Monte Maggiore?]

Some of his men however succeeded where their general failed, and crossed the river. Here on the left bank they pitched two camps, one at Saltaria [Saltara], the other at Carthicoetum [Cartocceto].​c For this is plainly Carthaginiensium Coetus.' And here the fugitives seem to have pursued  p14 a tranquil and undisturbed existence. 'Est autem Carthicoetum sub Fano, ab eoque leges accipit. Sed adversus Fanenses qui Romanorum coloni sunt, non secus hostilem retinet animum quam Carthaginienses quorum colonia est olim adversus Romanos.'

Hasdrubal however has been left on the Mons Maurus. The Romans surrounded this on three sides, but on the fourth, where this hill abutted on to others, there was left a way of escape. Driven therefore from this refuge after a fierce struggle which cost the Romans dear, Hasdrubal 'se recepit in alios eminentiores colles.' Hither also the Romans pursued and brought him once more to bay 3 miles distant or a little more from Mons Maurus.

So desperate was the resistance offered here, so memorable the struggle 'ut aeternum colli nomen dederit. Nam postmodum ubi conditum fuit oppidulum, quod a patrato belli facinore Mons belli fuit appellatum.' [M. Bello]. And by this time the Romans knew so well their foeman's skill in flight to the neighbouring hills, that they stationed troops on the surrounding heights to intercept escape. Thus they left the river valley open and gave Hasdrubal an opportunity which he seized. Escaping with the survivors of the flight from the Mons Belli he descended to the valley and crossed the Metaurus by a ford. But Hanno his lieutenant here parted from him and fled higher up into the hills towards the valley of the Cesano. The Odyssey of chase splits into two. The consuls, themselves pursuing after Hasdrubal, detached a squadron of horse to take Hanno. His fortunes we now follow first.

When Hanno spied the pursuing horse, he halted on a hill three miles away from the Mount of War to await their onslaught. But with them came thronging the armed peasants of the district to join the chase. Whereupon Hanno fled in hot haste to other neighbouring hills. Yet one thing he left behind him on the hill where first he prepared to stand, and that was his name. In after years a town was founded thereon name Urgeannum [Orciano]. For as the squadron parted from the consuls to pursue him, this was the order they gave its leader. 'Urge Annonem.' And still from the spire of the church of this place may be seen suspended by iron chains an elephant's tusk, found in the fields near by when the fight was done. [Surely this is unsurpassed of its kind.d

Meanwhile some Roman cohorts had been sent from Picenum and the Cesano to take up a position on the hills to stay Hanno's flight. Here where they halted, a mile away from the Hill of the Pursuit of Hanno, another town was built in later years. 'dictum et felici auspicio Mondavium, quasi montem Avium, haud secus ac si aves addixissent.' Destroyed by Alaric, it was afterwards rebuilt. [Ruins of Mondavio.]

But Hanno had fled to be again overtaken by the horse two miles farther up the Metaurus valley, on yet another hill. Here too a town founded in after years bore the name Barchium [Barchi] 'a Barchinis militibus ibi superatis.' Near this is a castle called in the Italian tongue Reforziatum [Reforzata]. For here the peasants reinforced the horse. Thus with increased numbers they pursued yet again after Hanno towards Umbria. At last on a hill which rose some seven miles away he and all with him were overtaken and cut to pieces. So afterwards there sprang up here a great and rich city named Fractae, 'ab fractis Poenis.' [Fratte.]

Now we return to follow Hasdrubal's fortunes.

After fording the Metaurus he had barely reached the Via Flaminia before the consuls came up with him. Another stubborn engagement ensued, but fortune continued to smile on the Romans, who were elated already by their former successes. Hasdrubal therefore 'fugam Romanis minime opinantibus capit.' In commemoration of these events, 'for an eternal memorial of the Roman dead, P. Sempronius Tuditanus three years afterwards founded Forum Sempronii' [Fossombrone].

