Battle of Geronium
The Battle of Geronium or Gerunium took place during the Second Punic War, where a large skirmish and battle took place in the summer and autumn of 217 BC respectively.
|Battle of Geronium|
|Part of the Second Punic War|
|Commanders and leaders|
Marcus Minucius Rufus|
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus
|Casualties and losses|
Skirmish: 5,000 killed|
Battle: Thousands killed
This article's tone or style may not reflect the encyclopedic tone used on Wikipedia. (June 2011)
After winning the Battle of Ager Falernus, the army of Hannibal marched north then east towards Molise through Samnium. Hannibal was cautiously followed by the Roman army under the dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, keeping with the Fabian strategy. This policy was becoming unpopular in Rome, and Fabius was compelled to return to Rome to defend his actions under the guise of observing religious obligations.
Marcus Minucius Rufus, left in command, managed to catch the Carthaginians off guard near their camp in Geronium and inflict severe losses on them in a large skirmish, while losing 5,000 Romans killed. This action caused the Romans, disgruntled with Fabius, to elevate Minucius to the equal rank of the dictator. Minucius took command of half the army and camped separately from Fabius near Geronium. Hannibal, informed of this development, laid an elaborate trap, which drew out Minucius and his army in detail, and then attacked it from all sides. The timely arrival of Fabius with the other half of the army enabled Minucius to escape, but with a substantial number of Romans killed. After the battle, Minucius turned over his army to Fabius and resumed the duties of Master of Horse.
After escaping from the trap of Ager Falernus by winning the Battle of Ager Falernus, Hannibal, with his army and spoils, marched east toward Molise. Still committed to a delaying strategy, Fabius followed Hannibal cautiously, keeping to the high ground and avoiding being drawn into a pitched battle at all cost.
Carthaginian march through central Italy
After leaving Ager Falernus through the pass of Callifae, Hannibal retraced his steps, moving east towards Molise. The Carthaginian army, encumbered with plunder and herds of cattle, moved slowly, seeking a place to set up their winter quarters. Fabius and the Romans dogged the Carthaginians from a distance and avoided direct confrontation with them. Hannibal marched north to Venefram, which caused alarm in Rome as the city was thought to be the Carthaginian objective. Then the Carthaginian army turned east into Samnium, and after crossing the Apennine Mountains and moving through the Pelignial plains, finally entered Molise. Fabius continued to follow Hannibal, and when the Carthaginians reached near the modern-day village of Casacalenda and took over a town named Geronium, Fabius set up his camp at Larinum, 20 miles to the south.
The Carthaginians had cut a swath of destruction in their march, ravaging farms and property, collecting provisions and prisoners as they moved, unopposed by Fabius. Hannibal tried various provocations to get Fabius to fight, he even spared the property of Fabius while devastating all else, to cast doubts about him. Fabius, when he found out during a prisoner exchange that Hannibal held 247 people more than the Romans did, and the Senate declined to fund their ransom, sold part of the property to ransom the prisoners, and then refused to accept any money from the freed prisoners. The Fabian Policy of following Hannibal around Italy but refusing battle had become so unpopular that the Romans named Fabius Hannibal’s “paedagogus,” after a certain class of slave who followed a Roman child to school carrying his books.
Carthaginian camp in Molise
Hannibal either took Geronium by assault after his terms had been refused by the townsfolk, or he simply took possession of the town because the inhabitants had fled after burning the town buildings, because part of the town wall had collapsed, making it vulnerable. The Carthaginians turned the town into a large granary for storing their grain and housing their animal herds, then set up a camp outside the town to billet the army, and finally surrounded the town and the camp with a trench and palisade. While the sick and wounded recovered in the camp, thousands of foragers fanned out throughout the plain to harvest crops while others pastured their cattle and horses on the mountainside. Two thirds of the army was employed in these operations while the rest guarded the camp.
Minucius in command
While the Carthaginians had been busy at Geronium, Fabius had left Minucius in charge of the Roman army with instructions to follow the ‘Fabian Strategy’ and journeyed to Rome to observe religious duties. He possibly also had engaged in political bickering because of his unpopularity among the Roman citizens. Minucius, who had always advocated a more forward strategy against Hannibal, moved down from the hills after a few days and set up a new camp in the plain of Larinum to the north of Geronium. The Romans then began harassing the Carthaginian foragers from their new camp as Minucius sought to provoke Hannibal into battle. Hannibal in response moved near the Roman camp from Geronium with two thirds of his army, built a temporary camp, and occupied a hill overlooking the Roman camp with 2,000 Libyphoenician pikemen. The mobility of the Carthaginians was restricted at this time as their cavalry horses were being rested. This had also deprived Hannibal of his best weapon against the Romans, a fact which would come into play soon. Minucius promptly attacked with his light infantry, driving back the pikemen posted on the hill, and moved his camp to the top of the captured hill.
