I suspect most people know that Hannibal invaded Italy – but WHY?
Hannibal's lost opportunity
There is a story from Hannibal’s invasion of Italy which is very famous and, some would say, enlightening. The scene is after Cannae. The Roman army is destroyed and in flight. Livy, typically excitingly, describes what happened:
In his moment of victory Hannibal was surrounded by his staff, crowding round to congratulate him and urge him after such a massive success to spend the remainder of the day and the following night resting himself, and giving his exhausted soldiers time to recover.According to Livy: ‘That single day’s delay, by common consent, proved the salvation of Rome and her empire’. The great British Second World War Fieldmarshal Montgomery agreed. At that moment, Hannibal spurned the opportunity, lost the initiative … and lost the war.
But Maharbal, his cavalry commander would have none of it, urging him not to waste a moment. “I’ll tell you what this battle has really achieved,” he declared, “when in five days time you are feasting on the Capitol. Follow up quickly. I’ll go ahead with the cavalry, and before they even realise we are coming, the Romans will discover we’ve arrived.”
For Hannibal it all seemed far too optimistic, an almost inconceivable possibility. He commended Maharbal for his imaginative idea, but said he needed time to think it through. Maharbal’s reply was short and to the point. “The gods do not give all their gifts to any one man. You can win a battle, Hannibal. But you have no idea how to exploit it.” (Livy, Book 21, Chapter 51).
And, at that moment in the narrative, Livy invites reader to decide, with his Maharbal, that Hannibal had a vital quality of character missing – that he was not so great a commander after all. Which is, of course, exactly what Livy wanted you to decide. Hannibal, Livy dramatically tells us as he describes Hannibal’s retreat from Italy in 203bc: ‘often looked back to the shores of Italy, accusing gods and men and even cursing himself for not having led his soldiers reeking with blood from the victorious field of Cannae straight to Rome’ (Book 30, Chapter 20).
In Hannibal’s defence
But WAS it such a stupid decision? The French archaeologist Serge Lancel (1995) did not think so. To lay siege to Rome was no easy matter. Hannibal had no siege machinery. A siege of Rome would take months, even years, and turn Hannibal’s war-of-movement into a protracted stalemate:
Moreover, Hannibal had other war aims, another plan… He was not waging a war of extermination, he told [the Roman captives he was ransoming]; he was fighting to maintain the dignitas of his own country and to ensure its imperium. Hannibal thus expected Rome to sue for peace; what he wanted was a victory recognised by a treaty that would, to Carthage’s advantage, reverse the treaties of 241 and 237 (Lancel, Hannibal, p.109)Lancel presents us with a Hannibal whose war-aim was, by invasion, to force the Romans to the negotiating table. When they refused to do so, lacking alternative strategies, Hannibal just kept fighting and suffered ‘declining fortunes’, followed by ‘setbacks’, followed by inevitable defeat.
How realistic an appreciation of Hannibal’s war-strategy is this? Let’s look and see if the primary sources give us any insight into Hannibal’s war-aims. The problem here, of course, is that we possess NO primary Carthaginian record of Hannibal’s invasion which might show us what the Carthaginians thought about the invasion … which tells us their side of things. So we are reliant mainly on Polybius and Livy.
To be frank, Polybius is a disappointment in this respect. We have come to expect dispassionate and informed analysis from Polybius … but of Hannibal’s war aims, almost nothing. He records a few speeches Hannibal gave to his men ... which suggest nothing except that Hannibal continually motivated his men by promises of riches, land and status:
Your victory will make you at once masters of all Italy, and through this one battle you will be freed from your present toil, you will possess yourselves of all the vast wealth of Rome, and will be lords and masters of all men and all things (Book 3, Chapter 111).And as to what Hannibal himself was about, there is disappointingly little.
