A life lived around military men had prepared Hannibal for his career. Like Alexander, he suffered the same privations that he asked his men to endure. “On campaign he shared the physical hardships of his men,” as Adrian Goldsworthy has it, “sleeping in the open wrapped only in a military cloak, and wearing the same clothes as the ordinary soldiers.” Thus, the first and most important characteristic of Hannibal’s leadership was his ability to raise and then maintain morale. This was extremely difficult at first, as much of his army was composed of Gauls who did not know him and tended to want quick payoffs. His early battles were fought primarily to impress the Gauls into joining his struggle against Rome. The men he brought from Spain knew his strengths and qualities, and the Gauls learned soon enough. By the time of Cannae, Hannibal had gained their loyalty and trust—a fact that became evident as they held the Carthaginian line and crushed the advancing Roman forces.
Maintaining morale among troops who were enjoying successive victories was one thing, however. It was far more difficult for Hannibal to maintain morale while campaigning around Italy for another dozen years after his grand strategy had failed. He had to hold his army together by mere force of will, as neither victory nor spoils would change the situation. Still, Hannibal managed to keep an army of ragtag mercenaries functioning. In his classic work The Great Captains, Theodore Dodge comments, “His troops had often neither pay nor clothing; rations were scant; their arms were far from good; they must have foreseen eventual disaster, as did Hannibal. And yet the tie between leader and men never ceased to hold.” Perhaps of greatest use to Carthage was that he kept Rome afraid. Even as the number and quality of his forces dwindled, no Roman general would fight Hannibal head-to-head. As Dodge notes, “Weak as he was, no Roman consul dared come within reach of his arm. His patience and constancy under these trials, and the dread his name inspired, show him up in far greater measure than any of his triumphs.”
Another significant aspect to Hannibal’s generalship was his use of maneuver. In his three major battles, he brought the Romans to ground he had chosen. Scipio chose the region near the Trebia River by establishing his camp, but Hannibal found and used the best ground in the neighborhood. The feigned retreat before that battle coupled with the hidden ambush force put the Roman troops at his mercy. The devastation of the countryside to lure Flaminius to Trasimene played on his opponents’ vanity. The Romans came to him at Cannae when he seized a local center of gravity, a supply dump. The deployment at Cannae to entice and surround the Roman infantry showed that a feigned retreat can take place even in a restricted environment.
Additionally, all three major victories involved elements of surprise. Though Hannibal was famous for his use of elephants, in fact elephants played a relatively minor role at the Trebia. The battle was won because Sempronius never considered Mago’s force hidden off the battlefield. Everything about the battle at Lake Trasimene, of course, was a surprise, it being one of the greatest ambushes in all of military history. And finally, the Carthaginian deployment, quality of infantry, and speed of cavalry all were unexpected at Cannae. In other more minor battles throughout his career, Hannibal showed himself again and again to be masterful when it came to using surprise to catch his enemies off guard. In one battle he duped Fabius’s troops with torches tied to bulls’ horns, and in another skirmish used broken terrain to hide a number of units that popped up all around Menucius’s troops outside Gerunium. No wonder Roman generals were afraid to attack him even years after Cannae.
Nonetheless, massive and humiliating defeats on the battlefield hurt but never completely broke Roman morale, and ultimately time was their key ally. Hannibal’s inability to conduct siege warfare saved Rome, and Fabian tactics kept the allies leery of embracing Hannibal’s crusade. He kept his army together for more than a decade and a half, but could not attract the local support he ultimately needed to overthrow Rome. Meanwhile, Carthage was being hurt in its extremities and finally threatened at home, which was ultimately what forced Hannibal to abandon Italy.
Warfare of the Time
When he rose to the leadership of Carthaginian Spain, Hannibal commanded a polyglot army with a variety of weapons, backgrounds, talents, and languages. Like his brother-in-law and father, he had not forced these people into service: they fought for pay and for their leader. They had followed Hamilcar and Hasdrubal and they followed Hannibal, not just because he was his father’s son but because he had earned their respect in combat. He seems to have been schooled in the military arts from a young age and had the environment from which to learn a variety of the tricks of the trade from the multiethnic mercenary forces and the Iberian tribes. The government in Carthage readily named him to succeed Hasdrubal.
The mercenary infantry troops from Africa were either Carthaginian or Libyan, and they began the Second Punic War closely resembling the traditional Greek hoplites. After campaigning in Italy, however, they soon began wearing captured Roman mail and using Roman weapons, primarily the short stabbing sword known as the gladius. They did not, however, use the Roman shield, probably to maintain quick identification in the midst of battle. The African cavalry forces were primarily from the Kingdom of Numidia, modern Algeria. They were excellent horsemen and reputedly rode without saddle or bridle, armed with shields and long javelins. The Spanish cavalry was heavier, used more for shock than scouting or harassment. Thus Hannibal’s Spanish cavalry accepted and delivered head-on charges; the Numidian light cavalry were used for harassment.
