Saturday, December 08, 2012

Hannibal and his Elephants - An Ineradicable Myth?

If you talk to the average person-in-the-street, very often all they will be able to tell you about Hannibal is that he took elephants across the Alps.
But just how important a part did elephants play in Hannibal’s battle-strategy?

I thought I’d start by doing a bit of statistical analysis.

Don’t get over-excited – I just did word-searches for a spectrum of 20 ‘military’ words – from ‘Africans’ through to ‘Troops’. The list included general terms such as ‘army’; kinds of soldier such as ‘cavalry’; names of the Carthaginian leaders including ‘Hannibal’; the different nationalities of soldiers (e.g. ‘Spaniards’); and four different kinds of weapons – javelin, shield, sling and sword. 

 And ‘elephants’, of course.

Then I saw how many times they cropped up in Book 3 of Paton’s translation of Polybius, and in Books 21-22 of Roberts’s translation of Livy … i.e. the sections of their histories which deal with the period from Saguntum to Cannae. 

In all, my list of 20 words together appeared a total of 1500 times.

I only used the translations, which is a BIG negative – the proper way to do it would have been to go in and count from the original Latin and Greek texts. But would the results have been worth the effort – it’s just a rough head-count at best. So I added up my words and looked at the results.

Actually, despite all the caveats, the results were rather interesting!

Some of the results were no-brainers. The name ‘Hannibal’ was mentioned 350 times in the two translations – four times as often as Hasdrubal, Mago and Maharbal added together. Of course he was – these books are about Hannibal’s invasion of Italy – they focus on HIM!

Other results set you thinking. 

Both writers were much more likely to mention the ‘cavalry’ (or ‘horse’) than they were the ‘infantry’ (or ‘foot’).

When you actually read the books, the role of cavalry seems much over-rated – they were useless over the Alps, fought fruitlessly at Ticinus, made little difference at Trebia, mopped up at Trasimene and got off their horses and fought on foot at Cannae. 
But overall the ‘cavalry’ got twice as many mentions as the PBI, slogging it out wretchedly in the centre. 
I wonder why this was? Was it because both writers regarded cavalry as the ‘war-winning weapon’ and attributed Hannibal’s success to his superiority of cavalry? Or was it simply because the cavalry were just so much more glamorous – the fighter pilots of their day? 

Again, Livy mentioned Maharbal more than three times as often as Polybius – but then we know that Maharbal was important for Livy’s structural theme, and played a key part in exposing what Livy regarded as Hannibal’s ‘fatal flaw’ (his inability to capitalise on his victories).

Other results were just as conspicuous, but left you guessing as to their significance. Why was Polybius more than twice as likely as Livy to use a word translated as ‘troops’? Why did Polybius overwhelmingly use the word ‘Celt’, but Livy the term ‘Gaul’?

And why did Livy (supposedly the writer who lacked military experience and wrote only to thrill) mention the dull, nitty-gritty matters of baggage and weapons twice as regularly as Polybius (who is supposed to have had been a military commander)? My own suggestion for this would be that Livy based his account to a greater degree on Coelius (who had been a real soldier in the war), whereas Polybius had swanned around talking to generals and politicians – so Livy was always going to get the more down-to-earth perspective – but I suspect your guess is as good as mine on this!

Oh – and the elephants?

Well, they got a good airing – more than I expected. Polybius mentioned them 19 times, Livy 18. In terms of my word-count, they accounted for 2% of the coverage. The word ‘elephant’ was about as prominent in the text as ‘Spaniards’ and ‘Africans’, and significantly more frequent than 'Baggage', 'Mago' and 'Maharbal'.

Have the Elephants been Over-Glamorised?
If we were to try to turn these numerical word-counts into measures of significance, however, would the results be valid? Were Hannibal’s elephants REALLY as important in his battles as the Spaniards and the Africans, or much more important than the baggage train, Mago and Maharbal?

My suggestion would be clearly not. Loss of significant sections of his infantry, or of two of his leading commanders, or of his baggage, would have seriously jeopardised (if not destroyed) Hannibal's military strength. Loss of his elephants would not – and at Cannae did not 
 have any effect at all.

In fact, both Polybius and Livy portray the elephants as a significant liability.

Against barbarians, maybe, elephants had a part to play. For instance, they helped stop the
Carpentani on the Tagus, rushing along the bank crushing the enemy as they tried to cross the river (Polybius 3.14.6). 

And over the Alps (Polybius 3.53.8):
‘the enemy never dared to approach that part of the column in which these animals were, being terrified by the strangeness of their appearance’.

Otherwise, however, elephants were a problem.

1. They significantly held up Hannibal’s progress at the Rhone (
Polybius 3.42.10) and in the Alps (Polybius 3.53.8).

2. And in battle against the Romans they were a two-edged weapon indeed. We hear nothing about the elephants being used in battle at all until Trebia – when, according to Livy (21.55-56):

‘some skirmishers who had been placed where they could attack these animals flung darts at them and drove them off, and rushed after them, stabbing them under their tails, where the skin is soft and easily penetrated; maddened with pain and terror, they were beginning to rush wildly on their own men’.
Actually, if we are to believe Livy – which of course we aren’t – the elephants seem to have done this at most battles they were involved in!  They certainly did so at Zama, where Scipio had left corridors for them to pass down safely and, when Hannibal ordered the elephants to attack (Polybius 15.12.2):
‘When the trumpets and bugles sounded shrilly from all sides, some of the animals took fright and at once turned tail and rushed back upon the Numidians who had come up to help the Carthaginians’.
3. Finally, according to Polybius, the cold at Trebia killed all-but-one of them. That sole animal at least carried the half-blind Hannibal across the Arno marshes before pegging out itself.

... which left Hannibal to achieve his greatest military success – at Cannae – completely elephantless.
Perhaps there is a lesson there.

We perhaps need to be careful before we write off the elephants as a military weapon. We need to remember that part of Livy’s purpose was to exaggerate the Roman military achievement – at Trebia, he tells us: ‘even, contrary to all expectation, against the elephants’!
So we need to be aware that part of the elephants’ apparent lack of military potency might be a hostile press!
And I suspect it is also significant that, at Scipio’s final peace with Carthage in 201bc, one of the punitive clauses was that Carthage had to surrender all its war-elephants (one is reminded of the Treaty of Versailles) … so elephants cannot have been so very pathetic a weapon.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a mismatch between the prominence of elephants in the texts of Polybius and Livy, and in their contribution to Hannibal’s war-effort in real life.

Why was this? I suspect we don’t have to look far for an answer.

The idea of taking a troops of elephants over the Alps was as exciting and romantic in Polybius’s and Livy’s day as it still is today. And the thought of standing there with nothing other than a sharpened stick facing a charging elephant in battle was as terrifying then as it is today!

At the Olympics opening ceremony, the Queen was only one person in a crowd of thousands – but the next day all the newspapers were full of her leap from a helicopter (even though we all knew she hadn't actually made the leap herself). In much the same way – whatever they REALLY achieved – the elephants were the celebrity participants in Hannibal’s army and, whenever they turned up, they got a fascinated write-up.

Like it or not, unrepresentative myth that it is, Hannibal will ALWAYS be ‘the elephant general’.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The meeting between Hannibal and Scipio at Naragarra

I suspect that most teenagers reading Hannibal's and Scipio's speeches at their 'conference' before the battle of Zama will see them as long-winded and boring.  
Actually, they go to the core of what Livy was doing in his History.

An Exciting Introduction
Silius Italicus, who turned Livy’s History into an epic poem, opens his account of the battle of Zama with a scene where Jupiter and Juno decide on the fate of Hannibal and Carthage:
Be Hannibal o’ercome, as fates ordain,
And let the dust of Troy in Carthage reign.

Both Polybius (unusually for him) and Livy (as we would expect) present the battle of Zama in terms of high drama. At Zama – or so they would have us believe – the fate of the world was being decided.

