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Hannibal Barca and the Carthaginian Campaign

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Hannibal Barca is the famous Carthaginian general, who is especially renowned for his successful campaign against Rome during the Second Punic War in 218 BC. Hannibal won some of the most famous victories against a numerically superior Roman army in Roman battlefields, notably the Battle of Cannae, which is universally considered as a masterpiece of military strategy and ranks among greatest military achievements in history (Gabriel, 2001).

The innovative use of strategy and resources and capitalizing on enemy’s slightest weakness to turn into decisive victory for himself had been unique characteristics of Hannibal’s leadership that has earned him place in annals of great military leaders of history.

Even today, many military schools still teach Hannibal’s military strategy, specially his placement of forces and improvisation in attack maneuvers. Hannibal Barca (247 BC-183 BC) Hannibal rose to his fame during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) during which he established himself as one of the most brilliant strategists and tactician of the war seen by ancient world.

If analyzed from the overall view of leadership, there are very few generals even in modern times who can compete with Hannibal. Hannibal was not only extremely proficient in military techniques and innovations but he was also excellent in understanding the delicate balance between military and political power. He was also very apt in exercising directed will and personal leadership-indeed, it was his sheer personal presence and force that motivated soldiers under him for 16 years in a foreign land.

A study of Hannibal’s style of campaign is highly relevant even from modern perspective.

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Further, the Second Punic War introduced the concept of strategic endurance and tactical engagement, which still form the basis of military strategy. In these senses, the Hannibal’s campaign in the Second Punic War is watershed event in the military history of the West (Gabriel, 2001) . Historians still debate about the exact causes that inspired Hannibal to muster Carthaginian Ships and lead the army to Italy on an inordinately long and, in the end, deliberately unaccomplished campaign.

While in more than one ways, Hannibal continued to injure, wound and dent the Roman pride to the degree where Romans were afraid to send an army against him, Hannibal never did actually sack the Rome or take control of the Empire (Gabriel, 2001). It is suggested that Hannibal’s chief motivation was to neither to humiliate Rome for their victory in first Punic war, nor to settle any personal score, but rather a more prudent vision of checking the expansionist ambition of Rome and keep Carthage secure in the only feasibly way-by attacking the Rome itself.

Rome of the third century B. C. E. was still on the way to power and glory that it would acquire a century later. At this time Rome was largely a land power while Carthage had emerged as the richest and most powerful trading nation due to its control over sea and its access to market of Sicily, Corsica and Spain. But the expanding Roman interests soon brought Sicily in their purview, leading to direct conflict with Carthage (Gabriel, 2001). The strategic position of Sicily had placed it in such position that while it marked as a check over Roman expansion, its loss would translate into a direct threat over Carthage.

This conflict of interests led to the first Punic War in 261 BC where Rome and Carthage were locked in a 20 years long war, bitterly fought by each side. Despite suffering huge casualties, Rome won by 241 BC and Carthage suffered heavy losses. Its major markets were annexed by Rome, its trading fleet was reduced and it was subjected to heavy indemnity. Faced with prospects of financial ruin, the state stood at the verge of civil war when it was rescued by its most able general Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal Barca.

Hannibal was born in 247 BC and he grew up while closely watching his father’s style of leadership and military tactics (Gabriel, 2001). It can be said that defeat of first Punic War was one of the motivating factors for young Hannibal Barca, who quickly rose through military ranks to command the forces of Carthage. At this time, most of the fighting units were primarily composed of tribal mercenaries who only valued chieftains who could lead them to victory and subsequent plunder.

Therefore, Hannibal’s rise among these soldiers in itself is a testimony to his formidable reputation as a brilliant young tactician, competent to deliver victory even in most adverse of the situations (Gabriel, 2001). The Second Punic War (218BC-201 BC) The Punic Wars are recognized as the harbinger of modern style of warfare, which is dependent more on strategy, skill and technique than numerical supremacy. They marked an important shift from the earlier one-day affairs where the fates of empires were often settled in a single engagement.

The Second Punic War lasted for 16 years, during which Rome hardly ever won a single engagement; however, it maintained its tenacious grip over the empire without collapsing until it gathered sufficient strength to achieve victory (Gabriel, 2001). The war also established the important of political will and social organization as decisive elements towards victory. Eventually, Rome’s victory started the era of political and strategic resource gathering that ultimately led to creation of the Roman Empire.

However, these results came much later on. At the time of Hannibal’s campaign, Rome was still a very strong nation-state with ample economic resources, manpower and competent generals with large legions of armies under their command. On the other hand, when Hannibal started his campaign his resources were severely restrained. After discounting all the forces required to secure Carthaginian mainland, Hannibal was left with only 40,000 men and 8–10,000 horse, mostly Africans and Numidians, from Carthage itself.

