Land warfare against Carthage and the Hellenistic world

This portrait bust from Capua has sometimes been identified as Hannibal Barca near the end of his life, although in fact we have no certain likenesses of the great commander. Hannibal was only in his mid twenties when he invaded Italy, but possessed long experience of campaigning in Spain under his father, Hamilcar, and brother-in-law, Hasdrubal. The epitome of the ideal Hellenistic general, Hannibal was able to control and inspire the many different nationalities of soldiers serving in bis army. Time after time he was able to surprise bis Roman opponents, always doing the unexpected. He remained undefeated in a major action until Zama in 202 вс.

Rome’s army was still essentially a citizen militia, but all the great powers of the Mediterranean world relied almost entirely on professional soldiers. In the case of Carthage these were mercenaries hired in contingents from Africa and Europe, so that Punic armies were usually a polyglot of nationalities. Hannibal’s army included units of spearmen fighting in a phalanx and heavy cavalry from Libya, wild Numidian light cavalry riding bareback, and horse and foot from the tribes of Spain. To these he later added Gallic warriors from northern Italy and troops such as Bruttians, Campanians and Samnites from Rome’s disaffected allies. Such armies were difficult to control, but the longer they served together under the same Carthaginian officers the more efficient they became. The nucleus of Hannibal’s army were the troops that had fought a series of hard campaigns in Spain under his own and his father’s command, and this long experience, combined with his genius and the skill of his officers, turned them into the highly efficient army he took into Italy. This was a force capable of such difficult operations as the night march that secretly put them into ambush positions at Lake Trasimene in 217 вс. Each Carthaginian army was a separate entity that built up a command structure around, and owed loyalty to, a particular commander, or sometimes his family. Each national contingent may have understood the relationship in a different way, perhaps owing loyalty to a great warrior who rewarded them or simply to the paymaster who provided for them. Armies raised at different times under different leaders did not co-operate well, and it has been pointed out that each of the three lines deployed by Hannibal at Zama was formed by troops raised separately. The first line consisted of troops originally raised by Hannibal’s brother Mago, the second of contingents raised in Africa for the defence of Carthage, and the third was composed of the veterans of the Italian campaign. While Hannibal spoke to his veterans in person, he ordered their own officers to speak to the other two lines. In the battle itself the first and second lines did not co-operate well, Polybius even claiming that fighting broke out between them at one stage.

Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy

The march of Hannibal's army from Spain to Italy in 218 вс was one of the epics of Ancient History. Between 218—216 вс Hannibal won an unbroken series of victories at Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae. Somehow the Romans absorbed their appalling losses and continued the war, when any other contemporary state woidd have accepted peace terms at this point. After Cannae, much of southern Italy defected to Hannibal, who was forced to fight to protect his new allies. Although never able to defeat Hannibal in battle, the Romans gradually used their superior numbers to defeat his allies. In 207 вс Hannibal’s brother brought a fresh army to Italy, but it was a sign of the experience the Romans had gained since 218 вс that it was rapidly cornered by a superior force and destroyed. In 203 вс Hannibal was finally recalled to defend Carthage from the Roman invaders and led his unbeaten army from Italy. The next year he suffered his only defeat in a pitched battle at Zama, bringing the war to an end.

The armies raised by Macedon and the Seleucid Empire were far more homogenous, being recruited primarily from Macedonian citizens or their descendants, settled throughout the conquests of Alexander the Great. The king still fought at the head of his aristocratic cavalry as Philip and Alexander had done, sharing the dangers with his army and so justifying his place in society in the best warrior tradition. The men were well-trained, disciplined professionals organized into units with a clearly defined command structure controlled by officers with good technical knowledge of soldiering. Hellenistic armies were in many ways more efficient than Roman armies, but they were also more fragile. Trained soldiers were difficult to replace from the limited resources available to each kingdom, and very high losses to the army might not be made good for a generation. Although Carthage usually had the resources to hire more mercenaries, it took a long time to give these the cohesion necessary to create an effective army. The Romans were unique among ancient states in maintaining the principle of a citizen militia, but turning it into a force capable of standing up to a modern, professional army. Roman citizens accepted the burden of a harsh military discipline and service, in many cases for the duration of a war, during which time they were trained to a high level of efficiency. Polybius claimed that the total number of Roman citizens and allies liable to military service at the outbreak of the Second Punic War was more than 700,000. Even if this claimed total is too large, the real figure was certainly considerable and allowed Rome to endure the appalling casualties inflicted on her by Hannibal and still raise more legions, as she had been able to cope with the equally terrible losses suffered at sea during the First Punic War. No other contemporary state could have weathered such disasters and still gone on to win the conflict.

