What You Can Learn From Hannibal

1. Take the initiative, keep the initiative. This gave Hannibal a tremendous advantage. His enemy had constantly to try to guess his intention and defend himself against several alternative attacks. The enemy Roman consul was forever on the defensive, waiting, wondering, guessing, bracing himself for the blow.  When the consul Longus, bent on making Hannibal stand and fight him, lined up his army for the battle, Hannibal ordered his men to go back to camp. He refused to fight. At that time he was not prepared for a general battle, says Polybius, “and made it a principle never to be drawn into a decisive engagement unless by deliberate choice, and certainly not on a casual impulse.”

Hannibal Barca, 247 BC – 182 BC (public domain photo)

2. Be quick. Surprise. Hannibal decamped by night from Capua and got to Rome before the Romans in Capua ever realized he was gone. He crossed Etruria through a swamp because that was the way everyone assumed he wouldn’t go.

3. Be crafty, lay a trap. Hannibal’s plans were always ways of fooling his enemy, misleading him, enticing him into combat, surprising him with hidden forces, seeming to be somewhere else. Everyone remembered the way he got out of the difficult pass in Campania, with Fabius’s army all around him. Along a path that paralleled the only road out, which was heavily guarded by Roman troops, he stampeded a herd of cattle at night with lighted 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 bulls, Hannibal quickly sent his army through the pass. That was his most ingenious trick. But all his tactics were ploys and ruses and feints, even when not outright traps.

4. Be flexible. Have a plan but be able to alter it or even drop it as circumstances change. Bad generals believe they will one day meet the enemy squarely on the field and have a nice pitched battle. Those generals toy in their minds with troop dispositions—where to put their cavalry, where to stand their light-armed soldiers, how deep to build their phalanx, and so on. “That will be the decisive day,” they tell themselves, and hope for good luck.

For Hannibal every day was that decisive day. The great battle was now, it was always going on. He didn’t merely march until he came to a perfect situation for battle. He created the situation or took advantage of one. He was stubborn only about his objective, not about his means. He was at every moment aware of his advantages and disadvantages. And of the enemy’s.

5. Fight for tomorrow as well as today. Think two steps ahead, not just one.

6. Understand your enemy; learn his weaknesses. Hannibal always sent out spies to learn the enemy’s plans. He interviewed prisoners and guides to get information. As soon as new Roman consuls were given command, Hannibal sent informers to find out who they were. He wanted to know whether the new general was a hothead or whether he had ever led troops in battle and what the result had been; whether he was cocky or impatient; whether he liked to drink or was in any other way intemperate or undisciplined.

After Hannibal had beaten his first consuls, along came another one called Flaminius with his army. Hannibal learned from his informers that this Flaminius was “on fire with ambition” and that he believed in his own good luck. “Here’s a man after my own heart,” thought Hannibal and arranged a trap for Flaminius’s army. He knew the man would attack with his whole force at the first opportunity, good or not, so Hannibal lured him along a narrow road between a mountain (where his own army lay hidden) and a lake. Flaminius was fool enough to believe that HE had the advantage and sent his whole army into Hannibal’s trap, where it was annihilated.

7. Be daring. Come down with your army across the Alps with elephants and attack Rome on Roman ground, far from your own country and without logistic support except what you can steal.

8. Keep your mouth shut. Hannibal never told anyone what he was doing.

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (public domain photo by schurl50)

9. Be all of the above except when you are faced with an enemy who is all of the above. In that case, be like Fabius, the Roman general. Cautious, prudent, unrisking, defensive, back-holding. No war manual ever told anyone to be like Fabius. Under the circumstances, his was the winning strategy.

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4 Responses to What You Can Learn From Hannibal

  1. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, robstroud. The trouble with this advice is that it should not be given (well, maybe excepting the tip you liked about keeping one’s mouth shut). A general has to be devious and mean to beat his adversary but our society doesn’t teach that kind of behavior, which in war is tolerated only as the end justifying the means. This post owes a lot to a book called How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander. His thesis is that since soldiers are brought up to be brave and dutiful, they are easily tricked by an unscrupulous adversary who makes use of their virtues to crush them. It was the same with the Romans, of course. Just read what Livy thought of Hannibal. “Not the slightest sense of honor or loyalty”, he says.

  2. robstroud says:

    The lesson about keeping your plans to yourself is priceless. Many a mission has failed due to “loose lips.”

  3. 100swallows says:

    Lynne: Thanks. Getting to know the “real” Hannibal, except for Polybius’ description, is hard because the Romans hated him and tell only mean stories.

  4. I really enjoy reading your entries about Roman history. They always make me feel like you have transported me to that time and place, and like I am meeting personally the people you write about!

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