Battle of the Metaurus

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jul 11, 2023

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The Battle of Metauro, fought in 207 BC near the Metauro River in the Italian peninsula (modern province of Marche), was a battle of the Second Punic War, in which the Carthaginian commander Asdrubal, Hannibal's brother, was defeated and killed by the combined Roman armies of the consuls Marcus Livius Salinator and Gaius Claudius Nero.

In the fall of the year 208 BC, Asdrubal led his troops through Gaul, having escaped from the Romans in the eastern Iberian Peninsula by following the high valleys of the river Tagus and the river Ebro. The subsequent fame of Scipio Africano seems to have obscured the fact that he had allowed Asdrubal to escape after the Battle of Bécula and, as a result, allowed his country to be more exposed to danger than at any time since Hannibal had crossed the Alps.

To quote O'Connor Morris: "He must have known-for rumors had spread to the four winds-that Asdrubal's aim was to leave the Iberian Peninsula and cooperate with his brother in the Italian peninsula: the Roman general's first aim, consequently, must have been to make sure that Asdrubal would not deceive him; if he was not strong enough to attack the enemy, he certainly should have cornered his advance into the Pyrenees and not let him reach Gaul intact and unguarded. He did nothing of the sort; he made an immense mistake, and it is simply not true that he was obliged to confront the Carthaginians with great force at the Ebro, for Magan Barca and Asdrubal Giscan, when Asdrubal departed, moved, the former to the Balearic Islands and the other to Lusitania, hundreds of miles distant; they were clearly incapable of facing the Romans in the Iberian Peninsula."

It is unfortunate that our ancient scholars have not commented further on this march made by Asdrubal, the second greatest performed by the "lion's brood," the sons of Amilcar Barca, who for so long threatened and terrorized Rome. It was an epic journey worthy of their brother. Escaping from African Scipio , he left the Romans watching in vain over the passes of the Pyrenees while he, his Carthaginian infantry, his Iberian allies, the Numidian cavalry, and the hard-working African elephants moved west past the Bay of Biscay and the great gray ocean that few Mediterranean men had ever seen. Before leaving for Gaul he met with Magan Barca, and his younger brother went to the Balearic Islands to raise a force of those formidable slingers who would later cross the sea to the Italian peninsula. The three sons of Amilcar Barca, so it was planned, would then meet for the first time in many years and carry out the revenge on Rome that the vows made to their father and the smoky altars of Carthage had long demanded.

Hannibal and Asdrubal knew that, with their declining situation in the Iberian Peninsula, the year 207 BC was to be decisive in the war against Rome. Only by the union of their armies and the total defeat of the Romans - something more devastating even than at Cannae (216 BC) - could the goal of the long war be achieved. From the outset, the great undertaking was to prove risky and, on further reflection, almost impossible. Commanding the center of the Italian peninsula, the Romans had the benefit of internal lines of communication and were able to position their forces so that one party kept an eye on Hannibal to the south while the other kept an eye on the north and the expected arrival of Asdrubal. In those days of primitive communications, the great obstacle between the two brothers was the territorial extent of the peninsula.

Asdrubal wintered in Gaul, far to the west, where there was no friend of Rome or Massilia, and then probably crossed the Rhône River comfortably above, near Lugduno. Although it was no secret that Asdrubal intended to join his brother in the Italian peninsula, no attempt, in any case, could be made to stop him once he had crossed the Pyrenees and penetrated into Gaul. Massilia was far away and the Gaulish chieftains were, as never before, hostile to Rome. According to Livy, although Asdrubal escaped the Battle of Becula with no more than fifteen thousand men it is likely that he reached the Alps with almost twice that number. Hannibal, far to the south, must have been able to muster an army of forty to fifty thousand men, most, however, of very low quality troops.

In the spring of 207 B.C., as soon as the snow had melted, Asdrubal set out: he did not delay even a little, as his brother had done, and was apparently not even bothered by hostile tribes. Crossing the territory of the Arvernes he probably followed the course of the river Isère and almost certainly did not take the difficult route taken by Hannibal. Both Livy and Apiano claim that he did, but this seems very unlikely, since the Isère basin follows the pass of Mount Cenis and the Roman historian Varro seems, no doubt, to describe Asdrubal's pass as distinct from, and to the north of, Hannibal's. The Mount Cenis pass matches the description perfectly, and the idea that Asdrubal followed in his brother's footsteps is nothing more than metaphor. In any case, as Livy points out, the Alpine tribes who previously thought Hannibal had intentions about their poor territory had already learned of the "Punic War, because of which Italy had been burning for eleven years, and realized that the Alps were no more than a route between two very powerful cities at war with each other (...). Soon, there was no reason to attack the marching Carthaginians, nor to deceive them with information that could lead them into high and treacherous passes. Asdrubal headed for the Italian peninsula in the exact time of one year, with a security that is translated by the fact that no mishap was attributed to his expedition.

