Ancient History & Civilisation




Polybius of Megalopolis peered down from a pass high in the Italian Alps and caught sight of the rich green Lombard plain far below. It was exactly the same inviting panorama Hannibal had shown his half-starved, half-frozen, thoroughly discouraged army seventy-three years before, exhorting them to stay the course on what would prove to be an amazing path of conquest. Quite probably enough bits and pieces of that weary host remained visible for Polybius to be sure he was in the right spot; a certitude denied future chroniclers, and giving rise to one of ancient history’s most enduring and futile controversies: Where exactly did Hannibal cross the Alps?1 Polybius, for his part, was free to concentrate on questions he found more important.

It was his aim—an endeavor that would eventually fill forty books—to explain to his fellow Greeks how a hitherto obscure city-state on the Italian peninsula had come to dominate, virtually in the course of a lifetime, the entire Mediterranean world. But if Rome stood at center stage in Polybius’s inquiry, Hannibal and Carthage were his foils. Each in their own way had nearly put an end to Rome’s ambitions. Both by this time were dead, obliterated by Rome, but it was the challenges they had posed and the disasters they had inflicted that Polybius found most compelling. For no matter how bad things had gotten, Rome had always responded, had picked itself up out of the dustbin of history and soldiered on. And it was in defeat more than victory that Polybius saw the essence of Rome’s greatness.

It never got worse than Cannae. On August 2, 216 B.C., a terrible apocalyptic day in southern Italy, 120,000 men engaged in what amounted to a mass knife fight. At the end of the fight, at least forty-eight thousand Romans lay dead or dying, lying in pools of their own blood and vomit and feces, killed in the most intimate and terrible ways, their limbs hacked off, their faces and thoraxes and abdomens punctured and mangled. This was Cannae, an event celebrated and studied as Hannibal’s paragon by future practitioners of the military arts, the apotheosis of the decisive victory. Rome, on the other hand, lost—suffering on that one day more battle deaths than the United States during the entire course of the war in Vietnam, suffering more dead soldiers than any other army on any single day of combat in the entire course of Western military history. Worse yet, Cannae came at the end of a string of savage defeats engineered by the same Hannibal, Rome’s nemesis destined to prey on Italy for another thirteen years and defeat army after army and kill general after general. Yet none of this would plumb the depths reached on that awful afternoon in August.

It has been argued that Polybius, aware of Cannae’s enormous symbolic import, deliberately structured his history so as to make the battle appear as the absolute low point in Rome’s fortunes, thereby exaggerating its significance.2 Yet, not only do sheer numbers argue the contrary, but also Rome on this day lost a significant portion of its leadership class, between a quarter and a third of the senate, the members of which had been anxious to be present at what had been assumed would be a great victory. Instead it was a debacle by any measure, so much so that a case can be made that Cannae was even more critical than Polybius believed, in retrospect a true pivot point in Roman history. Arguably the events of this August day either initiated or accelerated trends destined to push Rome from municipality to empire, from republican oligarchy to autocracy, from militia to professional army, from a realm of freeholders to a dominion of slaves and estates. And the talisman of all of this change was one lucky survivor, a young military tribune named Publius Cornelius Scipio,* known to history as Africanus. For at the end of many more years of fighting, Rome still would need a general and an army good enough to defeat Hannibal, and Scipio Africanus, with the help of what remained of the battlefield’s disgraced refugees, would answer the call and in the process set all else in motion.


Two questions spring to mind: How do we know? and Why should we care? For this is, after all, ancient history, among the dimmest and potentially most obscure of our recollections. Putting relevance aside for a moment, it is still necessary to concede a point made by Cambridge classicist Mary Beard: “The study of ancient history is as much about how we know as what we know, an engagement with all the processes of selection, constructive blindness, revolutionary reinterpretation and willful misinterpretation that together produce the ‘facts’ … out of the messy, confusing, and contradictory evidence that survives.”3

In other words, what we know for sure is entirely limited, and all the rest is basically opinion. This point is driven home by the single sliver of archaeological evidence purporting to show that Hannibal ever actually invaded Italy—an inscription thought to commemorate Fabius Maximus’s capture of the port city of Tarentum and containing the name Hannibal but not a word about Tarentum or Fabius.4 After all those years, all those battles, that’s it. Speaking of battles, military historians are prone to muddying their boots walking the fields on which mayhem once took place, seeking all manner of insights from the terrain, revelations that they maintain it is impossible to derive from the flat pages of a book. With Cannae and virtually all the other battles of the Second Punic*War, this exercise is, well, just an exercise when it becomes apparent that it is impossible to locate the battle sites with any degree of precision; during twenty-two hundred years, rivers change course, lakeshores advance and retreat, contemporary sprawl steamrolls the landscape.5

All we really have are words, preserved for us in the most haphazard fashion out of a much larger body of literature. So the study of ancient history is roughly analogous to scrutinizing a badly decayed patchwork quilt, full of holes and scraps of material from earlier work. Central to understanding the process of study is an awareness that, besides an occasional fragment liberated from the desert by archaeologists, there will be no more evidence. The quilt is it; everything must be based on a reasoned analysis of the fabric at hand. Plainly the quality and integrity of some of the patches greatly exceed those of the others, so they will be emphasized and relied upon whenever possible. Yet, because of the limited nature of the material, there is always the temptation to fall back on a truly outlandish polka dot or a monumentally garish plaid, if only to figure out where it came from and what it might have meant in its original form. In the end, even among otherwise tasteful and scrupulous ancient historians, something is almost always better than nothing.

Fortunately for us, that “something” generally includes things military. Ancient historians were united in their belief that force was the ultimate arbiter of human affairs, and almost without exception wars and their outcomes were at the center of their works. Printing presses were nonexistent, and literacy was the possession of a tiny minority generally clustered around the ruling classes. Military history was not only dramatic and entertaining; it could be highly instructive for those in charge.

