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.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Did Hannibal Have Any War Aims – And If So What Were They?

I suspect most people know that Hannibal invaded Italy – but WHY?

Hannibal's lost opportunity
There is a story from Hannibal’s invasion of Italy which is very famous and, some would say, enlightening.  The scene is after Cannae.  The Roman army is destroyed and in flight.  Livy, typically excitingly, describes what happened:
In his moment of victory Hannibal was surrounded by his staff, crowding round to congratulate him and urge him after such a massive success to spend the remainder of the day and the following night resting himself, and giving his exhausted soldiers time to recover.
But Maharbal, his cavalry commander would have none of it, urging him not to waste a moment.  “I’ll tell you what this battle has really achieved,” he declared, “when in five days time you are feasting on the Capitol.  Follow up quickly. I’ll go ahead with the cavalry, and before they even realise we are coming, the Romans will discover we’ve arrived.”
For Hannibal it all seemed far too optimistic, an almost inconceivable possibility.  He commended Maharbal for his imaginative idea, but said he needed time to think it through.  Maharbal’s reply was short and to the point.  “The gods do not give all their gifts to any one man. You can win a battle, Hannibal. But you have no idea how to exploit it.”  (Livy, Book 21, Chapter 51).
According to Livy: ‘That single day’s delay, by common consent, proved the salvation of Rome and her empire’.  The great British Second World War Fieldmarshal Montgomery agreed.  At that moment, Hannibal spurned the opportunity, lost the initiative … and lost the war.
And, at that moment in the narrative, Livy invites reader to decide, with his Maharbal, that Hannibal had a vital quality of character missing – that he was not so great a commander after all. Which is, of course, exactly what Livy wanted you to decide.  Hannibal, Livy dramatically tells us as he describes Hannibal’s retreat from Italy in 203bc: ‘often looked back to the shores of Italy, accusing gods and men and even cursing himself for not having led his soldiers reeking with blood from the victorious field of Cannae straight to Rome’ (Book 30, Chapter 20).

In Hannibal’s defence
But WAS it such a stupid decision?  The French archaeologist Serge Lancel (1995) did not think so.  To lay siege to Rome was no easy matter.  Hannibal had no siege machinery.  A siege of Rome would take months, even years, and turn Hannibal’s war-of-movement into a protracted stalemate:

Moreover, Hannibal had other war aims, another plan… He was not waging a war of extermination, he told [the Roman captives he was ransoming]; he was fighting to maintain the dignitas of his own country and to ensure its imperium.  Hannibal thus expected Rome to sue for peace; what he wanted was a victory recognised by a treaty that would, to Carthage’s advantage, reverse the treaties of 241 and 237 (Lancel, Hannibal, p.109)
Lancel presents us with a Hannibal whose war-aim was, by invasion, to force the Romans to the negotiating table.  When they refused to do so, lacking alternative strategies, Hannibal just kept fighting and suffered ‘declining fortunes’, followed by ‘setbacks’, followed by inevitable defeat.

How realistic an appreciation of Hannibal’s war-strategy is this?  Let’s look and see if the primary sources give us any insight into Hannibal’s war-aims.  The problem here, of course, is that we possess NO primary Carthaginian record of Hannibal’s invasion which might show us what the Carthaginians thought about the invasion … which tells us their side of things.  So we are reliant mainly on Polybius and Livy.

To be frank, Polybius is a disappointment in this respect.  We have come to expect dispassionate and informed analysis from Polybius … but of Hannibal’s war aims, almost nothing.  He records a few speeches Hannibal gave to his men ... which suggest nothing except that Hannibal continually motivated his men by promises of riches, land and status:

Your victory will make you at once masters of all Italy, and through this one battle you will be freed from your present toil, you will possess yourselves of all the vast wealth of Rome, and will be lords and masters of all men and all things (Book 3, Chapter 111).
And as to what Hannibal himself was about, there is disappointingly little.

One thing Polybius does tell us is that, as Hannibal was preparing his invasion:

He cherished high hopes of the Gauls … thinking that the only means of carrying the war against the Romans into Italy was … to reach the above country and employ the Celts as co-operators and confederates in his enterprise (Book 3, Chapter 34).
The idea that Hannibal was invading Italy because he was ‘taking the war to the enemy’ is very compelling.  Carthage had been defeated in the First Punic War because it had merely tried to defend what it had; perhaps Hannibal had resolved that he was not going to sit back and do that again? Any study of Hannibal’s battles, also, leads one to the conclusion that he was one of those people who believe that ‘the best form of defence is attack’.
A war fought on Roman soil, moreover, would prevent the situation that had developed in the First Punic War that, the longer the war went on, the more Carthage’s wealth and livelihood was ruined.  If there was to be a war, why not fight it on Roman soil, so that Rome was ruined, not Carthage?
And if Rome was ruined, would not Rome lose the wherewithal to fight?

