Was Hannibal the greatest battlefield general of antiquity?

Jul 2017
2,143
Australia
I'll have to look back at the sources, but it doesn't seem to make sense considering Hannibal's march was timed almost exactly at the latest time from which he could decisively move between Scipio and the Numidians, IIRC (I could be wrong). Goldsworthy is absolutely hopeless here btw in his Fall of Carthage, his account of this is literally: Hannibal returned, and then the battle started.
 
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Jul 2017
2,143
Australia
Okay, I've read Polybius, Appian and Livy together. I have not found any specific mention that Hannibal wanted more time to train his levies with his veterans. Polybius and Appian seem to imply that Hannibal waited, gathered troops and marched off against Scipio. Livy tells us that Hannibal made a forced march, only to find out the the Numidians have joined up with Scipio with 10,000 troops. Although we can imagine that Hannibal would have wanted as much time as possible to train and ready his army in a theoretical sense, in reality Hannibal couldn't afford to give Scipio any more time than possible, since Scipio was expected to receive reinforcements.

In terms of the battle itself, Hannibal at this point decided to enact a truce from which a treaty could be organised. This was Hannibal's decision, and we can correctly identify this as the best solution. Hannibal simply did not have the resources to defeat Scipio in a protracted war, neither did he have any real advantage for a tactical decision. Hannibal had something like 2,000-3,000 cavalry, way lower than Scipio's, and despite having more infantry, they were not very well trained or experienced. The Carthaginian Senate was happy to do this, but the people suspected treachery and private deals, so they basically rioted, and the "Carthaginians" instructed Hannibal to break the truce and continue the war. Hannibal had no choice but to accept a tactical engagement under clear disadvantages.
 
Likes: macon
May 2018
335
Michigan
I can't recall the source for specifics, but both Gabriel and Liddel-Hart contend that Scipio "forced" Hannibal to march against him by attacking the countryside. This necessarily implies Hannibal did not want to march against Scipio.
 
Jul 2017
2,143
Australia
I don't know if "forced" is the right way to describe it, but Hannibal had limited time before he had to march out against Scipio to minimise damage to Carthage's subjects. I've got Liddel-Hart's book, which I've read portions of, and he seems to, like Goldsworthy does in Caesar, to suppress the activities of the opponent, in this case Hannibal, and focus exclusively on Scipio.
 
Jul 2017
2,143
Australia
An example from Goldsworthy is after the battle of Dyrrachium, where he claims Pompey made no attempt to chase Caesar after he withdrew. What he fails to mention is that Pompey's officers took it upon themselves to leave the army camp and get the baggage from Dyrrachium, Pompey was unable to actually follow Caesar. Caesar himself gives us this info, but Goldsworthy suppresses this.
 
Oct 2007
86
New York, NY
Indeed, I think Hart and Goldsworthy are two of our good sources for this backdrop, but seemingly too tendentious to be used exclusively (especially Hart).

No, no, guys: I don’t think Scipio ‘forced’ Hannibal into the field, in the sense he knew fully he held a trump-card: it was Carthage herself who told Hannibal to no longer delay when she learned the assaults were underway by Scipio on the provincial towns, to which he replied that he would decide when to move; but Polybius was not as cut and dried as we might wish, and Hannibal did move out after a few days (Book 15.5.1-3).

There were almost certainly not eighty elephants at Zama; no elephants had heretofore been available since Scipio arrived, and now a plethora of them show up, which Scipio countered so adeptly and Hannibal tried to use in a tactic of baseless optimism? No. Gabriel’s insight is spot on in both his bios on both great generals that Hannibal had far, far less at his disposal, hence the credible suggestion by Lazenby that his usage of them involved a frontal and or flanking screen to aid in his deception to use his inferior cavalry squadrons in a running fight (as Duke Valentino aptly pointed out, Hannibal understood to the letter the strengths and liabilities of elephants in war of his time): this didn’t require any complications, as a simulated retreat would become an actual one, and the result of all of both sides’ cavalry were away from the primary battle - an infantry fight which did unfold with several phases with a pause on both sides, all the time with the cavalry riding away from the battlefield - which favored Hannibal. Scipio handled his army brilliantly to not waste strength against Hannibal’s concocted triple-line, but he must have smiled from ear to ear when Massinissa and Laelius returned ‘providentially - viz. divine foresight - at the proper moment’ (perhaps a tacit ‘slip’ by Polybius, who was never Livian in dramatizing his accounts, Book 15.14.7).

