Ten things you didn’t know about Hannibal – Probably the world’s greatest general

Lately I have been putting together a list of things which you probably didn’t know about some of the world’s greatest generals, but I thought I would chip in with a man who, in my opinion, is probably the greatest ever to have lived – Hannibal.

History has been unkind to Hannibal – as unkind indeed as fortune itself was in his day, but perhaps this helps us to moderate our views on him so that we don’t hold him up in the light of an Alexander or a Caesar, but judge him first and foremost as a military commander, and easily one of the sneakiest and boldest of all time.

Key to this, of course, is the fact that, like Napoleon, Hannibal ultimately lost the war. This has led many to state simply that (again like Napoleon) he can’t have been THAT good. Well in my opinion, he was, and here are a few facts you might not know about him:

1) Battle record – Hannibal’s history was recorded only by his enemies, which makes for a great deal of bias as well as misinformation both about him and against him. However, from what is known, he had something of an excellent record in battle (although not in siegecraft) with his score being at least 20 victories against 5 defeats and two drawn matches – only once in his lifetime was he swept from the field, at Zama the very last battle of the 2nd Punic War. In all other contests where he lost, Hannibal was able to withdraw from the field unmolested, realising that victory was impossible.

2) His crushing victories – Probably the hallmark of Hannibal’s career was not in the amount of victories he won, but in the sheer scale of them! He is credited with the second greatest defeat of the Roman army of all time at the battle of Cannae in 216BC (the greatest being Arausio in 105BC) – his first three major battles against Rome; these being the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae for which he is chiefly remembered clocked up around 120,000 Romans killed or captured against his own losses of around 12,500 men. Nobody could destroy armies faster than Hannibal. Sadly, nobody could build armies like the Romans…and they could build them quicker!

3) His legacy – Hannibal has been studied by every great general throughout the ages. His battles were – and still are – the perfect models of grand tactics on the battlefield which influenced such men as Napoleon, Turenne , The Great Conde and many others. In particular, his crowning battle of Cannae has gone down in history as the perfect model of a double-envelopment of a greater army by a smaller one (yes he surrounded a larger army) and formed the basis of the German war plans for the invasion of France in both world wars. Most recently, Cannae was adapted by the American General ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwartzkopf in his plan for the invasion of Iraq in 1991.

4) His sheer inventiveness – Carthaginians first came from Tyre on the coast of modern-day Israel, and Alexander the Great’s epic eight-month siege of that place demonstrated what crafty, artful and inventive people this curious and now-defunct race of people could be. Hannibal’s oft-quoted saying was “I will either find a way, or make one” – and in this, he did not disappoint. In crossing the Alps with his elephants, he used trumpet blasts to bring down snow which might bury his men beneath avalanches, and burned vinegar on rock formations to crack them in order to make a path where there was none. Later, even after his crushing defeat at Zama, he turned mercenary and won some brilliant victories – one at sea where, lacking the ships for a full-scale sea battle, he launched pots of snakes at the enemy vessels. The crews quickly took to the water, abandoning the ships and allowing Hannibal to tow them back ashore and build a navy. He also catapulted elephant dung at enemy cavalry, knowing that the smell of it would drive their horses into panic and disorder.

5) His fight against the odds – Hannibal came into Italy not as a conqueror, but to take the war onto Roman soil in order to alleviate the pressure against his own people.He was greatly supported by the authorities in Carthage until just after Cannae when he found that he simply could not take Rome. He had no siege train or skilled engineers as the Romans did, and could not take the time to starve the city out as there were fresh Roman armies being raised everywhere by the day from all sides. From here on, the authorities in Carthage sent him no money nor reinforcements, so that whilst the Romans built armies almost from nothing, he could scarce afford the casualties incurred even from another victory. In this stance, he fought alone in Italy for thirteen more years, winning victory after fruitless victory until sickness, losses, the departure of his allies and a lack of food forced him to withdraw, tearing his hair in frustration. It was said after Cannae that he knew how to win a victory but that, by not marching straight on to Rome, he knew not how to make use of one. This argument has raged amongst historians for two millennia. Nevertheless, mothers in Rome would quieten their stubborn children with the cry “Hannibal ad portas!” (Hannibal is at the gates!) for centuries after his death, and some still do so even today.

