Battle of Ager Falernus

Battle of Ager Falernus

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Ager Falernus

partof=the Second Punic War
date= Summer 217 BC
place= Mount Callicula, Campania, present-day Italy
result= Carthaginian victory
combatant2=Roman Republic
commander1= Hannibal Barca
commander2=Quintus Fabius Maximus
strength1= 2,000 infantry, 2,000 Oxen,
2,000 Camp Followers
strength2= 4,000 infantry, plus reserves
casualties2= 1,000+

The Battle of Ager Falernus (or the Battle of the Falernian Territory) was a skirmish during the Second Punic War between the armies of Rome and Carthage. After winning the Battle of Lake Trasimene in Italy in 217 BC, the army commanded by Hannibal Barca marched south and reached Campania. The Carthaginians ultimately moved into the district of Falernum, a very fertile river valley surrounded by mountains. Quintus Fabius Maximus, who had been elected dictator and commander of the Roman field forces after the disastrous defeat at Trasimene, had dogged Hannibal and stuck to a strategy to fight only under favourable conditions (Fabian Strategy). He now occupied all the river crossings and mountain passes leading out of the valley, thus blocking the Carthaginians inside. After stripping the area of grain, cattle and other supplies, Hannibal displayed brilliant tactics to provoke the Roman guard to leave one of the passes. Despite the protests of his staff officers Fabius, who was camped near the pass with his main forces, refused to attack the Carthaginian army and it escaped the trap unscathed.

trategic situation

The Carthaginian victory in the Battle of Lake Trasimene had removed the Roman consular army blocking the Carthaginian army from marching on Rome. The second Roman consular army in Northern Italy, under Gnaeus Servilius Geminus, was on the other side of the Appenine mountains, near Ariminum, and it was in no position to hinder Hannibal from marching south. This force also had lost most of its reconnaissance capabilities as its cavalry of 4,000 men had been destroyed in an ambush by the Hannibal's lieutenant Maharbal possibly near Assisi, [Lazenby, John Francis, Hannibal's War, p65 id = ISBN 0-8061-3004-0] immediately after the battle of Lake Trasimene. The Roman army retreated back to Ariminum after this debacle, and was busy checking the Gallic raids taking place near the Po valley. The initiative now rested with Hannibal, and the Romans had temporarily lost the ability to defend their Italian allies until a new army could be raised.

Hannibal's movement in central Italy

It is a matter of speculation why Hannibal did not march on Rome or what might have happened had he done so immediately after Trasimene. [Strategy, B.H. Liddle Hart, p26 id = ISBN 0-452-01017-3] The Carthaginian army instead marched south-east into Umbria, through Perugia, although Livy refers to a failed siege of Spoletum, a Latin colony, [Livy 22.9.1-3] Polybius does not mention it, and it is likely that only some Carthaginian raiders troubled the Latin colony. [Lazenby, John Francis, Hannibal's War, p66 id = ISBN 0-8061-3004-0] Hannibal, all the while ravaging the countryside, marched through Picenum towards the Adriatic coast, reaching Herita 10 days after leaving Lake Trasimene. Here Hannibal rested his army, which was suffering from scurvy, refitted the Libyan/African troops with captured Roman equipments and retrained them, and by using low grade local wine ("acetum")as an ointment, brought the cavalry horses back to health. [Cottrell, Leonard, Hannibal Enemy of Rome, p118 id = ISBN 0-306-80498-0] With no Roman army situated near him, Hannibal was free to choose his next course of action unhindered.


Romans make ready

There was panic and disorder in Rome when rumors about Trasimene spread among the city population, which were confirmed when the praetor Marcus Pomponius curtly announced in the Forum "We have been defeated in a great battle". [Goldsworthy, Adrian, The Fall of Carthage p190 id = ISBN 0-304-36642-0] The Senate met in continual session to debate the next course of action until three days later the news of the defeat of the Roman cavalry by Maharbal arrived in Rome. The Roman senate and the people, realizing the gravity of the situation, decided to elect a dictator (for the first time since 249 BC) to direct the war effort. As one of the elected consuls was dead and the other one away with his army, the dictator was elected by the senate instead of being nominated by one of the consuls.

