Sunday, December 12, 2010

Week 48: Hannibal Barca

The topic of war has come up a few times on this blog. My research on Japanese Samurai, Navy SEALs, and others has convinced me that there exists some innate warrior DNA that transcends time, ethnicity, and geography. War is a fascinating, gruesome, visceral part of humanity. Over time the tactics, instruments, and implementation of battle have changed, but the impulse that drives armies to fight has not. Also unchanged is the supreme importance of a competent and creative commander to lead an army to victory.

This post will focus on one of the greatest generals in human history, Hannibal Barca. I was compelled to write about Hannibal following the strong suggestion of a Tunisian friend. While I knew the basics of the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, in hindsight it is clear that there is much more we should all know about Hannibal specifically. His influence is reflected in many distinct ways; over 300 books have been written about Hannibal since 1900 alone. Napoleon studied Hannibal's war strategy and tactics to prepare him for his own battles. Hannibal undoubtedly influenced Scipio, the great Roman general who ultimately defeated Carthage to end the Second Punic War. Why is this man so studied? What puts him at the same level as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Ghengis Khan?

The answer, simply, is that he alone brought Rome to her knees a few hundred years before the birth of Christ. The entire course of human history hung in his hands, and ultimately on his fateful decision not to march on Rome... but more on that shortly. Hannibal was perhaps destined to fight the Romans - his father witnessed the utter defeat of Carthage at their hands during the First Punic War. The loss was so crushing - and the reparations so steep - that his father made 9 year old Hannibal take an oath of vengeance against the Roman Empire. It was an oath that had not been forgotten when, after a few short decades, Carthage was again rivaling Rome for control of the Mediterranean. Carthage wanted to expand to Spain and Sicily, and the Romans to North Africa. Another collision between the two giants was inevitable.

Carthage had developed the city of "New Carthage" on mainland Spain, where Hannibal had built an army of Spaniards and North Africans. As Carthage expanded its interests on the mainland, Rome became increasingly uneasy. When Hannibal and his forces attacked Saguntum, a Spanish city that lay under Roman purview, the Romans decided Carthage had to be stopped and declared war. It should be noted that Hannibal used the attack precisely for the purpose of pulling the Romans into battle. Predictably, the Romans planned to attack Carthage via Sicily, and Hannibal's forces in Spain via France. The only problem for the Romans was that Hannibal would not be there when they arrived to Spain...

In the move that in many ways defined the historic figure he is today, Hannibal made the astounding choice to march his army from Spain to Italy not along the Mediterranean, but THROUGH THE ALPS, in the middle of winter. Over seven months he led an estimated 90,000 foot soldiers, 37 elephants, and 12,000 cavalry across 1,500 miles of hostile territory (most villages and tribes were unfriendly to Hannibal's army) and some of the most treacherous mountains on the planet. This is total insanity - and in case you were wondering about the elephants, Hannibal used them as terror weapons, plowing them with wine before sending them into legions of Roman soldiers. At one point during the mountain trek, his army was losing 1,000 men per day. At another point, there was a landslide that blocked their only passage; they were forced to melt it to get through. Before he made it to northern Italy half of his men had died and tens of thousands more had deserted. Only about 20,000 men made it to the other side, and those who did were emaciated. Hannibal's forces were lacking in health, supplies, and most importantly men.

The mountain journey was a huge gambit, and one that was executed purely for the element of surprise and for the perceived advantage of using offense as the best form of defense (i.e., better to fight the Romans on Italian soil than try to defend Spain). The element of surprise was a success - the Romans had not expected such audacity and were convinced Hannibal would travel along the coastline, even setting up a plan to intercept his army along the way. Regardless of the success in surprising the Romans, Hannibal was in bad shape. He was unable to forge alliances with any of the tribes in Italy, all of whom had witnessed the ruthlessness with which the Romans tortured its defectors. Hannibal was basically forced to work with what he had, and began planning for his first battle on Italian soil. In an effort to motivate his troops, he had war prisoners fight to the death - the winner walked free, and the loser died. It was a stark example to his troops of the choice they faced in their fight with Rome.

Hannibal soon came face to face with the Romans - in the relatively minor battle of Ticinus, Hannibal used his Algerian horsemen to both defeat the Romans and injure their commander, Scipio senior (who was saved in battle by his 18 year old son and future vanquisher of Hannibal, Scipio). This win convinced some of the tribes from Gaul to ally themselves with Hannibal; nevertheless, in the ensuing Battle of Trebia Hannibal faced a larger, better fed, well-supplied Roman army. Hannibal again used the cavalry to his advantage, sending them ahead before the battle began to torment the Roman camp. As planned, this pushed the temperamental Romans to an all out attack; after they were drawn in, Hannibal's hidden forces attacked from the flanks and delivered a crushing defeat.