6) His nemesis – Hannibal’s final nemesis came in the form of Scipio Africanus, who joins the select club of commanders never defeated in battle to this day. Scipio was charmed, and almost destined to defeat Hannibal, for he had fought at the battle of Ticinus as a boy of sixteen where his father had been the commander in chief, and after the battle had ridden into the melee to save his wounded father. Later, he had been one of the very few to cut his way out of the crushing trap of Cannae. Scipio built himself an army out of disgraced soldiers left to rot in Sicily and took them to Spain, where he defeated Carthage’s other armies and effectively isolated Hannibal, although the two never met until Zama on Carthage’s very doorstep. Oddly, Scipio, like Hannibal, was to die a wandering outcast far from his home, and history remembered instead the romantic hero of Hannibal before Scipio, his conqueror.

7) His humour – All great commanders were men of great wit and humour, and none so much as Hannibal. Once when attending a lecture in military history and theory, Hannibal pretended to be asleep at the back of the room and began to snore loudly. Seeking to embarrass him, the old lecturer (who had never even seen a battle in his lifetime) announced loudly that here was the great Hannibal and invited him to give his own thoughts. Rising, Hannibal then announced; “I have known in my life many an old fool…this one beats them all!” – Later when meeting Scipio for the last time in the gymnasium at Carthage, Scipio (hoping to have Hannibal name him) asked him whom he thought was the greatest general in history, to which Hannibal answered quickly “Alexander”. Scipio, forced to concede the point then pressed whom Hannibal thought was the second greatest general of all time, hinting that he wanted his ego stroked by the inclusion of his own name. “Pyrrhus of Epirus” answered Hannibal, scenting Scipio’s deflating ego. Angered, Scipio then asked whom Hannibal thought was the third greatest general of all time, and now was left red faced as Hannibal named himself! “Well where would you have placed yourself if you had beaten me?” demanded Scipio, to which Hannibal, avoiding the blow once more teased back; “Then I would have placed myself before Alexander.” 

8) His popularity – The name of Hannibal will always by synonymous with having a great and cunning plan. Napoleon named him as one of the seven ‘Great Commanders’ of all time, as did Suvurov, whilst The Great Conde once mocked that unless the enemies of France were to bring back Hannibal, they were as good as defeated. The daytime TV show “The A Team” saw George Peppard as Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (known simply as Hannibal) so-named for his amazing and cunning plans and it is widely known that the actor Vin Diesel is a major fan of Hannibal and plans to star in his own film “Hannibal the Conqueror” as an homage to his great hero.

10) A little trivia – In honesty I can’t even think of a tenth reason to tell you why Hannibal was as great as he was, so will use point Ten to give you a little fun trivia about Hannibal. Firstly, his surname was ‘Barca’ – or at least he was from the Barca or Barcid dynasty. The city of Barcelona is still named after his family. Secondly the port of Mahon in Menorca is named after his brother Mago – Mahon is the birthplace of Mayonnaise, so think about Hannibal’s younger brother next time you’re tucking into your sandwiches, because you’ve got a bit of Barca family legacy between the slices of bread! Thirdly and finally, Hannibal died after being sold out to the Romans and took poison. His remains were found a few years ago under a car park in modern-day Turkey around which a municipal garden was built and a stone erected to commemorate the world’s greatest battlefield genius. Hannibal is now the oldest of the world’s greatest commanders whose burial place can be visited, as nobody has ever found Alexander’s remains and Caesar was cremated. Hanibal’s final resting place can be seen below.