The Romans were well aware that that year was crucial. The republic was strengthened and undoubtedly clothed in such a noble disposition that even after generations this was remembered as an inspiration. Although the news that Asdrubal was on the march produced scenes in Rome reminiscent of the panic inspired by Hannibal in the early stages of the war, the senate never hesitated to take wise and sensible measures to defend the state. The men were by then accustomed to war, hardened and trained to the point of facing all vicissitudes. In some respects, they could also take comfort in the general situation: Cornelius Scipio (there was no threat in Sardinia, and the war in Sicily had ended satisfactorily. Hannibal's ally Philip V of Macedonia remained on the defensive in Greece and was preparing to negotiate peace; throughout the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman navy was sailing triumphantly.

The Roman allies sniffed the changing winds, and those who had once proved cowardly or treacherous had now learned their lesson. So it was with some confidence that, despite the dual threat of Hannibal and Ashdrubal, the Romans faced that year. Proof of this, and of their available man power, is given by the fact that no less than twenty-three legions had been recruited. Of these, only eight were requisitioned for service outside the country: two in Sicily, two in Sardinia, and four in Iberia. The remaining fifteen all remained in Italy, representing seventy-five thousand Roman citizens to which an equal amount of allies were added. Not surprisingly, however, Livy noted that the number of young men fit for service was beginning to decline.

More difficult than gathering troops was finding men to command them. Fabius Maximus was now very old and Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the "Sword of Rome," was dead. The losses suffered over the years, particularly at Cannae, were all too noticeable in the ranks of Rome's leaders. After much debate, Gaius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius Salinator were finally elected consuls, the former taking command of the southern army facing Hannibal in Venusia, and the latter commanding the northern army in Gallic Seine on the Adriatic coast. Fifth Fulvio Flaco, victorious at Capua, supported Nero with an army at Brutus, and another army was at Taranto. In the north, the praetor Lucius Prucius Licinus commanded an army in Cisalpine Gaul, while Gaius Terentius Varro (still popular with the people, despite defeat at Cannae) commanded the unstable region of Etruria.

Early that spring, Asdrubal headed south, almost certainly earlier than expected. If the army he brought with him from the Iberian Peninsula was not exhausted like Hannibal's, nor in need of the same time for rest, it was also not of the same quality nor as strong as the one that had caused so much damage to the Romans, the superb cavalry from North Africa.

Even so, reinforced by several thousand Ligurians who had joined him and stirring once again the rebellious spirit of the Cisalpine Gauls, Asdrubal moved like a dark storm cloud across the land of the peninsula. Crossing the Po River and crossing the gorge of Estradela, he marched against Placencia. There, he hesitated and lost time, taking his time to besiege the colony loyal to the Romans that had closed the gates before him, having noticed that, like Hannibal, he had no equipment to execute a siege.

Asdrubal has been criticized by some historians for lingering at Placencia rather than bypassing it and marching forward to meet his brother before the Romans could concentrate all their forces. However, Placencia seemed to be too strong a garrison to leave in his rear and that - perhaps even more importantly - the local Gaulish tribes were slow to come to his aid. He needed to wait until enough of the Ligurians had joined him and as many Gauls as possible had been recruited. Finally turning away from Placencia, Asdrubal marched along the road to Arimino (present-day Rimini) toward the eastern coast. Pporius, who did not have enough troops to resist him, withdrew. Such were the opening moves of that spring in the north.

Hannibal, who had spent the winter in Apulia as usual, went first to Lucania to raise more troops, and then returned to his fortification at Brutus, no doubt to obtain as many reserves as possible from that region, loyal to his cause for a long time. According to Livius, the Roman troops at Taranto fell upon his newly enlisted troops on the march, in the ensuing combat he lost four thousand men, with the overburdened Carthaginians being killed by the charging free legionnaires.