The art of war in the third century had largely been created in the endemic warfare between the kingdoms created when Alexander’s empire fragmented. These conflicts were fought between very similar professional armies which were highly skilled but could not afford heavy casualties. The objective was to gain victory at minimum cost and even heavy losses to the opposition were to be avoided since it was better to capture enemy soldiers and recruit them than to kill them. A war was won when the enemy could be persuaded that he had nothing to gain from fighting on, and so was willing to come to terms. Most conflicts were ended by negotiation once one side had gained a clear advantage. A complex system evolved in which quite minor details such as the amount paid to ransom prisoners clearly indicated which side had been victorious and by how great a margin. More seriously, losing a war usually meant giving up territory and perhaps paying an indemnity, but wars were fought to weaken, not destroy, the enemy and a struggle to the death would have been in no one’s interest. An enemy was persuaded to concede defeat by putting pressure on him by raiding his fields or capturing his cities, but, more than anything else, a victory in a pitched battle was the best way to win a war. Professional armies were as much intended for fighting big battles as the hoplite phalanx had been, being merely more sophisticated in their approach. The theoretical literature on the skills of generalship which began to be written at this time was overwhelmingly concerned with how and when to fight a battle. Strategy as it would be understood today played little part in the wars of this period. Generals manoeuvred to create the most favourable opportunity to defeat the enemy field army. A battle was to be sought whenever a commander was confident that he would win, and needed no higher purpose.

Battles fought between armies produced by the same military doctrines were uncertain affairs, and an indecisive result with heavy casualties on each side was useless and damaging to both parties. These conditions produced a very tentative style of fighting. Armies tended to move rapidly to confront each other, since defeating the enemy army was their main function, but then became very cautious, camping only a few kilometres apart for days or even weeks without fighting. Often each side marched out and deployed in battle formation every day, the two lines within a few hundred metres of each other, yet neither was willing to advance the final short distance and force a battle. Frequent skirmishes and single combats were fought between detachments of cavalry and light infantry, and victories in these helped to develop a feeling of superiority over the enemy. The general’s task was to raise his army to the highest pitch of confidence before exposing it to battle. Military manuals encouraged a commander to seek every advantage, however slight, ranging from ensuring that his army fought with full stomachs against an enemy who was hungry, or that the opposition fought with the sun in their eyes. Such factors did not in themselves determine the outcome of a battle, but each additional advantage gave an army another ‘edge’ over the opposition. There were times during the latter stages of the First Punic War in Sicily when the rival armies watched each other for months on end, only moving their positions when they ran out of food. Professional armies, unlike hoplites, did not have to return to gather the harvest, so there was no limit to the time spent manoeuvring if neither side saw the chance of a favourable battle.

The Romans had turned their citizen militia into a force capable of facing professional armies, but Polybius still saw them as rather old-fashioned in their straightforward and open approach to warfare. They expected battles to be almost as simple as the old hoplite clashes, and showed a willingness to fight immediately even if the conditions were not ideal. Both Pyrrhus and Hannibal outclassed the first Roman commanders sent against them and brought them to battle at the time and place of their own choosing. Hannibal’s great victories of 218-216 вс were fought on open ground which favoured his numerically superior cavalry and exploited the varying attributes of his infantry contingents with great skill, especially at Cannae. One reason for the poor showing of Roman commanders was that they found themselves in charge of far larger armies than most would have experienced previously. To confront Hannibal the two consuls combined their armies, mustering four legions in 218 вс and a massive total of eight in 216 вс. It had been very rare for both consuls to unite their forces in the past and this was reflected in the ad hoc command structure adopted whereby the two men commanded on alternate days. This, combined with the great numbers of troops involved, tended to make their movements erratic and rather clumsy. Polybius represents Hannibal’s victories as greatly eased by this divided command which produced fiercely divided councils, although it is possible that these passages are influenced by his desire to exonerate the ancestors of his patron Scipio Aemilianus from responsibility for these disasters. Although often outmanoeuvred by more skilful opponents, Roman armies were still tough opponents who continued fighting long after most other armies would have conceded defeat. In part this was a result of the harsh military discipline which inflicted such severe penalties on soldiers who fled even from the most desperate situation. The survivors of Cannae were formed into two legions that were exiled from Italy and sent to fight for the duration of the war in Sicily and Africa. The Roman triplex acies contributed to the resilience of Roman legions even in defeat, giving their formation depth and providing reserve troops throughout the line. Although far lower than the massive casualties Hannibal inflicted on the armies he destroyed at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae, his own men suffered heavily as the Romans fought to the last. The casualties Pyrrhus suffered in defeating the Romans became proverbial.

