Studying Warlords – Hannibal Barca Part 2

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hannibal barca elephants

Click here to read part 1.

Crossing the Alps

No one had expected Hannibal and the Carthaginian army to cross the alps. It wasn’t thought of as a viable option and no army had done it before. Few, if any people, even considered the possibility that it might actually be done. Because it is so rare for us humans to think outside of  of our belief systems in terms of our brain and its neural pathways, I find this to be incredibly fascinating. The coolest thing about it is that to this day, no one knows exactly how Hannibal managed to pull off this logistical feat – we only know that he did in fact manage to do it.

The Romans were naturally expecting Hannibal and the Carthaginian army to invade by ship. Therefore they spent massive amounts of resources and manpower on fortifying the coastal towns in the south of Italy. It was a complete waste. Not only was it very costly for the Romans, but it also left them weakened in the northern region, where Hannibal’s army later arrived.

While crossing the alps Hannibal’s army was forced to a halt due to numerous boulders blocking the path forward. They came up with the ingenious solution of pouring vinegar over the boulders and lighting them on fire which eventually weakened them sufficiently to be broken. By the time the army had finished crossing the alps there were relatively few war elephants left alive.

hannibal barca elphehant

Hannibal’s Fifteen Years of Ownage in Italy

You might say that Hannibal was the inventor of biological warfare. He came up with the idea of bombarding enemy ships and towns with pots filled with venomous snakes. This would make the enemy (mostly Romans) believe that the gods  were disfavoring them, or that Hannibal had summoned snakes from the sky. In either case it made for chaos and disorganization of the enemy, which should always be the chief aim in combat.

When Hannibal’s army was trapped and deadlocked from all sides by multiple Roman legions, Hannibal ordered his men to tie debris and torches to the horns of cows and oxen which were then rallied together and coerced into running towards the Romans. All of this happened in the middle of the night while most of the Romans slept. The Roman legionnaires were caught completely by surprise and chaos ensued as they could only discern weird sounds and lights moving in their direction in the dark night as the cattle charged toward them. By the time the Romans could make sense of what was happening it was too late.

Even more astounding was what happened during the Battle of Cannae, which was the largest decisive battle during Hannibal’s fifteen year invasion of Italy. He was severely outnumbered. The Carthaginian army consisted of 40000-50000 soldiers whereas the Roman army consisted of 80000-90000. Amazingly enough Hannibal managed to surround and trap the much larger Roman army with his smaller army, causing the Roman army to become immobilized. This has been partly attributed to the eagerness of the Roman Consul Varro’s  decision to charge in prematurely toward the Carthaginian army. Hannibal’s patience proved to be a virtue. In the end 50000-70000 Roman legionnaires as well as one fourth of the ruling senate were slaughtered while only 5000-10000 Carthaginians died – absolute devastation. Napoleon would later study, perfect, and frequently make use of this strategy and considered it his favourite one.

After the defeat of the Battle of Cannae Rome’s two most powerful leading men were Fabius Maximus and Publius Scipio (father of Scipio Africanus), with Maximus being appointed dictator. Hannibal conducted a ploy of destroying all the surrounding houses and farms in the vicinity of the estates of these two men, hoping to making it look as though they had sold out to Hannibal and committed treason against the Roman State.

Hannibals route

Hannibal and the Carthaginian army found the siege of the city of Tarentum to be difficult and they were making little progress. Luckily Hannibal was soon approached by two young men who were willing to betray the city in exchange for payment. Hannibal formulated a devious scheme and immediately put the young men to work. For the next couple of weeks the two men stepped up the frequency of their occasional habit of hunting outside Tarentum. The city guards gradually grew accustomed to their habit of going out hunting, which would always end with the two men sharing some of the tasty spoils with the guard who was letting them pass in and out of the city. It was like boiling a frog in water.  One day when the two young men returned to the city gate and were being let in they brought with them a large dead boar. The boar turned out to be an elite Carthaginian assassin in disguise. Together with the two young men he slit the throats of the few men guarding the gates on that particular side of the city. Within a short amount of time 12000 Carthaginian soldiers had snuck into the city and began killing all of its Roman citizens while leaving the rest of its inhabitants alone.

Long-Term Strategy for Conquering Italy

I have come not to make war on the Italians, but to aid the Italians against Rome.