Hasdrubal fled up the Via Flaminia, and outstripping his pursuers, reached the point where the roads divided and he had a choice of ways. One road — the Via Flaminia — led through the Furlo pass to the Umbrian great central plain. The other to his right followed the upper course of the Metaurus towards the Apennine chain and Etruria. Hasdrubal chose the latter, thinking thereby the more easily to leave the Romans behind him. The Furlo was also so narrow and dangerous a ravine and the river's banks were so precipitous, that though this was crossed by a bridge, the way was yet most unsuitable for an army in hurried flight. The bridge however was attempted by some African troops 'et nunc quoque Pons Maurus appellatur.' [There is no bridge in the Furlo cutting to‑day.]

Hasdrubal, continuing his flight up the other river, the Metaurus, came 'ad parvum  p15 Hospitium, situm in quodam fluminis tortuoso flexu, quod nunc vulgata lingua Hospitalectum nuncupatur.' Here a road struck up to the hills on the right leading to Urbinum [Urbino]. But when the fugitive looked up the road, he saw that the cohorts of Urbinum had gathered in force and lining the ridge of hills prevented all escape. Forced therefore to continue up the river he crossed it by a ford, and afterwards came upon a bridge which he crossed, and stayed there seeking to break down the bridge to hinder the foe from pursuing. But a few of the speediest of the Roman horse rode up too soon and Hasdrubal fled all the quicker till he overtook the rest of his men who had gone on before. Then they came to the place called Castrum Firmidianum, vulgo Firminianum. [Fermignano.] This name however has nothing to do with these events, but is so called from the villa of a Roman citizen named Firmidius, 'as is proved by a very ancient inscription dug up here but a few days ago.' Here there is a bridge over the Metaurus, and between the town and the bridge an old storied tower, 'inexpugnabilis nisi aenea adhibeantur tormenta.' This tower is now the property of the great-grandsons of a brother of Polydore Virgil of Urbino, 'rerum Anglicanarum historici elegantissimi.' When Hasdrubal crossed the river here, certainly the bridge was in existence. 'De Turri non ausim affirmare.' He crossed the bridge in question, hoping to reach Umbria. Also the Urbinate cohorts prevented any further progress up towards the mountains. Thus they kept the fugitives in the valley and made the pursuit easier.

[Then follows a long glowing account of and panegyric on Urbino — after which digression —]

Hasdrubal crossed the bridge therefore and marched for Aqualania [Acqualagna. This is so far useful as showing that Tarducci's Fermignano-Acqualagna road was thought more easy at the beginning of the XVIIth century for travellers to the south than that over the Furlo.] But he had barely escaped one mile from Firmidianum when the Romans overtook him, fell on his rear, and forced him to fight. This attack the Carthaginians repulsed, and the Romans drew back and waited for reinforcements. They saw that the country was so far roused that Hasdrubal had no chance of ultimate escape. The Punic general indeed could but fortify a position on a hill at a little distance, in the breathing-space thus given him, and flee no further. Such good use however did he make of his time that on arrival of reinforcements the Romans found his position impregnable. They therefore sate down before the hill and determined to starve him into attacking them.

Now indeed was the Carthaginian plight a desperate one. In vain the fugitive planned ways of escape. 'Deus permittit interdum meliores vexari ac saevissimis opprimi Tyrannorum iniquitatibus, quo acquisitae victoriae laetitia sit maior, ac tandem recognoscant Dei benignitate se gravissimis calamitatibus fuisse liberatos.' When his provisions were finally exhausted Hasdrubal charged down the hill upon the foe in the plain beneath as the day was breaking. When after a desperate encounter he saw the day was finally lost, he spurred his horse into the thickest of the foe and fell.

His body was recovered from among the slain and carried off by the consuls for burial in a suitable and conspicuous spot elsewhere. And ever since the hill has been called the Mons Asdrubalis. [? M. Arcello.] To the plain where so many noble Romans had fallen there came in following days many women to bewail their dead, and it preserves the name Planctus Mulierum to this day. Here too by the stream that flows at the base of the hill were found many years after a helm and a richly decorated piece of horse armour thought to be Hasdrubal's own, and now preserved in the Prince's Armoury at Pisaurum.

