Ancient History & Civilisation




FOR SEVENTY DAYS IT RAINED. Alexander’s men had never experienced anything like the Indian monsoon. The heavy rain was constantly slapping on their tents, with thunder and lightning often accompanying the downpour. Everywhere the men stepped, there seemed to be mud. Their Greek clothes were gone and they had to dress in Indian dhotis, white cotton cloths wrapped around their legs. Between the weather and the foreign garments, the men had never felt so far from home.

Their morale was already low when the monsoon finished it off. Their weapons were worn out. Even their horse’s shoes had worn thin from all the marching. The men had suffered casualties and they were exhausted. They were about three thousand miles from Macedonia as the crow flies—much farther, if you consider the rough terrain they had crossed and the circuitous route they had marched. Now they wanted to pack up the loot that they had won at such a heavy price and go home. In the summer of 325 B.C., nine years after Alexander had launched his expedition, it looked like the end of the campaign.

About a hundred years later and three thousand miles away, Hannibal’s younger brother, Mago, was listening to the sound of another kind of water—the Mediterranean. He was riding on his flagship in a flotilla sailing from Genoa to Carthage, and he was lying in a sickbed. It was autumn 203 B.C. Two years earlier, Mago had sailed from the island of Minorca, off Spain, to Italy, with fifteen thousand men, in a bold move to reinforce Hannibal. After he conquered Genoa and raised a local alliance, Mago receivedreinforcements from Carthage: men, money, and seven elephants. But in 203, a Roman army defeated Mago in a battle near Milan and he suffered a deep wound in his thigh. He was recalled home to defend Carthage from a threat from a Roman army.

Mago hoped that a ship’s rocking motion would be easier on his wound than Italy’s bumpy roads. He looked forward as well to the standard of medical care available in Carthage. But he died of his wound just south of Sardinia. Mago’s fate foretold a bad end awaiting Hannibal in his war with Rome. It was a far cry from the glory days of Cannae.

A little more than 150 years later and five hundred miles to the southwest, in Roman Africa (modern Tunisia), another rainstorm came thundering down. At midnight, in a November sky, a teeming rainfall, with pebble-sized hailstones, struck Caesar’s legionary camp. As usual, Caesar had made his men travel fast and light. Leather tents would have been a luxury—most men had rigged lean-tos from reeds, twigs, and clothing. The storm washed away everything and put out the campfires. Soldiers were reduced to wandering the camp with their shields held over their heads for protection. An enemy army was camped nearby but they did not push. Caesar, as usual, was lucky, but he had pressed his luck.

The battle of Pharsalus seemed long ago: it was January 46 B.C. (November 47, by our calendar), about a year and a half later. But the Roman civil war was far from over. The Pompeians had regrouped after their defeat. Caesar had given them breathing space, because other matters required his attention. He had to find funding—and Cleopatra had found him. Caesar had finally turned back to the Pompeians only a month before the rainstorm. He could shrug off a storm; the enemy’s armies were another matter.

As these three anecdotes remind us, it takes more to win a war than victory in pitched battle—even a big victory. Winning takes the ability to reap strategic advantage afterward. The victories of Gaugamela, Cannae, and Pharsalus did not guarantee that Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar would end their war well. Darius, the Roman republic, and Pompey all still had the resources to bounce back.

The challengers had to close the net.

Closing the net is where things started to get messy, messy because they were complicated. The clarity that victory in pitched battle offered was gone. Instead, the great commanders had to meet a truly bewildering array of challenges to close the net. These challenges entailed a number of military and political changes, from refining troop organization and tactics to reevaluating grand strategy, and from knowing the political workings of the enemy to shoring up support at home. Changes were required at every level of planning. Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar showed their greatness by keeping their armies together and achieving more victories (if with varying degrees of success) during this crucial stage. But without their knowing where to stop, the enormity of the challenges would soon prove too great, even for them.


Even after Gaugamela, Darius still had access to a wealth of money and manpower. Given time and space, he might have mobilized them. To keep that from happening, Alexander needed to be fast and deadly, but there was also something to be said for a light touch. If he let the Persians maintain their dignity, they might bow to his authority and accept him as king, bringing a quick end to the war. The alternative might be a long and bloody slog in Central Asia and beyond. A war there would demand yet more resources and mobility, while it might call forth new excesses in terror. If doing too little risked danger, doing too much threatened a quagmire.

Yet Alexander relished the challenge. A long war in Asia would drain Macedon but invigorate Alexander. With every passing day the old country interested him less. There were new worlds to conquer! No more merely king of Macedon, he was now king of Asia—and lord of battle. The East was a gigantic school of war and Alexander was an eager student.

The Reckoning: Darius’s Revenge

Alexander made warfare look easy. His march into Iran after Gaugamela is a case in point. After accepting Babylon’s surrender, Alexander rested his army for a month and then marched his forces into the mountains of western Iran. As usual, he pressed the enemy quickly and hard.

His first goals were the enemy’s two capital cities, Susa and Persepolis. Susa lacked defenses and its commander was quick to surrender, but deep mountain passes protected Persepolis: the Persians intended to fight. It was December; snow posed a real risk for the Macedonians, but Alexander did not want to give the enemy a chance to regroup, and so he forged ahead.

To reach Persepolis, Alexander had to defeat three separate stands against him in the rugged Zagros Mountains. The enemy knew the terrain and chose his ground carefully, in mountain passes and gorges, but Alexander’s forces were fast, mobile, and cagey. Again and again they turned the defender’s position and surprised him with an attack from the rear. The Macedonians inflicted heavy losses and killed the enemy commander. Persepolis surrendered.

Once again, Alexander had handled his forces like a virtuoso; his soldiers demonstrated their skill and versatility; and he and his troops showed that audacity pays back dividends tenfold.

Susa and Persepolis were treasuries as well as capitals. Between them, they housed the world’s largest collection of gold and silver, and now it belonged to Alexander. He was the proud owner of 180,000 talents of gold and silver—312 tons of gold and 2,000 tons of silver. The young king had become the richest man on earth—a stunning reversal for someone who had started his invasion broke.

When Alexander entered Persepolis, he showed his contempt for it: he let his men loot the town, except for the royal palace. This was harsher treatment than elsewhere, but Alexander recognized Persepolis’s status as the center of Persian religion. He wanted to deny the enemy any sacred ground to strike back at him. At the end of his four-month stay in Persepolis, Alexander finished what his policy of looting had begun—he burned the royal palace to the ground. If Alexander was king of Asia, it was not by grace of Persia’s gods—that was the message that he sent to the people of Persia.

The Greeks got a different message—payback. Years before, when they first raised the subject of invading Persia, Philip and Alexander had sold the expedition to their Greek allies as a war of revenge for Persia’s invasion of Greece under King Xerxes in 480B.C. The Greeks bought it. Now, with Greeks and Macedonians in Iran, the circle was nearly complete. What Athens had been to Xerxes, Persepolis was to Alexander: the symbol of enemy resistance. Just as Xerxes once burned down Athens, so Alexander burned Persepolis.

The burning also signaled that the war was coming to an end. Not only Greeks but Macedonians too reached that conclusion. With revenge, riches, and an empire that stretched from Egypt to Iran, they thought it was time to go home and enjoy life. But Alexander disagreed. Having been proclaimed king of Asia, he had no intention of settling for less than the entire Persian empire. But he did not need to press the point yet, because another issue was on the agenda: Darius was still at large. Not even the most homesick soldier could ignore that, because as long as Darius was free, he was trouble for them all. Darius could still raise an army from Persia’s rich and unconquered eastern provinces.

While Alexander spent the winter of 331 to 330 in Persepolis, Darius was about five hundred miles to the northwest, in the city of Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). He had a small army, including the remaining Greek mercenaries—still loyal to their chief—and was trying to raise new troops from the east. But there was no sign of them when, in May 330, Alexander marched on Ecbatana; Darius fled eastward with his troops and his closest advisors, the still-loyal satraps of the eastern empire.

Alexander hurried after them, traveling hundreds of miles through Iran until he reached its treacherous northeastern desert. To speed the way, Alexander divided his forces and left a portion with Parmenio. Then, several weeks later, the news came that the satraps had mutinied and deposed Darius. His loyalists fled into the mountains with the remaining Greek mercenaries. Alexander stripped his forces down to cavalry and raced after Darius. Even so, they were too late. The eastern satraps had assassinated the king and left the body for Alexander to find. Meanwhile, they fled homeward. It was summer 330.

If Alexander had captured Darius alive, he might have reaped a political and military bonanza. With luck, Darius would have accepted Alexander as the rightful king. With a little more luck, the rest of the Persian nobility would have followed him and admitted that the game was up. That, after all, would have spared Persia further bloodshed and—a Persian patriot might have said—given it time to recover and to plot Alexander’s eventual overthrow. As for Alexander, he would have the loyalty of the eastern satraps without having to fight for it.

But it was not to be. It is even possible that the other satraps saw this coming and bristled at it as a dishonorable policy: that may be why they overthrew Darius and killed him.

The greatest of the eastern satraps was Bessus, satrap of Bactria. He had fought well as a cavalry commander at Gaugamela. Now, the other satraps proclaimed him as Artaxerxes V, rightful king of the Persian empire. Bessus returned to Bactria to prepare an army to fight the invaders.

This left Alexander with a dilemma. The Persian empire stretched eastward another thousand miles. If he invaded the east in pursuit of Bessus, Alexander would face tough fighting, far from his home base. If he stayed in the west and consolidated the rule of his new empire, Alexander would have to prepare for raids if not a major invasion from Bessus’s territory.

Security concerns, therefore, dictated that Alexander go after Bessus. But security was not what moved Alexander. I wonder if Alexander ever put things as bluntly as one of the sources claims: he didn’t want Darius’s corpse; he wanted his kingdom. But that was the truth.

He knew that the Persian empire included rich lands in the east: Aria (today’s Afghan province of Herat), famous for its agriculture and especially its wine; Arachosia (centered on Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan); and Bactria (roughly, northern Afghanistan), known for its fertile farmland. There was also northwestern India (today’s Pakistan and the Punjab). This last, wealthy region had probably slipped from the Persians’ grasp years before, but they still exercised some influence there.

Alexander wanted to conquer these lands not only as a security zone but also for their riches and for the glory. In his own mind, Alexander now belonged to a very select club: Achilles, Heracles, Dionysus (not just god of wine but conqueror of the East), Cyrus the Great, and Semiramis (the mythical Assyrian queen) were its other members. Alexander would settle for nothing less than the entire Persian empire. Besides, Alexander was first, last, and always a warrior king. He excelled at war and he loved it more than any other activity.

Alexander’s heart and head told him to go east. The other Macedonians saw things differently, as they made clear when they heard the news that the Greeks were going home but they had to stay. It happened like this.

In spite of all his victories, Alexander had always been vulnerable in Greece. His many enemies there had long threatened to open a second front against him, and in 331, they finally did. Led by Sparta, a coalition of city-states challenged the Macedonians under Antipater. In his sixties, Antipater was a veteran general and ambassador who had served Philip and befriended young prince Alexander. As king, Alexander had appointed Antipater to govern Macedon in his absence.

If the rebel Greeks had won, they might have forced Alexander to turn back. Memnon’s ghost was surely smiling, but not for long. Alexander sent enough money to Antipater for him to hire massive numbers of mercenaries. They crushed the enemy and killed the Spartan king. In 330, while still at Persepolis or just shortly after leaving, Alexander learned the good news: he no longer had to worry about Greece.

