There were now two generals. Napoleon used to say that one bad commander was better than two good ones, so essential is it to success in all military operations to secure that promptness, and confidence, and decision which can only exist where action is directed by one single mind. Sempronius and Scipio disagreed as to the proper course to be pursued. Sempronius wished to attack Hannibal immediately. Scipio was in favor of delay. Sempronius attributed Scipio’s reluctance to give battle to the dejection of mind and discouragement produced by his wound, or to a feeling of envy lest he, Sempronius, should have the honor of conquering the Carthaginians, while he himself was helpless in his tent. On the other hand, Scipio thought Semprcnius inconsiderate and reckless, and disposed to rush heedlessly into a contest with a foe whose powers and resources he did not understand.
In the mean time, while the two commanders were thus divided in opinion, some skirmishes and small engagements took place between detachments from the two armies, in which Sempronius thought that the Romans had the advantage. This excited his enthusiasm more and more, and he became extremely desirous to bring on a general battle. He began to be quite out of patience with Scipio’s caution and delay. The soldiers, he said, were full of strength and courage, all eager for the combat, and it was absurd to hold them back on account of the feebleness of one sick man. “Besides,” said he, “of what use can it be to delay any longer? We are as ready to meets the Carthaginians now as we shall ever be. There is no third consul to come and help us; and what a disgrace it is for us Romans, who in the former war led our troops to the very gates of Carthage, to allow Hannibal to bear sway over all the north of Italy, while we retreat gradually before trim, afraid to en counter now a force that we have always conquered before.”
Hannibal was not long in learning, through his spies, that there was this difference of opinion between the Roman generals, and that Sempronius was full of a presumptuous sort of ardor and he began to think that he could contrive some plan to draw the latter out into battle under circumstances in which he would have to act at a great disadvantage. He did contrive such a plan. It succeeded admirably; and the case was one of those numerous instances which occurred in the history of Hannibal, of successful stratagem, which led the Romans to say that his leading traits of character were treachery and cunning.
Hannibal’s plan was, in a word, an attempt to draw the Roman army out of its encampment on a dark, cold, and stormy night in December, and get them into the river. This river was the Trebia. It flowed north into the Po, between the Roman and Carthaginian camps. His scheme, in detail, was to send a part of his army over the river to attack the Romans in the night or very early in the morning. He hoped that by this means Sempronius would be induced to come out of his camp to attack the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians were then to fly and re-cross the river, and Hannibal hoped that Sempronius would follow, excited by the ardor of pursuit. Hannibal was then to have a strong reserve of the army that had remained all the time in warmth and safety, to come out and attack the Romans with unimpaired strength and vigor, while the Romans themselves would be benumbed by the cold and wet, and disorganized by the confusion produced in crossing the stream.
A part of Hannibal’s reserve were to be placed in an ambuscade. There were some meadows near the water, which were covered in many places with tall grass and bushes. Hannibal went to examine the spot, and found that this shrubbery was high enough for even horsemen to be concealed in it. He determined to place a thousand foot soldiers and a thousand horsemen here, the most efficient and courageous in the army. He selected them in the following manner: