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The Truth about Hannibal’s route across the Alps
The three Punic wars were a struggle for dominance of the
Mediterranean region by the two great trading and military
By Philip Ball
powers of the third and second centuries BC: Carthage and
Having battled their deadly rivals the Romans in Spain, in
Rome. Carthage, a former Phoenician city-state in present-day
218BC the Carthaginian army made a move that no one
Tunis, had an empire extending over most of the north African
expected. Their commander Hannibal marched his troops,
coast as well as the southern tip of Iberia. Rome was then still a
including cavalry and African war elephants, across a high pass
republic, and the two states were locked in a power struggle apt
in the Alps to strike at Rome itself from the north of the Italian
to flare into open war, until the Romans annihilated Carthage
peninsula. It was one of the greatest military feats in history.
in 146BC.
The Romans had presumed that the Alps created a secure
Hannibal, son of general Hamilcar who led troops in the first
natural barrier against invasion of their homeland. They hadn’t
Punic war, gave Carthage its most glorious hour. He is ranked
reckoned with Hannibal’s boldness. In December he smashed
alongside Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and his nemesis
apart the Roman forces in the north, assisted by his awesome
Scipio as one of the greatest military strategists of the ancient
elephants, the tanks of classical warfare. Many of the animals
world, and his alpine crossing plays a big part in that
died of cold or disease the following winter, but Hannibal
reputation. Most of what we know about it comes from the
fought his way down through Italy. For 15 years he ravaged the
accounts given by the Roman writers Polybius (c200-118BC)
land, killing or wounding over a million citizens but without
and Livy (59BC-AD17). They make it sound truly harrowing.
taking Rome. But when he faced the Roman general Scipio
Africanus at Zama in north Africa in 202BC, his strategic
genius met its match. So ended the second Punic war, with
Rome the victor.
As the Carthaginian army ascended from the Rhône valley in
Gaul, they were harassed and attacked by mountain tribes who,
knowing the territory, set ambushes, dropped boulders and
generally wrought havoc. During the descent the Carthaginians
Hannibal’s alpine crossing has been celebrated in myth, art and
were mostly unmolested, but now the mountains themselves
film. JMW Turner made high drama of it in 1812, a louring
threatened mortal danger. The Alps are steeper on the Italian
snowstorm sending the Carthaginians into wild disarray. The
side, and the path is narrow, hemmed in by precipices.
1959 sword-and-sandals epic movie, with Victor Mature in the
eponymous title role, made Hannibal’s “crazed elephant army”
look more like the polite zoo creatures they obviously were.
“Because of the snow and of the dangers of his route
[Hannibal] lost nearly as many men as he had done on the
ascent,” wrote Polybius. “Since neither the men nor the
The battles didn’t end with Scipio’s victory, though. Much ink,
animals could be sure of their footing on account of the snow,
if not blood, has been spilled in furious arguments between
any who stepped wide of the path or stumbled, overbalanced
historians over the precise route that Hannibal took across the
and fell down the precipices.”
Alps. The answer makes not a blind bit of difference to the
historical outcome, but there’s clearly something about that
image of elephants on snowy peaks that makes experts care
deeply about where exactly they went.
At length they reached a spot where the path suddenly seemed
impassable, as Livy describes it: “A narrow cliff falling away so
sheer that even a light-armed soldier could hardly have got
down it by feeling his way and clinging to such bushes and
An international team of scientists now thinks the puzzle is
stumps as presented themselves.”
largely solved. Its leader, geomorphologist Bill Mahaney of
York University in Toronto, began pondering the question
almost two decades ago by looking at geographical and
environmental references in the classical texts. He and his
colleagues have just revealed surprising new evidence
supporting their claim to have uncovered Hannibal’s path.
“The track was too narrow for the elephants or even the pack
animals to pass,” writes Polybius. “At this point the soldiers
once more lost their nerve and came close to despair.”
Hannibal tried a detour on the terrifying slopes to the side of
the path, but the snow and mud were too slippery. So instead
he set his troops to construct a road from the rubble, and after
backbreaking labour he got the men, horses and mules down
good match for that which Polybius mentioned. “No such
the slope and below the snowline. The elephants were another
deposit exists on the lee side of any of the other cols,” he says.
matter – it took three days to make a road wide enough.
Finally, says Polybius, Hannibal “succeeded in getting his
He suspects Hannibal did not intend to come this way, but was
elephants across, but the animals were in a miserable condition
forced to avoid the lower cols to the north because of the
from hunger”.
hordes of Gauls massing there. “They were every bit Hannibal’s
equal, and no doubt hungry to loot his baggage train,”
Where exactly Hannibal crossed the Alps was a point of
Mahaney says.
contention even in the days of Polybius and Livy. Nineteenthcentury historians argued about it, and even Napoleon weighed
The rockfall evidence was pretty suggestive. But could
in. The controversy was still raging a hundred years later. Some
Mahaney and his team of geologists and biologists find
authorities proposed a northerly path, past present-day
anything more definitive? Since 2011 they’ve been looking in a
Grenoble and through two passes over 2,000 metres high.
peaty bog 2,580m up in the mountains, just below of the Col de
Others argued for a southerly course across the Col de la
la Traversette. It’s one of the few places where Hannibal’s army
Traversette – the highest road, reaching 3,000m above sea
could have rested after crossing the col, being the only place in
level. Or might the route have been some combination of the
the vicinity with rich soil to support the vegetation needed for
two, starting in the north, then weaving south and north again?
grazing horses and mules.
