Thursday, 26 January 2012

Hannibal's Use of Espionage

As well as being the sole commander of the Carthaginian forces and its allies he was also its chief of intelligence - although no ancient James Bond.

Rome soon learned how effective advance intelligence could be in the hands of a skilled opponent such as Hannibal.

The Carthaginians had long been experts in communication and intelligence gathering. Hannibal's father, Hamilcar, is credited with one of the first documented examples of secret messages - a message on a wooden board but covered in wax.

Before crossing the Alps, Hannibal's spies scouted out the route and made arrangements with the tribes that lived along the route. They also made arrangements with the disgruntled tribes in Cisalpine Gaul, in the north of Italy.

During the Second Punic War (218­-201 BC), Hannibal placed spies in Roman camps and in Rome itself. His agents are said to have had secret hand gestures that they used as a means of recognizing one another. One of those spies whom the Romans caught had his hands cut off, then was released as a warning to other spies.

Not only did Hannibal emphasize good intelligence, he exacted a high price from agents who did not perform well. A scout who had mistakenly taken him to Casilinum and into a trap, when he had been directed to take him to Casinum, was crucified as punishment for his error.

The Carthaginian general's ability to disguise himself, to forge documents, to send secret communications, and to surprise the Romans became legendary.

Hannibal used disinformation and guile to lure the Romans into enormous  traps, as at Lake Trasimene, where he caught the Roman army between the lake and the surrounding mountains. This battle cost the Romans fifteen thousand killed and a similar number taken prisoner.

His famous victory at the Battle of Cannae was another trap - a victory for Hannibal that cost the Romans dearly in lost manpower, with the rings taken from dead Roman aristocrats filling three bushels [a US bushel is around 25 litres].

Source: Rose Mary Sheldon Hannibal's Spies and Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome.

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