If you are thinking that this is all a lot of conjecture, based upon a single phrase in Polybius, you are probably correct.

Beyond that, however, Polybius has precious little to say about Hannibal’s aims and intentions:

Hannibal, now fully assured of success, dismissed the idea of approaching Rome for the present, but began to ravage the country (Book 86, Chapter 8).
When he learnt that Fabius had arrived, Hannibal, wishing to strike such a blow as would effectually cow the enemy, led his forces out and drew them up in order of battle (Book 89, Chapter 1).
The Carthaginians, then, by quartering themselves in this plain made of it a kind of theatre, in which they were sure to create a deep impression on all by their unexpected appearance, giving a spectacular exhibition of the timidity of their enemy and themselves demonstrating indisputably that they were in command of the country (Book 91, Chapter 10).

Ravaging the country … cowing the enemy … demonstrating your superiority. These are all medium-term objectives rather than long-term aims.

Perhaps Hannibal simply did not have any long-term aims – to quote one historian: ‘Like the Germans in WWI he never made clear, to himself or anyone, what victory would look like’.

Or at least in Polybius he never made his overarching war-aims clear.

What about Livy, then – does Livy tell us any more?

As soon as we venture into Livy, one has to realise, of course, that we are into unreliable territory.  If Polybius was broadly pro-Roman, Livy was unashamedly so, and blatantly critical of Hannibal.
So maybe we will need to be a bit more careful of accepting unquestioningly Livy’s interpretation of Hannibal.

Anyway, what does Livy say about Hannibal’s war-aims?

For Livy, Hannibal’s war-aims were as clear as they were extreme – Hannibal wanted, no less, to capture Rome and destroy it: thus, when he addresses the soldiers on the eve of ascending the Alps, he says:

You crossed the Ebro, resolved to wipe out the very name of Rome and bring freedom to the whole wide world … [so] dare to look forward to your journey’s end, on the Campus Martius, which lies between the Tiber and the walls of Rome (Book 21, Chapter 30).
As the men’s spirits flagged crossing the Alps, he did not motivate them (as Polybius would have it) merely by promising wealth and glory, but by reminding them of the ultimate aim of their campaign:
He pointed out to them the view of Italy, declaring that they were even now not merely crossing the ramparts of Italy but scaling the very walls of Rome itself…   After one, or at worst a couple of battles, they would hold Rome’s citadel and the capital of Italy in their power and at their mercy (Book 21, Chapter 35).
And when he described how Sempronius hectored and bullied Scipio into the Battle of Trebia, Livy put these words into his mouth:
The Carthaginians were encamped in Italy and almost within sight of Rome. Their object was, not to get back Sicily and Sardinia, taken from them after their defeat, nor to cross the Ebro and occupy northern Spain, but to expel the Romans from the land of their fathers and from their native soil. (Book 21, Chapter 53).

Did Hannibal want to conquer Rome?
But should we believe this?  Being cynical, it suited Livy’s purposes to portray Hannibal as a man of unlimited ambitions who wanted to destroy Rome.  It was a propaganda parody designed to turn Hannibal into a hate-figure … and to make his defeat all the more wonderful and satisfying.  It was the outworking of virtus Romana – the demise of hubris at the hands of Fortune.

Personally, I am inclined to reject the idea that Hannibal ever intended to capture Rome.  That would have required a full naval invasion, with siege weapons … and that, most certainly, Hannibal’s invasion was not.  In 16 years in Italy – apart from a feint to try to draw the Romans from Capua – Hannibal never ONCE tried to take Rome, and conspicuously neglected the opportunity even when it came.
One is bound to conclude – contrary to Livy-Maharbal’s criticism – that 
to take Rome was NOT Hannibal’s war-aim .
And that, even if he DID say those things, like Polybius-Hannibal’s promises of wealth and glory, they were just words to inspire his troops, and not serious statements of long-term strategy.

Did Hannibal want to free Italy?
I think we can also discount another idea we find in Livy, that Hannibal was in Italy to ‘bring freedom to the whole wide world’.
This is even more unrealistic, surely, than the idea of besieging Rome.

