Following in the footsteps of Hannibal Barcas – Travel tips for visiting the battlefield at Lake Trasimene

What is better than traveling through Italy,  enjoying the countryside and all those wonderful tastes and fragrances the local kitchen offers? Obviously to combine it with some wargaming related research. What is even better is if you can do it with someone special and get all the support in your wargaming/history nerdiness.

As mentioned in another post I am very interested in the history of the Punic Wars and the charismatic, sometimes even enigmatic actors in this conflict. Being in Italy on holiday and residing in Chiusi for some days it was clear that I had to visit the nearby battlefield at Lake Trasimene. Unfortunately I don’t speak much Italian and I could only find one official website in English covering the sites of the battle (the link to this and other sites is provided in the bottom) To help others to plan a trip or to know what to expect and figure out if it is worthwhile visiting the site some historical background, travel tips  and  on site photos can be found below.

Prelude – Flaminius enraged

In 217BC, one year after Hannibal’s descent  from the Alps into Italy and victory in the first great engagement of the campaign at the river Trebia, a second battle was to take place at the shores of Lake Trasimene.

Time and resources against him Hannibal intended to entice a roman army  send to stop him under consul Gaius Flaminius before it was able to unite with a second army under the control of the second consul of the electorial year Gnaeus Servilius Geminus. In the days preceding the battle Hannibal ravaged the land to provoke Flaminius who – as Hannibal hoped – tried to confront the Carthaginian.  Both armies attempted to gain an advantage, but it was Hannibal who was able to use the terrain to his advantage and set up an ambush along the shores of Lake Trasimene, but let Polybios tell what happened on the day before the battle:

The route which he was following led through a low valley enclosed on both sides by long lines of lofty hills. Of its two ends, that in front was blocked by an abrupt and inaccessible hill, and that on the rear by the lake, between which and the foot of the cliff there is only a very narrow defile leading into this valley. Making his way to the end of the valley along the bank of the lake, Hannibal posted himself with the Spanish and Libyan troops on the hill immediately in front of him as he marched, and pitched a camp on it; but sent his Balearic slingers and light-armed troops by a détour, and stationed them in extended order under the cover of the hills to the right of the valley; and by a similar détour placed the Gauls and cavalry under the cover of hills to the left, causing them also to extend their line so far as to cover the entrance of the defile running between the cliff and lake into the valley (Plb. 3.83)

A small number of Hannibal's men is scouting the shores of lake Trasimene
A small number of Hannibal’s men is scouting the shores of lake Trasimene. Photo: Author.

Once set up, the trap would only need to spring. Flaminius was too predictable a roman and sought the confrontation with Hannibal, only to end up in the deadly trap with no way out:

At daybreak next morning, just before the morning watch, he led his front maniples forward along the borders of the lake into the valley with a view of engaging the enemy. The day was exceedingly misty: and as soon as the greater part of the Roman line was in the valley, and the leading maniples were getting close to him, Hannibal gave the signal for attack; and at the same time sent orders to the troops lying in ambush on the hills to do the same, and thus delivered an assault upon the enemy at every point at once. Flaminius was taken completely by surprise: the mist was so thick, and the enemy were charging down from the upper ground at so many points at once, that not only were the Centurions and Tribunes unable to relieve any part of the line that was in difficulties, but were not even able to get any clear idea of what was going on: for they were attacked simultaneously on front, rear, and both flanks. The result was that most of them were cut down in the order of march, without being able to defend themselves: exactly as though they had been actually given up to slaughter by the folly of their leader. Flaminius himself, in a state of the utmost distress and despair, was attacked and killed by a company of Celts. As many as fifteen thousand Romans fell in the valley, who could neither yield nor defend themselves, being habituated to regard it as their supreme duty not to fly or quit their ranks (Pol. 3.83-84).

The battlefield today

To visit a site which once bore witness to such a grisly spectacle is surely not everyone’s taste, however, a visit to it can be an opportunity to contemplate the past, to learn about the motivations of both sides involved and to gain a better understanding of this period of human history strongly affected by warfare and its effects. The more one learns about military history, the more one understands  that war is a dominant occurrence in all of human history and that in the end only a close study of its causes can offer a satisfactory answer to the question why we wage war and might offer solutions to overcome it.

It is thus an interesting question if the battle field is in any way interpreted by means of signage or if for instance only a commemorative plaque remembers of this fateful day in 217 BC, that is if an attempt is made to contextualise the battle and analyse its causes and outcomes.