No longer did he need to keep his Greek troops; they had done little fighting and served as virtual hostages. Previously it was too dangerous to send them home, where they could stir up trouble. That had changed now. So Alexander released his Greek “allies” and gave them generous bonuses. He also gave them the choice of staying and reenlisting as mercenaries, which some did.

Unfortunately for Alexander, Greek enthusiasm for home proved infectious and the Macedonians began to complain. Why not put down their arms and enjoy the loot that they had amassed? Alexander’s officers advised him to call an assembly and address the men. He gave a speech that touched on three themes: security, honor, and royal favor. The Persians were currently in a stupor, he said, but if the Macedonians withdrew, the enemy would wake up and attack them as if they were women. Anyone who wanted to leave was free to do so, but Alexander would go on acquiring the inhabited world with his “friends” and “those willing to fight.” In other words, any Macedonian who wasn’t with Alexander was against him. The rhetoric worked; the soldiers roared their approval of following Alexander wherever he would lead them. No doubt it helped if, as one source claims, he grossly underestimated the distance to Bactria.

Alexander’s points seem strong until we consider the counterarguments. The eastern provinces had never proved easy for the Persians to hold. Even if conquered, those provinces would probably rise in rebellion one day. In the meantime, they would require garrisons of thousands of men. Most important of all, Alexander had pressing business in the west—consolidating his rule—and an eastern campaign would be a long and dangerous distraction.

Then there were the objections that we earlier imagined Parmenio holding. Alexander could be king of Macedon or king of Asia but not both. As king of Asia, Alexander would force the freewheeling Macedonian nobility to bow down to tyranny.

Parmenio’s voice would no longer be heard: Alexander had left him behind. The grand old man of the Macedonian army was now seventy years old; the young king now felt confident enough to go into battle without him. He left Parmenio in the rear, in Ecbatana. Armed with a division, Parmenio’s job was to guard communications and to protect the treasury. Parmenio didn’t pull the purse strings, however: those belonged to Harpalus. Like Parmenio, Harpalus was a Macedonian noble, but he was much younger. And he was Alexander’s man—one of the king’s boyhood friends. Harpalus was now imperial treasurer. Parmenio had been shut out of the eastern campaign. Only his sons took part, Philotas, commander of the Companion Cavalry, and Nicanor, commander of the elite infantry corps known as the hypaspists. But they were weak reeds.

Cleaning House with Blood and Iron

Alexander and his army plunged eastward, in pursuit of Bessus. For the next three years, Alexander would be fighting on two fronts, against rebels both without and within. Being king of Asia was no longer just a title—it was the experience that Alexander lived every day. Just what the title meant would have to be worked out. Alexander had no intention of being a Persian king, but he had to be more than a Macedonian king. He had millions of new subjects, after all, and he had to offer them something more than a conqueror’s spear.

What Alexander came up with was a compromise between the freewheeling ways of the Macedonian court and the pomp of the Persian autocracy. He also tried to widen his court circle markedly. But Alexander was too Persian for the Macedonians and too Macedonian for the Persians. The Macedonians resented his decision to wear Persian dress, such as the diadem and the girdle, and to adopt Persian court ceremony, including proskynesis, that is, throwing oneself flat on the ground before the king in a gesture of submission. They bristled at Alexander’s order that his closest advisors wear Persian scarlet robes. They disapproved of the admission of Persian nobles into his retinue, including Darius’s brother Oxyathres. They despised the introduction of eunuchs and the royal harem and they felt threatened by Alexander’s new Persian royal guard.

The Persians, for their part, were not fooled by the title “king of Asia,” which they rightly saw as a far cry from their royal title of “great king, king of kings, king of lands”; it was, in fact, a Greek invention, signaling a new kind of royal absolutism. From the defeat of Darius to the burning of Persepolis to the new Macedonian military governors in every province, the Persian elite resented the conquest.

Unhappy Persians continued to fight—for four more long years of war. As for Alexander’s own men, Macedonians and Greeks in his entourage responded to the compromise with rage, grumbling, and conspiracy. Alexander responded too—with murder.

It would be easy to accuse him of unique savagery, but bloodshed was as Macedonian as hunting, the national sport. Every Macedonian king had secured his royal title by having other claimants to the throne murdered—at least, every successful Macedonian king. Alexander went further than most in the sheer number of alleged plotters, conspirators, and grumblers that he had executed. Then again, none of his predecessors had ever done anything as radical as Alexander. When a king changes his policies as dramatically as Alexander did, he fires those who refuse to support him. In this case, these “firings” proved fatal.

Macedonian kings also had reason to worry about assassination. Alexander’s father, Philip II, was murdered in office, as had been Philip’s older brother, Alexander II (r. 369–366). No wonder Alexander was nervous about plots and conspiracies. Between 330 and 327, Alexander executed a dozen generals, courtiers, and advisors, including one he killed with his own hands.

Rebellion beset Alexander from both sides. In 330 he faced a near mutiny by his own army, which did not want to continue eastward. Then his discovery of a plot ended with the execution of two of his chief generals: the great Parmenio and his son Philotas (a convenient excuse for Alexander to rid himself of rivals; neither played an active role in the conspiracy). In 328 Alexander murdered the general Cleitus “the Black” after a drunken quarrel that included Cleitus’s angry condemnation of Alexander’s Persian habits. It happened at a party in the palace at Maracanda (modern Samarkand). Macedonians had a reputation as hard drinkers and on this occasion, they consumed herculean amounts—enough for Alexander to grab a spear and run Cleitus through.

In 327 a group of royal pages was tried and executed for conspiring to kill Alexander. Their tutor, Callisthenes, a Greek philosopher and Alexander’s court historian, was also tried and probably killed. Earlier, he had publicly refused to engage in proskynesis.

Although Alexander appointed many Persians as satraps, they had to turn real power over to Macedonian commanders and treasurers. Many of the Persian satraps rose in revolt. Few of them lasted in office.

Alexander never found his balance between Macedonians and Persians. No wonder, because integrating a conquering elite with a defeated but still proud aristocracy is monumentally difficult. Success would have required every ounce of a master statesman’s skill, but Alexander rarely focused his attention on domestic politics. His passions were war and conquest; everything else was a distraction.

In one area alone did Alexander show the political touch of a master—in the politics of the army. Over the ten years of his expedition, he transformed the Macedonian army into a personal possession. He purged his rivals ruthlessly in the officer corps and replaced them with his friends and comrades. They included talented soldiers, like Craterus and Perdiccas, and less talented ones, like Hephaestion. Alexander had an intimate friendship with Hephaestion that might have included a physical element. Meanwhile, Alexander reorganized units to weaken private and regional ties. He wanted only one focus of loyalty—himself.

The Macedonians never formed a majority in Alexander’s army, but for a long time they were a military and political elite. Although Alexander had other excellent troops, the Macedonians were the army’s two fists and its backbone. In 334, they made up around 17,000 out of a total of more than 40,000 troops. Between 333 and 330, another 15,000 Macedonian reinforcements came from the homeland to join Alexander, for a total of more than 30,000 Macedonians. But Macedon had no more manpower to spare, and attrition began to reduce the number of Macedonians. By 324 there were only 18,000 Macedonians in Alexander’s army.

The character of their comrades changed radically as well, from allies to mercenaries and from European to Asian. In 334, the rest of Alexander’s army consisted of allies from Greece and from Macedon’s Balkan neighbors such as Thrace. After the Greek allies returned home, Alexander replaced them with two groups of soldiers: mercenaries—mostly Greeks—and Easterners. The latter were a mixed group of Iranians and Central and South Asians. No longer did a majority of Alexander’s troops speak Greek.

Meanwhile, Alexander moved shrewdly and sharply to weaken the Macedonians’ power in the military. They had always been a minority in the army, but now they lost their privileges. They stood on an equal footing with new Iranian heavy infantrymen and cavalrymen, who were trained to fight in the Macedonian style or at least an approximation of it.

Blood and Snow

It was “mission creep” on a monumental scale. Alexander stayed in the East for five years, until summer 325. What began as a hunt for Bessus turned into the conquest of the Persian Far East: Aria, Arachosia, Bactria, Sogdiana (modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), and northwestern India. It was a region of about one million square miles, roughly 40 percent of the Persian empire. It included desert, steppe, and some of the world’s toughest mountain terrain. Its extremes of climate ranged from snow to heat to monsoon rains.

The war against Bessus quickly became a tale of three rebels, as first Satibarzanes, satrap of Aria, and then Spitamenes, warlord of Sogdiana, either joined or replaced Bessus as military opponents.

Satibarzanes specialized in treachery. He fought for Darius at Gaugamela and then, less than a year later, joined Bessus in assassinating him. He surrendered to Alexander when the Macedonians reached Aria and then rebelled once they moved east on the way to fight Bessus in Bactria. Alexander turned back and forced Satibarzanes to decamp with two thousand cavalry for Bactria.

But in spring 329 Satibarzanes went back to Aria with more troops and raised the flag of rebellion again. This time, Alexander sent his lieutenants to polish him off. For once, the backstabbing satrap took on a fair fight. In fact, he opted for the manliest form of warfare, hand-to-hand combat. Satibarzanes challenged Erigyius of Mytilene, one of Alexander’s most loyal Greek commanders. Erigyius killed the insurgent leader and sent his head to Alexander, who was several hundred miles to the east.

Meanwhile, Bessus proved no match for Alexander’s audacity. Unable to organize a large army in Bactria, Bessus retreated northward, hoping first that the spring snows in the mountains, then the desert, and finally a hard-to-cross river—he had burned all the boats—would stop Alexander from following him. But Bessus was wrong. Alexander pushed his men over the passes of the Hindu Kush mountains and across the desert to the Oxus River (modern Amu Dar’ya), where he had his men build rafts to cross into Sogdiana. That did it for the followers of Bessus.

Spitamenes and another Sogdian noble arrested Bessus and handed him over to Alexander. To emphasize his position as king of Asia, Alexander punished Bessus for murdering Darius, and he imposed the penalty that Persians thought fit for a regicide—first Bessus had his ears and nose cut off, then he was crucified.

But Spitamenes turned on Alexander, and he proved the toughest opponent of all. Alexander drove northward to Maracanda and the river Jaxartes (in Tajikistan), which ancient geographers considered the northern boundary of Asia. Meanwhile Spitamenes and his followers launched a general rebellion in Alexander’s rear, in hopes of driving out the invader. They put up such a fight that it took Alexander two years to beat them—and at a huge cost.

The war brought out the best and worst in Alexander. The terrain was difficult, the climate hostile, the allies not to be trusted; every victory seemed to be followed by a defeat. The enemy employed unconventional tactics that shocked and bloodied the Macedonians but Alexander responded masterfully.

Spitamenes’s best troops were archers on horseback, and at first they wreaked havoc with Alexander’s forces, penning in and slaughtering his heavy-armed troops. But Alexander adapted with javelin-men on horseback and archers on foot. By late 328, the Macedonians had crushed the enemies’ forces, and Spitamenes’s head too was delivered to Alexander. Unrepentant Sogdian barons took refuge in impregnable-looking rock fortresses, but in spring 327 Alexander’s men found a way to climb them and force surrender.

The cost of victory was high. The toll of dead and wounded soldiers climbed well past anything that Alexander’s men had seen before, perhaps seven thousand dead. On just one day at the Polytimetus River (in modern Uzbekistan), a force of about 2,500 men was massacred by Spitamenes; supposedly only 350 survived. Luckily for Alexander, the overwhelming majority of the soldiers were mercenaries and not Macedonians. Still, it was the bloodiest day of his reign for his army; he lost almost as many troops on that one day as in all the fighting against Darius. The campaign was hard on Alexander too—he was wounded twice, suffering a concussion and a minor fracture of the tibia.

