This is the second in a series of posts in which the “Great Captains” of military history will be examined. Unusually, this will be in video format; posting compelling biographical material.

Arguably the greatest general of antiquity was Hannibal Barca, who fought and nearly overcame the greatest power of the ancient world, Rome, on its own soil. Of all the “Great Captains” in history, only Hannibal fought against another “Great Captain” (Scipio).

Hannibal was raised by his formidable father, Hamilcar Barca, the foremost Carthaginian commander to emerge from the debacle of the First Punic War, and groomed from childhood to command troops in battle. Hannibal grew-up in his father’s military camp and headquarters, learning from the great man as Hamilcar spent the last half of his life in subduing Spain for his native city. Hannibal and his brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago, swore a sacred oath to avenge Carthage’s humiliation at the hands of Rome, and to destroy the hated enemy of their people.

The Second Punic War was his war; and the Romans themselves called this titanic conflict “The Hannibalic War”. From its start in 219 BC Hannibal showed himself a master of all of the military arts save one: in matters of strategy, tactics, and (the most important) logistics he had no superior. However, unlike Alexander the Great, he never conducted a truly great siege; though he did take some strong places.

Strategically he took many risks, but all were carefully calculated, and the ground work prepared for success. Few generals have been more astute at assessing the opposing commander, and in formulating a strategy to take advantage of his weaknesses. Tactically, he was an innovator of the first magnitude; and his tactics at Cannae are have been studied by generals and students of the operational art throughout history, to this very day.

1469950.jpg Hannibal leads his bodyguard cavalry, supported here by an elephant, against ambushing Celts along narrow mountain path; during his daring crossing of the Alps in 218 BC. Hannibal’s elephants and cavalry intimidated the tribesmen; seen here attacking from the high ground on the right. Note the Celt’s spiked hair: the Celts used lye to whiten and spike their hair.

Hannibal understood that Rome could only be defeated if deprived of its recruiting grounds in Italy. He braved the Alps to take the war to his enemy and shatter their Italian alliances, one source of their strength. By so doing, he took the path of least expectation, gaining the strategic initiative and forcing the Romans to respond to his plans. Though he ultimately failed in this, he never lost a battle till his last, and that against his finest student: Scipio. Zama aside, he was able to defeat every army the Romans sent against him.

But perhaps his greatest feat was not getting his army over the icy Alps (as impressive as this was); but in maintaining his polyglot army on enemy soil for 13 years. In this he was unaided or resupplied from home, completely relying on his own genius and resource. To the very end, his army (largely mercenaries with no national tie to bind them) stayed loyal and followed wherever the master led.

That he failed to defeat Rome says much about the resilience and resources of that mighty republic destined to rule the Mediterranean world. But Hannibal’s genius nearly derailed Rome from her march to empire; and he is perhaps the only man whom Rome ever feared.

(For more on Hannibal and the Second Punic War, listen to my podcast here)

This excellent docudrama features fine actors and fairly accurate equipment.


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  2. Terry says:

    Arguably, in the sense that anything historical of a subjective nature is arguable. But Alexander won all his campaigns and decisive battles, as did Gaius Julius Caesar. And they demonstrated proficiency in siege work as well as open battle. So, I would argue he is no higher than third.
    “Of all the “Great Captains” in history, only Hannibal fought against another “Great Captain” (Scipio).”
    What, Wellington does not count as a Great Captain?
    Love your work, though. Very impressive.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      First, thank you for the compliment, and I hope you will continue reading my posts.

      Now, as for who was the greatest of “Great Captains”: this is a debate that will never be resolved, and opinions are strongly held on all sides. I rate Caesar below both Hannibal and Alexander (we agree that the great Macedonian stands at the top) because he repeatedly made strategic errors that forced him to rely on luck or tremendous efforts by his men to retrieve. His tactics were seldom truly innovative in the way Scipio’s were for his day, and don’t come close to the kind of battlefield wizardry displayed by Hannibal time and again. Caesar had the advantage (as did Alexander) of always leading supremely motivated and trained troops (there has perhaps never been a more hardened, experienced army than that he led out of Gaul at the end of the Gallic Wars). His skill at siege warfare exceed all others except Alexander, but were not out-of-the-norm for Roman military science.

      My list of greatest generals of the Ancient World can be found here; and I place Scipio higher than Caesar:

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Oh, as for Wellington: good question as to whether or not he can be called a “Great Captain”. He certainly was a very accomplished commander. But one can argue that he faced second-rate generals in Napoleon’s Marshals in Spain. (They were all brave and good at following the Emperor’s orders; but as independent army leaders only Davout and Suchet were really good, with Massena good but of a lesser caliber.) His staff-work in the wee hours of the 16th of June was so apaulling that it led to a complete shambles at the crossroads of Quatre Bras later that day. Had he been facing Napoleon (or even Davout) instead of Ney, he would have been thrashed. His siege techniques involved little more than waiting till the siege guns reduced a section of the defenses to rubble, than expending as many lives as it took to storm through. He was well served by the quality of the British “Tommy” in Spain, and to lesser extent in Belgium in 1815. His supreme skill was in bold marches that put the French “off-foot”, and picking good ground upon which to stand and force them to attack him at a disadvantage.

      A very good general indeed. But “Great Captain”? That is debatable.

  3. Terry says:

    Well, Napoleon listed him–but not Condé–as one of his seven GC of history. Of course, he also listed Eugene of Savoy, but not Gustavus Adolphus.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      I must admit that I have never studied Eugene’s campaigns, other than in conjunction with Marlborough. So I can’t speak to Napoleon’s judgement (though I would be inclined to bow to his greater expertise). Hannibal considered Pyrrhus one of the greatest generals to come before him. But we know that Pyrrhus was a wretched strategist, though a great tactical innovator and battle-captain. I suspect Hannibal was too close to the events to be completely objective about Pyrrhus, and Napoleon may have been too close to Eugene’s period to measure his achievements clearly as well. That he does not give either Marlborough or Gustavus that same rank (Great Captain) makes me suspicious, though. (Napoleon may have had a very understandable animus against English leaders: he didn’t think highly of Wellington, either.)

  4. ritaroberts says:

    Thanks for this Brilliant film about Hannibal. Fantastic post.

  5. Rita Roberts says:

    Yes I thought he was superb. Although I have not seen Game of Thrones.

  6. Rita Roberts says:

    Hi Barry. The first film I saw about Hannibal , Jack Palance was the actor. The film you have here, is it a documentary or a new film ?

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      this was, I think, originally planned as a made-for-cable movie. But it never made it to completion. So they took what they had shot, and instead turned it into a docudrama.

  7. ritaroberts says:

    Well either way I thought it was brilliant. Thanks for the info Barry.

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