Fabius to the fore

Quintus Fabius Maximus, a member of the patrician Fabii, who had suggested that an election should be held, was elected into office by the assembled centuries of the people, his term in office being set for the next six months. Fabius, 58 years of age, nearly 30 years older than Hannibal, at that time carried the nickname "Verrucosus" or "Spotty" because of a wart on his face. His past political record was anything but spotty, he had fought in the First Punic War, and had been elected consul in 233 and 228 BC, and was one of the elected censors in 230 BC, and had been granted a triumph for his efforts against the Ligurians. Normally a dictator chose his own deputy, the Master of Horse, but Fabius received as his Master of Horse Marcus Minucius Rufus (a plebian who was consul in 221 BC), in an unusual political gesture. [Goldsworthy, Adrian, The Fall of Carthage, p191 id = ISBN 0-304-36642-0] It was suggested that the post of Fabius was that of a pro-dictator (acting dictator), but it seems Fabius enjoyed all the powers of a dictator during his term. The Romans needed to prepare a proper reception should Hannibal decided to show up outside Rome with his army. Fabius first set about restoring the morale of the Roman people and then tackled the task of preparing the defences of Rome after receiving his post. He took meticulous care in observing all the religious procedures attached to state affairs and all the civil procedures related to state administration to boost the morale of the city population, after having blamed the Trasimene disaster on the lack of proper religious observations by the dead consul Flaminius. The senate consulted the Sybilline books at the suggestion of Fabius and a praetor was assigned to appease the Roman gods through generous sacrifices. Divine duties taken care of, Fabius next went about preparing for Hannibal's anticipated visit to Latium, being ignorant of his location and intention at that time.

The city walls were repaired, Minucius was put in charge of preparing a "reception committee" by raising 2 Roman and 2 allied legions and attached cavalry units to defend the city in nearby Tibur. The unwalled towns in Latium were ordered to be abandoned, and their inhabitants were moved into walled towns. Certain bridges were torn down to deny the Carthaginians easy passage through Latium. Once it was clear that Hannibal was not marching towards Rome, Fabius ordered the army of Servilius into Latium. Fabius left Rome, met and took over command of the army of Servilius near Narnia, [Polybius 3.88.3] or a few miles south at Ocriculum, [Livy 22.11.5] then joined the army of Minucius at Tibur and marched along the "via Appia" into Apulia. Servilus was sent to command the Roman fleet at Ostia with the rank of proconsul. With the Roman army concentrated, Fabius needed to implement the next phase of his plans: how to defeat the Carthaginian army. Fabius in his childhood had been named ovicula ("Little Sheep") [Baker, G.P, Hannibal, p106, id = ISBN 0-8154-1005-0] for his mildness and willingness to follow others about, and in the coming months his activities gave the impression that he was doing his utmost to live up to that nickname.

The strategy

Hamilcar Barca, who commanded the Carthaginian land forces from 247 BC to 241 BC, probably lacked the manpower to take on the Roman armies stationed in Sicily. So instead of fighting pitched battles, he simply placed his camp on an unassailable position near the Roman controlled area and launched a harrasment campaign. Hamilcar won several minor victories, shrugged off failures and with his immunity to defeat, kept the Carthaginian cause alive. After six years of harassment, the bankrupt and near exhausted Roman state borrowed money from its citizens to create a fleet and defeated the Carthaginians at sea to end the First Punic War.

Having assembled an army that was close to the Carthaginian one in size if not in skill, The Roman dictator had the choice of seeking battle with Hannibal or trying a new ploy. Fabius was about to pull something similar to Hamilcar Barca's strategy on Hamilcar's own son Hannibal. The irony is, Fabius was not lacking in manpower like Hamilcar, nor would he fight a static campaign.

