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The Second Punic War: The tactical successes and strategic failures of Hannibal Barca

Written by:
Matthew Barnes, MA
IDC, Herzliya, Lauder School of Government
2009

Introduction

The First Punic War came to an end after twenty three years of bitter fighting on both land and at sea. As the victor, Rome became the dominant Mediterranean naval power and Carthage suffered a humiliating defeat. Carthaginian expansion was checked, their influence challenged and their pride severely damaged. It is from this background that Hannibal Barca, the son of Hamilcar Barca, a First Punic War general, came to the fore. Carthage after the First Punic War was comparable to post World War One Germany, for a great power was beaten, humbled, reduced and forced to accept terms which whet the appetite for revenge. It could be argued that Carthage had been spoiling for a fight since the day of their defeat at the Battle of the Aegates Islands.

The Second Punic War began in 218 B.C under the auspices of the talented young general Hannibal, whose deeds have gone down in history marking him as one of the greatest leaders of the ancient world. His plan was bold and aggressive because it consisted of a land war in which he would take the fight to his enemy in their own back garden. His march is legendary, but it was also necessary, because although an invasion by sea was infinitely more appealing, it was not possible due to the new naval power reality post First Punic War. Hannibal’s war had to be confined to land and it was here that he showed his greatness despite being born into a maritime power. Hannibal’s aggression against the Spanish town of Saguntum in 219 B.C provided the opening for the war as the Romans considered the Carthaginian action an act of war. Barely thirty years old, Hannibal set out with any army of around 40,000 men and began a fight to the death with the Romans which brought them to their knees. He never struck the killing the blow and essentially lost the war, but in true Alexandrian fashion he was a military leader of the highest order.

Part 1 – The Battles

Tactics and Fighting Styles

The Roman art of war was very different from that of the Carthaginians. The Romans used a very simple system of shock combat and their short sword symbolised this aggressive tactic to always attack and close with the enemy. Whilst the Roman and Italian infantry was of a high quality and could be fielded in large numbers, they paid little attention to cavalry. This would be their undoing against Hannibal, a master in the Macedonian system of combined arms. Whilst the Roman army was almost uniformly infantry arranged in a text book formation, Hannibal’s army was of a totally different nature. His army was a mix of Numidians, Libyans, Iberians, Gauls and Carthaginian citizen soldiers. The Iberians and Gauls were part mercenaries, part allies recruited to his cause, the destruction of Roman power, and they served as a jack of all trades – slingers, heavy cavalry, light infantry and skirmishers. The Libyans and other Africans were his elite veterans and they fought as a phalanx, a cohesive block of spears which was vulnerable on the flanks and rear. The Numidians, a crucial element of his army, served as light javelin throwing cavalry and were a very mobile weapon on the battlefield. Altogether Hannibal fielded a very varied fighting force, but  he forged it into a lethal military machine where all the strengths were capitalised upon and all weakness were negated by the way in which he placed his men. He relied on a hammer and anvil tactic where the hammer was his infantry, the anvil his cavalry and in three major engagements Hannibal tore into the Roman and Italian legions in a way that they would never forget. In looking at two of these battles it will become clear why Hannibal has been immortalised by his victories.

The Battle of Lake Trasimene

The Battle of Lake Trasimene was fought in 217 B.C, a year after Hannibal had smashed the Roman legions at Trebia in his first major pitched battle with them. However, the Battle of Lake Trasimene was of different nature and was more like a huge ambush than a set piece battle. Whilst tearing his way south into Italy, Hannibal found himself confronted by two Roman led field armies which were placed to block his advance on Rome. One of these armies under Gaius Flaminius blocked the road from Florence to Rome. Faced with two armies bearing down on him and more men being levied every second, Hannibal did what he did best and outmanoeuvred the Roman forces. Hannibal had made it his job to know his enemy and he ruthlessly took advantage of Flaminius’ short comings in leadership. Hannibal concocted his plan of action whilst counting ‘on his opponents lack of tactical skill, and he was not disappointed.’[1] Hannibal took his army across the Apennines and through a seemingly impassable swamp in order to bypass Flaminius’ position and come out at his rear. Trailing his army’s rear and devastating the countryside under Flaminius’ eye caused the Roman to act exactly as Hannibal had anticipated – he rushed to pursue the marauding Carthaginians. According to Livy, Hannibal hold had been informed that Flaminius was ‘conceited of his merit, bold, enterprising, rash and fond of glory.’[2] Hannibal understood that to avoid dishonour, Flaminius would not do what he should have done and wait for the other army to join up with him. Instead he gave chase, foolishly sacrificing security for speed and failed to take the proper precautionary measures of scouting out Hannibal’s position. Hannibal therefore used his opponent’s foolhardiness to facilitate a major ambush and he was able ‘to choose his own ground with the certainty of Flaminius accepting battle thereon…’[3]

