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.
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.