GREAT CAPTAINS BEFORE NAPOLEON
HANNIBAL ( 249 - 183 B. C.)
This is the text of the chapter from the course
booklet for the Course on History of Military Art and the U. S. Military
Academy, West Point, New York, 1952. There are many differences between this
description and that of more recent scholars. It is provided here without
comment to encourage the readers learn what was the content of discussion of
the Battle of Cannae at the U. S. Military Academy in the 1950's.
Great captains go hand in hand with great events. The latter call for the
talents which mark the former. Alexander's greatness grew; out of the prolonged
struggle between Greece and Persia for supremacy of the eastern Mediterranean.
Hannibal's grew out of the rivalry between Rome and Carthage for control of the
During the early part of the third century B.C., the conflicting interests
of these two great cities, respective heads of opposing theories of
civilization and culture, gave rise to the series of armed struggles known to
us as the Punic Wars. Over a century and a half of warfare resulted. The end
was the total elimination of Carthage, her civilization, and her culture. Yet
in this very death struggle we find that the loser, through the talents of her
greatest leader, contributed a valuable page to the history of the art of war,
for the lessons in warfare which the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal,
taught to the Roman Republic were assimilated by her leaders and preserved to
form the basis of our present military doctrine.
In order to appreciate fully the accomplishments of this great military
leader, it is necessary to set the stage for his appearance. A brief picture of
the political and military situation of his time will serve to help us evaluate
his character and intellect.
From her very foundation, 735 B.C., the history of Rome is a recital of her
efforts to maintain her freedom among aggressive and warlike neighbors. The
eighty years preceding the First Punic War (343-264 B.C.) saw the rise of Rome
from the rank of equality among the states of Italy to that of leader, as a
result of success in wars not of her own making. These wars were brought on by
the aggression of her neighbors, who were misled by the peaceful attitude of
Rome into the belief that they could defeat her armed forces.
Rome had no regular army. Her defense was based on a trained militia, and
her experience in unsought warfare left her equipped with a nation of fighters.
Membership in the Roman army was regarded as a privilege rather than a duty.
One of the worst punishments that could be inflicted upon a Roman was denial of
the right to bear arms. Freedmen and slaves were not permitted to serve in the
ranks; but every citizen was liable for military duty. The army was organized
on a basis of property. There were five classes in the infantry, according to
the wealth of the soldier. The first class wore the most elaborate armor, while
the fifth class wore none. Each citizen soldier provided his own arms and
equipment. The cavalry was drawn from the wealthiest classes.
Although the Roman army was a militia army, it was so constantly at war
that it always had a large leaven of veterans. From early youth the Roman was
trained for the profession of arms. He became eligible for service in the army
on his seventeenth birthday and remained eligible until he was forty-five.
After forty-five he was still eligible for service in the city garrison or the
home guards; or he might volunteer for active service.
The intensive moral and physical training given to the Roman citizen by the
state made him a soldier superior to his Carthaginian adversary. The Roman
fought out of love of country and pride of tradition; the Carthaginian soldier
fought for hire or as a slave, and no amount of drill and campaigning will
equip a man with the moral courage which springs from patriotic zeal. It takes
a generation to develop the ideal soldier, and the most important phase of his
training occurs during that formative period wherein he becomes thoroughly
imbued with love of country and the ideals for which it stands.
The Romans were keen students of warfare. Thus, while their early armies
were largely patterned after the Greek, they perceived the advantage of a
formation which would have greater flexibility than the phalanx. The Roman
legion supplied this advantage.
At the time of the Punic Wars, the heavy infantry of the legion consisted
of three classes (Fig. 6b). The hastati, who were the troops in the first line
of the legion, comprised men between twenty-five and thirty years of age; the
principes, who formed the second line, were from thirty to forty; and the
triarii, or third-line troops, were veterans from forty to forty-five. The
velites, or light infantry, consisted chiefly of young men from seventeen to
twenty-five years of age.
The tactical unit of each of the three lines, hastati, principes, and
triarii, was the maniple. The maniple of the hastati and the principes
comprised 120 men, a front of twelve men with a depth of ten; the maniple of
the triarii consisted of sixty men with a front of six men.
The cavalry of the legion was divided into ten turmae of thirty horsemen
each, arranged in files three deep. When the ten turmae were united in line,
they formed an ala, or wing. One maniple each of hastati, principes, and
triarii, 120 velites, or light troops, and one turma of cavalry, arranged as
shown in Figure 6a, or arranged with the maniples in checkerboard order,
constituted a cohort with a minimum strength of 450 men. The cohort could
operate as a tactical unit. There were ten cohorts in a legion.
Each legionary in a maniple occupied a frontage of about five feet and a
depth of four and a half feet, which was nearly twice the space allowed the
Greek phalangite. He was drilled to reduce these intervals and distances to
resist cavalry. The distance between lines of maniples was 250 feet or more.
The infantry of the legion in line is shown in Figure 6b. Battle experience
showed that brave enemies penetrated the intervals between maniples; so they
were often reduced or filled by troops from the rear lines. The velites, at the
beginning of an engagement, were posted in front of the hastati. When the
engagement became serious, they fell back to the line of the triarii.