There are other accounts of the end of the war which do not place such terminal focus on Zama. Livy mentions Valerius Antias’s account of a major battle (not mentioned by Polybius or Livy) in which 12,000 Carthaginians were killed. And Cornelius Nepos states that, after Zama, Hannibal ‘drew together, in a few days, a numerous force … and continued to act, as well as his brother Mago, in Africa’.

But Polybius wanted to focus the glory of victory on his patron’s grandfather, and Livy wanted to end his third decade with a bang, and Zama gave them both the vehicle to do so.

Polybius, therefore, starts with a short summary of what was at stake: 

The war began afresh [with] more bitterness than the original one. For the Romans, thinking that they had been treacherously attacked, set their hearts on getting the better of the Carthaginians, and the latter, conscious of their guilt, were ready to suffer anything rather than fall into the power of the Romans...

Even more, Livy takes an entire chapter (300+ words) to set the scene. Again as we would expect, Livy’s account is much more focussed – not on the general culmination of the war between the two cities – but on the two protagonists, exploring the Romans’ ‘terror’ of fighting Hannibal in his own land, and the Carthaginians’ fear of Scipio – ‘their bogeyman, a figure of dread, the agent of Fate, a general born to bring them to destruction.’

Now, however, all eyes were turned on Scipio and Hannibal, getting ready for the final showdown.

We have seen Livy doing this before. When he exalts Hannibal, he by inference further-exalts the Romans who defeated him. His presentation of Scipio as an exemplar of Roman virtue is typical hyperbole.  But, in this context, he is also concerned to set these two superhumans against each other in order to heighten the drama of the coming climactic confrontation.

And it is into this highly-charged setting that both Polybius and Livy drop their account of a personal conference – which Livy then cranks up further by his description (not in Polybius) of their meeting:

At first neither said a word, as if each was awe-struck at the sight of the other, each lost in admiration of his opponent.

These are simply literary techniques to give his account energeia.

Did it even happen at all?
Historians have debated whether the meeting ever actually took place.
• HH Scullard (1939) thought it did, on the grounds that Polybius was a Scipionic client and ‘more than a Greek historiographer aiming at the dramatic’ – i.e. he would not have included it if it did not happen. Hmmm.
• Frank Walbank (1965) thought that it was ‘possible’ … but accepted that Polybius may have embellished a vague reference by Ennius of a personal meeting between Hannibal and Scipio.
• Richard Gabriel (2008) thought that it is ‘probably a fabrication that serves to explains why Hannibal chose to stand and fight at Zama’.
• Ronald Mellor (1999) simply declared it ‘fictitious’.

We will never know either way. What we can say is that there was a strong tradition of such a meeting in Roman literature – it is mentioned also by Nepos, Appian and Florus. And there were evidently different versions of the story – Livy mentions Valerius Antias’s version that, after his defeat, Hannibal ‘went in company with ten delegates to Scipio's camp’ – but whether that makes its actual occurrence more likely or less likely is moot.

What were Polybius and Livy trying to achieve?

Remember that, in classical historiography, authors used ‘speeches’ like plays do – as a vehicle to convey how their subjects were feeling, or to summarise a range of arguments, or to weigh up opposing positions ... or simply (as in this case) to put across their own Weltanschauung.

You will see it written in some studies that Livy based his account on Polybius. I’m not too sure – there are significant differences throughout their accounts. Maybe they used different sources. But even if they didn’t, Livy has taken the opportunity to significantly reinterpret Hannibal's speech to convey his personal interpretation of the situation, and of the two generals. Actually, in a similar way, Polybius before him had also re-fashioned his sources to present his personal portrayal of the protagonists.

Therefore – whilst it is impossible ever to reconstruct what the two men said (even of they did meet) – it IS possible to analyse how Polybius and Livy wished to portray Hannibal and Scipio.

Contrasting Portrayals – Polybius’s account of Hannibal’s speech
In Polybius:

• Hannibal starts with a condemnation of the aggressive imperialism which had tempted the two nations to anger the gods and go to war. 
• He warns Scipio of the dangers of ‘fickle τύχη’ – which he had learned not to trust – and which his own reversal of fortune belied. 
• He presents the decision of battle as a choice between good and evil, and urges Scipio to avoid the risk of defeat.
• He then offers terms - which he calls ‘secure for the Carthaginians and most honourable to you and to all the Romans’ ... but which were in fact more lenient than the treaty Scipio had already signed, and which the Carthaginians had broken.

Reading the speech, the reader is tempted to exclaim – in much the same way as Polybius presents Scipio as actually doing: ‘Get real – if that’s all you can offer, there’s no point in talking’.

Which – of course – is exactly the reaction Polybius WANTED!   Some historians have suggested that the speeches at Naragarra are 
‘imaginary reconstructions of the arguments likely to be used on such an occasion’ (Scullard, 1939).  They write as though Polybius was trying to invent ‘the kind of thing Hannibal would have said’. Nothing could be further from the truth. 
 At this critical moment of his narrative, Polybius was making Hannibal say things which would bring his history to a climax and convey the message of his writing. 

Remember why Polybius was writing his history – to warn the Greeks about the true nature of Roman imperialism. The message of his book was that Roman imperialism was a bad thing, but that the Romans were intent on conquering the world ... so you might as well resign yourself to it!  

Consequently, at this key moment, he makes Hannibal speak in terms which would be familiar to the Greeks. He laces Hannibal’s speech with allusions to Homer and other Greek writers. And he makes Hannibal say the very things which his Greek readers were saying – that Roman imperialism was bad; that peace was good; that human affairs were subject to τύχη and the Romans might lose; and that surely the best solution would be an honourable accommodation. 
These were unachievable pipedreams of course – the Romans were ALWAYS going to steamroller you – but, by putting these unrealistic statements into Hannibal’s mouth, Polybius allows his Greek readership to think such, and in thinking it realise it … and in realising it, to change their own response to Rome. 

Livy’s account of Hannibal’s speech
Livy’s account of Hannibal’s speech was very different – but, then, Livy had a different intended outcome. He, too, had a number of messages which he wished to convey, and he makes Hannibal say things so as to convey them. Broadly, the speech covers similar points to Polybius … but it is in the detail that key differences occur.

Some of them are pretty obvious. Hannibal starts and ends his speech by admitting responsibility for causing the war:

It was I that first began this war against the Roman people … I was responsible for this war.
He then declares himself glad to be surrendering to Scipio, and smiles at the irony of surrendering to the son of the general he had first fought against. 
Later in the speech he admits to Carthage’s ‘Punic faith’:
… because we lacked sincerity in seeking peace and patience in waiting for it when offered. The integrity of any peace agreement much depends on those who seek it.
One of the themes of Livy is Hannibal-as-antihero – Hannibal as the man of ‘inhuman cruelty, treachery worse than Carthaginian; nothing of truthfulness, nothing of reverence; no fear of the gods, no respect for oaths, no sense of religion’. So when we see these admissions of fault, of lies, we can see them as sops for his Roman readers along the lines of: “You see! He even admitted it himself!”

And when Hannibal compares his invasion of Italy to Scipio’s ‘roar of a Roman camp outside the walls of Carthage’, one assumes that most of Livy’s Roman readership would have responded with a proto-Churchillian ‘if-you-reaped-the-whirlwind-it-served-you-right’ attitude.

Another anti-Carthaginian character-smear is in the way Livy has Hannibal propose his terms for peace:

But perhaps we Carthaginians deserve to propose some penalties for ourselves. We are willing to concede that all the territories for which we went to war belong to you: Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and all the Mediterranean islands lying between Italy and Africa. Since that is how the gods have ordained it, we are content to be confined within the boundaries of Africa and to see you an imperial power ruling over foreign kingdoms by land and sea.
In fact, the peace terms in Livy are the same as the peace terms in Polybius, but in Livy’s account they slide imperceptibly out of Hannibal’s reflections about Fortuna, and they are presented as a concession not a necessity. Here Livy’s stereotyped representation of Punic trickery descends into pantomime, and you can almost hear his Roman readers shouting at the page to warn Scipio of the attempt to trick him: ‘New lamps for old! He’s behind you! Don’t do it!’

