How good a general was Hannibal?


The Primary Record

The ancient record - which remember is exclusively Roman - was almost wall-to-wall eulogism.  The Roman historian Cornelius Nepos (1st century bc) summarised: ‘it is not to be disputed that Hannibal surpassed other commanders in ability … for as often as he engaged with the Romans in Italy, he always came off with the advantage’. The Roman historian Florus (second century ad) said that Hannibal descended on Italy ‘like a thunderbolt’. The Roman general Frontinus (1st century ad) drew extensively on Hannibal’s tactics in his book on military Stratagems.



Polybius - for all he was the mouthpiece of the Scipio family - describes Hannibal in 218bc as 'young, full of martial ardour, encouraged by the success of his enterprises, and spurred on by his long-standing enmity to Rome' (Polybius 3.15.6), but nevertheless portrays him throughout as the perfect, thinking-man's general.  Usually, when narrating his actions, Polybius uses words which say that Hannibal ‘foreseen’, ‘reckoned’, ‘suspected’, ‘planned’, ‘learned from his scouts’, ‘guessed the danger’ etc. And, after criticising the authors who claimed hannibal ahd divine help over the Alps, Polybious chides: 'Of course Hannibal did not act as these writers describe, but conducted his plans with sound practical sense' (Polybius 3.47.10).

Livy, meanwhile, used every description of every battle to excuse and defend the Romans - to the point, as New York Classics Professor David Levene (2010) has fairly commented, that it is almost impossible to understand how the Romans actually lost! And he also condemns - regularly - Hannibal's nature ('inhuman cruelty, treachery worse than Carthaginian; nothing of truthfulness, nothing of reverence; no fear of the gods, no respect for oaths, no sense of religion'). But even Livy recognises his abilities as a general:

Book 21, Chapter 4
[Hannibal was always the first choice] whenever courage and determination were needed; and there was no leader for whom the soldiers held greater affection or showed more daring.  Most fearless in seeking danger; most calculating in the presence of danger, no amount of exertion could tire his body or soul; heat and cold he endured equally. Food and drink were determined by his needs, not his desires.  His times of sleep were not set by day or night; he rested when he had finished his work, but he did not seek that rest on a soft bed or in silence – men often saw him lying on the ground amongst the guards and outposts, wrapped in his military cloak. His dress was in no way superior to that of his comrades; only his weapons and his horses.  He was by far the best both of the cavalry and the infantry, the first to enter the fight and the last to leave the field.

But then, of course, it suited Roman writers to enhance Hannibal’s abilities and reputation. If the Romans were defeated, then the enemy general MUST have been a genius; no other explanation is explicable. And, ultimately, when Hannibal is defeated, it gives all the more kudos to the Romans (and Scipio Africanus) ... since the enemy they had defeated was superhuman.



The Secondary Interpretations

Moreover, the secondary sources seem prepared to echo the adulation of the ancients!

Hannibal is STILL studied in military schools. 19th century US Colonel Dodge confessed to ‘hero worship’, and German General Von Schlieffen modelled his First World War 'Schlieffen Plan' on Cannae.  Second World War Fieldmarshal Montgomery criticised his overall strategy, but saluted his 'tactical genius' at Cannae.


This opinion was echoled in 1981 by British historian Ernle Bradford:

Hannibal's genius in warfare has often and justifiably acclaimed, for he had all the attributes of a great captain.  When it comes to strategy, the movement of great armies and their tactical deployment upon the battlefield, he is almost imposible to fault.


'Genius' was also the word used by north-east historian and ancient warfare expert John Lazenby (1996), and by British historian Leonard Cottrell (1965) ... although with reservations: 'Yet the genius - like Hitler's - may have been an evil genius'.


There MUST be some out there, but none that I have been able to find.  So if all this hero-worship makes you feel ill, you will enjoy reading my revisionist blog-post which suggests that Hannibal was 'a lousy general'!




The following websites will help you complete the task:

You can read my revisionist deconstruction of Hannibal's military record here.



1. Look back through your notes  - and, particularly, study the commentaries on Polybius and Livy - which describe Hannibal's battles: first at Saguntum; next on the journey to, and crossing the Alps; then in Italy (Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene, Cannae); and finally at Zama. 

Use your notes to make a list of all the POSITIVES about his military record.


2. Write an answer to the following question:

''Hannibal was a general of genius.' How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?

In your answer you should:

• give a brief account of Hannibal's military record;

• explain how Hannibal succeeded;

• show knowledge of the relevant sections of Polybius and Livy;

• consider how reliable you think these sources are.                                                [30]