I feel that Hannibal did not lose half his army in the alpine trek; he was not marching over Bhutan! Following the thinking of the great John B. Bury (and the likes of Delbrück, for that matter), the claim that Hannibal’s losses from the Rhone to the Po Valley were nearly half his force belongs to the branch of history as ‘literature’, not ‘science’.

Polybius significantly cites the bronze tablet which he found at the Lacinian promontory (modern Capo Colonna, SW of Crotona) - the tablet Hannibal used to itemize his troop breakdowns from New Carthage to the Po Valley - only in connection with enumerated troop postings between Iberia and Africa (Book 3.33.5-17) and the arrival in the Po (Book 3.56.4); the circumstantial numbers of the former constituted a specific 29, 270 almost evenly cross-posted between five Iberian and four African tribes, and the expeditionary army which descended into the Po, which was comprised of 20,000 infantry - 12,000 African, 8,000 Iberian foot - and ‘not more than 6,000 cavalry’ (Book 3.56.4). These credible figures are not in sync with the speciously large and uncited figures we read of 102,000 men to begin with, 59,000 in Catalonia, and 46,000 at the Rhone. For whatever reason, likely an inadvertent following of hearsay in an arbitrary uncritical fashion, Polybius erred when not citing the Lacinian inscription. IMHO, Hannibal lost a few thousand men from the Rhone to the Po Valley, thus starting with roughly 30,000 picked men in Transalpine Gaul, knowing the powerful Boii were awaiting him. In such isolated issues regarding their merits (including the logistic issue here), jettisoning from even the reputable ancient sources can occur; even Thucydides wrote an egregiously incorrect statement in his opening summaries: at the backdrop of Inarus’ rebellion against the Achaemenids in 460 BCE, we read in Book 1.109.2 that ‘the Athenians were masters of Egypt’ after some initial success when Athens aided Inarus. That’s just blatantly wrong, whatever the nature of brevity and context. The Persians stomped the rebellion by 454 BCE, and the Athenians were never remotely close to ‘masters’ of any part of Egypt.

Hannibal’s army was guided and supplied by friendly locals; one Magilos arrived from northern Italy with his envoys, and a local chieftain in Transalpine Gaul named Braneus, whom Hannibal aided in a bout of internecine, provided invaluable assistance, as told by Polybius and relayed by Livy:

Polybius, Book 3.49.9-50.1,

"…he found two brothers disputing the crown and posted over against each other with their armies, and on the elder one making overtures to him and begging him to assist in establishing him on the throne, he consented, it being almost a matter of certainty that under present circumstances this would be of great service to him. Having united with him therefore to attack and expel the other, he derived great assistance from the victor; for not only did he furnish the army with plenty of corn and other provisions but he replaced all their old and worn weapons by new ones, thus freshening up the whole force very opportunely. He also supplied most of them with warm clothing and foot-wear, things of the greatest possible service to them in crossing the mountains. But the most important of all was, that the Carthaginians being not at all easy on the subject of their passage through the territory of the Allobroges, he protected them in the rear with his own forces and enabled them to reach the foot of the pass in safety.

