Ancient History & Civilisation

The Carthaginian Military System

The Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean all fielded armies modelled closely on those of Philip and Alexander. They were composed of professional soldiers recruited from a relatively small pool of citizens settled in military colonies. The core of each army was the phalanx of highly drilled pikemen, supported by close-order shock cavalry, although few were able to field as many of the latter as Alexander had done. These well-trained and disciplined soldiers were very effective, but it was difficult for the kingdoms to replace heavy casualties quickly. The frequency with which the kingdoms fought each other ensured that more often than not the armies operated against enemy forces composed of the same basic elements and fighting in a similar manner. It was no coincidence that these armies began to experiment with such unusual elements as cataphract cavalry, war elephants and scythed chariots, seeking in some way to gain an advantage over their similar enemy. Works of military theory, which had begun to appear in the fourth century, were produced in great profusion in the third. Pyrrhus himself wrote a work on Generalship, although sadly this has not survived. This theoretical literature dealt firmly with the expectation of war between similar Hellenistic armies. However, neither of the armies involved in the Punic Wars conformed closely to this model.8

Carthage had a very small citizen body and early on in its history abandoned the practice of relying on citizen soldiers for the bulk of its armies, being unwilling to risk heavy casualties amongst this group. Citizens were only obliged to undergo military service to face a direct threat to the city itself. When they took the field they did so as close order infantrymen, fighting in a phalanx and armed with shields and long spears, but their military effectiveness was poor, probably as a result of their inexperience. Agathocles defeated a far larger army including a large contingent of these citizen spearmen in 309, and their record in the first two conflicts with Rome was undistinguished.

More Carthaginian citizens appear to have served in the navy, although admittedly our evidence for the recruitment of sailors is very slight. Unlike the armies, which tended to be raised for a particular conflict and were disbanded at its end, the Carthaginian navy had a more permanent status, since there was always the need to protect the trade routes which brought the city so much wealth. The famous circular naval harbour at Carthage provided ramps to act as berths for about 180 ships and all the facilities for their maintenance. Excavations at the harbour dated it at the earliest to the second century, although the evidence was not certain and it is possible that this was a period of rebuilding. Even if the earlier naval harbour was not located on this site, it is likely that it was constructed on a similarly grand scale. The entire fleet is unlikely to have been crewed and in service except in wartime. However, an efficient fleet could only have been maintained if crews were regularly exercised at sea, so it is likely that sizeable squadrons were permanently maintained. It is distinctly possible that many of the poorest citizens of Carthage derived their livelihood from service as rowers in the fleet. If this is so, then it may well have contributed to the city's political stability, since the unemployed, debt-ridden poor in other cities were frequently inclined to support revolutionary leaders in the hope of improving their own desperate lot.9

The lack of citizen manpower ensured that Carthaginian armies were recruited from foreign soldiers. Libyans provided probably the steadiest and most disciplined element in most armies. Their close formation infantry were equipped with long spears and round or oval shields, and wore helmets and probably linen cuirasses. Libyan cavalry were also close order troops armed with thrusting spears, trained to deliver a controlled, shock charge. The Libyans may well also have provided some of the infantry skirmishers, thelonchophoroi of Polybius, each armed with a small shield and bundle of javelins. The Numidian kingdoms were renowned for their superb light cavalry, who rode their small mounts without either bridle or saddle and harassed the enemy with volleys of javelins, avoiding close combat unless conditions were absolutely in their favour. Numidian armies also included infantry skirmishers equipped with javelins and the same round shield borne by the cavalry and it is possible that contingents of these troops were also sent to Punic forces. From Spain came both light and heavy infantry, whose normal dress was a white tunic with a purple border. The heavy infantry {scutati) fought as a dense phalanx, carried a long body shield and were armed with a heavy throwing spear and a sword, either the short, thrusting weapon which provided the model for the Roman gladius or the curved, slashing falcata. The light infantry (caetrati) carried a small round shield and several javelins. Gallic infantry fought in massed formation and carried shields and javelins, but relied on their long, slashing swords. Both Spaniards and Gauls also provided contingents of well-mounted and brave, if undisciplined, cavalry, whose primary tactic was the all-out charge. Body armour was very unusual amongst the tribal peoples of Europe, helmets only a little less uncommon. The warriors of these nations were characterized by classical authors as ferocious in the first charge, but easily tired and inclined to lose heart if things did not quickly go their way. There was some truth in this statement, but on other occasions these troops proved far more stubborn than this stereotype would allow.10