After some helpful advice by our hosts in Chiusi, I was surprised to find a whole  historical/educational parcours through one of the supposed sites of the battle: The small township of Tuoro al Trasimeno.

Naturally the parcours does not span the whole battlefield as it stretched along the entire northern lakeshore, but rather encompasses 12 stations along a path through Tuoro:

At the start of the parcour a sign outlines the different stations.
At the start of the parcour a sign outlines the different stations. Photo: Author

A rental car is strongly advised to get to Tuoro, as the parcours is not anywhere near of public transport. All of the stations can be accessed by car, even so the roads are small and unsealed. The parcours would also be quite delightful by bicycle or on foot if the weather is not too hot and one has at least half a day to spare. As there is not much in the way of restaurants or shops along the parcours one would be well advised to pack some picnic supplies.

Each of the stations features a sign which focuses on one aspect of the battle  and – again a surprise – comes in four languages: French, German, English and Italian.

Each station features a sign outlining some aspect about the battle. In this case four differing theories about the localization of the battlefield are presented.
Each station features a sign focusing on one aspect of the battle. In this case four differing theories about the localization of the battlefield are presented. Photo: Author.

The signs are a good read and offer interesting information about the composition of both forces, major actions of the battle and the prelude and aftermath of the engagement.

The signage offers well executed battle scenes which do not gloss over the nature of war or romanticise it.
The signage offers well executed battle scenes which do not gloss over the nature of war or romanticise it. Photo: Author

One could argue that one is not really following the actual extend of the battlefield, but given that the landscape changed in the last 2230 years including the lakeshore and differing theories exist where the battlefield was located at, it seems to be a good compromise between accessibility, educational value and aesthetic experience. The latter mostly due to the beautiful vistas one has from the different stations, as the first half of them is placed along a slightly ascending road which then turns and winds its way back down into the historical centre of Tuoro.

One can find some good views on lake Trasimene today from the different stations of the parcour.
One can find some good views on Lake Trasimene today and the surrounding landscape from the different stations of the parcours. Photo: Author.
The lakeshore on a winter afternoon.
The lakeshore on a winter afternoon. Photo: Author.

Between the different stations the famous bust supposedly depicting Hannibal leads the way and reminds of speed limits.

Hannibal says: 40!
Hannibal says: 40! Photo: Author.

Along the parcours one can make a side trip to a centre dedicated to researching the battle of Lake Trasimene and the dissemination of its history. Unfortunately it was closed when we were looking for it, but maybe next time we can pay it a visit.

I found the trip to Tuoro and the historical parcours very worthwhile and informative. Even so one does not travel along the whole extend of the battlefield (if one has more time at hand it would surely be possible to visit all the supposed locations of the battle) Tuoro’s tourist attraction provides a good overview of the history, wonderful vistas and well executed drawings of battle scenes which might be a good source for colour schemes. It is also noteworthy that the battle is not romanticised, but rather presented in a sober, scholarly way. Being so close to the actual place where history happened gives a lot to think about.

If you like this post, have something to add or would like to share your own experience visiting this site please feel free to comment below.

Links to Italian websites covering the parcours:

Annibale Al Trasimeno – A nicely illustrated history of the battle and Hannibal’s life in Italian can be found here, as well as information on the research project.

Camino de Annibale – Information on the parcours in English  with more photos and maps as well as a directory of nearby farm stays and bed and breakfasts. There is also an app available called GeoGuide Cammino di Annibale, allowing to use GPS to locate sites of the battle on an interactive map. Some of the links on the page are unfortunately dead and some of the pictures seem to represent older configurations of the signs, different from the parcour in August 2013.

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4 thoughts on “Following in the footsteps of Hannibal Barcas – Travel tips for visiting the battlefield at Lake Trasimene”

  1. I just love that Hannibal Says: 40! sign. Way cooler than your average traffic sign! You know, I think if people did that more often with traffic signs, motorists might obey the rules better! 😉

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  2. Hi there, very interesting post and what sounds like a great excursion and valuable info on a past incursion 🙂
    With your interest in Hannibal’s exploits you should check out the board game ‘Hannibal: Rome Verses Carthage’ by Avalon Hill. It’s a great historical game and sparked my interest in ancient military history (my bent has always been more towards 18th to 20th century)

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    1. I am happy the travel tips were interesting. I do know the boardgame and it is indeed awesome. A good friend of mine has a copy and we used to play the game a lot. The only aspect of it I find could be improved is the actual battles. They are solely luck based. I had the idea to use Command and Colours for resolving them or maybe DBA. The game on the campaign map is however extremly entertaining.

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