Oct. 27, 2020

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt

Whats in a name? In ancient times, when reverence for ancestors was more common than it is today, and people found meaning in omens and nature, and rituals and the Gods. Could a mans name help fashion his destiny?

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Transcript

What’s in a name? 

In ancient times, when reverence for ancestors was more common than it is today, and people found meaning in omens and nature, and rituals and the Gods. In ancient times, when a person’s family lineage defined ones standing in society, can you imagine what it would be like, to be born to a warrior father, a courageous General who had heroically fought the might of the most powerful army on Earth to a standstill? Then, try to imagine if your warrior father took you aside as young boy, and made you promise, that whilst ever you were able to draw breathe you would hate a particular race of people, and you would make it your life’s work to destroy those people? Not only that, but imagine if your surname literally meant… thunderbolt?  

In the year 247 BCE a child was born in North Africa, a child, who would not only threaten the authority and the might of Rome, but would bring it to its knees, and shake it, to its very foundations. Roman mothers would frighten their misbehaving children, saying that, if they didn’t behave, that he would come for them in middle of the night. The Roman senate would draw upon all its resources to build 3 powerful armies, one after another, after he had devastated each and every one of them, one, after, another.  

At the age of 26, Hannibal Barca, upholding his promise to his father, raised an army of 100,000 men, 6,000 cavalry and 40 war elephants; he led them to the very gates of Rome, in what history would call the 2nd Punic war. 

The ancient city state of Carthage was located on the North coast of Africa, near modern day Tunis, not far across the Mediterranean from Sicily. Carthage was a wealthy and powerful maritime state, with a mighty navy, far greater than anything Rome could hope to compete with. Everyone in Rome expected that any threat from Carthage must come from a massive invasion fleet across the Mediterranean.

However, Hannibal knew, that to strike at the very beating heart of Rome, he would need to use every inch of his guile and cunning, every bit of his brilliant military mind. An invasion by sea would never do, no, Hannibal had a far grander plan, a plan that no one in in possession of any shred of their sanity would ever attempt. He would strike, unexpectedly, like a thunderbolt, across the frozen wilderness, of the RAlps … a powerful army led by mighty war elephants, to destroy the power of Rome. Now an African elephant is a particularly fearsome beast, but one trained for war, is unimaginable fearsome.  A war elephant can be mounted by archers whose deadly arrows let fly far into the ranks of the enemy, cutting down soldiers before they can get anywhere near to engage in battle. A war elephant is trained to trample infantry into blood and dust; it causes cavalry horses to stampede in fear. A war elephant is the most fearsome weapon in the ancient world, and no one, would ever expect, an army lead by such magRnificent beasts to cross the snow covered Alps from Spain into Italy.

Hannibal’s passage across the Alps was never going to be easy. His army would have to battle the elements, fierce alpine snowstorms and frigid conditions, they had to take with them all of their supplies including food for the 100,000 infantry as well as the 6,000 horses and 40 elephants. They were forced to beat off attacks from tribes of angry Gaul’s, that would ambush them high in the mountain passes, hurling down rocks and boulders upon the beleaguered army. 

It would take fifteen days of struggle and loss, to cross the Alps, and when he finally prevailed, his exhausted army entered Italy with a mere 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 37 elephants. The crossing of the Alps had cost him of 80,000 men, through death or desertion.

Little did the senate know it at the time, but Rome’s nightmare was only just beginning. As Hannibal marched out of the Alps, and down onto the plains of Italy, tribes that had struggled under the yoke of Rome flocked to his side, strengthening his weakened army. Two Roman Consuls were despatched with their legions to stop Hannibal, Publius Cornelius Scipio & Tiberius Sempronius Longus. Longus, bursting with pride and keen to take all the glory of defeating this Carthaginian upstart, challenged Hannibal near the River Trebbia. Tiberius Sempronius Longus earned neither fame, nor glory, at the battle of Trebbia; his legions suffered 32,000 casualties to Hannibal’s 5,000. 

