Ancient History & Civilisation


Don’t Look Back


The aftermath of the dramatic declaration of hostilities between Carthage and Rome was anticlimactic. Rome could not launch an attack, because its armies were not yet mobilized, but Hannibal was already making plans. The military strategy that was taking shape in his mind was so bold that the Romans never once considered it as a possible plan of action. Aware of the long ordeal that lay ahead, Hannibal wintered his army at New Carthage, and sent his Iberian contingents on leave. He also deployed a large contingent of his Spanish troops–13,850 infantry, 1,200 cavalry and 870 Balearic slingers–to North Africa, to ‘protect’ Carthage and other cities in Punic Africa, and perhaps to ensure the continued goodwill of the Carthaginian Council. In return, a similar number of African troops were sent to replenish Hannibal’s army in Spain. The defence of Spain was entrusted to his brother Hasdrubal, who was put in command of a force of foot soldiers, slingers and twenty-one war elephants. This was a case not just of protecting the peninsula from Roman attack, but also of guaranteeing the fickle loyalties of the Spanish tribes, who might take advantage of Hannibal’s absence.1

The overland route to Italy offered Hannibal the element of surprise. It was not that the Roman commanders were not expecting an attack, but rather that they never imagined that he would try to take his army to Italy via the Alps. The consuls for 218 BC were Publius Cornelius Scipio and the equally blue-blooded Tiberius Sempronius Longus. The Roman plan was simple: Scipio, with 22,000 infantry and 2,200 cavalry, was to proceed to Spain to take the war to Hannibal. Longus, with a combined force of over 27,000 men and a fleet of 160 quinqueremes and 20 lighter boats, was to launch an invasion of Africa. There can be little doubt that the Roman Senate reckoned on their Carthaginian counterparts, true to past form, hurrying to negotiate at the first sign of real trouble. However, on this occasion, Carthaginian nerve held, and Hannibal himself had no intention of meeting the Roman challenge in Spain.

Historians have long pondered over Hannibal’s motivations in deciding on the arduous land route to Italy. Potential disaster lurked at almost every step. It meant crossing the two highest mountain chains in western Europe–the Pyrenees and the Alps–and passing, often uninvited, through the territory of hostile tribes who did not welcome such intrusions. This might have seemed daunting enough, even for an army of highly trained professional soldiers, but once 12,000 extremely reluctant Spanish levies and a troop of African elephants were factored into the equation this mission stretched the realms of possibility.

Even though taking the overland route gave Hannibal the invaluable advantage of surprise, it was nevertheless an incredibly risky enterprise, born as much from a lack of viable alternatives as from buccaneering endeavour. Carthage may have ruled the waves for over 300 years, but since the disastrous defeat in the First Punic War the western Mediterranean had become a Roman sea. Hannibal himself was a living embodiment of just how much the situation had changed, for it was solely as a land general that he had earned his reputation. Indeed, the Punic fleet in Spain at the start of the Second Punic War consisted of only thirty-seven seaworthy quinqueremes and triremes. Between them Scipio and Longus had over three times that number of ships. Moreover, the Romans controlled many of the bases and much of the coastline by which any fleet would have had to pass in making its way from Spain to Italy.2 The brutal truth was that for Hannibal to transport his army to Italy by sea would have been even more hazardous than the land route. There was no other option than to take his army overland through Spain and Gaul, over the Pyrenees and the Alps and into Italy.

