Was Hannibal the greatest battlefield general of antiquity?

Nov 2011
756
The Bluff
Delbruck on the Pyrrhic War:

But the accounts of the Pyrrhic War, even though they go back to originally valid witnesses, have come to us third-hand, so that there is so little we can do to test their sources and to separate them from the accompanying fables and legends that none of the facts may be considered as completely reliable.

Warfare in Antiquity, 297.

The Battle of Heraclea is so confused and out of touch with reality that we can't even retell is with even some level of consistency. I thought the casualties for the Romans in that battle ranged from 7,000 to 15,000, according to the sources? The following battles are even more difficult to make out.
Heraclea is clear enough as is Beneventum. Our (Roman) sources conflate matters for Asculum. Perhaps you could explain what is "out of touch with reality" with Heraclea? If anything is clear about this battle, it is the shock which bleeds from the pro-Roman sources at the magnitude of the defeat.

Pyrrhos might well have been from The "school of Philip and Alexander" but he was no honours student, never approaching the level of either of those kings. While he aped Alexander and was occasionally tactically astute, he lacked the single purpose of mind of that king. Incapable of keeping his wandering eyes on the greater strategic picture, he could win the battles but the wars defeated him. Always.
 
Jul 2017
2,137
Australia
If we're talking about Heraclea, there are a few extremely odd parts in the accounts.

-We are told that Pyrrhus drew up his army behind the Siris in order to avoid battle and await allies. This is confusing, since the Siris wasn't much of an obstacle, and it would be counter-productive to delay a tactical decision when not only could the Romans simply increase their forces (with interior supply lines, no doubt) while Pyrrhus did, every day he waited the longer the Italian allies would lose confidence in his ability to be a legitimate power in Italy. If he delayed attacking the Romans, what kind of general was he? [in the perspective of the Italians] It could be that Pyrrhus took up position behind the river not to avoid a battle, but to gain the tactical superiority in the following battle.
-The sources report that when Pyrrhus' scouts told him the Romans were crossing/crossed the river, he was apparently taken by surprise. This is odd, as this is exactly what he would want. The enemy would be in relative disorder.
-The next confusing point is that Pyrrhus led only the cavalry against the Roman army. When his cavalry gives away, he then sends in the phalanx, and when the phalanx can't decide anything, he sends in the elephants. Why would a general, as limited as he was compared to Philip and Alexander and others, attack the enemy with each arm of his force at a time, instead of all together, as is the core principal of Hellenistic warfare? Plutarch says that the river was only passable by one ford, what was stopping Pyrrhus from forming up his infantry in closed battle formation and making an approach?

Of course, we can disregard all points if Pyrrhus actually wasn't very good as a general, in that he sought to delay a decision and did not used a combined arms approach despite using an Alexandrian army [with the addition of elephants].
 
Aug 2015
1,822
Los Angeles
I don't think a soldier king like Antiochus is gonna hand over command of the royal army to Hannibal. I think Hannibal was only really confident leading "Carthaginian" armies, or mercenaries, not the royal armies of kings. Anyway, his entire campaign which lasted for so long was based on finding a favourable peace for his native state: Carthage. He was probably tired of actively being at the head of armies against the Romans, tbh. He'd have no motivation. The idea that he wanted to destroy Rome is a stereotype imo [he knew it wasn't really possible to achieve that].
Why? Are mercenaries more disciplined or more likely to follow command than royal armies?
 
Jul 2017
2,137
Australia
Why? Are mercenaries more disciplined or more likely to follow command than royal armies?
No, I doubt a veteran general and king like Antiochus is going to give overall command of the royal forces to a foreign general. It was important for the Macedonian/Hellenistic king to be a soldier-king who commanded his troops successfully, like Philip and Alexander.
 
Nov 2011
756
The Bluff
If we're talking about Heraclea, there are a few extremely odd parts in the accounts.

