WHY WAS HANNIBAL SO SUCCESSFUL AGAINST THE ROMAN ARMY IN THE SECOND PUNIC WAR, AND HOW WAS ROME EVENTUALLY ABLE TO DEFEAT HIM
Hoyos hails Hannibal as ‘one of the three most high rated generals of antiquity (with Alexander and Julius Caesar)’. There is much evidence to corroborate this. He has the initial advantage of surprising the Romans with his innovative tactics. However, the Romans were nothing if not quick to adapt and the tide turned against the Carthaginian general. The basis of my argument will be miscalculation; both factions had massive misconceptions of their opponent that amounted to huge losses.
Hannibal’s choice to mount an attack by land would have been the first unexpected twist of the war; Carthage was a pre-eminent naval power. The passage he took, via the Western Alps, was also unconventional as the Eastern Alps were much lower. The Romans were unsure which pass Hannibal would take and so were forced to hang back and attempt to head him off at a river crossing rather than spread her men between several passes. But this plan of Hannibal’s was not all together brilliant. Hoyos tells us that on their march the Carthaginian had miscalculated the time it would take and so they did not reach the Alps until the cold weather and these conditions caused severe losses in men, horses, elephants and equipment’. The result of this was that Hannibal arrived in Italy with a severely depleted force. He was able to recruit the Gauls but ‘they were not as disciplined or reliable as his own African and Spanish troops’. However, with regards to tactics Hannibal’s early performance cannot be faulted.
Polybius’s description of the battle of Lake Trasimene gives us some insights into Hannibal’s surprise techniques that initially outwitted the Romans. The Carthaginian commander begins by ‘luring the enemy into action’ by means of ‘burning and devastating the countryside’. The Romans take the bait and Flaminius is ‘impatient to overtake the enemy’ (III.83). Hannibal has goaded the Romans into hasty action, which means they will not perform as well as they might in more conventional circumstances.
Hannibal has the advantage of picking the sight on which he wants to fight the Romans. He assumes the high ground and has time to deploy his troops around the lake by night, thus concealing his actions. Polybius is careful to list the many different troops under Hannibal’s command ‘African and Spanish troops…slingers and pikemen…Celts and cavalry’ (III.83). The impression is given that the Carthaginians possess fighters with a greater variety of skills than their Roman counterparts; Polybius does not describe the Roman capabilities at this point. There is also a sense that the Carthaginians are moving at their own comfortable pace, ‘having surrounded the valley…Hannibal made no further move’ (III.83). Then again he has time to pass ‘the word to his troops’ (III.83) for them to advance together. This would have taken time as they were covering quite a large area.
By contrast, the Romans seem in a constant hurry, they had ‘pitched camp very late’ and possessed an ‘eagerness to engage’ (III.83). There is an impression of calm in the Carthaginian forces and of haste in the Romans. Hannibal has an obvious morale advantage. His troops are certain of what is expected of them and what will happen. The Romans appear to be at a complete loss causing stress that would make them less effective in battle. With hindsight one may wonder why Flaminius would lead his forces into a valley between two ‘unbroken line[s] of lofty hills’ (III.83) when pursuing an enemy. But the Romans were used to fighting pitched battles in which the forces faced each other and there was no initial element of surprise.
Hannibal used the element of surprise doubly at Lake Trasimene because he employed tactics that the Romans did not understand as well as unexpectedly descending on them. Hannibal’s troop deployment meant a complete engulfment of the Roman forces that ‘took Flaminius completely by surprise’ (III.84). In fact Polybius does not paint the Roman leader in a very positive light, saying that his soldiers were ‘delivered up to slaughter…by a complete lack of judgment on the part of their commander’ (III.84). He is also described as ‘demoralized and thrown into utter despair’ (III.84). He is not the only one to be scathed, ‘the centurions and military tribunes were not only unable to issue any of the necessary orders but even to grasp what was happening’ (III.84).
The surprise Carthaginian tactics devastated the command structure of the Roman army. They could not function, ‘those in the rear…found themselves herded into the lake whereupon some lost their heads’ (III.84). By contrast Hannibal is able to direct his militia to fall ‘upon the Romans from all sides at once’ (III.84). It appears that Hannibal was able to use the elements to his advantage as well as the geography. By virtue of a dawn attack the mist blotted out all visibility’ (III.84), throwing his opponent into even greater chaos.
