Ancient Fools: 5 Blundering Ancient World Commanders

Ancient History Encyclopedia
Ancient History Encyclopedia

2 – Gaius Flaminius Nepos – Battle of Lake Trasimene (217BC)

The Battle of Lake Trasimene was a major battle in the Second Punic War between the Carthaginians and the Romans. The war had been instigated in 219 BC when Hannibal Barca laid siege to the city of Saguntum. Although the Carthaginians suffered setbacks at the Battle of the Ebro River and the Battle of Cissa, they enjoyed a significant victory at the Battle of the Trebia, and a confident Hannibal led his men across the Apennines in 217 BC.

A Roman general by the name of Gaius Flaminius Nepos fancied the task of stopping Hannibal and positioned his troops in Arretium to halt the enemy advance. Flaminius was an arrogant individual who was mainly interested in courting public opinion. When Hannibal changed the route of his march and went into the Arno marshes, Flaminius was forced to move.

It was an incredibly poor decision by Hannibal as many of his men fell sick as they traveled through the swamp and he lost his right eye due to infection. A more assertive commander may well have destroyed the Carthaginians as they exited the marshes, but Flaminius failed to take advantage. His inaction allowed Hannibal to recover and his army soon caused chaos in the Italian countryside. Instead of marching directly to Rome, Hannibal turned east towards Lake Trasimene and made sure to do so in full sight of the pursuing Roman army. He cleverly ensured his maneuver was timed so the enemy could only see him move as night fell.

As the Romans camped outside the valley, the Carthaginian general plotted what was to become the biggest ambush in military history. The following morning was foggy with low visibility, and Flaminius made the extraordinary mistake of not sending scouts into the wooded hills. It would have taken a few minutes, and they may have spotted the trap that had been laid for them.

Instead, Flaminius ordered his entire army to charge once his advance party had caught up with the enemy rear guard. He clearly had no idea just how large the enemy army was as he could only see the Iberian and African veterans. Unbeknownst to the Roman general, Hannibal’s Gallic troops and cavalry were hidden in the woods. The Roman charge was a chaotic one and quickly lost formation.

Hannibal gave the order for the trap to be sprung and thousands of men appeared from nowhere to surround the Romans. Flaminius died along with at least 15,000 soldiers; approximately half of his force. All but 5,000 or so troops evaded death or capture in a devastating loss. If the Romans thought Lake Trasimene was as bad as it could get, they were in for a nasty surprise at Cannae the following year.