The southern route was advocated in the 1950s-60s by Sir
The researchers rolled up their sleeves and dug into the mire.
Gavin de Beer, director of the British Museum (natural
What they found was mud. And more mud. Not very
history), who published no fewer than five books on the
informative, you might think. But mud can encode secrets.
subject. He combed the classical texts and tried to tie them in
Taking an army of tens of thousands, with horses and
to geographical evidence – for example, identifying Hannibal’s
elephants, over the Alps would have left one heck of a mess.
river crossings from the timings of floods. “All of us more or
More than two millennia later, Mahaney might have found it.
less follow de Beer’s footprint,” says Mahaney.
The peaty material is mostly matted with decomposed plant
For Mahaney, it began as a hobby and become a labour of love.
fibres. But at a depth of about 40cm this carbon-based material
“I’ve read classical history since my ordeal getting through four
becomes much more disturbed and compacted, being mixed up
years of Latin in high school,” he says. “I can still see my old
with finer-grained soil. This structure suggests that the bog
Latin teacher pointing his long stick at me.”
became churned up when the layer was formed. That’s not seen
in any other soils from alpine bogs, and isn’t easily explained
He went looking for clues in the landscapes. Both Polybius and
by any natural phenomenon such as grazing sheep or the action
Livy mention that the impasse faced by Hannibal was created
of frost. But it’s just what you’d expect to see if an army with
by fallen rocks. Polybius, who got his information firsthand by
horses and elephants passed by – rather like the aftermath of a
interviewing some of the survivors from Hannibal’s army,
bad year at the Glastonbury festival. This soil can be
describes the rockfall in detail, saying that it consisted of two
radiocarbon-dated – and the age comes out almost spookily
landslides: a recent one on top of older debris. In 2004
close to the date of 218BC attested by historical records as the
Mahaney found from field trips and aerial and satellite
time of Hannibal’s crossing.
photography that, of the various passes along the proposed
routes, only the Col de Traversette had enough large rockfalls
The researchers then took samples of this disturbed mud back
above the snowline to account for such an obstruction.
to the lab, where they used chemical techniques to identify
some of its organic molecules. These included substances
There’s an old, steep track of rubble leading out of this pass –
found in horse dung and the faeces of ruminants. There’s some
which might conceivably be based on the very one made by
of this stuff throughout the mire mud, but significantly more in
Hannibal’s engineers. What’s more, in 2010 Mahaney and co-
the churned-up layer.
workers found a two-layer rockfall in the pass that seemed a
What’s more, this section also contained high levels of DNA
found in a type of bacteria called clostridia, which are very
common in the gut of horses (and humans). In other words, the
layer of disturbed mud is full of crap (perhaps not so different
from Glastonbury either). Aside from a passing army, it’s not
easy to see where it might have come from – not many
mammals live up here, except for a few sheep and some hardy
That’s not all. Microbiologists collaborating with the team
think they might have found a distinctive horse tapeworm egg
in the samples. “There is even the possibility of finding an
elephant tapeworm egg,” says Mahaney’s long-term
collaborator, microbiologist Chris Allen of Queen’s University
Belfast. “This would really be the pot of gold at the end of the
rainbow.” It’s just a shame, he adds, that “the pot of gold is
actually a layer of horse manure”. Evidence of elephants at the
site would surely be a smoking gun, since you don’t find many
of them wandering wild in the Alps.
Meanwhile, Mahaney hopes, if he can find the funding, to
mount a radar survey of the entire mire and other mires nearby
to search for items dropped by the passing army. “My sniffer
tells me some will turn up,” he says – “coins, belt buckles,
sabres, you name it.”
Unless they do, other experts may reserve judgment. Patrick
Hunt, an archaeologist who leads the Stanford Alpine
Archaeology Project, which has been investigating Hannibal’s
route since 1994, says that the answer to the puzzle “remains
hauntingly elusive”. It’s all too easy, he says, for fellow experts
to adduce evidence for their favoured route – his team argues
for a more northerly path – but until the same methods and
rigour are brought to bear on all the alternatives, none can be
ruled out. All the same, he adds, Mahaney is one of the best
geo-archaeologists working on the question. “He continues to
be a trailblazer in the field,” says Hunt, “and I’d love to
collaborate with him, because he’s asking excellent questions.”
