A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
- Historical Background
- Young Hannibal
- A Leader of Men
- A Genius of War
- Getting the Better of Hannibal
- Peace for the Romans, Finally!
- The Burning Plains of Zama
Hannibal was an arresting man. Tall, clean-shaven, handsome and athletic, he was an outstanding swordsman and a fearless rider. His appearance revealed his Phoenician (Semitic) bloodlines, with a slightly hooked nose, curly hair and dark eyes (one of which he later lost during his fight against Rome). By 26 he was already a general. - Tales of War (Marsh & Carrick)
‘Hannibal is at the gates’ cried the Roman senators, many years after the general’s death, whenever the republic faced severe adversity; and mothers warned errant children of Hannibal – who took the place of the bogeyman and kept the young ones in check. Hannibal’s name passed into Roman popular culture with good reason; for throughout the mighty reign of the Roman Empire, only once was her very existence mortally threatened.
Hannibal’s generalship single-handedly struck fear deep into the common-man’s psyche, humility into Roman generals’ mind, fortitude into his own mercenary army’s soul and hope into oppressed peoples’ heart. The Roman treasury was bankrupted raising legion after legion while Hannibal roamed the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula with impunity, almost always annihilating his enemies, sometimes retreating but never being defeated.
Of all his Roman adversaries only two are worth mention. The first – Quintus Fabius Maximus who was nicknamed ‘the delayer’ for his unique approach of avoiding pitched battle with the fearsome Carthaginian general; and Cornellius Scipio who earned the cognomen-Africanus after conclusively defeating Hannibal on Carthaginian territory; that too after studying the same martial principles that Hannibal employed in his Roman campaign. More on both these giants later.
Carthage – Hannibal’s country (located near modern day Tunisia, North Africa) was originally a Phoenician colony of traders and shipbuilders. Carthage was a superpower in her own right, battling for precious resources with the only visible threat – Greece, until around the 4th century BC when along came the Roman Empire.
Carthaginians were businessmen in the truest sense. They fought for resources and minerals; their colonies in the Mediterranean were prized possessions and their ship-building skill was the finest of the time. Their army was almost completely mercenary for they were not a large population.
The Barcid clan of Carthage were noblemen who could trace their origins all the way back to the founders of their city. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca was at the helm of military affairs during the First Punic War with Rome in 247 BC, but even his military skill could not hold back the Roman navy who had gained mastery over the seas after seizing a Carthaginian ship and besting their design. Precious mineral resources in the Mediterranean like Sicily were lost to Rome and heavy war reparations became incumbent on Carthage. Hamilcar Barca was furious at the Romans whose severe impositions had crippled his country’s economy; and discontent at home prompted a revolt from within the mercenary army. Nevertheless the revolt was effectively suppressed by Hamilcar, who set out shortly afterward to occupy more territory for Carthage.
Before leaving his country Hamilcar took Hannibal – his eldest son who was aged nine at the time to the temple of a Carthaginian deity. There Hannibal swore a lifetime of enmity towards Rome. Hannibal’s oath had a profound impact on his life – which from that point onwards makes him not just a fierce adversary of the greatest superpower of the time, but also a proud patriot of his own small country – Carthage, Queen of the Mediterranean.
Hannibal spent his youth in military camp being exposed not only to war and conflict but seeing first-hand how men were commanded. His father had set out from Carthage towards Spain where he tamed the people and colonised the territory; recruiting mercenaries for his army along the way. Spain proved fertile territory for Carthage and her mineral and wealth made the small city-state powerful once again and a force to be reckoned with. Hamilcar remained a loyal subject of Carthage but enjoyed virtually independent charge of his affairs in Spain. After his death in battle Hasdrubal the handsome (Hannibal’s brother-in-law) assumed command; Hannibal was second-in-command.
Compared with Hamilcar’s expansion policy, Hasdrubal was more of a consolidator who strengthened the newly acquired lands. Hannibal’s exposure to policy making and diplomacy as well as pitched battle provided him with the groundwork he needed to lead. When Hasdrubal was murdered in 221 BC Hannibal took command; he was twenty-six.