In the speech, Hannibal comes across as badly as a slimy telesalesperson. On the surface he is SAYING nice things, stroking Scipio’s ego … under the surface, however, lies a cynical nastiness. 

‘Remember Marcus Atilius Regulus who once stood victorious on Carthaginian soil,’ Hannibal is made to say when warning Scipio of the dangers of tempting Fortuna:
My ancestors sued for peace, which he refused. He rode his luck to the limits and failed to rein it in; it galloped away with him.
It was not a pleasant exemplar for Hannibal to raise. Livy’s readers would indeed remember Marcus Atilius Regulus, and yes he did refuse peace and then find himself defeated by Xanthippus. But any Roman would also remember that, failing to persuade the Senate to honour his promises, Regulus chose to return to Carthage where he was tortured to death. Livy has Hannibal use Regulus as an example of the ‘chance of battle’ – fully knowing that, for his readers, Regulus was an exemplar of Roman honour and virtue ... whom the Carthaginians brutally murdered.

Much the same can be said about Hannibal’s less-than-diplomatic celebration of his successes – Trasimene, Cannae, and the deaths of P. Cornelius and Gnaeus Scipio – which were achieved, of course, at the cost of untold Roman suffering.

But Livy is doing other, less obvious, things in the reported speech he has invented for Hannibal.

The American classicist Andreola Rossi (2004) has pointed out the synkrisis (parallelism) in Livy at this point. Many Roman writers (most obviously Plutarch) wrote their histories so as to explicitly draw parallels between their subjects, and Hannibal’s speech in Livy is replete with them – Rome v Carthage, past v present, Hannibal v Scipio. Rossi suggests that, where this happens, it is so that the Romans can rehearse their superiority, and this is clearly obvious in Livy’s account: 

You are basking in success; we are in the depths. Peace is yours to give, and the rewards will bring you many blessings; peace is ours to beg for, and for us there are no honourable rewards - we beg because we must.
Thus every word of Hannibal’s speech can be interpreted as a re-affirmation for Livy’s readers of their superiority ... of the superiority and unstoppable triumph of the Virtus Romana.

There is another message in Livy-Hannibal’s treatment of Fortuna. Rossi dismisses this as ‘a rather somber and lengthy reflection on the fickleness of fortune (Polybian in tone and theme)’. But – if I might dare to challenge a Harvard Classics Professor! – I think there is more going on here than that. Just as not everybody who uses the word ‘salvation’ is necessarily Christian, talking about Fortuna does not make Livy ‘Polybian’. 

As we have seen, Livy was much more ‘religious’ than Polybius, for whom history was generally rational. When he uses the word τύχη, he is sometimes referring to the broad, unstoppable ‘movements’ of history, or sometimes the inexplicable ‘paradoxes’ of accident and chance. Reading the speeches of Hannibal and Scipio, however, one is left with the feeling that, for Livy, Fortuna was much more than random forces in history. For Livy, Fortuna was a goddess who took an active interest in what happened (one is reminded of Silius Italicus’s account of the discussions between Jupiter and Juno). And whilst Livy’s Hannibal rambled on about how Fortuna had deserted him – raising him up then crashing him down – we need to remember (with Livy’s readership) that these were the uncomprehending muttering of a pagan who didn’t understand what he was talking about!

Success and failure have long since taught me that philosophy is a better guide to action than any reliance upon Fortuna.
This is the statement, not of a true Roman who understood Fortuna, but of an atheist who had angered the gods.

Concurring Portrayals – Scipio’s speech in Polybius and Livy
Given his role as a Scipionic client, Polybius’s account of Scipio’s speech is strangely mundane (which might mean, of course, that it IS a summary of what Scipio actually said – Polybius was certainly in a position to have found out).

Polybius DOES manage to get in a comment that his hero was ‘awake to the fickleness of τύχη and as far as it was in his power he took into consideration the uncertainty of human affairs’ – essentially Polybius’s definition of the perfect general!

But, otherwise, Polybius-Scipio simply rehearses Punic blame, asks a string of rhetorical questions along the lines of ‘what am I expected to do’, and then concludes that if Hannibal is not prepared to put anything new on the table: 

‘Of what further use then is our interview? Either put yourselves and your country at our mercy or fight and conquer us.’

The whole is delivered in a resigned, tired register which – actually – rings true for a war-weary general. If you asked my opinion, I would probably be prepared to believe that Scipio actually said it.

Perhaps indeed because an accepted account of Scipio’s speech did exist, Livy’s account of Scipio’s speech is very little different to Polybius’s, which he paraphrases fairly much line-for-line – apart from a lovely little passage in 31.8 when he uses the language of Roman law-courts to describe how he had had to ‘join hands with you as with an unwilling and tricky defendant’ (in which the Latin phrase manu prope conserta has a perfect double-entendre of ‘join hands’ (in court) and ‘join battle’ (in war) .. one assumes that Livy simply could not resist the literary flourish.

The only significant difference between the two speeches comes in a reference to Fortuna, where Scipio adds:

There is no need to lecture me on the power of Fortuna … Justice and the laws of heaven gave us victory in Sicily; they have given us victory in the recent war; and they will do so again if we fight here.

We have seen that, in his comments about Fortuna, Livy-Hannibal revealed himself for the godless, wicked pagan that he was. By contrast, Livy-Scipio is presented as the exemplar Roman, who knows the key. Fortuna is not fickle. Fortuna is a goddess … and how stupid can you be not to realise that she is on the Romans’ side!

Closely connected to this, South African historian Gottfried Mader (1993) has interpreted Hannibal’s speech as ‘repented hubris (pride)’. For, as every Roman reader would know, Fortuna had not deserted Hannibal because she is fickle, she deserted him because he had been BAD … because he was proud, because he did not show Virtus Romana. And THAT was why, by contrast, Hannibal could say that, for Scipio, ‘Fortuna never let you down’ - because Scipio was good ... because he was Roman! 

Ultimately, the message in all this was not about Hannibal and Scipio AT ALL, but it was Livy’s belief that ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ and that, unless they repented, the Roman people of his own day were 'cruisin for a bruisin’. Just as he used Scipio as the very exemplar of a perfect general, Livy was in every word tainting Hannibal – out of his own mouth – as a dire warning of what happens when you lose the virtues that make you such.

Livy uses the speeches at Naragarra, yes as a high-drama setting for the opening scenes of his climactic battle, but also to deliver a moral essentially religious in its nature – if you want to be ‘on the victory side’, then you need to abandon the ways of Hannibal, and be like Scipio.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Fabius Maximus - an exercise in Roman propaganda

Everybody you read – well, everybody I have read – seems to agree that Fabius Maximus was a brilliant general and 'the man who saved Rome'.  
It is time to think again.

Primary Eulogists
Fabius Maximus was a Roman hero – given the title ‘Shield of Rome’. His contemporary, the Roman writer Ennius, who wrote an 18-book epic on the history of Rome, said of him: 
‘one man, by delaying, restored the state to us’. 
Fabius became – and seems to have remained ever since – ‘the man who saved Rome’.

By the time of Livy, this reputation had reached its zenith. Livy describes more than once how Fabius’s strategy 

‘was a considerable source of anxiety to Hannibal, who realised that at last the Romans had chosen a master of military strategy’. 
(Silius Italicus, who turned Livy's History into an epic poem, took this even further, saying that Fabius gave Hannibal ‘nightmares’.)

Livy explains how, at first, everybody criticised Fabius’s tactics, ‘calling his deliberation indolence and his caution cowardice’, but recounts how the disaster at Cannae drew forth an acknowledgement from Aemilius Paullus that Fabius’s strategy had been correct. Plutarch later expanded on this idea, seeing Cannae as the event which vindicated Fabius:

‘For that which was called cowardice and sluggishness in Fabius before the battle, immediately after the battle was thought to be no mere human calculation, nay, rather, a divine and marvelous intelligence, since it looked so far into the future and foretold a disaster which could hardly be believed by those who experienced it.’

