Guest Post by S. Leung: What Advice would Sun Tsu have had for Hannibal?

Taking the long way via the Alps to attack Rome, whilst Hannibal’s foundations in newly conquered Spain was still infirm may have achieved early success via initial surprise but may have been, strategically, a longer term mistake. By the time he reached Italy he had already lost a lot of men and almost all his elephants. Many have commented that he had his strength in field tactics but was weaker on grand strategy- his skill sets caused his thinking to seek victories in winning battles, but he lost the war.

This has some parallel with one of the greatest Chinese strategist of all time- Kung Ming’s campaigns against Wei kingdom. He took a longer, roundabout way (certainly much smaller in scale compared to Hannibal) to attack Wei but regarded it as safer than a more direct route via narrow, treacherous mountainous passages. He ultimately failed as supplies often could not keep up. Like Hannibal he achieved early success but stalled upon meeting abler generals in command.

Hannibal, by contrast, suffered a far greater “tyranny of distance” and logistically, it was even more difficult to obtain reinforcements except by sea where  the Romans had the advantage. This is a classical error of pitting one’s weakness against the opponent’s strength. Hannibal’s plan puts him at a strategic disadvantage upfront and he hoped to rely on sheer on-the-field prowess to snatch victory. This violates both of Sun Tzu’s principles: “an arrow traversing too great distances cannot penetrate even a layer of cloth”, and “the greater man wins his war before the battle lines are joined, whilst the lesser man hopes to struggle for victory on the field”. Had Hannibal known of Sun Tzu beforehand he probably could have defeated Rome.

Remember Rome’s strength lies in being able to replenish numbers quickly- something Hannibal should have taken note from the first Punic War. Fighting Rome on her home turf plays to her advantage, whilst Hannibal already lacking manpower, also had to contend with difficulties in receiving reinforcements. Again pitting his weakness against Rome’s strength- on both land and sea.

I would have consolidated his position in Spain- and forced Rome to traverse great distances incurring expenses to the rescue of her allies. In preparation, I would have built up a powerful navy to neutralize Rome’s ability to replenish by obstructing/ sinking reinforcements. Given his field genius he would have stood far greater chances of securing victories. With Rome having to overcome great distances/ difficulties supplying her troops, she could no longer play the Fabian waiting games but would be compelled to seek decisive battles- playing into Hannibal’s strength. By the time Rome finally gave up, more time would be allowed to entrench his hold on Spain, and destroy Roman prestige by proving her inability to protect her allies. This would have caused a greater rate of defections in southern Italy and given advantage to Carthage for taking Sicily whilst Rome was distracted with Hannibal. Breaking Rome’s strike capability “at distance” would also likely win allies from Gallic tribes, adding to his home defenses, as well as willing sources of mercenaries.

My next stage would have been to establish a string of fortified colonies along southern Europe serving as supply depots- and on much friendlier terms with Gauls by then, these allies could provide partial cover against Roman attacks. Once these infrastructures were in place I would have taken Sardinia/ Corsica where the locals were uprising against Roman rule. This would pave the way for the final invasion of Italy.

With these background works Hannibal would have secured his supply lines for his invasion of Northern Italy- where he’d be in a position to take and hold territories should Rome decide to play Fabian stalking games. Given his field genius this slow and steady approach would eventually deprive Rome of her manpower. This Pincer approach with Hannibal steadily seizing territories from the north, Carthage would also have far greater chances of seizing victories in the south. With Hanno able to take credits/ territories separately the weakness of political opposition from Carthage might also have been mitigated.

Hannibal’s mistake was in his impatience to engage Rome directly and his over reliance on his own field genius. Had he worn down Rome, first playing into his strengths and spent time establishing his invasion infrastructure, first he’d have a far freer hand as well as greater resources at his disposal. He’d win allies from Gaul, Sardinia and Celtic northern Italy and the Etruscans, and establish vassal states. He would have seized the advantage on the military, diplomatic, resources and logistical fronts. This plan would achieve Sun Tzu’s ideal of having strategically won the war before battles are finally fought.

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