Meanwhile, the consul Claudius Nero, with an army of forty-two thousand five hundred men, was moving from Venusia to bar Hannibal from Brutus' march into Lucania. "Hannibal hoped," says Livy, "to recover the cities that had succumbed through fear to the Romans," but he also had to march north so as to meet his brother. The confusion of the Carthaginian movements was due to the primitive communications of the time: Hannibal knew nothing but that Asdrubal must by then have crossed the Alps, and Asdrubal, who was already in the Italian peninsula, knew nothing but that Hannibal was somewhere to the south. The Romans, on the other hand, working with their interior lines of communications and supply systems, were in an admirable position to keep the two enemies apart and attack them one at a time with their superior forces.

At Grumento, in Lucania, the armies of Nero and Hannibal faced each other for the first time, something notable for the fact that the Roman consul, "imitating the wiles of his enemy," hid part of his troops behind a hill so as to fall upon the Carthaginian rearguard at the appropriate moment of confrontation. The Battle of Grumento does not appear to have been a decisive engagement, for instead of retreating, Hannibal continued his march northward toward Canusius in Apulia, and it is significant that Nero, while pursuing him, was unable to prevent him from moving when and how it suited him.

Hannibal, at this juncture, was naturally more than eager to make contact with his brother. The latter had now arrived in Arimino and intended to head for Narnia in Umbria from the Via Flaminia along the Adriatic coast. It was essential that this information reach Hannibal as soon as possible, so that he could head north and the two armies could meet in the battle that would decide the fate of Rome. Six knights, four Gauls and two Numids, were chosen to ride through the Roman-occupied Italian peninsula and its allied troops, in order to bring the news of Asdrubal's arrival to his brother and inform him of the desired meeting. One might think that such information would be transmitted by simple verbal message easily memorized by the knights. But Asdrubal seems to have written one or more letters - dispatches, in fact, which contained not only the position of his own army at the time and the request for Hannibal to meet him in Narnia, but possibly the complete composition of his army.

The contents of Asdrubal's letter to his brother were never discovered, nor presented to subsequent historians; hence, it is nothing more than conjecture. The fact remains that, when in due course, the information fell into Roman hands and was sufficient to enable them to successfully march against Ashdrubal. Codes certainly existed in those days, but it still seems that Asdrubal transmitted the information in a commonplace Carthaginian - something that was easily translated, Carthaginian having long been one of the most widely used languages in Mediterranean trade.

The messengers achieved the first part of their mission successfully, passing right through the middle of the central Italian peninsula without colliding with the armies that were moving everywhere in defense of the Republic. Then disaster befell them. Ignoring Hannibal's movements, they went south into Apulia, being intercepted in the Taranto region (Hannibal, at that moment, was further downstream, in Lucius, and it is unbelievable that his brother didn't know that Taranto itself had long since fallen into Roman hands). Then, in that instant, the unpredictable chance of luck came into play. Asdrubal's letter was immediately transmitted to Claudius Nero, who acted with great decision and speed. Passing the information to the Senate, he advised that the roads to Narnia be closed, that all available men be summoned, and that the legion stationed in Capua return. Nero, although he had previously failed against Asdrubal in Iberia, certainly recognized that he was the more vulnerable of the two brothers and the one who posed the greater threat to Rome at the moment. Without waiting for the Senate to ratify his decision for action, he decided to leave his army where it was, blockading Hannibal, and take a selected force north to reinforce Livius Salinatorus and Lycanus Plicus. His second-in-command, Cassius, took command of the thirty thousand men left to stop Hannibal, while Nero, in the dead of night, took six thousand legionnaires and a thousand horsemen on a forced march north.

His action was brilliant, showing all the characteristics of a man who had learned from Hannibal that boldness and decisiveness often win great battles. He had already demonstrated some of these qualities in his previous combat with Hannibal, but now, acting completely contrary to all Roman conventions (leaving his appointed post as consul) he hit the road with his select group. Knights were sent at the head of the marching columns to warn all the villages and towns along the way to have food, water and everything else prepared for the men on whom the life or death of the republic depended. Livy gives a vivid account of that famous march: "(...) They went everywhere marching among the ranks of men and women who sprang up from the farms on every side, and among their vows and prayers and words of praise (...) They competed with each other in their invitations and offerings, and urged them to dispose of whatever they desired, food and animals. The men marched day and night, their weapons piled into accompanying wagons, while messengers ran to Livius Salinator to tell him that his fellow consul was on his way to join him.

