What Were Hannibal’s Mistakes?

Some people believe Hannibal’s biggest mistake was in failing to march on Rome and besiege it after the devastating battle of Cannae, in which some 55,000 Romans and their allies were slain. I doubt that such a siege would have been successful. Hannibal had no siege equipment and it would have been difficult to maintain his army of some 40,000 in hostile territory for the time it would have taken to starve the Romans out. Sieges were not that easy, as Hannibal knew from his siege of Saguntum. There, he had had 100,000 soldiers at his command and all of the resources of Southern Spain, and it had taken him eight months to conquer the city.

I think that Hannibal made two mistakes. The first was in invading Italy in the first place. He should have let the Romans come to him. He would have easily defeated any force that the Romans sent to Spain. He would have cleared the Iberian Peninsula of all Roman forces, and would have been in a good position to take back Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. He could have raised a fleet and driven the Romans from the Western Mediterranean.

His march across the Alps cost him nearly half of his men. He could have taken those seventy thousand men that he started his march with and invaded Italy by ship. Having control of the Mediterranean would have allowed him to be resupplied far more easily from Carthage. He might have made alliances with some of the Magna Graecia cities of Southern Italy, particularly Tarentum and Metaponum and been able to use their ports.

Hannibal’s other mistake? He should have done everything he could to prevent the fall of Capua. After the Romans took Capua they scourged and decapitated the Capuan leaders. What did that tell Hannibal’s other allies? “Hannibal cannot or will not protect us. We had better make amends with the Romans.”

To paraphrase Hannibal’s cavalry chief Maharbal, Hannibal knew very well how to win a battle, but he didn’t know how to win a war.


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