Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Great Battles Lecture: Hannibal’s Secret Weapon in the Second Punic War

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University, speaks. Hannibal, a Carthaginian commander who lived ca. 200 BCE, is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. His use of the environment in his warfare against Rome in the Second Punic War—often called the Hannibalic War—set precedents in military history, utilizing nature and weather conditions as weapons to complement his generally smaller forces. This strategic marshaling of nature could be described as a "second, secret army," as demonstrated in his battles at Trebbia, Trasimene, and Cannae. (Lecture given on June 5, 2013)
I enjoyed the last Great Battles Lecture from the Penn Museum so much I thought I would continue to post on them as new ones are available. Dr. Hunt’s lecture is on Hannibal’s “secret weapon” in the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC…all subsequent use of dates will be BC unless otherwise noted). Dr. Hunt gave some background on the growing conflict between Carthage and Rome that led to the Punic wars, explored Hannibal’s background, looked at possible routes over the Alps into Italy, and focused on his strategy and tactics. “Secret weapon” may be reaching a bit, but it is clear (as noted in the above description of the lecture) that Hannibal included the use of weather and nature to his advantage. Instead of a summary like I provided for the previous lecture here are my notes and the content of a few slides from the lecture:

Polybius believed a good historian had to visit the locations he was writing about in order to adequately write about them—this gave him “topographical credibility.”

Hannibal’s strategies have been studied for centuries:
  1. Know and control the terrain
  2. Know your enemy
  3. Exploit your enemy’s weakness (including dual consuls)
  4. Give your army the best tools (including psychology: encourage your men but be brutal)
  5. Ambush whenever possible (deception)
  6. Surprise (do the unexpected)

On #4 and psychology: Andreas Kluth’s Hannibal and Me says that Hannibal’s situation, where the army had to “do or die,” is what drove a lot of Hannibal’s men—as invaders, constantly surrounded by superior numbers, they had to either win or die. Hannibal shared the hardships with his men, building camaraderie, but also wanted to be feared. Machiavelli’s maxim that it is better to be feared than loved captures Hannibal’s approach.

Hannibal’s “secret weapon”: Use Nature to your advantage. It was the equivalent of expanding his arsenal with a secret army). His tactics included the following:
  • Cross mountains (Alps in winter)
  • Use winter cold and time (Trebia)
  • Cross swamps in spring (Arno River)
  • Use summer fog (Trasimene)
  • Fight at night (Ager Falernus-Volturnus)
  • Use dust-blowing wind (Cannae)

Dr. Hunt steps back at this point to look at Carthage in general, then focuses on the 3rd century. First Punic War—Sicily was the battle ground (264-241) as Rome expanded and came into conflict with Carthage’s trading superiority. The Treaty of Lutatius is onerous on Carthage. After the First Punic War, Rome called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum (“our sea”).

In his 1935 work (title not mentioned—I’m guessing Roman Alpine Routes) Walter Woodburn Hyde says that early Romans are show a fear of mountains in their writings.

Dr. Hunt reviews the debated point of Carthage’s child sacrifice and the tophet. Also covers Hannibal’s mention of his experience having a proxy animal sacrificed in his place. His father, Hamilcar, had a grudge with the way he was treated by Carthage. He went to Spain to build up autonomous resources.

Hannibal received aide in crossing the Alps, after researching it. A maritime crossing into Italy was not feasible—heavily guarded. Valleys within the Alps was the route. From Livy’s History (XXI.32): “The dreadful vision was now before their eyes: the towering peaks, the snowclad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the people with their Wild and ragged hair.” (Livy, unlike Polybius, didn’t visit the locations he wrote about). Dr. Hunt has been exploring possible routes over the Alps, following the valleys and passes and narrowing down the possible routes based on the historian’s descriptions. He provides some of Polybius’ descriptions and shows slides from some of his own trips along the route (around 37:30 is an anecdote about taking Stanford football players on a trip).

Hannibal makes an example of the Taurinian clans (Celts). Polybius (Book 3, 52-53): when Hannibal descends out of the Alps his men are more like beasts than humans—they have suffered so much. Hannibal augments his troops with Celts. Up to 25% of troops at this time are Celts. Up to 10 languages spoken by Hannibal’s troops, a true international force.