If Mahaney can secure firm evidence – such as chemical or
microbial fingerprints of elephant faeces – it would be the
culmination of a personal quest. “The Hannibal enigma
appealed to me for the sheer effort of getting the army across
the mountains,” he says. “I have been in the field for long times
with 100 people, and I can tell you it can be pandemonium.
How Hannibal managed to get thousands of men, horses and
mules, and 37 elephants over the Alps is one magnificent feat.”
extensive, conditions were still not conducive to
transporting hungry elephants.
Historians speculate that a few small elephants could
ARCHEOLOGISTS have tried. Students of ancient
have been brought down the Nile Valley into Egypt, or by
climate and ecology have tried, too. But no one has yet
the Red Sea, and then bred in captivity, but there is
come up with a satisfactory answer: Where did Hannibal
apparently no record of this. Nor is there any record of
get the elephants for his heroic march across the Alps to
the large African species being indigenous to North
attack the homeland of the Romans?
Africa in the time of Hannibal. Drawings of elephants
The question was raised anew in the Sept. 6 issue of New
Scientist, a British magazine. Derek Ager, a geologist,
wrote an article casting doubt on all of the proposed
sources of Hannibal's elephants.
Once there were elephants nearly everywhere, but by the
time of Hannibal's march in 218 B.C. they had already
dwindled to the two species extant today, the Indian, or
Asian, elephants and the African ones.
appear on the Tassili Frescoes in the Hoggar Mountains
of southern Algeria, but a recent British expedition
determined that the drawings predated Hannibal.
Many historians believe a likely source of Hannibal's
elephants could have been the Atlas Mountains of
Morocco and Algeria. Living there at the time was a
forest subspecies of the African elephants. These were
smaller animals, standing about 8 feet tall at the
shoulders in contrast to the 11-foot-tall sub-Saharan
If he had had a choice, Hannibal would presumably have
animals. The Atlas elephants later died out as the region
gone into battle with Indian elephants, which had been
grew increasingly arid.
used effectively a century before in charging against the
forces of Alexander the Great. Indian elephants are not
quite as large as the African species but much more
easily trained, which is why they are favored by zoos and
circuses. It is also the reason Indian elephants are seen
tramping through fictional Africa in old Tarzan movies.
Presumably these animals would have been just as
difficult to train and would have been less imposing in
warfare. In ancient military campaigns elephants hauled
supplies and served somewhat the same function as
modern tanks.
The bigger and ill-tempered African elephants are
distinguished by their larger, fan-shaped ears, flat
foreheads and concave backs.
But how did Hannibal, in Carthage, on the
Mediterranean in present-day Tunisia, get a troop of
elephants all the way from Asia? Or from south of the
Sahara, the bush habitat of the larger African species?
Elephants have a voracious appetite. Mr. Ager noted that
In his 1955 study, ''Alps and Elephants,'' Gavin de Beer,
an adult male African elephant eats some 400 pounds of
who was director of the British Museum of Natural
vegetation a day. Even though the North African climate
History, wrote, ''Not only did the elephants' appearance,
was slightly wetter then and the Sahara not quite so
their smell, and the noise of their trumpeting alarm both
men and horses opposed to them, but they were highly
dangerous when charged, fighting with their tusks and
their trunks and trampling down their opponents.''
For these reasons, commenting on the small Atlas
elephants, Mr. Ager said, ''I find the idea of Hannibal's
using small elephants unsatisfying.''
By most accounts Hannibal's invasion force in 218 B.C.,
assembled in Spain, included 100,000 men and 37 or 38
elephants. Mr. Ager notwithstanding, many historians
tend to accept Mr. De Beer's conclusion that most of
these elephants were African, either from the Atlas
Mountains or from south of the desert.
The evidence is a Carthaginian coin, struck in the time of
Hannibal, that bears an unmistakable image of an
African elephant. Coins are often valuable to
archeologists, and here it is about all historians have - a
coin and a story told after the Second Punic War.
Hannibal dealt the Romans under Scipio several
crushing defeats but ultimately failed to seize Rome
Only one of the elephants survived the war, it seems.
This was the elephant Hannibal himself had often
ridden. Its name, according to the story, was Surus,
meaning ''the Syrian.'' Because the Ptolemies of Egypt,
successors to Alexander, were known to have seized
some Indian elephants as booty in their campaigns in
Syria, it seemed likely that some descendants of those
elephants had found their way to Carthage. Egypt and
Carthage enjoyed good relations in those days. Mr. De
Beer, citing the story of Surus, concluded, ''It is therefore
almost certain that Hannibal's elephants included at
least one Indian.''
