Punic Wars: Battle of Lake Trasimene

Hannibal of Carthage
Hannibal. Public Domain

Battle of Lake Trasimene - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Lake Trasimene was fought June 24, 217 BC during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC).

Armies & Commanders

Carthage

  • Hannibal
  • approx. 50,000 men

Rome

  • Gaius Flaminius
  • approx. 30,000-40,000 men

Battle of Lake Trasimene - Background:

In the wake of Tiberius Sempronius Longus' defeat at the Battle of the Trebia in 218 BC, the Roman Republic moved to elect two new consuls the following year with the hope of turning the tide of the conflict.

While Gnaeus Servilius Geminus replaced Publius Cornelius Scipio, Gaius Flaminius relieved the defeated Sempronius. To bolster the thinned Roman ranks, four new legions were raised to support the new consuls. Taking command of what remained of Sempronius' army, Flaminius was reinforced by some of the newly raised legions and began moving south to assume a defensive position closer to Rome. Alerted to Flaminius' intentions, Hannibal and his Carthaginian army followed.

Moving faster than the Romans, Hannibal's force passed Flaminius and began devastating the countryside with the hope of bringing the Romans to battle (Map). Encamping at Arretium, Flaminius awaited the arrival of additional men led by Servilius. Rampaging through the region, Hannibal worked to encourage Rome's allies to desert to his side by showing that the Republic could not protect them. Unable to draw the Romans into battle, Hannibal moved around Flaminius' left and maneuvered to cut him off from Rome.

Under increasing pressure from Rome and angered by Carthaginian actions in the area, Flaminius moved in pursuit.  This move was made against the advice of his senior commanders who recommended sending a cavalry force to curtail Carthaginian raiding.

Battle of Lake Trasimene - Laying the Trap:

Passing along the northern shore of Lake Trasimene with the ultimate goal of striking Apulia, Hannibal learned that the Romans were on the march.

Assessing the terrain, he made plans for a massive ambush along the lake's shore. The area along the lake was reached by passing through a narrow defile to the west which opened to a narrow plain. To the north of the road to Malpasso were wooded hills with the lake to the south. As bait, Hannibal established a camp which was visible from the defile. Just to the west of the camp he deployed his heavy infantry along a low rise from which they could charge down on the head of the Roman column. On the hills extending west, he placed his light infantry in concealed positions.

Furthest west, hidden in a wooded valley, Hannibal formed his Gallic infantry and cavalry. These forces were intended to sweep down on the Roman rear and prevent their escape. As a final ruse on the night before the battle, he ordered fires lit in the Tuoro hills to confuse the Romans as to the actual location of his army. Marching hard the next day, Flaminius urged his men forward in an attempt to the enemy. Approaching the defile, he continued to push his men ahead despite advice from his officers to await Servilius. Determined to exact revenge on the Carthaginians, the Romans passed through the defile on June 24, 217 BC.

Battle of Lake Trasimene - Hannibal Attacks:

In an effort to split the Roman army, Hannibal sent forward a skirmishing force which succeeded in drawing Flaminius' vanguard away from the main body. As the rear of the Roman column exited the defile, Hannibal ordered a trumped sounded. With the entire Roman force on the narrow plain, the Carthaginians emerged from their positions and attacked. Riding down, the Carthaginian cavalry blocked the road east sealing the trap. Streaming down from the hills, Hannibal's men caught the Romans by surprise and prevented them from forming for battle and compelling them to fight in open order. Quickly separated into three groups, the Romans desperately battled for their lives (Map).

In short order the westernmost group was overrun by the Carthaginian cavalry and forced into the lake.

Fighting with the center group, Flaminius came under attack from the Gallic infantry. Though mounting a tenacious defense, he was reputedly cut down by the Gallic nobleman Ducarius and the bulk of his men were slain after three hours of fighting. Quickly realizing that the majority of the army was in jeopardy, the Roman vanguard fought their way forward and succeeded in breaking through Hannibal's light troops. Fleeing through the woods, the majority of this force was able to escape.

Battle of Lake Trasimene - Aftermath:

Though casualties are not known with precision, it is believed that the Romans suffered around 15,000 killed with only around 10,000 of the army ultimately reaching safety. The remainder was captured either on the field or the next day by the Carthaginian cavalry commander Maharbal. Hannibal's losses were approximately 2,500 kill on the field with more dying from their wounds. The destruction of Flaminius' army led to widespread panic in Rome and Quintus Fabius Maximus was appointed dictator. Adopting what became known as fabian strategy, he actively avoided direct combat with Hannibal and instead sought to achieve victory through a slow war of attrition. Left free, Hannibal continued to plunder Italy for much of the next year. Following Fabius' removal in late 217 BC, the Romans moved to engage Hannibal and were crushed at the Battle of Cannae.

Selected Sources