Historic Generals #1: Hannibal

So let’s begin. First man under the microscope is a particular favourite of mine; Hannibal Barca (247BC-183-1BC). Hannibal was arguably the greatest general of the ancient world and certainly one of the finest tacticians ever to have lived. So with a reputation to uphold  as the man the terrorised Rome for a lifetime, does he live up to it?


Hannibal’s numerous successes suggest that his tactics were simply brilliant. He fought countless battles and skirmishes with an army that was more often than not far smaller than the Roman forces opposing them, not to mention they were often in a poorer condition due to constant movement and poor lines of supply. Countless times he turned to tables on Rome, forcing them into battles on his terms on a battlefield of his choosing. Repeatedly, the Romans were lured into a trap; Trebia, where they were encircled by a hidden force; Lake Trasimene where they were ambushed in a narrow defile; and Cannae where the crescent formation pulled the vast numbers of Romans into the jaws of a trap (two flanking forces of heavy infantry that closed in and enveloped the Romans). Sieges were rare in the Second Punic War; Hannibal’s army was too small to encircle any towns or cities of any great size, and they did not have any heavy siege equipment. Nor could they afford to stay in one place for a long period of time; they lived off the surrounding land and could quickly exhaust the available supplies and it ran the risk of being trapped by a much larger force on unfavourable ground. However Hannibal did sack a number of minor towns throughout Italy, and several larger cities, such as Capua, allied themselves to the Carthaginian, or allowed his forces into the city, such as Tarentum.

Hannibal continued to plague Rome even after Carthage’s defeat and his voluntary exile from his native city, offering his services to the kingdoms in the Near East and Asia Minor, who were now clashing with Rome. The most notable moment came when, before a sea battle, Hannibal ordered a large number of snakes to be collected and put into sealed jars. During the battle these jars were fired onto the enemy ships. The jars broke, the snakes escaped and caused panic amongst the enemy sailors, allowing the naval force under Hannibal to sweep in and seize victory.

It is perhaps interesting then to note that Hannibal’s only defeat (or his only defeat as a Carthaginian general) was a battle in which the tactics were very basic. The Battle of Zama 202BC was the final showdown between Hannibal and a man who had studied Hannibal throughout the war and had essentially become a Roman Hannibal, Scipio (later Africanus). Following the chaos of a failed elephant charge, Hannibal’s cavalry was swept from the field, pursued by their Roman counterparts. What followed could hardly be described as military genius; the Carthaginian and Roman infantry were both arranged in three lines. The first lines fought to a standstill, before second lines joined and the line extended, and when those lines fought to a standstill, the third lines joined the battle. These extended single lines of infantry fought a bloody and exhausting battle until the Roman cavalry returned and hit the Carthaginians in the rear.

So certainly a tactical genius, but he was finally defeated by a man who was essentially his greatest pupil. Close to perfect, but not quite.


Campaign Tactics
Hannibal’s campaign started in Spain, before he moved across Southern Gaul and then famously crossed the Alps in winter to enter Northern Italy. Once in Italy, Hannibal’s army moved almost constantly and not always by the easiest route, making it hard for the Romans to follow him or predict his next move. However, Hannibal knew when to rest his troops, normally after particularly hard periods, such as after crossing the Alps or the Arno Marshes. He repeatedly managed to secure valuable supplies when his army was getting desperate. Hannibal’s tactic of releasing Italian prisoners did bare some fruit as some cities, such as Capua allied themselves to him after breaking their ties to Rome. However Hannibal’s plan required this to be a greater success; his small army needed supplies and reinforcements, and he wished to turn the Italian states against Rome as he had the Gauls of Northern Italy, which would shift the balance of power. Equally Carthage failed to reinforce him once he was in a strong position; even when he secured a port in Southern Italy, the majority of Carthage’s resources were being used in Spain and Sicily, where Carthage’s territory and allies were under attack. Hannibal can’t be faulted for that, and he remained undefeated in Italy but because his campaign did not achieve what he wished it would, he loses some marks.


Fighting ability
While records of Hannibal’s actual fighting ability are limited, there are several things we can assume about it. As a member of Carthage’s aristocratic elite, and the son of it’s premier general, it can be assumed that Hannibal was trained for a military career from a young age. At age eight he was taken to Spain by his father and growing up in an army environment would have certainly toughened the young Hannibal, and given him plenty of time to hone his martial skill. He was supposedly involved directly in several actions during his battles; famously at Cannae where he personally led the Celtic and Gallic centre. Appian records him exchanging javelins with Scipio at the Battle of Zama but this account is of a questionable nature. With limited evidence, we can only assume Hannibal would have been as able, if not slightly more so due to his exposure to war, as the rest of social cast.


Personality, Intelligence and Charisma
Everything we have mentioned so far points to Hannibal being a highly intelligent man. He was well educated and an incredibly driven, passionate in his hatred for Rome. He was a strong leader, who suffered many hardships alongside his men. He had a powerful presence and naturally drew men to him. He knew how to use this presence and took steps to increase it; he rode through Northern Italy on the remaining elephant to awe the local Gallic tribes. He never seemed to give up, and throughout the fifteen years he terrorised Italy his army remained loyal to him. An example of just how impressive this man’s resolve truly was is that at Cannae, where 50,000 Carthaginians faced over 80,000 Roman and Allied men and won, Hannibal was not only at the thick of the fighting, but was just 25 years old and had only recently recovered from a wound which had resulted in the loss of an eye. Even after Carthage’s defeat, Hannibal’s actions as a politician in Carthage led their recovery and his actions as a mercenary military advisor shows an intelligence and a drive that a lifetime of war and suffering did not extinguish. And Hannibal even showed defiance in death; poisoning himself when he had finally run out of places to escape Rome’s power to deny them the victory of the capturing him.


Success Rate
Well now we get down to the brass tax of things; this is where we find out whether or not Hannibal lives up to his reputation. Well with only one major defeat during his military career (at least when he was in command and not merely and advisor) Hannibal boasts a pretty impressive record. While Carthage lost the war, Hannibal only lost one major engagement, Zama. Hannibal and what remained of his army in Italy were exhausted from fifteen years of fighting in enemy territory, and while he had been winning and terrorising Rome in Italy, Carthage’s other generals were being defeated firstly in Spain and Sicily and then in Africa. There is only so much one man can do, and while Hannibal was contained in Italy, ultimately Rome proved itself stronger than Carthage, but Hannibal remained the terror of Rome, becoming a bogeyman figure long after his death. So just the one blemish on the record, but as the defeat came at the probably the most important battle of the war, the “father of strategy” has to lose marks.


So Hannibal appears to live up to the legend, a reasonably strong score of 19.5. A truly remarkable character, and an excellent start to this series of blogs.


Further reading
Nothing can beat the two major ancient sources we have for the war; Livy and Polybius. Other highly recommended modern authors include Nigel Bagnal, Adrian Goldsworthy and Dexter Hoyos.

Additionally, if you wish, I wrote a piece examining the Roman generalship of the Second Punic War; I found it fascinating and highly enjoyable to research and write.
You can find it here: https://www.academia.edu/20084858/_Lions_led_by_donkeys_an_analysis_of_Roman_generalship_during_the_Second_Punic_War