One thing Polybius does tell us is that, as Hannibal was preparing his invasion:
He cherished high hopes of the Gauls … thinking that the only means of carrying the war against the Romans into Italy was … to reach the above country and employ the Celts as co-operators and confederates in his enterprise (Book 3, Chapter 34).The idea that Hannibal was invading Italy because he was ‘taking the war to the enemy’ is very compelling. Carthage had been defeated in the First Punic War because it had merely tried to defend what it had; perhaps Hannibal had resolved that he was not going to sit back and do that again? Any study of Hannibal’s battles, also, leads one to the conclusion that he was one of those people who believe that ‘the best form of defence is attack’.
A war fought on Roman soil, moreover, would prevent the situation that had developed in the First Punic War that, the longer the war went on, the more Carthage’s wealth and livelihood was ruined. If there was to be a war, why not fight it on Roman soil, so that Rome was ruined, not Carthage?
And if Rome was ruined, would not Rome lose the wherewithal to fight?
If you are thinking that this is all a lot of conjecture, based upon a single phrase in Polybius, you are probably correct.
Beyond that, however, Polybius has precious little to say about Hannibal’s aims and intentions:
Hannibal, now fully assured of success, dismissed the idea of approaching Rome for the present, but began to ravage the country (Book 86, Chapter 8).
When he learnt that Fabius had arrived, Hannibal, wishing to strike such a blow as would effectually cow the enemy, led his forces out and drew them up in order of battle (Book 89, Chapter 1).
The Carthaginians, then, by quartering themselves in this plain made of it a kind of theatre, in which they were sure to create a deep impression on all by their unexpected appearance, giving a spectacular exhibition of the timidity of their enemy and themselves demonstrating indisputably that they were in command of the country (Book 91, Chapter 10).
Ravaging the country … cowing the enemy … demonstrating your superiority. These are all medium-term objectives rather than long-term aims.
Perhaps Hannibal simply did not have any long-term aims – to quote one historian: ‘Like the Germans in WWI he never made clear, to himself or anyone, what victory would look like’.
Or at least in Polybius he never made his overarching war-aims clear.
What about Livy, then – does Livy tell us any more?
As soon as we venture into Livy, one has to realise, of course, that we are into unreliable territory. If Polybius was broadly pro-Roman, Livy was unashamedly so, and blatantly critical of Hannibal.
So maybe we will need to be a bit more careful of accepting unquestioningly Livy’s interpretation of Hannibal.
Anyway, what does Livy say about Hannibal’s war-aims?
For Livy, Hannibal’s war-aims were as clear as they were extreme – Hannibal wanted, no less, to capture Rome and destroy it: thus, when he addresses the soldiers on the eve of ascending the Alps, he says:
You crossed the Ebro, resolved to wipe out the very name of Rome and bring freedom to the whole wide world … [so] dare to look forward to your journey’s end, on the Campus Martius, which lies between the Tiber and the walls of Rome (Book 21, Chapter 30).As the men’s spirits flagged crossing the Alps, he did not motivate them (as Polybius would have it) merely by promising wealth and glory, but by reminding them of the ultimate aim of their campaign:
He pointed out to them the view of Italy, declaring that they were even now not merely crossing the ramparts of Italy but scaling the very walls of Rome itself… After one, or at worst a couple of battles, they would hold Rome’s citadel and the capital of Italy in their power and at their mercy (Book 21, Chapter 35).And when he described how Sempronius hectored and bullied Scipio into the Battle of Trebia, Livy put these words into his mouth:
The Carthaginians were encamped in Italy and almost within sight of Rome. Their object was, not to get back Sicily and Sardinia, taken from them after their defeat, nor to cross the Ebro and occupy northern Spain, but to expel the Romans from the land of their fathers and from their native soil. (Book 21, Chapter 53).
Did Hannibal want to conquer Rome?
But should we believe this? Being cynical, it suited Livy’s purposes to portray Hannibal as a man of unlimited ambitions who wanted to destroy Rome. It was a propaganda parody designed to turn Hannibal into a hate-figure … and to make his defeat all the more wonderful and satisfying. It was the outworking of virtus Romana – the demise of hubris at the hands of Fortune.
Personally, I am inclined to reject the idea that Hannibal ever intended to capture Rome. That would have required a full naval invasion, with siege weapons … and that, most certainly, Hannibal’s invasion was not. In 16 years in Italy – apart from a feint to try to draw the Romans from Capua – Hannibal never ONCE tried to take Rome, and conspicuously neglected the opportunity even when it came.
