The Genius of Hannibal

Jack Herring, Dickson College, 2011


The following essay was submitted as part of The Roman Republic unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the question: ‘Assess Hannibal’s ability as a military commander.’

Hannibal Barca led Carthage in the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), where he drove the Romans to the brink of despair and defeat. The son of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal was born into a period of conflict between Rome and Carthage. Hannibal’s military ability was demonstrated throughout the Second Punic War. His brilliant military strategy and psychological warfare, his leadership qualities, and his daring, risk-taking nature have led to him being considered one of the most extraordinary military commanders to have lived. However, in spite of Hannibal’s success in Italy, his ultimate failure to conquer Rome in the Second Punic War has generated questioning of his acclaimed ability as a military commander.

Arguably Hannibal’s most important traits as a military commander were his astute military mind and his ability to utilise psychological warfare to great advantage, which, according to Polybius is the most valuable asset a commander can have.

For there is no denying that he who thinks that there is anything more essential to a general than the knowledge of his opponent's principles and character, is both ignorant and foolish. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 81)

These qualities were demonstrated through Hannibal’s success in the battle of Trebia. Prior to the battle of Trebia in 218 BC, Publius Cornelius Scipio (a Roman Consul) was wounded. This caused Tiberius Sempronius Longus (the other Consul) to take charge of the Roman Army. In spite of being aware of Scipio’s advice to wait before facing Hannibal, Tiberius was eager to force a decisive battle.

Tiberius ... was all eagerness to bring on a decisive battle as soon as possible... Scipio's view of the situation was just the opposite...Tiberius was quite conscious of the truth and cogency of all these reasons, but, urged on by his ambition and with an unreasonable confidence in his fortune, he was eager to deliver the decisive blow himself and did not wish Publius to be able to be present at the battle. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 70)

Hannibal was most likely aware of Tiberius’ ambition and he was thus anxious to force a battle on the enemy and exploit Tiberius’ eagerness (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 70). Hannibal then chose the destination for the coming battle and laid his trap.

Hannibal had long ago noticed a place between the two camps, flat indeed and treeless, but well adapted for an ambuscade, as it was traversed by a water-course with steep banks densely overgrown with brambles and other thorny plants, and here he proposed to lay a stratagem to surprise the enemy. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 71)

Hannibal camped across the opposite side of the Trebia River to the Romans and prepared his men for battle.

In the night he sent out a thousand horse and as many foot, to the ambuscade, furnishing them with guides and giving his brother orders about the time to attack. At daybreak he mustered his Numidian horsemen ... to draw out the Romans by shooting at them, his wish being to get the enemy to fight him before they had breakfasted or made any preparations. He then ordered the whole army to get their breakfasts and to see to their arms and horses. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 71)

After being lured into battle the Roman army crossed the Trebia River with great difficulty and emerged disorganised, freezing and hungry. “The consequence was that the whole force suffered much from cold and also from hunger, as the day was now advancing” (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 72). The Carthaginian army, well fed and prepared in their formation, immediately ambushed the Romans. The result was the death of approximately fifteen thousand Romans (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, III, 78) and an emphatic Carthaginian victory. Hannibal’s comprehensive triumph at Trebia is an illustration of his brilliant military mind and is also an example of his ability to utilise psychological warfare.

Related Article: The Military Reforms of Caius Marius
Hannibal’s strategic and psychological genius was once again demonstrated at the battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC. Upon learning of Flaminus’ (one of the consuls at the time) headstrong nature (Bradley, 1990 p140), Hannibal goaded him into battle by purposely marching past his army and burning and looting the countryside.

