In spring of 217, the year after Hannibal’s arrival in Italy, two new consuls are closing off the Apennine passes to stop Hannibal from leaving the north of the country. Hannibal has chosen an unguarded road, but due to flooding of the area round the river Arnus in Tuscany, his army is having a hard time getting to drier ground. Hannibal himself suffers from ophthalmia. Maharbal (right), the chief commander of his cavalry, has just returned from an extensive scouting mission.
Maharbal returned just before sundown. Despite the late hour, the men weren’t setting up camp, instead standing where they were, some sitting on their packs, trying to catch some rest until an officer walked by and shouted at them to get their gear out of the mud. Some were too tired to shout. The only dry places where a man might sleep were dead mules. Many of the remaining pack animals and horses were in a bad way, and the men weren’t looking any better.
He found Hannibal with Hanno and Mago at the rear of the column; the strategos wore a bandage around his head, covering the inflamed eye. He looked terrible, even the left eye reddened from lack of sleep. Syrus, the last surviving elephant, stood close by, looking almost unperturbed in all the misery around him, but his flanks were sunken, the small ears beating pointlessly at the flies and mosquitos.
“Ah, finally. How much further?” Hannibal asked as he saw Maharbal approach.
“Five to seven hours. Probably closer to seven,” Maharbal amended, dismounting. “There’s a place called Faesulae ten miles ahead, but we found a few estates on dry ground close to the swamp. The town is small and far enough away not to bother us. My men are taking care of the estates. The barns are well-stocked, and there’s enough cattle to keep the army fed for a while. We ought to be able to rest there for a few days.” He cast Hannibal a beseeching look at these last words.
Hannibal nodded, apparently oblivious to the plea. “We’ll march in an hour. Mago, you stay with the rear. Hanno – ride up to the van and tell the men we’ll be on dry ground before dawn; that’s as much comfort as they’re going to get here. Take Sedoc with you, so he can tell the Celts as well. I’ll be coming after you on Syros.” He grimaced and rubbed his eye under the bandage, watching as his nephew mounted a bedraggled-looking horse and laboured his way up the column again. “You’ve been thorough?” Hannibal finally asked Maharbal, who was watching his friend with worry written across his face. “Any news on the consuls?”
“Thorough? You know me. – Hannibal, you need to get that treated.”
“I am getting that treated, but look around. – The consuls?”
Maharbal caught Mago’s look that said, How many times do you think I’ve told him that? “Servilius is still in Ariminum,” the cavalry commander reported at length. “A couple of men from Faesulae we captured yesterday are definite that Flaminius is still in Arretium – perched on the road to Rome like Iuppiter Stator in person and wondering when and where we’ll be crossing the Apennines.” He grinned. “Baal Hammon, I wish I could see his face when he finds us right in front of him.”
“Enemy scouts?” Hannibal wasn’t smiling, his voice clipped in pain.
“None. Not a horse’s tail in two days. It seems our friend Flaminius doesn’t believe in such Punic treachery as ambushes, or scouting. A fine, stout Roman. Bah.”
“Perfect. Servilius is completely out of touch and Flaminius isn’t expecting us. We need to make sure it stays that way. What have you found out about the terrain?”
“Bad terrain for cavalry. Hills and woods for at least twenty miles, beyond Arretium.”
“Bad for cavalry, but an ambush might work,” Mago said. “Especially against a commander who doesn’t do much scouting.”
Hannibal nodded. “We’ll see about that. Tell your scouts to keep their eyes open.” He cursed under his breath and vigorously rubbed at the bandage, his face contorting in pain.
“Once we’re out of here, a couple of days’ rest will fix that up.” Mago didn’t sound convinced in the slightest.
“I told you, I don’t have a couple of days,” Hannibal said, his voice raw. “You heard Maharbal. We know Flaminius is eager to meet us, and we want to draw him along before Servilius realises what’s happening. Flaminius will be happy to tackle us without his colleague – more laurels to him – but if Servilius gets wind of where we are, he’ll move. The terrain might allow us an ambush of one consular army, but not two. Any delay may well get us crushed between hammer and anvil. We can’t risk that. Not now. Not if we can take out one of them without much trouble.”
Maharbal exchanged a glance with Mago. Hannibal’s logic was impeccable, but the unspoken question was whether the defeat of Flaminius would come at the price of the strategos‘ eyesight. He didn’t dare to voice it.