In its early history Rome had no soldiers who were not citizens; but in the
fifth century B.C. she began to make treaties with neigh boring states, and
these furnished legions to serve with the Roman troops. These allies retained
their own laws and customs but were bound to furnish a certain quota of troops
to serve with the Roman army.
The normal strength of the legion was 4,200 foot and 300 horse but this
number was frequently varied usually by changing the number of hastati and
principes. The cavalry in the Allied legion numbered 600. The term
legion often meant one Allied and one Roman legion. The usual
consular army consisted of two Roman and two Allied legions, numbering from
eighteen to twenty thousand men, of whom 1,800 were cavalry (Fig. 6c). When the
two consuls combined their armies, the total strength was not far from 40,000.
Two hundred of the horse of the Allied legions, with 840 foot troops, made up a
body in each legion known as the extraordinarii, who acted as a sort of reserve
under the direct control of the general.
The consular army usually drew up in line of battle with the two Roman
legions in the center and the two Allied legions on their right and left. The
cavalry was either on the flanks or in front or rear. The extraordinarii were
placed as the general might decide, often between the legions and the cavalry.
The equipment of the legionary was excellent. His principal weapon was the
gladius or Roman sword. It had a double-edged blade twenty inches long and was
used for both cutting and thrusting. The hastati and the principes also carried
a heavy lance, or pilum, which varied in length at different periods from three
to five an a half feet, and a lighter lance, or hasta, of the same length as
the pilum. The triarii had, in lieu of the heavy lance, a pike from ten to
fourteen feet long and several darts. The velites were armed with a sword and
For armor, the hastati and the principes wore a leather helmet strengthened
with iron, a metal-and-leather breastplate, greaves (armor for the legs), and a
large square wooden shield, covered with leather and reinforced with iron.
The Roman cavalry was much inferior to the infantry. The Romans were not
natural horsemen, and the mounted service was unpopular. At the beginning of
the Punic Wars, the cavalry was poorly armed and equipped; but the Romans
learned from Hannibal's excellent cavalry, and by the end of the Second Punic
War the cavalry had been greatly improved. Neither saddles nor stirrups had yet
been invented. The cavalryman rode on two blankets held in place by a
Battle was opened at a trumpet signal. The army gave its battle cry and
advanced. The velites, in front, attacked in open order or in small groups,
seeking to disorganize the enemy. As the legion advanced, the velites passed to
the rear through the intervals. The hastati took up the combat, first hurling
their spears, then wielding their swords. If the hastati were driven back or
became exhausted, the principes advanced through the intervals and relieved
them. Similarly, the triarii were ready to make the third assault. The
extraordinarii were held for a last effort.
During the infantry combat, the cavalry, usually on the, flank, was
operating against the enemy's cavalry and his flanks. After a victory, the
cavalry and velites, supported by the extraordinarii, took up the pursuit. In
case of defeat, the same troops, together with the triarii, covered the
Carthage was essentially a commercial city. The acquisition of wealth was
the ruling passion of her citizens. War for war's sake had no appeal for them.
As might be expected of a commercial nation with large overseas interests, her
navy was the largest and the best in the world; but it was manned by
mercenaries and slaves. When the Carthaginians felt that war was necessary,
they made up armies largely of mercenaries, commanded by Carthaginian generals.
These mercenaries were generally valiant fighters; but as they were destitute
of patriotism, they often rebelled or deserted in large bodies. They were
called into service only when needed and were discharged when their services
were no longer required. Hence, Carthage had no regular army as the term is
There were few citizens in the Carthaginian army except in the positions of
high command, in the cavalry, and in the Sacred Band, or bodyguard of the
commander in chief. The army had a fair proportion of Liby-Phoenicians, a
people of mixed blood who inhabited the region around Carthage. The great
majority of the soldiers were foreign mercenaries from Spain, Gaul, Numidia,
and every other nation of Europe and Africa with which Carthage had contact.
This system allowed the Carthaginians to conduct their business and accumulate
wealth, while their fighting was done for them by others. But it had very
serious disadvantages. The mercenaries had no sense of loyalty, except to their
immediate commanders. They were always ready to turn against Carthage if they
were offered higher pay or if they became dissatisfied. They were lacking in
discipline, and their diversity of race made it difficult to consolidate them
into a smoothly operating machine.
The corruptness of political life in Carthage militated against the
maintenance of an efficient army. The generals were chosen by the people, and
money judiciously spent was far more potent in securing an appointment than was
military ability. Generals were frequently changed, even during campaigns,
because of jealousy or fear. The Senate retained control of operations, not
only by prescribing the campaign, but by keeping always with the general a
deputy to see that the Senate's plan was rigidly followed. Whatever success in
arms Carthage achieved was in spite of the system, not because of it.
The Carthaginians used a phalanx very similar to that of the Greeks. It was
designed to give one heavy shock. It had few intervals and was not suitable for
operating in the mountainous country of Italy, although under Hamilcar and
Hannibal it was brought to a high state of efficiency. Shortly after the
beginning of the Second Punic War, Hannibal adopted much of the Roman method in
the use of infantry, while the Romans profited by the lessons taught by
Hannibal in the use of cavalry.