To Polybius, plainly the best of our sources, command in battle was “the most honorable and serious of all employments” (3.48.4) and he wrote knowing he had the ear of some of war’s most enthusiastic practitioners. He was not in Rome by accident, or by choice. Polybius was a hostage, a hipparch, or master of cavalry, brought there in 167 B.C. along with a thousand of his countrymen to ensure the future good behavior of the Greek region of Achaea, part of the grinding, half-unwilling process by which the Romans eventually stifled Greek freedom. In a city where patronage meant everything, Polybius managed to attach himself to the clan and person of Scipio Aemilianus, grandson of one of the two losing consuls at Cannae, a perch that gave Polybius unparalleled access to the sources he needed for his great project of explaining Roman success. Besides trekking the Alps, he visited the state archives and read old treaties between Carthage and Rome, examined the personal papers and correspondence of important players, traipsed across battlefields, and journeyed to other pertinent locations. He even examined a bronze tablet Hannibal had had inscribed, enumerating his sanguinary achievements before leaving Italy. Polybius also interviewed a number of Cannae’s participants, including two of Scipio Africanus’s key henchmen, Gaius Laelius and the Massylian prince Masinissa, and he possibly even spoke to some of Cannae’s survivors, although they would have been very old.

He also read a lot of history—contemporary or near contemporary accounts that are now lost to us. Key here was the work of Fabius Pictor, a distinguished Roman senator, who after the defeat at Cannae had been sent on a mission to the Delphic oracle to try to figure out what had gone wrong soothsayer-wise. Fabius Pictor is interesting in part due to his kinship with Fabius Maximus, the savvy architect of the strategy of attrition and delay that at least cut Rome’s losses to Hannibal, and also because Fabius Pictor’s history seems to have revealed deep fissures in the Carthaginian government’s support of Hannibal’s invasion.6 We know that Polybius used the work of L. Cincius Alimentus, a moderately important Roman soldier and politician who had been captured by Hannibal and had struck up a relationship with the Carthaginian invader. Polybius also used the work of Aulus Postumius Albinus, who was consul in 151 B.C. There were probably others on the Roman side.

Remarkably—given the truism of history being written by the winners—Polybius had available to him a substantial body of work that told the story from the Carthaginian, or at least Hannibalic, side. Two historians in particular, Sosylus the Spartan and Silenos from Kaleakte, accompanied Hannibal to Italy and stayed with him “as long as fate allowed.”7 While Polybius is dismissive of Sosylus as a gossip, the Spartan knew Hannibal well enough to have taught him Greek, and a surviving fragment of his seven-book history indicates some competence. This is significant since some believe that Polybius’s account of Cannae may have actually come from Hannibal himself speaking to Sosylus or possibly Silenos.8

Even skeptics concede Polybius a place, along with Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus, in the first tier of ancient historians. Without his single-book account of the First Punic War, we would know very little about this conflict, the longest in ancient history. His lost recounting of the Third Punic War is thought to have provided the basis of the historian Appian’s narrative, who here is far better than elsewhere. Yet it was Polybius’s rendering of the second war with Carthage that made and preserves his reputation as a great historian,9 even though the account has a gaping hole in the middle. Fortunately for our purposes, the narrative ends right after Cannae and—with the exception of a few fragments mostly on campaigns in Sicily and Spain—picks up just before the final climactic battle of Zama. Nevertheless, the absence of the middle narrative clouds many issues and leaves us reliant on a single source, Livy, who is more the storyteller and less the analyst. Polybius above all sought the truth, weighing the facts carefully, and characteristically looking at both sides of things controversial; he is the rock on which our understanding of the period is anchored. Still, as scrupulous and fair as Polybius was, his affiliations, sources, and purpose left him with some biases—Scipios, Fabians, and their friends are generally made to look good, and others may have been scapegoated to cover for their mistakes. And ultimately it is his view that Rome and not Carthage deserved to survive. He was also not very good with numbers. His armies are smaller or larger than they should be; at Cannae his dead outnumber those who could have taken part in the battle.10 There are other incongruities. No one is perfect.

Certainly not Livy, or, more formally, Titus Livius. Recently a prominent classicist joked that Herodotus, historiography’s eternal tourist, sported a Hawaiian shirt.11 In this vein it is possible to imagine Livy as an ancient version of a Hollywood mogul, capturing the sweep of Rome’s history with a notably cinematic flair. Of Livy’s original 142 books only 32 survive, but luckily ten of those are devoted to the Second Punic War, and it is almost possible to hear marching across those pages the faint thunder of the original score—cymbal, kettledrums, and trumpets—the clatter of short swords striking Gallic shields and the impassioned Latin of senators debating what to do about Hannibal. In all of historical literature it is hard to match the ghastly clarity of Livy’s Cannae battlefield the morning after, as he pans the wreckage strewn with dead and half-dead Romans, shredded survivors begging for a coup de grâce. The man knew how to set a scene. This is also the problem. Livy’s history looks better than it actually is. Verisimilitude is not truth, just the appearance of truth.

A native of what is now Padua, Livy was born in 59 B.C., his life span almost exactly bracketing that of Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor—or princeps, as the main man preferred. Livy began writing at thirty, or approximately 190 years after Cannae; so there was nobody left to talk to. He pretty much stayed put, avoiding battlefields and archives, instead relying exclusively on literary sources. He used Polybius but seems to have derived him, at least in part, from an intermediary. Livy probably based his depiction of Cannae and the war’s early years primarily on the now lost seven-volume history of L. Coelius Antipater, who had used many of the same sources as Polybius, particularly Fabius Pictor and Silenos. This commonality helps explain why Polybius’s and Livy’s renderings of events basically track in parallel. Yet unlike Polybius, Livy had absolutely no experience as a soldier or as a politician, being unique in that regard among important Roman historians.12 Because he was an amateur writing for amateurs, his battle descriptions focus on clarity and take place in distinct stages.13 Given the chaos of actual combat, this helps make the mayhem more coherent, but it definitely warps reality.

An analogous criticism can be leveled at Livy’s treatment of political decision-making. He was a fierce patriot and partisan, and despite the success of the Augustan regime, the conservative oligarchic senate remained his ideal. Meanwhile, those perceived as “popular” politicians—Flaminius, Minucius, and above all Terentius Varro (the star-crossed supreme commander at Cannae) came in for what is likely more than their fair share of abuse. Livy is also in his element setting up a forensic dustup, with rivals artfully framing the issues and relentlessly undermining opposing positions—logical tours de force until it is realized they are utterly artificial. How could he have known, beyond the barest outline, what was said?