Our sources primarily speak of the components of Carthaginian armies as national groups. Only a very small detachment from a field army was ever likely to be composed of a single nationality and some armies were very mixed. Usually an effort was made not to rely too heavily on the peoples indigenous to the theatre of operations for fear of defection or desertion. Before his Italian expedition Hannibal sent a large contingent of Spanish troops to Africa, replacing them with units raised there. The Carthaginian high command provided the sole unifying force in each army.11

It is conventional to describe Punic armies as consisting of mercenaries, but this is a gross oversimplification, since these forces included soldiers raised in many different ways with a great variety of different motivations. Some contingents were not hired, but provided by allied kingdoms or states as part of their treaty obligations. This always seems to have been the case with the Numidian kingdoms, whose royal families enjoyed a fairly close relationship with the Carthaginian noble families, bonds that were sometimes strengthened by marriage alliances. Numidian contingents were usually led by their own princes. Similarly many of the tribes in Spain and Gaul were formally allied to Carthage and fielded contingents identical to their own tribal armies and commanded by their own chieftains. Again, there is some indication of Punic leaders forming strong connections with the native aristocracy, perhaps allowing them to exploit traditional patterns of loyalty. Hasdrubal certainly married a Spanish princess and it is possible that Hannibal also did so. It is clear that the Spanish tribes' loyalty focused on the Barcid family rather than the distant Carthage. Later, the tribes would similarly adhere to the Scipiones, rather than Rome, rebelling when it was rumoured that Scipio Africanus had left Spain.12

We do not know precisely how the Libyan units were raised. Some troops were probably provided by allied cities in a similar manner to the Numidians. Others may well have been formed by peasants conscripted from the great Carthaginian estates. This area was later to prove a very fertile recruiting area in the Roman Empire. Even the troops clearly hired as mercenaries were not all recruited in the same manner. In some cases these men were hired as a group, a leader or chieftain offering his own and his warband's services for hire. The leader received payment for his services and then supported, and distributed rewards amongst, his followers much as any chieftain would do. In the tribal societies of Europe there was a strong tradition of warriors seeking service with the leaders who could support and give them wealth and glory, for a martial reputation was highly valued wherever it was attained. The bond between such a chieftain and his followers was intensely personal. They fought for him and would just as happily fight with or against Carthage as their leader chose. We hear of one group of Gauls led by a chieftain who served several masters in succession and proved of dubious loyalty to each of them. The loyalty of such soldiers must have been significantly different from that of men who had been directly recruited and were directly paid by their Carthaginian leaders. Presumably some units in the army, especially those which included Roman and Italian deserters and escaped slaves, were of mixed nationality.13

Our sources rarely refer to the organization of the various contingents in Carthaginian armies, simply telling us where each nationality stood, so it is unclear whether any troops were organized into units of a set size. Livy makes reference to a unit of 500 Numidian cavalry, but this might simply have been one contingent and there is no indication that these horsemen fought in regular units. Another passage mentions 500 Libyan infantry at Saguntum in 218 and we also hear of 2,000 Gauls divided into three bands or units at the capture of Tarentum in 212, although it is uncertain whether these were permanent or temporary arrangements. Normally Gallic and sometimes Spanish troops fought in tribal contingents, each under their own leaders in much the same way that they would fight for their own people. However, at Cannae Hannibal's centre consisted of alternate units of Spaniards and Gauls, clearly breaking up any tribal structure they possessed. Polybius uses one of the terms he also employs for the Roman maniple of 120-160 men, and the same term was used by later authors for the cohort of 480 in the Late Republican and Imperial army. This makes it probable that these 'companies' consisted of a few hundred men, certainly less than a thousand.14