As Hannibal had correctly foreseen and reckoned on the conduct of Flaminius, his plan had the success he expected. For as soon as he ... invaded the country in front of him, Flaminius swelled with fury and resentment, thinking that the enemy were treating him with contempt. 3 And when very soon they began to lay waste the country, and the smoke rising from all quarters told its tale of destruction, he was still more indignant, regarding this as insufferable. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 82)

As Hannibal had anticipated, the Roman General was lured into battle. "Finally,.. he broke up the camp, and advanced with his army, utterly regardless of time or place, but bent only on falling in with the enemy, as if victory were a dead certainty." (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 82)
Hannibal thus set a clever trap while marching through the city of Etruria.

The road led through a narrow strip of level ground with a range of high hills on each side of it lengthwise. This defile was overlooked in front crosswise by a steep hill difficult to climb, and behind it lay the lake, between which and the hill side the passage giving access to the defile was quite narrow. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 82)

Hannibal strategically hid his men alongside the road during the night, waiting in ambush, while also sending a division to block the exit, and once the Romans had entered the road, a division to block the entrance. Flaminius, who had followed Hannibal closely and was impatient to overtake him, (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 83) led his army hastily along the road. The Romans became strung out, and due to the mist and trees, were unable to see Hannibal’s hidden troops.

Hannibal, as soon as the greater part of the enemy's column had entered the defile and when the head was already in contact with him, giving the signal for battle and sending notice to those in the ambuscades, attacked the Romans from all sides at the same time. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 84).

The Romans were taken by surprise and were “unable either to yield to circumstances or to do anything” (Polybius, III 84). According to Polybius, fifteen thousand Romans died, which is a stark comparison to the Carthaginian losses, estimated to be roughly one thousand five hundred (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 84). The large discrepancy in casualties, along with Hannibal’s ability to lure the Roman’s into battle and utilise the landscape to his advantage illustrate his exceptional military skill and ability as a commander. This remarkable triumph is testament to Hannibal’s extraordinary military mind.

The final, yet perhaps most brilliant of all Hannibal’s strategies, occurred at the battle of Cannae in 216 BC. Rome sent an unprecedented eight legions (ninety thousand men) into battle in order to end the Carthaginian threat once and for all (Bradley, 1990, pg 145). Despite being outnumbered nearly two to one, Hannibal coaxed the Romans to advance then implemented his clever tactics. He drew up a battle line with strong wings and a weak centre, so as the Romans advanced, they pushed Hannibal’s centre backwards into an arc.

The Romans... progressed so far that they now had the heavy-armed Africans on both of their flanks. Hereupon the Africans on the right wing facing to the left and then beginning from the right charged upon the enemy's flank, while those on the left faced to the right and dressing by the left, did the same. The consequence was that, as Hannibal had designed, the Romans, straying too far in pursuit of the Celts, were caught between the two divisions of the enemy, and they now no longer kept their compact formation. (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 115)

Hannibal’s strong cavalry, which had defeated the Roman flanks easily, then turned and encircled the Romans (Livy, The History of Rome, XXII: 47 - 49, 51). As Sean McNight (n.d.) observes, this “... penned the Romans in, making it hard to even draw a sword, let alone wield one...” and resulted in a blood bath (Whitby, 2004). Polybius and Livy both estimate that the Romans lost between fifty and seventy thousand men, whereas Hannibal’s losses are estimated to be around six thousand. Hannibal’s overwhelming victory forced the Romans to change tactics once more, as they never again faced him in open battle in Italy. Hannibal’s victory was resounding, with the destruction he caused being likened to an Atomic Bomb (O’Connell, 2011) (as a similar number of deaths occurred at both the battle of Cannae and the Hiroshima bombing). The fact that his tactics are still studied in military colleges around the world today (O’Connell, 2011), and the impact he left on Rome and the Ancient World are further verification to his being one of the greatest military commanders ever.

Other traits which contributed to Hannibal’s expertise as a military commander were his daring, risk-taking nature and his powerful leadership. These qualities were demonstrated in the journey over the two mountain ranges, the Pyrenees and the Alps. The journey over these mountain ranges, especially the Alps, was extremely arduous due to the freezing temperatures, tough terrain and hostile tribes encountered along the way (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 51). Consequently, his army’s morale was seriously challenged throughout their journey. However, Hannibal combated these complications by creating a notion of equality between his men and himself.