The Carthaginian army in line of battle had in the center the heavy
infantry, Carthaginian, Liby-Phoenician, Gallic, and Spanish; on the flanks, a
fair amount of heavy cavalry and great numbers of Numidian light cavalry; while
in front were posted the highly skillful Balacrean slingers and other light
troops and, frequently, a line of elephants.
The Numidian cavalry was a most effective arm in Hannibal's army, and he
used it with great skill. The Numidian method of fighting was to charge
fiercely, to withdraw when opposition was met, and then to charge again and
again. The Numidians were indefatigable in pursuit and were equally useful in
operating on the flanks of the line of battle or in ambuscade. Their horses
were miserable looking little animals, but they had remarkable endurance and
pluck. Hannibal always used his cavalry decisively, except at Zama, where the
Roman cavalry, using Hannibal's methods, was very effective. Hannibal did not
employ a regular reserve, except that his cavalry, after it had defeated the
enemy's cavalry, became in effect a reserve.
Because of the cosmopolitan character of the Carthaginian army, the
equipment varied greatly. The infantry of the Sacred Band carried a large
circular shield, a short sword, and probably a pike or lance. The
Liby-Phoenician heavy infantry had as its chief weapon a long heavy spear,
similar to that of the Greek hoplite, although probably not so long. The
principal weapon of the Spaniard was a sword for cutting and thrusting; that of
the Gaul was a sword for cutting only, very poor in quality until improved by
Hannibal. The Balacrean slinger had two slings, one for long-range and one for
short-range slinging. The ordinary light infantry had a lance and javelins and
bore a small wooden shield covered with hide. The weapons of the African
infantryman were a long lance, bow and arrows, and sometimes a short sword; he
protected himself with a round shield of elephant or bull hide. Later, Hannibal
armed the Africans with Roman weapons picked up on the battlefield. The
Numidian cavalryman was armed with a lance, darts, and a sword, and he
sometimes used a leopard skin hung over the left arm in lieu of a shield.
So much for the general military background of the two states. Now let us
briefly review the military situation from the outbreak of the First Punic War
to the time of Hannibal's rise to the position of commander in chief of the
Army of Spain.
The First Punic War was precipitated by the seizure of the Sicilian city of
Messina by the Mamertines, a notorious band of Sicilian robbers. Carthage,
desiring colonies in Sicily, went to the aid of one of the factions, while
Rome, fearing to have the Carthaginians so near at hand, sent assistance to the
other. The result was a long and bloody war in which Rome was eventually
victorious. As a result of this war, Carthage lost her colonies in Sicily,
Sardinia, and Corsica; her fleet was destroyed, and she was forced to pay a
huge indemnity. But her spirit and her hatred of Rome were stronger than ever,
and the interval of peace which followed merely served as a training period
prior to a further test of supremacy.
Out of the First Punic War emerged two Carthaginian leaders, Hanno and
Hamilcar Barca. Opposed to each other in their political ideas, their
differences were eventually to result in Hannibal's undoing.
Hanno was the leader of the Democrats. His group favored acceptance of the
situation resulting from the First Punic War and preached conciliation and
peace with Rome. Second only in power to the Barca family, his continued
influence resulted in a division of policy on the part of Carthage in the
prosecution of the Second Punic War. Thus it was that the victories gained by
Hannibal in Italy were nullified to a major extent by the failure of Carthage
to give him timely support and cooperation.
Hamilcar Barca was the leader of the Aristocratic Party, which was wedded
to a war policy, or policy of resistance. He felt that peace with Rome meant
oppression by Rome and the extinction of all national pride and growth. His
lifework was a constant, unremitting effort to prepare the nation for a renewal
of war with Rome. The hatred he bore toward the great Italian city became a
family instinct as well as a family purpose. His son Hannibal was born and bred
in this atmosphere.
Circumstances and ability combined to give Hamilcar Barca the controlling
hand in Carthage after the First Punic War. As a first step in his long-range
scheme to continue the conflict with Rome, he developed a plan to make up to
Carthage for her losses in Sicily by the conquest of Spain. He foresaw that
such conquest would not only bring to Carthage many rich and necessary
resources but would serve as a base from which to launch an attack against
Carthage's fleet had been destroyed in the First Punic War. She had not
undertaken the construction of a new one for fear that Rome might use such
activity as an excuse for a new declaration of war and launch an attack against
her while she was still unprepared. Hence, there was no means of transporting
an army to Spain. Hamilcar solved this problem by marching his army from
Carthage along the northern shore of Africa to the Strait of Gibralter and then
crossing by transport to Cadiz, which he reached in 236 B.C. (Fig. 7).
Hamilcar's, and later his son-in-law Hasdrubal's, conquest of Spain is
interesting to us here in that it served as both cradle and testing ground for
the leadership of his son Hannibal.
Hannibal went to Spain with his father at the age of thirteen. There for
fifteen years he served his apprenticeship under the tutelage of two of
Carthage's great leaders, his father Hamilcar and his brother- in-law
Hasdrubal. With the latter's death in 221 B.C., Hannibal became commander in
chief of the army in Spain.
