Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

06 October 2009

Hannibal’s Umbria

We go to Umbria for the last few days before leaving Italy. The Serchio Valley road unwinds as we pass Fornoli, Bagni di Lucca, the Devil’s Bridge and, skirting Lucca city, join the autostrada to Florence and Arezzo, both of which we by-pass, through the Val di Chiana to Perugia and Assisi. It’s a quick trip, about 200 km, on a relatively empty road. Before we reach Perugia we pass along the northern shores of Lake Trasimeno… this is extra-historic country.


School history left me believing that the Roman army was invincible; so far advanced in weapons and technique that, until the decline and fall of the Empire and its slow retraction into its heartlands while the jackal longbeards and skinheads nibbled its extremities and turned out the lights to start the Dark Ages, it never lost a battle. A romantic notion, of course, and one easily shot to pieces by a cursory examination of the record, but sufficiently embedded in me for Hannibal’s victory at Lake Trasimeno to be astonishing.

North Africa’s Carthaginians were disenchanted with the Romans who, having defeated them in the first Punic (Punic =Phoenician=Carthaginian) war in 241 BC, tried to bleed them dry. So when the Romans became preoccupied on their northern flanks by raiding Gauls and Goths, Carthaginian Hannibal seized the day and besieged and destroyed Sagunto, a Roman-dominated city in south-east Spain, and so precipitated the second Punic war in 219 BC .

By 217 BC Hannibal had become so successful against the Romans that he was halfway up the Italian peninsula fighting Consul Flaminius north of Lake Trasimeno. Flaminius made a frightful mess of things by trying to flush out the Carthaginians through a narrow, foggy valley near Tuoro but Hannibal had fooled him, and the Carthaginian cavalry and infantry came down from the surrounding hills and forced the Romans to fight in open order, unable to employ their classic, hand-to-hand battle techniques.

It was a rout. There was no escape, Flaminius’s army of 15 000 had their backs to the lake and they were all killed, including him - which was just as well as the Romans wouldn’t have forgiven him if he’d survived. History says that the blood of the battle laid around for days and filled a little stream whose name, as a consequence, was changed to Sanguineto - Blood River.

The war against Hannibal went on for another fifteen years during which north-west Umbria was so ravaged that the resultant agrarian crisis lasted until modern times!

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy


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By Don Donovan