Thursday, 22 September 2011

Should Hannibal have marched on Rome after Cannae?

One of the interesting things about history is to ponder if certain key events had turned out differently. What if Alexander had lived to see his son to adulthood, preventing his slaughter at the hands of the Diadochi? What if the Ten Thousand had never made it back to Greece?

Some historical events are down to chance, but others are down to choice. After Cannae, Hannibal elected not to march upon Rome. The decision has been frequently debated in the 22 centuries since it was made.

First of all, a little background. Hannibal had already shocked the Romans by marching to Italy in winter, which involved passing the Alps (defended not only by bitter winds and snowfall but also hostile Celtic tribes). After this, he slapped the Roman army about, winning at Trebia, luring Flaminius into arguably the greatest ambush in history at Lake Trasimene and so demoralising the Romans that they made Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator. Quintus took the very un-Roman step of choosing to play a strategic game, refusing to battle Hannibal directly and instead dog his steps, starve him of provisions and generally prevent him from gaining the big tactical victories he had previously enjoyed. This was highly controversial, as the standard Roman tactic was to point a big army at The Enemy, march forward and kill everything that didn’t look Italian. Despite an uppity deputy, the dictator was highly successful and Hannibal did not gain another big victory to invigorate his supporters.

After this, the dictatorship lapsed and Varro and Paullus were made consuls. They combined their consular armies and, for good measure, doubled them in size, putting a force of about 80,000 into the field. This army, despite consular disagreement, then attacked Hannibal’s forces (roughly half the size) and was thoroughly obliterated by perhaps the finest battlefield tactics in the Ancient World (or, perhaps, ever).

Hannibal had survived the sly intelligence of the dictator, smashed the largest Roman army ever assembled in a battle with slaughter on a scale not dissimilar to WWI and was now posed a difficult question: Should he march on Rome?

He decided not to.

There are many sound reasons for this. Firstly, it was still an era when a Roman citizen and a Roman soldier were practically interchangeable, and Rome was a large city (despite the huge numbers Hannibal had killed). Secondly, it was a walled city, and Hannibal had no siege engines and little experience of sieges. Thirdly, it would tie Hannibal’s army down, and keeping such a force fed and watered and preventing an external army from attacking it could prove highly difficult.

Hannibal did survive for many years in the Italian peninsula after this, but to no avail. He was recalled to Carthage to face Scipio Africanus and had his first and last loss of the Second Punic War.

So, what if he had marched on Rome?

I think it unlikely that he could have taken it by storm. The Romans were patriotic to an almost deranged extent. After Cannae the land upon which Hannibal’s victorious army rested was sold at full value in Rome, indicating the confidence/bravado of the Romans even after a crushing defeat. It’s always possible an internal conspiracy could have opened the gates, but for similar reasons I think this unlikely.

What’s more interesting is to consider the social/political impact of such a move. An army encamped outside the walls of Rome, led by a man who had repeatedly massacred the Roman army, might have caused a shock to the allies of Rome. Might more of them have abandoned the city if she had seemed helpless before the Punic conqueror? This might have enabled Hannibal to grasp a strategic victory and either conquer Rome or force a favourable peace treaty.

Ultimately, I think Hannibal made the right choice. As I think it unlikely he could have taken Rome, marching to it and then leaving it untaken would have dealt a severe blow to the morale of his men. The misfortune he faced was to fight Rome at the time of its patriotic zenith. Centuries later, the city repeatedly fell, surrendered and crumbled before lesser men, but when Hannibal fought it was still blazing determination and confidence.



  1. It's often forgotten when contemplating the scale of Rome's defeat that Hannibal's army suffered heavily at Cannae too - something like a fifth of the total killed, which by the usual law of things probably means there were at least twice as many wounded. If Hannibal had been able to march on Rome with even half the army he started Cannae with he would have been lucky - and there is no way less than 25,000 tired, hungry men are going to take Rome, even after Cannae. He would have been forced to retreat almost immediately, and all he would have achieved would be to boost Rome's morale in the aftermath of Cannae. It wasn't so much that he was right not to march on Rome, as he had no real choice.

    The whole episode of course is an object demonstration of what happens when flashy, talented easterners a long way from home commanding a somewhat polyglot army try to take on Rome in it's own backyard:-)

  2. Gah, I'm such a numpty for forgetting to mention his own losses.

    Isn't Carthage to the west of Rome? :p

    Plus, the polyglot army speaks well of Hannibal's excellent abilities as a leader of men. During the whole war he suffered only one defection (a few hundred Numidian cavalry), which is very impressive considering the large numbers he led and his highly diverse army.

    I agree with your conclusion that he made the right decision, however, plenty of people disagree and it is an interesting question to consider.

  3. He made the choice not to march on Rome because he knew, or at any rate believed, he couldn't take it. Having failed to win the war, he was recalled because, despite of his tactical victories and presence in Italy, he couldn't stop a Roman army invading his homeland. Having reached home he was out generalled and soundly thumped by Scipio, losing the war.

    I know I have said this before, but I'll say it again, Hannibal was a loser.

  4. Mr. Llama, I see you're scaling the Mountain of Wrongness once again :p

    The war was lost for the Carthaginians in Spain, not Italy, where Scipio avenged his family (father and uncle, I think) and did very well to thwart Punic ambitions.

    Hannibal narrowly lost a battle to Scipio, the finest of Roman generals. To put it into context, Scipio had:
    Veteran soldiers accustomed to success
    Who had trained for the best part of a year in Sicily

    Hannibal had:
    Remnants of his veteran army
    Most of his troops were freshly raised
    And he lacked time to train them properly

    Scipio does deserve credit, but I fear that you are a silly man for knocking the excellent Hannibal.

  5. I am scaling the heights of wrongness? Well, from a high point one can see further and with greater clarity than one can down in the weeds of righteousness.

    It is tempting to describe Hannibal as the Von Manstein of the Second Punic war - he won some neat tactical victories but he couldn't stop his country being defeated. The analogy doesn't quite hold because Manstein didn't have any say over grand strategy, but its probably close enough in justifying, as far as is possible, claims of greatness for Hannibal.

    I suppose in modern terms on could say that Hannibal was a good Lieutenant General but not up to the job of a Field Marshall.

    Or to put it another way, Hannibal lost, he was a loser. :)

  6. No idea who Von Manstein was/is.

    'Neat tactical victories' does a total disservice to Hannibal. He deliberately picked the site of Trasimene for an ambush and provoked Flaminius to disobey orders and follow him there. He evaded the Romans by marching through the Arnus Marshes, braved the Alps in winter and won arguably the greatest battlefield victory in history at Cannae.

    On the strategic point: Hannibal's overall strategy as sound as possible given his constraints. What would you have done differently? The decision to reinforce Spain rather than Italy was taken by the politicians of Carthage.

  7. Testing... testing...

    I posted a reply to Mr. Thaddeus last night but seems to have been lost....

  8. How peculiar. I did check the spambox in case you'd used a naughty word (or in case the filter considered your continual refusal to acknowledge Hannibal's superiority over Caesar as trolling :p), but it's empty.

  9. "in case the filter considered your continual refusal to acknowledge Hannibal's superiority over Caesar as trolling"

    Thank you, Mr. Thaddeus, my first belly-laugh of the day.