Many have seen him wrapped in a military cloak, lying on the ground amid his soldiers. His dress was not at all superior to that of his equals, his was at once by far the first of the cavalry and infantry and foremost to lead the charge, the last to leave the engagement. (Livy, The History of Rome, XXI: 32-34)

Hannibal’s charisma and sense of equality enabled him to motivate his army, which was a “hotch-potch of the riff raff of all nationalities” (Bradley, 1990, pg 173). His ability to unite individuals of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures into a fully fledged army demonstrates his outstanding leadership qualities. Hannibal’s strong leadership is also illustrated through his successes in the battles he fought in Italy, especially at the battle of Lake Trasimene, where has was able to instil complete discipline in his soldiers to wait quietly before attacking the enemy (Fleming, 2001).

In spite of Hannibal’s success in Italy, he was ultimately unable to defeat and conquer the Roman Republic. Due to the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus’ decision to invade Africa, Hannibal was forced to leave Italy and return with his army to defend Carthage (Lazenby, 1998). It was the Battle of Zama in 202 BC that marked the end of the rule of Hannibal, as he was finally defeated by the Romans. Hannibal spent the next twenty years in exile, before choosing to commit suicide, rather than hand himself over to the Romans (Dodge, 1891).

Hannibal’s ultimate failure to conquer the Romans can be attributed to a number of factors. His ambition to persuade Roman allies to switch sides achieved a certain amount of success, with the defection of several Celtic tribes; however, overall he was unsuccessful in gaining the support of many of Rome’s allies, which further increased the difficulty of his mission. Hannibal’s inability to force his arm when the opportunity arose after his overwhelming victory at Cannae has also been considered a mistake.

While the defeat suffered by Carthage and Hannibal’s inability to gain allies are relevant in assessing Hannibal’s ability as a military commander, it was factors beyond Hannibal’s control which dictated the result of the Second Punic War. Rome’s “inexhaustible supply of manpower” (Bradley, 1990. pg 175), the failure of the Carthaginian government to reinforce Hannibal’s troops and Rome’s control of the sea were the main reasons for Hannibal’s inability to ultimately defeat Rome. Due to the Romans’ control of the sea, they were able to easily transport their forces, whereas Carthage’s limited efforts to increase their navy provided a severe handicap in their ability to supply troops to Hannibal (Hoyus, 1983). The Carthaginian Government’s failure to support Hannibal was extremely costly, especially considering they had the required funding, since until around 208 BC, they had enjoyed the wealth of Southern Spain (Hoyus, 1983).

The result of the Carthaginian Government’s failure to support Hannibal resulted in Hannibal’s army consisting of roughly twenty-six thousand men (which rose to roughly forty-five thousand with the defection of Celtic tribes), in comparison to three-quarters of a million men that Rome were able to utilise (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius III, 54-56). And thus in spite of Hannibal’s great victories at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae, he was unable to destroy Roman power. Failure by Carthage to effectively deploy its forces was a further factor which prevented a Roman defeat. The forces they did send from Carthage were dispersed to cities irrelevant to Hannibal’s quest and several forces did not even reach Hannibal at all. While there has been justifiable criticism of Hannibal’s military generalship because of his ultimate failure to defeat the Romans, it can be seen that this failure stemmed from circumstances beyond his control and not as a direct consequence of his ability as a military commander.

Hannibal’s brilliant strategic skill, daring nature and aptitude as a leader has seen him fairly placed as one of the world’s greatest military commanders. Hannibal’s ability to lead men from different races and win resounding victories, despite coming up against a significantly larger Roman army, has resulted in him leaving a substantial legacy. And while he ultimately failed in his quest to defeat Rome, the fact that Rome and many other civilisations came to adopt his military tactics is testament to his ability a general. Hannibal helped shape the ancient world, and has continued to significantly affect the modern world, leading to his becoming one of the world’s most brilliant military commanders.