The Battle of Zama |
Peter Fitzgerald
Hannibal was the first to engage in battle, this was done by sending
his war elephants along with a skirmishing group. The Romans
On October 19th in the year 202 BC a big battle commenced that
retaliated with their skirmishers and by blowing their horns as
finished a great war. The battle in question is the Battle of
loud as possible to scare the elephants. This move with the horns
Zama and the war that finished because of the outcome of this
actually partially worked as a group of the war elephants turned
battle is the Second Punic War.
back and completely disrupted Hannibal’s left flank.
The Second Punic War was a battle between the Roman Republic
A group of Roman cavalry made up of Numidian cavalry was sent
and Carthage. The army of Carthage was commanded by the
to mop up the left flank of Hannibal’s army, which also happened
infamous ancient commander Hannibal.
to be made up of Numidian cavalry. In the end there was no left
Prior to the Battle of Zama
flank of the Carthage army left as the flank simply left the field (for
Before the battle commenced there had been many battles and
reasons unknown).
much bloodshed at the hands of both armies. 16 years before the
While all this was occurring the other war elephants had simply
battle, the Carthaginians marched across the Alps under the
been lured to the back of the Roman lines and despatched of.
leadership of Hannibal and started winning important battles
The left flank of the Roman lines was made up of cavalry; this
against the Romans.
cavalry was then sent against the right flank cavalry of the
The Romans decided they wished to remedy the situation and find
Hannibal line. Hannibal made his cavalry leave the battle field with
a way round the formidable Hannibal so tactics were changed and
the Roman cavalry in pursuit, literally rendering them ineffective.
a new direction was taken. This new direction came in the form of
The Romans now marched their central lines on to the Carthage
Roman commander Scipio Africanus who had an interesting idea
forces. Hannibal in response sent his first two lines forward, the
which was to form the backbone of the battle.
first line of which was pushed back and the second line charged
Scipio Africanus decided that while Hannibal was in the southern
forward causing big losses of the Roman lines.
peninsula of Italy, to let him stay there while the Roman
The Romans reinforced their second line to stop the rout of
army headed to Africa to invade the Carthaginian homeland. This
Hannibal’s army on the Roman forces, this move caused
would then finish the war without battle with Hannibal.
Hannibal’s second line to get annihilated and the third line to push
In 203 BC Scipio Africanus landed in Africa while Hannibal was
out to the wings.
still in Italy. Once in Africa Scipio won some landmark victories,
The cavalry chasing the Carthage cavalry came under attack off the
most notably the huge victory at the Battle of the Great Plains. This
field as the Carthage cavalry turned back to do battle, but this ploy
manoeuvre by Scipio and the big victories he achieved caused the
didn’t work as the Romans slaughtered the Carthage cavalry.
Carthaginians to call Hannibal back to the homeland for
commanding their army in a defensive capacity.
The Romans now formed one large line and engaged in battle, a
fierce battle that was carrying on for some time. This was until the
The Battle of Zama
Roman cavalry returned and encircled the rear of Hannibal’s men
After Hannibal managed to make his way back with his army to
and started tearing through them.
Carthage, he collected local citizens along with his veteran force
A large portion of the Carthage army, along with Hannibal, fled the
from Italy and made on his way to face the Romans commanded by
The outcome of the battle was a resounding victory for the
Hannibal was the first to reach the battle point, a place called
Romans. The Romans lost 5,500 men while the Carthage army lost
Zama Minor not far from Carthage. The battle was to take place on
20,000 and also had 20,000 captured as prisoners.
the plains as it gave Hannibal a great vantage point for using his
cavalry, unfortunately he never thought about the prospect of the
Romans having a stronger cavalry force.
Hannibal had 51,000 men, of which 45,000 were infantry and
6,000 cavalry (including 80 war elephants). Scipio had 43,000
men of which 34,000 were infantry and 9,000 were cavalry.
Both armies faced one another in three straight lines and cavalry
on the flanks.
Ancient Rome’s Darkest
Day: The Battle of Cannae
Evan Andrews
It was the bloodiest battle the ancient world had ever seen.
During the Second Punic War on August 2, 216 B.C., a
Carthaginian army under the general Hannibal clashed with
eight Roman legions near the Italian city of Cannae. Though
heavily outnumbered, Hannibal used a famous doubleenvelopment tactic to surround the Romans and trap their
army. By the time the slaughter finally ended, at least 50,000
legionaries lay dead and Rome faced the greatest crisis in its
Paullus gave chase, and by early August the Romans and
Carthaginians were both deployed along the River
Aufidus. According to the ancient historian Polybius,
Hannibal had around 40,000 infantry and 10,000
cavalry at his disposal (his famous war elephants had all
died by 216). The Romans boasted some 80,000 troops
and 6,000 cavalry.
In 216 B.C., the Roman Republic was embroiled in the
second of what would eventually be three devastating
wars with the North African city-state of Carthage. What
had begun some 50 years earlier as a territorial dispute
had devolved into an existential duel, with both powers
vying for supremacy. Rome had emerged the victors in
the First Punic War, but at the start of the second
conflict in 218 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal
had staged an audacious invasion of Italy via the Alps.
