Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Hannibal the Admiral

Hannibal is famous for his military victories. In fact he only lost one significant land battle - at Zama, to a Roman force led by P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus.

However, Hannibal also lost another, lesser-known battle - but at sea. He was bested by Eudamus of Rhodes.

By the terms of the Roman peace treaty that was signed in 201 BC (after the defeat at Zama) Carthage was stripped of her possessions and reduced to being a Roman client state. However, Carthage's commercial activities continued and it was able to pay the annual war indemnity to Rome. Hannibal remained free in Carthage - no doubt as part of the peace deal - and in 196 BC he was chosen as one of the two Suffetes, elected annually to rule the Carthaginian republic. As this was only a few years after Hannibal's defeat by Rome, this must have seemed like a 'slap in the face' to the Senate.

Under Hannibal's leadership the popular assembly gained ascendancy over the traditional oligarchic power structure. (Hannibal improved the finances of the state so significantly that in 191 BC Carthage offered to pay off the remaining forty years of reparation payments in one lump sum.)

Although he was popular, Hannibal nevertheless had powerful enemies in the dispossessed oligarchs, who in turn had influential friends in Rome. Prominent among these Romans was M. Porcius Cato, a rival of Scipio and a man who had an almost pathological hatred of Carthage. Encouraged by the anti-Barcid oligarchs, Cato claimed that Hannibal was conspiring with the Seleucid king Antiochus III, with whom Rome was increasingly antagonistic. In 195 a Roman commission was sent to Carthage to complain, and Hannibal - suspecting what the outcome would be - fled east to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage. 

From there, Hannibal moved on to Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid kingdom (with whose king he had been accused of plotting), and from there to Ephesus, where he finally found the king. A frightened Carthaginian government meanwhile formally exiled him.

The arrival of Hannibal - Rome’s worst nightmare - at the Seleucid court only worsened the deteriorating situation in the east. In 192 the Aetolians captured the key port of Demetrias and convinced Antiochus to strike by sending an army to the Balkan peninsula. 

Hannibal is said to have urged the king to give him ten thousand infantry and one thousand cavalry, with which he would stir up Carthage and then invade Italy. This may have been an attempt to arouse Carthage, a plan that would fit with Antiochus’ apparent (more limited) goal of asserting his status as a Mediterranean power by rebuffing Rome in the Balkans.

These limited war aims, potential jealousy and discontent among the his generals and the reluctance of Greek troops to serve under a “barbarian” probably explain why Antiochus made such little use of Hannibal. In fact, Hannibal’s sole command in the war was a naval squadron. It was common in those days for generals to be expected to fight on land and water.

When Antiochus was forced out of Greece in 191 BC, the naval element of the war with Rome became more important.  Later in the year the king sent Hannibal to Phoenicia to collect reinforcements for the main Seleucid fleet at Ephesus.  In the summer of the following year (190 BC) as Hannibal was bringing his ships north, he ran into a squadron from Rhodes sent to block him off Side on the Anatolian shore.

Hannibal formed a line perpendicular to the shore and awaited the Rhodian attack. The Rhodian force was smaller but the skill of Rhodian sailors was legendary, while the Phoenician crews were unused to the heavier warships that Antiochus had ordered built.

As the battle opened, the Rhodian admiral, Eudamus, did not display great skill. Because of a poor deployment and resulting confusion, he found himself engaging the enemy left, commanded by Hannibal, with only five ships. But the Rhodians quickly recovered, and superior seamanship began to tell as Rhodian ramming tactics punched hole after hole in the Seleucid ships. Hannibal’s right and center were soon in serious trouble, and ships from the victorious Rhodian left were able to speed to the support of Eudamus. 

With the  sea battle now clearly lost, Hannibal began to retire and was followed by the rest of his fleet, more than half his ships having been disabled. Hannibal had been defeated in a serious engagement for only the second time in his life.

Although the battle of Side was relatively small, it prevented the linkup of the two Seleucid fleets, and control of the sea was decisively lost a month later at the battle of Myonnesus. The war ended in early 189 with  the defeat Antiochus’ at Magnesia in Asia Minor. 

Following Magnesia, the peace settlement included a demand for the surrender of Hannibal but the Romans, probably influenced by Scipio Africanus, who was with the Roman delegation, took no real action.  Hannibal escaped first to Gortyn on Crete
and then may have travelled on to the court of King Artaxias I of Armenia.

The last stage of Hannibal’s military career took place under King Prusias I of Bithynia on the Black Sea coast. Sometime around 186 BC Prusias began a war with his major Anatolian rival and loyal client of Rome, King Eumenes II of Pergamum.

All that survives of this war is an interesting naval anecdote. Pressed by a numerically superior Pergamene fleet, Hannibal defeated them by hurling aboard the enemy ships pots filled with poisonous snakes, causing panic among the crews.  This is possibly the first recorded example of biological warfare.

Based on an article by qqduckus.

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