Polybius seems to laud the Carthaginian general by depicting him as a stronger leader than his Roman foil. Six thousand Romans escaped the valley only to look down upon ‘the full extent of the disaster’, another demoralization. They retreated but Hannibal was relentless and had them pursued to ‘a certain Etruscan village’ (III.84). Polybius again emphasizes Hannibal’s ability to engulf his enemy by saying that the Romans surrendered after ‘seeing themselves threatened on every side’ (III.84). This is contrary to the traditional pitched battle in which the militia might initially be able to retreat backwards.
Hannibal’s victory was made complete due to his organization, timing and relentlessness. But what truly won the battle was innovation. Yet Polybius, while admonishing the command, alludes to a Roman quality that might be called the basis of the eventual Roman victory. The men ‘would not yield to circumstances; they considered it their supreme duty, as all training had taught them, never to turn tail or to leave the ranks’ (III.84).
At Lake Trasimene this stubborn resolve may have increased the Roman death toll, but ultimately it would confound Hannibal and wear him down. Turning our attention to the battle of Cannae we can see that Hannibal was able to beat the Romans, as in previous encounters, by employing tactics they were not used to. When the cavalry engaged there was none of the usual formal advance and withdrawal…they dismounted and fought on foot’ (III.115).
The Romans were also grossly outnumbered pitching six thousand horse against the Carthaginian ten thousand. The Numidians attacked the cavalry on the Roman left, ‘effectively [keeping them] out of the battle by drawing them off’ (III.116). Hasdrubal had massacred the cavalry on the Roman right and seeing that the Numidians had the left under control he fell upon the [Roman infantry] from the rear…and dealt yet another blow to the sinking spirits of the Romans’ (III.116). The Roman infantry was suffering as well. Hannibal had positioned his troops in a convex formation with ‘a crescent-shaped bulge’ (III.113). His Celts and Spaniards were standing in alternate units, the former naked and the latter in their traditional dress, ‘so that the line presented a strange and terrifying appearance’ (III.114).
Another advantage of this formation was that the Celts and Spaniards fought with different weapons so the Romans would be required to change the way they fought from one man to another in what would already be a confused situation. Hannibal systematically undermined the Roman morale, making them less effective fighters. The Carthaginians’ convex curve was ‘forced back by the sheer weight of the legions’ (III.115). Again, Roman manpower exceeded Hannibal’s expectations. However, it appears this was all part of the general’s plan. At this point the Africans on the flanks of the Celts and Spaniards turned inwards and charged the Romans so that they could no longer hold their maniple formation’ (III.115). Hannibal took advantage of the fact that Rome was used to fighting a certain type of battle. By changing the tactics he confused his opponent and could take advantage of the ensuing chaos.
As at Trasimene, Hannibal’s relentlessness won the day. Polybius says of the Romans that ‘as their outer ranks were forced to pull back and huddle together, they were finally killed where they stood’ (III.116). However, once again, the Romans met their opponents with ‘desperate courage’ (III.115) but could not withstand ‘the encircling enemy’ (III.116). This was a situation the Romans were not familiar with and Hannibal’s engulfment tactics bettered them during the first half of the war. These defeats affected the morale in Rome where ‘the mood of the city became one of intense excitement and fear’ (III.112). Hannibal was chipping away at the confidence of his enemy, and disheartening the Romans would make them easier to beat. At least this is what he must have been aiming to do. When Hannibal arrived in Italy he had a choice to make, ‘to capture Rome itself, or else he would have to isolate Rome from the rest of Italy’. He figured that the Italian communities hated Rome, mistaking them for ‘disgruntled, tribute-paying subjects’ like those subordinate to Carthage. He expected that they would be easily persuaded to stand against her.
However, the Italian states were dissatisfied, not because Rome taxed them (and Hannibal must have known that she did not), but because they resented her supremacy’. Yet this was not reason enough to join forces with a foreign aggressor. The Gauls of Northern Italy switched to Hannibal in their thousands, and Capua was cooperative, but when Hannibal sued for support elsewhere he was turned away. ‘Much, perhaps most of Italy remained loyal to Rome, and Rome herself still had sizeable reserves of manpower’. This was another aspect in which Hannibal underestimated his enemy.
