Tuesday, 29 December 2015


Hannibal Barca: Chenu Bechala- 'Grace of Baal'

There have been battles that have changed the course of history. The battle of Cannae, in 216BC, although undoubtedly the greatest battle in antiquity, failed to alter histories' course and ultimately reinforced it. 

The Protagonists
Roman expansion and growing power in the 3rd century BC placed it on a collision course with the established powers in the Mediterranean, the Greeks and the Carthaginians. The Greeks and Carthaginians had clashed many times over the preceding centuries, mainly for hegemony over the island of Sicily. The island sat squat in the Mediterranean inviting invasion. Consequently, both powers had established colonies on the island and at the time of Roman interference an uneasy truce existed between these two great powers.  

Rome, by 275BC, had taken control over most of the Italian peninsular. Sicily lying a mere 2 miles off the southern coast off Italy beckoned to a new ambitious and covetous power. The scene was set for the First Punic War with Carthage.

A pretext for invasion came in 265BC when the Romans were invited to help the freebooter rulers of the city of Messana, in Sicily, who were being besieged by the Greek Syracusians. Unwisely, the pirates also asked for help from the Carthaginians. This immediately pitted Rome against both great powers. However, after a sharp battle with the Greek army of Syracuse, the Syracusians sensibly sided with the Romans. This left the Carthaginians. The war would continue for a further 23 years with many twists of fortune but eventually, the Carthaginians were utterly defeated and left Sicily for good. In addition, they were made to pay a punitive indemnity which was designed to eviscerate Carthaginian power.

Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian noble who had fought as a general with distinction and skill during the Punic War smouldered for a return fight. As a preparation he invaded Spain with an army of mercenaries. The Carthaginians already had a presence in southern Spain, but Hamilcar wanted to take control of the whole peninsular and unlock its vast reservoir of men and silver as a means to continue the war with Rome. But before he could initiate the quest he drowned during a river crossing in 228BC. He was succeeded by his son in law, Hasdrubal 'The Handsome'. However, in 221BC, Hasdrubal was murdered. The next in line was Hamilcar's son, Hannibal. At just 26 he inherited a polyglot army of 80,000 and a Spanish empire. Hannibal crossed the Alps in  218 BC with his army and exploded on the North Italian plain; the Second Punic War had begun. Within 18 months, Hannibal had inflicted three severe defeats on the Romans and yet he could not break the confederation of Rome or bring them to a negotiated peace. In the summer of 216BC, the scene was set for Hannibal's greatest victory: Cannae.

A Digression
The Roman constitution, of the period, had certain strengths and weaknesses. Two Consuls were elected from the ruling aristocracy (usually) to run the government for a year. After this period, they stood down and the next two 'elected' Consuls took over. The system was designed to forestall the usurpation of power by any individual. In times of prolonged conflict, it had several distinct disadvantages. Firstly, if a war extended more than a year, it was difficult to sustain a consistent policy for the continuance of that war. With every new set of Consuls came new minds and depending on inclination and ability, war policy could take sharp changes in direction; a unified and constant approach suffered accordingly. Secondly, there was always the danger that a Consul would act rashly to force a military decision within the time-frame of his office. It is to be remembered that the office of Consul was also a military one and the Consuls were expected to lead Roman armies in the field. Consequently, there was a temptation for ambitious Consuls to give battle even on unfavourable terms. The Consul who won a major war would sustain great military prestige and ultimately riches. Thirdly, when two Consular armies joined, one of the Consuls had control of the army for a day, and then the power passed to the second Consul, the next day. This was not an efficient means to conduct war. This introduces the last major disadvantage. Consuls were chosen for a number of reasons mostly involving partisan politics and not usually for any innate military skill. Although as the war progressed, this policy changed by necessity. In previous wars, the presence of a poor general leading his men into battle was not generally a problem. Roman tactics were simple and unerring. The well armed and skilled legions were simply unleashed upon the enemy. This was usually enough to secure victory. However, when facing a general of genius, like Hannibal, the Romans were going to suffer, badly.

The two Consuls of 216BC were at loggerheads when it came to strategy. Lucius Aemilius Paulus, a distinguished military man, called for caution, whilst his colleague, Caius Terentius Varro who knew nought of military matters, wanted to give battle. Varro boasted that he would end the war in a morning; Paulus predicted a calamity.

The Battle
In regarding the great captains of war, it is easy to get lost in admiration. In antiquity, generals were expected to plan war, execute war and fight with their men. Hannibal was the consummate professional and appreciated that in war everything had to be considered and planned for. When planning for battle, he made best use of the land and employed stratagems and ruses. Through spies, he even had an appreciation of the psychological make-up of the opposing generals and used this information to maximum effect.