What of the army itself? When describing Hannibal’s troops, Polybius made the dismissive observation that ‘[The Carthaginians] depend for the maintenance of their freedom on the courage of a mercenary force but the Romans on their own valour and on the aid of their allies . . . Italians in general naturally excel Phoenicians and Africans in bodily strength and personal courage.’3 In fact, the force that Hannibal mustered for the march to Italy was far from an inferior rabble, and Polybius himself describes a formidable command of the army overall. Its most senior tiers were made up of members of the Carthaginian elite, supplemented by a number of Numidian and Libyan commanders. At its apex was an inner circle of key advisers mainly drawn from the Barcid clan, including Hannibal’s two brothers Mago and Hasdrubal and his nephew Hanno.4 Polybius also mentions other close confidants who were not close family members, such as Hannibal Monomachus and Mago the Samnite. Despite his fame as a military leader, one of the keys to the future military success that Hannibal would enjoy was the excellence of these lieutenants, themselves excellent generals.5

In its diverse make-up of levies and mercenaries, Hannibal’s army bore a strong resemblance to the armies of the Hellenistic world. The core of his expeditionary force consisted of experienced troops who had fought under him in Spain for a considerable amount of time. Of these, the majority of the heavily armed line infantry which Hannibal brought to Italy were Libyans from areas of North Africa which were subject to Carthage. Famous for their endurance and agility, they were equipped similarly to Roman legionaries, with large oval or oblong shields, short cutting and stabbing swords, and throwing spears. A large number of infantry also came from Spain. The Iberian peninsula supplied at least 8,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry for Hannibal’s war effort. Iberian levies from areas of southern Spain which had been pacified by the Barcids over the previous twenty years made up a large part of this contingent. Although many of the Iberian tribes had sworn an oath of allegiance to Hannibal and his predecessor Hasdrubal, their loyalty was not a given. In 218 BC Hannibal’s recruiting sergeants, who had been sent to raise troops for the war against Rome, were roughed up by Oretani and Carpetani tribesmen angered at what they perceived as the Barcid general’s excessive demands.6

The Iberian infantry wore no body armour over their national dress of a white linen tunic with purple borders, although the leather caps that they wore may have afforded some protection. They were armed with a large oval shield, throwing javelins, and swords of which the most common was the dreaded falcata, curved and sharpened on both sides near the point, so that its handler could inflict maximum damage by cutting and thrusting at the same time. The Iberians were joined in Hannibal’s army by a small number of their wilder cousins, the blackcloaked Celtiberians and sure-footed Lusitanians, who, as they had not been conquered by the Barcids, had to be paid for their services. Hannibal’s force also contained over 1,000 highly specialized mercenaries from the Balearics, who fought as slingers. These troops carried a range of different size slings and shot, depending on the range which was required. The majority of Hannibal’s cavalry came from Numidia, whose two main kingdoms were Carthage’s neighbours, and bound to it by alliance. The Numidians were renowned as superb horsemen, who controlled their pint-sized ponies without saddle, bit or bridle. As Hannibal’s best cavalry, they would prove to be crucial on a number of occasions.7

These Spaniards and Africans, who had often fought for years under the Barcid standard and were tied to Hannibal by a personal bond of loyalty, provided the core of his expeditionary force. They were his most effective and exceptional troops, and Hannibal used them sparingly–only when their discipline and experience were needed.

All ancient armies required a large number of troops who were dispensable. For the Carthaginians it was the Celts, through whose lands Hannibal would have to pass on the way to Italy, who provided the necessary cannon fodder. The Celts who fought with Hannibal came mainly from the two largest tribal confederations from the Po valley in Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy), and they fought in large numbers at a number of key battles. At Cannae, for example, there were 16,000 Celts in the Carthaginian ranks, with a further 8,000 in reserve. Most appear to have been mercenaries recruited through diplomatic treaties agreed with their chiefs, who along with their noblemen fought as cavalrymen. The majority of the Celts of more humble status fought in the massed infantry ranks, often in the front line and armed with long swords sharpened on both sides and designed for slashing. Rather than fighting in formal regiments, war bands of retainers gathered around charismatic leaders selected for both their courage and their fighting prowess. When one looks at the equipment carried by Celtic fighters, it immediately becomes clear why they suffered such high casualties in battle. In the infantry line they appear to have worn trousers, but generally fought bare-chested. They received some protection from their long oak shields, although some sources suggest that these were very narrow and so left the warriors terribly exposed to the spears, javelins and swords of their opponents.8

