Hannibal’s Ingenious Trick

Everyone knows that Hannibal led an army with elephants over the Alps to attack Rome. That was one of the boldest and most colorful deeds in military (or any other) history.

Hannibal’s Famous Crossing of the Alps (public domain photo)

But more astounding and a much greater achievement was what Hannibal did AFTER that.

Though he was never able to seize Rome itself, he led his small army of mercenaries around Italy for nearly twelve years, living off the land, with no real base of operations or help from Carthage; and he beat every Roman army ever sent against him, sometimes two at a time. He was one of the most astute men who ever lived. The best Roman general, Fabius, decided that the only way to deal with him was to stay out of his reach.

Hannibal’s most famous trick was the one he used in Campania to get his army out of a trap. His army was in a valley locked in by mountains and Fabius’s army was all around him. There was only one way out: a pass through the mountains; and it was heavily guarded by Roman troops. What did Hannibal figure out? Along a path that ran parallel to the mountain road he stampeded a herd of cattle at night with flaming torches on their horns. The guards, thinking the cattle were Hannibal’s soldiers, rushed to confront them, abandoning their positions on the mountain. While they were dealing with the animals, Hannibal quickly sent his army through the pass and got free.

If that had been old America and Davy Crockett, he might have told everyone the cattle ruse was an old Indian trick he’d learned from them when he was a boy.
Hannibal learned it in Spain. At least he saw bulls with torches on their horns running through the streets during certain Celtiberian festivals.

Toro embolao: a Spanish bull with torches clamped to its horns (photo appeared in EL MUNDO nov 26 2009  file)

But thinking of how to use them when they could help his army out of a jam–that was his genius.


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12 Responses to Hannibal’s Ingenious Trick

  1. 100swallows says:

    Ropak Shaban: You’re welcome. Glad to help.

  2. Ropak Shaban says:

    Great! thank you very much.this is what I’ve been looking for

  3. 100swallows says:

    Thanks a lot, Lynne–I’m glad you like them. Actually, I’ve been putting together some posts from the other blog with the idea of making an e-book. I haven’t gotten around to selecting the ones here. It’s a good idea.

  4. Have you ever thought of approaching a publisher with a compilation of writings from your blogs? I think they would make a great book.

  5. I think your posts are perfect to liven up dull textbook assignments. My student was really impressed with what you wrote about here.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Lynne. I wonder whether my posts are right for that purpose. Maybe they presuppose too much. I’ve often thought they were neither simple enough for beginners nor scholarly enough for people who already know something. I ought to rewrite many of them and make them simpler.

  7. I just wanted to let you know I’ve started using your blog with a student I’m home-schooling for a term, one of his courses being Western Civ.

    Lynne Diligent
    Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor

  8. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Lynne: The Romans finally drove him out of Italy and beat his army at Zama. He survived but had to flee to Greece when the Romans ordered the Carthaginians to turn him over to them. King Antiochus of Syria protected him for awhile but finally, as the Romans were catching up with him, he committed suicide. See this good Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannibal

  9. What was the reason, then, that he gave up after 12 years? Was he just tired?

    Very interesting story.

  10. 100swallows says:

    Jesse: See a book called How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander, Avon Books, 1993. He writes about some of the brilliant (and not so brilliant) maneuvers and strategies. One of his main theses is that a good general in his tactics has to be devious, not straightforward and “honest”. This is rare because we have all been brought up to admire the straightforward, plain-dealing man.

  11. Jesse says:

    This is an incredible story. I’m surprised this is the first I’ve heard of it. Do you know of any similar stories of military deception? I’d love to learn about more!

  12. erikatakacs says:

    Pretty impressive, a great general he was. What puzzles me most is why these extraordinary gentlemen hesitated to take Rome when it was within their reach. Attila had a chance to do it, but stopped short. Was it the name, the fame of Rome? Or what was it?

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