Asdrubal, supposing that his letter would by this time have reached Hannibal and that Hannibal was hastening to meet him, stood before the army of Marcus Livius and Photius Licinus. The Romans had so far shown no sign that they desired a confrontation, and Asdrubal no doubt thought that the more he sustained his position, the more time would be given for Hannibal to come up behind the enemy and catch him in the rear. He had crossed the Metauro River and then headed south toward the small river Seine that lay between his position and that of the Romans, only about half a mile away. The region was part of the Umbrian plain and, although more covered with bushes and trees than today, was a good field for campaigning. The Metauro, in those days when the Apennines were covered with trees, would probably have been a much larger river than it is today, and the streams and hills that jutted out on the northern side undoubtedly more than a hindrance. Claudius Nero, it is said, reached his fellow consul after only seven days of marching, at an average of thirty Roman miles a day - something that, even with all the help along the way, seems unlikely. He certainly moved with fantastic speed, as fast as Hannibal on some of his forced marches, and was in the middle of the battle region long before any news of his approach could have preceded him. Waiting until night fell, without being seen, Nero joined Livio Salinador, he and his troops sharing the tents of the soldiers already grouped there. When dawn broke, there was no evidence by newly pitched tents that the Roman army had been increased.

The next day, a council of war was held, the praetor, Pórcio Licinius, being present with the two consuls. Livy records that "many of the opinions leaned in the direction of postponing the moment of battle until Nero had his troops reestablished, since they were tired by marching and lack of sleep, and at the same time, a few days should be devoted to acquainting themselves with the enemy". Nero, however, made himself unyielding: he was determined to attack immediately, claiming that "his plan, whose rapid movement he had made sure" could not be annulled by any delay. He was aware that Hannibal would discover his absence in his own army and attack. If Hannibal at least managed one of his incredible victories again, he would certainly follow Nero's route northward, and the Roman army would find itself sandwiched between the two Carthaginian brothers. Livius Salinator somewhat reluctantly agreed, and the Roman forces began to prepare for battle.

While the Carthaginian troops were also beginning to move in their places - both opposing armies being no more than half a mile from each other - Asdrubal decided to take one last look at the Roman positions. Livy writes that "riding ahead of the banners with a few horsemen, he observed among the enemy old shields which he had not seen before and very worn-out horses; he also found their numbers greater than usual. Suspecting that something had happened, he promptly gave the rallying call and sent men to the river from which the Romans got their water supply, to have some Romans captured there examined to see if they were more sunburned from a recent march." At the same time, he sent horsemen to prowl around the Roman encampments and check whether earthworks had been increased or new tents erected. Deceived by Nero's subterfuge that no changes should be made and that his men should be housed with those already there, they reported to Asdrubal that everything was as before. However, they had noticed something unusual - when the orders were given by trumpet, one had sounded as usual in the praetor's camp but, instead of only one sounding in the camp of Consul Livius Salinator, two distinct trumpets were heard there. Asdrubal, familiar for years with the routines of his Roman enemy, deduced at once that this meant that two consuls were present. If there were two consuls, then possibly two consular armies or, at the very least, a fairly significant force awaited him.

The presence of the second consul also suggested the terrible thought that his brother and his army might have been defeated. The Romans would never leave Hannibal unattended by one consul or another if he was still alive. Asdrubal succumbed to the fear that all might be lost in the south. That night, he ordered his troops to withdraw and occupied a new position on the banks of the Metauro River.

From the moment Asdrubal determined that retreat before the enemy, everything was surely lost for him. His native guides deserted, his troops lost heart, and the waves of Gauls - undisciplined, untrained and always prone to drunkenness - fell into total disorder. Confused in the darkness, unaware of the terrain, the Carthaginian army scattered toward the river. If Asdrubal had intended to secure a strong position on the north bank, he would be frustrated by the condition of his own troops and the fact that the Romans were right on his heels. Asdrubal was a brave and experienced general, and it is unlikely that he had no future plans beyond trying to bring the Romans into battle on the Metaurus line.

Dorey and Dudley suggest that "he could have marched northwest and then turned back toward the Po River valley, but this is not very likely. He probably intended to turn left toward Rome, bypass the Roman armies on the Seine, reach friendly communities in Etruria and Umbria, and then find out what had happened to Hannibal."

Claudius Nero had not realized, when he so cunningly concealed the presence of his troops from Carthaginian surveillance, that his own presence would be denounced to them by the sound of a trumpet, and he certainly could not have guessed that the report of this would cause Asdrubal to retreat. The fear that Hannibal would unite his army with his brother's had pushed Nero in his march northward, and the fear that Hannibal was in disgrace precipitated Asdrubal's retreat.

