Hannibal Barca Perfected Battlefield Tactics
Hannibal Barca (247 – circa 182 BC) elevated the role of strategy in warfare. He led a Carthaginian army out of Spain, through southern France, and across the Alps into Italy, thus bringing the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) to enemy territory. In Italy, he perfected battlefield tactics, which enabled him to consistently defeat bigger Roman armies.
Hannibal inflicted a series of humiliating defeats upon the Romans. That shook Rome’s hold on her Italian allies and client states, many of whom either joined Hannibal, or declared neutrality. His greatest victory came in 216 BC, when the Romans amass their biggest army to date, 87,000 men, and marched off to crush Hannibal. He met them with 40,000 men at Cannae, and crushed them in a military masterpiece that is still studied as an example of the near perfect battle.
Hannibal’s army was a mishmash of ethnic units of differing abilities. It functioned only because of Hannibal’s ability to deploy each group so as to maximize its strengths, while minimizing its weaknesses. A significant part of his army were Gaulish levies recruited from northern Italy. While brave, they were not as professional as Hannibal’s African infantry and Greek mercenaries.
So he placed the Gauls in the center, in a formation that bulged outwards. To either side of the Gauls, Hannibal positioned his more professional African heavy infantry. On the flanks, Hannibal positioned his cavalry. When fighting commenced, Hannibal expected that the Gauls would be forced backwards under relentless Roman pressure. Eventually, their formation which had started off bulging outwards, would bend and bulge inwards, forming a bowl shape or sack. The confident Romans, scenting victory as their foe gave ground, would push into the sack.
Once the Romans were in the sack, the African infantry positioned to the Gauls’ sides would wheel inwards and attack the Roman flanks. By then, the Carthaginian cavalry would have defeated the Roman cavalry. It would then turn around, and attack the enemy infantry’s rear, thus completely encircling the Romans. Things worked out exactly as Hannibal had planned, and in a battle viewed as the gold standard for tactical generalship, the Romans were nearly wiped out. Only 10,000 out of 87,000 Roman escaped, with the remainder either slaughtered or captured.
The Romans learned their lesson, and avoided taking Hannibal head on. They kept Hannibal bottled up in southern Italy for years, while they attacked Carthage on other fronts, seizing its empire in Spain, and defeating its allies in Sicily. Eventually, Roman general Scipio Africanus led a counter-invasion against Carthage itself, and Hannibal was recalled to defend the homeland. There, Hannibal lost the climactic battle of the war at Zama, in 202 BC. He was eventually forced into exile, and took his own life circa 182 BC in Bithynia, in today’s Turkey, to avoid capture by the Romans.