Book Review. Hannibal by Patrick N. Hunt

Patrick N. Hunt’s Hannibal is a clear, concise and highly readable account of the life of Hannibal the events of the Second Punic War (218-202 BC)

Hannibal’s attack on Rome was clearly rooted in the outcome of the first Punic War and the anger that Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, felt toward Rome. He raised his sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago, to hate Rome and even made Hannibal swear an oath at the Temple of Baal that he would never be a friend to the Romans.

Despite having lost about half his army on the dangerous and arduous trek across the Alps, Hannibal’s initial foray into Italy was spectacularly successful. He was able to augment his numbers with disaffected Celts who resented Rome’s incursions into their territories.  In November of 218 B.C. he defeated the elder Publius Cornelius Scipio at Ticinus, then the following month he soundly defeated the other Consul, Sempronius, at the Battle of Trebia. Six months later the Romans suffered a devastating defeat at Trasimene. But it was the battle of Cannae, in August of 216 BC that sealed Hannibal’s fame as a military leader for all time. The Romans had assembled some 80,000 troops, hoping to overwhelm Hannibal’s forces which amounted to only about half that number. Hannibal executed a brilliant double envelopment maneuver and, by day’s end, at least 50,000 Romans and their allies lay dead on the battlefield.

After such a promising beginning, how did Hannibal end up losing this war? Hunt points out that Hannibal’s supreme talent was at set piece battles. After Cannae, the Romans stopped providing him with these opportunities and the war became one of attrition. The man behind this concept was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator. Appointed Dictator after the Battle of Trasimene, Fabius avoided battle with Hannibal and concentrated on depriving his army of sustenance. The strategy would probably have been successful within a few years if the Romans hadn’t become dissatisfied with these tactics. They chose to elect Consuls who would meet Hannibal on the battlefield. This proved disastrous and revealed that Fabius had been right all along. But Cannae guaranteed that the war would go on for a lot longer than it might have gone on otherwise because many of the Italian tribes and Magna Graecia cities went over to Hannibal after Cannae, providing him with fresh troops and provisions. The Romans, despite their losses in these initial battles were able to recruit one hundred thousand men at arms and they concentrated their efforts on Hannibal’s new-found allies. Gradually they bottled Hannibal, restricting him to his base in Bruttium.

Why did Hannibal not attack and destroy Rome after Cannae? Hannibal was hoping for a negotiated peace on Carthaginian terms, similar to the treaty of Lutatius which ended the First Punic War, but favoring Carthage instead. The Romans remained resolutely intransigent, not even allowing Hannibal’s emissary into the city. Hannibal had certainly had experience in siege warfare, he had destroyed Saguntum in Spain by siege, but that had taken eight months and Hannibal had had one hundred thousand troops at his disposal and had possessed siege machines. Could Hannibal have constructed siege engines to use against Rome? Such machines are complex and he may not have had engineers available to him who knew how to construct such things. There was also the problem of feeding his troops during a long siege.

Other factors that affected the outcome of the war were luck, the character of the Romans, and the character of the Carthaginians. Luck certainly played a part with the capture of Hasdrubal’s messengers in 207 BC. This enabled the Consul Gaius Claudius Nero to bring 7000 veteran soldiers to join the other Consul Marcus Livius and annihilate the forces of Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal at the battle of the Metaurus. Had Hasdrubal been able to join forces with Hannibal, they might have gone back on the offensive.

 Any other city would have conceded defeat after such a debacle as Cannae, but not the Romans. It was not in their character. As for the Carthaginians, their main focus had always been on trade and the accumulation of wealth, and many of their leaders did not support Hannibal’s war. After 214 B.C. he received virtually no assistance from his homeland. Carthage did not have much skin in the game, as most of Hannibal’s soldiers were mercenaries. Rome’s soldiers in those days were mostly citizens from small farm holdings, who felt that they were defending their homes and families. The Romans made a lot of mistakes early in the war, but they learned quickly, and by the end of the war their armies were well trained and professional. Ultimately they produced their own military genius, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus who first drove the Carthaginians from Spain and later defeated Hannibal at Zama, ending the war.

The Second Punic war is a fascinating story and Patrick Hunt tells it well.

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