Part one - 4 AM
Bomilkar son of Hanno made his way through the outskirts of the Punic camp, a torch in his hand, muttering under his breath. The sky was still the deep indigo of the summer night; to his right, a strip of paler blue was creeping up on the horizon, heralding the dawn. The day would be hot, just like that last, and the one before that. It was an early morning in August, the third year of the campaign. The Roman army was encaped ten stades from the Punic. Battle was in the air, had been for days; and Bomilkar, chief of Hannibal’s bodyguard, was searching for the general.
“ ‘Wake me an hour before dawn,’ ” he muttered to himself. “Would have been nice to know where, exactly.” Hannibal was not in his tent, and the guard outside had told Bomilkar that he hadn’t slept there at all, but had left for the outer guard posts an hour after midnight. This was hardly new behaviour, but Bomilkar wished he didn’t do this on a day where battle was likely. Sometimes, he wondered whether the general was doing this on purpose, just to keep him on his feet. As if he ever wasn’t. He could pride himself on having got Hannibal mostly unscathed through alpine ambushes, and two battles as well as several skirmishes against Roman armies.
He hadn’t gone far before a few Gaetulans waved him over and directed him to a watchfire further on, telling him, in broken Punic, that Hannibal was there. They were grinning. Yes, Bomilkar decided, he was doing this on purpose.
He found the general asleep at the fire, covered with his cloak, his back propped against a pile of baggage. The guards at this fire were Balearic slingers, for which Bomilkar was grateful. Those people had absolutely no sense of humour, and so they didn’t break out in mirth at the sight of the chief guard tracking down his charge. The men were cooking porridge, and Bomilkar remembered that he hadn’t eaten yet.
He bent down to lightly shake Hannibal’s shoulder. “The sun will come up soon.” He didn’t quite manage to keep the reproach out of his voice. “Have you been out here all night?”
Hannibal started slightly, twisting around. “I told you not to creep up on my right. – No, I haven’t. The first half of the night, I’ve been a good boy and stayed in my tent.” He gave Bomilkar a twisted grin, rubbing his dead right eye. “Anything stirring over there yet?”
Bomilkar followed the general’s gaze to the fires burning further north along the river Aufidus. The Roman army was so large that it was accommodated in two camps – a larger one on this side of the river, and a smaller on the opposite bank. “They’ve sounded the trumpets, but other than that, all quiet,” the guard replied. He eyed Hannibal. “Will they fight today?”
“Yes,” Hannibal said simply. He got to his feet in a seamless motion, stifling a yawn. “Paullus didn’t want to fight yesterday, but there’s no way Varro won’t today. He won’t risk his soldiers thinking him a coward, even less than Paullus.” He nodded his thanks to one of the men, who handed him a wooden bowl with porridge. Bomilkar smelled olive oil and salt fish, and his stomach gave a distinct rumble.
Hannibal turned to the Balearics. “Give the poor man something to eat,” he said in Iberian. “It’s just like him to have everything covered, except his stomach.”
Bomilkar gratefully accepted a second bowl, and they ate. Rations were short, but Hannibal always made sure that everyone ate properly the morning before battle. The difficulty, recently, had been to determine when exactly “the morning before battle” was.
Hannibal had already deployed his army on the left bank the day before, but Paullus, one of the two Roman consuls commanding the behemoth of an army 86,000 strong, had declined to come out to meet him. Today, it would be his colleague’s day of command. Despite their marked lack of enthusiasm on the previous day, everyone knew that the consuls had come here to fight. The days of Fabius the Delayer were over.
“Why do you think they didn’t come out yesterday?” Bomilkar asked, his mouth full. He had spoken Punic; like most Libyan soldiers who had spent a decade or so in Spain, he understood Iberian, and most of the men in Hannibal’s army had a working knowledge of Punic, but conversations around the tents tended to be a curious mishmash of a dozen different languages; three dozen if you counted the mutually intelligible dialects. Compiling lists of more than fifty faecal words was a favourite pastime that never got old.
“Why? Perhaps they couldn’t pull the standards from the ground again. Or maybe the sacred chickens wouldn’t eat. If we keep beating them, they’ll be running out of lucky portents soon.” Hannibal had reverted to Iberian for the Balearics’ benefit; two of them grunted laughs, to Bomilkar’s amazement.
“Ah, Paullus is smart,” Hannibal went on to Bomilkar, again in Punic. “He doesn’t trust me. He must have been worried I had an ambush site prepared. Though where he thinks I’d find one in a wide open plain is anyone’s guess. He probably thinks I carry them around in the baggage train.”
“That would come in handy here,” said Bomilkar, his voice betraying slight apprehension.
“What, because of those eight legions?” Hannibal said. “Don’t worry. Three hundred Lakedaimonians were enough for a hundred thousand Persians at the battle of Thermopylai.”
“They had a narrow gorge.”
“Well, yes. But we have something better.”
Bomilkar looked over the wide open plains to his right, which were now slowly becoming visible, half-expecting ravines or woods to appear there by magic. Truth be told, there was little he would put past Hannibal’s miracle-working capacities. He had led them across the Alps, he had beaten the Romans repeatedly on their own soil, and he had made Balearics laugh. “What’s that?” he asked.
Hannibal clapped him on the back and grinned. “Me.”
He turned to the men around the campfire, handing his empty bowl back to one of them. “Watch out for any activity in the Roman camp. Whatever happens, I want to know immediately. Bomilkar, have the trumpets sounded; every man is to eat enough breakfast, fill water flasks, and arm himself. We have a long day ahead of us. Gather your men together and come to my command tent. I want the commanding officers there in half an hour. The inner circle plus Qarthalo, Monomachos, Gisgo.” He clapped his hands. “Let’s get to it.”