The conquests of Hamilcar and Hasdrubal, supplemented by the wisdom of
their administrative policy, created a new and powerful state in Spain. The
wealth and strength of this new power alarmed Marseilles and other Greek cities
of that region to such an extent that they called for aid from Rome to curb its
Peaceful negotiations between Rome and Hasdrubal were concluded by a treaty
which recognized the interests of both parties in Spain and which established
the Ebro River as the northernmost boundary of the Carthaginian sphere of
influence. However, this treaty did not take into account the fact that
Saguntum, now Murviedro, a free city which had concluded a separate alliance
with Rome, was south of the Ebro. As a result, the treaty did not long suffice
to keep the peace.
With the death of Hasdrubal and the succession to command of Hannibal, the
long-range war policy of the Barca family began to take definite shape.
Hannibal's first move was against the free city of Saguntum, which he captured
by siege in 219 B.C., using a local disturbance as a pretext for this act of
aggression. Rome was not slow to back up her ally. She sent an ultimatum to
Carthage which demanded that Hannibal's actions be disavowed and that he be
turned over to Rome. Carthage refused and Rome declared war. Thus began the
Second Punic War. A lifetime of planning by the father was about to be
translated into action by the son. Hannibal was ready to undertake the invasion
of Italy and the conquest of Rome.
It is not our purpose to follow in detail the activities of Hannibal. A
brief narration will serve to orient the student as to the campaign in Italy.
This will be followed by a detailed examination of several of his more
important battles, from which an analysis of his generalship will be made.
Following the capture of Saguntum, Hannibal redisposed his forces in
preparation for his Italian campaign. His brother Hasdrubal (not to be confused
with Hannibal's brother-in-law of the same name) was left with large military
and naval forces in Spain to oppose Roman efforts in this theater. Hannibal
with some 100,000 men crossed the Ebro in the spring of 218 B.C. The first
phase, that of subduing the country between the Ebro and the Pyrenees, was
completed by midsummer. Strongly garrisoning this newly acquired territory, and
denuding his army of all who did not desire to undertake the Italian campaign,
he entered Gaul with a force of some 50,000 foot and 9000 horse, all veteran
troops and all devoted to their chief.
Like Alexander, Hannibal had secured his base for his further advance.
Already his agents were at work in advance of the army. Alliances with the
tribes in Gaul were being arranged, provisions for supplies were being made,
and reconnaissances of routes were being carried outall systematically in
anticipation of the advance of the main body. Nothing was left to chance that
could be foreseen and prepared for with certainty. As a result, his passage
through Gaul and over the Alps into Italy was, as the historian Polybius
pointed out, neither a superhuman effort nor a rash exploit. It was a triumph
of skill, good judgment, careful collection of information, thorough
preparation, and energetic execution. After great hardship, the army reached
the upper Po Valley with some 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, not including
an indefinite number of Gallic allies.
Hannibal next proceeded to take Turin and to convert the inhabitants to his
In the meantime, Rome, informed of his moves, sent an army to oppose him.
First contact was made in northwestern Italy, where the Romans were defeated in
a cavalry skirmish on the Ticinus River. The Roman commander, Scipio, withdrew
his forces to await reinforcements from Rome.
The Roman historians stress the unfairness of Hannibal's tactics because he
made use, wherever possible, of stratagem, instead of relying solely upon the
time-honored stand-up method of fighting. The charge of unfairness is of course
ridiculous. Hannibal was intelligent enough to utilize the principle of
surprise and to exploit its advantages. An example of his application of this
principle is to be found in his first real encounter with the Roman army, the
Battle of the Trebia (Fig. 8).
BATTLE OF THE TREBIA (218 B. C.)
Hannibal followed Scipio to Placentia, on the south bank of the Po River,
where the Roman was reinforced by the army of Sempronius. Scipio, who had been
wounded in the skirmish on the Ticinus, advised a defensive attitude; but
Sempronius had just come from a series of victories in Sicily and was eager for
immediate action. The opposing forces were equally matched numerically, each
having about 40,000 men. Diagram of the battle.
Hannibal's scouts kept him advised of the Roman situation and acquainted
him with Sempronius' desire for action. He decided to take advantage of this
eagerness on the part of his opponent and made plans accordingly.
One morning in December (218 B. C.), before daylight, he sent his light
cavalry across the river for the purpose of harassing the Roman camp and
attracting the attention of the Roman commander. Their instructions were to
seek to draw the Roman army across the river after them, whence it would meet
the prepared battle line of Hannibal's army. The ruse worked. Sempronius turned
out first his cavalry, then his light infantry, and finally his whole force,
and pursued the Carthaginian horsemen across the deep fords of the Trebia to
where Hannibal had disposed his troops to receive them. Each army drew up for
battle with its flanks protected by cavalry and its front covered by light
infantry. Well out to his flank and concealed by the wooded terrain, Hannibal
had posted a detachment of cavalry and infantry commanded by his brother Mago.
