History has given the world many great military minds. In recent times the world has seen such men as Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Erwin Rommel. From ancient times, schools teach about Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Scipio Africanus, and Germanicus. But few have accomplished the feats of Hannibal Barca in the Second Punic War. His major accomplishment, marching his army through the Pyrenees and the Alps and into what is now Italy, is a military accomplishment worth honoring.
During his march, Hannibal defeated the Romans in three decisive battles; Trebia, Trasimene, and his most decisive and well fought victory at Cannae. When Hannibal finally arrived in Italy, he maintained an Army there for over a decade pillaging and plundering his way through the heart of Ancient Rome. While in Italy he never lost on the battlefield, and eventually had to withdraw back to Carthage to attempt to fend off a Roman counter-attack led by Scipio Africanus. It is here that Hannibal is finally defeated, quite decisively, by the Romans.
To better understand Hannibal’s great military expertise, it is important to first understand his history. To accomplish this, we turn our attention towards Rome’s greatest historian, Livy. In his work, History of Rome, Livy dedicated ten of his 137 books to the seventeen year long Second Punic War. So to begin, Hamilcar, Hannibal’s father, was the commander of the Carthaginian forces late in the First Punic War, and this is the root of Hannibal’s great disgust for the Roman Empire.
Livy tells us that after this war, when Hamilcar was preparing to transfer his troops to the Iberian Peninsula to help rebuild Carthaginian power, Hannibal begged to travel with him. Hamilcar, about to prepare an offer to the gods for the journey, agreed and “led the boy to the altar and made him solemnly swear…that as soon as he was old enough he would be the enemy of the Roman people. ” From this point on Hamilcar taught his son everything he knew and prepared him to take up the fight against Rome at the first available instance.
Indeed, the reason that it took so long for the Second Punic War to begin was that of “Hamilcar’s timely death and…that Hannibal was still too young to assume command. ” After Hamilcar’s death in battle, Hasdrubal (Hannibal’s brother-in-law) took over command of the Carthaginian forces on the peninsula. During his time of rule, Hasdrubal decided it was a good idea to strengthen Carthaginian power over what they already controlled and signed a peace treaty with Rome. It was with Hasdrubal…that the Romans had renewed the treaty of peace, fixing the river Ebro as the boundary between their respective spheres and establishing the neutrality of Saguntum as a sort of buffer state. ” When Hasdrubal was assassinated, it was clear who should be his successor. Hannibal wasted little time, in fact Livy states: “From the very first day of his command Hannibal acted as if he had definite instructions to take Italy…and to make war on Rome. ” Hannibal began to further the reach of Carthaginian power on the peninsula by conquering the remaining tribes below the Ebro.
It is here that we first see his military cunning. After conquering the territory of the Olcades, Hannibal returned with his army to the city of New Carthage for the winter. The following spring Hannibal invaded the territory of the Vaccaei, and after their defeat the people of Vaccaei decided to meet with the Olcades and force the Carpetani into action. Livy states that “Hannibal had returned from his expedition…and was near the Targus [River], when they set upon his column, encumbered as it was with loot, and threw it into confusion. ” Hannibal drew his forces back and didn’t engage with a direct retaliatory strike.
During the night, he waited until all movement has ceased in the enemy camp and crossed the river, leaving a chance for the enemy to attack him. Livy relates that the enemy force, numbering around 100,000 men, “would have been invincible in a straight fight on open ground. ” Being a “proud and warlike people,” when they saw Hannibal had retreated across the river, they charged and began to cross, walking right into Hannibal’s trap. As soon as the enemy force began to enter the water, Hannibal’s mounted troops stormed toward the water and the fight began midstream.
The Spaniards, unable to get good footing in the river, were no match for the cavalry of Hannibal. Livy states: “Many of the enemy were drowned; some, swept downstream by the powerful current, were trampled to death by the elephants, while the remainder tried to save themselves by returning to their own bank of the river; but while they were still at sixes and sevens and doing what they could to collect their scattered units, Hannibal led his men in mass formation into the river, crossed, and before they could recover their breath drove them in disorder from the bank. ”
After this decisive battle, Hannibal marched on Saguntum, the state which, according to the treaty was supposed to be neutral, had aligned with Rome. Livy states that “[Saguntum], situated about a mile from the sea, was by far the most prosperous settlement south of the Ebro. ” During the siege, Hannibal launched a “triple assault” on different areas of the town defenses. During a stage of the siege, Hannibal rushed the wall and was “severely wounded in the thigh by a javelin. ” Finally, after eight months of besiegement, the town of Saguntum was sacked and occupied by Hannibal.
From this town he was able to supply his forces with extra troops and basic supplies. Also, with the fall of Saguntum, the Second Punic War had officially begun. Hannibal, after organizing his troops, then began his march on Rome. His expedition force numbered somewhere around 70,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and included approximately thirty-six war elephants. They set out on a treacherous journey through the Pyrenees Mountains, Gaul, the Alps, and the Apennine Mountains. Eventually he entered Italy by way of the mouth of the Arno River and marched his army into the region of Etruria.
