Hannibal: One of the worst Tactician in history?

Oct 2015
Lets be honest here, there are a lot of them. There are more pathetic commanders than good ones. Lucinius Crassus, George Washington, General Custer even Lord Cardigan whose Charge of the Light Brigade is synonymous with ill-calculated and disastrous decisions! But who is the worst of the worst? If you ask me, it's one of the few that ever managed to bring the single most powerful European power in history to its knees. Hannibal Barca of Carthage!

Let me begin by stating a few facts about Hannibal. First, there's the fact that since childhood he has been predisposed to an obsessive fixation on eliminating Rome being that his father, Hamilcar, essentially demanded military success over the Romans from his son from an early age. As any good historian knows, obsessive thinking is the calamity of MANY otherwise great leaders. Second, we take into note Hannibal's ill formulated decision to utilize elephants in his army. Elephants, despite being an incredible asset in ancient military expeditions, are unpredictable and have a history of routing, running amok and causing disorganization in ranks and are an INCREDIBLE logistical liability. Third, he was unbending in his decisions. Hannibal was told, multiple times, by his commanders to not pass through the Alps in his venture into the Italian peninsula. He could have easily passed under the Alps and infiltrated through what is modern day Tuscany without seeing so much as a snowflake. Now we get into the actual battle tactics.

Hannibal's only successful engagement is his infamous Battle of Cannae. This "battle" was headed by two inexperienced, indecisive and uncoordinated Consuls that wished to prolong the battle to a date where they could claim glory for themselves. This resulted in Hannibal being given ample time to form his men. Then there's his use of ALEXANDER'S hammer and anvil technique in his double envelopment strategy. Difference is, the double envelopment required him to sacrifice a deal of his light infantry (which would otherwise be imperative to disrupt Roman flanks and light infantry) and cost him during the battle when his numbers already dwindled due to starvation, disease and exposure in the frozen Alps. Then there's the fact that Hannibal had all the time in the world to envelope and starve Rome into submission. All other military detachments were in Gaul, Thrace, Greece and Sicily. He had months to succeed in starving out the Romans and forcing a submission. Lastly, the Battle of Zama. If the Battle of Carrhae proved Hannibal a "brilliant" strategist and tactician, the Battle of Zama proved him to be an absolute blunder. Scipio Africanus, despite being capable as a Roman General, was no Julius Cesar or Pompey The Great. He was a sub-par, second rate general that was fortunate enough to get pitted against Hannibal. And as per usual, Hannibal relied too heavily on his elephants. Now what is more disorganized, difficult to manage and unpredictable as an elephant? A drunk elephant. And Hannibal decided to get his elephants drunk in order to make them more enraged. What happened as a result? The Roman lines opened up so the elephants had minimal effect, the elephants returned to the Carthaginian ranks and caused disorder and chaos among the ranks, killing more of Hannibal's own men than they could ever have caused among the Romans. As a result, the Carthaginian forces were crippled, demoralized and routed, resulting in the collapse of the single strongest Mediterranean power that could challenge Rome and ensuring Roman superiority for centuries to come.
Oct 2015
I would say Hannibal was a tactician, but not a operational or even a strategic commander. He excelled up till the end in the low level immediate tactical decisions but utterly failed at looking at the "Big Picture" and so could win battles but not campaigns or the war itself, just as his generals told him.

Tactically, an example of battlefield confusion using Elephants was at Zama, where they turned and trampled their own men. With elephants, they have to be well trained, something the Carthaginian did not do well (it could be the difference between the African and Indian elephants). But imo it doesn;t matter what species of elephans we're talking about, elephants look intimidating but more of a liability by their very nature.

After the Battle of Cannae Hannibal's Generals demanded that he march on Rome seeing they had just destroyed the only Roman Army in Italy. Hannibal refused and was bluntly told by one of his Generals. "Hannibal, you know how to win a battle but you do not know how to win a war."

Could Hannibal have taken Rome? Hard to say, but what effect would Hannibal's Army camped a rocks throw from the walls of Rome had on the population of Rome. At the very least by not marching on Rome he gave the Romans time to rebuild their Army, appoint new commanders and learn from their mistakes. But taking Rome would have been a fools errand, he could never keep it, so that part Hannibal got right. In the end Hannibal lost all strategic initiative. The rest as they say, is history.
Apr 2019
Hannibal was victor over the Romans at the Trebia, Trasimene and at Cannae. He also took Capua and Tarentum (but not the Citadel). I don't beleive he used elephants at Trasimene or Cannae (due to attrition, I may be corrected). His march into Northern Italy resulted in his recruitment of a large number of Gauls, perhaps the elephants were a good marketing ploy. His overall failure in Italy could also perhaps be attributed to lack of support from Carthage itself.
The stories about his swearing at the altars as an undying enemy of Rome, I don't buy them. Are their any unbiased sources for this war?


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
Hannibal was clearly an absolutely brilliant tactician.

What might have been questioned over history was rather his strategic acumen? Otoh that is of course also based on hindsight – the fact that in the end his strategy didn't work.

Otherwise his pinpointing of Rome as a mortal threat, and the war as a Carthaginian-Roman death-match seems to have been spot on. He also clearly successfully did take the war to the Romans, with the strategy of breaking Rome's Italian alliances, isolating it and making off with said allies. That's not a bad strategy at all, and for a while seemed to worked. But then in the end it didn't pan out as hoped.

But that's really the only serious miscalculation on Hannibal's part I can discern?
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Nov 2011
Ohio, USA
I will admit that I actually sort of agree with the OP in criticizing Hannibal for crossing the Alps rather than go through Liguria as he should have done.

Otherwise, I think his criticism of Hannibal’s battle tactics is totally waterless and him going further and saying that “sub-par general Scipio only won at Zama due to the fact that he was facing someone as inept as Hannibal” is straight trolling territory.

Further, while I don’t think Hannibal was quite one of the best strategists of history (less about there being anything wrong with Hannibal as much as there simply bring those who were even more fantastic on the operational and strategic level, though Hannibal is my choice for the finest battlefield tactician of all time), I do realize the overwhelming majority of criticism in this regard is hindsight-based or otherwise lacking in substance.
Jul 2017
The idea that Hannibal lacked strategic insight is just old school codswallap. It's easy to sit here as an armchair general/theorist, with all the events and preliminaries of the war displayed before you, and accuse someone in hindsight of lacking strategic insight, not considering the actual context and considerations of the person.
Likes: Spike117