It is true that, after Trasimene, Hannibal:

handed over the Roman prisoners to his various regiments to be kept under guard, but released the allied troops without ransom and sent them all home declaring, as he had on previous occasions, that he had not come to make war on the Italians but to fight for their freedom against the Romans (Book 21, Chapter 85)
But I think we can discount this quickly.  Hannibal knew that he needed to detach the Gauls and other Italian peoples from their alliances to the Romans; he was ALWAYS going to pose as their liberator rather than their conqueror.
So I do not seriously entertain the idea of Hannibal as a kind of proto-Martin Luther King trying to set the Italian people free.

Did Hannibal want to set up a rival state in Italy?
Recently, historians have expanded on the idea of Hannibal garnering allies, and his talk of 'freeing' Italians, into the idea that Hannibal had a deliberate policy to create an 'Italian Alliance', which would be an anti-Roman League-of-state to rival and cancel out Roman influence on the Italian peninsula.  Hoyos (2003) accepts this idea, and Fronda (2010) outlines Hannibal's diplomacy in extensive detail.

However, looking at Fronda's dates, it is hard to see any evidence of this before Cannae.  The alliance with the Boii and other Gaulish tribes in the north of Italy (218-217bc) were military alliances, not political union, and Italian cities only started top come over to Hannibal after 215bc.  
What had happened in the meantime, of course, was that Hannibal's 'blitzkrieg' as it has been called had failed to reduce Rome to surrender, and that - even after Cannae - the Romans refused to accept peace terms.
So it might well be that, after 215bc, Hannibal accepted the need to re-think his strategy and hot upon the idea of an anti-Roman League.
(And, of course, by 203bc he had indeed set up a rival Carthaginian state in Italy - his own military enclave around Bruttium.)

But, before 215bc, I cannot see any evidence of Hannibal collecting a League of Allies.

So what WAS Hannibal about in Italy?
Is Livy, too, useless to tell us anything about Hannibal’s war-aims?

Well I do not think so, and I think there is an episode in Ab Urbe Condita, in which Livy – unwittingly – lets slip a clue as to what Hannibal’s campaign was REALLY about.
It is the episode of Hannibal’s Dream at Onusa:

From Gades Hannibal returned to New Carthage, to the winter quarters of his army. Setting out from thence, he marched along the coast, past the city of Onusa, to the Ebro. It was there, as they tell, that he saw in his sleep a youth of godlike aspect, who declared that he was sent by Jupiter to lead him into Italy: let him follow, therefore, nor anywhere turn his eyes away from his guide.  At first he was afraid and followed, neither looking to the right nor to the left, nor yet behind him; but presently wondering, with that curiosity to which all of us are prone, what it could be that he had been forbidden to look back upon, he was unable to command his eyes; then he saw behind him a serpent of monstrous size, that moved along with vast destruction of trees and underbrush, and a storm-cloud coming after, with loud claps of thunder; and, on his asking what this prodigious portent was, he was told that it was the devastation of Italy: he was therefore to go on, nor enquire further, but suffer fate to be wrapped in darkness (Book 21,Chapter 22).

Ancient writers (Polybius was atypical) did not objectively analyse the thoughts or motives of their subjects as a modern historian would do.  Instead, they presented them as declaratory statements in the first person in the form of a speech or dream – there are quite a few times in Livy where he has taken Polybius’s objective analyses and actually transformed them into a direct speech.  This was an accepted practice (Polybius hated it) and illustrates the close relationship between History, Rhetoric and Drama in those days – they were different facets of the same subject, rather than discrete subjects in themselves.

So, when Livy tells us about this dream, he is retailing a tradition which gives us an insight into Hannibal’s motives as he prepared to leave Spain.

Moreover, there are aspects of this dream that suggest it represents, not a Roman tradition about Hannibal’s aims, but a Carthaginian tradition.
Contrary to Livy’s claim, Hannibal was NOT guilty of impietas.  For a start, his name is theophoric, which you would have thought is a hefty clue.  Also, Polybius tells us how he offered a prayer to the gods before in crossed the Alps.  And examples of Hannibal’s pietas creep even into Livy – before he crossed the Ebro, Livy tells us, ‘he went to Gades and discharged his vows to Hercules, binding himself with fresh ones’.  (Hercules, you will remember from your studies of Alexander-the-Great at Tyre, was the Graeco-Roman equivalent of the Phoenician god Melqart.)
So if you read it again, you will see that Hannibal’s dream – ignoring its equivalency reference to Jupiter – includes details which link it directly to the Carthaginian pantheon, in which the storm-god Baal Hammon was the god of sky and vegetation, and his partner Tanit was a warrior-goddess.  This is a very old, clearly Carthaginian, story.

