THE SIEGE OF SAGUNTUM
A few days later the Carthaginian army were astonished by the issue of an order that the whole were to be in readiness to march upon the following day. The greatest excitement arose when the news got abroad. None knew against whom hostilities were to be directed. No one had heard aught of the arrival of messengers announcing fresh insurrection among the recently conquered tribes, and all sorts of surmises were indulged in as to the foe against whom this great force, the largest which had ever been collected by Carthage, were about to get in motion.
The army now gathered around Carthagena amounted, indeed, to a hundred and fifty thousand men, and much surprise had for some time existed at the continual arrival of reinforcements from home, and at the large number of troops which had during the winter been raised and disciplined from among the friendly tribes.
Simultaneously with the issue of the order long lines of wagons, laden with military stores, began to pour out from the arsenals, and all day long a procession of carts moved across the bridge over the canal in the isthmus to the mainland. The tents were struck at daylight, the baggage loaded up into the wagons told off to accompany the various bodies of soldiers, and the troops formed up in military order.
When Hannibal rode on to the ground, surrounded by his principal officers, a shout of welcome rose from the army; and he proceeded to make a close inspection of the whole force. The officers then placed themselves at the head of their respective commands, the trumpets gave the signal, and the army set out on a march, as to whose direction and distance few present had any idea, and from which few, indeed, were ever destined to return.
There was no longer any occasion for secrecy as to the object of the expedition. The generals repeated it to their immediate staffs, these informed the other officers, and the news speedily spread through the army that they were marching against Saguntum. The importance of the news was felt by all. Saguntum was the near ally of Rome, and an attack upon that city could but mean that Carthage was entering upon another struggle with her great rival.
Saguntum lay about 140 miles north of Carthagena, and the army had to cross the range of mountains now known as the Sierra Morena, which run across the peninsula from Cape St. Vincent on the west to Cape St. Martin on the east. The march of so large an army, impeded as it was by a huge train of wagons with stores and the machines necessary for a siege, was toilsome and arduous in the extreme. But all worked with the greatest enthusiasm and diligence; roads were made with immense labour through forests, across ravines, and over mountain streams.
Hannibal himself was always present, encouraging the men by his praises, and sharing all their hardships.
At last the mountains were passed, and the army poured down into the fertile plains of Valencia, which town, however, was not then in existence. Passing over the site where it is now situated they continued their march north until Saguntum, standing on its rocky eminence, came into view.
During the march Malchus and his company had led the way, guided by natives, who pointed out the easiest paths. As there were no enemies to be guarded against, they had taken their full share in the labours of the army.
The Saguntines were already aware of the approach of the expedition. No sooner had it crossed the crest of the mountains than native runners had carried the news of its approach, and the inhabitants had spent the intervening time in laying in great stores of provisions, and in making every preparation for defence. The garrison was small in comparison with the force marching against it, but it was ample for the defence of the walls, for its position rendered the city well nigh impregnable against the machines in use at the time, and was formidable in the extreme even against modern artillery, for 2000 years afterwards Saguntum, with a garrison of 3000 men, resisted for a long time all the efforts of a French army under General Suchet. As soon as his force arrived near the town Hannibal rode forward, and, in accordance with the custom of the times, himself summoned the garrison to surrender. Upon their refusal he solemnly declared war by hurling his javelin against the walls. The troops at once advanced to the assault, and poured flights of arrows, masses of stones from their machines, javelins, and missiles of all descriptions into the city, the defenders replying with equal vigour from the walls. At the end of the first day's fighting Hannibal perceived that his hopes of carrying the place by assault were vain—for the walls were too high to be scaled, too thick to be shaken by any irregular attack—and that a long siege must be undertaken.
This was a great disappointment to him, as it would cause a long delay that it would be scarce possible to commence the march which he meditated that summer. As to advancing, with Saguntum in his rear, it was not to be thought of, for the Romans would be able to land their armies there and to cut him off from all communication with Carthagena and Carthage. There was, then, nothing to be done but to undertake the siege in regular order.