But the biggest losers were civilians. The Macedonians massacred and enslaved them by the thousands. It was part revenge, part deterrent, and part recreation—a gruesome but effective way for the tired and frustrated troops to blow off steam.

Monsoon and Mutiny

India was wealthy but hard to conquer, much less hold. Some Indian rulers invited Alexander in, hoping to use him against their enemies, but those enemies could fight. The strategic balance sheet argued against invasion. But perhaps Alexander was thinking only of the mythical balance sheet: he wanted to invade India because that’s what heroes of legend did. Since he had executed most of his officers who weren’t yes-men, there was hardly anyone to stop him. So in spring 327, Alexander invaded India.

He followed the Kabul River Valley and the Khyber Pass into what is today Pakistan, unleashing terror and massacres against centers of resistance in the hills. In spring 326, when the Macedonians reached the Indus River, their local allies helped them build a bridge. King Ambhi welcomed Alexander into the great city of Taxila (near modern Islamabad). All the other local rulers bowed to Alexander except for Porus. He controlled a rich kingdom to the east and he refused to submit. The stage was set for battle.

The battle of the Hydaspes (Jhelum) River in May 326 was Alexander’s last pitched battle. Compared with earlier fights, Alexander’s numbers were small, but there wasn’t an ounce less drama.

Greatly outnumbered in cavalry by Alexander and outclassed in infantry by the Macedonian phalanx, Porus pinned his hopes on two weapons—his elephants and the river. The Macedonians had never fought large numbers of elephants before, and Porus had eighty-five of them if not more (the sources disagree). But if Porus had his way, he wouldn’t have to put the animals to the test. He planned to make a stand on the Hydaspes and keep Alexander from crossing it.

The Hydaspes was a wide river in ancient times, although changes in the landscape keep us from knowing just how wide. In May, it overflows with melting snow from the Himalayas, and in 326 an early rainy season added to the river’s width. So Porus could hope for success.

But Alexander was wily. After he moved up to the riverbank, he kept Porus guessing by constantly moving units of his army from place to place. He brought up huge supplies of grain, to give the impression that he was prepared to wait until the river dropped in September. He had boats transported from the Indus River, nearly two hundred miles away, to threaten a crossing sooner. Meanwhile, Porus lined the opposite shore with his elephants to intimidate Alexander, while his scouts scoured the enemy’s camp to guess his intentions. Porus marched his men here and there to stop possible crossings.

In this atmosphere of suspense and frustration, Alexander made his move. He took a small part of his forces—six thousand infantrymen and five thousand cavalry—and snuck upstream one rainy night. He had already chosen his crossing point, which had a convenient, midstream island, and had hidden a small fleet of boats there. Meanwhile, he ordered the main Macedonian army to stay in its camp and distract Porus. Alexander’s men crossed safely.

Word quickly reached Porus that an enemy force was over the river, but he didn’t know who they were or how many. So he sent a cavalry unit under his son to challenge them, but the Macedonians were ready. They stunned the Indians and killed large numbers, including Porus’s son. The survivors reported to Porus that Alexander himself had crossed the river. Clearly, Porus had to stop him, so he moved against Alexander with the bulk of his army. The Indian chose a sandy plain for the battlefield.

And so, for Porus it all came down to his elephants. He lined the beasts up at regular intervals in front of his phalanx. His cavalry protected the two flanks. But Alexander and the Companion Cavalry launched a devastating charge against the cavalry on Porus’s left flank and wheeled into the flank of his infantry. Porus tried to transfer cavalry from his right wing as reinforcements but a detachment of Macedonian cavalrymen under Coenus rode them down.

Now came the turn of the Macedonian phalanx. The men marched relentlessly forward against the enemy’s soldiers—and his elephants. The Macedonians attacked the great beasts with their sarissas and drove them into a rampage. The pachyderms turned both on the Macedonians and on their own men. The key to survival against elephants was to stay disciplined. It took steady nerves and drill-ground precision to open up spaces in the lines to let the beasts pass through. The Macedonians were masters of self-control and made way for the elephants, but the Indians got stuck and were trampled on. Once the elephants were gone, the phalanx regained its momentum against the Indians’ front lines. Meanwhile the Macedonian cavalry rode around to the enemy’s rear. Squeezed on both sides, the Indians were slaughtered.

Their king survived. Porus was a tall man and he rode on a large elephant, which made him a target. In fact, he suffered multiple wounds, but Porus lived—and kept his dignity. When taken prisoner and brought to Alexander, he was asked how he wished to be treated. “Like a king,” Porus replied. Alexander granted his wish. Strong men always recognize each other. No doubt realizing that it was better to have Porus guarding the empire’s Indian flank than to leave a power vacuum in his place, Alexander spared his life and his kingdom. He made Porus swear allegiance and even increased the territory under Porus’s control.

Victory at the Hydaspes marked the high point of Alexander’s Indian campaign. He marched about one hundred miles further eastward, to the Hyphasis (Beas) River, conquering as he went, but traveled no farther. From summer 326 until he reached southeastern Iran in December 325, Alexander undertook a long and very violent march home—much against his will.

After defeating Porus, Alexander set his sights on the Ganges River Valley. This was the heartland of the Nanda dynasty, a large and wealthy state that covered most of northern India. It had a lot more military manpower—and elephants—than Porus did. That shouldn’t have bothered Alexander’s army, not after its record of victory, but the men were in no mood for new adventures. After seventy days of monsoon rains, after Porus’s elephants, after the horrors of Bactria and Sogdiana—indeed, after everything that had followed the death of Darius in 330—the Macedonians had had enough. The Ganges was just two hundred miles away, but they were done advancing—and they told Alexander so. In late July 326, the Macedonians mutinied.

By this point, the Macedonians no longer made up the majority of his troops, but Alexander had no intention of relying on an assortment of mercenaries and Iranians, Bactrians, Sogdianans, and Indians. He didn’t trust them without having Macedonian soldiers to keep them in line. Alexander tried to pressure the Macedonians by taking to his tent until they gave in. It was the tactic used by Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. But Alexander’s troops wouldn’t budge. Coenus, hero of the Hydaspes, spoke to Alexander on their behalf.

If even his officers supported the mutineers, Alexander had no choice but to submit. But he left the decision to the gods; he had his priests offer sacrifices to continue the march, but the sacrifices proved unfavorable. That allowed the king to say that since the gods opposed a further advance, he would take the army home. But Alexander neither forgave nor forgot. Coenus died suddenly a few days later. Some modern scholars suspect poison but the ancient sources say Coenus died of disease. In his anger over the mutiny, perhaps Alexander wished a similar fate for the rest of his men, but he needed them. Still, two years later, he finally got a chance to take revenge.

The fastest and easiest way to go home was for Alexander and his men to go back the way they came, through the Khyber Pass and Bactria. But that would be admitting defeat. Alexander still had new worlds to explore, even if they did not lie in his preferred direction, to the east. He would travel down the river valleys of the Punjab to the southern Indus Valley and the Indian Ocean, a distance of more than a thousand miles. Then he would turn westward toward southern Iran, with some of the men marching overland and the rest traveling by sea.

Alexander began by having his men return to Porus’s realm and build a vast fleet on the Hydaspes—eight hundred or more ships. The fleet sailed in November 326, accompanied by an army marching on either shore. It is estimated that Alexander had a total of 100,000 men by now.

The Macedonians had to fight all the way to the sea. The Indian kingdoms put up a spirited resistance but rarely posed much of a threat to the invaders. The Macedonians responded with terror. They massacred unarmed people, charged the cavalry into columns of refugees, and killed civilians who were trying to cross a river or hid in the woods.

There was regular fighting as well. Things went very badly for the Macedonians during an engagement near the modern city of Multan in January 325. To inspire his weary men, Alexander personally led the attack on a strong city and received an arrow wound in his chest. He nearly died because of the blood loss required to remove the arrow, leading his men to bewail their fate, leaderless in a hostile land very far from home. But Alexander recovered.

In July 325, after putting down two major rebellions, the Macedonians reached the sea not far from the modern city of Karachi, Pakistan. A month later, Alexander was ready to depart. He had already taken the Macedonian old and wounded, along with all his elephants and a few battle-ready troops for protection, and sent them back through the Khyber Pass and Bactria. Now he dismissed his Indian troops and divided the rest of his forces in two. He marched westward along the coast with perhaps about thirty thousand men, while the rest sailed with the fleet. Alexander started out in August but the fleet waited for the monsoon to end in November. The commander of the fleet was another of Alexander’s boyhood friends, Nearchus of Crete.

The launching of Alexander’s Indian Ocean armada was an extraordinary moment. Nearchus was a trailblazer. If Alexander had lived to old age and held his empire together, the fleet’s success could have opened a new chapter in the history of the relationship between East and West. Contact between India and Greece might have become a central theme of ancient history. But even within the limits of fact, even though Alexander’s successors turned their backs on India, the fleet was remarkable.

The fleet speaks to Alexander’s ambition, his leadership, and his ability to grow as a military strategist. In 334, at Miletus, he dismissed his navy. Nine years later, in India in 325, he built a fleet and gave it an audacious mission, which it carried out smartly. As a result, the scales now dropped from Alexander’s eyes when it came to sea power and its potential. By 323, he was ready to entrust his navy with the future of his army.

Meanwhile, the march overland to Iran was painful. Alexander’s route took him through the Gedrosian Desert (roughly, the Baluchistan region of Pakistan). Cyrus the Great had once lost an army in this harsh terrain and Alexander wanted to outdo him by making it across the Gedrosian Desert. Alexander succeeded, but those around him paid the price. He spent two months crossing the desert, taking an inland route, which left food supplies on the coast for the Macedonian fleet but forced Alexander on a more difficult journey. Although the soldiers suffered, almost all of them survived. But many camp followers—women and traders—died and all the animals were slaughtered. The natives, meanwhile, faced famine after the invaders devoured their meager food stores.

By December 325 the Macedonians had crossed the desert and reached southeastern Iran. The rainy season had begun and they were back in contact with the heartland of Alexander’s empire. The fleet arrived soon afterward, as did the men who had marched back via Bactria. The war in the East was over. Now what?


After Cannae, two roads to victory lay ahead for Hannibal. One called for marching on the city of Rome and storming it, as Alexander had stormed his enemy’s capitals. But Rome wasn’t Persepolis and it wouldn’t fall easily. The other called for Hannibal to rest his army and skip a hopeless attack on Rome. Instead Hannibal would pick off Rome’s allies one by one, the way Alexander had picked off cities like Miletus and Tyre. But Italy wasn’t Anatolia and, unlike the Macedonians, the Carthaginians hadn’t mastered the art of besieging cities. There had to be another way out for Hannibal, but what was it?

Maybe not storming Rome, but frightening it. The sight of Hannibal’s army outside the walls would panic the city and unnerve its friends nearby. Meanwhile, there were other possibilities. Finding new allies outside Italy, getting new resources from home, using dirty tricks or diplomacy to pry away Rome’s Italian allies, opening a second front in Sicily or Sardinia, getting Rome to the negotiating table—any of these or a combination of them might work, but Hannibal would have to decide. He might even decide to cut his losses in Italy and move on. Whatever the choice, it would challenge every inch of his strategic judgment and leadership.