Still some remnants of the Carthaginian force had escaped, and fled over the river. But no sooner were they come safe to the opposite bank than the leaders fell out as to the more expedient way of flight. One band turned to the right and climbed a neighbouring hill — called the Mons Brandorum [M. Brando] — where, as further retreat was cut off by the Urbinate cohorts, they entrenched themselves. The others fled about three miles up the river and halted on the plain now called the plain of San Silvestro. Here they built a rampart which still remains, and is called the Vallum Asdrubalis. [This is the great piece of evidence for the San Silvestro site.] Others of them built another similar fortification just on the very banks of the river, and destroyed the bridge over it. This was called afterwards the Pons Cratium 'quia postea dirutos arcus crates interpositae fuerunt ne eius usus intermitteretur.'

 p16  All this resistance was useless. On the consuls' return to Firmidianum, troops were despatched which quickly put the refugees of M. Brando to the sword, while they themselves proceeded against the two camps in the plain of S. Silvestro and destroyed the garrisons after one final and fierce fight.

All that now remained was to build the Tomb of Hasdrubal on some conspicuous spot to commemorate their victory. On a lofty hill they built it, and this, known before as the Collis Silicis, ever after kept the name of the Mons Asdrubalis. [Clearly Macci found two hills bearing this name.] The Tomb was restored and amplified by the famous Roman architect P. Fuficius, and its inscription, though partly illegible owing to the wearing away of the stone, is still preserved: 'Horum omnium vetustissima eius inscriptio satis luculenta atque elegans, licet in multis exesa, effossa inter Castelli rudera, fidem minime dubiam facit.'

Many and glorious are the monuments and buildings of the famous city and district of Urbino, but greatest among them is Hasdrubal's Tomb. Thither the princes come, and the Antiquarians are gathered together. 'Visitur hoc tam nobile tamque vetustam Asdrubalis sepulchrum, una cum propinquis propugnaculis, a summis Principibus ac viris antiquitatis rerumque gestarum studiosissimis.'

How much then may be argued from local Tradition and the use of place-names to demonstrate the site of the battle?

Bernard W. Henderson.

Morton College, Oxford.

Thayer's Notes:

a Much as I hate to spoil the fun, I'd better add this note here for those who, not being Roman scholars and topographers — or reading too fast — will miss the understated point of Prof. Henderson's article, and might be inclined to take as fact the etymologies given in it: Don't. The author assumes we will all see just how ridiculous some of them are, and has amused himself by crucifying the amateur 17c scholar on his own words. Monte Bello, to take the simplest example, hardly needs the Latin bellum ("war") to get its name from: bello is Italian for "beautiful" and for that reason dozens of mountains and other features in Italy are called bello. Similarly, Fratte (or Fratta) is very common thruout Italy, and usually stands for fratta, "thicket", or sometimes for fracta in the sense of an outpost or subdivision of a larger town; there are hundreds of places called Ospedaletto, often the site of medieval leprosaria; and so on with the other names.

On the other hand, great fun though it is to savage Macci's placename derivations, it's grossly unfair to call this "an illustration of the use of placenames in history". Places do get their names from something, after all, and occasionally some do reflect a historical event of long ago, so that the method can have a limited value: the first step is to keep our eyes open for possible underlying origins for the names on the map — and the second, absolutely essential, step is then to go back thru progressively older records to see just how the name might have evolved, and whether our hunch was right; often, it won't be. Prof. Henderson's piece might more accurately and fairly have been titled "An example of the misuse of place-names in history".

b A few months after this piece, Prof. Henderson did publish an article of some length on the subject: The Campaign of the Metaurus (EHR 13:417‑438, 625‑642).

c Modern spelling, Cartoceto.

d Churches, like temples in Antiquity, long served as museums housing stray finds of various kinds, including animal fossils. As a boy of 16, I remember seeing in the church of the little town of Ganges in southern France a very similar item: the shoulder-bone of some large animal, very likely a mammoth, hanging by a sturdy chain from the vault of the transept crossing; it was locally called "Samson's shoulder", and was doubtless accompanied by its etiological tale. At any rate, such bones are found thruout Europe, and Hannibal's elephants probably don't account for any of them.

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