The host gathered to oppose the Carthaginians were fully one hundred thousand strong, and Hannibal saw at once that his force, weakened as it was with its loss at Salamanca, and encumbered by the great train laden with the booty they had gathered from the Vacaei, would have no chance whatever in a battle with so vast a body. The enemy separated as he approached the river, their object being evidently to fall upon his rear when engaged in the difficult operation of crossing. The Carthaginians moved in two heavy columns, one on each side of their baggage, and Hannibal’s orders were stringent that on no account should they engage with the enemy.
The natives swarmed around the columns, hurling darts and javelins; but the Carthaginians moved forward in solid order, replying only with their arrows and slings, and contenting themselves with beating off the attacks which the bolder of their foes made upon them. Night was falling when they arrived on the bank of the river. The enemy then desisted from their attack, believing that in the morning the Carthaginians would be at their mercy, encumbered by their vast booty on one side and cut off from retreat by a well nigh impassable river on the other.
As soon as the army reached the river Hannibal caused the tents of all the officers to be erected. The baggage wagons were arranged in order, and the cattle unharnessed. The troops began to throw up intrenchments, and all seemed to show that the Carthaginians were determined to fight till the last on the ground they held. It was still light enough for the enemy to perceive what was being done, and, secure of their prey in the morning, they drew off to a short distance for the night. Hannibal had learned from a native that morning of a ford across the river, and it was towards this that he had been marching. As soon as it was perfectly dark a number of men entered the river to search for the ford. This was soon discovered.
Then the orders were passed noiselessly round to the soldiers, and these, in regular order and in the most perfect quiet, rose to their feet and marched down to the ford. A portion of the infantry first passed, then the wagons were taken over, the rest of the infantry followed, and the cavalry and the elephants brought up the rear. The point where the river was fordable was at a sharp angle, and Hannibal now occupied its outer side. As daylight approached he placed his archers on the banks of the river where, owing to the sharp bend, their arrows would take in flank an enemy crossing the ford, and would also sweep its approaches.
The cavalry were withdrawn some distance, and were ordered not to charge until the Spaniards had got across the river. The elephants, forty in number, were divided into two bodies. One of these was allotted to protect each of the bodies of infantry on the bank from attack, should the Spaniards gain a strong footing on the left bank. When day broke the enemy perceived that the Carthaginians had made the passage of the river. Believing that they had been too much alarmed to risk a battle, and were retreating hastily, the natives thronged down in a multitude to the river without waiting for their leaders or for orders to be given, and rushing forward, each for himself, leaped into the river.