This speaks to a larger point. Ancient history is replete with such speechifying, useful in delineating issues, dramatic, and at times rhetorically elevating (think Thucydides’s Melian dialogue or Pericles’ Funeral Oration), but it is not to be taken literally. There were no voice recorders or stenographers. Most speeches were extemporaneous. Consider also the obligatory harangues given by commanders to their troops before battle. Livy and Polybius are full of them. Here the problem is not only accuracy but transmission; even generals blessed with the most basso profundo of voices would, without amplification, have had trouble being heard by more than a fraction of their armies, numbering in the multiple tens of thousands. And in Hannibal’s case, he would have had trouble being understood by his soldiers, who undeniably spoke a polyglot of tongues and dialects. The words we have are plainly not the words that were said.

Still the Second Punic War is remembered far better than most events this far back in time, blessed not just with two sources, but two historians at or near the front rank. Our good fortune becomes almost embarrassingly obvious when the competitors—foot-draggers progressively removed from the drumbeats of war—are considered. Most important is Appian, an Alexandrian Greek who made his mark in Rome and then settled down in the middle of the second century A.D. to write a twenty-four book history that is more a cluster of monographs than a continuous chronicle. The quality varies with the sources, which are often hard to identify. When he uses Polybius for the Third Punic War, he is fine, but his account of the Second Punic War is bastardized and garbled—so much so that the great German historian Hans Delbrück quotes Appian’s entire version of Cannae just to show how lucky we are to have Polybius and Livy!14 Appian’s rendering of the battle of Zama reads like something out of The Iliad, with the principals Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, and Masinissa all engaging in individual duels. The Romans, as we shall see, did have a penchant for single combat, so this might have happened, but it very probably didn’t. They were all too busy being generals. That’s the way it is with Appian; things that appear ridiculous on average just might have happened, so they cannot be entirely dismissed. Unlike Polybius’s, Appian’s numbers do generally add up; the size of his armies and his casualty figures are as good as anyone else’s. Even Appian’s nonsensical take on Cannae has a redeeming feature—a carefully plotted ambush, more dimly recalled by Livy and something never to be entirely discounted when dealing with Hannibal, the proverbial trickster.

It’s much the same with the others. Still further removed in time, Dio Cassius, a Roman senator whose family hailed from Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote an eighty-book History of Rome in the third century, of which only about a third still exists in fragments, but it is supplemented by a continuous summary composed by Zonaras, a twelfth-century Byzantine monk. Dio Cassius was reported to be a thorough researcher, but also a fancier of rhetoric, so his account is often a matter of style over substance. The net effect is something like sedimentary rock, earlier stuff compressed and distorted to the point where it is hard to make out much that is cogent beyond a few interesting details. There is an accounting of Cannae and it does contain an ambush, but it is impossible to tell if Dio Cassius used sources independent of those we already have.

Besides narratives, there is also a body of biography—but a slim one. Most famous and useful is Plutarch, who assembled in the late first century A.D. a series of parallel lives of famous Greeks and Romans. While his aim was to delineate the character and personality of his subjects, he still managed to include lots of useful historical bits and pieces. Regrettably, Hannibal and Scipio Africanus are not covered, but the biographies of Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, and Titus Quinctius Flaminius all provide information that either corroborates or enlarges upon the fabric of reliable knowledge. Cornelius Nepos, a Roman biographer from the first century B.C., also composed lives of both Hannibal and his father, Hamilcar, which contain information not otherwise available, but they are short to the point of being cursory.

The rest of the quilt amounts to a collage of snippets from the geographer Strabo; the scholar Pliny the Elder; and the historians Diodorus, Pompeius Trogus, Justin, Eutropius, and Timagenes of Alexandria. All refer to one or another item of interest. Finally, there is one very large and unsightly patch, so homely it mocks the entire process of preservation. That would be the Punica of Silius Italicus, a monumentally bad epic on the Second Punic War, which at twelve thousand verses remains the longest piece of Roman poetry still available to us. Wading through this monstrosity of simile and bloodletting in search of something useful, the reader is reminded of the sheer randomness by which all but a scrap of the Annales by Ennius (a far better poem that some argue had an impact on Polybius) was lost, while Silius was conserved. Still, as bad as was his art, Silius was a political survivor in the time of Nero and seems to have grasped two critical aspects of the Second Punic War—that Cannae was a pivotal point in Roman history, and that the need to develop a general who could fight Hannibal on something approaching even terms was the genesis of Rome’s slide toward civil war and eventually despotism.15 Was this the poison pill that Hannibal slipped Rome? This in turn brings us to the second of the two questions asked earlier: Why should we care?


In the ancient world and most epochs that followed, history was viewed as the preceptor of princes. And behind this was a faith in fate, a fear of manipulative deities, and a belief that if only prior mistakes could be learned from and their repetition avoided, good fortune might smile on the protagonist. We have a far different view today. Physicists tell us that nothing is preordained. Consequence is highly contingent, so sensitive to small perturbations at the start of an event sequence that virtually any outcome within the range of the possible can become reality. Prediction may be on the skids, but those same physicists also tell us that unfolding events have a way of mysteriously self-organizing. So is the past really such a misguided flashlight on the future? Long before the science of complexity stuck itself between fortune’s spokes, Mark Twain seemed to have gotten it about right when he concluded that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does sometimes rhyme.

There is much about the clash between Rome and Carthage that seems hauntingly familiar. The physical magnitude, the very scale and duration of the Punic Wars—particularly the first two—remind us of our own recent past. Like World Wars I and II, the Punic Wars were conflicts waged overseas and on a giant scale. The showdown between the Roman and Carthaginian fleets off Cape Economus, for instance, remains in terms of the number of participants the largest naval battle ever fought.16 Similarly, the loss of life in these two ancient conflicts was proportionately as massive and unprecedented as their equivalents in our own era.

And as with the great wars of the twentieth century, the outbreak of the Second Punic War followed logically from the unfinished business of the first. More to the point, perhaps, is that in both cases the loser of the first conflict seems to have been dragged into the second largely by the actions of a single man, Carthage by Hannibal and Germany by Hitler. And both men enjoyed an initial string of stunning victories that drove their opponents to the very brink of collapse; yet neither Britain in 1940 nor Rome after Cannae succumbed. They stared down the odds and somehow retrieved victory from the ashes of disaster.