After a ten days' march of 800 stades [about 85 miles] along the bank of the river Hannibal began the ascent of the Alps…”

Livy, Book 21.31.6-8,

"…Two brothers were disputing the sovereignty. The elder, Braneus by name, who had held sway before, was being driven out by a faction of juniors headed by the younger brother, whose right was less but his might greater. This quarrel having very opportunely been referred to Hannibal for settlement, who thus became arbiter of the kingdom, he espoused the sentiments of the senate and the leading men and restored the sovereign power to the elder. In requital of this service he was assisted with provisions and supplies of every sort, particularly clothing, which the notorious cold of the Alps made it necessary to provide.…"

Despite the arduous trek and privations certainly suffered amid the actual crossing, along with the losses incurred by the two martial encounters by rock-hurling tribes with some vantage points (although Hannibal would have surely been in defilade at some points), a loss of 44% in troop quantity from the Rhone to the Po is not tenable whatsoever.

Moreover, Hannibal seemingly timed his arrival when the harvest was in full swing; before the Battle of the Trebbia was fought, one Dasius, a Latin commander (from Brundisium, we are told, which was a Latin colony) handed over the valuable supply-depot of Clastidium to Hannibal, enabling the latter to open his first acts with his political strategy by honoring the commander and his garrison, all presumably Latins as well (Polybius, Book 3.69.4; Livy, Book 21.48.10). Hannibal knew full well difficulties would exist with his commissariat, and he addressed this issue with the calculating care of a diamond cutter. There was certainly a necessary sacrifice in getting to the Po Valley and establishing himself for the first bouts of the war, but that did not involve, almost certainly, losing ‘half his army’ (a la Karl XII and Napoleon in Russia).

I agree with Mangekyou that Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps was a remarkable feat of military planning, engineering and strategic surprise, further bolstered by the contemporaneous diversionary attacks on Sicily and Bruttium by Carthaginian naval squadrons.

But that’s just me.

Thanks, James :)
 
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Likes: macon
Jul 2017
2,143
Australia
There were almost certainly not eighty elephants at Zama; no elephants had heretofore been available since Scipio arrived, and now a plethora of them show up, which Scipio countered so adeptly and Hannibal tried to use in a tactic of baseless optimism? No. Gabriel’s insight is spot on in both his bios on both great generals that Hannibal had far, far less at his disposal, hence the credible suggestion by Lazenby that his usage of them involved a frontal screen to aid in his deception to use his inferior cavalry squadrons in a running fight: this didn’t require any complications, as a simulated retreat would become an actual one, and the result of all of both sides’ cavalry were away from the primary battle - an infantry fight which did unfold with several phases with a pause on both sides, all the time with the cavalry riding away from the battlefield - which favored Hannibal. Scipio handled his army brilliantly to not waste strength against Hannibal’s concocted triple-line, but he must have smiled from ear to ear when Massinissa and Laelius returned ‘providentially - viz. divine foresight - at the proper moment’ (perhaps a tacit ‘slip’ by Polybius, who was never Livian in dramatizing his accounts, Book 15.14.7).
Veith and Kromayer argued for about 15-20 elephants. Delbruck cites this figure himself but provides no specific arguments, referring the reader to Veiths's argument. Gabriel's insights into the elephant numbers are logical. Not only would there be a limited number of the animals, they would not have been well trained at all. With such a limited number of untrained elephants, and with Scipio's mounts for the most part being presumably familiar with the smell, Hannibal had very few options. This should dispell the usual argument people make that Hannibal didn't use his elephants effectively.

Gabriel actually follows Delbruck's analysis very strongly, but differs in some important points, the most notable being Scipio's deployment. Delbruck completely dismisses the elephant "lanes", for the reasons that (1) Scipio would not have altered his deployment so profoundly for a handful of elephants and (2) Hannibal wouldn't have telegraphed his deployment of the elephants for the benefit of his opponent. Delbruck writes that Hannibal would have probably deployed the elephants on the flanks, and before the battle started moved them in toward the center, in order to add more surprise to what little shock value the elephants could provide. But as Delbruck figured out so many years ago, and what Gabriel also follows, is that Hannibal intended the elephants to hold up the Roman infantry line until either (1) his cavalry had drawn Scipio's own cavalry off the field, or (2) could provide time for Hannibal to withdraw back into his camp if the enemy cavalry turned to flank him.

