“I will either find a way, or make one.”
Hannibal Barca is regarded as one of the greatest generals and military strategists in the history of mankind due to the astounding logistical feat of crossing the alps with 45000 men and 70 elephants. He ranked himself as second best in the history of war, placing only Alexander the Great and/or Pyrrhus above him, depending on what sources we get our information from. In either case it says something about his self-esteem.
Hannibal was the eldest son of the great warlord Hamilkar Barca who was responsible for uniting and transforming the Carthaginian Empire into the only viable threat to the Roman Empire. From an early age Hannibal was instilled with hatred for Rome and is said to have sworn an oath to destroy Rome.
For fifteen years Hannibal and his army roamed around Italy and conquered much of it without any reinforcements from Carthage and remained undefeated by the Romans despite being consistently outnumbered. This was unprecedented in history as the Romans were superior in combat to everyone else.
He had two brothers, Mago and Hasdrubal, who would both come to play commanding roles in Hannibal’s army. Growing up Hannibal and his brothers always remained close to warfare and by the time they became adults they were already veterans in the art of war. Since Hannibal was the oldest son he was groomed to eventually succeed his father and take charge of the Carthaginian army. His father’s teachings of draconian discipline, deterministic philosophy, and the practice of exercising a patient attitude while facing adversity, together combined to form quintessential parts of Hannibal’s character.
There have been no recordings in history of mutiny or disobedience in the armies of Hannibal, surely owing to his great competence as a leader and ability to bolster morale. His troops are believed to have worshipped him as a god.
Hannibal is the first known military warlord to lead by example. He would never force any of his men to do anything that he himself was not able or willing to do. He dressed casually, slept among his men, and would talk to them regularly. In other words, he never completely distanced himself to the privacy of his war tent. He knew the names of all the commanders of his army and personally greeted the men who distinguished themselves in battle through feats of immense bravery. Hannibal rewarded these men richly with privileges and often bestowed them with commanding positions, honorary titles, or nicknames. Caesar and Napoleon, among others, would later study and apply what they had learned from Hannibal.
It is said that when Hannibal’s lieutenant Monomachus proposed that the army resort to cannibalism as a means of instilling fear in the Roman people, Hannibal refused the proposition because he claimed that he could not order the men to do something that he himself was unable to do. To do so would be to damage his integrity.
Patience & Good Disposition
Since his childhood Hannibal had developed a naturally cheerful and steadfast disposition regardless of circumstances. His sense of calm and centeredness was to the point that it allowed him to keep good humour and joke around in the midst of battle. Just before the Battle of Cannae as the armies were lining up, Gisco, one of Hannibals most competent commanders, was showing low morale and hinting towards a slight of panic due to the vast number of soldiers exhibited by the Roman army. Hannibal quickly took note of this and restored Gisco’s gumption by saying:
“Ah there is one thing about them more wonderful than their numbers … in all that vast number there is not one man called Gisgo.”
This appears to have cheered up Gisco, and it is one of the few direct quotes by Hannibal recorded in history.
Frugality, Discipline, and Willpower
Whenever Hannibal would read or write he would do so standing up (I’ve actually implemented the habit myself and warmly recommend it). He walked around with weights sown into his sandals to train his feet whenever he wasn’t in combat. He would consciously hold his breath for as long as he could while marching or doing chores to increase his cardio.
The frugality of Hannibal is thoroughly documented in history. He would rarely if ever drink wine, he never ate to the point of becoming full, and did not engage in the festivities following a victory for longer than he had to. He was faithful to his wife even though he could choose freely among literally thousands of women. He rose before the sunrise every morning to meditate and exercise.
Philosophical & Religious Beliefs
The name Hannibal literally means ‘Grace of Baal’, with Baal being the main god of the Carthaginians.
Hannibal seems to have been driven to do his utmost in everything he endeavoured for non-egoic reasons. He appears to have been a very autotelic person. Being a Carthaginian, it is fair to assume that he had a very deterministic view of the world and believed everything happened according to the will of the gods. All a man can do is to brace himself in acceptance to that which happens.
Just as the rain pours down without asking for permission, Hannibal did not believe that he needed to ask for permissions to do whatever was within his power. Everything in the world, including humans, are created by the gods and nature. Humans are thus fit to do as they please, but in the end the gods have the final say. Hannibal believed he had the power to control his actions, but not the consequences of his actions.
Furthermore he believed that the gods favor men of sound character and those who are ‘doers’ and take action, whereas the gods show visible contempt for those who spend their lives passively and become paralyzed with inaction, regardless of what circumstances apply. Hannibal did his best not to dwell in self-pity and victimization as he believed that it robbed him from the present moment and might cause him to become passive and reactive to external events. He never complained, not even when he slowly lost one of his eyes due to a severe infection of pinkeye while being forced to drain it from pus on a daily basis for months. That must have hurt.
If he had been a vain man he would surely have prided himself on being superior to pain, torture, fear of death, and his exceptional ability of remaining clear-headed and composed amidst chaotic circumstances. This probably stemmed from his religious beliefs, which resembled that of stoic philosophy.
He did not believe much in prayer and religious ceremonies, at least not more than his contemporaries. He did however believe that the way to honor the gods was through action. By conquering and subjugating the Roman Empire he would please Baal, not by remaining passive and chanting songs.
Lessons & Insights
What can we learn from the life of Hannibal Barca?
- Lead by example!
- Be patient!
- Don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed to the point of inaction – remember: the gods favor action above all else!
- Remain unaffected by external events and circumstances outside of your power to control.
- Take whatever measures necessary to do that which lie within your power to control.
- Train your willpower and discipline daily.
- Don’t complain – the gods hate people who nag!
- Exercise moderation and frugality in life.
Click here to read part 2.
Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy & the Second Punic War, John Prevas.
Hannibal: Pride of Carthage, David Anthony Durham.