Since then, his mercenary army of Libyans, Numidians,
On the morning of August 2, the two armies assembled
Spaniards and Celts had rampaged across the
on a hot, dust-blown plain and prepared for battle. The
countryside, laying waste to farmland and trouncing
Romans set up in a traditional block formation with a
Roman legions. In just two major battles at the River
mass of infantry protected by cavalry on both wings.
Trebia and Lake Trasimene, Hannibal had used his
Varro—the commander on the day—hoped to use his
military genius to inflict as many as 50,000 casualties on
legions like a battering ram to break the center of the
the Romans.
Carthaginian lines. Hannibal expected this, so he
arranged his army in an unconventional formation
Following these early losses, Rome adopted a delaying
designed to use the Romans’ momentum against them.
strategy that sought to cut off Hannibal’s supply lines
He began by positioning his weakest troops—his Gallic
and avoid the pitched battles that were his stock-in-
Celts and Spaniards—at the very center of his line. He
trade. It was a canny tactic, but one the hyper-aggressive
then placed his more elite, battle-hardened Libyan
Romans would not embrace for long. In 216 B.C., they
infantry slightly to the rear on both flanks. The cavalry
elected Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius
took up positions on the far left and right wings. When
Paullus as co-consuls and equipped them with eight
fully assembled, the Carthaginian line resembled a long
legions—the largest army in the Republic’s history. Its
crescent that bulged outward at its center toward the
mission was clear: confront Hannibal’s army and crush
Romans. Never one to lead from the rear, Hannibal
assumed a post at the front alongside his Spaniards and
The chance for a showdown arrived later that summer,
when Hannibal marched into southern Italy and seized a
At the sound of trumpets, the two sides surged forward
vital supply depot near the town of Cannae. Varro and
and the battle commenced. “Now began a great slaughter
and a great struggle,” the historian Appian later wrote,
“each side contending valiantly.” Light infantry initiated
the fight by probing one another’s lines and hurling
javelins, spears and projectiles. The first decisive
maneuver followed when Hannibal’s heavy cavalry,
under the command of an officer named Hasdrubal,
stampeded into the horsemen on the Romans’ right
flank. In short order, the superior Carthaginian riders
had all but obliterated their Roman adversaries.
Back at the infantry battle, Hannibal’s bare-chested
Gauls and Spaniards collided with the main body of
The memorial stone commemorating the Battle of
Romans in a whirlwind of swords, spears and shields. As
the troops slashed and stabbed at one another, the
Hannibal’s trap was complete, but the battle was still far
Carthaginian center was slowly pushed back, reversing
from over. The corralled legionaries showed no signs of
its formation from an outward bulge into a concave
surrender, so the Carthaginians closed in and began the
pocket. This was all part of Hannibal’s plan. By giving
grisly work of cutting them down one man at a time.
the Romans the impression they were winning, he was
Over the next several hours, the plain at Cannae turned
only luring them into a space between the still-
into a killing field. A few thousand Romans broke out of
unengaged Libyan troops on the edges of his formation.
the encirclement and fled, but with no room to
With their spirits soaring, thousands of legionaries had
maneuver, the rest were slowly hemmed in and
soon streamed into the pocket in the Carthaginian line.
slaughtered. “Some were discovered lying there alive,
When they did, they abandoned their orderly shape and
with thighs and tendons slashed, baring their necks and
became bunched together.
throats and bidding their conquerors drain the remnant
of their blood,” the chronicler Livy later wrote. “Others
Hannibal now gave the order that would spell the
Romans’ doom. At his signal, the Libyans pivoted inward
and attacked the advancing legionaries’ left and right
flanks, closing them in a vise. Hasdrubal, meanwhile,
galloped across the battlefield and helped rout the
cavalry on the Romans’ left wing. Having shorn the
Romans of their mounted support, he then wheeled his
were found with their heads buried in holes dug in the
ground. They had apparently made these pits for
themselves, and heaping the dirt over their faces shut off
their breath.” Ancient sources differ, but by sunset,
anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Romans lay dead and
thousand of others were captured. Hannibal had lost
some 6,000 men.
force around and pounced on the legionaries’
unprotected rear. The surviving Romans—perhaps as
Word of the massacre at Cannae sent the city of Rome
many as 70,000 men—were totally encircled.
spiraling into a panic. “Multitudes thronged the streets,”
Appian wrote, “uttering lamentations for their relatives,
calling on them by name, and bewailing their own fate as
soon to fall into the enemy’s hands.” In their
desperation, the Romans dispatched a senator to the
Greek oracle at Delphi to divine the meaning of the
tragedy. They even conducted human sacrifices to
appease the gods. While Hannibal ultimately decided
that his army was too weak to march on Rome, Cannae
decisively defeated him in the war’s final clash at the
had still pushed the Republic to the brink of collapse. In
Battle of Zama.