Hannibal’s Spanish and Gallic-Celtic infantry was made up of both heavy and light varieties, with slingers from the Balearic Islands acting as skirmishers. The light infantry (caetrati) carried a buckler and short sword; the heavies (scutarii) carried a large, flat, oval shield and were armed with short sword, stabbing spear, and javelins. The ancient Roman historian Polybius notes, “The shields used by the Spaniards and Celts [northern Iberian tribes were of Celtic/Gaulish ethnicity] were very similar to one another, but their swords were quite different. The point of the Spanish sword was no less effective for wounding than the edge.… [T]he troops were drawn up in alternate companies, the Celts naked [probably to the waist], the Spanish with their short linen tunics bordered with purple—their national dress—so their line presented a strange and terrifying appearance.” Like Alexander’s army, the Carthaginians employed combined arms, but Hannibal depended on cavalry as the primary arm of decision. Even so, cavalry under Hannibal did not hold the special status it had had with Alexander’s Companions.
The Romans also had cavalry, but the strength of their army was their infantry. Like the Greeks, the Roman Republic employed citizen-soldiers who fought for short enlistments and spent most of their lives tending their farms. Thus, whenever the Roman army took the field there was a mixture of veterans and new recruits. It was that mixture that led the Roman military to move away from the traditional phalanx formation of the ancient world. Instead of one long, continuous line, the troops were formed into “maniples”—smaller units made up of two sixty-man units called centuries, lining up twelve men wide and ten deep. The maniples deployed with gaps between them. In the second rank, another set of maniples deployed behind the gaps created in the first line. This allowed the front units space to retreat, if necessary, into the second line or the second line to advance into the first. A third line of maniples, made up of single rather than double centuries, lined up behind the second rank’s gaps.
In front of the army came the velites, the youngest and poorest recruits who formed the skirmish line. They were armed with javelins, gladius, and a hide-covered wicker shield. In the leading line of the phalanx were the hastati, young men who could provide some armor for themselves. They carried two throwing spears, called pila, made of a long metal shaft extending from a wooden haft. This metal was tempered only about halfway back from the point, making the entire pilum bend on impact and rendering it temporarily useless, so that it could not be used by the enemy. The hastati also carried a short sword based on a Spanish design, the gladius hispaniensis, as well as a large oval shield, the scutum. The second line of maniples were made up of principes, veterans in their twenties and thirties, armed like the hastati. The third line were the triarii, older veterans who acted as reserves and who were armed mainly with the Greek-style spear in order to form a last line of defense. John Warry describes the Roman army going into combat:
At about 150 yards both sides charge. The front ranks of hastati throw their light pila at about 35 yards from the enemy, quickly followed by their heavy pila. They draw swords and close up on the run and hit the enemy with as much impact as possible. Succeeding ranks throw pila over the front ranks. The battle is a succession of furious combats with both sides drawing apart to recover. This might go on for several hours.
Just how the separated maniples worked in battle is a question of some debate. Did they remain separated in battle? “An area of significant dispute is the lateral spacing between these dueling front rankers,” Philip Sabin notes. “Polybius claims that there was only one legionary in the front rank for every six feet of unit frontage, whereas Vegetius states that legionaries fought on a frontage of just three feet.” Some scholars also argue that the gaps were only there during the approach. Once the velites had accomplished their skirmishing, they would withdraw through the gaps. Once they did so, the rear century would slide over the forward to fill the gap.9 Thus, a solid line made the assault. Another possibility is that the maniples were deployed for battle (while the velites were skirmishing) in separated units, with each man having Vegetius’s three-foot frontage. Then, as the velites retreated through the gaps and the maniples started forward, the men began to spread apart to Polybius’s six-foot frontage. Well before physical contact with the enemy, the gaps between units would disappear and each man would have the individual fighting room he needed. As the lines drew back, the men would then close back up into a more defensive posture of a three-foot frontage. This seems a much simpler process and explanation than shifting units.
How did a battle play out? Most sources believe the hastati, once in a full line, broke into a run, with each man throwing his pilum at about thirty yards’ distance from the enemy, before they hit full force with their shields and swords. If that did not cause the enemy’s line to break, it became a matter of positioning legionaries in a line, thrusting at whatever enemy soldier came within reach. After a time, exhaustion would begin to set in and the opposing lines would draw apart. The dead and wounded would be replaced by soldiers advancing from the rear of the maniple. More pila would be thrown, and the assault would begin again when the soldiers had caught their breath. Periodically, if the clashes of front lines did not cause a full retreat, the hastati may have been relieved by the second line of principes. This would not only bring in fresh troops but more experienced ones to renew the fighting. At some point, one side or the other would sense defeat and begin to fall apart. Most believe that the rigorous discipline of the Roman troops was their primary advantage in the overall decision, allowing them to pound away with infantry until the other side was too tired or too broken in spirit to fight any longer.