There was, of course, a Third Punic War, fueled by revenge and waged with the calculated intent of Carthage’s utter destruction—genocide by any other name. We have avoided such a fate, but had there been such a thing as World War III, there is little doubt that much of what we call our civilization would now lie in ruins. At last we may have learned there is and must be a limit to war.

We can also detect the reflection of these ancient conflicts in matters far more personal. The conscience of a nation is often revealed by the fate of its veterans, particularly veterans of defeat. Belatedly we Americans have done what we can to rehabilitate our Vietnam vets and expunge the memory of their lonely return, vowing it will not happen again to those coming back from Iraq. Rome’s example argues that this is not simply a matter of compassion but a matter of prudence.

After Cannae the senate didn’t just turn its back on its survivors; it stigmatized them, banishing them to Sicily for more than a decade. These soldiers were joined only by the refugees of other armies similarly pulverized by Hannibal. Those more fortunate in battle would, for the most part, be deactivated and allowed to rejoin their families and farms after a campaign or so. Life was hard in the countryside, and a family’s survival demanded the soldier’s presence. But the notorious victims, known collectively as thelegiones Cannenses, were left in limbo as their lives at home disappeared. They became quite literally the ghosts of Cannae, and in large part their story will be the story of this book. For now it is necessary to know only that while commanders came and commanders went, only one man was willing to give the survivors of Cannae a shot at redemption, and he was Scipio Africanus. They would follow him to Africa and wreak terrible vengeance on their original tormentors, and being human likely underwent a very fundamental transition in their loyalties. Scipio and the senate had set a dangerous precedent. Soon enough, Roman armies would look to their commanders and not the state to ensure their future. And should the commander choose to march on Rome, they would follow him. This is a lesson that should never be forgotten.

The lethal brilliance of Cannae was of such an order that the encounter became one of the most studied and emulated battles, casting a long shadow over military history and the profession of arms even to this day. Yet the battle’s true place in mind and memory turns as much on the paradox it poses for the basic premises of what we call the Western way of war—that armed conflict is fundamentally about massing great armies to contest and achieve crushing victories, which in turn will reliably lead to the infliction of defeat and successful conclusions overall. A good case can be made that as long as Hannibal was on the Italic peninsula, he never suffered a significant tactical defeat. In 216 B.C., after Cannae and the string of drubbings that preceded it, Hannibal had all but destroyed Rome’s field forces. Subsequent to that, though less famously, he persisted in exterminating entire Roman armies. Yet overall victory continued to elude him.

“It is in Italy, our home-land, that we are fighting,” Fabius Maximus had advised the doomed Lucius Aemilius Paullus shortly before Cannae. “Hannibal, on the contrary, is in an alien and hostile country…. Can you doubt then that if we sit still we must gain the victory over one who is growing weaker every day?” (Livy, 22.39.11ff) Time was Rome’s ally, and what the crafty stalwart was proposing was something akin to a national insurgency—small war, harassment of Hannibal’s sources of supply, and savage reprisals against those misguided enough to throw in their lot with him. The Romans, being Romans, were never satisfied with such a strategy. But until they could come up with someone capable of beating Hannibal at his own game, this strategy sufficed to keep them in the war, gradually restricting his freedom of movement and eventually isolating him in the toe of the boot of Italy. In the end he was forced to leave, having proverbially won all the battles but lost the war.

Today Americans face an analogous situation, both specifically in conflicts with Islamic extremists and more generally. We have reason to question whether our very violent and sudden way of war matches the military problems we now face, whether our views of what organized violence can accomplish should be supplemented or replaced by strategic alternatives, the most developed being the Eastern approach exemplified by the writings of Sun Tzu. It can be argued that along with the Battle of Trafalgar, Cannae provided the template for tactical success in the corpse-ridden first half of the twentieth century. Now in the twenty-first, who is willing to face us in open battle when they can do us more harm at less cost by attacking asymmetrically? Perhaps some, but many will choose insurgency.

The Romans did. But it is important to remember that it was not a matter of preference. They leveraged their weakness into strength because it worked—until they could land a crushing blow. At best, the past only rhymes. The Romans and Carthaginians fought as they did because of who they were and where they came from. Their assumptions, not our own, ultimately engendered reality during the Second Punic War.


What happened at Cannae, even the decision to have a battle on that day, was as much a result of ritual and tradition as it was a result of choices made by the participants. Hence, an understanding of the battle demands that we step back in time and take account as best we can of the origins and implications of those factors. By the time Cannae was fought, humanity had been waging something we would recognize as organized warfare for a bit more than five thousand years.17 For a long time before, though, we had engaged in other violent pursuits, aggressive activities that had cumulatively provided us with the behavioral and tangible assets that would enable us to become true military creatures—what amounted to the raw materials for war.

Hunting had been central. Our evolutionary ancestors were killing and eating other animals long before we evolved into humans.18 To do this required not just effective strategies; our forebears needed weapons; but both were largely a matter of the size of the quarry.

On the one hand there were the problems and possibilities associated with stalking and killing small game. Many were already prey for other animals and had developed avoidance strategies dependent upon stealth and speed. Being slower afoot, our ancestors needed some means of striking from a distance, and that meant velocity and accuracy. Accomplished bipeds since splitting off from the great apes, hominid arms were free to throw and hominid hands were able to grasp and direct sticks and stones. For a long time that was probably our best trick. Then, sometime far down the evolutionary track, perhaps beginning around five hundred centuries ago, behaviorally modern humans came to understand and exploit the possibilities of mechanical advantage. They began fashioning bolas, throwing sticks, boomerangs, and eventually and most important, slings and bows.19 The last two would become persistent handmaidens not just of the chase, but also of war. For they were efficient killers, and they also provided a measure of physical and psychological safety by dispatching the victim at some distance. But as with other strategies aimed at minimizing risk, there was a cost in terms of potential gain, and this would prove to be a major factor—not just in hunting, but in the kind and motivation of armies that eventually evolved in the ancient world.

