Often when Alexander the Great and Hannibal are compared, authors conclude that the Macedonian conqueror was superior to the Carthaginian commander, despite the fact that Alexander never fought or defeated an organized war machine comparable to that of the Romans. The major victories of Alexander were achieved against armies led by a king whose nerve failed and who escaped from the battlefield the moment he felt personally in danger (with the consequent rout of his army, which turned and fled as well). It is inconceivable to imagine a Roman army whose Consul or commanding officer would suddenly turn and run when endangered. Roman discipline and pride (or arrogance) would not allow such cowardice, and the Roman soldiers knew that the punishment would have been swift and brutal. Additionally, when the Roman legions eventually fought against the Macedonian phalanx, victory went to the former.
Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian general, is famous, among other feats, for his epic crossing of the Alps in 218 BCE. At the time, such passage of the apparently impenetrable barrier of the Alps was regarded as impossible, but Hannibal accomplished it, true to the dictum most often attributed to him, “We will find a way, and if there is no way, we will make a way!” But, at what cost? He has been often criticized for the enormous losses of men and animals mentioned in the pro-Roman narratives of Polybius and Livy, the two main sources of what we know of his life and deeds. Essentially, these hardly impartial “historians” claim that he lost some 20,000 men, half of his army, to the elements and the attacks by hostile mountain tribesmen, a staggering toll to have paid. Although Napoleon actually praises him for the willingness to sacrifice half his army in order to secure his field of battle, others deride him for what they label one of the worst blunders or disasters in history. Did such massive losses actually occur?
It is morning on August 2nd, 216 BCE. The Carthaginian army under Hannibal has deployed on the plain of Cannae, by the Aufidus River, facing the massive Roman army led by Consuls Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro. The Roman forces outnumber the Carthaginians by practically 2 to 1, but Hannibal will prevail, literally annihilating the largest army ever fielded by Rome. How was this possible? What were Hannibal’s orders to the commanders of the different portions of his multi-ethnic army prior to the beginning of the battle? We do not know, but we can speculate.
Hannibal (247-183 BCE) was the greatest general to emerge from the Carthaginian Barca family. He was the son of Hamilcar Barca (ca. 275-228 BCE), the great and undefeated hero from the first Punic War and the Mercenary War. After the Roman annexation of Sardinia, Hamilcar was put in command of Carthaginian expansion in Spain. His oldest son, Hannibal, then aged nine, asked to accompany him. Hamilcar expanded Carthaginian territory until his death in an ambush (in 228 BCE) where he sacrificed himself to save the lives of his three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago.
(An edited transcription of a presentation delivered in Barletta, Italy, on the 2230th anniversary of Hannibal’s greatest victory, 2 August 2014, at the invitation of the Comitato Italiano Pro Canne della Battaglia.)
I’m essentially a psycho-historian; I try to figure out the motivations of historical characters. Not just of Hannibal and the Roman commanders during the wars between Carthage and Rome, but also of the historians who wrote the story. Particularly Polybius and Livy (Titus Livius), for those are the two main sources we have. The history of Hannibal is contained in the writings of Polybius and Livy. If you look at Polybius, you can see that the reason he wrote was to explain to his Greek countrymen why the Romans had been so successful in taking over the Mediterranean world. Polybius was a close friend of Scipio Aemiliano, who was the commander in charge of the destruction of Carthage in the year 146 BCE. He was in the employ of the Aemilian family.
Consequently, any time he wrote about the Aemilian/Scipionic clan, you have to wonder whether he was actually completely objective, or was he beautifying things in order to please his friend and his employers? The other main source is Titus Livius, or Livy, who, by his own admission, was essentially writing to instill patriotism in the youth of the age of Augustus.
In a strange twist of fate, the opening salvos of the guns of August 1914 in France came just in time to prevent bloodshed between Irish Nationalists, who wanted to separate from Britain, and Irish Unionists, who did not. The last self-governing Irish Parliament in Dublin had voted itself out of existence and into union with Britain in 1801. Supporters of some form of renewed Irish self-rule campaigned from early in the nineteenth century to reverse the process; some by political means, some by violent actions. Neither approach had had much success.