Later Writers
And thus the legend was born. During the Renaissance, when study of the Classics became popular, Fabius’s reputation remained high. The famous Italian political writer Machiavelli praised him and – during the French invasion of Italy at the end of the 15th century – the Italian princes consciously copied Fabius’s strategy of harrying and delay. Fabian tactics were also used by the Americans against the English in the American Revolution, and by the Russians against Napoleon.

It may be my ignorance, but neither have I been able to find any modern historian who has challenged Fabius’s reputation. Words such as ‘wily’, ‘wisdom’, ‘prudence’ and ‘competence’ recur in most modern histories. Recently, American historian Michael Fronda (2010) has argued that 'Rome's effective military and diplomatic response after Cannae was greatly responsible for Hannibal's defeat', and he explains how a string of modern historians have shown the different ways in which 'strict adherence to the 'Fabian strategy' ultimately saved the Roman cause'.

In the spirit of revisionism, therefore, may I point out some caveats, which might lead you to question whether Fabius was as great a man as the Romans claimed.

Let’s start with Polybius. Polybius, as we have seen before, was too in thrall to Roman public opinion completely to deny Fabius’s skill or importance … but it will be immediately obvious to anyone reading Polybius’s History that his praise lacked the energeia of Livy and Plutarch.

Polybius describes Fabius as ‘a man of admirable character and supreme intelligence’. But he does not suggest (like Livy) that Hannibal was worried by Fabius, and he attributes the Romans' survival, not to Fabius’s tactics, but to their superiority of men and resources, and to the iron will of the Senate. 

Revealingly, again unlike Livy and Plutarch, Polybius does not say that the Romans 'came to realise' that Fabius's strategy was right - he states instead that Fabius 'forced' everyone to agree with his policy.

What lies behind this lack of enthusiasm?  Polybius, you will remember, was a client of the Scipio family. And in the period of the Second Punic War, the political clan the Fabii (of which Fabius was the head) used the reverses of war to seize political power in Rome from their rivals … the Scipios. You need to understand that, for these leading political clans, the war was as much - if not more - about gaining political power at home than defeating the Carthaginians.

Their rivalry resolved into a policy-debate about how the war should be prosecuted, and where it should be prosecuted – generally, the Scipios seem to have wanted an active war in Spain and Africa as well as an aggressive war against Hannibal in Italy; the Fabii wanted a ‘Fabian’ strategy, focussed on Italy alone. It is possible to trace this political/military wrangling throughout the events of the war.  (So Fabius’s vindictive dispute with Minucius is more comprehensible when you realise that Minucius was a political ally of the Scipio family.)

At the start of the war, the Scipios dominated policy. P Cornelius Scipio was elected Consul; he sailed for Spain and then, sending his brother Gnaeus Scipio to Spain, sailed back to Italy to attack Hannibal. 

But the failures at Trebia and Trasimene gave Fabius his opportunity to oust his rivals. Strictly illegally (for the Consul Sempronius was still alive), he got himself appointed Dictator. Then, after a brief fall from influence in 216bc, Fabius seized power again after Cannae. Then he managed to organise affairs so that his kinsman, Marcus Fabius Buteo, appointed (presumably their friends and political allies) to the vacant places in the Senate in 216bc.  Nowadays, we would say that Fabius's becoming Dictator was a coup d'état, and we would accuse Fabius Buteo of 'packing' the Senate ... words like 'tyrant' and 'despot' come to mind.

Anyway, 216bc was the start of a period of Fabian domination. Fabius Maximus was Consul in 215bc and 214bc, his son in 213bc, and he himself again 209bc, after which he was appointed princeps senatus (Leader of the Senate) for 209-203bc. At the same time, Fabius was Chief Augur and Pontifex (priest), and therefore dominated Rome’s religious life and had all the power of religion behind him. He opposed Scipio Africanus throughout his career, and only towards the end of the war did his stranglehold on Roman policy weaken. 
THIS is, no doubt, why Polybius chose the word ‘forced’! 

The REAL Fabius Maximus
Plutarch’s childhood representation of Fabius as 'Little Lamb' is a masterpiece of disinformation. In fact – as Plutarch tells us – Fabius grew into a heavyweight political leader. When news came back to Rome of the defeat at Cannae – although neither Dictator nor Consul at the time – Fabius had the political/religious influence simply to forbid people (as was the custom) to mourn in public. Next year, he ordered every Roman to take the grain harvest to the fortified cities – and ‘all those who failed to do so would have their land laid waste, their farms burnt, and they themselves would be sold into slavery’. Meanwhile, a Vestal Virgin who had sinned was buried alive, and four captured Gauls were offered as human sacrifices – this was a man who was NOT the pleasant, forgiving man that Plutarch would have us believe; he was the godfather of Roman politics, power-hungry and ruthless.

Nowadays, we are used to a press where the perversions and failings of the powerful are investigated and made public. This was not the case in those days, when powerful men had their tame historians to record events as they wanted them recording. Hannibal had Silenus and Sosylus; on the Roman side, the Second Punic War was chronicled by the annalist Fabius Pictor – and, yes, the name gives it away: he was a Fabian ... a kinsman of Fabius Maximus.

It is interesting that, whilst Livy and Plutarch used Fabius Pictor extensively, the pro-Scipio Polybius did not, complaining that he was biased. Of course he was!  
But it is from Fabius Pictor's History that the portrayal of Fabius Maximus as the ‘Saviour of Rome’ comes. Perhaps we have been too quick to accept the traditional account of Fabius Cunctator as true. 

Fabius Maximus as a general
And so, adopting this more objective view of Fabius, what do we reckon to him as a general?

Let’s take some facts:

  1. Appointed Dictator after Trasimene, Fabius indulged his religious fanaticism by ordering a whole string of religious ceremonies and tributes ... before turning to the recruitment of new armies.  (Later, in 215bc, he failed to go to relieve his fellow consul, Gracchus Sempronius, beseiged by Hannibal in Cumae, because ‘his attention was occupied first with taking fresh auspices and then with the portents which were being announced one after another, and which the soothsayers assured him would be very difficult to avert’.)   Livy, hankering after old-style ‘Roman virtue’, loved these stories – but whether they make us regard Fabius as a ‘good general’ is another matter. 
  2. Is it being a great general to sit and watch the enemy burning your fields?  That might, indeed, 'delay' Hannibal, but - the Scipios were correct - it was never going to defeat him. I know Minucius’s and Varro’s accusations in Livy are overdrawn – but do they not give an indication of the kind of things which were being said in Rome at the time … and, being fair, is there not more than a vestige of truth in them?  Ultimately, 'Fabian Strategy' was sterile - if they were to win the war, the Romans were going to have to take on Hannibal in battle and defeat him.
  3. Is it being a great general when, having trapped your enemy in a disadvantageous position, you let him escape (or choose to let him escape), fooled by a very simple and not-very-convincing trick (Ager Falernus – it was this which proved the last straw for the Romans, and led to Minucius’s elevation).
  4. According to wikipedia: ‘Fabius' own military success was small, aside from the reconquest of Tarentum in 209 BC’. For this limited victory he was awarded a magnificent triumph. And when the governor of Tarentum suggested he had played a part in recapturing the town, Fabius rejoined, ‘Certainly, had you not lost it, I would have never retaken it.’ BOTH these incidents have the sniff of a powerful man jealously milking his (limited) achievements for all he was worth. 
  5. Meanwhile, were the real victories in the years after 216bc not achieved by the war-hero Marcellus – the so-called ‘Sword of Rome’?  And all the signs (as one would expect) are that Fabius hated and resented Marcellus his successes. It is significant that Marcellus was not awarded a triumph for his victories. 

Fabius Maximus as a Politician
Finally, here are two stories which reflect on Fabius's conduct and methods as a poltician ... and which, I believe, show him to have been a vindictive manipulator.

