This article will examine two popular myths found in the classical record concerning Hannibal’s exploits in Italy immediately after his victory at Cannae in 216 BCE: his apparent failure to march on Rome and finish the war, and the alleged softening of his fighting forces as the result of wintering among pleasures in the city of Capua.
Much has been made of Hannibal’s apparent failure to capitalize on his victory at Cannae by marching immediately against Rome. This alleged failure is the subject of an often quoted anecdote, in all likelihood fictitious, in which Maharbal, commander of the Numidian cavalry, urges Hannibal in vain to march without delay against Rome, telling him: “In five days you shall banquet in the Capitol! Follow after; I will precede you with the cavalry that the Romans may know that you are there before they know that you are coming!” Upon Hannibal’s refusal, he rebukes him by saying: “In very truth the gods bestow not on the same man all their gifts; you know how to gain a victory, Hannibal: you know not how to use one” (Livy 22:51). Livy presented this bit of nonsense to bolster his own thesis: “That day’s delay is generally believed to have saved the City and the empire” (22:51). As Seibert has pointed out, the Roman origin of this story is clear from the reference to “banqueting in the Capitol,” for Maharbal could hardly have known that this was customary for a returning victorious Roman general! But was Hannibal’s “failure” to march on Rome indeed a blunder? Why did he choose not to proceed toward the capital of his enemies, after his greatest victory? We will attempt to answer these questions.
What were the key factors enabling Hannibal to achieve victory against overwhelming odds at Cannae? Hannibal’s battlefield genius was multifaceted. A master of the unexpected, he was unpredictable and capable of non-linear thought—what today we would call “thinking outside the box.” He had the uncanny ability of grasping at a glance the advantages and disadvantages of terrain and weather. He understood perfectly well the strengths and weaknesses of the diverse components of his multi-ethnic army, and how to utilize each to his greatest advantage. Most importantly, he understood his enemies, perhaps better than they understood themselves. His tactical vision is reflected in the manner in which he deployed his forces to face the massive Roman army at Cannae and in his ability to implement his battle plan with clockwork precision. With a virtuosity resembling Capablanca’s brilliance on the chessboard, he achieved what lesser mortals would have regarded as impossible.
The Battle of Cannae, on August 2, 216 BCE, pitted genius against overwhelming odds, brains vs. brawn, a master tactician facing overconfident commanders. It was Hannibal’s masterpiece, perhaps the most astonishing military victory in history, still assiduously studied in military academies worldwide, and the inspiration for a number of relatively recent war engagements, from the Schlieffen Plan in WWI to General Schwarzkopf’s envelopment of Saddam Hussain’s army in the first Gulf War. It has generated an extensive body of literature, ranging from specialized books and studies published in many languages to chapters and discussions in numerous textbooks. And yet, despite the level of interest generated, many aspects of the clash between the multi-ethnic Carthaginian forces and the largest army Rome had ever raised remain obscure and controversial. This may be in part the result of the loss or destruction of the Carthaginian records of the event, coupled with the distortions and contradictions in the pro-Roman accounts, amounting to what, in today’s terms, we would call a campaign of disinformation.
Carthage was founded by Phoenicians in 814 BCE, on the coast of what is now Tunisia. It grew to become a resplendent commercial metropolis with a glorious dual harbor—an architectural marvel for all to see. At its zenith its population may have approached a million. Contrary to popular myth and the fantasies of Flaubert in Salammbo, the Carthaginians did not engage in child sacrifice. The tophet in Carthage was a cemetery for children, but recent research by M. H. Fantar and others has revealed that the bones are of children of various ages, including many fetal remains, with no evidence that they were sacrificed—clearly the result of the infant mortality of the times. (More in another article.)