Much earlier, when modern humans marched out of Africa and moved north, they found a host of really big animals waiting for them, many congregating in huge herds. This was the tail end of the Pleistocene, a period when the back-and-forth march of mile-high glaciers had stimulated genetic ingenuity and the evolution of a lavish array of megafauna—beasts whose very size was their central advantage in an environment that paid big dividends for heat retention. Together such fauna constituted a movable feast for human predators with the cunning and courage to help themselves at Mother Nature’s groaning board. But it was very dangerous, and slings and arrows would not get the job done.

These beasts were not used to being chased, especially not by bipedal newcomers. This meant you could get in close, but also that you had to get in close. To kill such thick-skinned, thick-skulled behemoths demanded direct confrontation, either deep penetration with a spear or heavy blows to the head with a club or ax. But doing this alone would have been suicidal. So big and lethal were these prey that human males had to hunt together in groups. Evidence shows that earlier humans had hunted big game, but now we had the advanced language skills, imagination, and memory to plot coordinated strategies, and an increased capacity for social cohesion. Over time, the experience of confronting big, lethally aroused animals forged hunting parties into teams specialized to face danger, bonded to risk everything in pursuit of a mutual objective and in protecting members in peril. Hunting parties became brotherhoods of killers, prototypes of the squad-size small units that one day would form the basic building blocks of armies.

Meanwhile, when recounting and celebrating their kills back among the band, it is likely the hunters indulged in dance, and as they shared rhythmic and intricate patterns of big muscle movements, they further welded themselves together. Those dances were choreographic prototypes of the marching and drill that would one day unite armies and create the tactical dynamics of the battlefield.20

In the meantime these fraternities of death-dealing were absolutely without precedent in terms of hunting efficiency, as is evidenced by the excavated bones of a hundred thousand horses driven over cliffs in Germany and by similar finds elsewhere.21 Such epic acts of killing seem to fly in the face of a considerable body of evidence that portrays hunter-collectors as parsimonious killers by inclination, true game managers.22 But there is no real contradiction. Herding is a defense mechanism animals use to make themselves scarce. Contacts between predator and prey will be fewer, and when contacts do come, the predator will be overloaded, having only a limited time and ability to kill. This is why hunting animals at times becomes wantonly destructive. They are just following one of the iron laws of the jungle: kill all you can while you can. It was a variation on this rule that Hannibal’s army would apply to the trapped Roman legions at Cannae many centuries later. But that would require a far different environment and considerable psychological conditioning.

For the time being, aggression among humans was likely to have been mostly much more personal and discrete—concerned primarily with the tangle of issues surrounding mating, dominance, and, when it mattered, territory.23 There is little direct evidence of how this played out, but our own residual behavior along with the behavior of other animals gives us some good leads. Since much of animal behavior hinges on reproduction, confrontations characteristically center on individual competitors, and in most species they are males. And while war as it evolved in the ancient world would become essentially a matter of men acting in groups, the proclivity for individual combat was always present, and in the case of the Romans it was brilliantly exploited.

Given the basic motivation of aggression of this sort, there was also no necessary advantage in going to lethal extremes. Strong, though definitely rescindable, human inhibitions against killing our own are well documented24 and are paralleled by similar disinclinations in other animals. Who would kill, who would not, who killed easily—these are matters not much explored in military history, but they are arguably vital issues, particularly in close combat. Hannibal’s invading army was at its core composed of case-hardened veterans. Freeze-dried in the Alps and then tempered by the blood of countless legionaries, they had learned to kill without qualm or hesitation. This was something the Romans could not duplicate so long as they persisted in fielding armies filled with inexperience.

In any case, this killing without qualm or hesitation was so inherently frightful that it had to be enfolded, disguised, and regularized, and once again characteristic forms of aggression within species seem to have provided the context. Among mammals we see a clear pattern of ritualization in combat, with opponents normally following rules—or at least stereotyped behavior—and employing their defense mechanisms symmetrically—antler versus antler in deer and moose, for instance. Noise, visual impressions, and particularly size are important, with dueling animals reacting in ways that make them appear louder, bigger, and more frightening. Ritualization also has a temporal and a spatial dimension, with combat normally being staged at regular intervals synchronized to the female reproductive cycle and sometimes at a habitual venue. So too the human armies of the Second Punic War would often gather at a certain time to fight by mutual consent on fields carefully chosen for battle. Trumpets would blare, drums would pound, and within the ranks soldiers would don crested helmets to make them appear taller, uttering their most horrible war cries, fortifying their spirits to close face-to-face and match sword against sword to confront at last war’s terrible reality. Now, these patterns do not extend across all species, nor did they characterize all the forms of ancient warfare, but they do represent recurring themes and are clearly different from the characteristics of predation, which is far more pragmatic, spontaneous, and indiscriminate.25 Logic points to us having enlisted both the characteristics of predation and the aggression associated with reproductive dominance, along with the weapons we developed and the attitudes we accumulated through participation in each, and then enfolded them in the institution we invented and now call war.


It’s hard to put a finger on exactly when true war started—not just occasional group or individualized mayhem but regularized societal violence. The best bet is that it ignited initially to protect one of several rich but temporary food sources, and eventually took off in a sustained way several millennia after people first settled down in the ancient Middle East to raise crops and domesticate animals.

Briefly put, the logic of this agronomy pushed nascent shepherds and their flocks out away from the farmers and their crops and into the beginnings of an independent existence. Life was tough out there, though, and the magnet of stored grain seems to have drawn the herdsmen into an intensifying syndrome of raiding agricultural settlements, a syndrome that reached a crisis point around 5500 B.C. This makes sense, because around this time the farming communities dotting the region began building walls around dwelling areas, stone shields against hostile outsiders.

At a later date in the timeline, pastoralism got a true leg up when shepherds learned to mount horses, which enabled them to move out onto the Inner Asian steppe. Out there they would continue to live a life of riding and rustling and raiding that would periodically lead them to spill off the high plains and descend on settled societies both east and west, with temporary but devastating effect, all the way up through the thirteenth century A.D. and the epic advances of Genghis Khan’s Mongols.