Mago’s Rings

Hannibal had passed eighteen dramatic months. From the time he entered Italy in late 218 to his victory at Cannae in summer 216, the Carthaginian had won four battles against Rome and so frustrated the enemy that they gave up on Fabius’s strategy just when it was starting to work. If Hannibal had then marched on Rome and shocked the city into coming to the peace table, he would have won the war.

But the war dragged on. Rome did not agree to negotiate; Hannibal did not march on Rome. His strategy was, rather, to surround Rome with a web of enemy alliances and slowly squeeze it to the point of surrender. After Cannae, most of southern Italy defected to Hannibal. The most important recruit was Capua, Italy’s second-largest city, and a glittering prize. Capua offered Hannibal prestige, a supply base, and comfortable winter quarters. (Capua was known for the good life, but the story that the city corrupted him is just a story.) Much of Sicily joined Carthage as well, a boon to the Carthaginian navy, which now had way stations on the route to Italy. Farther afield, King Philip V of Macedon, whose country was powerful once again, made an alliance with Hannibal against Rome.

But all was not well. In order to woo his new Italian allies, Hannibal had been forced to promise not to conscript their men, so they did not solve his manpower problems. True, they did supply some soldiers to Hannibal, and they certainly did not contribute men to Rome, as they would have otherwise. But Hannibal had to garrison the cities that had joined him, and that cost him men. He had to protect the cities from Roman reprisals and to prevent them from rejoining Rome. All in all, the allies didn’t help Hannibal. They tied him down, as the Lilliputians did to Gulliver.

Another problem was that Hannibal’s alliances were incomplete. Not a single city in central Italy joined him. For all his gains in southern Italy, important cities there remained loyal to Rome, which offered the enemy forward posts, control of roads, and, most important of all, seaports. Hannibal did not have enough men to conquer all these places. Though highly effective, his army had never been large. His battle casualties likely included junior officers, essential to future success. In short, Hannibal needed reinforcements—and he naturally turned to Carthage.

Yet Hannibal faced a paradox: he needed to conquer a port in order to open a secure supply route to Carthage, but he couldn’t do so without getting the Carthaginian reinforcements he had set his sights on. The temporary, imperfect solution was to land reinforcements on the Italian coast, but first Carthage had to agree to send them.

In 215 B.C., Hannibal sent his brother Mago from Italy to Carthage. Mago brought the Carthaginian senate news of Hannibal’s achievements. As a dramatic illustration, he poured out onto the hard Senate House floor hundreds of golden rings, “of that sort worn only by Knights, and only by the first among them,” rings that had been taken from killed or captured Romans. Then he asked for reinforcements in money, manpower, and grain. The Senate agreed but not unanimously, and the amount they sent was small compared with the resources that they committed to other fronts.

The Carthaginian senate cheered for Cannae but it was skeptical. Some senators no doubt remembered that it took nearly two years for a single Roman ally to join Hannibal. Those who were well informed about Italy might have noticed the many places that had stayed loyal to Rome. And then, perhaps some senators nervously eyed their own fingers at the sight of Mago’s rings.

Meanwhile, Carthage’s new alliances faded like spring flowers in its hand. Macedon, for example, promised to send troops to help Hannibal in Italy, but Rome commanded the sea and blocked any Macedonian landing. Rome also threatened Macedon by stirring up a war nearby in Illyria (modern Croatia). Could the Carthaginian navy have broken Rome’s naval stranglehold? After a rebuilding phase, Carthage had enough ships and manpower to give the Roman fleet a real fight, but it lacked the one essential for victory: guts. Carthage’s admirals refused to risk a battle and so the Macedonians stayed home.

Then there was Sicily. Carthage scored a coup in 215 B.C. with the defection of Syracuse, Sicily’s greatest city. This rich, glittering seaport was armed to the teeth. No less a figure than Archimedes, one of antiquity’s greatest mathematicians, helped Syracuse devise new weapons. Carthage sent a huge expeditionary force, 28,000 men, to help Syracuse. But Rome laid siege to Syracuse in 213 and captured it in 211, after a two-year struggle. Archimedes was killed during the sack. Meanwhile, a Carthaginian naval expedition tried to retake the island of Sardinia, a former Carthaginian colony, but Rome crushed it.

Carthage frittered away its energies on one new initiative after another, but Rome broke each one in turn. Meanwhile, Rome held fast to its traditional strategy. It kept a firm grip on its oldest allies in central Italy and continued to raise new armies there. But it did not use them in a major pitched battle against Hannibal.

After Cannae, the Senate admitted that Fabius had been right. Instead of accepting Hannibal’s challenges to battle, it went back to the strategy of shadowing Hannibal’s forces and cutting off his food supplies.

This move was greatly to Rome’s credit. It demonstrates the strategic wisdom of Rome’s leaders, but it also shows the deep well of popular support they drew from. The Fabian strategy was slow and frustrating. It worked only because the Roman people trusted their government. Indeed, the Roman political system stood on the firmest of foundations.

Rome focused its energies on the area around Capua, Hannibal’s major new ally. Capua was only 125 miles from Rome; the Romans did not want Hannibal to get any closer. So Roman generals intervened in still-friendly cities near Capua; they ordered all grain to be harvested early and locked up in fortresses. Meanwhile, Roman raiders cut down Capua’s crops in the fields. To feed his men, Hannibal marched to the major Roman supply depots nearby: the cities of Naples and Nola. Rome kept these cities in line by garrisoning and fortifying them as well as by executing any local waverers. Naples was also an important seaport, while Nola was a key road junction. Frustrated and hungry, Hannibal had no choice but to move his army farther south.

But the Carthaginian was hardly out of steam. He captured the major southern Italian port of Tarentum in 213 B.C. by means of a ruse, not by storming or besieging it. After negotiating with disaffected Roman allies in Tarentum, Hannibal arranged for a commando unit to rush to hide outside one of the town’s gates one night while his allies pretended to be returning from a hunt. While the guards were admiring a large boar carried by the supposed hunters, Carthaginian soldiers rushed in. They had carefully chosen a night when most of the Roman soldiers were partying and unprepared.

Still, the attack was not a complete success. Hannibal took Tarentum but a Roman garrison held out in the town’s citadel, which had access to the sea. This greatly limited Hannibal’s ability to use Tarentum as a port, and Tarentum was the port where Philip of Macedon’s troops would land, if he ever sent them.

Five years later, in 208, Rome in turn tricked its way into recapturing Tarentum. An Italian serving in Hannibal’s garrison fell in love with a local woman whose brother served with the Romans. The brother talked the lovesick Italian into betraying the town to Rome. By then, Rome had successfully starved out Capua after a long siege; the city surrendered in 211. And Hannibal never took a seaport even more strategic than Tarentum—Regium, the gateway to Sicily, stayed stubbornly loyal to Rome.

Hannibal was still in Italy, but even though he was bottled up in the south, he remained dangerous, especially if reinforcements reached him. Rather than risking a pitched battle to drive him out, Rome attacked Hannibal’s base in Spain. In 209 B.C., a Roman army in Spain shocked the Carthaginians by capturing their well-fortified capital city of New Carthage (Cartagena). It was as bold a move as Hannibal’s march on Italy and as cunning in its execution as his tactics at Cannae. The Roman commander had taken the trouble to learn about the daily ebb of water from the lagoon north of the city, due to the wind, that left a poorly defended part of the wall accessible—and used the information to take New Carthage in a bloody afternoon. This Roman was none other than Publius Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus), son of the consul of 218, also named Publius Cornelius Scipio, who had lost to Hannibal at the Ticinus.

A brilliant general, Scipio copied Hannibal’s tactics in pitched battle as well. At the battle of Baecula in Spain a year later (208), Scipio won a solid if not decisive victory over a Carthaginian army by enveloping its flanks. It was a move out of Hannibal’s playbook. Never before had a Roman force maneuvered so well; Scipio had trained his men long and hard.

The Carthaginian general at Baecula was Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal. He had saved most of his men; now he was ordered to transfer them to Italy. Finally, Hannibal would get the reinforcements he was desperate for. Hasdrubal marched in 207. Like his brother, Hasdrubal crossed the Alps. He too found Celtic allies in northern Italy. He too brought elephants with him—ten of them. Including his Italian allies, Hasdrubal had about thirty thousand men. Unlike Hannibal, who crossed the Alps in the snows of late fall, Hasdrubal timed his crossing for warm weather, and he probably chose an easier route. Unlike Hannibal, though, Hasdrubal did not surprise the Romans, who knew that he was coming.

The Romans mobilized two forces, one under each consul: one in the north, to oppose Hasdrubal, the other in the south, to try to keep Hannibal from marching to join his brother. The Romans had reason to be concerned about what would happen if Hasdrubal won a major pitched battle—a likely result if he joined forces with Hannibal. That might have pushed war-weary Roman allies into the Carthaginian camp.

Then, Providence took a hand in events. Hasdrubal was based in Umbria in north-central Italy. He sent four horsemen south to Hannibal with information about his location and with plans for the two generals to join forces. The Romans captured Hasdrubal’s messengers and discovered his plan. This allowed them to detach part of their southern army and send it north to join the forces against Hasdrubal.

The Romans cornered Hasdrubal in north-central Italy, in the vicinity of the modern city of Urbino. The Carthaginians were outnumbered, had no cavalry, and didn’t know the countryside. The Romans forced them to fight a battle on the banks of the Metaurus (modern Metauro) River. Once again, a Roman attack on the Carthaginian flank delivered a devastating blow, and the Carthaginian army collapsed.

Hasdrubal died in battle. The Romans decapitated him, sent his head south with a team of riders, and threw it into Hannibal’s camp. The story goes that in his distress, Hannibal cried out, “Now I understand the fate of Carthage!” But, if this is true, it doesn’t mean that Hannibal had given up. He withdrew his army to Bruttium, the “toe” of the Italian boot, but he held on tenaciously to Italian soil.

What Went Wrong?

In nine years, from 216 to 207 B.C. Hannibal had gone from being Rome’s conqueror at Cannae to being its virtual prisoner in a corner of southern Italy. Why?

When he began the Second Punic War in 218 B.C., Hannibal knew that Carthage could not match Rome’s manpower or its navy. Its strength was the professionalism of its small but elite army and his own ability as its leading general. Because Carthage could not match Rome’s resources, a long war was to its disadvantage. If it were going to win, Carthage would have to win quickly.

Hannibal’s actions from the time he left New Carthage (spring 218) to his victory at Cannae (summer 216) followed that strategy. His march on Italy shocked Rome. His victories in four battles left the Romans fearful “for themselves and for their native soil.”

At this moment, fresh from victory at Cannae, Hannibal should have opened a new military offensive. He made a diplomatic push. He tried to rebrand himself in Roman eyes as a man of peace. For the first time after winning a battle, he addressed the Roman prisoners and spoke in soothing terms. Then he sent a Carthaginian envoy, one Carthalo, to Rome to negotiate. Hannibal offered to ransom his Roman captives if the Senate would pay a high price for each man. The Romans recognized this as a trick, meant both to transfer money to the enemy and to sap Rome’s fighting spirit. If the Senate had agreed, in the future, Roman soldiers might have preferred surrender to fighting to the death, secure in the knowledge that eventually they would be ransomed. The Senate refused.

Hannibal could have offered another olive branch but it is doubtful that the Senate would have taken it. The war often defied expectations. Just as Hannibal surprised the Romans at Trasimene by not fighting fair—by laying a trap instead of coming out in the open—so the Romans surprised Hannibal after Cannae. According to the unwritten rules of the day, if its armies lost battle after battle, a state was supposed to surrender. Instead, Rome fought on.