Along the way, Hannibal battled with tribes along the way, causing significant damages to his numbers. During his march, Hannibal engaged in three significant battles with the Romans, those of Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae. Hannibal’s first major encounter with Roman troops took place at the River Trebia on Italian soil. Here he fought against the Consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus, who was eager to engage in battle with Hannibal for various reasons. One of the major contributing factors to his desire for battle was “…no doubt, the approach of the consular elections. Even against the warnings of Publius Cornelius Scipio, the other Roman consul who had been wounded in a previous minor skirmish, Sempronius engaged in battle with the Carthaginians in 218 B. C. Hannibal, camped out on the other side of the river, knew a battle was inevitable. Livy states: “[Hannibal] took every possible measure to ensure that he should not lose his chance; now was the moment, while the Roman troops were still raw, and the better of their two commanders [Scipio] was still incapacitated by his wounds. Therefore Hannibal began to scout out the territory around the river in search of a location that provided enough concealment for cavalry. He then called his brother Mago and commanded he chose one hundred men each from the cavalry and infantry to embark on this mission. After Hannibal addressed the soldiers, he ordered them each to pick out nine more like themselves, thus bringing the number to 2,000 soldiers, half cavalry and half infantry. They hid in the brush and waited to spring the trap. The next morning Hannibal dispatched Numidians to raid Sempronius’ guard-posts to draw out his army.
Sure enough, as soon as Sempronius observed the Numidians, he dispatched 6,000 infantry and the whole of his cavalry to chase them down. He then roused the remainder of his army and dispatched them to follow as well. Livy states that the Roman army “…had eaten nothing, taken no sort of precautions against the cold,” and that “…when in pursuit of the Numidians they actually entered the river…the cold so numbed them that after struggling across they could hardly hold their weapons. In fact, they were exhausted and, as the day wore on, hunger was added to fatigue. The Roman’s had now just walked straight into Hannibal’s trap. Stationed in the center of Hannibal’s line was his infantry and flanked on either side by his far superior cavalry. War elephants were positioned behind the lines and they “…caused wide-spread confusion, as the horses were terrified by the sight and smell of these strange beasts they had never seen before. ” The Carthaginian army was well rested and fed, in contrast to the Roman army, and fought with much vigor. As soon as the Roman line had completely passed by Mago, his 2,000 man force stormed out and surrounded the Roman force.
As a testament to the Romans, Livy says that “…even in this terrible situation the Roman line for some time held firm – even, what was least of all to be expected, against the elephants. ” Eventually approximately 10,000 men of the Roman forces were able to break through the Carthaginian lines and escape to a nearby town named Placentia. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Romans lost their lives in this battle, while the Carthaginian deaths were much fewer. The next major battle of the war took place at Lake Trasimene in 217 B. C.
Here, Hannibal’s plan was much the same as Trebia. He hoped to lure the Roman force into an open field with few egresses and box them in between the mountains and huge lake. Hannibal once again hid a fair amount of his forces in the hills and brush that surrounded the field, and waited for the Romans to enter his trap. The next day the trap was sprung. As soon as the Roman force entered the field they only noticed the small forced located directly in front of them. While there attention was turned in one direction, Hannibal issued the order for a simultaneous attack by all his units.
Livy states: “Fighting began in front and on their flanks before the column had time to form into line of battle, before even their weapons could be made ready, or swords drawn. ” The noise of the battle was so loud that no man could hear a word of command. Livy states that “…not a soldier could recognize his own standard or knew his place in the ranks – indeed, they were almost too bemused to get proper control over their swords and shields, while to some their very armour and weapons proved not a defence but a fatal encumbrance. The battle went on for three hours, and eventually the Roman consul Flaminius was killed and the Roman forces started to flee in panic, their loses amounting to 15,000. The Carthaginians by comparison only lost 2,500 men. Hannibal used the same strategy for the first two battles, and the Romans fell for it both times. This can be attributed in part to the fact that the Roman senate voted in new consuls after each major battle in hopes of finding someone able to defeat Hannibal. The consuls therefore had never seen the tactics of the enemy and they fell for the same tricks as their predecessor.
At Hannibal’s most impressive victory of all, Cannae, he applied the same idea of encircling the enemy, but this time he didn’t use an ambush to accomplish the feat. This battle has gone down in history as perhaps the greatest tactical battles of all time. After Hannibal had defeated the Romans at both Trebia and Lake Trasimene, the Roman senate appointed a dictator to run the war. Fabius Maximus was this man, and he adopted a strategy of cutting off Hannibal’s supply lines and refusing to engage in traditional battle.
