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.
Notice also that Alexander's comportment in battle was irresponsible and exposed the most important element of his army, namely himself, to unnecessary danger. His habit of charging across the battlefield at the head of his companion cavalry, while courageous (or rather, foolhardy), resulted in his being repeatedly wounded, not mortally out of sheer luck. It could be argued that victories depending primarily on luck can hardly be regarded as brilliant. Compare this with the clock like precision of the double envelopment and annihilation of the mightiest Roman army at Cannae, an operation that left little, if anything, to luck and continues to be studied in military academies across the world even today.
In terms of personal temperament, Alexander was basically a megalomaniac who fought for personal glory and aggrandizement, while Hannibal was a patriot who engaged in war to defend his homeland and liberate the oppressed. So why would Alexander be considered the superior of the two great generals?
The answer, of course, is that Alexander the Great was never defeated (although recent studies have put in doubt his alleged victories against the armies of India), while Hannibal, despite his initial victories in Spain, followed by his 16 years of campaigning undefeated in Italy (accumulating a score of important victories despite being cut off from his supply lines and receiving almost no reinforcements from Carthage), suffered a single and final defeat, at the so-called Battle of Zama. Modern research, though, has pointed out numerous inconsistencies in the pro-Roman account of the alleged battle, which certainly could not have taken place as described by Polybius and other propagandistic sources. (See my article "The Trouble With Zama: Paradox, Smoke and Mirrors in an Ancient Battlefield," accessible online from the History Herald.)
Furthermore, archaeological research dating the construction of the famed military port of ancient Carthage to some time AFTER the end of the Second Punic War renders the peace treaty described in the sources as clearly false, which puts the very historicity of the battle in doubt (the argument being brilliantly developed in the book HANNIBAL BARCA: L'HISTOIRE VERITABLE ET LE MENSONGE DE ZAMA, by Abdelaziz Belkhodja). It is clear from all the available evidence that the claim that Hannibal was defeated by the Romans at Zama is nothing more than a propagandistic fiction composed after the destruction of Carthage (and its libraries and historical records) in 146 BCE. Polybius seems to have changed history to favor his friends and patrons in the Scipionic/Aemilian family, while Livy, the other main source, acknowledged that his purpose in writing his "Ab Urbe Condita" was to instill patriotism in the youth of the time of Augustus, and freely distorts and invents material to accomplish his end. (See my article "Hannibal: Challenging the Classical Record," also in the History Herald.)
In conclusion, the claim that Alexander was the greater of the two generals because he was never defeated while Hannibal lost at Zama, is incorrect. With both great commanders undefeated, there is little doubt that Hannibal stands as the superior of the two, in terms of his battle successes, the quality of the enemies he defeated, and the motivations and temperament behind his military victories.
Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1976.
Belkhodja, A. Hannibal Barca: L'histoire veritable et le mensonge de Zama. Tunis: Apollonia, 2011, 2014.
Livy (F. G. Moore, translator). History of Rome: Books 28-30 (Loeb Classical Library). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.
Polybius (W. R. Paton, translator). The Histories Vol. IV (Loeb Classical Library). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.
© 2017 by Yozan Mosig
About The Author
Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 15 years. His Hannibal Library contains almost 10,000 items. Read more about Yozan »