The army formed an encampment in a circle round the town. A strong force was left to prevent the garrison from making a sortie, and the whole of the troops were then marched away in detachments to the hills to fell and bring down the timber which would be required for the towers and walls, the bareness of the rock rendering it impossible to construct the approaches as usual with earth. In the first place, a wall, strengthened by numerous small towers, was erected round the whole circumference of the rock; then the approaches were begun on the western side, where attack was alone possible.
This was done by lines of wooden towers, connected one with another by walls of the same material; movable towers were constructed to be pushed forward against the great tower which formed the chief defence of the wall, and on each side the line of attack was carried onward by portable screens covered with thick hide. In the meantime the Saguntines were not idle. Showers of missiles of all descriptions were hurled upon the working parties, great rocks from the machines on the walls crashed through the wooden erections, and frequent and desperate sorties were made, in which the Carthaginians were almost always worsted. The nature of the ground, overlooked as it was by the lofty towers and walls, and swept by the missiles of the defenders, rendered it impossible for any considerable force to remain close at hand to render assistance to the workers, and the sudden attacks of the Saguntines several times drove them far down the hillside, and enabled the besieged, with axe and fire, to destroy much of the work which had been so labouriously carried out.
In one of these sorties Hannibal, who was continually at the front, overlooking the work, was seriously wounded by a javelin in the thigh. Until he was cured the siege languished, and was converted into a blockade, for it was his presence and influence alone which encouraged the men to continue their work under such extreme difficulties, involving the death of a large proportion of those engaged. Upon Hannibal's recovery the work was pressed forward with new vigour, and the screens and towers were pushed on almost to the foot of the walls. The battering rams were now brought up, and—shielded by massive screens, which protected those who worked them from the darts and stones thrown down by the enemy, and by lofty towers, from whose tops the Carthaginian archers engaged the Saguntines on the wall—began their work.
The construction of walls was in those days rude and primitive, and they had little of the solidity of such structures in succeeding ages. The stones were very roughly shaped, no mortar was used, and the displacement of one stone consequently involved that of several others. This being the case it was not long before the heavy battering rams of the Carthaginians produced an effect on the walls, and a large breach was speedily made. Three towers and the walls which connected them fell with a mighty crash, and the besiegers, believing that the place was won, advanced to the assault. But the Saguntines met them in the breach, and for hours a desperate battle raged there.
The Saguntines hurled down upon the assailants trunks of trees bristling with spearheads and spikes of iron, blazing darts and falariques—great blocks of wood with projecting spikes, and covered thickly with a mass of pitch and sulphur which set on fire all they touched. Other species of falariques were in the form of spindles, the shaft wrapped round with flax dipped in pitch. Hannibal fought at the head of his troops with desperate bravery, and had a narrow escape of being crushed by an enormous rock which fell at his feet; but in spite of his efforts and those of his troops they were unable to carry the breach, and at nightfall fell back to their camp, having suffered very heavy losses.
Singularly enough the French columns were repulsed in an effort to carry a breach at almost the same spot, the Spaniards hurling among them stones, hand grenades of glass bottles and shells, and defending the breach with their long pikes against all the efforts of Suchet's troops.
Some days passed before the attack was renewed, as the troops were worn out by their labours. A strong guard in the meantime held the advanced works against any sorties of the Saguntines.
These, on their side, worked night and day, and by the time the Carthaginians again advanced the wall was rebuilt and the breach closed. But Hannibal had also been busy. Seeing that it was impossible for his troops to win an entrance by a breach, as long as the Saguntines occupied every point commanding it, he caused a vast tower to be built, sufficiently lofty to overlook every point of the defences, arming each of its stages with catapults and ballistas. He also built near the walls a great terrace of wood higher than the walls themselves, and from this and from the tower he poured such torrents of missiles into the town that the defenders could no longer remain upon the walls. Five hundred Arab miners now advanced, and these, setting to work with their implements, soon loosened the lower stones of the wall, and this again fell with a mighty crash and a breach was opened.
The Carthaginians at once swarmed in and took possession of the wall; but while the besiegers had been constructing their castle and terrace, the Saguntines had built an interior wall, and Hannibal saw himself confronted with a fresh line of defences.