Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hannibal the Cannibal - oh no, the other one

Five's Hannibal of the Alps is one of the worst history programmes it has been my misfortune to sit through in quite a long while.

On the good side, the programme did at least point out that in strategic terms Hannibal's elephants were a non-event. They all died as a result of crossing the Alps, and played no significant part in any of his victories over the Romans. But that was about the only good point.

The film compressed the events of the Second Punic War, which took sixteen years, into sixty minutes. Inevitably there would be some details passed over rapidly. But that is no excuse for the utter distortions. Hannibal was betrayed by his fellow Carthaginians not immediately after Zama, but six years later. The younger Scipio did not get his extraordinary command in the immediate aftermath of Cannae, as the programme implied - it came six years later. Scipio did not lead an army to Spain after Cannae, and the Roman invasion of Spain was not launched across the sea. The truth is that the Romans were already there even before Cannae.

The elder Publius Cornelius Scipio was consul, and at the beginning of the war had been sent to fight Hannibal in Spain (this was not, as the programme suggested, him being picked for command, but as elected consul it was his responsibility to lead Rome's forces). As his army advanced through Provence, he learnt that Hannibal had slipped behind him into northern Italy. He could have decided at this point to turn his army round and chase Hannibal, and this indeed is what the programme implied he did. What he actually did instead was to decide that his duty as consul meant he must return to face the Carthaginian invasion, but that, despite the fact that Hannibal was no longer there, the Roman invasion of Spain should still go ahead. So he handed the bulk of army over to his brother Gnaeus Scipio. This was undoubtedly the correct decision. Hannibal had invaded Italy in order to seize the strategic initiative, and prevent the Romans fighting the war the way they wanted to. By carrying on with the invasion of Spain, the Scipios ensured that Hannibal was only partially successful. The Spanish campaign tied down Carthaginian troops that might have reinforced Hannibal from that direction. And this fighting sucked in further troops from Africa. Because the Iberian peninsula had to be fought for. Spain was the basis of Carthaginian power, just as Italy was Rome's, so each enemy was striking at the other's heart. And in the end, the Romans did so more successfully, for the Second Punic War was decided in Spain, not Italy. Effectively, even before Hannibal had won a single victory, Scipio had taken the step that would win the war.

The programme was a pretty conservative look at Hannibal's career, as one could tell from the selection of talking heads, that favoured authors of popular history over university academics. It presented a viewpoint that Hannibal was foolish not to march on Rome after the victory at Cannae. But many scholars believe, and I think rightly, that Hannibal knew he did not have the siege equipment to take Rome, and could only succeed if the Romans surrendered in shock. There was a possibility that might have happened, but it was equally, if not more likely, that the Romans would defy him, and then his essential powerlessness against Rome's fortifications would be exposed. All the propaganda gained from the victories of Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae would have been undone. This view was given no screen time. In fact, though a stunning tactical victory, Cannae was a strategic failure. Some areas in southern Italy did desert Rome, but not enough to break Rome's power. To bring more desertions, Hannibal needed more set-piece victories, and Cannae had persuaded the Romans that engaging Hannibal in set-piece battles was the worst thing they could do. Instead they retreated behind the walls of their colonies, a network of fortified cities throughout Italy, about which Hannibal could do nothing.

One view that was given screen time was that the Carthaginian state betrayed Hannibal, that after Cannae they decided that Hannibal should be deniable, and that the war was his own affair. This was propounded by Professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University. The trouble is, the theory doesn't hold up. For a start, a mere two years previously, the Carthaginians had gone to war with Rome rather than give up Hannibal. Why not decide then that he was deniable?

And it really is a misrepresentation of the strategic situation facing Carthage after Hannibal's victory at Cannae. For one thing, Hannibal had got himself in a position where he was very different to reinforce. He was bottled up with his Greek allies in the southern part of the Italian peninsula. The obvious route to reinforce him was by sea from Africa - but this was blocked by Roman naval power. That left the land route from Spain. Making the journey across the Alps had cost Hannibal nearly half his army, and any reinforcements would have to traverse Roman-controlled Italy. The Romans were scared of Hannibal, but they were not afraid of any other Carthaginian forces, judging correctly that Hannibal was a one-off.

And reinforcements from Spain could only come if they could disengage from the Roman forces there. This was not easy, and the one serious attempt to take troops from Spain to Italy was an act of desperation after Iberia had been effectively lost. Those troops did manage to cross into northern Italy - where the Romans annihilated them.

There were other demands on Carthage's resources than Hannibal. These other campaigns are often presented as sideshows, and this is very likely the way Hannibal himself felt. But that is not fair. As already noted, Spain could not be abandoned without effectively losing the war. The Carthaginians also sent troops to Sicily. This, to my mind, demonstrates a commitment to Hannibal that is not always acknowledged. Yes, there was an issue of pride concerned; the Carthaginians wanted to regain control of the island they had lost at the end of the First Punic War. But if they succeeded, it would then become much easier to reinforce Hannibal, sending troops across the relatively short sea-crossings from North Africa to Sicily and from Sicily to Italy, reducing their exposure to Roman sea-power.

The one area that could be seen as a 'sideshow' was the campaign in Macedonia and Greece. There was no particular strategic value to Carthage in this. But by bringing Macedon into the war against Rome, the Carthaginians could drag in far more Roman forces to face Macedonian manpower than they would have to commit. So the Macedonian campaign reduced Rome's ability to fight Carthage effectively. The Romans realized this, which is why the First Macedonian War was ended in 205 BC with a peace that was favourable towards Macedon.

The truth is that after Cannae, Hannibal became the sideshow. He stayed in Italy for another thirteen years, but achieved very little. The war was won and lost on other fronts, principally, as I say, Spain.