With an army of around 60,000[4], Hannibal disappeared into a narrow passage between the Lake Trasimene and some steep hills. Flaminius with 25,000[5] men followed him into the passage and was unaware of the trap that was waiting for him. Hannibal had placed his centre on a gentle slope to the front of the exit to the pass, but it was a thin line of infantry. On the slopes above the pass were his Balearic slingers, his cavalry and other light infantry.  He also had men hiding near the exit who were told to wait until all the Romans had passed through and then to block the escape. Due to a thick morning mist, Flaminius did not see the trap until it was too late. Hannibal’s men charged howling on all sides and the unprepared Roman army was shattered. After a bloody struggle, all the Roman forces were killed or captured, including the Roman van which had broken through Hannibal’s centre. The Carthaginians, according to Livy (22.7), suffered only 2,500 fatalities. The Romans lost all 25,000 men including the rash Flaminius. Hannibal’s skill here was a combination of the exploitation of his enemy and his battle tactics, but he would show his mastery of the battlefield even further the following year.

The Battle of Cannae

Whereas Hannibal’s victory at Lake Trasimene was secured largely by guile, his victory at Cannae was secured by battlefield tactics which were possible due to his arrogant Roman opponents. The Battle of Lake Trasimene was won before it had even begun, but at Cannae victory was not such a sure thing.

Abandoning the successful Fabian strategy, a huge Roman army was levied in order to counter the Carthaginian threat. Estimates of the figures vary and the Roman army is said to have been anywhere from 50,000 to more than 80,000 men strong.[6] In any case, it was more than double that of the Carthaginian force of around thirty to 40,000 men.[7] The key difference, however, was in the cavalry of which the Romans fielded 6,000 and the Carthaginians 10,000.[8] Furthermore, the Roman general of that day, for there were two, was Terentius Varro, a cocky but inexperienced leader who was out for blood and glory. He was overconfident due to the size of his army and made bold statements about destroying Hannibal in the field. In fact, Varro had previously secured a minor victory over Hannibal in a skirmish which cost he Carthaginian 1,700 of his precious men.[9] Whilst this emboldened the Roman consul, Hannibal saw it as an advantage to himself, ‘being persuaded that it would serve as a bait to the consul’s rashness…’[10] Varro was not a general like Hannibal and his plan was simple. He decided to shorten the front line of his army and deepen the ranks, turning his massive force into a huge flesh juggernaut with the aim of smashing through the Carthaginian lines. Varro believed that numbers alone would dictate the outcome of the battle. He could not have been more wrong and in the end his numbers counted for nothing except to the carrion birds.

Hannibal knew his enemy, but he knew his own forces a great deal better and so he concocted a master plan to shatter the 16 legions sent against him. His centre would be made up of his light troops, the Iberians and the Gauls, but he would make Varro think his veterans were also there before pulling them out secretly. This left his centre very thin, dangerously so, but it was all part of his plan. Bowing out his centre towards the enemy, Hannibal wanted to temp the rash Varro into attacking his exposed centre with everything he had and as such, commit his forces against the weakest part of Hannibal’s army. As a tactical reserve, Hannibal placed his African veterans behind the centre in such a way that they could move quickly to the flanks when necessary, but also reinforce the centre should there be need. The Gallic and Iberian heavy cavalry were placed on the left flank, the Numidians on the right. Hannibal himself was behind the centre as a beacon to his men. With his men in position Hannibal waited for Varro to take the bait and the Carthaginian general was not disappointed.