Fabius’ tactics were given the name the Fabian Strategy, and because of his lack of battles the senate believed he wasn’t accomplishing his task. His rights as dictator were revoked, and again the senate appointed two new consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. They marched to meet Hannibal at Cannae, where he had seized the town for its large amount of resources after his supply lines had been cut off by the Fabian Strategy. Livy says of the Roman army: “So thus, by a majority vote, the army marched on its way to Cannae, to make it famous in history as the scene of a catastrophic Roman defeat.
Destiny itself was at its heels. ” Again, the two Roman consuls had different strategies of how to deal with Hannibal. Varro, after expelling a small skirmish victory, was eager for battle while Paullus was more cautious and unsure of when to engage the enemy. The two armies of the consuls, in total numbering around 87,000 men, had been combined for the march and subsequent battle at Cannae. Because of this Roman law dictated that the two consuls were to alternate days in command. This was to be their downfall.
At Cannae, Hannibal had already set up his army in the superior position, Livy says he “…had taken up a position facing away from the prevailing wind from the hills, which drives clouds of dust over that stretch of parched and level ground. This was a great convenience to his men in camp, and it would be especially advantageous once the action began. ” The Roman army arrived at Cannae and set up two separate camps, with the river flowing in-between. Water parties were dispatched and Hannibal, seeing how important this was, sent the Numidians to disrupt the process.
The Roman army was insulted that their lines were in danger from just a small number of men, however Paullus was in charge and would not engage Hannibal in battle. He cited the “…reckless conduct of Sempronius and Flaminius,” as his reason for not marching his forces. Hannibal, with his usual superb intelligence had known this was Paullus’ day as commander and appeared to challenge him to battle, knowing he would say no. Varro was further aggravated by Paullus’ decision not to march to battle and on the following day, he engaged Hannibal in what has become known as one of the best battles of all time.
In the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal is credited with one of the most strategic defeats of a vastly major force. His forces were outnumbered by roughly 2:1. The Roman force consisted of 87,000 men, whereas Hannibal’s forces only numbered around 50,000. He lined his center with his weakest forces, which led to the Romans placing their strongest forces in the center of their formation hoping to cut through the lines quickly. Hannibal then placed his stronger forces of Carthaginian cavalry and infantry on the outside flanks, and he had his forces advance in a sort of crescent formation.
When the centers of each opposing line began battle, the center of the Carthaginian forces began to withdraw. “Recklessly the Romans charged straight into [the crescent], and the Africans on each side closed in. In another minute they had further extended their wings and closed the trap in the Roman rear. ” The flanks of Hannibal’s formation, his superior Carthaginian cavalry and infantry, had encircled the Roman forces and commenced one of the most brutal battles of all time. Hannibal had also thought up another genius part to his plan.
He enlisted approximately 500 Numidians to pretend to desert his army and surrender to the Romans. These soldiers were led to the back of the Roman front line, essentially in the center of the Roman forces, and left to wait until the end of the battle. When no one was paying attention to the apparent deserters, “…they picked up their shields from where they lay scattered around…and attacked the Roman line in the rear, striking at the soldiers’ backs, hamstringing them, causing terrible destruction, and even more panic and disorder. The battle lasted until the end of the day, and the casualty list is astounding. The totals fluctuate between historians, but the lowest was Livy’s death toll at 50,000 Romans, whereas Polybius has the highest estimates at 70,000 Romans. Among the dead were eighty men who were either senators or men of high office who had volunteered for the legions. Livy also states that the total prisoners taken by the Carthaginian’s numbers around 4,500. All-in-all, Hannibal’s numerically weaker force slaughtered over half of the Roman force and sent the rest of the Army fleeing in disarray.
Eventually Hannibal was defeated by one of the great generals mentioned in the opening, Scipio Africanus. In fact, it was due to his defeat of Hannibal that he was awarded with the cognomen of Africanus. Hannibal went on to live the rest of his life despising the Romans, moving from place to place and attempting to finish off what he had started in the Second Punic War. His accomplishments in the Second Punic War were astonishing. He defeated the Romans decisively in every battle he engaged them in during his time in Italy.
He spent approximately ten years on the boot of Italy and reached within five miles of the Roman walls. No other general was ever able to accomplish what Hannibal seemed to so easily, defeating the equivalent of eight Roman consular armies in the span of two years (approximately 160,000 men). That is why, for these reasons, Hannibal will live on in history books for the rest of time. His ingenious tactics and superior intellect lead his forces through the European mountains and into the heart of the enemy where they ravaged the country side. The world will never forget such an influential man.
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Livy. The War with Hannibal. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1965. Mommsen, Theodor. Theodor Mommsen History of Rome-From the Union of Italy to the Subjugation of Carthage and the Greek States. January 1, 2008. http://italian. classic-literature. co. k/history-of-rome/03-from-the-union-of-italy-to-the-subjugation-of-carthage-and-the-greek-states/ebook-page-50. asp (accessed November 1, 2008).