A Leader of Men
In 216 BC while Hannibal’s vastly outnumbered army stood facing the Roman legions Officer Gisgo voiced concern:
‘It is astonishing to see so great a number of men.’
Hannibal sensed his anxiety and decided to turn it his own way: ‘Yes, Gisgo, you are right, but there is one thing you have not noticed.’
‘What is that, sir?’ asked the puzzled officer.
‘In all that great number of men opposite us there is not a single one named Gisgo.’
As the small group of officers that Hannibal had just spoken to broke in laughter the rank and file of the army looked on, their confidence restored by the apparent nonchalance of their leaders. – Hannibal: Ernle Bradford.
Probably the greatest testament to Hannibal’s leadership is that despite his army being almost completely mercenary and not under his leadership for long, he never faced mutiny or lost the confidence of his men. Not while crossing the Alps with their entire baggage train and elephants, not while fighting away from their homeland for over fifteen years, nor at any other time. The only betrayal he faced seemed to come from politicians and kings who had probably never entered the theatre of war.
His men rallied around him for a number of reasons. In appearance Hannibal could only be distinguished from his soldiers by the weapons he carried rather than armour or dress. His presence in the battlefield was at least equal to that of his men, and the loss of an eye stands testament to him enduring the same hardships as them. However Hannibal was not the first in leading soldiers in battle, nor was it his only claim to successful leadership.
The soldiers in the Carthaginian army were precious to Hannibal. It could not have been an easy task to replace the lost soldiers in a foreign land, and Hannibal never shied from staging a strategic withdrawal from the battlefield when he knew that victory was eluding him. The Carthaginian army could see that their general had no special thirst for blood; not theirs at least.
A Genius of War
‘No toil could exhaust his body or overcome his spirit. He could endure heat and cold alike, and his consumption of food and drink was determined by natural want and not by pleasure. His times of sleeping and waking were not determined by night or day. Once his work was done he gave what time remained to rest, but he did not court this with a soft bed or quiet. Many have often seen him lying on the ground wrapped only in a military coat amid the sentries and outposts of his soldiers.’ – Livy, Roman Historian.
Hannibal’s fierce invasion of Italy was only tempered by his judgment and discretion. Intelligence and leadership were hallmarks of his campaign because of the limited resources available to him; and it is for this reason that he is often acclaimed as the father of military strategy.
The Carthaginian army was a heterogeneous unit made up of infantry and cavalry, foot soldiers and special-forces, expert-horsemen and crude barbarians. Hannibal’s recruitment of oppressed or recalcitrant people from Gaul and Italy was a constant feature of his campaign. These untrained warriors were expertly but ruthlessly employed in combination with his motley crew of horsemen, slingers, infantry and elephants.
Hannibal paid close attention to where he made war. Never one to fight on Roman terms he risked life and limb in order to reach a battlefield of his own choosing; he shameless occupied high ground and blinded the haughty Roman Consuls to his plans by playing with their psyche. One of his favourite tricks was to infuriate the consul with guerilla techniques, who would inevitably fear for his own reputation and fall into the trap by giving chase and end up ambushed. The resulting massacre of Romans would be no small affair. Tiberius, Flaminius, Varro and Paulus were fours Roman consuls who encountered the Carthaginian general early in his Roman campaign and suffered greatly because of their lack of awareness about the man.
To say that Hannibal’s tactics were unorthodox would be a gross understatement. In contrast to the straightforward psychology of the Roman generals Hannibal challenged the endurance of his men whenever he had to avoid a battle he couldn’t win. The repeated ambushing and annihilating of numerically superior Roman armies is almost comical and unbelievable. The formation of his army was visually obtuse when observed facing Roman legions; it was only once battle had commenced that Hannibal’s foresight manifested itself to the surrounded Roman soldiers and generals, many of whom escaped from the conflict at the first opportunity.