1. as you read the following story in Livy 23.31 for the year 215bc, ask yourself who controlled the augurs, and who gained from Marcellus’s replacement, and reflect on what it tells us about Fabius, and his political methods:
'Marcellus was elected [Consul] by a quite unanimous vote in order that he might take up his magistracy at once. Whilst he was assuming the duties of the consulship thunder was heard; the augurs were summoned and gave it as their opinion that there was some informality in his election. The patricians spread a report that as that was the first time that two plebeian consuls were elected together, the gods were showing their displeasure. Marcellus resigned his office and Q. Fabius Maximus was appointed in his place.'
2. and secondly, you may wish to reflect on a story from Livy, when Marcellus - having defeated Syracuse and pacified Sicily, in 211bc handed over his command and asked to return to Italy.  The Senate allowed Marcellus to return, but refused him permission to bring back his army with him.  Marcellus returned to Rome as a hero but, when he asked to be given a Triumph for his victories, a group of senators argued that, seeing as the army was still in Sicily, he could not be awarded a triumph - 'since he had not brought the war to a close' (Livy 26.21).  So his request for a Triumph was refused, and instead the Senate agreed as a compromise to award him an 'ovation', a lesser honour.  Again, who do you think orchestrated the opposition to Marcellus in the Senate?  Is it possible to see the political spectre of Fabius behind shoddy treatment? 

Fabius Maximus was not a very nice man – he was a ruthless and deeply conservative political bully who used his family connections and religious positions to become Dictator, if not in name in practice.

And also, he was not all that good a general.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Livy's Battles

Can we believe anything Livy says? 
 One of my points about Livy, as you know, is that he was much more concerned to write a Lord-of-the-Rings-type epic than he was to write a true and accurate history.

Never was this more true than in his accounts of battles.

Have you, like me, struggled to remember what happened at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae, and who did what, when? Has it not struck you how hard it is? This is because Livy does not seem to see battles as discrete, unique affairs. Rather, he sees them as outworkings of his Weltanschauung about the indomitability and inevitable victory of ‘Roman virtue’. Thus, rather than write about what happened, Livy shoehorns events into a conceptual writing frame.

Livy's Writing Frame
This writing frame involves the following elements:

  • The sides generally line up in a traditional way, with infantry in the centre, and cavalry on the wings (this may reflect Livy’s lack of military experience, or his desire to present battles in a way that his non-expert readers could easily understand).
  • The Romans, when they lose, have a nutcase commander of low birth who acts rashly, against the advice of other, more cautious (more aristocratic) voices (why else would the Romans lose, if they were not led by a donkey?)
  • The weather was always against the Romans (why else would the Romans lose, if they were not fighting against impossible conditions?)
  • The Carthaginians always have some kind of ‘Punic trick’ (why else would the Romans lose, if the Carthaginians did not cheat?)
  • The Romans, nevertheless, always fight brilliantly and bravely (as David Levene has pointed out, to the point where it is hard to understand how the Romans lost!)
  • There is usually some formulaic 'energeia' text describing 'the shout of battle' and the gory bits. 
  • A rump of brave and valorous Roman soldiers break through the Carthaginian lines and fight their way to safety.
And into this framework, Livy poured his content:


Thus, at Trebia, the nutcase commander is Sempronius (one of the representatives of the plebeians). Desperate to engage with the enemy before his term of office is ended, he accepts an embassy from the Gauls, and over-reacts to a minor success – all against the wiser advice of P. Cornelius Scipio, whom he not only ignores, but harangues. Then he chases Hannibal’s Numidians at daybreak breast-high across a freezing-cold river … so that his men emerge scarcely able to hold their weapons. Even worse, he makes them do all this before they have had chance to eat their Shredded Wheat. Madness! 

Actually, Sempronius was a decent commander. He had just captured Malta from the Carthaginians, and then marched his men north to Trebia in record time. He remained a general after Trebia, and soundly defeated a Carthaginian army under Hanno at Grumentum in 215bc. But, for this battle only, we are asked to believe that he behaved like a complete headstrong idiot.

The battle is then made to fit the conceptual frame. The armies are lined up against each other, infantry in the centre, cavalry on the wings, and the battle begins with the skirmishers. It takes place in a driving snowstorm and – if the running-away trick was not sufficiently Punic, after a while Mago’s force of 2000 hand-picked commandos ambush them from behind.

Even so, the Romans fight bravely, standing their ground ‘more by courage than by phsyical strength’, even driving away the elephants by stabbing them under their tails. Forming a square, indeed,a force of 10,000 manage to break through the Carthaginian ranks and make their way with Scipio to Placentia, and thence to Cremona.

The events at Cannae are made to mirror the events at Trebia.

Here the nutcase commander is Varro, a butcher’s son who, again, ‘sarcastically’ hectors and bullies Aemilius Paullus, Fabius’s friend. Against Aemilius’s advice, but stung by a Numidian attack on the water-carriers, Varro – when it was his day in command, ‘without a word to his colleague’ – insisted on leading out the army onto a flat plain against a massively superior cavalry … and suffers an appropriately staggering defeat.

Yet, strangely, Varro seems to have emerged from the debacle with his reputation intact. He was well received when he returned to Rome; indeed he was appointed governor of Picenum (a key military area) from 215–213 bc, and was sent to hold Etruria against Hasdrubal Barca in 208–207 bc. Yet, again, we are asked to believe that - at Cannae alone - this man’s lunacy led the Roman army to catastrophic defeat.

The battle goes in the expected way. ‘With a great yell the auxiliaries charged, and with the clash of light-armed troops, the battle began’. The armies are lined up against each other, infantry in the centre, cavalry on the wings – the Romans are fighting into the searing dust of the Sirocco wind – and, if the Numidian cavalry's pretending-to-surrender ‘punic deceit’ is not sufficiently nasty for you, Hannibal uses a dastardly crumpling-centre-enveloping strategy to win the battle.

The Romans, however, choose ‘to die at their posts rather than run away’.

Some were even found with their heads buried in the ground, having dug small pits for themselves and buried their faces in the earth, and then simply smothered themselves to death.  The most spectacular sight of all was a Numidian soldier, still alive but lying beneath a dead Roman, with his nose and ears torn to shreds. The Roman had fought to his final breath, and when his hands could no longer hold his weapon, his anger turned to madness, and he died tearing his enemy to pieces with his teeth...
Meanwhile about 17,000 managed to make it back to camp, and Varro ‘either by luck or good judgement, avoided the general mass of fugitives and reached Venusia with about 50 cavalry’.

So different battle, same events.


Remarkably, even the ambush-battle of Trasimene is made to fit into the broad conceptual framework of a Hannibalic battle.

This time the nutcase is Flaminius – like Varro, a ‘new man’. Yet we are told he was so ‘self-willed and obstinate’ that he not only ignored his senior officers, he ignored the gods, and chased Hannibal up a blind defile, ‘without sending any scouts to feel the way’.

In fact, Flaminius was a most remarkable and good man, noted for building the Via Flaminia, his land reforms to help the poor and reorganising the Century Assembly to give more voting power to the poorer classes. He had been Consul in 223bc, and Master of Horse in 221bc,and it was Flaminius who had established the Roman colonies at Placentia and Cremona. Such was the man we are required to believe led his men blindly to disaster.

And thereafter the battle goes as you would now expect. ‘The shout of battle rose round the Romans before they could see clearly from whence it came.’ Hannibal had lined up in more-or-less the traditional way, with the infantry in the centre, the cavalry on the left (even though there would seem to be no space for them to form up), and the Balearics and the light infantry on the right. The Romans, of course, had no time to line up in ranks, for ‘fighting began in front and flank before they could form line’ but that didn’t stop them trying ‘as well as time and place allowed’. They were fighting in a fog so thick that ‘ears were of more use than eyes’.

Flaminius, who ‘displayed all the coolness that could be expected under the circumstances … followed by the pick of his army’ fought boldly – so boldly that they did not even notice the huge earthquake that destroyed many towns in Italy – and a group of 6,000 even manage to fight their way through the enemy lines.

And, again, the Carthaginians showed ‘punic faith’ – not only in ambush in the first place, but after the battle, when the 6,000 surrendered to Maharbal, who promised them their freedom … only for Hannibal to throw them all into chains.