With two swift defeats, the Romans were itching for revenge. Hannibal bought his time, waiting for the best opportunity to fight again. He chose to do so at the Lake of Trasimenus in 217 BC. Using a series of decoys, culminating with the lighting of large campfires far away from his actual camp, Hannibal lured the Romans through a narrow and foggy valley into an open space with only mountains and a lake surrounding it. The next morning it was an all out slaughter, as Hannibal's forces streamed down from the mountains and killed over 25,000 Roman soldiers. By now, Hannibal had struck fear into the hearts of Romans everywhere. Nobody wanted to fight him, and the Romans shifted their strategy to starving Hannibal of battle and focused on cutting his supply lines. When Hannibal responded by burning the Roman countryside and their harvests, he was able to lure them back to the fight.

The ensuing Battle of Cannae continues to be recognized as one of the most significant in history, with Hannibal's battlefield tactics judged to be among the best of all time. The Romans put together an army of about 85,000 in an effort to stop Hannibal once and for all. It was viewed as nothing less than a last stand for Rome itself. While the exact size of the Carthaginian army is unclear, the Romans outnumbered them by almost two to one. Hannibal's army was a motley crew of Carthaginians, Libyans, Gauls, Iberians, and Numibians. The Romans advanced with a very deep infantry and hoped to break the center of the Carthaginian army's line. Hannibal, aware of this strategy, sent his cavalry to attack the Roman cavalry on both flanks, while ordering the troops in the middle of his line to retreat slowly. He was taking substantial losses in his front lines to buy time for his cavalry, and to push the Romans to be impatient with their advance. Over the course of the four hour battle, his plan began to work: the Roman cavalry was defeated, and the infantry advanced so quickly that they were cramped and unable to use their weapons due to their tight position. At this point he ordered both sides of his line - which had been assembled in the shape of a crescent - to attack the flanks of the Romans, who suddenly found themselves surrounded on three sides. The clincher came when Hannibal's cavalry came from the rear, completely surrounding the Roman army. From this point on, Hannibal's army was ruthless, cutting down an estimated 60,000-70,000 Roman soldiers. Over one-third of the sitting Roman Senate was killed in the battle. This was at the time by far the greatest military victory in history, and it represented Hannibal's third consecutive victory on Italian soil.

The Romans had been totally crushed. Their finest soldiers and leaders were gone, and they had to rebuild armies using prisoners and teenagers. One of the major questions historians remains: why didn't Hannibal march on Rome and vanquish the city after the victory at Cannae? His generals thought he was crazy for deciding against it. Hannibal was instead left isolated in Italy while politics back in Carthage played out and the Romans regined their strength. Instead of fighting Hannibal, Scipio (junior) went to New Carthage in Spain and killed Hannibal's brother. Scipio then set his sights on Carthage, prompting the politicians who had abandoned Hannibal in Italy (denying his requests for additional troops) to call him back to defend the homeland. Throughout his entire life, Scipio had been an adversary but also a student of Hannibal. The day before the two armies met in the Battle of Zama, Scipio and Hannibal met face to face, and Scipio allegedly said: "you didn't finish it in Rome, so now I will finish it in Carthage." Hannibal's army was larger than Scipio's, but was not even close to the pedigree of his battle hardened group that had been victorious in Italy. Instead he was forced to lead a rag tag group of 50,000 and 80 elephants against Scipio's well-trained 30,000. In battle the student outshone the teacher, with Scipio anticipating all of Hannibal's moves. He instructed his ranks to move aside in a coordinated fashion as Hannibal's elephants ran harmlessly by and in some cases turned and devastated Hannibal's own forces instead. Needless to say, Carthage lost the battle and therefore the war, and Hannibal fled. He continued on as a politician for the next 19 years before killing himself to avoid giving Roman assassins the pleasure of doing so. It was clear that the Romans would not - and could not - sleep soundly until the great Hannibal was dead. He had become so feared that nurses in Rome would invoke his name as a scare tactic to convince children to take medication (you don't want Hannibal to get you!).

While Hannibal's military genius is unquestioned, most amazing to me is his capacity to lead. He somehow convinced tens of thousands of men, most of whom were not even from his homeland, to trek through snow-covered mountains without proper clothing or equipment, all to surprise the healthy Roman army on the other side. In spite of many deaths, many defectors, and countless tactical problems, he amassed three stunning victories that brought Rome to the brink of collapse. Had he marched on Rome, history as we know it would have been changed profoundly. It is rare that one man has the capacity to change the course of mankind. Any time this is the case, it is worthy of rigorous study, thought, and dissemination. Hannibal Barca is no exception.


  1. Vir bonus, dicendi peritus...

  2. In this list Hannibal almost made Number 1, though I am confused as to why Alexander the Great is not mentioned:


  3. Curiously, on this list Hannibal is Number 4 and Alexander The Great is Number 1!

    You gotta love the Internet!