These Inner Asian steppe horsemen were truly men apart, well away from the main military thread of our story. But they raise an important point. As frightening and bewildering as were their attacks to the victimized, they were not without purpose, mere random violence. They were acts of organized theft, specifically addressing a societal shortcoming, the periodic collapse of their flocks. All the other forms of warfare that sprang up in the ancient world were also motivated by some kind of societal shortcoming; it was just too costly to fight for any other reason.

Back down on the farm, the seeds of war had taken hold independently, and agricultural communities had begun fighting regularly among themselves for territory and dominance. We get an excellent picture of how this evolved among the competing Sumerian city-states on the flatlands bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now still contentious Iraq. In particular we have two very suggestive relics, the first of these being a fragmentary victory monument carved around 2500 B.C., known today as the Stele of the Vultures.26

It is a stone snapshot of the Sumerian order of battle, and it reveals a basic split. Out front, armed for single combat, is Eannatum, ruler of Lagash, symbolically looking forward to a day in the Middle East when elite warriors would seek out and fight equals while a host of lightly armed underlings would do their best to stay alive. But in the Stele of the Vultures, Eannatum is backed up by something entirely more lethal—an infantry column, all wearing helmets, advancing shoulder to shoulder behind a barrier of locked rectangular shields and presenting a hedgehog of spears—a full-fledged phalanx. Military historians have mostly overlooked the implications of this early depiction of a phalanx, and have focused instead on the development of this presumably advanced infantry formation by the culturally resplendent Hellenic Greeks almost two thousand years later. Actually, the technical and tactical requirements for a phalanx are simple. What’s needed is a willingness to confront adversaries at close quarters and to face danger in a cooperative fashion—the big-game hunter mentality. This is where our second relic becomes telling.

We have preserved on clay tablets the written chronicle of a ruler thought to be roughly contemporaneous with Eannatum. The ruler is Gilgamesh of Uruk, humankind’s initial literary hero. Among the accounts of Gilgamesh’s exploits is a suggestive tale of a war with the rival city of Kish over water rights. The action opens with Kish having warned the men of Uruk to stop digging wells and irrigation ditches on disputed territory. Gilgamesh wants war but plainly lacks the power to make the decision stick. Instead, he must go before a council of elders, and when they rebuff him, have their decision reversed by an assembly of all the city’s fighting men.27 Those who would bear the brunt of combat had a clear and direct interest in the outcome, and it stands to reason that they might willingly have taken their place in the dangerous but decisive phalanx. War at this time and place was a cooperative endeavor all about preserving and enforcing the balance of power among multiple independent political entities; but that was not the future in the Middle East, nor was the future of the region’s infantryman to be found in the tight-knit ranks of the phalanx.

The sheer drudgery involved in irrigated agriculture, combined with the massive populations it was able to feed, meant that the dynamics of governance were heavily weighted in the directions of compulsion and rigidly enforced pyramids of power. Meanwhile, the balance among the competing city-states of Sumer proved transitory and was overturned in the middle of the twenty-fourth century B.C. by a single player, Sargon, who proceeded to implement a blueprint for imperial tyranny. His agents fanned out across the alluvium, framing the structure with tax lists, trustworthy locals, garrisons, royal governors, and, kept close at hand, a picked body of heavily armed retainers.28

As time passed, similar cadres of elite warriors would provide the cores of the ancient Middle East’s armies, fleshed out by a multitude of temporarily dragooned and highly expendable foot soldiers. Lacking the motivation and sense of common purpose necessary to advance onto what amounted to ground zero, about the best that could be done with such troops was to provide them with a long-range weapon—typically a bow—to support the leadership and their retainers as they fought it out hand to hand in and around chariots, or later on horseback.

Though large and superficially impressive, such force structures were not inherently very effective; paradoxically, being effective was only partially the point. Looking beneath the rapacity of rulers reveals that armies of this sort addressed the inherent instabilities of societies that were driven by more people digging more ditches, to grow more grain, until natural disaster, crop failure, and epidemic disease suddenly reversed the spiral and dictated retrenchment. The demographic roller coaster was impossible to escape, but the bumps could be smoothed by military action. Imperial forces might lurch forward to capture new laborers, or in times of overpopulation they might capture more land—or simply self-destruct, leaving fewer mouths to feed. Because such armies and the tyrannies they served enlisted the fundamental loyalties of so few, they were brittle and prone to collapse. So the history of the ancient Middle East came to be littered with military disasters, and empires and dynasties in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Persia came and went with dramatic suddenness. Still, their logic was compelling. So new tyrannies arose on top of the old and few eluded their grasp.

One group that tried with some success inhabited a string of independent little cities along the coast of what is today Syria, Lebanon, and Israel; this group came to be known collectively as the Phoenicians. Literally backed up against the sea by the aggression of imperial behemoths, the principal Phoenician centers—Berytus (modern Beirut), Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre—transformed themselves into commercial dynamos, thriving not just on trade but on the concept of value added, turning murex snails into royal purple dye, the cedars of Lebanon into ornate furniture, and, much more commonly, glass into trinkets, beads, and gewgaws.29 For the Phoenicians were among the first to produce and trade manufactured goods in truly huge quantities. And they did so by virtue of a key invention, the ancient sailing vessel, capable of transporting goods measured by the ton, rather than the pound, the entire length of the Mediterranean basin.

The sea was not simply an avenue to wealth; it was a refuge from imperial land power. This standoff was inadvertently depicted in an Assyrian inscription describing King Luli of Tyre slipping a five-year siege, escaping literally out his city’s back door, to join the fleet and go elsewhere.30 Partly to avoid Assyrian pressure and parly in anticipation of the Hellenic Greeks, who also were starting to move into these waters, Phoenicians in the late ninth century B.C. began to plant colonies dotting the shores of the western Mediterranean, the most famous being Tyre’s settlement of Carthage. Unlike the Greeks, the Phoenicians did not care to control the hinterlands, and confined themselves instead to enclaves that served as trading posts and havens for shipping. The posts were placed at intervals of around one day’s sailing time and were set on sites that sought to duplicate the small coastal islands, rocky promontories, and sheltered harbors of the Levantine cities. The key to survival and prosperity—besides fending off and buying off land power at home—was to keep the trade lanes open out there.