A Game of prudence and patiance

While the Romans were busy raising an army and sorting out political/religious matters, Hannibal had marched in a leisurely manner south from Hartia. His army, rested, restored to health, retrained and re-equipped, cut a path of destruction through central Italy as they collected grain, cattle, provisions and supplies during the march. Hannibal followed the coastal plain before turning west. Near the town of Arpi, the Roman army under Fabius made contact with the Carthaginian army and camped at Aecae, six miles away from the Carthaginian camp.Lazenby, John Francis, Hannibal's War p68 id = ISBN 0-8061-3004-0] Hannibal drew up his army and offered battle, but Fabius ignored the offer and the Roman army remained in their camp. The stage was set for Fabius to reveal his plans, which would tax the patience of the Romans and the political clout of Fabius to the limit and ultimately be credited by later historians as the most prudent, if economically costly, strategy against the threat of Hannibal.

The following months saw Fabius employ what would later be known as "Fabian Strategy", and earn him the title of "The Delayer". Despite whatever provocation Hannibal thought up, the Roman army always refused to fight pitched battles, shadowed the Carthaginians from a distance, manoeuvred to keep to the high ground to deny the Carthaginian cavalry any advantage and always moved to keep between Rome and their enemy. The Roman army sought to encamp on grounds which were unlikely to be attacked by the Carthaginians, and Roman foragers were covered by flying columns of light infantry and cavalry at all times. Carthaginian foragers and stragglers caught at a disadvantage were cut down whenever possible. With this strategy, Fabius left the initiative to Hannibal and failed to prevent the Carthaginian army from looting and destroying Roman and Italian allied property, but the Roman army gained invaluable combat experience and remained intact, and the threat of intervention by Fabius kept wavering Italian allies from defecting to Carthage. Thus a deadly game of "Follow the leader" was played in a grand scale between two hostile armies in Italy during the summer of 217 BC, with Hannibal leading and Fabius following him, resulting in the destruction of a large portion of the Roman economic assets and trying the patience of the Roman people to the limit.

Carthaginians in Ager Falernus

After leaving Arpi, Hannibal marched west into Samnium, and then moved to Beneventum, ravaging the countryside at will. Fabius cautiously followed the Carthaginians keeping to the high ground. From Beneventum, which had shut its gates against Hannibal, the Carthaginians moved north to capture a town called either "Venosia" [Polybius 3.90.8] or Telesia. [Livy 22.13.1] From this place Hannibal struck south west towards Ager Falernus, a fertile river plain which lay on the south of Latium, and to the north of Capua. After going through Allifae, Callifae, across the Volturnus River to Cales and then down on the plain the Carthaginians finally arrived near Casilinum.G.P Baker, Hannibal p.114 id = ISBN 0-8154-1005-0] Hannibal let loose his soldiers on the rich land, and all through the summer collected a rich booty of cattle, grain, supplies and prisoners unhindered by Roman military activity. Hannibal had entered the potential trap because either his Italian guides had mistaken "Casinum" as "Casilinum", or some Campanian prisoners had suggested that Capua might defect once Carthaginians reached Campania, which did not materialise at this point of time. It had also been suggested that Hannibal had invaded Ager Falernus to show the Italians the inability of Romans to defend their own property, after failing to get Fabius to fight. [Goldsworthy, Adrian, The Fall of Carthage, p192-94 id = ISBN 0-304-36642-0] Although there were eight possible routes out of Ager Falernus, but being positioned north of the Volturnus River, and with all the bridges in Roman hands, there were only three that Hannibal could take to leave the river plain. [Bagnall, Nigel, The Punic Wars, p186 id = ISBN 0-312-34214-4] Fabius seized this strategic opportunity presented to him and set about to trap the Carthaginian army.

Hannibal hemmed in

Fabius first reinforced the Roman garrison at Casilinum, which guarded one such bridge, and Cales on the south of Ager Falernus. Minucius took up position to the north of the plain to watch both the "via Latina" and "via Appia" with a detachment, while Taenum was also garrisoned. The main Roman army camped near Mount Massicus, north of the plain to the west of Minucius, ready to support his position. A detachment of 4,000 troops was sent to watch the passes of Mount Callicula to the east of the plain near Allifae, one of the possible passes through which Hannibal might chose to leave the plain. The exact location is still unknown and remains debatable. Thus, the Roman dispositions hemmed the Carthaginians in the plain, trapping them. It seemed that Hannibal would have to attack a Roman position directly to break out; the only question was whether he would choose such a dangerous manoeuvre before or after his supplies had failed. Fabius had ensured the best possible situation for Rome in his view. All the Romans now had to do was wait until the Carthaginians ran out of supplies and then were forsed to take desperate measures.