So here again we see that – even in an engagement as radically different as an ambush – Livy still more-or-less shoehorns it into his conceptual framework.


The Romans did not fight gloriously because they necessarily did; they fought gloriously because Romans HAD to fight gloriously … or his Roman readership would be disappointed. 

Neither did the Carthaginians always behave badly. Ambushes and collapsing centres are tactics, not tricks. Polybius makes it clear that the Numidians did NOT pretend to surrender at Cannae – it was Hasdrubal’s cavalry who had defeated their enemies on the left wing and swung round to attack the Romans from behind. Polybius also makes it clear that Hannibal overruled Maharbal because the cavalry commander did not have authority to promise the prisoners their freedom; Hannibal released the Allied troops, but retained the Romans.

Above all, it does seem that there WAS a division in Roman counsels, but it was not as simplistic as a clash between rash lunatics and wise delayers. There certainly seems to have been a political battle between the Fabii and the Scipios. Most of all, Livy exhibits a prejudice against low-born and ‘new men’, who ALWAYS get blamed for the defeats, and in favour of the ancient, aristocratic families … whose scions always are presented as wise and right. But Sempronius and Flaminius were skilled commanders whose alleged actions are totally out of character; and the modern thinking about Varro is that he was not in charge on the day of the battle – that Livy and the other historians have changed the record to protect Aemilius.

Of course it can be argued that a battle is a battle, and that the soldiers are always going to line up, some are always going to fight bravely, some are always going to survive. But, even so, I think it is arguable that the similarities in his battles are too close to be coincidental.

Livy was writing for a mass audience and – like a modern Mills and Boon romance – he seems to have written his battle-descriptions according to a formula.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Was Hannibal a military genius? OR Why did the Romans lose at Cannae?

Everybody you read – it is apparently de rigeur – seems to agree that Hannibal was a military genius.  Is it not time for a revisionist approach?

Primary Eulogists
The Roman historian Cornelius Nepos (1st century bc; it is worth reading his account, chapters 3-6, in full) summarised: ‘it is not to be disputed that Hannibal surpassed other commanders in ability … for as often as he engaged with the Romans in Italy, he always came off with the advantage’.

Indeed, Hannibal seems to have had a permanent psychological effect on the Romans. The Roman historian Florus (second century ad) said that Hannibal descended on Italy ‘like a thunderbolt’. Roman parents frightened their children by threatening ‘Hannibal is at the gates’! In fact, throughout Roman literature, Hannibal was presented as a genius. The Roman general Frontinus (1st century ad) drew extensively on Hannibal’s tactics in his book on military Stratagems.

Secondary Eulogists
And not only in the Ancient World, but ever since, Hannibal has often been held up as an exemplar general. In America, 19th century US Colonel Dodge declared it impossible to write about Hannibal ‘without exhibiting some traces of hero worship’, and Hannibal is STILL studied in US military schools as a military strategist from whom modern soldiers can learn.

Even amongst historians, it is hard to find anyone prepared to criticise Hannibal, never mind denigrate him as a general. The north-east historian John Lazenby, in a short article Was Maharbal Right? (1996) rehearses some possible criticisms levelled against Hannibal … but then knocks them all down and declares that Hannibal’s strategy, even if it ultimately failed, revealed ‘breathtaking boldness … It took genius to realise that it could be done, and – let’s face it – genius nearly to pull it off’. 

I feel ill.

Is it not therefore decided time for a proper revision of Hannibal’s generalship? Hannibal was a lousy general, and it is time we stopped being dazzled by the brightness of the propaganda lights.

Actually, I say this with a heavy heart. I HATE the Romans. I wish with all my heart that Hannibal had won, never mind been a brilliant general. But for all I am predisposed to favour Hannibal – let’s face it – he was a desperate disappointment as a general. I despair that, throughout history, everybody has bulled him up to the degree they have.

What makes the general hero-worship so strange is the fact that our key primary sources, Polybius and Livy, are anything BUT mindless Hannibal-worshippers. What is more, they are so unreliable as military reporters that I am amazed that anyone thinks they can find out from them what happened at all.

Everybody reckons that Polybius was this great historian, but it seems to me to be another case of Emperor’s clothes. I don’t reckon Polybius as a military historian at all, despite his claim to have visited the battle-sites. Read his descriptions of battles. Can YOU understand what is going on? As far as I can see – Trebia and Trasimene are exemplars – Polybius has been trying to synthesis widely differing accounts to the point where the resultant narrative is over-complex, confused and internally contradictory. At Trebia we seem to have Mago outflanking the Romans … who are, however, backed up against the river. At Trasimene Hannibal places all his Numidian cavalry on the left – on a non-existent hill between the lakeside path which is also a steep mountain pass(!) ... whilst spreading all his allied cavalry out along miles of hillside on the right. There is no wonder that a general who achieved such impossible marvels is regarded as a genius!

Meanwhile, Polybius is terribly biased. There is a radical difference between his accounts of the battle of Ticinus and Zama (where one of his Scipio patrons was in charge), and those at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae (where they weren’t). 

 At Ticinus and Zama, Hannibal is much less dominating as a general; he is outmanoeuvred, struggles to defeat the Roman soldiers, loses Zama and would probably have lost at the Ticinus too if P. Cornelius Scipio hadn’t been wounded (as it was it was a close-run thing with no clear outcome). 
At Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae, however, Hannibal easily defeats the nincompoop Roman generals who quarrel and overrule each other, rush into battle before all their forces have arrived, advance in the fog up blind passes, cross freezing rivers … and won’t let their troops have their Weetabix!!! (Whether this makes Hannibal a genius commander is the moot point – I suspect even you and I could have beaten such dimwits.)

Most of all, however, what is so very confusing to someone reading all the modern history books which salute Hannibal’s genius as the reason for his victories is the fact that Polybius is concerned throughout to outline the impersonal, objective reasons why the Romans lost. He stresses how the Romans lost because they attacked with insufficient forces, and made tactical and strategic errors; so one is left wondering – if the Romans LOST the battle by making mistakes, why do we get so excited about Hannibal’s victories?

Livy is even worse. Livy’s reaction to conflicting sources is to choose one, explain it in a very clear and simple way ... and then pile in the alternative versions in a contradictory and unintelligible way.

In Livy’s account, Hannibal’s victories occur almost incidentally, overshadowed by the drama Livy is trying to portray on the Roman war effort … which is stereotyped as a continual tension between (rash) action and (wise) caution (thus Sempronius berates P Cornelius Scipio, Flaminius ignores the Senate and the gods, Varro abuses Aemilius Paullus).

Moreover, Livy is biased. It was the German historian Heinz Bruckmann who first suggested (1936) that Livy’s accounts were mainly constructed to find excuses for the Roman defeats. Indeed, in Livy’s pro-Roman narratives, the Roman soldiers are forever thwarting Hannibal’s tactics, fighting valiantly and breaking through the Carthaginian lines … to the point where, recently, New York Classics Professor David Levene (2010) has commented fairly enough that Livy apologies and glorifies the Romans to such an extent that it is almost impossible to understand how, given this, the Romans actually lost any of the battles!  Livy’s ultimate reasoning, one suspects, is that the Romans would actually have won all those battles if their commanders had not neglected the gods … which, of course, is what made old Fabius such a good commander.

Most of all, of course, it suited both Polybius and Livy, as pro-Roman writers, to enhance Hannibal’s abilities and reputation. If the Romans were defeated, then the enemy general MUST have been a genius; no other explanation is explicable. And, ultimately, when Hannibal is defeated, it gives all the more kudos to the Romans (and Scipio Africanus) because the defeated enemy was superhuman.

The most important thing to realise about Livy is that, although he was recounting historical/actual events, his primary purpose was not to recount those events as accurately as possible, but to present them as an exciting read strictly within what-he-regarded-as their ‘Roman’ ethical and developmental context. So the best way to read Livy, I would suggest, is not as a history book, but as one of those modern films which start with the words ‘based on a true event’ … but then (apart from the names) are a more-or-less fictional story from that point on.