Hannibal opened the battle with his cavalry. Superior in numbers and in
training to that of the Romans, it soon overcame all resistance and commenced
to roll up the flanks of the Roman army, now engaged to its front with the
Carthaginian infantry. The moment was ripe for the decisive blow. At a signal
from Hannibal, Mago's detachment swept from its place of concealment to strike
the already demoralized enemy in flank and rear. Shaken with the unexpectedness
of this new onslaught and completely surrounded, the Roman army was practically
annihilated before the fighting was over. Only a small force succeeded in
cutting its way through the Carthaginian center and escaping. By the use of a
preconceived maneuver which took full advantage of the principle of surprise,
Hannibal had won an overwhelming victory. Scipio, with the little that was left
of his army, retreated across the Rubicon into Umbria; Sempronius conducted his
few survivors across the Apennines into Etruria (Fig. 7). Hannibal spent the
rest of the winter in the Po Valley provisioning his army and recruiting
The Romans, now thoroughly alarmed by a threat which they had at first
underestimated, reorganized with energy. The consuls who succeeded Scipio and
Sempronius for the year 217 B.C., Servilius and Flaminius, took command on 15
March. Servilius' army was at Ariminium; that of Flaminius was near Arretium.
Both armies had been recruited up to full strength and Were charged with the
mission of blocking Hannibal's further advance into Italy.
Meanwhile, Hannibal was preparing for his next move. His excellent
information service had kept him informed of the enemy dispositions, and,
thanks to reports from agents of this service, his knowledge of the terrain and
of the character of his new opponents was complete. His decision was based on
Two routes led into central Italy from the north. The eastern route led
directly to Arretium and was the well-travelled way. The western roads led
through difficult country but afforded to Hannibal the opportunity of turning
his enemy's position. This latter was Hannibal's choice. He lightened his
columns to the utmost and pushed rapidly forward. For four days and three
nights his army struggled through the treacherous terrain of the Arnus Marshes.
Hardships were extreme, but the army pushed through and surprised Flaminius by
its sudden appearance in the Etrurian plain.
Moving rapidly southward and eastward, Hannibal placed his army between
Flaminius and Rome, thereby forcing the consul to seek battle in order to
rectify his strategic position. Servilius' halfhearted attempts to join forces
with Flaminius were frustrated by successful cavalry action on the part of the
BATTLE OF LAKE TRASIMENE (217 B. C.)
Diagram of the battle - On the north and
east sides of Lake Trasimene the mountains closely paralleled the lake shore,
making a narrow defile. Hannibal marched his troops over the road which ran
through this defile and bivouacked at its southern end. He learned from his
scouts that Flaminius' army had followed him and had made its camp just north
of the lake (Fig. 8b). He learned, also, that Flaminius was planning to attack
him the following day. Without further delay, Hannibal prepared to surprise his
opponent. His experience with the Roman armies had revealed to him the
important fact that they habitually neglected to secure their march by properly
disposed security detachments. Taking advantage of this negligence on the part
of the enemy, he prepared a trap for his destruction. Hannibal's light infantry
was placed under cover along the high ground just east of the lake, with the
bulk of his cavalry posted in concealment on its north flank. His heavy
infantry was disposed to the south, astride the line of march of Flaminius'
True to form, the Roman general advanced early the next morning with no
reconnaissance, no advance or flank guards. A light fog which hung over the
surrounding country restricted observation to a minimum. Upon reaching the
southern end of the defile, the head of the Roman column became engaged with
Hannibal's infantry and could make little progress. Gradually the entire Roman
army closed up and found itself crowded into the four-mile-long defile between
the mountains and the lake. The trap was set. Hannibal gave the order to his
cavalry to close the northern end of the defile and struck the east flank of
the contained column with his light infantry. The result was surprise, panic,
and slaughter. Over three fourths of the entire Roman army of some 40,000 men
was captured or killed. The remainder, in scattered groups, fled through the
hills to notify Rome of the terrible defeat.
Once again a Roman army had been crushed and almost totally destroyed. Why?
The individual legionary was a better fighting man than his opponent. The Roman
army was not crushed by weight of superior numbers. The Roman fighting
equipment, and their experience in its use, was a match for that of their
opponents. What then was the answer? Generalship. Hannibal used his forces in
accordance with a well-conceived plan which took full advantage of the
psychological forces so important in war. The fear and panic which he spread in
the ranks of his enemy through the utter surprise of his attack rendered them
unresponsive to leadership and made them easy prey to the directed efforts of
his troops. Terror is transmitted with incredible speed and, like the ripples
from a stone cast into water, communicates itself in ever-widening circles to
all uninsulated from its touch. Otherwise brave men fall victim to a fear
originating in the imagination, and instinct gains ascendancy over reason. Once
this has taken place, all thought of resistance ceases, and the flight for
self-preservation makes easy the work of the victor. Thus, by the simple
effectiveness of his plan of battle, Hannibal destroyed the morale of his enemy
and nullified his powers of resistance. Again, as on the Trebia, the intellect
of the great Carthaginian was the deciding factor between two forces which in
other respects were evenly matched.
In a few short weeks Hannibal had taught the Romans two expensive lessons.