Having covered all possible routes Hannibal could take to leave the plain, Fabius sat tight, observing the Carthaginian army but doing nothing to force an decisive engagement. With this strategy Fabius kept his army safe but his political position began to suffer in Rome. His staff and the Roman senate demanded swift action to crush Hannibal since the Carthaginians were already trapped. When L. Hostilius Mancinus, sent to scout the Numidians with 400 horsemen dared to engage the Carthaginians, he was killed and his entire force destroyed by the Carthaginian cavalry under Carthalo, prompting the Romans to stick to the waiting game for the time being. Fabius in the meantime had visited Rome to perform certain religious duties. The Roman landed rich were feeling the pinch with Hannibal destroying their property, so defending his strategy was another reason for this visit.

The Battle

Pre battle situation

Hannibal, after his plundering mission was completed, decided to leave the plain, choosing not to winter there. While Fabius, with secure supply lines, had the luxury to sit and wait until his term as dictator expired or the Carthaginians finally attacked him, Hannibal, having stripped the area bare of all supplies, could not afford to stay put indefinitely and ultimately face a supply shortage. The Romans, guided by Fabius, still refused to attack him despite whatever provocation he came up with. Hannibal, on the other hand, did not wish to suffer severe casualties by a head-on assault on the Romans settled in fortified camps on the high ground. Since both commanders sought to fight on favorable conditions, the stalemate continued. The Carthaginian army finally moved east towards the pass beside Mount Callicula through which they had originally entered the plain. Fabius, anticipating the move, had blocked the pass with 4,000 troops, and encamped on a nearby hill with the main army. [Lazenby, John Francis, Hannibal's War p70 id = ISBN 0-8061-3004-0] Minucius then joined this army with his contingent.

Carthaginian preparations

Hannibal made careful preparations to break out of the trap, but not through a pitched battle the Romans had hoped. The day before Hannibal put his plan in motion, he had most of his men eat a hearty supper and go to bed early while leaving the campfires burning. 2,000 oxen from the captured herds were selected, along with 2,000 camp followers to drive the cattle and 2,000 spearmen to guard the whole gang, cattle and all. Dry wood and faggots were tied on the horns of the oxen. An officer called Hasdrubal, in charge of army supplies as his role as Quarter master general (the same who would later lead the heavy cavalry at Cannae), oversaw the whole operation. Once the preparations were complete, this group was to move towards the pass being guarded by 4,000 Romans. However, combat with the Romans or capturing the pass was not to be their objective. There was a saddle below the camp of Fabius to the east, and on the north west of the pass, at the foot of Mount Callicula. The Carthaginian spearmen were to capture and hold the saddle. There is a story recorded by Appain (Roman History 7.3.14) that Hannibal executed 5,000 prisoners so that they would not cause trouble before the march, an incident which is not mentioned by either Polybius or Livy.

The night action

At the appointed time, after the third part of the night had ended, the Carthaginian Army roused itself and made ready to march as silently as possible. The picked force with the oxen marched to the saddle, and when they approached the slopes, the wood and faggot tied to the horns were lit by the camp followers. [Peddie, John, Hannibal’s War, p91-93 id = ISBN 0-7509-3797-1] The terrified oxen began to flee and stampede up the slopes of the saddle, creating an illusion of thousands of torches moving up the mountainside. The lights and sounds of the spectacle attracted the attention of the Romans in the camp of Fabius, and also the Roman detachment guarding the pass. The reaction of the forces were quite different.

Fabius refused to budge from his camp despite the pleas of his officers and the urgings of Minucius. The Roman army made ready and stood at arms but did not move out. Fabius did not want to fight a night battle, fearing a Punic trick to draw the Romans into a battle over broken, uneven ground, where Roman infantry will lose their edge as their lines would be broken, and communication would be hampered. Hannibal had previously hoodwinked and destroyed two Roman armies at Trebbia and Trasimene and the cautious Fabius did not want his army to be the third. Thus, although Hannibal still managed to trick the Romans, the Romans only suffered lose of face but not the loss of another army.