After the fighting ended at Cannae on August 2, Hannibal’s officers surrounded him with congratulations. Most of them called for a well-deserved rest, but not Maharbal, Hannibal’s commander of cavalry: he advised an immediate attack on Rome. In five days, he said, Hannibal could be dining on the Capitol, Rome’s citadel. Maharbal offered to go first, with his horsemen. Hannibal declined. It was not so easy a thing to do, he said, and besides, he needed time to reflect. Maharbal is supposed to have replied, “Truly, the gods have not given all their gifts to the same man.” You know how to be the victor, Hannibal, but not how to use your victory.” The famous Latin saying is: “Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis.”

A Roman writer comments, “It is widely believed that the day’s delay was the salvation of the City and the Empire.” The story of Maharbal’s criticism probably goes all the way back to men who lived through the Second Punic War, which should add weight to it. But today, most historians side with Hannibal. They point out that Rome was located 235 miles (380 kilometers) from Cannae, so marching the army to the Capitol would have taken weeks—not four days. By that time, Rome could have organized its defense.

Rome was protected by thick walls nearly seven miles long and boasted a state-of-the-art system of towers, trenches, and, on the town side, an earth-filled platform for the defenders. The walls enclosed an area of one and a half square miles.

Unless traitors opened Rome’s gates, Hannibal would have had to take the city either by storming the walls or by laying siege to the city and starving it out. Storming the walls would have required siege engines, which would have taken weeks or more to construct. Besieging Rome would have meant surrounding it with trenches and a palisade, no small undertaking.

If Hannibal really expected the Romans to negotiate after Cannae, he showed bad judgment. He didn’t know his enemy. But by failing to build on the battle’s momentum by attacking Rome, he showed poor strategy and weak leadership.

What If?

If Hannibal had decided to go for Rome after Cannae, the cavalry could have pushed ahead. By riding hard, Maharbal and his horsemen could have reached Rome in a week or so—“five days” was an exaggeration. Still, the news of Cannae would barely have arrived and suddenly Rome would have seen the enemy at the gates. Fear and alarm would have followed. And then, Hannibal and his army would have joined the cavalry. A forced march could have gotten them to Rome in as little as two weeks.

It’s not likely that Rome would have agreed to negotiate, but fear might have spread to cities in the vicinity. Hannibal might have increased the pressure on the Romans to come out and fight. And he might have tipped some of Rome’s allies in central Italy over the edge and into his arms. Some of those cities did waver as the war dragged on, and Hannibal’s presence might have made the difference.

Still, it is fair to ask: What if Rome hung on? Hannibal would probably have been unable to take the city by storm, because Rome’s walls were too strong. What if he settled down for a siege?

Hannibal had 45,000 men after Cannae, but that included the wounded, so his effective strength may have been only around forty thousand men. Rome was a large city. Yet a few years later (211 B.C.), with far fewer men in their siege army, the Romans took the great Sicilian city of Syracuse, whose walls were longer than Rome’s (18.6 miles)—indeed, they were one of the greatest fortresses of the ancient world. The siege of Syracuse lasted two years. Rome eventually took the outer walls by storm. Shortly afterward, a traitor opened the gate to the inner city. A spree of looting and murder followed.

Besides, in August 216, Rome had no great number of soldiers to man its walls. There were about eight thousand soldiers in the city and about another five thousand nearby, guarding a strategic bridge on the Appian Way, the southern approach to Rome. While waiting for Hannibal, Rome started conscripting new troops, even from the slave population, but they were raw recruits. If the siege had lasted, Rome might well have had to form a relief force by withdrawing legions from its provinces: northern Italy, Sardinia, Sicily, and even Spain. Cannae’s fifteen thousand Roman survivors could have been added to the mix.

A strong Roman relief army might have made Hannibal raise his siege of Rome, but not if he received reinforcements as well, from Carthage. If Hannibal laid siege to the city of Rome and if it looked like he had a chance of success, Carthage’s home government might have finally agreed to send him more troops.

The problem wasn’t that Hannibal couldn’t take Rome but that he wouldn’t. Maybe Hannibal didn’t understand the extent of his victory at Cannae. Maybe he overestimated the strength of the Romans. But the main obstacle to attacking Rome was, it seems, Hannibal’s inflexibility. Neither his war aims, nor his philosophy of operations, nor his military strategy, called for attacking Rome. It was time for a leader whose judgment was shrewd enough to change strategy. It was a moment for audacity and agility, but Hannibal had a plan and he stuck to it.

Destroying Rome was never Hannibal’s war aim; rather, he wanted to cut its power down to size. He wanted a peace treaty, not a war to the death. He was willing to see Rome continue as a regional power in Italy, as long as it didn’t threaten Carthage.

When it came to military operations, Hannibal’s entire philosophy was to fight mobile, not static warfare. He could make long marches, outrun or surprise the enemy, fight pitched battles, and conduct raids and ambushes. The one thing he couldn’t do was to take a city by siege. In fact, his entire military career consisted of only one major siege and that took place not in Italy but in Spain, at Saguntum (219 B.C.). It was no easy undertaking: the capture of Saguntum took eight months and cost Hannibal a serious leg wound. In the years after Cannae, this inability to take a city by siege turned out to be a major shortcoming. For example, in the aftermath of Cannae, Hannibal could have attacked the several thousand Roman survivors who were huddling in the nearby hill town of Canusium. But Canusium was well defended and Hannibal passed it by. By taking Canusium, Hannibal might have tipped additional Italian cities into his camp. And, unbeknownst to him, he might have removed from the equation the man who would become Carthage’s worst enemy. One of the refugees at Canusium was Scipio, who had fought at Cannae.

And then there is the question of Hannibal’s ego. During the siege of Saguntum, Hannibal was forced to leave for a few weeks to deal with rebels in another part of Spain. He turned command of the siege over to Maharbal, who did so well that, as Livy cattily put it, “neither the Carthaginians nor their enemies noticed the leader’s absence.” The same Maharbal later commanded the cavalry at Cannae and then castigated Hannibal for not marching on Rome.

Did jealousy play a role in keeping Hannibal away from Rome? Perhaps he feared that an attack on the city—whether a raid, assault, or full-blown siege—would only play to Maharbal’s strengths. Great men like Hannibal should not be reduced to petty motives, but heroes too have egos.

For good or ill, Hannibal’s army was set up for battle, not siege. He should, then, have changed his army. Alexander, after all, had managed to do this, after he moved eastward from Iran. He adapted to the new conditions needed to fight in the mountains of Bactria and the steppes of Sogdiana. Alexander carried out daring and successful sieges of supposedly impregnable fortresses. To equal his hero Alexander, Hannibal needed to match his agility and his audacity. Two centuries later, Caesar would do just that. Caesar not only excelled in pitched battle, but he was also a master of siegecraft, as he showed in Gaul at Alesia and in Italy at Corfinium. Hannibal did not reach the same height.


A larger question as to Hannibal’s success as a military leader relates not to his operations but to his strategy. It may even go to the core of Hannibal’s being. Had Hannibal always set too much store on cunning? Having learned that craftiness was a good way to win battles, perhaps he believed that it was also a good way to win wars. He would have been much better off, in 216 B.C., had he taken advantage of the shock of the moment.

Hannibal’s strategy against Rome was flawed. He planned to surround Rome with a web of enemy alliances in central and southern Italy, which he would weave together with his alliances with the Celts in the Po Valley. Then, he would slowly squeeze Rome to the point of surrender. But Rome was no easy victim. And a long war, a war of attrition, which drained each side’s military talent pool, wore down each side’s manpower, and shattered each side’s political and financial willpower—such a war did not play to Carthage’s strengths.

In fact, Hannibal’s strategy threatened to be a repeat of the First Punic War (264–241 B.C.). That twenty-three-year-long conflict exhausted both parties, but Carthage threw in the towel first—and so, Rome won. Rome, for its part, had always been able to take a punch.

After Cannae, Rome’s allies in southern Italy began defecting to Carthage, but they moved slowly and cautiously. The cities in central Italy never broke with Rome. Meanwhile, Carthage’s new friends contributed so little to the war effort and cost so much that Hannibal might have thought, “Be careful what you wish for.” In spite of Cannae, all signs pointed to a long war—the last thing Carthage needed.

Meanwhile, the war in Spain had already begun and, in the end, it was devastating. Because of its sea power, Rome could attack Spain at will. Not that the war was easy: it took ten years for Rome to put Carthage on the run in Spain. Yet all the while, Rome tied down Carthaginian troops that could have been sent to reinforce Hannibal. Romans understood that: winning a war sometimes means accepting losses where it hurts in order to win where it matters. That is a fundamental—and crucial—rule of war.

To conquer an enemy who has superior resources in manpower, material, and money, an invader has to move quickly. Let the war drag on, and the enemy may husband his resources, grind down the invader, and even counterattack the invader’s home country. To win, the invader has to shock the enemy with lightning attacks that strike at his heart.

Alexander and Caesar understood the principle of shock. Hannibal seems to have understood it at first, but then something happened. Either he lost sight of it, or he failed to receive the necessary support from his home government to carry out a winning strategy, or both.

Hannibal lacked the ability to reach his enemy’s heart, but he could deliver a series of body blows. That, he gambled, would be enough to win victory, Hannibal forgot that time was not on his side. By not destroying Rome, Hannibal gave it the chance to heal its wounds and come roaring back.

Another fundamental rule of war is, if you invade another country, don’t let it invade you in return.

Rome displayed a ruthless wisdom about prioritization. Carthage, by contrast, was all over the map. Instead of focusing intensely on winning the war in Italy, it diverted resources all over the western and central Mediterranean: to Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily. Nor did Carthage make good use of its alliances.

Carthage should have accepted its inability to drive Rome from Spain and have settled for neutralizing it. Carthage should have thrown its energies instead into prosecuting the war in Italy. By keeping up the pressure there, Carthage might have finally pried away some of Rome’s crucial central Italian allies, for example, cities with Latin rights (limited Roman citizenship) such as Spoletium (Spoleto) and Beneventum (Benevento), peoples whose loyalty was essential for Roman success.

Consider the resources diverted to Spain in spring 215 that might have gone to Hannibal in Italy: 12,000 foot soldiers, 1,500 horsemen, 20 elephants, 60 warships—destined for Italy but diverted to Spain after setbacks there under Mago. And Spain was not the only place to which Carthage sent men and animals that could have been sent to Hannibal in Italy. It sent 17,000 soldiers to Sardinia and 28,000 to Sicily. These numbers dwarfed the reinforcements that Hannibal actually received: 4,000 Numidian cavalry, 40 elephants, plus money and provisions.

We can only guess what Hannibal thought of Carthage’s priorities. Certainly he accepted the Spanish and Sicilian expeditions, where the Carthaginian high command included his brothers and other powerful friends. Maybe he even championed these new campaigns out of frustration with the stalemate in Italy. But I doubt it. If Sicily or Spain had become the decisive theater in his mind, it’s hard to see why he stayed in Italy. He knew that he was Carthage’s best general: that was not just egotism but plain fact. But he did not have the tools to finish the job.

We can only guess as well at the mix of motives that kept Hannibal in Italy. Hope and fear no doubt played a part. Pride in his men and loyalty to their achievements surely did too.