By his march across the Arnus Marshes, whereby he turned the strategic flank of
his opponent, he proved that measures for security must be based upon the enemy
capabilities and not on preconceived ideas of what he will probably
do. His ambuscade at Lake Trasimene demonstrated that an army advancing to
make contact with an enemy force, known to be in the nearby vicinity, must
secure its advance by proper reconnaissance measures. Following the disaster of
Lake Trasimene, Rome appointed a dictator, Quintus Fabius, who, recognizing
that he was not able to cope with Hannibal on the battlefield, wisely chose to
conduct a campaign of delays and small war, the one thing Hannibal could not
afford. However, this was also the one thing the Romans could not tolerate or
understand, for they had always won by offensive tactics. This policy earned
for Fabius the name of Cunctator, or delayer, and resulted in his
replacement in 216 B. C. by two consuls, Aemilius Paulus and Terentius Varro.
Today, delaying and harassing tactics receive their name from this Roman
general and are referred to as Fabian tactics.
BATTLE OF CANNAE (216 B. C.)
Hannibal, informed of the dissatisfaction of the Roman people with the
policies of Fabius, and knowing that two thirds of the Roman troops were green,
tried in every way to entice them into battle. His troops were beginning to
chafe under their inaction; supplies were hard to get, and he feared desertion.
Varro, an overbearing and self- sufficient man, was more than willing to fight,
but Aemilius, more conservative, restrained him. The two consuls alternated in
commanding the army, one taking command one day and the other the next. In an
effort to force the issue, Hannibal made a night march to the vicinity of
Cannae, where he captured a Roman supply depot and gained possession of the
grain country of southern Apulia (Fig. 7.)
This move by Hannibal forced the Roman army to follow, and the two forces
established themselves some six miles apart on the banks of the Aufidus River
(Fig. 9a). Hannibal redoubled his efforts to bring on an engagement. Varro,
despite Aemilius' counsel, was not to be restrained and allowed himself to be
drawn into battle on a field of Hannibal's own choosing.
In the vicinity of Cannae the Aufidus River flows from west to east. Both
camps were established on the south bank of the river. The Romans, in order to
protect their foragers from raids by Hannibal's Numidian cavalry, had
established a sizeable secondary camp on the north bank of the river. This
resulted in a dispersion of force and enabled Hannibal not only to force the
issue but to choose his terrain.
Early in the morning of a day on which he knew Varro to be in supreme
command, Hannibal crossed the Aufidus with the bulk of his army, as if to
attack the secondary camp of the Romans. Varro, still anxious for combat,
followed with the Roman army, leaving some 11,000 troops on the south bank with
instructions to attack Hannibal's camp once battle had been joined.
Noting the movement of the enemy, Hannibal drew up his army for battle. To
secure his flanks from envelopment by the numerically superior Roman force, he
rested them on the banks of the Aufidus. His front was covered by detachments
of light infantry whose mission was to screen his own dispositions as well as
to disorganize the Roman attack. Varro swung his army into line of battle
facing the Carthaginians and moved to the attack. The Romans had north of the
river 65,000 foot and 7,000 horse to Hannibal's 32,000 foot and 10,000 horse.
Perceiving that he could not envelop the flanks of Hannibal's army, Varro
determined to make his entire battle line heavier and to seek to crush his
opponent by sheer weight of numbers. To do this, he changed the formation of
the maniples so as to give them a depth of twelve men and a front of ten men,
instead of a depth of ten men and a front of twelve men, as usual. This was an
error. His men were not accustomed to such a formation and could not be
expected to adapt themselves quickly to it. Varro's surplus strength might
better have been employed as a reserve to influence the action at a later hour.
His army was in the usual three lines, fifteen legions in all, the Roman on the
right, the Allied on the left. The Roman cavalry, twenty- four hundred strong,
was on the right. The Allied cavalry, forty-eight hundred strong, was on the
left. The velites, or light troops, covered the front of the army.
Hannibal studied with care his opponent's dispositions and so arranged his
forces as to take the fullest advantage of the weaknesses inherent in Varro's
formation. On his left, opposite the 2,400 Roman cavalry, he massed his heavy
Spanish and Gallic horse, eight thousand strong, two thirds in a first line and
one third in reserve. With this body he planned to crush quickly the Roman
cavalry and cut off the retreat of Varro's army to its camp and towards Rome.
Here was the enemy's strategic flank and here, as far as Hannibal was
concerned, was to be the decisive point. On his right, Hannibal opposed the
Allied cavalry with his Numidians, only two thousand strong. Here was the
gamble. Could the Numidians hold in check the superior Allied cavalry long
enough to enable his left-wing cavalry to crush the Roman cavalry? The risk had
to be taken. Only time could determine whether or not this decision was sound.
Now for the infantry. How best to dispose it?
As has been pointed out, Hannibal drew his plan of battle from his
opponent's dispositions. Noting the massing together of the Roman legions, he
determined to make the overwhelming strength of the Roman line work to his
advantage. Familiar, no doubt, with the battle of Marathon, where Miltiades
crushed the Persians through the use of brilliant tactics, he made his center
weak and his wings strong. The center was made up of the less efficient Spanish
and Gallic infantry, while the wings were composed of African foot, Hannibal's
best infantry. Diagram of initial phase of the
As the light troops moved to open the battle, Hannibal took post with the
center of his army. In spite of the fact that he had care fully rehearsed his
subordinates in the battle tactics to be employed, he proposed to command
personally that portion of his army where leadership and example were most
required. Under cover of the skirmishing between the light troops, Hannibal
advanced his weakened center until it formed a salient toward the enemy. The
heavy wings stood fast.