Hannibal’s Goofs
How can you suggest Hannibal was a lousy general, I hear you cry, when Hannibal clearly achieved such marvels!

Does not Cornelius Nepos line them up? – that Hannibal:

  • ‘subdued in war, during three years, all the nations of Spain’ 
  • ‘took Saguntum, a city in alliance with the Romans, by storm’
  • ‘collected three vast armies, of which he sent one into Africa, left another with his brother Hasdrubal in Spain, and took the third with him into Italy’
  • engaged, on his journey to Italy, with all the tribes of the Gauls, ‘and let none go unconquered’
  • ‘he cut to pieces the people of the Alps who endeavoured to prevent his passage’
  • in the Alps, ‘laid open those parts, made roads, and put things in such a state, that an elephant fully equipped could walk where previously one unarmed man could scarcely crawl’
  • won the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae
  • and remained 16 years in Italy, ‘being recalled, without having suffered any defeat’. 

But actually, would it not be just-as-easy to construct a poo-poo list:

1. Spain
Hannibal did not conquer Spain. If anything, it was Hasdrubal who conquered Spain. Moreover, whilst Hasdrubal was clearly a diplomat, and managed to conquer Spain whilst keeping the peace with Rome (226bc); by contrast, within three years Hannibal had managed to provoke a war which would ruin Carthage and his army. 

The siege of Saguntum, a small seaport which the Romans spectacularly FAILED to help, thwarted Hannibal for 8 months, and was an horrific experience for his troops. (In fact, Hannibal’s credentials as a besieging general are definitely questionable; he rarely besieged any town unless it was easily taken and more to the point - after Emporium - I am unaware of him ever attacking a Roman fort or camp.)

2. Hannibal’s Armies 

It is true that, by 218bc, Hannibal DID have a huge, battle-hardened army … though one wonders how much its quality was down to Hamilcar and Hasdrubal, and that Hannibal just inherited it.

But whether he inherited his Army or not, what is undeniable is that he then split it into three parts, two of which were to prove utterly inadequate for the task he set them (to defend Spain and Carthage); this was at least a miscalculation. 

Next, despite his reputation as an inspirational leader of men, Hannibal failed to hold on to all his soldiers; a group of 3,000 Carpetani mutinied – if we are to believe Livy, in Spain; if we are to believe Frontinus, in Italy – whereupon Hannibal not only capitulated and let them go home, but sent all the other 7,000 Carpetani home as well. (Alexander would have sulked in his tent for a week.)  And although Frontinus presents Hannibal’s actions as a brilliant piece of disinformation – to save face, making it look as though he was dismissing the troops he didn’t need – what strikes me is that, if you, me and Frontinus know about it, it wasn’t much of a ruse was it! 

Later, far from being a commander who inspired loyalty and devotion in his men, Hannibal was accused by the Gauls of sacrificing them in forlorn attacks at the beginning of battles, in order to soften up the Roman troops for the Libyphoenicians to finish off easily. When he was recalled to Carthage in 203bc, this ‘empathetic’ commander simply dismissed his allied soldiers, and massacred those who took refuge in the Temple of Juno Lacinia. 

Hannibal did NOT fight his way victoriously through Gaul and the Alps. He negotiated and bought his way across southern France, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, on hearing that P Cornelius Scipio had landed in Massilia, he promptly turned and fled north to avoid having to fight him. Meanwhile, the two battles he fought in the Alps were clearly costly and close-run things.

Hannibal then lost a reputed 36,000 men crossing the Alps – a passage that, despite setting off ‘at the very start’ of spring, he mistimed (he seems to have dawdled his way from the Rhone) to such a degree that he ended up crossing the col in winter. As Polybius points out but Nepos clearly hadn’t twigged, the Gauls regularly took armies safely across the Alps without any crises or disasters. As a result, of the 90,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry who crossed the Ebro, he had when he arrived in Italy only 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, having squandered three quarters of the war-winning tool his father and brother-in-law had left him. Moreover, as though he had learned NOTHING, he then lost more men in Italy: some attempting a forced march over the Apennines in winter, and more (and an eye) crossing the Arno marches in a wet spring.

Sometimes, moreover, you will read accusations that the Carthaginian government gave him no help in Italy. Yet reinforcement armies were sent under Hasdrubal and Mago … but, through a combination of poor communications and poor planning both were wasted.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hannibal was a general who was wasteful of his human resources. Add this to other stories of how he massacred people who had surrendered, crucified guides who made mistakes etc., and if Hannibal was a general today he would be in front of a war crimes trial. 

Hannibal’s victories in Italy were won, not by Hannibal’s men, but by Gauls, Italians and mercenaries.  Moreover, as Livy reports, by Cannae his army was wearing captured Roman uniforms and using captured Roman weapons to such an extent that the battle could have been a battle between two Roman armies. And, of course, by Zama Hannibal was using Roman tactics, lining up his raw recruits in the front line, with his experienced African soldiers behind, and his core, older, Army of Italy in the year … as, essentially, triarii.

3. Hannibal’s tactics
Meanwhile, what of the campaign as a whole? We speak badly of the cavalry commander who – like Prince Rupert in the English Civil War – wins the engagement with the enemy cavalry … but then gallops off in pursuit of them, leaving the rest of the army to be defeated.  Yet Hannibal did the equivalent on a national scale, leaving Spain and Carthage to defeat, whilst he gallivanted off on his Italian adventure, with no real idea of what he was trying to achieve.

Thus, says Polybius (in his attack on those historians who credited Hannibal’s success to the gods):

Can we imagine a more imprudent general or a more incompetent leader than Hannibal would have been, if with so large an army under his command and all his hopes of ultimate success resting on it, he did not know the roads and the country, as these writers say, and had absolutely no idea where he was marching or against whom, or in fact if his enterprise were feasible or not?
But that, more-or-less, was exactly what Hannibal did!

Now, you will read in modern history books that Hannibal DID have an aim when he set off – the creation of a League of Italian states to rival and balance Rome’s hegemony in the Italian peninsula. Hoyos (2003) accepts this and Fronda (2010) has researched in detail his attempts to do so – but, equally, neither author suggests that Hannibal started doing so with any success before 215bc. 

Rather, it is my reading of Hannibal’s aims that, when he set off from Spain, he did not really have any ‘strategy’ beyond damaging Rome on her own territory … and perhaps, at most, of causing her collapse, or perhaps forcing her to make peace.  By my reading,only after Cannae – when clearly neither of those two things had happened – did Hannibal set about trying to organise an alternative government.
Otherwise, he wandered round Italy following a scorched earth policy, winning – it is true – military victories but achieving (in terms of the war) absolutely nothing.

Ironically, as he pursued his policy of coalition after 215bc, Hannibal was in fact sowing the seeds of his own defeat. Campaigning in a foreign land, he was obliged to live off the land – he needed victories and looting to feed, arm and pay his soldiers (whose support he had bought with promises of booty and luxury). So he had to pillage to survive … but the more tribes and cities came over to him, the fewer places he could ravage, and the fewer resources were available to him to maintain his campaign.

Hannibal spent 16 years in Italy, during which time he was never defeated. This alone is often hailed as a marvel.  But to be honest, he was never a serious risk after Cannae.  Certainly after 210bc the Romans had his measure. They had him safely penned up and neutralised in Bruttium, whilst they set about defeating the enemy where it mattered – Spain and Africa.

As Livy (probably fictionally) made Maharbal say at Cannae: Hannibal might win battles, but he had no idea how to win a war.

I hate conjectural history, but one is bound to wonder what would have happened if Hannibal had stayed in Spain, with his huge, top-class army, and annihilated three successive armies which the Romans had sent to conquer Spain.  As it actually happened, they fought on with dogged determination because they were fighting to liberate their land from the invader.  I wonder whether they would have been as determined to continue sending tens of thousands of men to the slaughter to conquer somewhere else?