Following his stunning victory over Longus, Hannibal, the young Thunderbolt, marched his army southward. The Senate raised another four legions and created three armies, one of which was combined with the survivors of Longus’ defeated army. One army was led by the popular Consul Gaius Flaminius, and the other, by Gnaeus Servilius Geminus whilst a third army was left to guard Rome. The plan was to trap Hannibal between the two armies and grind him into the dust. 

The tranquil Lake Trasimene, formed within a volcanic crater, nestled in the peaceful hills of central Italy, beckoned Flaminius. He believed that Hannibal’s army was half a day to the East and it was his plan to Tail the Carthaginian, until such time as he could bring him to battle in the hills where Hannibal couldn’t uses his powerful cavalry. The road along the lake was crested with large hills and in the peaceful early morning light, before the fog had time to clear, Flaminius led his army onward in search of his enemy. Hannibal sprung his ambush! Like a thunderbolt, his army descended from the hills upon the hapless Romans hacking them to pieces, those that fled into the lake were swiftly butchered by Hannibal’s cavalry. Within as little as two or three hours, 15,000 Roman soldiers lay dead, and Flaminius met a hero’s death.

Rome was in complete and utter shock at this latest tragedy…what were they to do?  There was only one thing for it. They would do what only the Romans could do, they raised yet another army.

The two new consuls chosen to lead the newest, largest most determined army that Rome had ever put into the field, Aemilius Paullus and the Terentius Varro. They commanded eighty thousand infantry and six thousand cavalry, and they were out to hunt down and destroy Hannibal’s much smaller army of only forty thousand infantry and ten thousand cavalry. The two armies met near the town of Cannae next to the River Aufius. 

The two consuls were to share command of the legions, and in typical Roman fashion, they would each command on alternate days. Paullus was cautious and counselled restraint, but on his day of command, the impetuous Varro insisted upon battle.

The two armies lined up one against the other, Hannibal placed his weakest soldier’s front and centre arced outwards in a crescent, towards the Roman lines, his best soldiers he placed on either side, flanked by his cavalry. The simple brilliance of Hannibal’s plan was to lead Varro into attacking his weakest soldiers in the centre front. They had been ordered to slowly fall back as if being driven by the more disciplined and numerous legions. As the front line fell back the Romans pushed forward, as they did, they slowly but surely became enveloped by Hannibal’s much stronger soldiers on the wings. In no time at all, the legions were almost surrounded. Hannibal’s cavalry then closed the trap by attacking the Roman rear. The Roman army was now surrounded by the smaller Carthaginian army; Roman soldiers struggled in the centre of the field but could neither move nor reach the enemy to fight, whilst those on the edges were brutally and methodically butchered. Seventy thousand Romans were massacred that day including eighty senators as well as Paullus. And what of the impetuous Varro, well he escaped…

Hannibal marched upon Rome, but was unable to take the heavily defended city, guarded by its high fortified walls and towers. The Romans saw their chance they sent an army to seek out and destroy the army commanded by Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal who was trying to join up with Hannibal. Hannibal learned of his brother’s death and the destruction of his entire army when a Roman soldier threw Hasdrubal’s severed head into his camp before galloping away at high speed. 

With the destruction of Hasdrubal’s army, the Romans now grew in confidence. They sent an army of their own into Africa under the command of the brilliant young General Publius Cornelius Scipio. Now the mighty city of Carthage, in great fear of this sudden and unexpected Roman invasion, recalled Hannibal back to defend the city. By the time Hannibal’s tired and depleted army reached Carthage, they would be no match for the Romans at battle of Zama. A blazing wall of sound from hundreds of massed trumpets would cause Hannibal’s mighty war elephants to stampede back through the ranks of his very own army. Scorpio’s legions cut the Carthaginians to pieces.  And finally, after 16 years of torment, humiliation and loss, the terror of Rome, the mighty Thunderbolt, was defeated by the young Scipio who for his victory, earned the title Africanus.  

Hannibal went to his death, but not as a mighty general defending his embattled homeland from the vengeful Romans, no, his time would come 7 years later, as an exile in Libyssa. Defiant to the very end, he drank a cup of poison rather than be taken as a prisoner of Rome.