Zama

Elephant

Hannibal’s Lament

The serried legions parted before my elephants,

the fools about me cavorted thinking we had won,

as eighty mighty pachyderms thundered off the plain

shredding my dreams in the African sun.

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Nothing can resist that mighty wall of flesh,

the Roman did not try and so the day was done.

Boldly they charged through the opening lines,

soldiers safe since elephants cannot turn.

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And so we settled to the business of the day

the close up bloody hacking of the host.

I grant that well the legions know this trade,

they did not rest until all to me was lost.

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Every battle victorious, to lose is still my plight,

defeated by those who shirk, evade and cower,

our own leaders with no stomach left for war,

I had head, heart and guts for plenty more.

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On the plains of Carthage the wind blows dry and hard,

bleaching the bones of armies now long gone.

Bitter hemlock, sweeter than Zama’s sands,

Rome!  Fear no more.  I am done.

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Where are my legions?

SPQR

One of my favourite anecdotes from my study of ancient Rome is how Emperor Augustus, in times of stress, would stalk the corridors of his palace crying out  “Publius Quinctilius Varus where are my legions?”

In the year 4 CE Tiberius led a massive army of 13 legions into Germany to subjugate the country.  A revolt in Illyricum (modern day Balkans) caused a huge drain on Roman troops.  Half of all standing legions had to be deployed to the Balkans.  In 6 CE this left Varus leading only three legions in Germany to consolidate it as a province.  Up to this point what Rome wanted Rome got.

Arminius, a Roman trained soldier and Roman citizen brought together a coalition of six German tribes.  Arminius (Herman) was acting as a local advisor to Varus while putting together an alliance of warring tribes to defeat him.  Arminius then informed Varus of a local rebellion and guided the Romans straight into his ambush in the Teutoburg forest.

Arminius knew that the Legions were unbeatable once they deployed in battle array.  His ambush and tactics during the fight were designed to constrict the Romans to narrow forest tracks, and to string them out over a long line of march.  Clearings were further constricted by trenches and ditches.

The Romans were subjected to a series of well organised flank attacks from the forest.  Light German troops moved quickly through the bogs and muddy tracks and rained javelins down upon the heavily armoured Romans.  Despite the desperate situation the Romans managed to establish a defensive camp at the end of the day.  But when they tried to escape they became disoriented in the woods.  Attack after attack eventually wiped out the three legions and their standards were lost.

The Romans retrenched to the line of the River Rhine.  In subsequent years they mounted large scale punitive expeditions against the German tribes.  In 16 CE Germanicus (father of emperor Caligula) recovered two of the three lost eagles and was held to have avenged the defeat.

In truth however the Germans halted the advance of Rome.  From this point on the primary driver of the Roman Empire was maintenance of existing territory rather than expansion.  Exceptions to this were the conquest of Britain under Claudius and the short lived expansion across the Danube immortalised by Trajan on his commemorative column in Rome.

The event became central to celebration of German nationalism in the 19th Century and National Socialism in the 20th Century.  Since WW2 the modern German state has downplayed militaristic national symbols and celebrations to mark the 2000 year anniversary were low key.