One last point. Five's publicity talks about the programme "Exploring the latest archaeological discoveries, ancient historical sources and cutting-edge DNA technology" - but of the first and last there was no evidence. As the Sunday Times preview suggested, stick with Channel 4's two programmes on Carthage from 2004, which, though not without their faults, were much better than this.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Lewis, from whom, twenty years ago, I learnt much of what I know about Hannibal.


Anonymous said...

Is the program you are referring to the program shown on the Australian Broadcasting Centre on Sunday, the twenty sixth of November? I believe it was called Hannibal: Enemy of Rome, however it did include that Barry Straus who sounded like a stereotypical American (referred to Hannibal as the nuclear bomb)as well as Goldsworthy, Leckie and Gregory Daley. Some of the information that they referred to was exactly what was presented in this program, which is not handy for me as I am trying to undertake an Extension History assessment task on Hannibal's motives after Cannae. This throws the historians (whom were mentioned on the program) that I planned to use into doubt, so, therefore, I ask you if there are any 'trustworthy' historians which you may have encountered that would prove useful to my endeavour.
Cheers, Matt Malone.

Tony Keen said...

I think the programme you saw is probably the one I discuss at the end of this entry. I thought it was poorly put together by the programme-makers, and leaving out the Spanish campaigns presents a very distorted picture of the Second Punic War. But that can't really be held against the historians who were the talking heads. I don't buy Goldsworthy's notion that Hannibal didn't march on Rome because he expected the Romans to surrender anyway, but that doesn't mean his work is worthless. I haven't read his work on the Punic Wars, or other recent volumes like Nigel Bagnell's, as it's been a while since I seriously studied the period. I think there's lots good in John Lazenby's Hannibal's War, and Brian Caven's The Punic Wars is still worth reading.

But you should read all this and make up your own mind.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the response and references. In your response you say that you 'do not buy Goldsworthy's notion that hannibal did not march on Rome because he expected the Romans to surrender anyway'. What is the reasoning behind your opinion and what evidence backs it up? Also, would the Spanish campaign during Hannibal's time in Italy have effected Hannibal's movements before his recall to Carthage?
Thank you and I appreciate your help with my project.

Tony Keen said...

At the risk of doing your project for you ...

The question of why Hannibal didn't march on Rome after his victory at Cannae has vexed historians for millennia. The view in Roman times was that Hannibal was a tactical genius, but a strategic idiot - hence the comment Livy (22.51) gives to Maharbal, that he knew how to win a battle but not how to take advantage of it. More modern historians are not happy with that. Goldsworthy's suggestion is that Hannibal didn't march on Rome because he thought it unnecessary - Rome would surrender soon anyway. My problem with that is that it seems to me that, if Rome was on the verge of collapse, a march on the city would be just the thing to push them over the edge. I think the explanation has to be that Hannibal thought there was some risk in marching on Rome. And so I subscribe to the view, that many have held before me, that Hannibal knew he did not have the ability to take Rome by siege. Attempting and failing would have damaged his credibility. Since his strategy was based upon eroding Rome's credibility, and persuading her allies to abandon their allegiance, he couln't risk his own credibility. I also believe that his weakness in siege forces hampered his ability to establish himself in Italy. Roman control of Italy was based upon the colonies, fortified towns in strategically important locations. And Hannibal could do nothing about them.

As for Spain, I've pretty much set it out above. Spain was the basis of Carthage's power, and had to be defended before anything else. Hannibal's invasion of Italy was an attempt to defend Spain by pulling the main theatre of war away from the Iberian peninsular. This is why the elder Scipio's decision to continue the invasion of Spain rather than use his army to pursue Hannibal was of such importance. Carthage was unable to reinforce Hannibal from Spain, as the troops could not disengage from Roman forces (when they finally did in 208 BC, it was because southern Spain was now competely lost, and Carthage was left with a precarious toe hold in north-western Spain). Moreover, reinforcements from elsewhere, that could have attempted to get through to Hannibal, were drawn into Spain. So Hannibal's operations were hampered by the lack of reinforcement. Events in Spain relegated Hannibal's own campaigns to a sideshow in the Second Punic War. The decisive battle in that war was not Cannae, which did not lead to ultimate victory for the winning side in the battle, but Baecula, the battle which won Spain for Rome.

Anonymous said...

After studying evidence from a variety of sources, I conquer with your view for Hannibal not attacking Rome. The notion from Goldsworthy that Hannibal thought Rome would surrender is as full proof as your Ashes campaign over here (sorry to rub salt into your wounds). Why would Rome surrender if it still had most of its allies? It is the equivalant of Germany asking Britain to surrender in late 1943, they would never of surrendered because what the Germans did not realise was that they were going to get a stoney beach full of yanks and Poms in France.
As for you running the risk of doing my project, there is no risk of that. There has to be some form of debate over a certain event or person, so I chose this subject matter and I plan to use some of your comments (with appropriate accreditation, as well as your permission to do so first) to help form some of the debate. It is shaping up to be good 'battle royale' between you, our old mate Goldsworthy and Mr Livius. I extend my most sincere gratitude to you for the help in which you have given me so far, and I also offer my condolances for your loss on Wednesday, the fifth of December at the Adelaide Oval.
Thank you for help,
Matthew Malone.
(P.S. If I was not under age and my great, great, great, great grandfather never stole that hankerchief, there would be a carton of beer waiting for at your doorstep. Cheers.)

Tony Keen said...

Anything in this blog is in the pbulic domain, as far as I'm concerned, and can be quoted (with proper attribution, of course) without asking permission.

On the other hand, if you keep reminding me about cricket, you will find all co-operation withdrawn very quickly ...

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. Proper attribution will be carried out and as for the cricket; just say it was Yorkshire losing to us and not England. Best of luck and thank you for your help.
Matthew Malone.