just one day of fighting, the Romans had lost at least
seven times as many soldiers as were later killed at Battle
The Second Punic War effectively ended Carthage’s reign
of Gettysburg. “Certainly there is no other nation that
as a military power, allowing Rome to tighten its grip on
would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of
the Mediterranean and begin building its empire. Even
calamity,” Livy wrote.
in defeat, however, Hannibal had cemented his place in
the pantheon of great military commanders. The
Yet even in their darkest hour, the stubborn Romans
Romans built statues of him to celebrate their triumph
simply refused to yield. Following a brief period of
over a worthy adversary, and his victory at Cannae later
mourning, Rome’s senate rejected Hannibal’s peace
became a subject of fascination for generals ranging
offers and refused to ransom his Cannae prisoners. The
from Napoleon to Frederick the Great. Dwight D.
citizenry was put to work making new arms and
Eisenhower described it as the “classic example” of a
projectiles, and the crippled army was rebuilt by
battle of annihilation. Nevertheless, Hannibal’s tactical
lowering the recruitment age, enlisting convicts and even
masterpiece had not been enough to break the Romans.
offering slaves their freedom in exchange for service. For
He had won a legendary battle at Cannae, only to leave
each of the Roman legions destroyed at Cannae, several
his enemy even more determined to win the war.
more were eventually raised and committed to the field.
While his enemy fell back on its overwhelming
manpower, Hannibal only grew weaker. He continued to
maraud through Italy for several years in search of a
second Cannae, but his isolated army slowly withered
away after not enough of Rome’s allies rallied to his
cause. The Romans’ miraculous comeback continued in
204 B.C., when the general later known as Scipio
Africanus launched an invasion of North Africa with
some 26,000 men, many of them survivors of the
humiliation at Cannae. Hannibal was recalled from Italy
to defend the Carthaginian homeland, but in 202, Scipio
Why Hannibal Lost | BY RICHARD A. GABRIEL
operational failures that led to his defeat in Italy. And his loss there
was to have dire consequences for Carthage.
Among the basic distinctions in warfare is the difference between
tactics and strategy. The term tactics refers to the operational
Wars evolve within the cultural contexts adversaries bring to the
techniques military units employ to win battles. Strategy, on the other
conflict. For Romans war was a straightforward predatory exercise
hand, addresses the broader political objectives for which a war is
employed to destroy an enemy’s regime. Battles were means to the
fought and the ends, ways and means employed to obtain them. For
larger political ends of conquest, occupation and economic
strategy to succeed, there must be at least a rough connection
exploitation. To accept defeat risked having an enemy impose such
between tactical objectives and the broader objectives for which the
conditions on one’s own citizens, something Rome would pay any
war is waged. Otherwise, battles become ends in themselves, often
price in blood and treasure to prevent. Romans fought wars until
with grave strategic consequences.
decisively won. Only then did negotiations follow.
Such was the case with Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general
Hannibal’s perspective on war was rooted in the influence of
widely considered one of history’s most able and talented field
Hellenistic culture. In his view the object was not the destruction of
commanders. He invaded Roman Italy in what historians still regard
an enemy’s state or political regime. Instead, armies fought battles on
as a classic campaign, won every major engagement he fought and
one another’s turf until it became clear to the political leadership of
yet ultimately achieved none of Carthage’s strategic objectives.
the losing side there was nothing more to be gained and perhaps
much to lose by further combat. The antagonists then entered into
negotiations and reached a settlement of a commercial or geographic
In his view armies fought until it became clear to the political leadership of
the losing side there was nothing more to be gained by further combat
nature. Hannibal believed his battlefield victories would force Rome
to the negotiating table. This Hellenistic approach restrained
Hannibal from attacking Rome itself when presented two
opportunities—first after his 217 BC victory at Lake Trasimene and
Born in 247 BC, Hannibal was the son of Carthaginian general and
again after Cannae just over a year later. In Hannibal’s mind an
statesman Hamilcar Barca, who rallied his North African nation-state
attack on Rome was unnecessary to the final outcome of the war.
from defeat in the First Punic War (264–241 BC) to conquer much of
Iberia (present-day Spain) before his death there in battle in 228 BC.
When the Romans refused to discuss peace even after the disaster at
Hannibal had essentially grown up in military service, and following
Cannae, Hannibal’s plan began to unravel. It was one thing to expect
the 221 BC assassination of his brother-in-law Hasdrubal, who had
the Gauls to join his campaign against Rome, but the assumption that
replaced Hamilcar, Hannibal took charge of the Carthaginian army.
Rome’s Latin allies or Roman colonies would join in any significant
He soon proved a brilliant field commander who applied his intellect
numbers was wholly unfounded, based on a lack of understanding of
and martial skills to the singular end of winning battles.