War for Phoenicians became a matter of expedience, a necessary part of doing business in an increasingly competitive environment. Phoenicians certainly fought a number of massed battles at sea—most memorably at Salamis—but formalized naval combat was arguably less important than the suppression of piracy through relentless coastal patrols, more of a policing than a military role.31 This is important to our story, because it was this focus on policing rather than on warfare that was inherited and instinctively practiced by one of our two protagonists, the doomed city of Carthage.

The military outlook of the other protagonist, Rome, was deeply conditioned by the Phoenicians’ maritime rival, the Greeks, but by the Greeks at home, fighting on land. For there had emerged on the Hellenic mainland a patchwork of city-states, each one dedicated to its own self-determination, and all engaged in an eternal melodrama of war, alliance, and betrayal. This balance of power, like the earlier one in Sumer, spawned between 675 and 650 B.C. a tactical reliance on that characteristic formation of the martially enthusiastic, the phalanx. For the citizen-soldiers of Hellas, this battle formation was a profound expression of their sense of social solidarity; fighting together, risking it all shoulder to shoulder, was at the heart of their civic existence. But if asked who best defined their fighting spirit, those in the rank and file would have almost certainly pointed to a blind poet several centuries earlier, who recounted the deeds of heroes still four centuries further back in time, Mycenaean aristocrats who were anything but corporate combatants.

The story of Homer’s Iliad is a tale of rowdy individualists engaged almost exclusively in single combat, as much for personal prestige as for military advantage.32 But the poet portrayed them and their deeds in such a compelling manner that he not only convinced Greeks how to act when they fought one another; his words transcended time and place to cement the foundation of war in the West. Above all, combatants were aggressive, matching arms symmetrically, first taking turns casting spears, then moving closer to stab with an extra spear, then still nearer to finish things with their swords—he “who fights at close quarters” was a frequent and positive Homeric epithet.33 The greatest of the heroes—Achilles, Hector, Diomedes, and Ajax—are among the biggest, loudest in their war cries, fleetest afoot, and inevitably armored—characteristics that would be deeply admired and highly influential throughout the course of Western armed combat.

Anything less confrontational was disdained. Diomedes speaks the mind of the Homeric warrior when he addresses Paris, the adulterer and the only major figure in The Iliad to place principal reliance on the bow: “You archer, foul fighter, lovely in your locks, eyer of young girls/If you were to make trial with me in strong combat with weapons, your bow would do you no good at all.”34

All of this the Hellenic Greeks mainlined, injecting its essence into their phalanx, where, armed as individual combatants, they fought collectively but with the same confrontational willingness to close, an aggressive zeal that would one day cut like a knife through the bow-based armies of the East. Meanwhile, this spirit spread westward.

Beginning in the eighth century B.C. the Greeks began settling along the coasts of Sicily and southern Italy, an area the Romans would come to call Magna Graecia. The Iliad being the Greeks’ favorite story, they almost certainly brought it with them. (It appears that the first literary reference to the poem was scratched into a clay drinking vessel, circa 730 B.C., that was excavated from a grave on the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples.) Plainly, the military institutions of the Greeks had an influence farther north. Whether indirectly, from contact with their deeply hellenized neighbors the Etruscans, or from actual observation of Greek fighting techniques, by around 550 B.C. the Romans adopted their own version of the heavy-armored phalanx, a change recorded in the so-called Servian reforms.35 While the ups and downs of their subsequent military adventures would lead the Romans to move dramatically away from the phalanx, the style and substance of the changes they made give every appearance of a continuing Homeric orientation, still fighting in formation but as individual combatants, in a routine notably similar to that followed by the heroes of The Iliad.

The impetus for that transformation began in 390 B.C., when a truly shattering event occurred. A band of thirty thousand Gauls, an amalgam of the tribal peoples living to the north, crossed the Apennines in search of plunder and descended upon the Romans. Physically much larger and wielding long swords with frantic abandon, these Gauls literally engulfed the Roman phalanx at the River Allia. To compound the trauma, the marauders then swept down on Rome, thoroughly sacking the place. Livy (5.38) pictures the refugee Romans watching forlornly from a nearby hill, “as if Fortune placed them there to witness the pageant of a dying country.” Yet their resolve was unbroken, and with all else lost they looked “solely to their shields and the swords in their right hands as their only remaining hope.”

The episode on the hill may have been apocryphal, but the sentiment was real enough. Also, from this moment the Romans nurtured a nearly pathological fear and hatred of Gauls, a dread brilliantly exploited by Hannibal. By the time of Cannae, after a long string of Roman reprisals and incursions into the Gauls’ tribal areas, the feeling was certainly mutual. Despite Roman portraits of them as a bunch of drunken louts and fair-weather warriors, the Gauls were formidable combatants and were imbued with a berserker’s aggressiveness. It’s a stretch to imagine the Gauls reciting Homer around the campfire, but their penchant for single combat, their theatrical acts of courage, and their sheer bloodlust would have made them right at home on the plains of Troy. Basically, this was the fighting profile of their tribal cousins stretching all the way to Spain. All of them would be at Cannae fighting for keeps. Was it any wonder that battle ended so decisively?


By 216 B.C. the Mediterranean basin had coalesced into what amounted to a single strategic environment, composed of a relatively small number of powerful state entities. While there were some economic overtones, this was largely a political and military phenomenon, with the leadership of the major players diplomatically in touch and aware of basic power relationships, though these were certainly subject to miscalculation. Like its East Asian analogue, which had been unified just five years earlier under China’s first emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the Mediterranean system was ripe for further consolidation. But in the West this was only dimly apparent, nor was it in any way clear who might emerge preeminent.

A Greek, or rather a Greek from Macedon, was probably the best bet. More than a century earlier, an astonishingly talented father-and-son team from this unlikely backwater at the northern edge of Greece had set the wheels of change in motion. First, the father, Philip, through a combination of ruthlessness and military brilliance, had managed to temporarily consolidate the ever fractious mainland Greeks, and then had been promptly assassinated. At this point his son and collaborator, Alexander, seized opportunity by the throat and led Greeks and Macedonians all on a great crusade to avenge Persia’s two invasions of Hellas a century and a half earlier. By the time Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C., he had proved himself to be an even greater soldier than his father. Using an updated, extended-spear Macedonian version of the phalanx and a wickedly effective heavy cavalry, he had managed to obliterate a series of bow and elite dependent Persian hosts and in the process had brought the entire ancient Middle East under his sway.