Responding to the Roman move, the Carthaginians reduced the number of their foragers for a few days and kept the army in readiness within their camp situated near the Roman camp. Minucius sat tight in his camp, emulating Fabius. Hannibal sent out parties in increasing numbers for foraging. The Romans, seizing their chance, sent out light infantry and horsemen through the back gate of their camp to cut off and kill a large number of Carthaginian foragers, who were scattered all over the plain of Geronium, while Minucius himself led the infantry in strength towards the temporary Carthaginian camp itself, where most of the Carthaginians had taken refuge after being worsted in the initial clash. Hannibal, with his foragers under attack and his camp in danger of being assaulted, led out a sortie against the attacking Roman infantry.
With only a third of the army present and most of their cavalry absent, the outnumbered Carthaginians fought a small-scale battle not of their own choosing, and mostly got the worst of the engagement. The Romans, at first shaken by the initial Carthaginian onslaught, finally gained the upper hand when a fresh force numbering 8,000 foot and 500 horse under Lucius Decimus the Samnite arrived in the rear of the Carthaginians, having been sent by Fabius to join the army at Geronium. The Carthaginians withdrew, the Romans gave chase and at one point Minucius considered overrunning and dismantling the camp itself. The arrival of Hasdrubal (the Quartermaster General) with 4,000 foragers gave Hannibal the confidence to deploy his army for battle, and Minucius chose to withdraw to his camp. Exaggerated Roman accounts claimed 6,000 Carthaginians dead both in the engagement and throughout the countryside, with 5,000 Roman troops slain. The Romans had managed to catch the Carthaginians at a disadvantage and had inflicted a large number of casualties during this skirmish. This was the only time Hannibal had been drawn into large scale skirmishing and had surrendered the initiative to the enemy during the war.
The Roman army outnumbered the Carthaginian one, and the Carthaginian army was divided between two camps while the Roman one was concentrated. From his position Minucius could harass the Cathaginians while keeping the detachment under Hannibal in check with part of his force. There was the possibility of a Roman attack on Geronium itself following a night march, leading to the loss of all his provisions. Hannibal chose to reduce the risk to his army and fell back to the main camp at Geronium. Minucius immediately occupied the deserted Carthaginian camp.
Minucius rewarded by Roman Senate
Minucius' success was hailed in Rome as a great victory. The Roman army commanded by Fabius had apparently done little except follow Hannibal around and watch him ruin the Roman economy, while the same army under a different general had caused Hannibal to retreat. So, the Roman senate sought a way to reward Minucius for his service to the state.
The Roman political tradition and system did not allow the removal of a dictator during his term in office. Because Fabius was a dictator who had been elected by the senate (not the usual way to become dictator), the senate could avail other options to minimize his powers. A praetor named “Metellus” or, according to other sources, G. Terentius Varro (the future consul in 216 BC), proposed a bill to elevate Minucius to the equal rank of Fabius. The bill was promptly passed, giving Rome 2 dictators at once for the first time in history and for all practical purposes reducing the status of dictator to a consul. Upon returning to the army, Fabius proposed to either command the whole army on alternate days, or split their army into two independent commands. Minucius chose to split the army and took legions number II & III, and two allied legions, and encamped one and a half miles south of where Fabius camped, possibly on the site of Hannibal’s temporary camp. In the coming days Minucius would act just as the senate had expected him to, but he would almost end up rendering the type of "service" to Rome which it could ill afford and likes of which Fabius had striven to avoid in the preceding months of the campaign.
The results of this debacle had not changed the strategic situation for Hannibal. His main winter base at Geronium still remained secured, and the Carthaginian general had not planned any major operations for the time being. The Roman army still outnumbered the Carthaginian one, and Hannibal did not wish to engage it unless he could ensure a decisive tactical advantage for his soldiers to win any future engagements with minimal casualties. A war of attrition was a luxury he could not afford, being cut off from regular reinforcements from Carthage and adrift in hostile territory.
When informed of the division of the Roman army, Hannibal reconsidered his strategic position and studied the possibility of destroying part of the Roman army in a pitched battle. The Roman armies were camped separately, so one army could be drawn out and engaged under favorable conditions before the other could intervene. It was a foregone conclusion that Minucius was more likely to swallow whatever bait laid out by Hannibal, as Fabius had shown himself to be immune to all forms of Punic provocations throughout the summer of 217 BC. So, it became a question of getting Minucius to fight before Fabius did anything, not fighting Fabius before Minucius hightailed to the rescue. Hannibal's next challenge was to formulate a plan to entrap and destroy the Roman army commanded by Minucius. After a careful study of the terrain, Hannibal devised a tactical plan which would take advantage of the aggressiveness of Minucius and the geographical features of the chosen battle site. The plan was to entice Minucius with a careful and timed maneuver into thinking that he was fighting a repeat of the skirmish he had earlier fought at Geronium, while springing a trap similar to the one Hannibal had sprung on the Romans at the Battle of Trebbia in 218 BC on the unsuspecting army of Minucius. It had been suggested that Hannibal deliberately lost the skirmish to obtain an opportunity, but that speculation seems a bit far-fetched.