-We are told that Pyrrhus drew up his army behind the Siris in order to avoid battle and await allies. This is confusing, since the Siris wasn't much of an obstacle, and it would be counter-productive to delay a tactical decision when not only could the Romans simply increase their forces (with interior supply lines, no doubt) while Pyrrhus did, every day he waited the longer the Italian allies would lose confidence in his ability to be a legitimate power in Italy. If he delayed attacking the Romans, what kind of general was he? [in the perspective of the Italians] It could be that Pyrrhus took up position behind the river not to avoid a battle, but to gain the tactical superiority in the following battle.
-The sources report that when Pyrrhus' scouts told him the Romans were crossing/crossed the river, he was apparently taken by surprise. This is odd, as this is exactly what he would want. The enemy would be in relative disorder.
-The next confusing point is that Pyrrhus led only the cavalry against the Roman army. When his cavalry gives away, he then sends in the phalanx, and when the phalanx can't decide anything, he sends in the elephants. Why would a general, as limited as he was compared to Philip and Alexander and others, attack the enemy with each arm of his force at a time, instead of all together, as is the core principal of Hellenistic warfare? Plutarch says that the river was only passable by one ford, what was stopping Pyrrhus from forming up his infantry in closed battle formation and making an approach?
The sources are clear that Pyrrhos marched to Heracleia without his allies (Tarentines only). This because he knew the Romans were in the field and on their way south. What is also clear is that without Italian allies, he was outnumbered. Arrived in the plain of the Siris, he did not draw up his army behind the river but encamped it sending forward an advanced guard to the river where the fording was easy. He did not intend to fight as he was awaiting the arrival of promised allies who he would have to integrate into both his battle line and plans. In typical Hellenistic fashion, he sought to further the delay by sending to Lavinius a proposal to arbitrate the matter of Tarentum. Whether the Romans were versed in this Greek practise it's hard to say but, at this juncture, unlikely. Either way Lavininus told him that he’d no use for “nonsense and palaver” and would “stand trial in the court of Mars, our progenitor” (Zon. 8.3). Pyrrhos then sent spies to the Roman camp which were sent back to report exactly what they'd find.

This didn't all happen in a matter of minutes but Lavininus would not allow it to go on having taken some stock of the Epeirote. What then happened is more of an encounter battle. Pyrrhos intended to keep the Romans on their side of the river until his allies decided to front. Lavininus decided to probe the ford and was stalled by the advance guard. He then sent cavalry further upriver where they crossed while the infantry tried again. This time the Greeks fell back fearing envelopment. Not intending to fight, Pyrrhos ordered his phalanx into line while he led his cavalry to the aid of the advance blocking guard. A fierce, unplanned cavalry battle developed and Pyrrhos, once his infantry battle line had formed, retired to it and led if forward. As that proved a stalemate, he then brought up his twenty elephants and sent them into the fray. He had only twenty: these were best used as a surprise weapon and would not be formed in front of a phalanx. A battle that was not supposed to happen.

As for the Romans sending more troops, most unlikely. When they sent Lavininus south they sent another army into Eritria as well as one into Sammnia - for obvious reasons. Lavininus had what he had as was shown in the most un-Roman pannicked aftermath.
 
Aug 2015
1,822
Los Angeles
No, I doubt a veteran general and king like Antiochus is going to give overall command of the royal forces to a foreign general. It was important for the Macedonian/Hellenistic king to be a soldier-king who commanded his troops successfully, like Philip and Alexander.
Not the part on Antiochus but the part on Hannibal. Why is Hannibal only confident handling Carthaginian forces or mercenary forces?
 
May 2018
322
Michigan
Not the part on Antiochus but the part on Hannibal. Why is Hannibal only confident handling Carthaginian forces or mercenary forces?
In the situation of Hannibal directly commanding Antiochus' troops, I'd agree with Valentino, but for different reasons: The Barcids had a fair degree of autonomy in Spain, at least until the arrival of Hasdrubal Gisgo (the same guy who lost to Scipio no fewer than 3 times) who seems to be a better political operator than general, although he is incompetent at neither (but certainly, no Hannibal). If, quite literally, what the "legends" say is true, and Hannibal traveled with his father to Spain at age 9 while swearing an oath to always be an enemy of Rome, then we can assume Hannibal grew up accustomed to the Barcids getting their way, or at the very least, their activities in Spain.