Hannibal asked the Carthaginian senate for reinforcements, but they were too little and too late. Roman history shows what wan enthusiasm the Roman senate had for victorious Roman generals returning to Italy at the head of their army. We might guess that the Carthaginian senate held similar sentiments about Hannibal. So they proved stingy in supporting his war effort in Italy.

If we believe the ancient sources, in later years, Hannibal regretted his decision not to attack Rome after Cannae. Indeed.


The battle of Pharsalus offered Caesar the chance of winning the war, but only if he showed that he had the right skills. Success was still up for grabs. To win, Caesar needed mobility, but he lacked a fleet. He needed manpower, but he lacked money. He needed to divide his enemies, but they remained firm. He needed more battlefield victories, but his troops were tired and his enemy was cautious. The road ahead would test Caesar’s good judgment, his strategic wisdom, and his willingness to take risks. And none of it might have availed without the help of Providence.

A Severed Head

As great a victory as Pharsalus was, Pompey was still able to rally huge forces to his side. About eighteen thousand of his soldiers lived to fight again.

Led by men like Cato and Metellus Scipio, Pompey’s allies retained their depth and intensity. Headquartered on the Adriatic island of Corcyra (modern Corfu), they had the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean. Pompey’s son Cnaeus was a successful naval commander, and a younger son, Sextus, would soon be ready to join him.

Pompey had yet another potent ally in King Juba of Numidia, who had destroyed Curio’s army and saved North Africa for the Senate. So Cato and Scipio evacuated Corcyra and Dyrrachium and sailed to North Africa, bringing Pompey’s surviving troops with them. Last but not least, war is expensive, and Pompey still had enormous sums of money. Caesar was rich in victory, but not in cash.

In order to win the war, Caesar had to deal with these enemies, either by arms or diplomacy. Negotiations should have been the course of choice, since both sides had suffered setbacks and both sides ultimately wanted the good of Rome. But the opposing sides defined that good differently.

The senators wanted to keep power in their own hands. They were a tiny elite, but they claimed the right to rule an empire because of their noble birth and their devotion to liberty. They defined the good life as freedom of speech and no-holds-barred competition for votes in elections that brought them public office and honors.

Caesar saw things differently. He was a brilliant leader and he knew it—after Pharsalus, he knew it more than ever. He had conquered Gaul, Britain, Italy, Spain, and now, Pompey the Great. In his life, Caesar had been not only a soldier but also a prosecutor, administrator, deal maker, orator, and writer, and excelled at them all. Now, he stood on the verge of power such as only one Roman had ever held before: Sulla, who was named dictator in 82, with no limit set on the office. But a year later, Sulla resigned as dictator and ran for consul. After two terms as consul, he turned power over to the Senate and retired. Caesar had no intention of following suit. Sulla, he said, did not know his political ABC’s.

Caesar did not want to compete with other senators; he wanted to dominate them. He wanted to take power away from the Senate and share it with the common people of Italy and with elites from the provinces—all in order to generate a wide base of support for his rule. Pompey was an egotist, but the senators could tolerate sharing a bit of power with him. Caesar was a titan, and the senators knew that they would either have to destroy him or be destroyed in turn.

Caesar’s instinct after Pharsalus was to capture Pompey. Just as Alexander could have scored huge political gains by capturing Darius after Gaugamela, so Caesar could have won big politically by capturing Pompey after Pharsalus. Alive and in Caesar’s control, Pompey would be a game changer—and maybe even a willing one. Pompey was a soldier, he was no longer young, and he had no principles. He had supported the Senate because it was good for Pompey, not because he believed in liberty and the republic. If Caesar offered Pompey and his sons a better deal, he might win him over. Together, they would have no trouble defeating the Senate’s forces.

And so, after Pharsalus, Caesar hurried on to the chase for Pompey, just as Alexander had hurried on more than one chase for Darius. Each time, the quarry kept one step ahead of the hunter, only to meet an even more dangerous predator.

Pompey went from Pharsalus to the Greek coast, and then by sea to the island of Lesbos, where he picked up his wife, Cornelia, and son, Sextus. He might have gone to North Africa but instead sailed to Egypt, after first recruiting several thousand soldiers in Anatolia and Cyprus. Caesar followed with a small army and navy; he had few ships of his own, and besides, he wanted to travel light in order to catch Pompey.

Fortune, as usual, smiled on Caesar, as an incident along the way shows. He was hurrying across the Hellespont in a ferryboat when he ran into a squadron of Pompey’s fleet. With ten warships, they could have easily captured and killed Caesar. Instead, he headed for the flagship and demanded the captain’s surrender—and the man gave in without a peep. “Fortis fortuna adiuvat,” Caesar might have said, quoting a Roman poet—“Fortune favors the bold.”

By going to Egypt, Pompey was taking a leaf from Caesar’s book of risk taking. Egypt might allow Pompey to turn the tables on Caesar. It was the richest country in the ancient world, thanks to the amazing agricultural fertility of the Nile Valley. Although the Romans leaned hard on it, Egypt was still an independent state with a major army and navy—the best that money could buy. The king of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII, owed his throne to Pompey, who had saved his father from exile nine years before. Now, Pompey intended to present his bill. He anchored offshore and sent a messenger to Ptolemy, asking that he be allowed to land.

But the Ptolemies were about as hospitable as rattlesnakes. Besides, Ptolemy XIII was engaged in a civil war against his sister. In any case he lacked power—he was only a boy of about thirteen, and in the hands of his advisors. They feared that Pompey would replace them in the boy-king’s eyes, so they didn’t want him to land. But they didn’t want him to leave either, because then he might return one day and take revenge. So, they invited Pompey ashore and promptly had him murdered—in full view of Cornelia and Sextus, who were still aboard ship. Fearing pursuit by the Egyptian fleet, Pompey’s ships hurried away, leaving his corpse on the sand. He was fifty-seven years old.

“I cannot but mourn his fate,” wrote Cicero of Pompey, “for I knew him as a man of integrity, of spotless and dignified character.”

When Caesar arrived in Egypt three days later, he was presented with Pompey’s severed head and signet ring. The sources say that Caesar wept. If so, perhaps he cried as much over his failed strategy as over the death of his former son-in-law—now Caesar would have to fight the senators alone. And perhaps it occurred to him that he too was vulnerable to assassination.

Soldiers and Money

It might seem as if Caesar should have hurried to North Africa before his enemies had a chance to regroup. Instead, he spent the next year in the East. This was bad news for Rome’s tranquillity, but it had its own logic.

If his first priority was the common good, a Roman patriot would have hoped for a peace agreement between Caesar and the Senate or at least a quick and decisive end to the civil war. A showdown in North Africa might have brought a speedy decision but Caesar was out of money. He needed more ships and men and he had to pay the soldiers he already had. Like Pompey, Caesar looked at Egypt and saw gold. He demanded payment of a debt owed him from a decade earlier by the Egyptian crown—a huge sum, enough to pay a very large army for a year.

The government in Alexandria refused to pay, so Caesar solved the problem with his usual flair for simple solutions—he changed the government. Caesar used his four thousand troops to try to settle the war between Ptolemy and his sister. The woman had a secret weapon—herself. She was smuggled into the palace in Alexandria, wrapped up, as one story has it, in a carpet or blanket, and unrolled in front of Caesar’s wide eyes. She was Cleopatra. She was not conventionally pretty—she had a prominent chin, a large mouth, and a rugged nose. But she was clever, cunning, and seductive. She was twenty-one years old and, at fifty-two, Caesar was smitten.

Or so the legend goes, but Caesar had a political reason to prefer Cleopatra to Ptolemy: she was weaker. Ptolemy had strong popular support in the key city of Alexandria; Cleopatra could not win without Rome. Naturally Caesar preferred to have her, a loyal ally, in charge of Egypt. Naturally she would pay him the money he wanted in exchange for the throne.

Realizing that he could not compete with Cleopatra in Caesar’s eyes, Ptolemy had his soldiers besiege the palace. The siege went on all winter (48–47 B.C.). There were moments of drama, including fighting in the harbor, in which Caesar was forced to swim for his life. Once again, Caesar put himself at personal risk.

In the spring, a relief force arrived. Led by Antipater, the Jewish governor of Judaea, it consisted of both Jews and Arabs, with the main strike force consisting of fifteen hundred Jewish heavy infantry. Past history inclined the Jews toward Caesar, because Pompey had entered Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and annexed Jewish territory and desecrated the Temple. Now they won a key battle in the Nile Delta that lifted the siege and freed Caesar. In later years, Caesar treated Judaea and the Jews as allies and friends—they had, after all, saved his life.

But the Jews were only one of dozens of new allies Caesar acquired in the East. Egypt itself was the largest. Before leaving there, Caesar spent two months with Cleopatra and may have fathered her child; she named the baby Ptolemy XV but he was known as Caesarion, or “Little Caesar.” From Egypt, Caesar headed eastward, stopping in the great cities of Antioch (Syria) and Tarsus (southern Anatolia) to add them to his supporters. Then he headed to north-central Anatolia to put down a serious revolt by one Pharnaces.

Pharnaces was the son of Mithradates VI of Pontus, the rebel king who had stormed through the Roman east for twenty-five years and nearly destroyed Rome’s empire there. From the time Caesar marched into the kingdom of Pontus (in northern Turkey) it took only five days for him to meet Pharnaces and defeat him on August 2 (June 12) 47 B.C. in the battle of Zela. A year later, when Caesar celebrated his triumphs in Rome, he advertised his speedy victory over Pharnaces with a placard in the triumphal procession. It contained one of the greatest slogans in the history of politics: Veni vidi vici, a phrase that shines in the English translation or “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Caesar could have used another slogan to describe his activity in the East. It was less catchy but more accurate: Exegi mutuum sumpsi sustinui—“I demanded, I borrowed, I supported.” Caesar began hitting up the cities of the East for money during his pursuit of Pompey after Pharsalus. He continued demanding funds when he got to Egypt. Then, after defeating Pharnaces, he exacted money from cities, temples, and wealthy private individuals all along the way back to Italy. Where he had a good excuse for taking their wealth—such as a city’s having supported Pompey—Caesar called it a “demand.” Where he had no excuse, he called it “borrowing”—not that he had any intention of ever paying it back. He had no choice, said Caesar, but to follow a simple arithmetic: states need soldiers, soldiers need support, and support costs money. Caesar understood the infrastructure of war as well as any general.

“My Commander-in-Chief”

The enemy was in North Africa, but now Caesar went straight to Rome. Street violence in the capital between borrowers and lenders had gotten out of hand. Worse still, there was talk of mutiny in the legions billeted outside Rome, and they were some of Caesar’s best men, including the crack soldiers of the Tenth Legion. They wanted their back pay and they wanted to be discharged and given land.

When the mutineers marched on Rome, Caesar’s friends advised caution. Instead he met the soldiers in their camp. As if that wasn’t brave enough, Caesar called their bluff. He needed them, in Africa, but he pretended not to. Since the men said they wanted to be discharged, he discharged them. Instead of calling them “fellow soldiers” (commilitones), as was standard Roman practice, he pointedly called them “citizens” (quirites). It was audacity at its finest, and it worked. The soldiers loved making war and they had no intention of giving it up. They demanded that Caesar take them back, and so he did. But he didn’t forget the mutiny. He is said to have rid himself of the ringleaders later on by giving them the most dangerous assignments in North Africa.

After putting down the mutiny and placing new, more trustworthy politicians in office, Caesar left Rome. He had been there two months, from late September (our July) to late November (mid-September) 47 B.C. He now headed for Africa, using Sicily as his staging ground. Bad weather and organizational slowness held him back. But Caesar had no intention of waiting until all his forces were ready. He departed as soon as the weather broke, on December 25, 47 B.C. (mid-October).