Animals played an important part of the Carthaginian arsenal. The notorious crossing of the Alps with elephants is a favourite of all Hannibal’s exploits; the psychological impact of seeing the enemy on their homeland with gigantic beasts from the African wild gave the invaders a great advantage. But the Numidian cavalry were probably the army’s greatest asset and most effective killing weapon. Their flexibility and maneuverability was matched only by their experience in battle and training. Even cattle were employed – with nothing less than burning branches on their head to confuse the Romans about the true numbers of the Carthaginian army that were on the move in the dark!
Getting the Better of Hannibal
Scipio the elder (father of Africanus) was the first to confront Hannibal’s army. After a small skirmish in which Scipio almost lost his life he realised that Hannibal could not be successfully engaged with unless the Romans had something more than numerical advantages. Much later when Fabius voiced this same concern he too was ignored; until Hannibal crushed legion after legion. Seeing that the only way to battle the invader was to avoid battle itself, the Roman senate ‘elected’ Fabius to a two-year dictatorship. The relative success of Fabius’ strategem earned him the nickname of ‘cuncator’ or ‘the delayer’. Eventually this approach would go down in military school as a bona fide strategy (called ‘Fabian Strategy').
By denying the invader battle, Fabius was denying him victory, and victory is what Hannibal desperately needed to break the Latin confederacy. Hannibal’s aim was simple: to take Rome and Carthage back to the status quo that prevailed before the First Punic War. Hannibal wanted to cut off the funding and manpower that smaller cities in the Italian peninsula provided Rome to support her imperialistic ventures. Winning the small cities was a simple affair once the Roman armies were dealt with – Roman soldiers were executed but citizens of the small cities were freed without condition. However the momentum of Hannibal’s public relations success was stopped once he had no Romans to fight. It was not a good sign.
Nevertheless a war of attrition was still a war. Fabius’ soldiers followed the Carthaginian army without engaging it. Foragers were harrassed, the resources that the invading army depended on (like supplies from local villages and their stocks) were burned down and villagers were relocated into fortified cities. Another weakness of the Carthaginian army was the lack of a siege train. Hannibal could not effectively attack the city of Rome without one, and he never entered it. But that never prevented him from finding more means to divide Rome’s allies. Diplomacy was pursued not only with Latin cities and rebelling Gauls but also with King Philip of Greece. Hannibal set up a winter home for himself in the south of Italy from which he conducted his affairs.
Peace for the Romans, Finally!
The breakdown of diplomatic talks between Rome and Carthage was the immediate reason for the Second Punic War (or the Hannibalic War as it is more popularly called). Hannibal knew that legion after legion of Roman soldiers would come to his base in Spain, but sons of the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca were not referred to as the ‘Lion’s brood’ for nothing. Hannibal took the war to Rome. It would be such an audacious and unexpected move that the northern gates were simply left unguarded. Apparently the Roman senate considered the Alps and their barbarian Gauls inhabitants a good enough defence. However it was not to be; Hannibal turned up at Rome’s doorstep not only with his own army but also with Gaulish allies and fought his greatest battles on the Italian peninsula. It is not ironic then that a young keen observer who had noted the Carthaginian’s tactics in battle from his very first encounter with Scipio the elder would bring peace to Rome by besting Hannibal at his own game. This young Roman was none other than Cornellius Scipio himself.
Scipio didn’t have to watch Hannibal from the sidelines to defeat him on the plains of Zama; Scipio’s genius would have manifested itself eventually, and Hannibal himself recognized the generalship of Africanus. But Scipio got a good look at Hannibal thrice before Zama; and he took a good look at the big picture too. Scipio admired the martial prowess of this Carthaginian general who brought his country virtually to its knees and so close to the brink of annihilation. Obviously it took more than an army of well trained soldiers to do that, but that’s exactly what Hannibal did. Scipio stepped back and studied Hannibal. Then he moved precisely as Hannibal had. It began with taking the war back to Carthaginian soil starting with Spain and ending on the hot sands of North Africa.
