Hannibal: The Birth of Strategy

  • Famous maneuver: double envelopment that compressed and crushed roman infantryhannibal
  • He kept his enemies guessing due to his relative speed and unconventionality
  • His superb use of intelligence gathering and espionage helped him secure victory

“The courage of those who despair of safety will carry everything before it” — Hannibal

“Hannibal slept humbly on the hard ground just like his tough soldiers, wrapped only in a few heavy blankets…Everything Hannibal did had at least one strategic purpose and likely layered with deeper intent to breed loyalty.” p59

Hannibal’s life from a young age had one sole aim: destroy Rome. In some sense, Hannibal wasn’t allowed to be a child. His father made him vow before his god to see the destruction of Rome.

Hannibal might be one of the top strategists of all time. Even more apparent is the impact Hannibal had on Rome’s military strategy as Scipio Africanus adopted most of Hannibal’s tactics and strategy. From humbling Rome, to influencing the policies Rome would adopt to later defeat him.

Hannibal uses the environment as almost a second army. He’d either trap armies in narrow passes, use the sun, wind and sand, fog, and night all to his advantage.

On the idea of strategic aim and as Hart has explained, putting your enemies on the Horns of Dilemma creates a problem for your enemy regardless of what they decide you still have a winning maneuver. Hannibal shows his brilliance as a strategist as he puts Rome in his horns of dilemma. Hunt writes, “Hannibal’s Campanian sojourn was perfectly logical. First, as Polybius state, this would result in one of two Romas responses: either the Romans would be forced to engage him in battle, or, by not engaging him, the would concede he was the master of Italy.” pg 125.  

Cannae “Hannibal was outnumbered by at least twenty thousand additional Roman infantry.” And yet, Hannibal decimated the Romans in Cannae again with brilliant strategy, tactics and an eye for “turning the enemy’s own strength against itself.” Hunt explains it’s been estimated that over 30,000 gallons of blood lay on the battlefield after Hannibal kills off around 20% of all Roman men aged between 18 and 50 that day.

Where Hannibal was a brilliant strategist on the field, his genius doesn’t extend into countering the strategy of disengagement followed by the Romans after Cannae. Fabius Maximus strategy slowly wore Hannibal down by never engaging directly but to keep attrition while blocking reinforcements. Its main goal remains dividing and drawing Hannibal’s energy aimlessly. It’s tactical hell for Hannibal.

Scipio Africanus “had learned from observing Hannibal how deceptive appearances can be, and how to match not his strength to an enemy’s strength but his strength to an enemy’s weakness.” Scipio began to take the fight to Hannibal’s door in both Cartagena and later Carthage. After winning Cartagena we see Scipio deploying the Fame Strategy to meet his aims. Walking into Rome with the spoils of war meant “Scipio was now justly renowned, and the powers of Rome knew it.” The Senate could either vote to send Scipio to Africa, or Scipio could start appealing directly to the people of Rome.

The battle of Zama Scipio faced off Hannibal as the teacher fights the student in the battle that would change Western Civilization. This battle put Rome as the undisputed most powerful nation of that time. Scipio used many of the tactics and strategies he learned from Hannibal. Scipio attempted the envelopment with his cavalry. Hannibal anticipated this and attempted to distract the cavalry off the main battlefield, which worked for a time. Hannibal’s lost echoed many of the losses Rome felt. At this point, Hannibal had fewer calvary, untrained infantry, and little support from Carthage. The battle slowly turned from Hannibal’s advantage to Scipio as the greater calvary re-joined the battle and attacked Hannibal infantry from behind.