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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.