Moreover, the same dream is mentioned in Cicero’s book De Divinatione, in which, Cicero tells us ‘it is found in the history written in Greek by Silenus, whom Coelius follows, and who, by the way, was a very painstaking student of Hannibal's career’ (Book 1, Section 49).  So here we have, at last, a story going right back to the original Carthaginian – Livy has copied it from Coelius, who got it from Mr Reliable-Silenus, Hannibal’s historian.
It is, as they say, ‘from the horse’s mouth’.
Either Hannibal himself reported the dream, or he sanctioned it, as a statement of his inner motivation.

So what does the Dream at Onusa suggest about Hannibal’s war aims?
Well, firstly, I think, it suggests that we are wrong to try to define Hannibal’s war-aims in modern terms of rationally-prescribed strategies and objectives.  It is a reminder that in Ancient times people’s thought-processes were VERY different to our modern, scientific-method brains. 

If we are to interpret this dream as a statement of Hannibal’s aims, we have to say that Hannibal seems to have defined his aims, not in terms of military and political objectives, but in religious terms … as a CRUSADE.
It suggests that Hannibal saw himself as the wrath of the gods, charged to wreak destruction by marauding over Italy, writhing across the countryside like the coils of a snake, burning, looting and killing as he went.

And does it not also suggest REVENGE – the 'wrath of Hamilcar' and the hatred Hannibal had at the age of 9 
promised to hold onto throughout his life – as he enacted the punishment of the gods on the Romans for the defeat and humiliation of Carthage in 241bc?

It seems to me, also, that the Dream at Onusa suggests that Polybius and Livy were light on Hannibal’s war strategies and objectives, not because they had failed to record them, but because (at least before 215bc) Hannibal did not really have any – his aim being, in fact, simply to take the war to Italy and do damage to Rome.

In 203bc, delegates from Carthage went to Bruttium to recall Hannibal to Africa:

It is said that he gnashed his teeth, groaned, and almost shed tears when he heard what the delegates had to say.  After they had delivered their instructions, he exclaimed, "The men who tried to drag me back by cutting off my supplies of men and money are now recalling me not by crooked means but plainly and openly.  So you see, it is not the Roman people who have been so often routed and cut to pieces that have vanquished Hannibal, but the Carthaginian senate by their detraction and envy (Book 30, Chapter 20).
By this time, Hannibal had been pushed back into the heel of Italy.  Both his brothers were dead.  There was no hope of help from Carthage.  His campaign was going nowhere.
Yet still: ‘seldom has any one left his native country to go into exile in such gloomy sorrow as Hannibal manifested when quitting the country of his foes’.
And why – because he could no longer ‘rout and cut to pieces’ the Roman people.

So was that religious crusade of revenge and damage – we have to wonder – the be-all and end-all of his campaign?

PS  If you want to explore this topic further, I thought that there was a good discussion of Hannibal’s war aims on this forum.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Saguntum Outrage and the Causes of the Second Punic War

You have learned five 'causes' of the Second Punic War – but whom do you BLAME?

Don’t mention the war!
There is an excruciatingly embarrassing episode of Fawtly Towers in which Basil (John Cleese) – finding he has some Germans staying at the hotel – is unable to stop himself making allusions to the Second World War … much to the distress of his German guests.
Eventually they ask him to stop.  The dialogue goes:

Basil Fawlty: Is there something wrong?
German Guest: Will you stop talking about the war?

Basil Fawlty: Me? You started it.

German Guest: We did not!

Basil Fawlty: Yes, you did. You invaded Poland.
At this point, if he had been alive, Polybius would have intervened and pointed out that – although the Nazi invasion of Poland may have been the beginning of the war, it most certainly was not its cause:
Some of those authors who have dealt with Hannibal and his times, wishing to indicate the causes that led to the above war between Rome and Carthage, allege as its first cause the siege of Saguntum by the Carthaginians and as its second their crossing, contrary to treaty, the river whose native name is the Iber.  I should agree in stating that these were the beginnings of the war, but I can by no means allow that they were its causes… These are pronouncements of men who are unable to see the great and essential distinction between a beginning and a cause, these being the first origin of all, and the beginning coming last… (Book 3, Chapter 6)

The 'Wrath of Hamilcar'
It is clear that – even in the time of Polybius – there was debate about the causes of the Second Punic War. 

Many people seem to have blamed, somewhat unfairly, the long-dead Hamilcar.  
And Polybius tells us of the Roman senator and annalist Fabius Pictor, who   apart from the Saguntum Outrage (Greek word ἀδίκημα – adikema, meaning intentional wrong or error)  ascribed the war to Hasdrubal’s ‘ambition and love of power’. 

