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Old March 19th, 2012, 09:24 PM   #1

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The Language Barrier in Hannibal's Army


All of us here know the story of Hannibal and the crossing of the Alps. Hannibal led a large multi-ethnic, multi-lingual army from Spain to Italy by land, keeping the army together seemingly through his own leadership and charisma. However, I think that one aspect of Hannibal's genius has gone rather unnoticed: he was able to make decisive decisions and keep his army together despite having men who spoke a multitude of unrelated languages such as Gallic and Carthaginian. How did Hannibal keep communications running so smoothly, and how did orders get carried out in the heat of battle amidst the cries of many different languages? We can only infer that not everyone in Hannibal's army spoke a common language, and this would have mad communications quite difficult. So, what does the Historum community have to say about this?
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Old March 19th, 2012, 10:23 PM   #2

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That's a really good question, Rhombus!

(sorry, no idea!)
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Old March 20th, 2012, 03:24 AM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. Rhombus View Post
All of us here know the story of Hannibal and the crossing of the Alps. Hannibal led a large multi-ethnic, multi-lingual army from Spain to Italy by land, keeping the army together seemingly through his own leadership and charisma. However, I think that one aspect of Hannibal's genius has gone rather unnoticed: he was able to make decisive decisions and keep his army together despite having men who spoke a multitude of unrelated languages such as Gallic and Carthaginian. How did Hannibal keep communications running so smoothly, and how did orders get carried out in the heat of battle amidst the cries of many different languages? We can only infer that not everyone in Hannibal's army spoke a common language, and this would have mad communications quite difficult. So, what does the Historum community have to say about this?
Mardienekes has probably been over this extensively in his many contributions on the Carthaginian army, and the answer is simple: the army was multi-ethnic, the commanding core of officers was unitary. In other words, the glue in that kept the Carthaginian army together was the Punic officer corps who learned the languages of those they commanded, that is to say, enough to know the difference between left/right & stand/attack in say Iberian or Numidian. Note that Carthaginian armies tended to be more effective the longer they were commanded and that a newly formed army often lacked that cohesion that was forged through the hardships of a campaign.

So you don't need to have everyone to speak one single language, you just need a commanding framework that speaks more then their own language and be able to translate from Punic to Iberian and/or Numidian and/or *insert language*
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Old March 20th, 2012, 05:45 AM   #4

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I should check but if I remember well, Greek was used too. It was the lingua franca of the age. Punic had to be used of course, specially with the African and southern Iberian troops, but maybe in order to communicate with those peoples outside the Carthaginian influence Greek was prefered.

What is true is that both, Punic and Greek, were used in the inscription that Hannibal did in the Temple of Juno Lacinia.
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Old March 20th, 2012, 07:21 AM   #5
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Battle tactics are often predetermined. They might have a plan B or C, but in general you see he Hannibal stuck to plan A cause it brought him succes.
I remember from watchin a documentary, Scipio used those same tactics later to destroy Carthago.
I wonder if this applies to Alexander's army as well? Did he pick up other ethnic soldiers along the way?
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Old March 20th, 2012, 07:57 AM   #6

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I think Hannibal's personal charisma has a lot to do with how the army managed to run so smoothly. The troops must have adored him, otherwise they would have given up at some point: Crossing the Alps, marching for three days through a bog, and campaigning fruitlessly in Italy for over a decade.
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Old March 21st, 2012, 01:10 PM   #7

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I think Hannibal's personal charisma has a lot to do with how the army managed to run so smoothly. The troops must have adored him, otherwise they would have given up at some point: Crossing the Alps, marching for three days through a bog, and campaigning fruitlessly in Italy for over a decade.
Charisma is one thing, yet it says nothing about how the Carthaginians glued their army together. You can have all the charisma in the world yet if you fail to get your point across to the man in front of you your charisma means zilch.

So people: no Greek nor Punic lingua franca, let's be clear on this.


