Thursday, 9 February 2012

Hannibal and the Second Punic War: An Overview

Hannibal's War was the Second Punic War - a war he sought with Rome - to the general dismay and disapproval of Carthage. This was had its roots in the First Punic War, and in particular the hatred of Hannibal's father for Rome, resulting from his defeat in Sicily during that war.

The Carthaginian army in Spain unanimously chose Hannibal to be their general in spite of his youth, "because of the shrewdness and courage which he had shown in their service." Hannibal was then 26 years old.

Hannibal - whose name means 'Joy of Baal' - had accompanied his father, Hamilcar Barca, on his relocation from Carthage to Spain at the tender age of eight or nine. Before they left, his father is reported to made Hannibal should swear eternal enmity to Rome before the gods - a promise he kept faithfully, almost obsessively.

Hannibal's first military success was in subduing Saguntum in the north-east of Spain, which had allied itself with Rome - thus precipitating the Second Punic War. It is quite clear that Hannibal was carrying out a carefully prepared plan which he had inherited from his father. His object was nothing less than the destruction of the power of Rome - before Rome destroyed Carthage.

At this time Rome was not yet the powerful empire it was to become. The Roman federation of states was still loose and the Celtic tribes of Gauls in the North were in revolt against Roman invasion.

But since Carthage had lost command of the sea to Rome, there was only one way for Hannibal to get to Italy with his troops. Rome had in its earlier history been invaded across the Alps but probably did not imagine that Hannibal would be so bold as to attempt such an attack now. The route is a journey of 1500 miles overland from Spain, across the Pyrenees, the south of France and the Alps mainly on foot; but that was exactly what Hannibal had decided to do.

Having decided on his strategy and selected his theatre of operations Hannibal followed two principles which have grown no less important since his day: seize the initiative, and the maintenance of the element of surprise. Hannibal set about his task in the same way as a competent commander today. Hannibal first secured his bases at Carthage and in Spain at New Carthage. Next, he collected detailed information about the countries and peoples through which he proposed to pass. For this purpose he sent for messengers (liaison-officers) from the Gaulish tribes and asked for detailed accounts of the terrain and the fertility of the country at the foot of the Alps, in the midst of the Alps, and in the plain of the river Po. Today, this aspect of Hannibal's planning would come under the heading of logistics.

He also wanted to know the number of the inhabitants of the various populations, their capacity for war, and particularly their potential to join him against Rome. Today this would be called political intelligence. He was particularly anxious to win over the Gauls on both sides of the Alps as he would only be able to operate in Italy against the Romans if the Gauls co-operated with him.

He therefore planned a campaign of psychological warfare, to raise and maintain the morale of his supporters and to undermine the enemy's will and power to resist. The operations began in great secrecy in the spring of 218 BC. - 'D-day' was set about the end of May. Hannibal's actions were parallelled two thousand years later by another young general of about his age, like him about to cross the Alps, and again like Hannibal, to make his initial reputation thereby: Napoleon Bonaparte.

As far as the Rhone, there is little doubt about the route which Hannibal's army followed: but from the Rhone over the Alps into Italy, Hannibal's route is unclear: it appears that Hannibal crossed the Alps somewhere between the Little St Bernard and Montgenevre passes.
Hannibal Makes His Move

Hannibal left Spain for Italy in the spring of 218 with about 35,000 seasoned troops including cavalry and a squadron of elephants - the heavy armour of the day. From New Carthage Hannibal marched his army to the Ebro and then to Ampurias, through the Pyrenees and along the shore of the Mediterranean through the South of France, fighting much of the way.

The Romans had also received intelligence and planned to intercept him near Massilia (Marseille). Publius Cornelius Scipio was in charge of this operation, while Tiberius Sempronius led another army in Sicily, destined for Africa.

However, Scipio was diverted and had to deploy his legions to deal with a Gallic revolt. By the time he reached Massilia by sea, he learnt that he had missed Hannibal - by only a few days. Scipio had to hastily return to northern Italy and await Hannibal's arrival. Likewise Sempronius' were redeployed for the defence of Rome.

In the meantime, Scipio had sent his brother Gnaus to Spain with an army to cut Hannibal off from his brother Hasdrubal.

Crossing the Alps

Hannibal's advance had been delayed at Saguntum and he did not begin to cross the Alps until early autumn, which meant facing wintry conditions. His force suffered greatly from the elements and the hostility of local tribesmen. He lost most of his elephants, and by the time he reached northern Italy, his army was reduced to about 26,000 men, 6,000 of whom were cavalry.

However, the number was quickly raised to about 40,000 by the addition of Gauls.

Invasion of Italy

In the first engagement with Roman troops, Hannibal's cavalry won a minor victory over Scipio's forces near the Ticinus River. This was followed by a decisive victory at the Trebia River in December 218 over Roman legions led by Scipio and Sempronius, who was recalled from Sicily when Hannibal invaded Italy. Hannibal's superior numbers in cavalry and his skill in the combined use of cavalry and infantry were key factors in his success at the Trebia, as in later victories.

Hannibal had a decided advantage in northern Italy. where the Gauls were friendly to his cause and where his cavalry could operate in the broad plains. The Romans therefore decided to withdraw to central Italy and await developments.