One is bound to conclude – contrary to Livy-Maharbal’s criticism – that to take Rome was NOT Hannibal’s war-aim .
And that, even if he DID say those things, like Polybius-Hannibal’s promises of wealth and glory, they were just words to inspire his troops, and not serious statements of long-term strategy.
Did Hannibal want to free Italy?
I think we can also discount another idea we find in Livy, that Hannibal was in Italy to ‘bring freedom to the whole wide world’.
This is even more unrealistic, surely, than the idea of besieging Rome.
It is true that, after Trasimene, Hannibal:
handed over the Roman prisoners to his various regiments to be kept under guard, but released the allied troops without ransom and sent them all home declaring, as he had on previous occasions, that he had not come to make war on the Italians but to fight for their freedom against the Romans (Book 21, Chapter 85)But I think we can discount this quickly. Hannibal knew that he needed to detach the Gauls and other Italian peoples from their alliances to the Romans; he was ALWAYS going to pose as their liberator rather than their conqueror.
So I do not seriously entertain the idea of Hannibal as a kind of proto-Martin Luther King trying to set the Italian people free.
Did Hannibal want to set up a rival state in Italy?
Recently, historians have expanded on the idea of Hannibal garnering allies, and his talk of 'freeing' Italians, into the idea that Hannibal had a deliberate policy to create an 'Italian Alliance', which would be an anti-Roman League-of-state to rival and cancel out Roman influence on the Italian peninsula. Hoyos (2003) accepts this idea, and Fronda (2010) outlines Hannibal's diplomacy in extensive detail.
However, looking at Fronda's dates, it is hard to see any evidence of this before Cannae. The alliance with the Boii and other Gaulish tribes in the north of Italy (218-217bc) were military alliances, not political union, and Italian cities only started top come over to Hannibal after 215bc.
What had happened in the meantime, of course, was that Hannibal's 'blitzkrieg' as it has been called had failed to reduce Rome to surrender, and that - even after Cannae - the Romans refused to accept peace terms.
So it might well be that, after 215bc, Hannibal accepted the need to re-think his strategy and hot upon the idea of an anti-Roman League.
(And, of course, by 203bc he had indeed set up a rival Carthaginian state in Italy - his own military enclave around Bruttium.)
But, before 215bc, I cannot see any evidence of Hannibal collecting a League of Allies.
So what WAS Hannibal about in Italy?
Is Livy, too, useless to tell us anything about Hannibal’s war-aims?
Well I do not think so, and I think there is an episode in Ab Urbe Condita, in which Livy – unwittingly – lets slip a clue as to what Hannibal’s campaign was REALLY about.
It is the episode of Hannibal’s Dream at Onusa:
From Gades Hannibal returned to New Carthage, to the winter quarters of his army. Setting out from thence, he marched along the coast, past the city of Onusa, to the Ebro. It was there, as they tell, that he saw in his sleep a youth of godlike aspect, who declared that he was sent by Jupiter to lead him into Italy: let him follow, therefore, nor anywhere turn his eyes away from his guide. At first he was afraid and followed, neither looking to the right nor to the left, nor yet behind him; but presently wondering, with that curiosity to which all of us are prone, what it could be that he had been forbidden to look back upon, he was unable to command his eyes; then he saw behind him a serpent of monstrous size, that moved along with vast destruction of trees and underbrush, and a storm-cloud coming after, with loud claps of thunder; and, on his asking what this prodigious portent was, he was told that it was the devastation of Italy: he was therefore to go on, nor enquire further, but suffer fate to be wrapped in darkness (Book 21,Chapter 22).
Ancient writers (Polybius was atypical) did not objectively analyse the thoughts or motives of their subjects as a modern historian would do. Instead, they presented them as declaratory statements in the first person in the form of a speech or dream – there are quite a few times in Livy where he has taken Polybius’s objective analyses and actually transformed them into a direct speech. This was an accepted practice (Polybius hated it) and illustrates the close relationship between History, Rhetoric and Drama in those days – they were different facets of the same subject, rather than discrete subjects in themselves.