As dawn broke the next day, he positioned his troops as best he could on the south bank of the Metaurus - concentrating his best troops, the veteran Carthaginians and Iberians, against Marcus Livius. His inebriated and demoralized Gauls were placed on a small hill, where he hoped they could get some protective advantage against the Romans commanded by Nero to his right.

Other Iberian and Ligurian troops stayed in the center, where he also positioned his ten elephants, hoping that the weight of their attack would destroy the troops of Pórcio Licino, who commanded there. At the time, the elephants showed a susceptibility. The Romans had already learned that when wounded by spears (the formidable pilos), elephants would turn and run furiously into the ranks of their own army.

The battle was fierce and prolonged on Asdrubal's right, where he and Marcus Livius battled it out, with the Carthaginians, Iberians, and Ligurians fighting well and bravely. But on the left, the Gauls, in their protected positions, barely moved, and Nero found it difficult to attack them. In the center the elephants caused confusion among both their own troops and those of the Romans, and the clash went on without a decision.

Finally, Nero, judging that the real confrontation was in the other wing and that it was there that the battle would be won or lost, once again used his initiative and acted completely against all conventional military practices. Abandoning his attempts to dislodge the Gauls, he turned his troops behind the Roman battle line and fell upon the Carthaginian right wing. This new charge of vigorous legionnaires collapsing against them caused Asdrubal's weary soldiers to retreat. The battle suddenly became an annihilation. Panicked men struggled to cross the Metauro River, while Asdrubal's entire right wing collapsed. Realizing that all was lost, Hannibal's brother spurred his horse into the Roman lines and died, sword in hand - "a heroic gesture," says Polybius, but Asdrubal would have been far more valuable to the Carthaginian cause alive. It is likely that the despair he felt was inspired not only by his defeat, but also by the fear that had previously driven his army back - the fear that his brother was dead somewhere in the south of the Italian peninsula.

Livy provides the chimerical figure of fifty-six thousand men killed on the Carthaginian side (anxious, perhaps, to satisfy the Romans with an adequate revenge for Canas), while Polybius reports ten thousand. The latter is more likely because it is more accurate, for it is doubtful whether Asdrubal had more than sixty thousand men in the first place, many of whom had already deserted, while the Gauls, who had barely fought, beat a retreat in complete safety. Eight thousand Roman dead are reported. Thus was the battle of Metauro, which sealed the fate of the Carthaginian intent to defeat the Romans on their homeland. On that day, the balance of power in the Mediterranean changed forever.

Nero, who by his action in battle and his decisive first move to reinforce his fellow consul, had shown himself to be an outstanding general, both tactically and strategically, wasted no time now that it was all over. He was quite sure that the main threat to Rome had passed - the danger of two armies commanded by two sons of Amilcar Barca gathered on Italian soil. But he knew of the seemingly permanent threat still posed by Hannibal in the south. He rushed back after the victory at Metauro and again took command of the legions in Puglia. Hannibal's troops remained opposite his (Nero's absence had not been noticed), and no word had reached the opposing armies about the great northern battle.

The first news of the disaster came when some Roman horsemen advanced on the Carthaginian sentries and threw a dark object toward the outposts. When the object was handed to Hannibal in his tent, he looked at it and said, "I see there the fate of Carthage. It was the head of his brother Asdrubal.


  1. Battle of the Metaurus
  2. Batalha do Metauro
  3. ^ G. Baldelli, E. Paci, L. Tomassini, La battaglia del Metauro. Testi, tesi, ipotesi, Minardi Editore, Fano 1994; M. Olmi, La battaglia del Metauro. Alla ricerca del luogo dello scontro, Edizioni Chillemi, Roma 2020.
  4. Tite-Live, XXVII, 49.
  5. (la) Livy, Tite-Live - Livres XXVI à XXX., Ed. Belin, 1895, 625 p. (lire en ligne)
  6. ^ Gianni Granzotto, Annibale, Milano, Mondadori, 1980. ISBN 88-04-45177-7.
  7. ^ M. Olmi, La battaglia del Metauro. Alla ricerca del luogo dello scontro, Edizioni Chillemi, Roma 2020.
  8. ^ a b c Scullard 1992, vol. I, p. 284.
  9. a b c d Carey, 2007: 89
  10. a b c d e Tucker, 2010: 55
  11. a b c d Carey, 2007: 90

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