Salmon provides us with the following statistics: When the war broke out they [the Romans] could field only six legions, and these had to serve for all purposes, including the garrisoning of Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily and any overseas operations they might be contemplating. As the war progressed and their war effort became more and more thoroughgoing, the number of their effectives was rapidly and considerably increased. Already in 217 they had eleven legions, and a few years later they fielded twenty-five Rome’s manpower was increasing while Hannibal’s was seriously depleted. This may have been the reason he declined to advance on Rome after Cannae, ‘distrust in what he could achieve with his remaining forces’. He also believed that the Romans would wish to negotiate after such a serious defeat. But just as the Roman assumption that they would be fighting conventional battles had been mistaken, so too had Hannibal’s belief that they would yield: In the Hellenistic world, grand strategy at the highest level had become comparatively straightforward: if you could invade your enemy’s heartland and win a couple of set-piece battles, your enemy collapsed and sought terms. The Cathaginians were used to this as a result of his miscalculation Hannibal was forced, after Cannae, to languish in southern Italy, ‘a Punic Micawber hoping something would turn up’. What Hannibal needed was support.
Yet Hoyos claims that he ‘allowed himself to do without reinforcements for years on end’. Was he perhaps banking on the arrival of Hasdrubal’s militia from Spain? Gaius Claudius Nero halted this potential assistance at the battle of Metaurus. He used the engulfment strategy his enemy had taught him, ‘the Spaniards now found themselves being attacked from front and rear, and most of them were cut to pieces’ (XI.1). This Roman victory had a massive effect on the morale in Rome (XI.3). Hasdrubal’s head was thrown into Hannibal’s camp to alert the Carthaginian leader of his brother’s defeat. It appears that there was a reversal in the state of mind of the opposing sides; the Carthaginians were now beginning to despair. Rome’s perseverance and Hannibal’s lack of manpower and supplies combined to weaken the Carthaginian campaign.
Scipio had conquered Spain and invaded Africa. Hannibal was recalled home to deal with the young commander. He faced Scipio at Zama and found the Roman to have been a quick study of unusual tactics. Hannibal sent spies to learn what they could of Scipio’s camp and plans. When they were captured Scipio made the surprising move of ‘show[ing] them exactly how the camp was laid out’ and sending them back ‘to make careful report to Hannibal’ (XV.5). This action betrays extreme confidence in the Roman camp. They seem to be saying that it doesn’t matter how much Hannibal knows, he will not be able to beat them. This turns out to be an accurate assumption.
The morale reversal is also evident at this battle. Polybius comments that the Carthaginians were fighting for their very survival and the possession of Africa, the Romans for the empire and sovereignty of the world’ (XV.9). There is no suggestion of personal or individual danger regarding the Romans. This time, in contrast to Lake Trasimene, the Romans know what is afoot and have the confidence to perform well.
The Carthaginians are now demoralised and described displaying the ‘desperate courage’ their enemies were once reduced to. The roles have been completely reversed. Scipio was defying convention, placing his principes ‘directly behind the maniples themselves’ to render the enemy elephants useless. The Numidians had also switched sides so Hannibal found himself facing what he knew to be an extremely capable cavalry. At Trasimene Hannibal had been able to mobilize his men as one. But now ‘the Carthaginians…shrank back in cowardly fashion and failed to support the mercenaries’ (XV.13). The mercenaries took umbrage at this and turned against their former allies.
Hannibal was no longer the inspiring leader he once had been and his Carthaginians could not fend off both the Romans and the mercenaries. The statistics for the battle were the complete reverse of Trasimene and Cannae: twenty thousand Carthaginians to one thousand, five hundred Romans were killed. Scipio also pursued the survivors to their camp and ravished it, exhibiting the same relentlessness Hannibal once had. Polybius’s account gives the impression of a weary Hannibal facing an unshakably confident Scipio. Carthage’s general had been usurped as the greatest leader of the Second Punic War. Having compared Hannibal with Alexander and Julius Caesar Hoyos went on to point out that Hannibal was ‘of the three [most high rated generals]…the only one to fail ultimately in his enterprise’.
It can be seen from the above discussion that while Hannibal was a great tactician his strategy was undermined by unfounded assumptions of Roman manpower and allied dissention. Rome had initially underestimated the Carthaginian aggressor but was quick to adapt and surpass her enemy. The tables were dramatically turned and Hannibal was defeated.
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I am a Shakespeare fanatic with six years` classroom experience. I enjoy reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction and became a teacher to share my passion for language. Now that I have a young family, I have decided to indulge my love of teaching outside the classroom to fit arou.... Read More