Roman culture and history. Had this not been clear to Hannibal
before, it must surely have been after Cannae. As a fallback he sought
Again, however, battles are the means to a strategic end, not ends in
to create a confederacy of Italian and Greek states that would become
themselves. Hannibal, a sworn enemy of all things Roman, lost sight
de facto protectorates of Carthage once the war was over.
of that fact when he launched the Second Punic War (218–201 BC).
While the conflict would rage across the Mediterranean world,
For Hannibal’s plan to have any chance of success required sufficient
victory in Italy was Hannibal’s sole objective. To achieve it, he
manpower to accomplish two things: First, to hold the towns and
marched the bulk of his army in Iberia across southern Gaul (present-
cities while protecting agricultural resources necessary to feed the
day France) and, famously, over the Alps into the Roman heartland.
occupying troops; second, to sustain a large field army to deal with
any Roman offensives. The problem was it required far more
Hannibal approached his operations in Italy not as one campaign in a
manpower than he possessed or could possibly raise and supply in
larger war but as the only campaign in the only war. He seemed to
Italy alone.
believe that if he won enough battles, he would win Italy, and if he
won Italy, victory would be his. Ultimately, however, his confusion
Hannibal’s revised plan, therefore, depended on Carthage to provide
of tactics with strategy caused him to commit a number of
manpower and logistical requirements from outside Italy, something
it refused to do for sound strategic reasons. Moreover, the plan gave
no consideration to the ability of the Roman navy to blockade
At the outbreak of war Carthage had initially given Hannibal a free
southern Italian ports and disrupt supply convoys from Carthage.
hand, having had little choice but to support their field commander in
Most important, Hannibal’s southern Italian confederacy was
his Italo-centric strategy. But after Cannae, when it became clear
essentially a defensive strategy that left intact and unchallenged the
Rome could not be forced to the negotiating table, Carthage favored a
Roman manpower and resource base north of the Volturnus
more direct approach to regaining its lost possessions.
(Volturno) River, thus enabling Rome to rebuild its armies until
ready to resume the offensive. Even if it coalesced, Hannibal’s league
What Carthage wanted most from the war was to retain possession of
of rebel towns in southern Italy could not impede Rome’s war effort
Iberia, with its lucrative silver mines, commercial bases and
sufficiently to induce it to seek peace.
monopoly on the inland trade. It also wanted to recoup its bases in
Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and some of the offshore islands and thus
Hannibal’s failure to attack Rome was his greatest tactical mistake.
control the sea-lanes in the eastern Mediterranean. After Cannae,
The Roman historian Livy tells us that when Carthage recalled
Carthage moved to secure these possessions by reinforcing them, as
Hannibal in 203 BC, he called down “curses on his own head for not
in Iberia, or attempting to seize them militarily—as in Sardinia, Sicily
having led his armies straight to Rome when they were still bloody
and Corsica. If Carthage could establish a significant military
from the victorious field of Cannae.” But history must regard
presence in its former possessions, it would be in a strong position to
Hannibal’s failure to attack Rome within the context of his greater
retain them once the war ended and negotiations ensued.
failure to understand the strategy that guided the conduct of the war.
Hannibal’s superiors viewed his operations in Italy as little more than
Both Carthage and Rome viewed the war in a far broader strategic
a localized campaign designed to tie down as many Roman legions as
context than did Hannibal. Rome sought to preserve gains it had
possible while they brought military pressure to bear at more
obtained during the First Punic War and perhaps seize Iberia, while
important strategic locales. It had wisely revised its strategic
Carthage aimed to retain Iberia and recover territory in Corsica,
approach and objectives—a direct consequence of Hannibal’s failure
Sardinia and Sicily it had lost in the previous war. Rome clearly
to realize his myopic goals in Italy.
perceived Carthage’s strategic intent: Of the 11 legions deployed
after Hannibal arrived in Italy, two were sent to Iberia, two to
Hannibal felt betrayed by Carthage after Cannae. When in 203 BC
Sardinia, two to Sicily and one to the port of Tarentum (present-day
his superiors ordered their commander to abandon his Italian
Taranto) to block any invasion by Philip V of Macedonia, though he
campaign and return to Africa, Livy records that Hannibal “gnashed
had yet to ally with Hannibal. Only four legions deployed within Italy
his teeth, groaned and almost shed tears.” He openly blamed
to meet Hannibal’s invasion.
Carthage for its failure to support his campaign with troops, supplies
and money. “The men who tried to drag me back by cutting off my
Had Hannibal also taken the broader perspective, he would have
supplies of men and money are now recalling me,” he is said to have
understood that an attack on Rome would have made sound
complained, adding that his defeat came not at the hands of Romans
tactical and strategic sense. A march on the capital after his victory at
“but the Carthaginian Senate by their detraction and envy.”