Polybius himself identified three causes – the Roman seizure of Sardinia, and the confidence which success in Spain gave the Carthaginians but, most of all, ‘the wrath of Hamilcar’ (Ἀμίλκου θυμόν – Amilcou thumon) after the first Punic War:
Unvanquished in spirit by the war for Sicily, since he felt that he had kept the army of Eryx under his command combative and resolute until the end, and had only agreed to peace after the defeat of the Carthaginians in the naval battle, he maintained his resolve and waited for an opportunity to strike (Book 3, Chapter 9).
Talk like that, said the British historian HH Scullard in the Cambridge Ancient History (Vol. VIII, 1930) ‘should be rejected as part of the anti-Barcid tradition’.  Similarly Professor Walbank regarded it as ‘a later invention, designed to establish a long-cherished Barcine plan of revenge’ (although, inconsistently, he did not question the authenticity of the anecdote about Hannibal being made to swear everlasting hatred of Rome at the age of nine, which is part of the same tradition).

Carthaginian Responsibility
There was clearly a tradition in Rome by the time of Livy that the Carthaginians caused the war – Livy is absolutely explicit that Hannibal was merely executing a war into Italy which Hamilcar had planned all along.  
In the (probably apocryphal) meeting between Scipio and Hannibal before the Battle of Zama, Scipio is made to say: ‘We did not start the war in Spain … it was the sack of Saguntum which drove us to take up arms in [a just and holy war].’   And Hannibal accepts the blame: ‘It was I who first began this war against the Roman people.’ 

After a war, it falls to the victors to write the history, and it is not rocket-science that the Romans were going to blame the Carthaginians.

Indeed, it would not be impossible, moreover, to build from all this a case which parallels the Second Punic War with post-Versailles Europe, with Carthage in the role of a former-day Germany – an army smarting from the politicians’ surrender when it had not in fact been defeated; a people angry with a peace treaty which imposed a huge indemnity and loss of land; above all, a nationalist element smarting from defeat and itching for revenge (part of which being a rapid GroßeKarthagisch expansion in Spain).  From the Treaty of Versailles to Hitler's invasion of Poland, 20 years; from the Treaty of Lutatius to Hannibal's crossing the Ebro, 22 years – in both cases just short of a generation to recover, regroup, and have ‘another go’, seeking the ‘right’ outcome second time around.

The Saguntum Problem
But what would the Carthaginians have said if they had won the war?

The sequence of events of the slide to war in 218bc is fairly clear:
1.  In 219bc, Hannibal besieged the Iberian town of Saguntum.
2.  The Saguntines now (perhaps even earlier) appealed to Rome for help.
3.  The Romans sent an embassy to Hannibal, demanding that he leave Saguntum alone, for it had placed itself under Rome’s protection; Hannibal sent them packing.
4.  The Roman ambassadors then went to Carthage, demanding that the siege be ended, and Hannibal handed over for imprisonment; despite a long speech by Hanno recommending appeasement, the Carthaginians refused to do so.
5.  Upon the fall of Saguntum, the Romans sent a final ultimatum to Carthage, which was also rebuffed, whereupon the Romans declared war:

The oldest member of the [Roman] embassy, pointing to the folds of his toga, told the [Carthaginians] that it held both war and peace for them: therefore he would let fall from it and leave with them whichever of the two they bade him.  The Carthaginian Suffete bade him let fall whichever the Romans chose, and when the envoy said he would let fall war, many of the Carthaginians cried out at once, "We accept it."
6.  Hearing this, Hannibal assembled his army and crossed the Ebro.

The Ebro Treaty and the alleged 'Alliance' with Saguntum
Now it seems that, in about 226bc, the Carthinginians had agreed a Treaty promise NOT to cross the Ebro.  As usual, it is Polybius who is clearest on this issue:
The Romans, seeing that Hasdrubal was in a fair way to create a larger and more formidable empire than Carthage formerly possessed, resolved to begin to occupy themselves with Spanish affairs.  Finding that they had hitherto been asleep and had allowed Carthage to build up a powerful dominion, they tried, as far as possible, to make up for lost time…  Accordingly, [they] sent envoys to Hasdrubal and made a treaty, in which no mention was made of the rest of Spain, but the Carthaginians engaged not to cross the Iber in arms (Book 2, Chapter 13).

All this talk about the River Ebro as the justification for war, however, raises a problem since – at the time of the Roman embassies and declaration of war in 219bc  – Hannibal had not yet crossed the Ebro!
The truth is that it was the siege and capture of Saguntum which caused the Romans to declare war, and the Roman declaration of war which caused Hannibal to cross the Ebro.

So why were the Romans trying to link the war to the crossing of the Ebro?