The Roman force stationed at the pass, with no Fabius to restrain them, deserted their posts at the head of the pass to attack what they thought was the main Carthaginian army trying to outflank their position and escape across the saddle. As soon as the Romans left their position, Hannibal's main army left camp, with the African infantry leading, the cavalry, the baggage train and the cattle herds marching in line after them, and Celts and Iberian infantry guarding the rear. The Carthaginian army moved through the pass unmolested, as Fabius did not challenge them. The Roman force attacking the saddle was bewildered when they confronted the lights on the saddle. The cattle ran amok, breaking their lines, the Carthaginian spearmen ambushed them, and a wild melee ensued. As dawn broke to make matters clear, a group of Iberian infantry was seen scaling the saddle walls to join the ongoing pandemonium on the saddle. The Iberians, being experts in mountain warfare, engaged the now scattered Roman soldiers and killed over 1,000 of their number, and managed to rescue the Carthaginian camp followers, the spearmen guard and some of the cattle as well before the main Roman army could intervene.


The political clout of Fabius began to wane after this incident, as displeasure with his tactics grew in Rome. Hannibal, after escaping from the trap he had gotten himself into, marched east towards Apulia, ravaging the Roman estates at will. Fabius cautiously followed him still keeping to the Fabian strategy. He would order towns burned, and crops destroyed in the path of Hannibal. The scorched earth policy was designed to hamper the movement of the Carthaginian army, which, unlike the Roman one, did not have a secure supply chain and had to live off the land. The prudence of this tactic may have hampered the Carthaginians but the Romans were pushed to the limit of their patience because of this. Hannibal marched east through Samnium into Apulia, and selected the town of Geronium as his winter base. The Carthaginian would again dupe part of the Army of Fabius in Battle of Geronium. The impatience of the Romans with Fabius would be a factor which would aid Hannibal in devising his "trick".


The battle itself was smaller in scale when compared to the Battle of Ticinus. Although Fabius was not duped by Hannibal’s moves, his blocking force at the pass was. Leonard Cottrell, in his book “Hannibal: Enemy of Rome”, wrote that the trick was designed to be recognized by Fabius as a trick. Hannibal had studied the mind of his opponent, and devised a plan to make him do exactly what Hannibal needed him to do. Fabius thought Hannibal was trying to get him to fight a night action over broken, uneven ground, where Roman infantry would lose their greatest advantages of discipline and teamwork, as their formations would become disorganized. Since Hannibal was choosing the battle ground and the hour, he might have sprung other surprises to gain further advantages on the Romans. Fabius predictably did what Hannibal had anticipated: nothing. The Romans guarding the pass, with no Fabius to keep them in check, though they were doing their job when they rushed out, preventing a Carthaginian escape. Again, they acted as Hannibal had anticipated, and the Carthaginians took advantage of their actions to escape.

It seems both commanders here were following one of the observations of Sun Tzu, “A battle avoided cannot be lost’’. Fabius, who had avoided fighting a pitched battle with Hannibal because he now held the upper hand, faced Hannibal, who now had to avoid a pitched battle, because he would have to assault fortified Roman positions directly. As B.H. Liddell Hart had observed in his books "Strategy" and "Great Captains Unveiled", successful generals normally understand the concept of economy of force and the value of indirect approach, and also the implications of another Sun Tzu observation, “Know your enemy and know yourself, and victory will be yours”. Hannibal demonstrated all these factors in planning, implementing and orchestrating this small but significant episode. In one years time, he would give a very devastating demonstration of his tactical abilities at a place in Apulia called Cannae. Also, a night operation is always hazardous, and requires a certain amount of discipline and administrative control, which was superbly demonstrated by the Carthaginians.

Fabius: cautious or genius?