The Roman infantry headed straight for the protruding Carthaginian centre whilst the cavalry stayed on the flanks. Hannibal’s first move was to send his cavalry, which had numerical superiority, against the enemy cavalry and the result was spectacular. The heavier cavalry from Gaul and Iberia smashed into the Roman citizen cavalry so hard that the young nobles literally exploded from their saddles. After crushing the cavalry on the Roman right flank, the Carthaginian heavy cavalry circled around to aid the lighter Numidians in their struggle against the allied cavalry. As this was going on, the Roman infantry was battling with Hannibal’s centre and were gradually pushing the Gauls and Iberians back so that the bowed out centre began to come back on itself, with the men bowing out in the opposite direction from that which they started. As such, the Roman infantry, which were bunched up because of their formation, pushed Hannibal’s centre in and away from the Africans on the flanks. Hannibal ordered his Africans to hit the Roman flanks and so they were caught in front and on the sides where their numbers counted for nothing as they could not get to the front in order to fight the enemy. However, Hannibal was not done yet and whilst his Numidians chased the enemy cavalry from the field, the Gallic and Iberian cavalry returned to smash the Romans in the rear and complete the double envelopment. The Romans, pressed on all sides, could do nothing but stand and be slaughtered. Those that managed to get to the front were cut down and those stuck in the middle of a sea of men were easy targets for Hannibal’s missile troops who could not miss. It was a massacre in every sense of the word and the Romans lost more men in that day than the British did on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The historian Polybius claims that 77,000 Romans were killed and that only 5,700 Carthaginians were lost.[11] Whilst the numbers cannot be verified, it is likely that the Romans lost approximately three quarters of however many men that they fielded.

The Battle of Cannae was Hannibal’s greatest victory and the road to Rome was open, but the great general hesitated in his advance. The Romans avoided battle with Hannibal for the next fourteen years and the Carthaginians never made it to the gates of Rome. After so many victories on the field, Hannibal was unable to win the war. Opinions vary, but why Hannibal did not try to take Rome and whether or not he was right are two very different issues. Hindsight allows us a luxury that Hannibal did not have and so we must look at his reasoning at the time separately from the facts as we now know them.

Part 2 – The Grand Strategy of Hannibal

Immediately after the Battle of Cannae, the Carthaginian cavalry general Maharbal is famously quoted as saying ‘no one man has been blessed with all God’s gifts. You know Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory.’[12] The meaning of this statement is clear. Maharbal, who urged Hannibal to move without delay on Rome, was saying that whilst Hannibal was a master of the battlefield, he did not use his victories effectively to secure the greater goal, the destruction of Rome. However, it can be argued that Hannibal’s goal was not actually the destruction of Rome itself, but the confederacy of allied states of which she was the head and from which she drew most of her power. Hannibal understood that victories in the field alone could not end Roman influence and so he sought to isolate her and believed that in denying Rome her allies, she would inevitably succumb and the Carthaginians could enforce terms on her, ending her hegemonic aspirations. Hannibal’s refusal to march directly on Rome after Cannae reflects his political aims and the crux of his greater strategy.

It is easy to listen to Livy and his chastisement of Hannibal for delaying, but we must look at the situation Hannibal found himself in after Cannae. His army was cut off in Italy and he had little if any support from Carthage itself. Reinforcements were non-existent and Hannibal’s army was tired both mentally and physically. Furthermore, it was not simply a matter of walking to the gates of Rome and pushing them open to find the Romans waiting to surrender. The road may have been open, but Rome was still a large, walled and garrisoned city. Hannibal had brought no siege equipment with him on his long march, but even if he had acquired some, he had not enough men to fully invest the city, especially one accessible by water. Furthermore, if he blockaded the city and sat in to starve them out, he was still in enemy territory and surrounded by towns with trained militias who would be gathering for another confrontation. Even if Hannibal had been able to take Rome, would the Romans have really given up or would Hannibal have just trapped himself in Italy? As a skilled leader, it is unlikely that Hannibal would have hesitated without reason. Polybius does not even mention the capture of Rome as a feasible possibility for it was simply too big a task even for Hannibal. If he had less than 30,000 men at this point, could he really have taken a city garrisoned by two legions? Hannibal’s reasoning was sound, but he greatly misunderstood the political reality in Italy. Taking Rome was not part of his plan and as such he was right in his hesitation because tactically it was too dangerous an undertaking and strategically it was unnecessary in his vision of Roman isolation. Failure in an attempted siege could have ruined everything he had won so hard. In retrospect, his grand strategy failed, but it was not a bad one.