There have been various suggestions:

1. It is quite clear that some Roman historians (e.g. Appian) thought that Saguntum was north of the Ebro, and that by attacking the town, Hannibal was in fact crossing the Ebro.  This is wrong – even LIVY knew that Saguntum was south of the Ebro and therefore within the Punic sphere of influence.  In 1961 the historian Jerome Carcopino argued that the ‘Iber’ was not the Ebro at all, but the river Jucar (south of Saguntum); but no one really accepts this.

2.  Some historians have suggested that a Roman protectorate of Saguntum was explicitly included in the Ebro Treaty.  At one point, Polybius seems to suggest this:

The Romans protested against his attacking Saguntum, which they said was under their protection, or crossing the Ebro, contrary to the treaty engagements entered into in Hasdrubal's time (Book 3, Chapter 15)

3. However, the justification that Polybius eventually seizes upon is that ‘it is an acknowledged fact that the Saguntines, a good many years before the time of Hannibal, placed themselves under the protection of Rome’.  Although there is no evidence whatsoever for this apart from this single (very imprecise) sentence, by the time of Livy the Saguntines have become Rome’s ‘allies’.  And thereby the modern historian Serge Lancel (1995) feels able to describe Saguntum as a ‘the pro-Roman enclave .. a thorn in the flesh of Punic Spain’.

The Need to Justify the War
Do you believe any of it?  Even if you accept the existence of the Ebro Treaty (and the Carthaginian ‘Mighty Ones’ denied all knowledge of it), as Professor Walbank points out, a Roman alliance with Saguntum is absolutely irreconcilable with the spirit of the Treaty of Ebro.  The whole muddled, half-baked mess of different justifications has the feel simply of post-hoc special pleading.

The big problem is that, with the destruction of Carthage, so disappeared the Carthaginian point-of-view … which leaves us trying to piece together the Carthaginian side of things from hints in the universally-anti-Carthaginian Roman literature.

Who was to blame?
Even so, two millennia of undisputed propaganda are unable to disguise the culpability of ROME in the slide to war.

It is Livy which gives us the clearest insight into the war-hysteria in Rome prior to the declaration of war:

At almost the same time the ambassadors who had returned from Carthage brought back word to Rome that all was hostile in that quarter, and the fall of Saguntum was announced.  And so great was the grief of the senators, and their pity at the unmerited doom of their allies, and their shame at having failed to help them, and their wrath against the Carthaginians, and the fear for the safety of the commonwealth – as though the enemy were already at their gates... (Book 21, Chapter 16).

And thus it is hard to disguise the FACTS that it was the Romans, not the Carthaginians, who were making the running for war:

  • It was the Romans who had taken advantage of the 'Truceless War' to annex Sardinia.
  • It was the Romans who, alarmed by the growth of Carthaginian power in Spain, had extracted from Hasdrubal a promise that Carthage would not expand beyond the Ebro.
  • It was the Romans who then grasped the opportunity offered by Saguntine appeals for help as a pretext to confront the growing Carthaginian power in Spain.
  • It was the Romans who presented Carthage with an ultimatum and…
  • It was the Romans who declared war.

We have come a long way from the interpretation of the Carthaginians as proto-Nazis, seeking to overturn the Treaty of Lutatius.

I suppose that, at base, the underlying cause of the Punic Wars was that they were an imperial, economic and cultural death-struggle between two competing empires.

But it is difficult to see the Second Punic War as other than a decision by a nervous Rome to ‘pick a fight’ with Hannibal.  Though he might well have been expecting and even hoping for it, Hannibal crossed the Ebro because war had been declared on him, not as a pre-emptive act of aggression.
It was the Romans who decided to take the Saguntum Outrage as an excuse for war … who ‘started it’.

... which left their apologists rather scratching around for justifications after the war.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What Was Hannibal's Route Over The Alps?

You cannot go far in studying Hannibal without coming across the BIG DEBATE – where did Hannibal cross the Alps?

The first person to complain about different accounts was Polybius, writing only 50 years after the events:

Some of the writers who have described this passage of the Alps … make both false statements and statements which contradict each other…  For they never took the trouble to learn that the Celts who live near the Rhone not on one or on two occasions but quite recently, had crossed the Alps with large armies … nor are they aware that there is a considerable population in the Alps themselves (Book 3, Chapter 47).

Livy, too, alludes to various and erroneous theories:

I am the more astonished at the difference of opinion in regard to his route over the Alps, and that it should be commonly held that he crossed by the Poenine Pass and that from this circumstance that ridge of the Alps derived its name [i.e. on the grounds that the name came from the Punic (Carthaginian) invasion] – or that Coelius should state that he crossed by the ridge of Cremo [i.e. the Little St Bernard Pass]  because both these passes would have brought him down, not amongst the Taurini tribesmen but through the Salassi Montani to the Libuan Gauls. Neither is it probable that these routes to Gaul were open at that time (Book 21, Chapter 38).