Caesar’s “African War,” as it was called, was a study in extremes. Careless haste was followed by a patient ability to see the big picture. Rarely was Caesar more impressive as a field commander; rarely was he less impressive as an organizer, and his generalship more fully eclipsed by his political skill; and never was his dependence on Providence more evident.

Caesar’s invasion of Roman Africa was like his invasion of Albania all over again. Both times he took the risk of establishing a bridgehead with a token force and waiting for the big battalions to follow. But the invasion of Africa was infinitely more haphazard. Caesar had assembled in Sicily six legions, two thousand cavalrymen, and many ships’ worth of supplies. But strong winds on the crossing scattered the fleet, and the strategic realities prevented Caesar from giving the captains precise instructions about where to put in. The enemy controlled the seas, so the captains would have to find whatever safe harbors they could. Caesar himself landed on the African coast four days later with only three thousand legionaries and 150 cavalrymen. He needed to feed and protect them until the other ships arrived. In the meantime, the enemy struck.

The action took place outside the seaport of Ruspina (modern Monastir, Tunisia). Having left some of his men to garrison other ports, Caesar went on a foraging expedition with a small army of 30 infantry cohorts, perhaps 2,500 men to which he added the only other troops he had—400 cavalry and 150 archers—when he saw the enemy’s cloud of dust in the distance. Their commander was Titus Labienus, Caesar’s former second-in-command and an excellent tactician.

Labienus had a much larger force than Caesar, consisting of nearly 10,000 cavalrymen—8,000 Numidian and 1,600 Gallic or German—as well as light-armed Numidian infantrymen. The Roman province of Africa (roughly, modern Tunisia) bordered the kingdom of Numidia (roughly, modern Algeria) on its south and west. Pompeians held Roman Africa and King Juba of Numidia was their ally. As in Hannibal’s day, Numidia provided quick and deadly light cavalry.

What followed was a thinking-man’s battle. Labienus aimed at outflanking Caesar by lining up his cavalry in an unusually long line. Caesar responded by forming his men in an unusual, single-deep line in order not to be outflanked. It worked for a while, but the Numidian cavalry kept attacking again and again, charging and throwing their javelins. They broke up several attempts by Caesar’s legionaries to attack Labienus’s infantrymen. Eventually Labienus’s cavalry surrounded Caesar’s forces.

But Caesar proved equal to the challenge. He rearranged his army in two lines, back to back, facing the enemy in two directions. His move bought Caesar breathing space to attack different parts of the enemy line in isolation, which proved very effective. Little by little, Caesar’s men were able to force the enemy off a hill that blocked their march, and from there, they limped back to their camp at Ruspina. The battle was a near-run thing but it demonstrated yet again Caesar’s cool as a commander, his quickness on his feet, and his inspirational hold on his men.

For several weeks, the Pompeians kept Caesar bottled up in Ruspina. The Pompeians had fourteen legions—ten Roman and four Numidian—plus numerous auxiliaries and 120 elephants. They outnumbered Caesar but they lacked experience. They had nothing to compare with the five veteran legions that Caesar would eventually have, out of a total of ten legions and two thousand cavalrymen. Caesar wouldn’t be at full strength for months, but in the meantime, enough reinforcements and supplies arrived for him to break out of Ruspina.

The enemy’s generals were a mixed lot. Most of Labienus’s colleagues were second-rate, none more so than their commander-in-chief, Metellus Scipio. The Pompeians’ alliance with Juba was also a doubtful advantage, since Juba was distracted by an invasion of his kingdom from the west by King Bocchus of Mauretania.

Against them stood Caesar. A small incident sheds light on his political power. The story appears in “The African War,” a pamphlet written by an unknown supporter of Caesar. The story is surely exaggerated and might well be invented, but it is brilliant propaganda.

As new Caesarian convoys reached Africa, single ships were scattered by the winds and captured by the enemy. The crew of one such ship, soldiers of the Fourteenth Legion, were taken to see Scipio. He offered them the chance to denounce their “guilt-stained” commander and to join Rome’s best in defense of the Republic. Speaking for all of them, an unnamed centurion defiantly refused.

“Should I take a stand in arms against my commander, Caesar?” he asked. He referred to Caesar as imperatorem meum, “my commander-in-chief,” while pointedly announcing to Scipio that he would not grant him a similar term of respect: “I don’t call you commander-in-chief (imperator).”

“My imperator” is a full-blooded term. Like “my country,” it is a phrase that men fought and died for. It suggests the hold that Caesar had over men’s minds. It indicates not only why his own soldiers were devoted to him but also why the enemy’s soldiers gave up their own cause and deserted to Caesar whenever things began to tip in his favor. It helps explain why Caesar continued to beat the odds both in Africa and elsewhere, in spite of his inferiority in manpower and supplies: men believed in him.

But it did not encourage optimism about the future of free institutions in Rome in 46 B.C. The centurion’s language was worthy of a personality cult. The Latin word imperator meant “commander-in-chief” but, within a generation, it would come to mean “emperor” as well. When the word imperator packed more rhetorical punch than the words res publica—“republic”—then the Republic itself was in doubt.

The centurion, by the way, is supposed to have ended his speech by challenging Scipio’s men to a fight. An indignant Scipio had him immediately executed. The rest of the captives were either tortured, if they were veterans, or distributed among his legions, if they were new recruits.

Meanwhile, to return to the war, it was around this time that Caesar’s men suffered the torrential rainfall mentioned in chapter 1. Nature only added to Caesar’s logistical difficulties.

Scipio knew that Caesar would have to keep moving in search of supplies. He planned to use his cavalry in order to whittle Caesar down to pieces. In short, Scipio followed a Fabian strategy. Caesar, in turn, followed Hannibal’s strategy—he wanted to fight a pitched battle as soon as his veteran legions arrived. When two more of his legions came, Caesar tried to force Scipio’s hand by besieging the city of Uzitta (today’s Henchir Makhreba) but Scipio refused to fight a pitched battle.

Caesar’s moment came on April 4 (February 4), 46 B.C. By then, his army had reached full strength. Caesar laid siege to the enemy stronghold of Thapsus, a port city about five miles east of today’s Teboulba, Tunisia. Scipio came to the city’s defense. A pitched battle followed two days later, on April 6 (February 6).

On the landward side of Thapsus, a narrow plain stretched as far as a wide salt lake. In this constricted terrain, Scipio’s cavalry could not ride around Caesar’s flanks and strangle the enemy as Hannibal’s horsemen had done at Cannae. Scipio’s ace was his elephants, which he stationed in front of either wing. Caesar posted two of his veteran legions on either wing. To counter the elephants, he added extra punch to the wings by dividing his fifth veteran legion in two and placing the halves in a fourth line on each wing.

But that was the end of military science and discipline. As Caesar’s men were taking their final positions, the word went round that the enemy deployment was not going well; in fact, they were clearly in disorder. Caesar’s more experienced officers demanded an immediate attack but he insisted on getting all his troops in position. No matter. A trumpeter sounded the advance and other trumpeters followed. The centurions tried to hold the men back but it was too late. Ever the pragmatist, Caesar called out the watchword of the day—“Felicitas!” or “Good luck!”—and the battle began.

Caesar’s archers and slingers made short work of the elephants, which turned on their own men and trampled them. In a panic, the enemy army simply fell apart. Caesar’s men butchered them, even those who tried to surrender. In the end Caesar’s forces killed five thousand of the enemy.

For Caesar, Thapsus was a sloppy victory but a great one. Almost all of the enemy’s generals in North Africa had been killed or had committed suicide; Labienus was one of the few to escape. But one of the suicides stung.

Caesar left Thapsus for Utica, seaport and capital of the province. The town was under the command of his last great enemy in the Senate still at large, Marcus Porcius Cato. The others were either dead, like Pompey, or recipients of Caesar’s pardons, like Cicero. Having Cato accept clemency would be a propaganda coup for Caesar. It would prove that there was no fight left in the party of the Senate.

But Cato said no. He considered Caesar a tyrant and refused to be under obligation to him. Instead, Cato stood his ground and committed suicide. It was not a pretty process. He ripped out his intestines with his sword, only to have his supporters come running and get a doctor to stitch him back up. Cato then tore out the stitches and died.

When Caesar got the news, he is supposed to have said, “O Cato, I begrudge you your death; for you begrudged me the sparing of your life.” Caesar knew whereof he spoke. Cato’s suicide gave life to the Senate’s cause. In military terms, Caesar had won. In political terms, Cato had revenge from beyond the grave. Caesar branded himself as the prince of pardons, but Cato forced the wolf to bare his teeth.

After Utica, Cato belonged to the ages, a martyr for republican liberty. No wonder a Roman poet would write of Pompey and Caesar, a century later:

Each for his cause can vouch a judge supreme;

The victor, heaven: the vanquished, Cato, thee.

“Aren’t You Ashamed to Hand Me Over to These Little Boys?”

After cleaning things up in North Africa and after making the by-now-standard fund-raising rounds, Caesar returned to Rome. It was a period of empowerment, reform, and celebration.

Caesar was elected dictator for ten years and censor for three, giving him power over all public officials, including senators. A wealth of public honors also flowed his way.

As early as 49 B.C., Caesar began a wave of reforms in Roman government and society that now continued to roll forward. Government, the economy, citizenship, religion, public buildings, veterans’ affairs—all were affected. By far the longest-lasting reform was of the Roman calendar. Caesar gave Rome the solar calendar of 365 days plus leap year that is still in use today by most of the world (with a few adjustments in the 1700s). The new calendar started on January 1, 45 B.C.

And then came celebration. A triumph was a spectacular victory march through the city of Rome of a general and his army, culminating in a sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill and a public feast. The Senate gave Caesar permission to celebrate four triumphs in a row—something unheard of. He could not celebrate victory in the civil war, since it was improper to cheer over the death of Roman citizens. So he celebrated his victories over the Gauls—a war that seemed long ago—over the Alexandrians, over Pharnaces, and over King Juba of Numidia (glossing over Juba’s Roman allies from Scipio to Cato). For four days in summer 46 B.C., victory parades filled the streets of Rome, followed by six more days of gladiatorial games, feasting, and the dedication of new public buildings. Caesar’s soldiers received huge cash bonuses; citizen heads of families got small payments as well.

But celebration was premature, for there was trouble in the West. After conquering Spain in 49 B.C., Caesar made the mistake of appointing a governor who promptly squeezed the locals for money until the Spaniards responded by forcing him out of office, and then welcoming the remains of the Senate’s army. The army was led by Pompey’s sons, Cnaeus and Sextus, and by Caesar’s former second-in-command, Labienus. Spain was the Pompeians’ last hope.

Caesar could not leave such a rich and dangerous base in his enemies’ hands. So in late 46 B.C., he set out on one more military expedition. His exhausted men were less than enthusiastic. As usual, Caesar made haste, leaving Rome in November and reaching Spain just a month later. The war took place in southern Spain, in the Roman province of Baetica (modern Andalusia).

Caesar had eight legions, including the veterans of the Fifth and Tenth Legions, and eight thousand cavalrymen. The enemy had thirteen legions as well as a large number of cavalrymen and light-armed auxiliaries. Most of the Pompeian forces were of dubious quality, though, so their commanders did not want to risk a battle. That made Caesar’s job simple—to force them to fight.