Hannibal growing up accustomed to Barcid power would actually explain a lot: his strained relations with his own Senate, and the like.
 
Nov 2011
756
The Bluff
The Duke is right: Antiochos would never cede command of the royal army to Hannibal. The Seleukid king (along with other Hellenistic kings) would always command his royal army in the field. Smaller detachments are another matter.
 
Likes: frogsofwar
Oct 2007
86
New York, NY
Great discussion everyone. To add to frogsofwar’s astute understanding:

Indeed, albeit Hannibal was a general who answered to a republic, we read from Polybius something that almost clearly reflects a wider seperation of military and civil power amid the Carthaginian system than those of other states:

The Histories, Book 3.13.3-5,

”...On the death of Hasdrubal, to whom after that of Hamilcar they had entrusted the government of Iberia, they at first waited for a pronouncement on the part of the troops, and when news reached them from their armies that the soldiers had unanimously chosen Hannibal as their commander, they hastened to summon a general assembly of the commons, which unanimously ratified the choice of the soldiers. Hannibal on assuming the command, at once set forth...”

The Roman system of imperium was at a disadvantage when faced against a skilled ‘professional’ general (let alone Hannibal!) to whom no limit, it seems, was placed on the time he could serve. But not unlike the Romans, they were still aristocrats who carried a degree of high social standing in the state, thus plenty of mediocre martial talents could gain command by default.

To opine to Mangekyou’s specific question, yes - considering augmentations and reservations alike, Cannae was just about the paradigm of tactical perfection, and has permeated the annals of the subject down the timelines as a generic term for the perfectly pitched battle of annihilation.

Moreover, speaking of Pyrrhus, there did exist a precedent for Hannibal’s strategy, as after the Battle of Heraclea, the Romans considered peace talks (cf. Plutarch, Pyrrhus Ch. 18-19). Immediately after Cannae, Hannibal was in a much more imposing position, it seemed to anyone privy to at the time, to seek terms with a defeated enemy than Pyrrhus was after Heraclea, yet the ‘stubborn’ Romans wouldn’t even meet with the envoy Carthalo as they did with one Cineas sixty-six years earlier. The Classical World just didn’t ‘like’ the ‘gloomy’ Carthaginians as much as the ‘attractive’ Greeks, it can be surmised in a general sense. Regardless, Italic disaffection did manifest as Hannibal prosecuted his efforts from southern Italy. The loose strategic encirclement of Italy with Macedon, Syracuse and Iberia by 214-211 BCE was impressive on the surface, but it did widen the war where agreements would surely not go smoothly. But he alone rendered Rome bereft of about 40% of her resources by 209 BCE. The Romans were remarkable in their decisions and actions, but it could have gone against them at multiple points in all the theaters, particularly in Sicily. It certainly was a breathtaking crossroad of western history.

Thanks, James :)
 
Likes: benzev
Nov 2013
656
Texas
Overrated general. Not as good of a jack of all trade as Napoleon. The best generals who lost would be German generals (like Manstein or von Leutterbeck), not Hannibal.

Hannibal does deserve points for his ambushes (even those in which he had numerical superiority, as it's often a good idea to bring plenty of troops to an ambush, or lure the enemy in to such an ambush), but Hannibal was a one trick pony (tactics, and even there he failed at Zama.) Wasted far too much time at Nola (even if his "defeat" there was exaggerrated by Roman propaganda). It's odd that he expected Romans to give in considering that's not how the first punic war worked........he should have just found a way to avoid the war.

This was not a general seriously in the same league as Genghis Khan, Walid, Tamerlane, or even Caesar. Not sure why he is so "evidently" considered to be such.
 
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