Since then, others have offered their suggestions:

Napoleon Bonaparte suggested the Col du Mont Cenis.  
In 1959, the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition, led by engineering student John Hoyte, tried to prove that Hannibal had used the Col de Clapier (slightly to the south) by walking the pass, and taking with them an elephant that they had borrowed from Turin Zoo; the route proved too dangerous and they ended up, instead, going via Mont Cenis Pass (but still thought the Clapier pass was the most likely). 

Another Clapier-Pass advocate, American archaeologist Patrick Hunt (who has directed the Alpine Archaeological Project since 1994), has crossed the Alps 20 times via a number of passes, breaking 30 bones along the way, trying to find a match between the archaeology in the ground, and the accounts in Polybius and Livy.
Meanwhile, Canadian geochemist Bill Mahaney has conducted geo-archaeological investigations (on the soil and rocks) and concluded that the Col de la Traversette in the south is a much better bet.  
In 2010, the Wood brothers cycled three different routes for the BBC, before declaring for la Traversette.

A Fruitless Debate, but Fun
Ultimately, it is a fruitless debate, because it cannot ever be solved; indeed, my only original contribution to the debate will be a point which fairly much proves that, even when we think we have solved the PROBLEM, we have not solved THE problem.  

The ONLY truth can be that we will never know.

‘Few historical problems have produced more unprofitable discussion than that of Hannibal's pass over the Alps’, said the English historian Frank Walbank.  But it did not stop him writing extensively on the issue, and it does not stop it being quite FUN to sit in front of your computer, having never actually visited the Alps, and come up with your own theories. (Do it yourself – see if you can find the answer that has eluded the experts!)  Above all, I suspect that – if you are doing the Ancient History GCSE – you will want to have at least an overview of the issue.

The main problem, of course, is the paucity of our source information.  You will read books that tell you what Silenus, and Coelius, said about this and that – but they do not KNOW that, because those accounts are now lost.  Our sources, basically, boil down to Polybius and Livy and – however clever they are – anything anybody suggests beyond that is at best a guess based on references in Polybius and Livy.

Now your guess is NOT as good as Dr Hunt’s guess, of course … but best-guesses they are all when it comes down to it.

The Approach to the Alps

Let’s try and make sure that – even if we guess – our guess is at least a calculated guess.  And it makes sense, if we are to guess which pass Hannibal used, to at least try to gauge some idea about the general direction from which he approached the Alps.

This is harder than it might sound.  Neither Polybius nor Livy tell us the names of many places through which Hannibal passed.  Even where they do, those names have long since fallen into disuse.

So how did Hannibal approach the Alps?

Polybius tells us that he crossed the Rhone at a place about four days' march from the sea, and that he turned east towards the Alps at a place called ‘the Island’, at the confluence of the Rhone and the River Iskaras (in Livy, the ‘Sara’) a further four days' march up the Rhone.

How far did an ancient army march in a day?  Polybius (Book 3, Chapter 50) tells us that, marching (as Livy put it, ‘unhindered’) Hannibal’s army covered 800 stades (145 kilometres) in ten days – about 14 or 15 kilometres a day.  It doesn’t seem very much, but can you remember how – when Hanno took a detachment upstream to outflank the Gauls when Hannibal was crossing the Rhone – they went 200 stades in a night … but ‘were exhausted and needed a day to recover’.  Elephants in particular slowed Hannibal down
 – when the cricketer Ian Botham tried to take three elephants with him on a charity walk over the Alps in 1988, he had to abandon the idea because they could not keep up.

So traditional wisdom tells us that the 'Iskaras' is the Isère, and that ‘The Island’ is at Valence.  But Valence is 180km from the coast (= 22km a day) which is pushing it a lot.  Other suggestions have been the River Drome (160km = 20km a day, still a bit much) or the Aigues (85km = 10km a day, perhaps 
not enough – though this was the favoured solution of the British Museum Hannibal enthusiast Gavin de Beer).

The truth is that we will never know, but it is worthwhile noting that – for the more northerly passes (such as the Mont Cenis and the Col de Clapier) to ‘work’ – Hannibal would have needed to drive his army very, very hard up the Rhone before turning east to proceed at a much more leisurely pace eastwards along the River Iskaras.  A more realistic estimate of Hannibal’s progress would favour one of the more southerly passes (Montgen
èvre or La Traversette) – and indeed Livy (admittedly after inexplicably saying that Hannibal ‘turned left’) actually states that Hannibal marched east along the Druentia (Durance) through the lands of the Tricastini.

