The Battle of Dertosa
In the Spring of 215BC, Hasdrubal Barca led his army against the Romans at the Battle of Dertosa, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Ibera.
The war had been going badly for the Romans and their allies in Italia and just the previous summer they had suffered their gravest defeat yet at Cannae. In Hispania though, Gnaeus Scipio Calvus and Publius Scipio, the brothers commanding the Roman legions, had largely held their own with early victories at Cissa in 218BC and in the naval battle at Ebro in 217BC. The Romans, after being confined to the north of the Ebro River for three years, marched south to besiege the town of Iberia.
The besieged forces were commanded by a Carthaginian named Boaster and his forces held off the Romans until Hasdrubal was able to bring his army north from Qart Hadasht (Cartagena), the Carthaginian’s primary city and administrative centre.
Points of note on the Battle of Dertosa
The term Punic derives from the Latin word Punicus which is a reference to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry.
The Numidian horsemen were highly skilled riders and their ponies extremely hardy. They rode without reins or stirrups and avoided closing with the enemy, preferring to pepper them with javelins.
It is thought that the war elephants used by Carthage may have been a subspecies endemic to the Atlas Mountains and are now extinct.
Armies: Roman and Italian versus African, Libyan, Spanish, and Gallic.
Generals: Hasdrubal Barca versus Gnaeus Scipio Calvus and Publius Scipio
Location: Dertosa, Hispania
Season: Spring of 215BC
Weather: Mild and dry
Gnaeus Scipio Calvus and Publius Scipio
Their fighting forces and units
It is estimated that the Roman generals deployed approximately 25,000 soldiers onto the battlefield at Dertosa. This would have been two Roman and two auxiliary legions.
Their cavalry numbers were estimated at 2,800 and consisted of approximately 1,000 Roman cavalry and 1,800 Italian cavalry.
Their arms and armour
The legionaries who fought in the Second Punic War were not the professional legionaries of later generations and their arms and armour were still evolving. The Roman Gladius, that short stabbing sword carried by legionaries through so many conquests would be adopted from the swords used against them by the Iberians. Going into the battle at Dertosa, the Romans and their auxiliaries would be armed with a regular sword and that unique javelin, the pilum.
Their personal armour was a bronze helmet on their heads and bronze body armour. Their large shields were oval in shape and not yet, the familiar red rectangle.
The legionaries, Roman and Italian, at the Battle of Dertosa had served for three years in Hispania and were experienced soldiers who had not yet lost a battle on the campaign. They were taking the battle to the enemy and likely keen to avenge the defeats of Cannae, Trasimene, and Trebia.
Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal Barca, commanded the army.
Their fighting forces and units
The rank and file foot soldiers were Iberian, African, and Libyan. These warriors were no stranger to battle formation and fought in a close order phalanx.
The cavalry included heavy Iberian cavalry armed with lances and swords and a strong Numidian force who wielded javelins. Livy writes that war elephants were also present in Hasdrubal’s army at the battle.
Their arms and armour
The foot soldiers included armoured spearmen armed with thrusting spears and short swords. There was also a large contingent of lightly armed and armoured skirmishers armed with a variety of weapons including javelins and slings.
It is hard to determine the morale of Hasdrubal’s army. He did not have the innate ability of his brother, Hannibal, to meld an effective fighting force from disparate tribes and ethnicities and was likely less inspiring.
The Iberians were in all likelihood levied from tribes to the south and resentful of Carthaginian domination.
The African and Libyan warriors were undoubtedly excellent warriors, but they had been used for a year to quell a tribal revolt among the Turdetani. Now they were facing the army that had defeated Hanno at Cissa and Hasdrubal at the Ebro.
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Order of Battle
The opposing armies were approximately equal in size at 25,000 men each. Their camps were set a little over two hour’s march apart. For some days prior to the battle, fighting only occurred between the skirmishers of each army.
The Romans deployed the Roman legions in the centre, with an Italian auxiliary legion on either flank.
The Roman cavalry held the right wing and the auxiliary cavalry the opposite wing.
Hasdrubal deployed the Iberian infantry in the centre of his line, flanked by African heavy infantry on the left and the Libyan heavy infantry, described by Livy as Poeni, on the right.
Iberian cavalry were to hold the left-wing facing the Roman cavalry, while the Numidian light cavalry were set on the right wing to oppose the Italian auxiliary horse.
The generals gave the order for the skirmishers to advance. On both sides, their role was to upset the formations of the opposing army. They met in between the armies, javelins, slingers and archers and after exhausting their missiles, they filed to the rear of the lines.
Roman trumpets blared and the legions in the center advanced, their sites set on the Iberian infantry at their front. The Iberians were quickly forced onto the back foot.
The Iberians fell back as the Roman centre pushed forward, acting on Hasdrubal’s orders to draw the Romans on. He may well have been attempting the same double envelopment manoeuvre that Hannibal Barca had used to such devastating effect at Cannae almost a year earlier. As the Iberians fell back, Hasdrubal ordered the cavalry on both wings to advance against the Italian and Roman horse.
Without any significant numerical advantage, neither cavalry wing were able to break the Italian or Roman cavalry formations who remained a threat to Hasdrubal’s flanks.
The Italian auxiliary foot soldiers advanced and engaged Hasdrubal’s Libyan formation, but were unable to gain ground and were instead driven backward.
Hasdrubal’s cavalry continued to engage with their enemy counterparts, but these remained on the battlefield, thwarting Hasdrubal’s hope of encircling the Roman legions.
Unable to hold their lines any longer, the Iberian spearmen became separated from their Libyan comrades and began to break off and scatter. The Carthaginian cavalry was unable to assist and it too disengaged and retreated.
Hasdrubal’s Libyan contingent had put the Italian auxiliaries on the backfoot, but was now the last cohesive unit left fighting. With the Iberian spearmen put to flight, the Roman legions rounded on them. To make matters worse, the Roman and Italian cavalry returned to join the attack on the Libyans.
Against these overwhelming odds, the Libyan warriors stood little chance and despite inflicting heavy casualties on the Romans, they were eventually routed.
The Romans had won another victory in Hispania. Hasdrubal survived the battle, retreating first to his field camp before retreating south with the remnants of his broken army. His cavalry had been spared the severe casualties inflicted on the foot soldiers. Livy writes that the Carthaginian army had been annihilated. It is likely that was an exaggeration though, but considering how the Libyan phalanx had been attacked from all sides, their casualties were certain to have been very high.
In his retreat, Hasdrubal was forced to abandon much of the army’s provisions and equipment which were plundered by the victorious Romans.
What is telling is that the Romans did not follow through on their victory and mount an aggressive campaign to keep the battered enemy army reeling. This may be because the victory had come at a greater cost in lives than they could sustain. Instead, they resorted to a guerrilla campaign of raids and subversion of tribes loyal to the Barca regime.
The outcome of the battle
The defeat suffered by Hasdrubal had two resounding outcomes. The first was that reinforcements from Africa, critical to the campaign in Italia, had to be diverted to Iberia to safeguard the resource-rich territory. Mago, a second brother to Hannibal, and Hasdrubal Gisco joined Hasdrubal in Iberia, each taking charge of an army, determined to hold Iberia against further encroachment by the Romans.
The second outcome was that Hasdrubal himself could no longer travel overland with his army to join Hannibal in Italia.
The Roman victory at the Battle of Dertosa thereby directly prevented the situation in Italia from deteriorating while at the same time consolidating their grip on the Northeast of Iberia.