The bait is laid
The ground between the Carthaginian and Roman camps was flat, treeless, and barren, with a low ridge sitting midway between the camps. There were hollows and dead patches of land in the ground behind and beside the hill where soldiers could hide without being noticed. Hannibal selected a picked body of 5,000 infantry and 500 cavalry, and ordered them to conceal themselves in groups of 200-300 in the hollows and dead ground on the night before the battle. The skill and discipline of the Carthaginians is evident through their flawless execution of this potentially hazardous operation. At dawn, a contingent of Carthaginian light infantry took position on the hill in full view of the Romans. From their vantage point, the Carthaginians on the hill could spy on the Romans, just like the spearmen guard Minucius had dislodged from another hill prior to the start of the skirmish. Unlike the previous encounter, this time Hannibal was fully prepared for the Roman response.
Battle of Geronium
Seeing the Carthaginians deployed on the hill, Minucius sent a group of velites to drive them off. In turn, Hannibal reinforced the hill with just enough soldiers to fight the Romans to a stalemate. This caused Minucius to send the Roman and Italian allied cavalry up the hill, which Hannibal immediately countered with his light Numidian cavalry and heavy Spanish and Libyphoenician cavalry. With the cavalry engaged, Minucius lost his best tool for scouting the battleground and discovering the trap Hannibal had set for him. After skirmishing for a while, the Roman cavalry slowly began to give ground against their better skilled opponents.
Minucius, observing the situation, now called out his four legions and marched towards and then up the hill. Hannibal had also deployed his infantry beyond the hill and now advanced to meet the advancing Romans. The sequence and timing of events, all planned and orchestrated by Hannibal, did not give the Roman general any time to examine the ground or scout the area. Fabius, who was watching the events unfold from his camp, called his army to arms but did not move out to help his fellow general.
Just as the Roman infantry commanded by Minucius reached the hill and was moving up the slopes, the Roman cavalry broke and began to scatter. The Roman light troops, already hard pressed, were also driven back on the marching legions. The Roman battle formation was disrupted, and before the Romans could regain cohesion, the Carthaginians concealed in the hollows emerged and fell on the exposed flanks and rear of the Roman battle line. Hannibal and his infantry struck the now unbalanced Romans from the front before the shock of the ambush faded or Minucius could take corrective action. Attacked from all sides, a part of the Romans broke ranks and fled, while the others became surrounded and were fighting for their lives.
Fabius marched out with his four legions to join the battle. Hannibal is said to have remarked “That cloud on the mountains has broken in storm at last!” when he saw Fabius approaching with his army. The fleeing Romans of Minucius’ army began to form up beside his legions, the Carthaginians between the armies of Fabius and Minucius then gave way, enabling Minucius and his surviving soldiers to fall back and regroup beside the fresh Roman troops. Both armies regrouped and redeployed for battle, but Hannibal did not allow anything more than skirmishing to develop between the armies, and it was also Hannibal who first broke contact and retired to his camp. Fabius promptly followed suit and the battle was over.
Possibly Hannibal did not wish to fight a battle of attrition against a still superior army, over half of which was fresh while the Carthaginians had been fighting for a time. Strategically, the destruction of the Roman army would not have changed the balance of power significantly for Hannibal at the time. While Carthaginians wintered at Geronium, the Romans would have been free to raise another army to deal with him. On the other hand, if Hannibal lost the battle, he might have lost the war on the spot for Carthage. The Carthaginians had inflicted severe casualties on the Romans, and only the prompt action of Fabius had saved Rome from dealing with another disaster in the space of six months.
After the battle, Minucius turned over supreme command to Fabius, resuming his duties as the Master of Horse, and billeted his remaining troops with those of Fabius. Minucius, after his rescue, hailed Fabius as his father, and instructed his troops to treat the troops of Fabius as their patrons. Fabius, for his part, did not humiliate Minucius for the debacle, and allowed him all the honors due to his position. Both Romans and Carthaginians then went to winter quarters, and no large actions were fought during the winter. After the term of Fabius as dictator expired in December of 217 BC, the army was turned over to the incoming consuls Attilus Regulus and Servillus Geminus. The armies of Carthage and Rome remained in Geronium until June 216 BC, when Hannibal decided to start for Cannae.
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