The rest would have to be raised from friendly Iberian tribes. By comparison, Rome had a reservoir of 250,000 foot and 23,000 horses, which it could gather in any instant of war. Including the forces of its allies, the Roman swelled to Drawing swelled to 700,000 foot and 70,000 horse, an army that was even larger than Napoleon’s Grand Army that invaded Russia in 1812 (Gabriel, 2001). With these difficulties in sight, Hannibal was well aware that he could not win a war of attrition or a direct battle against Rome.

His only route to success lied through a prolonged campaign where he hoped to defeat Roman army in separate encounters and thus alienate Roman allies, who would no longer see Rome as a significant power. This strategy was dangerous because Hannibal would be directly leading his army to play against Roman strength in ground war. Further, with Roman control over sea routes, the campaign would be required to be self sustaining for its entire period as no help could be reached from Carthage if the troops were entrapped by Roman army (Gabriel, 2001).

Added to this multiplicity of difficulties was the fact that the entire campaign was to take place on Italian lands, where Roman generals had better advantage in understanding the weather and terrain. By 218 BC, Rome was itself preparing for a double assault under its two generals, Publius Cornelius Scipio and Sempronius Longus. Scipio was to attack Spain with a force of 24000 thousand soldiers and 1500 horses while Sempronius was preparing to invade Africa with 36000 men and 1800 horses.

He started his invasion in May 218 BC, with strength of 50,000 men 9000 horses, and 37 elephants, hoping to recruit the Celtic and Gallic tribes en route during the campaign (Gabriel, 2001). He had to face some hostility from local tribes but after crushing them ruthlessly in a six week campaign he led his forces through Alps. Records show that Hannibal started his crossing with almost 60,000 men and 37 elephants and by the time he crossed the Alps, only 23000 men and horses and 10 elephants were left alive, though barely in fighting condition.

This was a terrible setback to his campaign plans, but he did not let despair sink in (Morris. 1937). His sudden and completely unexpected descent by Alps had indeed taken the Roman Senate by surprise and thrown many of their military plans into haywire. Both Scipio and Longus were called from their planned invasion to counter impending threat of Hannibal. The Roman generals were indeed somewhat overconfident, having to operate within their own country lands. Further, they had remarkable degree of vanity, anger, impetuousness and ego-elements which Hannibal used dexterously to his advantage in drawing them to battle (Tony. 1992).

Battles of Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae. Hannibal’s forces had won a number of small skirmishes and minor battles against the pursuing army of Scipio which had given them confidence and also support of a large number of native tribes. Even some of the Celtic contingents within Scipio army revolted, killed Roman soldiers and joined Hannibal’s forces. This alerted the Roman general who then stationed his army over a hill near river Trebia, awaiting Longus and his army, to jointly take upon the Hannibal’s army that was resting across other side of the River (Tony. 1992).

When Longus joined Scipio, the Roman contingent swelled to an impressive degree, far outnumbering Hannibal’s troops. However, even under these circumstances, Scipio urged caution and asked Longus to wait for winters and further reinforcement before beginning the battle. Semponius Longus was instead in favor of a quick action and quick glory. Hannibal provided further provocation to him as small part of his troops attacked Roman legions repeatedly, challenging them for war. Longus took the bait and ordered his troops to cross the Trebia river for a direct showdown against Hannibal’s army(Tony. 1992).

However, unknown to him, Hannibal had concealed an elite force of 2000 cavalry under the banks of river, who were ready to spring a trap to Roman army. Further, Hannibal’s forces were well rested and had a definite action plan against their enemies. A 40000 strong Roman and allied army crossed the river Trebia to engage with Hannibal’s 30000 troops on a cold December morning. As the battle started, the hidden units of Hannibal attacked, taking them completely unawares and causing great disarray and confusion in the Roman columns. This confusion, along with strategic marshalling of Hannibal, cost Romans heavily (Tony. 1992). More than 30,000 of their soldiers died and rest fled to safety, handing Hannibal his first great victory of the campaign.

His losses were minimal in comparison, which boosted the spirit of his army and drew more native tribes to him. Battle of Lake Trasimene The defeat prompted a change in of command in Roman army and senate appointed Cnaeus Servilius and Gaius Flaminius as counsel of wars to block Hannibal’s invasion to Rome. Hannibal found Flaminius not much different from Longus and therefore decided to lure him to battle using the same strategy that he used at Trebia.

Hannibal ordered his troops to burn countryside, towns, villages and slaughter livestocks, but prevented them from taking directly on the Roman armies. The tactics was to enrage the generals, trick them into making a mistake and then destroy the Roman army at the place that offered Hannibal’s troop maximum advantage.. Flaminius fell for the these tricks and he decided to pursue Hannibal’s army through the valley besides lake Trasimene. He mistook 6000 of Hannibal’s troop as his entire army and entered the valley with 15000 of his force to defeat the Roman tormentor.