Hannibal began to cross the Apennines in the spring of 217. The mountains again proved costly both to his army and personally to Hannibal, who lost the sight of one eye from an infection. The Roman consuls for 217, Gaius Flaminius and Servilius Geminus, had stationed themselves at Arretium and Ariminum to guard both possible routes, west and east, by which Hannibal might cross the Apennines. Hannibal selected Flaminius' western route, but the consul refused to give battle alone. Allowing Hannibal to pass, Flaminius followed, harassing the Carthaginian army and hoping to meet Geminus farther south, where they would jointly give battle.

However, Hannibal ambushed Flaminius in a narrow pass near Lake Trasimene and destroyed almost his entire army of 25,000. At Rome, Quintius Fabius Maximus was elected dictator by the centuriate assembly. Rather than join battle with Hannibal, who had marched south into Apulia, he decided on a policy of caution and harassment that would keep Hannibal moving and gradually wear him down.

Hannibal moved from Apulia into Campania, followed and watched by Fabius, who finally bottled him up in an area unfavourable to cavalry and decided to give battle. At night, however, Hannibal sent oxen toward Fabius' army with burning sticks tied to their horns; while the Romans investigated what they considered an attack, he escaped with his army to Apulia, where he wintered.

The Battle of Cannae

When Fabuis' tenure as dictator expired, the consuls for 216, Lucius Paullus and Gaius Varro, took charge of the war against Hannibal. On learning that Hannibal had captured the Roman depot at Cannae, in Apulia, the consuls deeided to give battle, and Hannibal now faced two formidable armies. However, at Cannae he again seleeted ground favourable to his tactics and strong cavalry. while the Romans relied on their superior numbers and their fighting skill. Hannibal's plan called for his cavalry, positioned on the flanks of a crescent-shaped line, to defeat the Roman horsemen quickly and to at-tack the Roman infantry from the rear as it pressed upon a weakened centre of Spaniards and Gauls: his superior African troops, at the crucial moment. were to press from the flanks and complete the encirclement. The plan succeeded and the Romans suffered 25.000 dead and l0,000 captured.

Hannibal's Political Strategy

Why Hannibal did not immediately march on Rome following his victory at Cannae has been much disputed, but the answer is probably that he was not equipped to besiege such a well-defended city. His main objective was probably not the total destruction of Rome but a settlement that would free Carthage from Roman intervention. Hannibal had hoped that his victories would bring about the wholesale defection of Italian cities from the Roman confederacy. However, the only major defection from Rome was Capua. When it was obvious to Hannibal that he could not effectively surround Rome with a ring of hostile ltalian states, he broadened the conflict to draw off Roman's manpower and to spread its resources thin.

In 215 he made an alliance with Philip V of Macedon; he wanted to drain Roman strength by waging war in Greece. The alliance came to nothing because Hannibal could not supply Philip with a navy and because Rome checked Philip with its own navy and Aetolian allies (during the First Macedonian War, 214-205).

Hannibal also brought Syracuse into the war against Rome. Hiero, ruler of Syracuse and long an ally of Rome, died in 215. His grandson, Hieronymous took control of the city and made an alliance with Hannibal. Hieronymous was soon killed in a revolt, but Punic agents gained control of Syracuse. However, Roman control of Sicily was generally restored by 211, when Syracuse fell.

First Reverses

Following the defeat at Cannae, the Romans returned to Fabius' tactics of harassing Hannibal while avoiding large-scale engagements. This seemed to have rendered Hannibal's tactical skill and superior cavalry ineffective. Consequently, the Romans were able to retake Capua, although their resources were heavily stretched by Hannibal 's international diplomacy.

However, the real blow to Hannibal came from elsewhere. In 209, the Romans offensive in Spain took New Carthage and forced Hasdrubal out of Spain. This cut off his main supply route. When the Romans discovered that Hasdrubal had copied his brother and crossed the Alps to link up with him they left a small force to watch Hannibal and marched quickly with their main force to the Metaurus River, where they defeated Hasdrubal. Hannibal learnt of the defeat brutally when Hasdrubal's head was thrown into his camp.

Hannibal knew then that he was without hope of reinforcement. For the rest of the Italian campaign he was generally restricted to Bruttium, in the far south. Roman naval supremacy was able to cut off reinforcements from Carthage (if any had been offered) and supported an unimpeded invasion of Carthage. Although his tactics in the field, -as attested even by Scipio - were brilliant, he was at a fatal disadvantage as regards reinforcements and provisions.

Defeat at Zama and Peace

In 204, the Roman general Scipio landed in Carthage and was so successful that the following year Carthage sued for peace, terms were agreed upon - and Hannibal was recalled. However, the sight of Hannibal and the remnants of his veteran army reinforced the will of Carthage to resist and hostilities were renewed. The two armies met at Zama in 202, in a battle that decided the outcome of the war. This time Hannibal met his match; he was outnumbered by a superior cavalry and his army was destroyed. He escaped the field and returned to the city.

Peace was made the next year. Rome severely restricted the Carthaginian navy and demanded a heavy indemnity. Carthage was forbidden to make war outside its African domain, and could fight within Africa only with Roman permission. Since failure to accept the peace terms would have meant the destruction of Carthage, Hannibal worked for their acceptance and retired to private life in 200.

But that was not the end of his story...

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