Only death would have dislodged Hannibal from his seat in the south of Italy had Scipio not invaded Carthage. The main purpose of taking the war to Rome was to keep her resources from being diverted to Carthage, but now that his own country was in peril Hannibal made his way home after more than thirty years.
The Burning Plains of Zama
Hannibal and Scipio faced of in North Africa not far from Carthage. Scipio had done to Hannibal what Hannibal had done to innumerable Roman generals – Scipio had won the battle before stepping onto the battle-field. Having observed the enemy and his resources, Scipio had made careful plans to nullify any advantage that Hannibal had. The formations of the two armies that faced off were carefully thought out. The elephants that Hannibal brought into battle were carefully ambushed, and the dwindling numbers of the Numidian cavalry were duly noted by the young Roman general. Political promises were made to rival Numidian horsemen who didn’t provide Scipio with victory but simply completed Hannibal’s defeat.
Hannibal knew he was defeated and that his cause was lost. But with his feet firmly on the ground and head secure on his shoulders he negotiated what could only be favourable terms for Carthaginian surrender. War had tempered humanity in Scipio too.
With his military career over, Hannibal did what served him best – he served Carthage as a politician. The government was swiftly rid of corruption and nepotism. The first goal would be to secure the economy so that reparations from the Second Punic War would be as painless as possible. Eventually Hannibal’s efforts paid off only too well; the ease and timeliness with which Carthage began to pay the reparations denied imperial Rome any excuse of further war with Carthage. This infuriated the hawks in Rome’s senate and gave Hannibal’s enemies in Carthage an opportunity. They colluded with the Romans and prepared to accuse Hannibal of secretly raising an army to take on Rome once again; but the wily Carthaginian general had not survived fifteen years of war in a foreign land by being a simpleton.
Hannibal’s departure from Carthage on the eve of his enemies plan was just the first his personal escapes that would plague the rest of his life. Pirates, fortune-hunters and kings would all dream that Rome would pay them handsomely for the capture of Hannibal, only to find that Hannibal had tricked them into a false sense of security and escaped not only with his life but also with his fortune intact. Hannibal, it seemed, remained a master of misdirection all his life.
Hannibal fought all his battles to win. Never one to thirst for blood or blow his own trumpet, he was a man of action rather than words; Ernle Bradford wrote that if the general wrote an autobiography it could have easily been titled ‘The Silences of Hannibal’. Hannibal was rarely drawn into a battlefield not of his own choosing; he was certainly not going to be outmaneuvered after a lifetime spent on the battlefield.
The Romans finally did come for him in far away Bithynia. Watching their approach Hannibal remarked to his servant; ‘It is now time to end the anxiety of the Romans. Clearly they are no longer able to wait for the death of an old man who has caused them so much concern.’ When the Romans entered his home they found his body. Clearly he had no intention of giving the Romans an inch of satisfaction.
References and Further Reading
1. Hannibal - Ernle Bradford (Wordsworth Military Classics)
2. Hannibal deciphered at TheMindBehind.net (recommended)
3. 100 Great Lives - John Canning, Editor
4. Strategy: The Indirect Approach - B H Liddel Hart
5. The War with Hannibal - Livy
6. The Rise of the Roman Empire - Polybius
Best of the Site
Hannibal’s legendary crossing of the Alps took the Second Punic War to Rome’s doorstep. The audacious move won him many defecting Roman allies, who saw that Rome was not all-powerful.
(Image: toptenz.net )
Hannibal in popular culture. BBC DVD
‘Claude, View of Carthage with Dido and Aeneas’ The tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas was described in Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido was the founder-queen of Carthage.
Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama ending the Second Punic War in 202 BC. Despite adversity, both generals held each other in high regard, meeting and conversing as equals if not friends much later in life.
Original Concept Sketch
The Carthaginian general counting the rings of fallen Roman knights at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC).
Sculpture by Sebastien Stodtz.
‘The Sack of Carthage’ - Tiopolo.
Scipio Aemilianus breached the walls of Carthage after a three-year siege and burned the city to the ground; thus ending the third and final of the Punic Wars in 146 BC.