In terms of generalship in the battle of Zama, both Livy and Polybius tell us that even Scipio found no fault in Hannibal's plan. Delbruck and Gabriel in his footsteps rightly analyse that Hannibal discerned Scipio's plan from the start, and in reality, Hannibal did the very best any general could do in his boots. Scipio displayed tactical ability, yes, but Hannibal was at such a disadvantage vis-a-vis the tactical and strategical relationships that I'm lux to attribute Scipio as a better general simply because he won. The same can be argued for Waterloo. Apart from a fringe group (it seems) on this forum that would argue otherwise, Napoleon is considered among military historians as clearly superior to Wellington.

Scipio's reforms to the Roman army fit somewhere beneath Philip of Macedon and above simply observing Hannibal's tactics, in terms of originality.

I feel that Hannibal did not lose half his army in the alpine trek; he was not marching over Bhutan! Following the thinking of the great John B. Bury (and the likes of Delbrück, for that matter), the claim that Hannibal’s losses from the Rhone to the Po Valley were nearly half his force belongs to the branch of history as ‘literature’, not ‘science’.
Delbruck has a huge analysis of this very topic. The general crux of the argument is as follows:

These huge losses have not been considered improbable, since it is well known how greatly marches through enemy territory, even without large battles, can cause attrition in armies, and we are reminded of the losses Napoleon's army suffered during its advance on Moscow. This analogy, however, is not valid. Napoleon's army, and especially the French regiments, were composed in their great majority of very young men and unwilling draftees, who were held in the service only through force. Hannibal's army undoubtedly consisted of warriors who were capable of withstanding every kind of fatigue. Although it is true that the opposition furnished by the Celtic peoples did delay the march to the extent that security measures had to be taken, it cannot possibly have caused very much bloodshed, since, in view of the overwhelming numerical and qualitative superiority of the invaders and the strength of their cavalry, the barbarians could hardly afford to allow themselves to be drawn into combat. We hear nothing of any battle of importance or of any combined resistance of many tribes that might have come close to rivaling the strength of the Carthaginians. Only on very favorable special occasions in limited localities —consequently, especially in the Alps—were the local inhabitants able to exercise a damaging effect of any considerable proportions on the progress of the march. If under such circumstances a seasoned army is to sacrifice as a matter of course far more than half of its strength on a march of about two months' duration,2 then the marches of Caesar, which were carried out for the most part over the same routes as those of Hannibal, from Italy to Spain and from Spain to Italy, as well as the marches of Alexander in Asia, become completely inconceivable, and it also becomes incomprehensible that the strength of the Carthaginian army in the following campaigns in Italy was so well maintained.

Delbruck, 357-8.

And his conclusion is thus:

If Hannibal brought 34,000 men across the Alps, he probably started out with about 36,000. He left some 20,000 in Africa and 26,000 in Spain. All together, then, he had at his disposal not 137,000, but only some 82,000, but even this number is completely adequate to serve as a basis for the strategic conditions developed above.

If one is inclined to mistrust Polybius in general because he was not definite on the point of including or excluding the light infantry and overlooked the 8,000 men in his extract from the Lacinian tablet, there still remains the possibility that Hannibal himself actually omitted them, just as Caesar, Frederick, and Napoleon often stated in their bulletins and memoirs figures that were smaller than their actual army strengths.


Delbruck, 361-2.

Any thoughts?
 

macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
3,372
Slovenia
Great last two posts. Thanks, guys.

Duke, what happened to difference between 82.000 and 36.000? Specifically, what happened to troops Hannibal left in Provence? I think it was 5 numbers figure, 10.000 or even more.
 

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