Dr. Hunt showed some of the artwork by Angus McBride, drawings of various allies Hannibal absorbed into his army and their unique weaponry. He also displayed pictures from Serge Lancel’s Hannibal to highlight the weapons used by varying groups in his multicultural army, such as the falcate (cleaver). The takeaway from these pictures was that Hannibal had different tools and weapons because of the many backgrounds in his army.

Battle of Trebia: on the winter solstice—shortest day of the year. Hannibal sent his Numidian cavalry across the Trebia River early in the day. Sempronius was in charge of the Roman army because Scipio had been wounded. Hannibal knew the strengths and weaknesses of each general he faced and took advantage of Sempronius being in charge. The forces of Sempronius were lured, unprepared, into the freezing Trebia River while the Numidians had prepared for it. Hypothermia set in before the Romans had crossed the river—Hannibal used the weather as an ally. Romans treated Trebia as an accident, not realizing the tactics Hannibal used to his advantage.

Then Hannibal crossed the Arno—the crossing of a swamp, which was not a happy time for his army, but had the element of surprise. Trasimene saw another hothead, Flaminius, in charge of the Romans. Hannibal took advantage of the fog from the lake that occurred this time of year—Hannibal’s army was hidden in the fog while Flaminius charged into a killing zone. At least 30K Romans and allies killed in this battle.

Fabius Maximus, now commander of the Roman army, declined to engage Hannibal directly. Fabius was nicknamed “the delayer,” which wasn’t intended as a compliment. At Ager Falernus, Hannibal had been bottled up in the valley while Fabius had blocked river crossings and mountain passes. Hannibal escaped and avoided a major battle by using his cattle, alighting bundles of flammable material on their heads and sending them into the hills. Fabius knew it was a trick but his guards chased the cattle, leaving a pass open. Yet another disaster for the Roman army.

At Cannae, wind from off the coast carried dust this time of year, creating a screen for Hannibal. Rome was using many raw recruits, due to previous losses, as well as new leaders that were politically motivated. The terrain has been chosen by Hannibal to make the Roman attempt to fight like a Greek phalanx ineffective. Hannibal has less men but the Roman army was constrained…they could not sweep out, or envelop the Carthaginian army. Combine this with the dust and wind, and once the experienced Roman leaders were killed Carthage was insured the victory. Hannibal’s troops feint and encourage the Romans to rush to their deaths.

Effect of Roman defeat at Battle of Cannae: depending upon the source, it is estimated that 55,000 (Livy) – 70,000 (Polybius) Romans were killed or captured at Cannae. Among the dead were the Roman consul Lucius Aernilius Paullus, as well two counsuls for the preceding year, two quaestors, twenty-nine out of the forty-eight military tribunes, and an additional eighty senators (at a time when the Roman Senate was comprised of no more than 300 men, this constituted 25%-30% of the governing body). Virtually 1 in 5 of very Roman male between 18-40 was killed. Not a single Roman family was unaffected. Hannibal collected 200 gold rings of Eques knights. All this happened in six hours.

At this point Rome lay open to Hannibal but he decided not to lay siege to the city, the hinge-point of the war. From Livy’s History XXII.61: “How much more serious was the defeat of Cannae, than those which preceded it can be seen by the behavior of Rome’s allies; before that fateful day, their loyalty remained unshaken, now it began to waver for the simple reason that they despaired of Roman Power.” Hannibal spent (wasted) a decade in Italy, then Scipio Africanus takes the battle directly to the Cartheginians. Roman military strategy and tactics changed after Hannibal.

Update: More detail on Carthage can be found in my post on Richard Miles’ book Carthage Must Be Destroyed


Brian Joseph said...

How fascinating! Watching this would be a guilty pleasure for me.

Having recently done some reading on the Roman Republic the outline of these campaigns are relatively fresh and bubbling in my mind.

Hannibal was such a pivotal figure. He was indeed a genius.

Dwight said...

It is mostly an overview but where he goes into extra detail, such as focusing on how Hannibal used the weather or on his own exploration of the passes of the Alps, are the best parts. He definitely fits a lot of info in just over 100 minutes.


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.