4. Hannibal’s victories
And were even Hannibal’s victories all that spectacular?

Do we not need to think a little about the quality of the armies Hannibal was fighting?
We have this mental image of disciplined, trained, impregnable Roman cohorts, without realising (along with Livy, who also gets it wrong) that Hannibal invaded 100 years before the Romans developed the cohort. Moreover, the Roman army in 218bc was not a professional army like Hannibal’s (which was made up of mercenaries and the remains of his full-time professional Army of Spain). The Roman army was made up of citizen levies – ordinary people like you and me – called up to do their national service. Such an army – as Hannibal found out – was as easily panicked and put to flight as you or I would have been. In ancient times, many battles between huge numbers of what were, essentially, weekend-soldiers, were decided by a raucous charge, a few minutes of frantic fighting … whereupon the side which felt as though it was losing would turn and flee. The others would then pursue them with great slaughter.


  • Before the Ticinus, the Roman army was: ‘an army of raw levies disheartened by their recent humiliating defeats’ (Livy 21.21.39)
  • Before Trebia, P Cornelius Scipio advised against an immediate battle, contending ‘that their legions would be all the better for a winter's drilling’ (Polybius 3.70).
  • And even as late as Cannae, ‘the fatigue party was little more than a disorganised rabble, and the cavalry sent them into a noisy and panic stricken flight before they had even ridden across the river and onto the further bank’ (Livy 22.45.3)

Was not the Roman formation predicated on this? The newly-recruited hastati were put out the front, but the presence of the trained principes behind them rather suggests that Roman generals more-or-less expected their front lines to break … and indeed, they kept their most experienced triarii on the subs bench, to bring them on for the last 20 minutes if things were going badly even for the principes.

So the Roman commanders knew their men were flaky.  Moreover, we need to remember that – before Hannibal had even arrived in Italy – the Boii had rebelled and destroyed Manlius’s army.  So the Roman army which Hannibal faced at Ticinus and Trebia was not even the normal, flaky Roman army – it was a bunch of raw, untrained recruits hastily gathered by P Cornelius Scipio and rushed to the scene.  As fast as Hannibal slaughtered them, the Romans replaced them ... again, necessarily, by more raw, untrained levies.  I think it the surprise is that the Roman armies did as well as they did, not that they were easily defeated.

And not just the soldiers! Roman consul-generals were not appointed like Hannibal – as a permanent, professional military general. They were elected, for one year only. So the Roman army was not led by permanent, professional military generals, but by politicians elected for their popularity for one year – a bit like selecting our generals on X-Factor. Livy highlights Varro as a man entirely unsuited for military command who schemed himself into election. Flaminius was in such a rush because he wanted to see battle before his one-year term expired.  

One elected consul even opposed his own selection on the grounds that he was unfit for the position!

The voters began to press round Manlius to congratulate him, but he at once began by excusing himself on the score of his short-sightedness. "Your ears can hardly yet have recovered from the uproar and confusion caused by the enemy a few months ago, when he brought the flames of war almost up to the very walls of Rome… Go back and vote again, and bear in mind that the Carthaginians are carrying war in Italy, and that their leader is Hannibal." (Livy 26.22)

Moreover, the Roman generals were not only ingénues, but – if we are to believe Livy – they split their duties by taking it in daily turns to control the command (and overturn the orders of the previous day – c.f. the chaos this caused at Cannae)!

So Hannibal’s victories were obtained because he found himself faced – not by the indomitable Roman armies of a Caesar or an Augustus – but a bunch of raw recruits led by squabbling politicians.

The rest of the time – notably when Fabius was dictator – Hannibal found himself faced by a Roman general who studiously avoided battle. I think we have to agree that there is little to praise in a general who is allowed to parade unchallenged round the enemy countryside putting it to the torch. And (as Leonard Cottrell suggests) you have to ask yourself whether the success of Hannibal’s ruse at Ager Falernus was really because he so brilliantly fooled the Romans, or whether it was a case that the Roman army was not prepared to risk a battle again where they could not SEE that they were assured of success.

5. Cannae
You might think that there seems little point in trying to denigrate Hannibal’s achievement at Cannae.

Even the British Fieldmarshal Montgomery, victor of El Alamein in the Second World War – although he criticised Hannibal’s grasp of wider strategy – nevertheless declared that at Cannae: ‘[Hannibal’s] tactical genius can compare with the conduct of any battle in the history of warfare’.
Meanwhile, in the First World War, General Von Schlieffen had designed the German military plan for World War One as a whole-continent version of Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae.
Cannae has become an example of an annihilating battle and as such, said American President Eisenhower, it is something that every general has dreamed of ever since.

Cannae, I read in books, is the first example of an enveloping strategy of its kind.  Using your wings to envelop and destroy the enemy was no great invention – Darius had tried to do so to Alexander at Gaugamela – but Hannibal achieved it, intentionally, and with a smaller army!

Roman generals went into battle with a plan of action.  But Hannibal’s was light-years more sophisticated.  He had designed his centre to crumble, so that the enemy would bring his enveloping tactic upon themselves.  They say that good chess players think five moves ahead, and that is what is impressive about Hannibal’s strategy – ‘if I do this, then they’ll do that, and then I’ll be able to do that’. It was what characterised Hannibal’s strategies, and it was why he defeated the Romans so often in those three ‘blitzkrieg’ years of 218-216bc. 

Even if we accept Cannae as a victory of military genius however, it would make Hannibal little better than a one-trick pony.  And, in fact, there are caveats that we need to make even about Cannae...

6. Fool’s Mate
For even at Cannae, of course, Hannibal benefited from Roman incompetence. If Livy and Polybius are to be believed, one of the Roman consuls insisted on leading out the army onto a flat plain against a massively superior cavalry; and during the battle the other abandoned his post and rushed round like a headless chicken until he got himself killed. They lined up their men with the Sirocco in their faces, and then stood by and did nothing as Hannibal's trap closed on their men.

And whilst we are comparing Hannibal’s victories to a game of chess, one is reminded of a gambit called ‘Fool’s Mate’, in which check mate is achieved in two moves … but only against an inexperienced opponent who positively makes moves which allow you to win. 

 Similarly, Hannibal’s victories in 218-216bc were generally achieved gratis a stupefying Roman co-operation:
  • Hannibal’s victory at the Rhone did involve an outflanking movement … but only because his opponents took no care for their rear and seem to have missed the smoke signals that Hanno was ready!
  • Hannibal’s victory at Trebia did involve a ruse whereby his Numidian cavalry charged and then ran away … but this only worked because Sempronius sent his men stupidly after them, across a freezing river, in a snowstorm, into an ambush.
  • Hannibal’s victory at Trasimene did involve an ambush ... but only because Flaminius led his army up a steep gorge in a thick fog without sending out scouts to see if it was safe.
  • and Hannibal’s victory at Gereonium also involved an ambush … but only because Minucius (whom one would have thought would have been getting wise to Hannibal by this time) attacked without reconnoitring the gullies round about.

To be honest, Cannae excepted (and even Cannae to some extent), all these ‘clever’ strategies of Hannibal are simple in the extreme, and only succeeded because of a stunning level of naivety on the Romans’ part. When Hannibal faced wily, determined opponents, who used the environment to the best advantage (as he faced in the Alps), Hannibal did not do nearly so well in battle.
And if Hannibal had faced a Caesar – or even a modern war-gamer – his army would not have lasted long. As it was, he achieved legendary status because he was faced with inexperienced opponents who positively made moves which allowed him to win

Everybody loves a trier but usually, in normal life, failure pays the price. We tend to sack the failed football manager, the political leader who loses the election, the underachieving store manager, the failed general … however difficult the situation in which they were working.
For some reason, Hannibal's reputation has escaped this basic rule of life – I suspect it may because we have a soft spot for elephants.

But the brutal truth about Hannibal is that he failed. He took a successful army, lost three-quarters of it getting to Italy, and then tied it up for 16 years in Italy, winning battles to no effect, whilst the war was lost behind his back.

Hannibal, I am sorry to say, was a lousy general.