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Annotated Bibliography


Abbot, J, 2008, Makers of History – Hannibal, Harpers and Brothers Publishers, London
Abbot’s book “Makers of History – Hannibal” is an extremely reliable piece of writing as it draws its conclusions from the works of Polybius, Livy and other historians from ancient times. Abbot’s book provides a history of Hannibal’s early life and goes on to illustrate accomplishments and failures of his life and his impact on history. Abbot’s book is very useful in providing a summary of the Carthage’s military general Hannibal.

Bradley, P (1990), Ancient Rome using evidence, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Pamela Bradley’s secondary school textbook Ancient Rome Using Evidence provides a comprehensive introduction to early Roman civilisation. Bradley’s work is extremely helpful and very reliable as it draws on both ancient and modern sources. It presents a brief overview of Hannibal and is useful in providing information on his exploits throughout the Second Punic War.

Dodge, T, 1891, Great Captains – Hannibal Volume 1 & 2, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, New York
Analyses Hannibal’s successes, and also his failures, as a military general. It is very useful in providing insight into Hannibal’s quest in Italy, and it is also successful in providing an understanding of why Hannibal ultimately failed in his quest. It is an extremely useful source in gaining insight into Hannibal’s ability as a military commander.

Fields, N, 2011, Hannibal, Osprey Publishing Limited, London
Nic Fields’ novel Hannibal looks at the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, and also provides a brief history of Hannibal’s life. The novel demonstrates slight bias towards Hannibal; however it is a useful source in providing an evaluation of Hannibal as a military commander.

Lazenby, J.F, 1998, Hannibal’s War: A Military History of The Second Punic War, University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma
Lazenby’s book Hannibal’s War: A Military History of The Second Punic War, covers the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage from the years 218-202 BC. Lazenby provides an interpretation of Polybius’ and Livy’s workings, and also examines several other ancient sources. Lazenby’s analysis of primary sources is extremely valuable in providing accurate information. Although Lazenby displays clear admiration for Hannibal’s achievements, he does not demonstrate much bias.

O’Connell, R. L, 2010, The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic, Random House Publishing Group, Sydney
Analyses the famous battle of Cannae in 216 BC, and also several battles which followed that of Cannae. It is very useful as it focuses on Hannibal and his enemy Scipio Africanus, and in doing so considers both Roman and Carthaginian perspectives. The novel looks at the difference in Roman and Carthaginian battle tactics and armament, as well as looking into their different belief and philosophies. The book is very helpful in analysing Hannibal’s qualities as a general.

Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, (Loeb Classical Library edition), accessed on 12 April 2011 at .
Polybius’ work “The Histories of Polybius” covers the years 264 – 146 BC, and they trace the downfall of the Greeks, the rise of Rome and also the Punic Wars. Polybius’ work is written from a combination of sources and portrays opinions from Roman, Greek and Carthaginian perspectives. It is useful in providing details about matters concerning the Roman Republic, however it shows slight bias, to do Polybius certain bias towards Romans.

Rollin, C, 1836, The Ancient History of The Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Grecians and Macedonians, George Dearborn Publisher, New York
Charles Rollin’s work provides a history of Ancient Egyptian, Carthaginian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Macedonian, Grecian and Persian civilisation. It is useful in providing a history of Carthage from its founding’s and beginning, to its destruction, including an analysis of the Punic Wars with Rome. It is valuable in providing a history of Carthage, however it does not provide much information on Hannibal.

Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome (English Translation by. Rev. Canon Roberts), Dutton and Co: New York, 1912 accessed on 9 April 2011 at .
Livy’s “The History of Rome” provides a history of Rome from its founding to his lifetime. His work covers the period 753 – 9 BC, and it follows Polybius writings very closely. However as he was extremely patriotic his sources should be treated with caution as they may show bias towards Rome.