Hannibal and the Romans faced off on the river Aufidus, southern Italy, on a Summer's day in 216BC. The Carthaginians suffered the disadvantage of only having 40,000 men in the field. The Romans concentrated a huge army of over 80,000 men; how could they lose?

Then came the fateful day when Varro had control of the Roman army; battle was therefore inevitable. The Romans deviated from their usual military practise and reduced the interval between their soldiers. Thus, they lost the room for manoeuvre. The Roman tactic was simple and brutal and was designed to use their superior numbers for maximum impact. In effect, the Roman infantry was concentrated into a huge battering ram. They hoped, by the dint of superior numbers, to smash through the Carthaginian lines. This troop disposition robbed the legions of their tactical flexibility but against a pedestrian general this tactic would likely work; Hannibal was not of this ilk.

In response, Hannibal placed his troops accordingly: his Gaulish troops, his most impetuous of allies, he placed at the front in a convex arc. He bolstered the line with reliable Spanish troops. On the flanks, he employed blocks of his North African veterans wielding pikes

As usual, both armies deployed their cavalry on their flanks. As an aside, the Romans and their allies sported indifferent cavalry. The Carthaginians did better and arrayed the best heavy and light cavalry, of the time.     

And so the battle commenced. The cavalry clashed on both flanks. The Roman infantry advanced and engaged the Carthaginian line. Due to the sheer weight of the Roman infantry, the Carthaginian line started to give ground but did not break. Hannibal personally supervised this critical stage of the battle, encouraging his men and shouting exhortations. The Carthaginian line became straight and then concave as the Romans pressed on. In the meantime, the Carthaginian cavalry defeated their Roman and allied counterparts. Once the Roman army had advanced deep into the Carthaginian line, the African infantry on the flanks turned inward. Therefore, the Romans were pressed on three sides. The arrival of the Carthaginian cavalry closed the gap. Roman soldiers, squashed together, could not swing their swords and so they were cut down where they stood. By end of battle, 70,000 Romans had been killed.

The Aftermath
Rome was in a dire state, but it is a testament to Rome's resolve, steadfastness and political stability that it didn't collapse. Instead, Rome raised more armies and employed a strategy of attrition avoiding major battles with Hannibal. It seems the Romans had learned a hard lesson from the master. Hannibal would remain in Italy for a further 12 years but never relived his earlier success. His army was a wasting asset and the Romans concentrated large numbers of troops to restrict his movement without offering a major battle.

The Romans went on to defeat the Carthaginians and the great Hannibal himself. The rest is ancient history. The Carthaginians could never beat a folk like the Romans. And this is not based on any notion of racial superiority. The Carthaginians due to their prolonged exposure to Greek culture were superior to the Romans in abstract thought; at least amongst the ruling classes. However, the Romans were tough, single-minded and incredibly brutal. Of course, the Carthaginians were brutal, but not to the same degree. Indeed, the West has inherited this innate 'frightfulness'. It only takes the right conditions to bring this out to full and deadly effect; we haven't changed.

"For a barbarian to defeat Rome, he must first become Roman".


  1. 'Those who fail to remember history are condemned...' indeed!

  2. Hannibal was a 'good' general, for two reasons.
    1) His Roman opponents, at least at the beginning, were rubbish
    2) His alleged tactics and alleged successes come down to us via the historians Polybius and Livy.

    Livy was paid by the State and borrowed heavily from Polybius to render his History as 'awe inspiring' as possible. Accordingly, the rhetoric of the near defeat of Rome in the Second Punic War is exaggerated to increase the power of the eventual defeat of the Carthiginian at Zama by Scipio Africanus the Elder. Hannibal is made to look great to explain how Rome at first faltered, but then an even greater general was needed to defeat him - obviously. Innit? Standard propaganda where a defeat is used to make an subsequent victory look even better.
    Pure propaganda.
    Polybius was paid by Scipio Africanus the Younger - adopted grandson of Scipio the Elder to make his Family Gens all the more powerful and famous.

    All we can know for certain, is Scipio Africanus the Younger was wealthy and he and Polybius were good at 'arranging' battles and strategies to make Hannibal look good and make Scipio the Elder look even better. And Rome looks good too.

    1. A breathtaking analysis. Yins will now be subjected to my lengthy thesis:'The Gracchi sacrifice and the Roman Constitution'. See what you have done.