Hannibal considered Pyrrhus to be perhaps the greatest military commander to have ever lived. Pyrrhus was the only man who had consistently defeated the Roman army before Hannibal. Therefore he studied Pyrrhus thoroughly and it is thought that Hannibal read all of Pyrrhus’s books about the art of war. Unfortunately these books have not been preserved to present day. Hannibal concluded that Pyrrhus had made a mistake in attacking the city of Rome head on.

Following this, Hannibal fought a war of attrition against the Roman Empire. The strategy can be summarized as chopping away at the roots of the tree, taking away or destroying the states or cities that were subservient to the Roman Empire. These states were Rome’s greatest military resource because they supplied the soldiers.

Hannibal and his army roamed around all over Italy and left a trail of destruction behind, pillaging, enslaving, or allying every city or town for the next fifteen years. He wanted to destroy the ideal of the Roman State and turn  city states against it. Hannibal harbored no hatred for the Italian people, but only for the state. Hannibal would win a battle and keep enemy prisoners and hold them for ransom. The Roman State refused to pay the ransom. Hannibal allowed the prisoners to walk anyway, leaving them with the fact that their own state had betrayed them. Some of these men joined his army and took revenge on Rome.

Ultimately he did not entirely succeed in breaking down the ideal of the Roman State and take away the trust of the Roman people despite winning every battle in Italy. The Roman people were incredibly loyal and most of them died before betraying the state.


Hannibal didn’t believe in the future and refused to be limited by the past. He focused on living in the present moment and perceived a future where anything was possible. This added to his immense charisma as a leader. Hannibal supposedly said that whenever he held a pep talk or rally for his army he was in fact proposing a possible future to themand at the end of his speech the men would let him know whether he had foreseen the future correctly or not.

He appears to have been a master of positive reframes. In part one I made the notion of how he restored his lieutenant Gisco to good humor while the former was afraid just prior to the Battle of Cannae. That event and quote are supposedly authentic, then there are numerous motivational examples of how he reframed the situation positively affected his men:

Let the Romans fear the sky. To us this rain is a blessing. Remember – Hannibal means grace of Baal, and Baal is the storm god.  This rain storm indicates his presence. Baal is on our side!

Battle of Zama and Legacy

Hannibal had reigned supreme on the battlefield for fifteen years. Undefeated.

Then came the Battle of Zama.

The Roman army was lead by Scipio Africanus, who was also undefeated in his military career.  Hannibal and Scipio met before the battle to talk, Hannibal opted for a diplomatic solution but Scipio would accept no other option than the absolute surrender of Carthage. Scipio was convinced that he would win.

Going into the battle there were quite a few things acting to the disadvantage of Hannibal. One being that he had not had enough time to properly train his new war elephants. Another being that he had been secretly betrayed by Masinissa, prince of Massilia and previously engaged to Hannibal’s sister Sophonisba.

hannibal elephants 3

Scipio had devised a strategy to neutralize the Carthaginian war elephants. He had drilled the Roman army to act as a unified whole. They steadily approached the Carthaginian army. Once they were somewhat close they started to uniformly sounds their horns, bang their drums, scream as loud as they could, and bang on their shields or armors with their weapons. All the sudden noise scared the elephants and caused them to run amok, driving holes through the Carthaginian battle lines and creating chaos. To further the chaos, Masinissa and his mounted cavalry completely destroyed the Carthaginian cavalry.

Hannibal was completely overwhelmed and the Second Punic War was decisively won there and then with the Roman Empire as the victor. Hannibal and his royal guard fled and slowly made their way back to Carthage.

You might say that the Battle of Zama was the inverse of the Battle of Cannae.

Hannibal soon attained the position of suffete, the highest governing role in Carthage. As suffete he reformed the council of the Hundred and Four making it more fair by limiting election and membership to two-year and then one-year terms, from being lifetime positions held by the elite. After about five years as suffete he was forced to escape Carthage in fear of political enemies and Roman assassins. He spent the rest of his life either on the run or as a mercenary general of held in the highest of esteem.

He committed suicide by poison at the age of 64 years old. His last words were supposedly:

 Let’s free Rome of its problems since they cannot wait for the death of an old man.

The expression Hannibal ad portas, which means “Hannibal is at the gates” still remains after all this time.

Every family in the Roman Empire lost on average one of its members to Hannibal.


Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy & the Second Punic War, John Prevas.

Hannibal: Pride of Carthage, David Anthony Durham.


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  1. Nice pictures. Hannibal was a brutal dude.
    I read like half of that book “pride of carthage” but i never finished it. Anyway good post, i like the links from wikipedia, it took a long time but i read pretty much all of them. :)

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