Warrick, C.K, 2006, Hannibal – Great General of the Ancient World, (Rulers of the Ancient World), Enslow Publishers, New Jersey, USA
Biography of the Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca. It traces his early childhood, and follows his rise to Carthaginian General, where it examines his achievements throughout the Second Punic War. Warrick’s novel is very helpful in providing an understanding of Hannibal’s accomplishments and abilities as a leader, and its use of primary sources shows its reliability.


Hoyus, B.D, 1983, 'Hannibal: What Kind of Genius?', Second Series, Vol. 30, No. 2, Cambridge University Press, accessed 28 April 2011 at
Hoyus’ article “Hannibal: What Kind of Genius?” analyses whether Hannibal’s failures were a direct result of his decisions, or whether they were a result of factors which he could not control. Hoyus believes that Hannibal was a brilliant general, however he also considers Hannibal to have made several mistakes, and he discuss’ them throughout his article. It is very useful in providing a different opinion on Hannibal’s ability as a general.

O’Bryhim, S, 1991, Hannibal’s Elephants and the Crossing of The Rhône, Vol. 41, No. 1, Cambridge University Press, accessed 28 April 2011 at .
The article “Hannibal’s Elephants and the Crossing of The Rhône” looks at the method of transport that Hannibal used for his elephants when crossing The Rhone river. It analyses the opinions of Livy and Polybius, and also takes into consideration Elephant behaviour studies, and comes to the conclusion that a method which Livy states, is the most believable account of the truth. The article is useful in demonstrating the truth of Polybius and Livy’s accounts, and in showing Hannibal’s intelligent thinking.


Quigley, J, Greatest Heroes in History – Hannibal, 2003, videorecording, A Wark Clements Production.
The documentary “Greatest Heroes in History – Hannibal, discusses Hannibal’s leadership abilities and also looks at his success in the battles of Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae. It is very useful in providing a brief history of Hannibal and his battles, however due to the lack of primary sources used, it’s reliability should be treated carefully.

Hannibal – The Man Who Hated Rome, 2001, videorecording, Mentorn, United Kingdom
This provides a brief history of Hannibal and his journey throughout the Second Punic War. It is very helpful in giving a brief understanding of Hannibal’s quest against Rome.

Internet Sites:

Hooker, R, 1999, “Rome – The Punic Wars”, World Civilisations, viewed 13th April 2011
This site supplies a brief outline of Carthage and Rome, and also briefly outlines the first, second and third Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. It is helpful in providing a overview of the conflict between the two civilisations.

Halsall, P, 1998, “Polybius: The Character of Hannibal”, Ancient History Sourcebook, viewed 13th April 2011
Halsall’s translation of Polybius’ histories is very reliable as it is a direct translation from Polybius’ accounts. It analyses the Character of Hannibal, stating that he was a difficult man to understand the extract also looks at the decisions Hannibal made, out what were the motivating factors behind these. It is very useful in providing a more in-depth insight into Hannibal.

Lendering, J, 2008, “Hannibal”, viewed 14th April 2011
The Internet article “Hannibal” is a biography of Hannibal’s life, beginning from his early childhood, and ending with his death. It also provides an evaluation on his impact on ancient society. It is useful in providing a brief outline of Hannibal, however it does not go into much detail, and due to the lack of primary sources used, it should be treated with caution.

Lendering, J, 2008, “Hannibal In The Alps”, viewed 14th April 2011
This website discusses Hannibal’s journey over the Alps. It utilises extracts from both Polybius and Livy’s histories and is thus very reliable. It is useful in showing the difficulties that faced Hannibal and is also useful in demonstrating his ability as a leader.

“Battle of Zama”, 2011, viewed 18th April 2011
This online source provided a brief yet useful overview of the Battle of Zama. It discusses the tactics used throughout the battle and is helpful in providing a summary of Hannibal’s strategy.

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