Caesar attacked enemy town after town. At first, the usual supply problems held him back, but after a few weeks he began to make headway. Caesar began to attract enemy supporters and soldiers like a magnet. In order to hold his army together, Cnaeus Pompey had no choice but to fight.

The decisive battle took place outside the hilltown of Munda (near Seville) on March 17, 45 B.C. The Pompeians held the town, while Caesar and his men were camped below it, on the far side of a wide plain. When his scouts reported that the enemy was finally preparing to fight, Caesar flew the battle flag. He arranged his troops with the Tenth Legion on his right and the Third and Fifth Legions on the left, reinforced by the cavalry and the auxiliaries.

Although Caesar was hoping that the enemy would leave the high ground to fight on the plain, the Pompeians refused to give up their advantage. But then they saw Caesar’s men hesitate, so they marched down the hill and the fight was on.

The battle of Munda was no second Thapsus, where Caesar’s enemies turned and ran practically at the first sight of blood. Munda was harder fought than Pharsalus, where Pompey’s legionaries had held their ground as long as they could. In fact, the enemy at Munda put up the stiffest resistance of any foe that Caesar had ever faced.

Pompey’s men knew it was the end of the line. For many of them, surrender meant enslavement or execution. They had violated the terms of Caesar’s pardon for the war of 49 B.C. and then they had made matters worse by revolting against Caesar’s handpicked governor of Spain. On the other side, Caesar’s soldiers were fired up by the presence of their commander and bolstered by experience. Besides, they wanted to get the civil war over with once and for all.

For a while, the outcome of the battle was in doubt. Unwilling to leave things to others, Caesar and Cnaeus Pompey themselves entered the fight.

The hardest fighting took place on the two flanks. Caesar’s Tenth Legion, reliable as ever, began to push back the enemy’s left. In order to shore up his men, Cnaeus Pompey began moving a legion on his right over to support the left. Caesar’s cavalry responded by attacking the enemy’s now weakened right flank.

Still, the Pompeians held on until a move by Labienus provoked an unexpected panic. Labienus ordered five cohorts—about four thousand men—to shift their position in order to protect their camp from another unit of Caesar’s cavalry. To get there, Labienus’s men had to cross the battlefield. Veteran soldiers would have understood their move, but to Pompey’s inexperienced men, it looked like the beginning of a retreat. The bulk of his army turned and fled.

The result was a rout. Caesar’s forces began to slaughter the enemy. When it was all over they killed 33,000 Pompeians, including three thousand Roman knights (very wealthy men)—or so they claimed. Caesar admitted to one thousand dead and five hundred wounded, which are huge casualty figures for him, and signs of how hard the fighting was. Labienus was one of the dead. Caesar gave his old second-in-command a proper funeral.

Various anecdotes circulated afterward about Caesar’s low point during the battle. One source had him running to rally his men, who were being pushed back by the enemy. “Aren’t you ashamed to hand me over to these little boys?” Caesar supposedly said. Ironic and mocking, it was a far cry from Alexander in his feathered helmet but it stirred the troops all the same.

Caesar is said to have remarked to his friends as he left the battlefield that, at Munda, for the first time ever, his life had been at risk. (Not true, as his life had been at risk before, at Dyrrachium and Alexandria, for example.) Finally, there is the report that Caesar even considered suicide at one moment during the battle, when he thought that all was lost. Perhaps.

At Munda, Caesar’s men seemed old and tired but they were more experienced than the enemy and that’s what counted in the end. So did Caesar’s superiority in cavalry. And last but not least, there was Caesar himself, indefatigable under pressure. The consummate politician, he thought on his feet and said what needed to be said to move his men.

Caesar’s campaigns in North Africa and Spain were much sloppier than anything Alexander or Hannibal ever carried out. Unlike them, he was no fancy dancer. The way he parried the cavalry charge at Pharsalus was clever, but Caesar’s battle tactics offer nothing to compare with Alexander’s combined-arms synergy or Hannibal’s guile.

Caesar’s logistics were haphazard. It is hard to imagine Alexander, the meticulous planner who crossed the Hydaspes River, tolerating Caesar’s disorganized landings on the North African coast. Nor would Hannibal, the master manipulator of Cannae, have stood for the insubordination at Thapsus. And yet, Caesar got the job done, and, neither Alexander nor Hannibal would have had anything to teach him about projecting a winning image to his men.

The battle finished, the town of Munda prepared for a siege. After Caesar’s men surrounded it with a ghastly “palisade” of corpses and severed heads on pikes, Munda surrendered. Cnaeus Pompey fled but his enemies caught up with him a few days later. His head too was severed and brought to Caesar.

After settling affairs and raising money, Caesar returned to Rome, which he reached in June 45 B.C. With the end of the Spanish campaign, the civil war was over. Now came the hard part—pacifying the political class of Rome.


Success at closing the net requires four things: strategy, agility, new infrastructure, and morale management.

A victor’s biggest mistake after winning a great battle is to expect success to fall into his lap. On the contrary, since necessity is the mother of invention, the vanquished are likely to be more ingenious than ever, and perhaps even more dangerous. The victor has to judge his next move correctly. He must choose the right strategy. Is it the moment to negotiate or to press home his advantage? If he does attack, what’s the right target—the enemy’s capital, his army, or his leadership? Assuming that he chooses correctly and attacks successfully, he then needs to decide how he will know when the war is won. Does he require unconditional surrender or will he be willing to allow the defeated enemy to negotiate terms? And if his attack fails and the enemy bounces back, should he consider cutting his losses and pulling out?

To carry out his strategy requires agility. Winning a pitched battle is not the same as carrying out pursuit, taking a city by siege, countering raids and ambushes, or winning over civilian populations.

And it will do no good to plan the next move correctly unless a commander has the resources to carry it out. All three of our commanders needed more money and manpower after their great battlefield victories.

Finally, they had to overcome the frustrations of a long war and maintain support both in their armies and in their political base.

Our commanders faced these challenges with varying success. Note, at the outset, that the quality of the enemies they faced varied greatly. Alexander faced a very able foe in Spitamenes and no mean ones in Bessus and Porus, but none of them could match his resources. Very few people in the Persian empire felt a deep loyalty to the government; not many men were willing to die for Darius or Bessus.

Caesar faced a great tactician in Labienus, but luckily Labienus never held supreme command. But Caesar did have to face the determination of a Cato, the wiliness of a Juba, and the spirit of Pompey’s sons. His enemies were awash in money as well. Yet Caesar was fighting a civil war. He was no foreign invader and he pardoned his enemies. Most people found it easy to switch from Pompey’s side to his once the wind began blowing Caesar’s way.

In Rome, Hannibal faced the greatest republic in the ancient world. Rome came up with and implemented a brilliant counterstrategy to Hannibal—the Fabian strategy. Yes, there were bumps on the road to implementation, but in the end, Rome deployed the strategy forcefully. Support for Rome’s government ran very deep among its citizenry. Rome’s central-Italian allies were nearly as loyal and patriotic. They hated Hannibal and would never surrender without a fight. The longer the war lasted the greater the chance that Rome’s generals would learn from the master and adopt successful battlefield techniques. All the while, they had plenty of money and manpower. Truly, Hannibal had the most difficult enemy to beat.

How well did the three captains each close the net after winning on the battlefield? Caesar followed the best strategy. He correctly concluded that his first target after winning at Pharsalus was the escaped enemy commander Pompey. After Pompey’s murder, Caesar turned to his pressing financial need, even though it gave the enemy’s army breathing space in North Africa. Likewise, he dealt with a dangerous attack in the East by Pharnaces and a politico-military meltdown in Rome before finally engaging the enemy.

Hannibal chose the worst strategy. His first and biggest mistake was not attacking Rome after Cannae. His second mistake was letting the war drag on after it had become apparent that his plan had failed. Hannibal counted on winning a critical mass of its allies away from Rome. He did not.

Those allies whom Hannibal did persuade turned out to be a burden. He had wanted a strategic lever but instead he got a chain. Hannibal’s plan to break Rome’s alliance system was his biggest strategic miscalculation. His masterstroke at Cannae had opened a sudden window of opportunity, but he had to jump through it.

Had he been in Hannibal’s shoes after Cannae, Caesar would have marched on Rome, since he never had much use for the rulebook. He believed in pushing fortune, not waiting at its knees. So what if he lacked manpower and supplies? As in Epirus or North Africa, Caesar would have planned on improvising. He knew how much the combination of audacity and diplomacy could wring out of a hostile population and he would squeeze everything he could out of the environs of Rome. Then again, Caesar could carry out sieges. Hannibal could not.

Hannibal’s post-Cannae Italian strategy was flawed as well, relying too much on cunning and too little on force. And yet, he had no choice, starved as he was of men and money. Carthage certainly made an error in not reinforcing Hannibal and focusing on the war in Italy instead of squandering its resources over too many different military theaters. If he knew Carthaginian politics better, Hannibal might have been able to get what he wanted from the Carthaginian Senate, but he hadn’t been in Carthage since he was nine years old.

Alexander showed excellent strategic judgment after Gaugamela in his pursuit first of Darius and then Bessus, but his actions afterward are questionable. Maybe he was right to spill all the blood that he did to defeat Spitamenes, but he might have been better off writing off Sogdiana and saving his resources. India was a magnificent obsession that could have led to an empire like no other—if Alexander could keep it. But that was a highly dubious prospect.

When it comes to agility, Alexander is the standout. He succeeded in the greatest variety of terrains, from the desert to the Himalayas. He excelled equally at pitched battle, at countering desert raiders, at laying siege to rugged fortresses, and at mountain fighting. War elephants were a shock to western soldiers but he turned them into nothing more than a minor inconvenience. After failing the test against the Persian fleet under Memnon, Alexander turned things around and built a navy.

Hannibal was the least agile of the three commanders because of his failure at siegecraft. Nothing else did as much damage to his war effort in Italy. Caesar was agile enough to handle a great variety of terrains, but he didn’t take on so many different ways of war as convincingly as Alexander. True, Caesar engaged in urban combat in Alexandria but he almost lost. And he brushed off the elephants at Thapsus, but it is doubtful that the enemy knew how to handle them.

When it came to getting more money, Alexander was the most successful, but he had the easiest target. Had he wintered in Babylon, the Persians might have put up a fight at Persepolis or, worse yet, brought their treasures to safety. But speed and a good, hard push gave Alexander all the money he would ever need.

Caesar had to work harder to fund himself, but he succeeded. Between his limited manpower and nonexistent siege capability, Hannibal was hamstrung in his efforts to get all the money he needed from Italy, and the Carthaginian Senate did little to make things better for him.

None of the three generals had a perfect solution to his manpower needs. Alexander did the best job of raising new troops but they left him sitting on a volcano. Nobody knew whether he could maintain the loyalty of a largely non-Macedonian army, and no one was sure that they could match the fighting skill of the phalanx.

Caesar found new recruits but the deciding factor in pitched battle was having veterans. He managed to hold on to enough of them, but only barely.

Hannibal never filled his manpower needs. Without reinforcements, he was doomed to failure. He lacked the political support at home that Caesar and Alexander each could count on.

But Hannibal did excel in one area: maintaining his army’s capability and morale. Alexander and Caesar each suffered multiple mutinies and near mutinies. In fifteen years in Italy, Hannibal faced not one. No one held the loyalty of his men as well as Hannibal did. They were still willing to die for him even when they left Italy for Africa, where they had to fight to keep Carthage safe rather than to line their own purses with the loot of Italy. Small wonder that, in spite of the outcome of his war, Hannibal remains one of the most admired generals in history.

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