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.
Hannibal was born into a culture quite different from that of Rome. Carthage was a maritime merchant city-state, at one time achieving hegemony over commerce in the Mediterranean world. The philosophy of a business-oriented power is typically not militaristic, for war functions as an impediment rather than a facilitator of commerce. Conflicts and disagreements tend to be settled by trade, negotiation, and compromise, rather than by war, violence, and destruction. The historical record suggests that although Carthaginians were able to wage war when necessary, they were not a warlike society. When circumstances forced armed conflict, they preferred to hire mercenaries to do the fighting for them. Mercenaries can be hired, paid, and dismissed. The Carthaginians did not maintain a regular citizen army. When given a choice, they preferred a negotiated peace to violent conquest. Being a product of a mercantile society, the character of Hannibal, the man, must have been affected by this social background.
There is little doubt that Hannibal was an educated man. He was able to communicate in many languages, among them Greek, and it is likely that he was well read in the Greek classics. One of his tutors, Sosylos, was from Sparta, and another, Silenos, was a Greek from Sicily. It is likely that Hannibal was familiar, not only with the works of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, but also with those of Greek philosophers, such as Heraklitus, Parmenides, Plato, and above all, Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great, whom he greatly admired.
From age nine, Hannibal grew up in Spain, among the forces of his father, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, who made sure that his son continued to have the best of tutors, and who undoubtedly inculcated in him the values of Carthaginian society. To assume that because he grew up surrounded by the Carthaginian colonial forces in Spain he only learned soldiering (at which he clearly excelled) is unjustified. It seems likely that Hannibal, far from being a violent man filled with hatred of the Roman enemies of Carthage, was a rational, cultivated individual. The story of his childhood oath of eternal enmity against Rome is most likely apocryphal, and in any case, as reported by Polybius was an oath never to become a “friend” (meaning “a subject” or a “client”) of Rome, rather than a profession of hatred (it was Livy who changed the wording to imply the latter). It is quite possible that rather than delighting in warfare, Hannibal engaged in it only out of necessity for the protection of his home city. There is no doubt that he was patriotic, and he clearly placed the welfare and glory of Carthage above his own, even at times when it failed to support him.
The document he prepared for the treaty of Carthage with King Philip V of Macedon, in 215 BCE (recorded by Polybius, 7:9), reveals not only that he was highly educated, respectful of religious traditions, and well aware of diplomacy and protocol, but also that his plans and intentions did not include the destruction of Rome. It is clear from this document that Hannibal merely intended to curb the expansion of Roman imperialism, and restrict the Romans to their own geographical region in the middle of the Italian peninsula. His success would have resulted in freedom from the Roman yoke for the cities previously subjugated by them, especially the Greek colonies at the south of the peninsula, and of the Gallic tribes in the north. Naturally, it would also have allowed Carthage to retain its commercial pre-eminence in the Mediterranean.
Hannibal was not a blood-thirsty monster. The pro-Roman sources (especially Livy), portrayed him as greedy, cruel, faithless, and treacherous, but these are charges of doubtful validity. While Hannibal was not flawless, he certainly was not crueler than his adversaries, who demonstrated terrible brutality and vengefulness upon retaking cities that had previously allied themselves with the Carthaginians. He was faithful to the religious traditions of his day, and his alleged greediness was part of the stereotype of the Carthaginian merchant in the Mediterranean. Of course what was perceived as treacherousness was his uncanny ability to spring unexpected traps on his opponents in the battlefield. For those interested in Hannibal’s character, the excellent books on the subject by Gottlob Egelhaaf (1922) and Edmund Groag (1967) are still highly recommended.
- Hannibal: Victories of the Great Hero from Ancient Carthage - December 19, 2018
- Alexander the Great and Hannibal Barca: A comparison - March 9, 2017
- A Note on Hannibal’s Losses During the Crossing of the Alps - July 18, 2016