Although Hannibal would become famous for his use of elephants in battle, it was Alexander the Great who had first introduced them into Mediterranean warfare, having encountered them while campaigning in India. His successors seem to have been equally impressed by the intimidating presence of these giant beasts, to the extent that elephants were used in ever-increasing numbers in set-piece battles. Seleucus I of Syria mobilized 480 elephants–a gift from his new ally the Indian king Chandragupta–at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. It was the ‘shock and awe’ factor of 3 tonnes of trumpeting elephant flesh, its huge ears spread out like dark canopies, that made them such a ‘must have’ for most Hellenistic armies. One terracotta statuette from Asia Minor, which was perhaps a commemoration of the Seleucid king Antiochus’ famous victory over the Galatian Celts in 275 BC, shows a war elephant complete with driver and howdah on its back throttling an unfortunate barbarian warrior with its trunk and impaling him with its giant tusks while trampling him underfoot. Yet other evidence throws doubt on their effectiveness as killing machines, and the Romans, for example, never considered it worthwhile to use them on the battlefield. African elephants were considered to be particularly unreliable in battle, often turning on their own side with devastating results when panicked or wounded. In an attempt to prevent this, their drivers carried a metal spike which they were expected to plunge into the soft nape of the elephant’s neck with a mallet at the point when they lost control of their charges.9

The Carthaginians had first come across battle elephants when fighting against Pyrrhus in Sicily. They had then added elephant troops to their own military arsenal, and used them with some success both in the First Punic War and in subsequent campaigns in North Africa and Spain. For the Barcids the elephant seems to have become an emblem of their power on the Iberian peninsula: its image appears on many high-value coins minted under the authority of Hasdrubal and Hannibal. The choice of the war elephant for battle was a fitting bridge between the martial aspirations of the Barcid clan and the great Hellenistic tradition of which these great beasts had long been a symbol. But the Barcid use of elephants differed from that of the Hellenistic kings in one important respect, for the former’s elephants were not of the larger Asian or bush African variety, but the smaller, now-extinct, forest species which dwelt in the foothills of the Moroccan Atlas mountains and the Rif valley. Their relatively small size (forest elephants measured around 2.5 metres high at the shoulder, against the Asian and bush African species, which often reach over 3 metres) meant that they had to be used in different ways. There has been much academic debate over quite how Hannibal used his elephants on military campaign, other than as a way of intimidating the enemy. Recent research has suggested that, contrary to the previously held orthodoxy, Hannibal’s smaller African forest elephants may have been able to carry a howdah with archers, as their larger Indian cousins did.10

Hannibal’s greatest strength as a military commander was his ability to transform what initially appeared to be his major weakness, the lack of homogeneity in his army, to his advantage. He did not attempt to standardize how his troops fought, but used their variety as a way of offering up a diverse range of military options.11 Indeed, flexibility was the byword of Hannibal’s armies. Tactical orthodoxies were thrown to the wayside as the Carthaginian general frequently bewildered his opponents with new and often rapidly changing formations. Although since the First Punic War the Carthaginian army appears to have adopted the phalanx–the rectangular massed infantry formation that had long been a favourite in the Hellenistic world–Hannibal introduced some important modifications. The long spears and pikes, which could be used effectively only after many years of specialized training, were discarded in favour of heavy-bladed thrusting swords which could be quickly mastered by his assorted body of troops. Moreover, the heavy-infantry phalanx, though undoubtedly an effective bludgeon on the battlefield, could also be unwieldy and slow, and so was customized into a number of different tactical models, including the introduction of a hollow core with the strongest troops deployed on the wings–excellent for effecting an encirclement of the enemy.12 Conscious of his army’s shortcomings, Hannibal managed to transform them into strengths through intelligent generalship. In essence, the Second Punic War was one of the first in which the tactical awareness and abilities of its generals would override other, more conventional, military strengths such as numbers and weapons.13

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