Crossing the Alps
Many surveys of this issue try to build tables, mapping the characteristics of the various passes against the various events in Polybius’s and Livy’s accounts of Hannibal’s route.  Very clever people have spent their lives doing this, and have done so wonderfully detailed and clever ways.

However, out of all of these, I think there are two facts which I personally think are more critical than all the others:

  • A 'panoramic' view of Italy (such as Hannibal pointed out to his troops) is only found on the Clapier and Traversette Passes.
  • The ONLY pass in the Alps which has a double-landslide such as that described by Polybius is the Traversette Pass.
This strikes me as final.  These are the critical identifiable events of the journey over the Alps and there is only one Pass (two at best) which fits the bill.  And if any of those very clever people suggest that you haven't studied the issue enough and that their Pass fits better, surely the simple question is: 'Does your Pass have a double-landslide?'  And if their answer is 'No' (which is surely must be), then surely the only response is: 'Well then it doesn't fit, does it?'

There are other issues which are less decisive.  A number of passes have a steep descent into Italy.  A number of passes are high enough to have standing snow onto which new snow falls.  A number of passes have ‘white rocks’ and areas large enough for an army to camp.  But having reduced our options to two, all we need to know is that the Clapier and Traversette Passes fulfill all of these criteria as well.

A number of historians have puzzled over the story – which obviously gained popular currency in Roman times – of Hannibal clearing rocks by lighting a fire under them and pouring
 on vinegar. Just where these rocks were, however, is more of a mystery.  Mahaney found some rocks which were fire-burned in the Clapier Pass ... but when he investigated them, he found the burn-marks were not extensive enough, and probably came from a lighting-strike rather than a quarrying fire.  So what are we to make of this story?  Polybius did not mention it at all, and to be honest it probably fell into his category of ‘false statements’ made in ignorance.

So we are left with the feeling that Clapier is a good fit, but that Mahaney’s Traversette theory has a trump card in the double landslide.  

And thus it is probably possible to say that the Col de la Traversette most exactly fits Polybius’s account of Hannibal’s route.

The Ever-elusive Answer
But does that mean we have found the route which Hannibal took?

To think about this, I want to go back to Livy’s account of the fire-and-vinegar cracking of the boulders, and those fire-burned rocks in the Col de Clapier.  If the incident didn’t happen, how did the story become so current?  

I am reminded about the legend of Napoleon carving his name on some rocks he had decided were ‘Hannibal’s Rocks’, and indeed of other famous landmarks associated in legend with famous historical figures (such as King Charles’s Oak near Worcester).  Usually these associations are apocryphal, and simply an attempt to establish a famous historical link to get a bit of fame-by-association.  Recently there was an attempt to call the road between Veynes and Gap in southern France ‘the Hannibal Route’; it is very scenic and no doubt would delight the tourists … but, as we have seen, nobody has a clue which road Hannibal took to the Alps.

So where did that story of burning the rocks come from?  Is it not eminently possible that, crossing the Col de Clapier, people saw the burned rocks, and associated them (erroneously) with Hannibal ... and the story grew from there - that the rocks created the story, rather than the event producing the rocks?

However, if this is possible, what does that mean for our appreciation of Polybius’s account?  

William Mahaney has conducted a geo-chemical investigation of the Traversette Pass and established to his satisfaction that it is the Traversette Pass which best matches the account in Polybius.  (Or, if you prefer it, Patrick Hunt has walked the Col de Clapier, Polybius in hand, and marshaled his archaeological knowledge to claim that it is the Clapier Pass which best fits Polybius.)

But, in the 2nd century bc, wasn’t that exactly what Polybius was doing as well?  

We know that Polybius himself visited the historical scenes he was describing, and that his geographical knowledge was very carefully researched.  So he was doing exactly what Mahaney and Hunt have been doing – taking anecdotes and events about Hannibal’s crossing from Silenus and Sosylus and the various eyewitnesses-he-interviewed, and matching them to the route he thought best-matched.  
So we are not to be surprised that Polybius’s account fits an actual Pass … OF COURSE it fits an actual pass, because it was an actual pass he was describing when he placed his story of Hannibal’s crossing in its setting.

So, when Mahaney and Hunt best-guess they have found Polybius’s Pass, they have only found the Pass that Polybius best-guessed Hannibal used.  

I accept that this is probably the best we will ever do.
But it was not necessarily the Pass that Hannibal DID use.