Hannibal Barca and Julius Caesar are two of the outstanding generals of the Ancient World (the other obvious candidate being Alexander the Great). However, it is a bone of contention between myself and the aforementioned Mr. Llama as to which fellow is actually the better (in military terms only). I think it’s Hannibal (I’d rank him approximately equal to Alexander), he thinks it’s Caesar (Scipio Africanus was more impressive, I think).
I’ll compare the two chaps in a number of categories to make my case. These are: Tactical and Strategic Ability, Enemies, Greatest Military Achievements.
Tactical and Strategic Ability
Tactically, there can be no contest. Lake Trasimene was one of the greatest ambushes in history, and Hannibal followed this up with arguably the most impressive battle of all time: Cannae. He also excelled in the difficult strategic challenge posed by Quintus Fabius Maximus and his cunning cunctatory ways. Last but not least, he was also talented at spotting opportunities others did not and doing the unexpected, such as his clever march through the Arnus Marshes or, even more unpredictable, marching through the Alps in winter.
Caesar had a very good battlefield record. However, from memory, I cannot recall him often deviating from the standard three line approach of the Romans. One such example was Pharsalus, where he faced an opponent so predictable Caesar knew to put a fourth line in such a way as to protect his force from the inevitable cavalry charge. Regarding logistics and strategic thinking, Caesar was certainly competent, but there is no battle he won worthy of comparison with Cannae, nor march comparable to the crossing of the Alps.
Hannibal did fight the Celtiberians, but most of what we know of him was his warfare against Rome. Roman soldiers were tremendously well-equipped, not least with a pathological sense of patriotism. The earliest generals he faced were usually mediocre, however, he later faced the intelligent Marcellus, the talented Nero and the highly skilled Scipio Africanus.
Caesar had two great campaigns, against the Gauls and then the Romans Pompey commanded. The Gauls were certainly no pushover, however, they had a limited understanding of tactics and strategy, and Vercingetorix emerged too late to save his people. Pompey’s days of action were behind him, and the soldiers he commanded, whilst patriotic Romans, were inexperienced. Despite this, Caesar was defeated at Dyrrhachium and saved only by Pompey’s timidity. Later, Pompey could have avoided Pharsalus and so won through the style of Quintus Fabius Maximus, instead of which he emulated the magister equitum Marcus Minucius Rufus, allowed himself to be bullied by the senators and launched an attack he didn’t want to and which failed.
Greatest Military Achievements
Hannibal has a plethora of epic accomplishments, a single one of which would make a lesser man famous in its own right. He crossed the Alps in winter, with elephants, marching against hostile tribes. Cannae is perhaps the greatest victory on a battlefield ever seen, Lake Trasimene may claim to be one of the greatest ambushes. Those who say ‘He lost’ miss the point. If I have a machinegun and fight an arthritic granny and win it is far less impressive then if I tie my hands together and almost beat Jet Li in a duel.
Caesar’s victories were more easily acquired, but also had a long-lasting impact. Gaul remained Roman almost until the Western Empire crumbled, and his defeat of Pompey changed Rome from a republic to an empire. These are mighty achievements, but is there a battle he fought to equal Cannae, a march as heroic as the Alpine endeavour of Hannibal? No.
This is why I think Hannibal was the greater of the two men, in military terms. He went up against Rome at its most fanatically patriotic, when it issued army after army against him despite incurring losses that would have crippled any other nation. And yet, he came close to ultimate victory, and even the Romans acknowledged his greatness. Caesar defeated some disunited barbarians, and then narrowly led an army of veterans to victory over inexperienced soldiers led by a man who made a number of critical errors.