On the left of the line, the heavy Spanish and Gallic horse, led by
Hasdrubal, one of Hannibal's most capable lieutenants, swung into action
against the Roman cavalry. After a period of hard fighting, this cavalry
crushed its opponents out of existence, continued around the rear of the Roman
army, and took in rear the unsuspecting Allied cavalry, which had been striving
to catch up with the elusive Numidians. Before the infantry battle had
progressed very far, Hasdrubal had completed the destruction of the Roman and
Allied cavalry. Sending the Numidians in pursuit of the few cavalry survivors,
Hasdrubal rallied his heavy horse for further participation in the battle.
Meanwhile, the closely massed Roman line had advanced. Varro had committed
still another blunder. In the effort to make his line so strong as to be
irresistible, he had ordered his maniples of principes from the second line
forward into the intervals of the maniples of hastati in the first line, thus
making one solid wall and robbing the legionaries of their accustomed mobility,
as well as giving them a feeling of uncertainty in this novel formation.
Hannibal's salient, in accordance with his plan of battle, slowly withdrew
before the strength and ferocity of the Roman attack; not in disorder, not in
confusion, but methodically under control of its leader. Varro, seeing the
Carthaginian line give way and seeing, as he thought, speedy victory before
him, ordered his triarii, or third line, and even his light troops, up to
support the already overcrowded front. The Carthaginian center continued to
fall back, offering just enough resistance, apparently, to whet the
determination of the Roman general to crush it. Varro now foolishly ordered
still more forces in from his wings to reinforce his center, already a mass so
crowded as to be unable to retain its organization, but pressing back the
Carthaginians by mere weight of numbers. The Romans, three men in the place of
one, struggled onward, every moment becoming a more and more jumbled body.
Their maniple formation, and consequent ease of movement, was quite lost. Still
they pushed forward as if to certain victory as the Carthaginian salient
continued to fall back, till from a salient it became a line and from a line a
re-entering angle. Hannibal, by great personal exertion, had preserved the
steadiness and formation of this center, though outnumbered four to one. And
now he was ready to take the initiative. The heavy Carthaginian wings were
given the signal to advance. This movement further edged the Roman masses into
the cul-de- sac which Hannibal had prepared. So crowded together that they
could scarcely use their weapons, the eager Roman legionaries, already voicing
their cry of victory, pushed on to their final undoing. The decisive moment had
arrived. Arresting the backward movement of his center, which still had room in
which to fight, as the Romans had not, Hannibal gave the signal for his wings
to drive home the attack against the flanks of the struggling Roman mass. About
this same time, Hasdrubal struck from behind with his heavy cavalry (Fig. 9b).
The Roman cries of victory changed to shouts of consternation; elation was
replaced by bewilderment and bewilderment by despair. The closely packed masses
of legionaries lost all semblance of cohesion and unity and became a herd of
panic-stricken individuals, each striving to save his own life. Such a
situation made easy the butchery which followed, and at the close of day some
sixty thousand Romans lay dead upon the field of battle. Diagram of the final phase of the battle.
Again, imagination and ability had triumphed over numbers. Thorough
planning plus superb execution had enabled a force of 42,000 to annihilate
completely a force of 72,000. Capitalizing on the moves of his opponent,
Hannibal conceived a maneuver whereby the very strength of his enemy proved to
be his weakness. Yet, only by strict adherence to the principles of war was the
stage set for leadership to enact its stellar role. The massing of the cavalry
enabled its leader to overcome all opposition in time to join battle with the
infantry at the critical moment. Economy of force enabled Hannibal to obtain
the crushing strength necessary in his infantry wings. Active leadership
supplied the moral force so necessary in the weakened center.
We must not forget the contributions made by Terentius Varro. His every
move played into the hands of his skillful opponent. For a battle of
annihilation it is necessary that there be not only a Hannibal but also a
Terentius Varro. However, in spite of all the brilliant maneuvering and
manipulation of forces by Hannibal, we still have difficulty in visualizing how
42,000 men were able to complete the destruction of almost twice their number
without themselves being destroyed. And again, as at Lake Trasimene, we must
conclude that there comes a time in such a battle when reason departs the side
of the vanquished and is replaced by the instinct of self-preservation; when
fear and terror combine to render ineffective the training of months and years,
and the fleeing soldier becomes a defenseless target for the weapons of his
enemy. Surely, here must lie the great value of tactical surprise, and it
follows that no effort is too great, no hardship too trying, and no innovation
too extreme to secure its untold benefits. Hannibal's methods were relatively
simple. They were based on the capabilities and limitations of the forces
available to him. Today, the principle remains the same, but the methods must
be changed to fit the ever-growing means available for waging war.
Following his victory at Cannae, Hannibal was urged by his generals to move
immediately on Rome. That he did not do so is further tribute to his
intelligence. Rome could not be captured by stratagem, and Hannibal could not
afford a war of attrition. His hope lay in the belief that by continued effort
he could swing Rome's allies to his side. That he failed to do so is not so
much a criticism of his statesmanship as it is a tribute to Rome's policy
toward her allies. Hannibal was realist enough to appreciate that no ultimate
success could crown his efforts unless these allies were weaned away from Rome.