Hannibal knew military victory was not the ultimate key to victory, but a method to win over some of Rome’s allies and this worked to a degree, but due to his small numbers he was unable to guard most of the defectors from Rome in his absence and whenever he moved on, the Romans returned to deal harshly with defectors. Total victory was simply not possible with his resources, but it is unlikely that this was even his plan. His plan was ultimately to wear Rome out, but what he did not understand was that the Roman will to resist could not be broken. For them it was a life or death struggle and this was alien to Hannibal who believed that eventually the Romans would be forced to sue for peace on Carthaginian terms. He cannot have planned to conquer and occupy Rome for this was not possible and was unrealistic. His small forces could not survive in hostile territory indefinitely and even after his stunning victories, most of the Italian cities remained loyal to Rome and here was Hannibal’s great misunderstanding. He believed that the Italians were chafing under the Roman yoke, but in fact they were willing and loyal allies. Hannibal therefore faced ‘national resistance in a country large and populous enough to prevent his army from controlling very much of it at one time.’[13]

It is likely that from the very beginning Hannibal knew that he could not militarily conquer all of Italy and so his plan was sound, it was just not successful. Hannibal’s bid at isolating Rome led him to alliances with Philip of Macedon, the Sicilian Greeks and many other cities which surrounded Rome, but ‘only comparatively few of the Italian cities went over to him…and when he could neither capture nor isolate her, he also could not win his war against her.’[14] Hannibal’s political vision made sense, for in isolating Rome and elevating the other Italian cities to a status of equality with her and maintaining the status quo, the various Italian cities would keep each other in check and therefore Roman influence would end, allowing Carthage to become the Mediterranean superpower. Unfortunately for the Carthaginians, whilst Hannibal’s plan was sound, it did not work. His allies were fickle or useless, his homeland unsupportive and his precious reinforcements ill used. As such, the daring Hannibal had to husband his forces whilst trapped in Southern Italy as little more than a glorified raider.

In short, the situation was as follows. Hannibal was in enemy territory with limited resources, no siege equipment, a tired army and was surrounded by freshly raised armies which could be replaced should they fall. Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy was not flawed and his decision not to take Rome, when he made the decision was the right one, because it fit into his grand strategy. However, the situation after the window to make a bid for Rome had closed saw the crumbling of his strategy. Without more men, Hannibal could neither take Rome nor safeguard the defectors and so he was stuck without the power to do anything.

In retrospect, his slow strategy of winning over Rome’s allies was a good one and based on the knowledge that Hannibal had at the time and his position after Cannae, his decision not to march on Rome was the right one. Hannibal was simply not in a position to take the city and his strategy, which was working at the time, did not require it. However, in hindsight, we can see how in not doing so cost the great Hannibal Barca his war against Rome.

Bibliography

Caspari, M.O.B., ‘The Battle of Lake Trasimene’, The English Historical Review, Journal, Vol. 25, No. 99, (Jul. 1910) p.417

Durschmied, Erik, From Armageddon to the Fall of Rome, Hodder and Stoughton: London, 2002

Grant, R.G., Battles, DK Limited: London, 2005

Holmes, Richard, Oxford Guide to Battles, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2006

Hoyos, B.D., ‘Hannibal: What kind of Genius?’, Greece and Rome, Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, (Oct. 1983) p.171

Jones, Archer, The Art of War in the Western World, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1987

Rollin, Charles, Rollin’s Ancient History, Blackie and Son: Glasgow, 1853

Salmon, E.T., ‘The Strategy of the Second Punic War’, Greece and Rome, Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2, (Oct. 1960) p.131

(Quotes drawn from Titus Livy taken from a number of the above texts.)


[1]Durschmied, Erik, From Armageddon to the Fall of Rome, Hodder and Stoughton: London, 2002, p.175

[2]Rollin, Charles, Rollin’s Ancient History, Blackie and Son: Glasgow, 1853, p.81

[3]Caspari, M.O.B., ‘The Battle of Lake Trasimene’, The English Historical Review, Journal, Vol. 25, No. 99, (Jul. 1910) p.421

[4]Holmes, Richard, Oxford Guide to Battles, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2006, p.26

[5]Ibid.

[6]Jones, Archer, The Art of War in the Western World, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1987, p.29

[7] Holmes, Richard, Oxford Guide to Battles, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2006, p.27

[8]Jones, Archer, The Art of War in the Western World, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1987, p.29

[9]Rollin, Charles, Rollin’s Ancient History, Blackie and Son: Glasgow, 1853, p.84

[10]Ibid.

[11]Durschmied, Erik, From Armageddon to the Fall of Rome, Hodder and Stoughton: London, 2002, p.193

[12]Rollin, Charles, Rollin’s Ancient History, Blackie and Son: Glasgow, 1853, p.84

[13]Jones, Archer, The Art of War in the Western World, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1987, p.65

[14]Salmon, E.T., ‘The Strategy of the Second Punic War’, Greece and Rome, Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2, (Oct. 1960) p.139

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