Again, the glue was the Punic commanding structure (and do people remember that the Punic army is more then Hannibal). Goldsworthy deals with this in his book "The Fall of Carthage" ([ame="http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Carthage-265-146BC-Military-Paperbacks/dp/0304366420"]The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC Cassell Military Paperbacks: Amazon.co.uk: Adrian Goldsworthy: Books@@AMEPARAM@@http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51J%2B0HQ0BRL.@@AMEPARAM@@51J%2B0HQ0BRL[/ame]). So basically I'm only repeating what this splendid military historian has already handed down to us. The key element was communication. Orders dispatched in Punic had to be passed on through the ranks and translated in a variety of languages. The ingenuity of the Carthaginian military system was that generals were not appointed like civil magistrates, that is, for a limited period. No, military commanders were appointed indefinitely till recalled by the Senate (which often was due to failure and with nasty personal consequences... as in death - several generals were crucified during the First Punic War for failing in their tasks), so semi-permanent - we are unsure though who exactly appointed him, not enough sources to confirm this.

Now apart from meeting an untimely end, this system had one enormous advantage over that of Rome with it's re-elections (not that this couldn't be overcome of course): it bred good generals with battle experience. This is military basics 1-0-1: the longer an army serves as 1 unit, the more effective that unit becomes. The commanding echelons on the various levels of the army learned to find a workable modus vivendi to operate the multi-ethnic/lingual unit that was the Punic army, more-over prolonged service together also ensured that at all these levels of command there was at least a basic understanding of each other.

The Punic army that made Hannibal so succesful was only partly his achievement, yes of course his talent mattered enormously, however this may not obscure us from the fact that he had inherited a well bred and oiled military machine with a tried and fine-tuned commanding structure from Hamilcar and Hasdrubal. The Punic army was highly performant and quite versatile, to an extend probably more so then its Roman counterpart. However the Punic army was also something quite invaluable and irreplacable. When met with disaster, disaster struck much harder on the Punic then on the Roman front, the Carthaginians simply lacked the means to mobilise to such an extend as Rome and there armies became more performant as they served longer, a defeat meant a serious setback. The army that Hannibal commanded at Zama never stood a chance even with Hannibal in command, it was an army made up out of 3 seperate contingents levied by seperate generals, during the battle they all acted on their own and not as one, the result was obvious.

Last edited by gaius valerius; March 21st, 2012 at 01:26 PM.
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Old March 21st, 2012, 02:03 PM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by gaius valerius View Post
Charisma is one thing, yet it says nothing about how the Carthaginians glued their army together. You can have all the charisma in the world yet if you fail to get your point across to the man in front of you your charisma means zilch.

So people: no Greek nor Punic lingua franca, let's be clear on this.


Again, the glue was the Punic commanding structure (and do people remember that the Punic army is more then Hannibal). Goldsworthy deals with this in his book "The Fall of Carthage" (The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC Cassell Military Paperbacks: Amazon.co.uk: Adrian Goldsworthy: Books). So basically I'm only repeating what this splendid military historian has already handed down to us. The key element was communication. Orders dispatched in Punic had to be passed on through the ranks and translated in a variety of languages.

Disagree, the question of the thread is not how Carthaginians glued the army but what language did they use. This issue isn't clear at all. We know that Iberians were used to Punic and Greek, but Celts only to Greek (at first). If the Punic commanders told orders in Punic only is speculative.
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Old March 21st, 2012, 07:17 PM   #9

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Originally Posted by Frank81 View Post
Disagree, the question of the thread is not how Carthaginians glued the army but what language did they use. This issue isn't clear at all. We know that Iberians were used to Punic and Greek, but Celts only to Greek (at first). If the Punic commanders told orders in Punic only is speculative.
The issue is not only what language that they used for orders, but also how they were able to get the orders through to the men on the field who used so many languages, so you are both hitting on the issue. I apologize for not making this clearer in the OP.
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Old March 21st, 2012, 08:58 PM   #10

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Kind of makes you wonder how the hell Alexander did it too.
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