His efforts in this direction met with only partial success, owing to
opposition from home and his inability to carry on in the face of such
opposition. All requests to Carthage for assistance met with such bickering and
indecision that he was forced to order his brother Hasdrubal to proceed from
Spain with his army and join him in southern Italy.
How at the battle of the Metaurus, 207 B.C., Hasdrubal's army was totally
destroyed by the Roman army under the consul Nero, and Hasdrubal himself
killed, interests us only in that its occurrence rang the death knell of
Hannibal's campaign in Italy and of the future of Carthage.
For thirteen long years after the battle of Cannae, Hannibal, against all
hope, stuck to his plan of conquering Rome, waiting for adequate reinforcements
from Carthage or for some lucky accident which might turn the tide in his
favor. There is no greater tribute to his skill and ability than the fact that
throughout this period he marched over the length and breadth of Italy, and not
one nor all the Roman armies could prevent him from acting out his pleasure.
Forsaken by the Carthaginian Senate, under the lead of Hanno, he was cast on
his own resources in the enemy's country. His hope held high until that day,
shortly after the Roman victory on the Metaurus, when his brother's head was
tossed over the wall of his camp near Cannae. Thus informed of the fate of
Hasdrubal, and realizing that his last chance of reinforcement had faded, he is
said to have given utterance to the expression that in this sad spectacle he
recognized the impending doom of Carthage.
Hasdrubal's defeat enabled Rome to carry the war into Spain, where Scipio
in two years of hard fighting cleared that country of Carthaginian forces and
returned to Rome to undertake the invasion of Africa. His successes in Africa
caused the Carthaginian Senate, in 203 B.C., to recall Hannibal to the defense
of Carthage. Leaving Italy, where for fifteen years he had ruled almost as a
king, Hannibal set sail for Africa.
It is the irony of fate that Hannibal's brilliant career was closed with
his only major defeat. At Zama, 202 B. C., he met Scipio Africanus and went
down to defeat before the superior forces of a general to whom he had taught
the art of war.
After Zama, Hannibal went into exile in Asia, where he died twenty years
later, 183 B.C. Rome never felt secure until his death.
Hannibal clearly demonstrated that war is an art and that a great master of
its principles can, with inferior tools, continue to overcome those less
skilled but better equipped. He illustrated in his every act the value of
intelligent leadership. Time and again he matched this leadership against the
weight of numbers and proved its superiority. As for the personal qualities
which formed the basis for this leadership, we have only to quote his archenemy
Livy, who in a pen picture describes him as he was at the age of twenty-one
when his brother-in-law Hasdrubal made him chief of cavalry of the Army of
Spain: No sooner had he arrived than Hannibal drew the whole army towards
him. The old soldiers fancied they saw Hamilcar in his youth given back to
them; the same bright look, the same fire in his eye, the same trick of
countenance and features. But soon he proved that to be his father's son was
not his highest recommendation. Never was one and the same spirit more skillful
to meet opposition, to obey or to command. It was hard to decide whether he was
more dear to the chief or the army. Neither did Hasdrubal more readily place
anyone at the head when courage or activity was required, nor were the soldiers
under any other leader so full of confidence and daring. He entered danger with
the greatest mettle, he comported himself in danger with the greatest
unconcern. By no difficulties could his body be tired, his ardor damped. Heat
and cold he suffered with equal endurance; the amount of his food and drink was
gauged by natural needs, and not desire. The time of waking and sleeping
depended not on the distinction of day and night. What time was left from
business he devoted to rest, and this was not brought on by either a soft couch
or by quiet. Many have often seen him covered by a short field-cloak lying on
the ground betwixt the outpost and sentinels of the soldiers. His clothing in
no wise distinguished him from his fellows; his weapons and horses attracted
everyone's eye. He was by long odds the best rider, the best marcher. He went
into battle first, he came out of it last.... Hannibal served three years under
Hasdrubal's supreme command and left nothing unobserved which he who desires to
become a great leader ought to see and to do.
It was this power of leadership, this unexcelled ability to gain and hold
the confidence and loyalty of his men, that was Hannibal's outstanding asset.
One military student has written: Battle is the final objective of armies
and man is the fundamental instrument in battle. Nothing can wisely be
prescribed in an army its personnel, organization, discipline and
tactics, things which are connected like the fingers of a handwithout
exact knowledge of the fundamental instrument, man, and his state of mind, his
morale, at the instant of combat. That Hannibal possessed this exact
knowledge of man is unquestioned. His every action took root from this
knowledge. Upon the capabilities and limitations of his individual soldiers,
expanded and supplemented by his own inspiring leadership, he built an army
whose morale was never conquered, whose deeds have never been excelled. No
other general in history faced such formidable opposition. If we judge him
solely upon the basis of results obtained in the immediate theater of
operations, and overlook the political and strategical failure of Carthage's
war policy against Rome (for over these latter he exercised minimum control),
we find him eminently worthy of the title of great captain.