But the full strength of Hannibal’s 30000 strong army was hiding in forest, under the veil of a thick fog, so that the entire Roman army went past them without taking any cognizance of their presence! At the right moment, Hannibal ordered the attack, which completely routed the Roman army. The battle lasted two hours during which 15000 Roman soldiers were killed at cost of 1500 men in Hannibal’s army (Gabriel, 2001). Battle of Cannae Hannibal’s victory in battle of lake Tresimene sent waves of fear through Roman empire.

In just two years he had defeat four of the best Roman counsels and caused more than 50,000 casualties. Rome realized for the first time that it was up against one of its most formidable foe and to counter the challenge, it placed the command of battle in hands of Quintus Fabius, who was a very competent commander with acute understanding of military as well as political affairs (Daly. 2002). Fabius made a correct strategic assessment of the situation and concluded that in the end of war, Rome’s domestic advantage, its superior alliance relation and its vast resources would lead to its victory against Hannibal.

Therefore, he did not show any hurry in marching to the battlefield and apprehending the culprit. He very well knew that time was working in Rome’s favor (Daly. 2002) The military policy he started was in accordance with this understanding and it was aimed at containing Hannibal rather than defeating him. For more than a year, Fabius policy paid dividends as he strengthened defenses, retained the alliances and by refusing to engage Hannibal in a direct conflict, denied him any opportunity of a victory.

Fabius was fighting the true war of attrition, which would have destroyed Hannibal’s army (Gabriel, 2001). But the mood in Rome was favoring war and they viewed Fabius working style as too cautionary. The senate replaced Fabius by L. Aemilius Paulus and C. Terentius Varro as generals of war. These generals immediately fell for the bait of war that Fabius was deliberately avoiding in summer of 216 BC a 86000 strong Roman army under generalship of Varro took to field against Hannibal’s 45000 strong force near the village of Cannae (Daly. 2002).

Varro made two crucial errors. First he positioned the river Aufidus on his right flank, which denied his soldiers any space of maneuver and secondly he completely ignored the strong Carthaginian cavalry. Hannibal, in his usual display of brilliance kept his strongest units at flanks and weakest at the center. Varro took the bait and his army pushed deep inside the Carthaginian formation, where they were trapped in a pincer movement by Hannibal’s superior strong force (Daly. 2002). It was akin that they were trapped in a V shaped formation with no route to escape.

The battle was over within few hours and its end, 52000 Roman soldiers were laying dead, and 5000 were taken prisoner. Hannibal’s forces had suffered 8000 losses. The combined casualty was around 60000, making it one of the bloodiest battles fought (Gabriel, 2001). Further Campaigns Cannae was a great victory for Hannibal, and it marked culmination of his three years of war efforts where he had incapacitated more than 20 percent of entire Roman population that was capable of entering military.

However, it is said, that the terrible sight after battle of Cannae had affected Hannibal deeply and despite the fact that there was no hindrance to his journey to Rome, he refused to take the coveted road, earning him censure and criticism from his own generals (Gabriel, 2001). Post the defeat of Cannae, Rome re-mobilized its army and within two years, it numbers had swelled back to 200,000 men under arms. However, it had learned from the mistakes and instead of attacking Hannibal directly, it played on Fabian strategy of tiring him, denying him an opportunity of waging a direct battle.

This tactics worked successfully and by 210 BC, was Hannibal had been contained in southern Italy, while Roman armies won victories in Greece and Spain. True, Hannibal was still out of their reach and every effort to touch him resulted in a defeat for the Roman troops, but overall the Roman grip had greatly strengthened (Gabriel, 2001). By 204 B. C. E. Scipio launched a campaign against Africa, which threatened Carthage itself. This prompted the state politicians to negotiate with Rome which led to recall of Hannibal and his armies from Italy.

Hannibal’s last battle was with Scipio on the African plain near the small village of Zama where he was as defeated, and thus ended the military career of one of the greatest generals of the ancient world/ Conclusion Of all the adversaries that Rome faced in its long history, Hannibal Barca is indelibly etched as its greatest foe and for very concrete reasons. In the entire history of Rome, no other general had single handed ravaged the empire to the degree that Hannibal managed, staying virtually undefeated through his 16 years long campaign, while outsmarting best of the Roman generals and strategist.

It’s the testimony of Hannibal’s enterprise however, that his most authentic biography is given by none other than Roman historians. . His campaign against Rome produced some of the finest military strategy and thinking that ancient world had seen, or for that matter even the modern world has seen. Like all military leaders he was cruel and ruthless, but only to the degree where these traits served to meet the objective of his campaign. His very decision to abandon the route of Rome in wake of the slaughter at the Battle of Cannae shows the finer elements of his character.

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Hannibal Barca and the Carthaginian Campaign. (2016, Sep 06). Retrieved from

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