When Fabius took command of the Roman army, half of it was raw levy and the other half inspired little confidence, having survived a bad scare against Hannibal. The Carthaginian army was made up of veteran soldiers and held the edge over the Roman army. Hannibal had gobbled up three Roman armies in succession, and Fabius did not need to see his army become the fourth. Avoiding battle was a prudent course of action at that time. The reasons why Fabius may have stuck to his strategy are speculated as follows:

*By avoiding battle Fabius made it near impossible for Hannibal to defeat the Romans in battle. This kept the Roman army intact, and also had the added advantage of frustrating Hannibal's war aims. Hannibal needed to win victories to get the allied Italian cities to defect to Carthage. By being immune to defeat, Fabius prevented Hannibal from achieving his aims, and also nullified the effects of Hannibal's tactical advantage (ability to beat Romans in battle).
*The Romans army had a secure supply line, while the Carthaginians needed to live off the land. By ordering Romans and Italians to destroy food and fodder in the areas Hannibal was moving through, Fabius denied Hannibal provisions and kept him moving from place to place. Thus, by "kicking the enemy in the stomach", as the Romans called it, Fabius was indirectly hurting Hannibal without fighting. [Goldsworthy, Adrian, The Fall of Carthage, p193 id = ISBN 0-304-36642-0] The possession of former Carthaginian territories, Sardinia and Sicily, gave the Roman state the option to import/requisition grain. Hannibal had no such support system to sustain his army. However, it is possible that the scorched-earth policy was not fully carried out by the Roman and Italian citizens.. [Goldsworthy, Adrian, The Fall of Carthage, p193 id = ISBN 0-304-36642-0]
*Without a secured supply system, Hannibal was forced to keep a good part of his army dispersed to collect forage and fodder while securing his camp with sufficient troops to guard against a sudden Roman sally. This gave the initiative to Fabius, who could choose the time and place of engagement. This threat caused Hannibal to limit his number of foragers, thus diminishing his ability to secure provisions while giving the Romans a chance to strike at isolated Carthaginians at a time and place of their own choosing. [Bath, Tony, Hannibal's Campaigns, p68 id = ISBN 0-88029-817-0]
*Fabius had the full might of the Roman state behind him while Hannibal was cut-off from reinforcements. With Roman patrols harassing Carthaginian foragers, Hannibal's soldiers suffered a steady stream of casualties. Fabius thus again played to his strength, as he could make good his losses while Hannibal could not, being adrift in hostile country. The confidence and skill of the Roman soldiers increased as Fabius stuck to his methods.
*It is not known if Fabius had taken into account the possible reaction of the Romans to his strategy. Besides the threat of Hannibal, Fabius was also forced to manage the anger and indignation his passive strategy was invoking in Rome. This had forced him to travel to Rome on at least two occations, pretending to perform religious duties, to answer for his actions.

In short, the caution of Fabius was well suited for the best possible strategy to employ against Hannibal during the summer of 217 BC. For his role during that period, he was later to be hailed as the "Shield of Rome", a definite improvement over "spotty" or "Sheep".



*cite book | title = The Fall of Carthage | year = 2003 | author = Goldsworthy, Adrian | publisher = Cassel Military Paperbacks | id = ISBN 0-304-36642-0
*cite book | title = Hannibal | year = 1999 | author = Lancel, Serge | publisher = Blackwell Publishers | id = ISBN 0-631-21848-3
*cite book | title = Hannibal | year = 1999 | author = Baker, G. P. | publisher = Cooper Square Press | id = ISBN 0-8154-1005-0

Further reading

*cite book | title = Hannibal | year = 1891 | author = Dodge, Theodore A. | publisher = Da Capo Press | id = ISBN 0-306-81362-9
*cite book | title = Warfare in the Classical World | year = 1993 | author = Warry, John | publisher = Salamander Books Ltd | id = ISBN 1-56619-463-6
*cite book | title = The War With Hannibal | year = 1972 | author = Livius, Titus | publisher = Penguin Books | id = ISBN 0-140-44145-X
*cite book | title = Warfare in Antiquity, Volume 1 | year = 1990 | author = Delbruck, Hans | publisher = University of Nebraska Press | id = ISBN 0-8032-9199-X

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