Unity, however, did not prove the order of the day. Instead, a pack of successors grabbed what they could, and then battled one another for more in an epic series of internecine struggles, which a century later left Egypt under the Ptolemys; most of the remainder of the Persian empire in the hands of the Seleucids; and left Macedonia, phalanx central, ruled by the descendants of one of Alexander’s original generals, Antigonus the One-Eyed. Because Alexander’s successors were all Macedonians, they basically fought alike, depending on a steady supply of phalangites and cavalrymen. They also needed full-time men-at-arms to maintain control, and this basically put a premium on military professionals, particularly in the east but also elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The century of fighting had prompted Greeks in general to think seriously about war, to expound upon tactics and strategy, to work out the possibilities of siege craft, and to elaborate naval warfare. Greeks and Macedonians, officers and underlings, military men for hire, they were considered state of the art.

This imparted a cynical “great game” mentality among many of the players, particularly the Hellenistic states and their martial offspring. Dramatic rises and falls, sudden desertions, and transfers of allegiance littered a military landscape where war-hardened mercenaries were the coin of the realm. For the most part the system bred a certain pragmatic restraint. Battles were rarely waged for any strategic purpose greater than as a test of strength.36 A single decisive victory was usually sufficient to determine a war’s outcome in an environment where nobody in his right mind remained on the losing side for long. Because troops were basically interchangeable, it was plausible for the defeated to hope for a place in the ranks of the opposite side. On the other hand, the system’s very cynicism might lead the victor to conclude that the vanquished were worth more on the slave market, a possibility attested to by the practice of keeping plenty of chains and manacles handy.37

This was very much a world where, to paraphrase Thucydides,38 the strong did what they could and the weak did what they must. There has been a recent interest in ancient history by conservative scholars, in part, it seems, because they find today’s post-cold-war world deceptively dangerous and see parallels with the earlier period. But the time we are talking about was far crueler, one in which force was essentially its own justification, and the consequences for weakness were utterly threatening. For instance, the prospects presented to fortified towns and cities when besieged were: surrender and suffer, or resist, and if you fail, suffer much worse. Citizens of places that fell might expect to be subjected to indiscriminate slaughter and rape initially, and later quite possibly sale into slavery. This did not always happen, but it was frequent enough. For soldiers, fate was simple and stark—win, and so long as you weren’t wounded badly or killed, you prospered. Lose, and you might very well lose everything. Still, if your alternatives were drudgery and victimization, the soldier’s life might be short and dangerous, but at least it was exciting.

For this was also a time of military adventure and larger-than-life adventurers. The example of Alexander the Great should not be underestimated; he personified to the age’s soldiers of fortune all that was glorious and might be achieved by a general with sufficient courage, audacity, and skill. If Homer’s Helen was said to have launched a thousand ships, then Alexander’s memory set many an army marching down destiny’s road.

Archetypical among Hellenistic condottieri was Pyrrhus, surnamed Eagle, the sometime king of Epirus and full-time opportunist. At seventeen he fought at the battle of Ipsus, the swan song of Antigonus the One-Eyed; spent time with Ptolemy, becoming his son-in-law; meddled in Macedon until, having overstayed his welcome, he was forced back to Epirus and boredom—but not for long. It was at this point, 281 B.C., that he discovered a place for himself in Italy. The Greek city of Tarentum, hard-pressed by the Romans, had extended Pyrrhus an invitation to help them and the rest of Magna Graecia. Within a year the Eagle had landed with twenty-five thousand professional infantry and cavalry, along with twenty of what were considered to be the game-breakers of the Hellenistic force structure, war elephants. As we shall see, the whole concept of a panzer pachyderm was vastly overrated, but for the uninitiated they were truly terrifying. Horses were repelled by their smell, and foot soldiers without special training were terribly vulnerable.

Nonetheless, Pyrrhus appears to have understood he was in for hard fighting, commenting after reconnoitering the Roman camp: “The discipline of these barbarians is not barbarous” (Plutarch, Pyrrhus 16.5). He was right. At the ensuing battle near Heraclea, the Romans stood up well to Pyrrhus’s phalanx, but their cavalry was driven off by his elephants and their wings collapsed, leaving seven thousand dead on the field. It had been costly, but Pyrrhus had clearly won a victory and plainly expected the Romans to seek terms. He even made a dash toward Rome, perhaps expecting some of their allies to desert; none did.39 Still, he was prepared to be generous; but in the end the Romans rebuffed him. So the next year, 279, he fought them again. This time the Romans held out for two days before Pyrrhus’s phalanx and elephants prevailed, but his losses numbered thirty-five hundred. “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined” (Plutarch, Pyrrhus 21.9), he was heard to say. But there were no signs of surrender, and at this point he did something very Hellenistic.

The Eagle took wing, answering the call of the Greeks in Sicily, where the Carthaginians appeared to be on the verge of taking over the whole island. In short order Pyrrhus’s army routed the Carthaginians, who characteristically tried to buy him off. He would have none of it. But then he made the mistake of executing two prominent Greeks from Syracuse, and he quickly lost favor. Pyrrhus would return to Italy, where the stubborn Romans finally defeated him near Beneventum (modern Benevento) in 275, and then die two years later in street fighting back in Greece. Pyrrhus’s Alexandrian dreams of conquest had come to nothing. Unlike his foes in the West, he’d lacked staying power. But before he’d departed Sicily, he’d said something very prophetic: “My friends, what a wrestling ground for Carthaginians and Romans we are leaving behind us!” (Plutarch, Pyrrhus, 23.6.) One of them, not a Greek, would inherit the future.

* Typical Roman names of the late republican period had three elements: a praenomen, or given name (in this case Publius), chosen from a limited list and having no family connotation; a nomen, referring to the gens or clan name (Cornelii); and, finally, the cognomen, or family within the clan (Scipio).

* “Punic” is derived from the Latin “punicus” and refers to Carthage and Carthaginians.

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