So, when Livy tells us about this dream, he is retailing a tradition which gives us an insight into Hannibal’s motives as he prepared to leave Spain.
Moreover, there are aspects of this dream that suggest it represents, not a Roman tradition about Hannibal’s aims, but a Carthaginian tradition.
Contrary to Livy’s claim, Hannibal was NOT guilty of impietas. For a start, his name is theophoric, which you would have thought is a hefty clue. Also, Polybius tells us how he offered a prayer to the gods before in crossed the Alps. And examples of Hannibal’s pietas creep even into Livy – before he crossed the Ebro, Livy tells us, ‘he went to Gades and discharged his vows to Hercules, binding himself with fresh ones’. (Hercules, you will remember from your studies of Alexander-the-Great at Tyre, was the Graeco-Roman equivalent of the Phoenician god Melqart.)
So if you read it again, you will see that Hannibal’s dream – ignoring its equivalency reference to Jupiter – includes details which link it directly to the Carthaginian pantheon, in which the storm-god Baal Hammon was the god of sky and vegetation, and his partner Tanit was a warrior-goddess. This is a very old, clearly Carthaginian, story.
Moreover, the same dream is mentioned in Cicero’s book De Divinatione, in which, Cicero tells us ‘it is found in the history written in Greek by Silenus, whom Coelius follows, and who, by the way, was a very painstaking student of Hannibal's career’ (Book 1, Section 49). So here we have, at last, a story going right back to the original Carthaginian – Livy has copied it from Coelius, who got it from Mr Reliable-Silenus, Hannibal’s historian.
It is, as they say, ‘from the horse’s mouth’.
Either Hannibal himself reported the dream, or he sanctioned it, as a statement of his inner motivation.
So what does the Dream at Onusa suggest about Hannibal’s war aims?
Well, firstly, I think, it suggests that we are wrong to try to define Hannibal’s war-aims in modern terms of rationally-prescribed strategies and objectives. It is a reminder that in Ancient times people’s thought-processes were VERY different to our modern, scientific-method brains.
If we are to interpret this dream as a statement of Hannibal’s aims, we have to say that Hannibal seems to have defined his aims, not in terms of military and political objectives, but in religious terms … as a CRUSADE.
It suggests that Hannibal saw himself as the wrath of the gods, charged to wreak destruction by marauding over Italy, writhing across the countryside like the coils of a snake, burning, looting and killing as he went.
And does it not also suggest REVENGE – the 'wrath of Hamilcar' and the hatred Hannibal had at the age of 9 promised to hold onto throughout his life – as he enacted the punishment of the gods on the Romans for the defeat and humiliation of Carthage in 241bc?
It seems to me, also, that the Dream at Onusa suggests that Polybius and Livy were light on Hannibal’s war strategies and objectives, not because they had failed to record them, but because (at least before 215bc) Hannibal did not really have any – his aim being, in fact, simply to take the war to Italy and do damage to Rome.
In 203bc, delegates from Carthage went to Bruttium to recall Hannibal to Africa:
It is said that he gnashed his teeth, groaned, and almost shed tears when he heard what the delegates had to say. After they had delivered their instructions, he exclaimed, "The men who tried to drag me back by cutting off my supplies of men and money are now recalling me not by crooked means but plainly and openly. So you see, it is not the Roman people who have been so often routed and cut to pieces that have vanquished Hannibal, but the Carthaginian senate by their detraction and envy (Book 30, Chapter 20).By this time, Hannibal had been pushed back into the heel of Italy. Both his brothers were dead. There was no hope of help from Carthage. His campaign was going nowhere.
Yet still: ‘seldom has any one left his native country to go into exile in such gloomy sorrow as Hannibal manifested when quitting the country of his foes’.
And why – because he could no longer ‘rout and cut to pieces’ the Roman people.
So was that religious crusade of revenge and damage – we have to wonder – the be-all and end-all of his campaign?
PS If you want to explore this topic further, I thought that there was a good discussion of Hannibal’s war aims on this forum.