Around 250 BCE Rome was a military superpower in the Ancient World. The few enemies it had that dared to stand up against its military might could be counted on one hand and those that could defeat Rome in a battle were virtually nonexistent. That was all about to change when the commander of the Carthaginian army, Hannibal Barca, set his sights on the growing Roman Empire to avenge his father and make good on a blood oath he had pledged against Rome as a child. Carthage had been a naval superpower in the Mediterranean, but after its defeat to Rome in the First Punic War, Carthaginian naval might had been severely diminished. If Hannibal was going to attack Rome, he’d have to come at them where they’d least expect it. Down through the Alps.
No one in Rome could have predicted that Hannibal would come down through the mountains into what is now Italy. This was to be the start of Hannibal’s psychological war on Rome.
Hannibal Barca knew that he had a very limited number of soldiers, most of whom were a hodge-podge of mercenaries, Gauls that hated Rome as much as Hannibal did, and Carthaginian soldiers that had fought alongside Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar. Hannibal also knew that any hopes of receiving supplies or fresh troops were in vane since Carthage’s defeat during the First Punic War had left its navy almost non-existent.
On the other hand, Rome had an almost inexhaustible number of trained soldiers that it could pulled from all the provinces of its empire. It had the wealth to arm its soldiers. Also, after crushing Carthage in the previous Punic War, Rome now had a strong navy and controlled the Mediterranean.
Hannibal was aware that he was at a great disadvantage when goes to war with Rome. However, he knew that there were things he could control that would ensure victory despite any odds. He knew that if he could decide where and when to fight the Roman Army he would be able to ensure that the Romans were always caught off guard and at a disadvantage. Also, he knew of Rome’s military tactics. Roman army formations were very rigid and acted like a fist using brute force to punch through their opposition. Hannibal was also aware of Rome’s one true weakness, its ego. By crossing the Alps with his army, he had shocked Rome and caused the Romans to panic, resulting in the Latin phrase, Hannibal ad portas (Hannibal is at the gates).
One of the first demonstrations of Hannibal using military tactics to play with the minds of Roman generals came during the Battle of Trebbia in 216 BCE. Tiberius Sempronius Longus was the consul in charge of the Roman army following Publius Cornelius Scipio being wounded at a different skirmish. Hannibal knew that Tiberius lacked patience and wanted a swift decisive victory (which wasn’t surprising because most Roman generals wanted a decisive victory). Hannibal set up his camp on the opposite side of the Trebbia River from the Roman Army. He then sent a thousand of his men on foot and another thousand mounted on horses to draw out the Romans. Tiberius and his men immediately gave chase before having breakfast or preparing for the day’s impending battle. While the Romans were crossing the near freezing river to attack Hannibal and his men, the Carthaginian Army was eating breakfast and preparing their weapons and horses. When the Roman Army arrived to do battle they were cold, disorganized, and hungry which demoralized the troops and allowed Hannibal to easily win the battle.
Rome would not have to wait long until it suffered another defeat at the hands of Hannibal. In 217 BCE, at the Battle of Lake Trasimene Hannibal exploited the headstrong nature of the consul Flaminius by burning and looting the countryside as his army passed near Flaminius’ army. Naturally, this provoked Flaminius who saw this blatant disregard for him as a sign of Hannibal’s contempt for Flaminius’ military prowess. Hannibal lead his men to a narrow road that ran alongside the lake. Hannibal had his men hide in the trees along the road. The Roman Army led by Flaminius came hastily along the road hoping to catch up with the Carthaginian Army. The mist from the lake and the nearby hillside hide Hannibal’s troops in the trees along the road until they could ambush the Romans. By preying on the pride of Roman generals, Hannibal could lure the Roman Army into another trap and guarantee himself victory.
The last major battle of the Second Punic War where Hannibal played with the psyche of the Roman Army was at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE. As discussed earlier, Rome attacked like a fist on the battlefield. Its solid formation allowed it to confidently plow through the opposing forces of other armies. Hannibal was aware of this and developed a plan that relied perfectly on the Romans’ tactics and self-superiority. Hannibal had his army from a crescent shaped that concaved out towards the approaching Roman Army. To lure the Rome to the center he placed himself in there along with his allies from Gaul. His more experienced African soldiers he kept on the right and left arms of the formation. Rome’s army immediately seized the opportunity to strike at the weak center of Carthaginian Army. The Romans pushed forward in hopes of capturing or killing what they thought to be an exposed Hannibal Barca. Hannibal let the center of his formation slowly retreat. As the Roman Army continued to push inward the arms of the crescent moved inward making it more convex. Soon, the Romans where surrounded by the Carthaginians. Ancient Historians such as Livy and Polybius estimate that between fifty to seventy thousand Romans were killed that day compared to only six thousand Carthaginian casualties. Modern historians have compared it to some of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Rome was too proud to admit defeat plus doing so would cause unrest in the provinces and doubt among its allies. Rome decided to take the fight directly to Carthage and sent Publius Cornelius Scipio (also referred to as “Scipio Africanus” because of his great military victories in Africa) to lead the army in Africa. Without much of a standing army in Carthage, Hannibal for forced to leave Rome to return to his homeland to defend it.
Scipio would prove to be more like Hannibal himself in military strategy than any Roman consul Hannibal had ever faced. While most Roman consuls had studied formation and how Roman armies had always succeeded in other battles, Scipio studies Hannibal’s tactics. He had fought in battles against Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, in Hispania. Scipio had looked at how his kinsmen like Tiberius had been led into traps by Hannibal. For the first time in Hannibal’s career he hadn’t chosen the location or conditions of the battlefield. In 202 BCE at the Battle of Zama, Hannibal was facing his equal for the first time in his life. Scipio knew not to underestimate Hannibal’s strong cavalry so he them driven off during the battle by the forces of Masinissa, A Numidian King and recent ally to Rome. Scipio had heard stories of the charging war elephants that Hannibal would release into the battlefield so he trained his men to create an unencumbered path for them so they could safely rampage past the Roman legions where they could be killed behind the Roman lines. Other elephants were scared into turning around and trampling the Carthaginians by the loud noise of Roman trumpeters. Scipio claimed victory at after the battle and the Second Punic War ended.
Hannibal served in Carthaginian government for a short time before leaving Carthage for good. He later found himself becoming the commander of the Seleucid Navy. Eventually he was hunted down by Roman forces. The Carthaginian general who had become like a boogey man to the Roman people finally died.
Guest Writer: Trico Lutkins holds a Masters in History from Madonna University. He teaches Ancient Roman and Greek history as an adjunct professor and writes history lessons for Study.com. He has written a historical documentary television series for Amazing Productions and historical comic books featuring heroes of the American West for American Legends Comics. He has presented history lectures at local events in the Great Lakes region. Currently, he is developing a children’s history video series and writing articles for publication. Trico lives by his teaching philosophy, “I don’t just teach history, I make historians!”
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