Trasimene would have forced the Romans to come to its aid, drawing
off their forces from outside Italy. By then only one intact legion, at
As with many of history’s great field commanders, Hannibal had
Tarentum, remained to defend Rome. At Trasimene, Hannibal had
succumbed, at least in part, to his enemy’s superior logistics.
destroyed Gaius Flaminius’ army, while his subordinate Maharbal
had destroyed Gnaeus Servilius Geminus’ cavalry. The two nearest
Hannibal’s accusation that the Carthaginian Senate had failed to send
Roman legions were on Sardinia, but 70 Carthaginian warships
him critical supplies and troops when most needed was dead on.
patrolled its waters to prevent Roman troop transports from reaching
Throughout the course of the Second Punic War, Carthage sent
the mainland.
Hannibal only one resupply expedition—a marginal force of 4,000
Numidian horse, 40 elephants and some money in 215 BC. After that
Had Hannibal immediately marched on the capital, even as a feint,
he received nothing, as Carthage had redirected its resources to a
Rome would have been forced to recall some of its legions, exposing
strategy in which victory in Italy no longer occupied a central place.
Sicily, Sardinia or Iberia to Carthaginian attack and invasion. His
failure to act represented a lost opportunity even he, in hindsight,
Carthage’s failure to properly resupply Hannibal cannot be blamed
realized might have turned the tide of the war.
on a lack of available resources. Indeed, the manpower and resource
base of the Carthaginian empire was greater than Rome’s. The troop
by defeating its armies in the field had already failed. If none of the
and resupply expeditions Carthage sent out in support of military
Latin allies or Roman tribes had deserted by that point, it was highly
operations during the Second Punic War were substantial, in some
unlikely any further defections in the south of Italy or additional
cases larger than Hannibal’s entire army in Italy. In 215 BC, for
victories Hannibal might win there would prompt Rome to seek
example, Carthage sent to Iberia 12,000 infantry, 1,500 cavalry, 20
elephants and a quantity of silver with which to hire mercenaries.
Later that year it sent an even larger force to Sardinia. In 213 BC.
The strategic ground shifted beneath his feet, reducing a commander who
Carthage dispatched to Sicily 25,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 12
had once ruled the battlefield to little more than a sacrificial pawn
elephants. In 207 BC it sent to Iberia 10,000 additional troops to
replace losses from the Battle of Baecula. Finally, in 205 BC
Hannibal’s brother Mago and a force of 12,000 infantry, 2,000
If Hannibal could not destroy Rome on its own soil, as Carthage
cavalry and a number of elephants invaded Liguria in northern Italy.
believed, then what was the point of the war? In true Hellenistic
fashion the Carthaginian statesmen decided their priorities lay in
Carthage was able to resupply and reinforce its armies in the various
maintaining control of Iberia and perhaps regaining Sardinia, Corsica
theaters of operations thanks to its ready supply of transport ships—
and other areas lost earlier. If that was the strategic objective of the
not surprising for a commercial and shipbuilding nation-state that
war, then how did Hannibal’s continued presence in Italy contribute
could construct or hire from traders as many transports as needed for
to that end? The answer was to tie down as many legions as possible
any contingency. Moreover, the Roman naval presence off southern
in Italy while Carthage concentrated its efforts in the other theaters of
Italy was never sufficient to cover all bases at once, so there was no
operations. Italy became a sideshow, and Hannibal was left to his fate
good reason why supply transports could not have gotten through to
so that when the war ended, Carthage might be able to hold on to
what it had won elsewhere.
Right up to war’s end Carthage had more than enough men, materiel
In the end Hannibal failed in Italy not because he was defeated on the
and transports to support Hannibal in Italy. It simply chose not to
battlefield but because his tactical victories had not contributed to
send them.
Carthage’s overall strategic objectives. After Cannae the strategic
ground shifted beneath Hannibal’s feet, reducing a commander who
Ironically, Carthage’s strategic shift away from Italy after Cannae
had once ruled the battlefield to little more than a sacrificial pawn in
came at a time when Hannibal’s momentum was at its zenith.
a much larger game he never really understood. MH
Paradoxically, it was his very successes in the field that led Carthage
to reconsider its strategy. When Mago returned to Carthage in 215
BC to request troops and supplies for Hannibal, he addressed the
Senate. At that meeting Hanno, head of the faction that had opposed
the war from its outset, asked Mago the following questions: “First,
in spite of the fact that the Roman power was utterly destroyed at
Cannae, and the knowledge that the whole of Italy is in revolt, has
any single member of the Latin confederacy come over to us?
Secondly, has any man belonging to the five and 30 tribes of Rome
deserted to Hannibal?” Mago had to answer they had not.
“Have the Romans sent Hannibal any envoys to treat for peace?”
Hanno continued. “Indeed, so far as your information goes, has the
word ‘peace’ ever been breathed in Rome at all?” Mago again replied
in the negative. “Very well then,” Hanno concluded. “In the conduct
of the war we have not advanced one inch: The situation is precisely
the same as when Hannibal first crossed into Italy.” Hanno’s point
was that Hannibal’s strategy to bring Rome to the negotiating table