The mixture of contingents from different nationalities usually provided Carthaginian armies with a good balance of different troop types, with both close and loose order infantry and cavalry. Many of these contingents were of high quality, although their standard of discipline varied considerably. It was rare for troops whether serving as allies or for pay to fight without enthusiasm, and mutinies were uncommon. An additional element was provided by the fairly frequent use of war elephants who might well panic an enemy unused to them. The elephants employed were probably African Forest elephants, somewhat smaller than Indian elephants, but more amenable to training than today's African elephants. The elephant was the main weapon, using its bulk and strength to terrify or crush opposition, but Hellenistic armies also mounted towers on the animals' backs, from which crewmen hurled or fired missiles. There is no direct evidence indicating that Punic war elephants also carried towers, but Polybius' account of the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC implies that the African breed was capable of carrying the extra weight. The main danger with elephants was that they were inclined to panic and might then trample friend and foe indiscriminately. Hasdrubal is said to have equipped the drivers, or mahouts, with a hammer and a chisel-shaped blade, which they were supposed to drive into the animal's spine to kill it if threatened to stampede towards friendly troops.15

Carthaginian commanders usually had well-balanced forces at their disposal, but the difficulty lay in co-ordinating the movements of these disparate elements. Orders issued in Punic had to be translated into various languages in order to be conveyed to the soldiers. Carthaginian magistrates, such as the suffetes, did not hold military commands. Instead generals were appointed, although it is not clear precisely by whom, and usually held command on a semi-permanent basis until they were replaced or for the duration of a conflict. Although not serving magistrates, it is clear that the commanders were drawn from the same social class who filled these offices and there is no reason to believe that ability, more than family connections and wealth, was the main reason for their selection. In the First Punic War the Carthaginians continued their traditionally harsh treatment of commanders who failed, several men being crucified for incompetence. In several cases this penalty was inflicted on them when they lost the confidence of the senior Punic officers under their command.

However, the long duration of the commands which they were given did mean that many Carthaginian commanders became highly experienced. The longer a general held command over an army the more efficient it tended to become. Gradually, the disparate elements composing it became accustomed to operating together, their leaders and the higher commander became familiar with each other and, at least to some extent, their languages. The army which Hannibal led into Italy in 218 was probably the finest Carthaginian army ever to take the field. Its efficiency was in part the result of its commander's ability as a leader, but was more the product of long years of hard campaigning in Spain under the leadership of Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Hannibal himself. During this time its command structure had developed to a high level, and this, as well as its march discipline and ability to manoeuvre, was markedly superior to the Roman forces drawn up against it. The high quality of this army, around which he could more easily incorporate Gallic and subsequently Italian allies, allowed the genius of Hannibal to dazzle his opponents in the opening campaigns.

Hannibal's army was not a typical Carthaginian army. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there was such a thing, since each Punic force was unique. There is no suggestion that all generals sought to control and lead their forces in the same way. Their relationship with the different national contingents varied. Each individual army gradually developed a means of working together. Freshly raised contingents often failed to co-ordinate their actions on the battlefield effectively. Similarly, even experienced armies had problems when called upon to act in concert with each other. At Zama Hannibal's army includeed troops raised by three different commanders at different times. In the battle these were kept as clearly distinct bodies and failed to support each other well.16

Large numbers of mercenaries and allied contingents could be raised fairly quickly by the Carthaginians, whose economic resources were normally sufficient to do this. The quality of the individual soldiers and contingents hired in this way was usually good. However, it took some time and considerable care to turn such forces into efficient armies. This meant that an experienced army was a precious thing, difficult to replace, and so not to be lightly risked. Carthage was never able to field troops in anything like the quantities of the Romans. Also the difficulty of replacing a tried and tested army often encouraged a more tentative approach to campaigning on the part of Punic generals, who, with a few notable exceptions, tended to be far less aggressive than their Roman counterparts.

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