The dusty plain of Cannae today is peaceful and it is eery hard to imagine the carnage of 2 August 216 вс when over 50,000 men were killed in an area of only a few square miles. The white buildings on the horizon mark the most probable location for Hannibal’s camp. In the middle distance, the line of trees and bushes mark the modern line of the River Aufidius, but the course of the river in 216 BC is unknown.

Realizing that no Roman army was yet capable of defeating Hannibal in battle, one Roman commander, Quintus Fabius Maximus, inaugurated a policy of avoiding battle altogether, earning himself the nickname ‘the Delayer’ [cunctator). The Roman army shadowed the movements of Hannibal’s army, which was unable to feed itself by foraging off the land if it did not keep moving, observing it and harassing isolated detachments, but never risking a battle in anything save the most favourable circumstances. The fields of the Romans and their allies were raided, cities taken by surprise and some of Rome’s allies defected to the enemy, but Hannibal failed in over a decade of operations to inflict so much damage that the Romans were forced to admit defeat. Fabius’ policy was logical, fully in keeping with the military science of the period and ultimately successful, but it was unpopular with the Romans, and more than one of his subordinates rejected caution and attacked Hannibal, only to receive a severe handling. The Roman instinct was still for immediate open confrontation with the enemy, and this did produce some great successes against other Carthaginian commanders and the Italian states and Gallic tribes which had defected to Hannibal. As the wrar progressed the Roman army and its commanders became more and more experienced. The greatest of this new generation of commanders was Publius Cornelius Scipio, who would earn himself the name Africanus. Commanding the Roman army in Spain from 209 вс onwards, Scipio displayed all the skills of an army commander in the Hellenistic tradition, utterly outmanoeuvring his Carthaginian opponent at Ilipa, before going on to lead the Roman invasion of Africa, which brought about the recall of Hannibal from Italy and his first and final defeat in a pitched battle at Zama in 202 вс.


Hannibal's victory at Cannae was his greatest achievement. In an open plain he encircled and destroyed a numerically superior Roman army, killing nearly 50,000 men and capturing around 20,000 more for the loss of 5,700 of his own men. It is now uncertain on which batik of the River Aufidius the battle was fought. This map shows the modern course of the river.


At Zama Hannibal was faced with a well-trained Roman army under the command of the highly gifted Scipio. The result was a slogging match, far less tactically subtle than his earlier battles. Outnumbered in cavalry, Hannibal attempted to wear down the Roman infantry, first with a charge from his large force of elephants, then by forming his foot into three lines, keeping his Italian veterans in reserve. Scipio negated each of these threats in turn and the battle was finally decided by the return of the Roman cavalry.

Rome’s involvement in the Hellenistic world led directly on from the Second Punic War. Philip V of Macedon had allied himself with Carthage during Rome’s darkest hour when Hannibal was rampaging through Italy, and the Romans were quick to remember this after Carthage’s defeat, declaring war in 200 вс, despite initial popular resistance to starting another war so soon. Rome had fielded massive armies in the struggle with Carthage, but most of these were demobilized and the armies which fought in the east reverted to the traditional size of two legions plus two allied alae under the command of a consul. These armies were conventional in size, but not in the men who composed them. All had served through the bitter struggle with Carthage, serving far more years against tougher opposition than any earlier generation of Romans. These armies, along with those of Scipio in the later years of the Punic War, were the best ever produced by the Republican city militia. Officers and men all knew their job through long experience. The heavy casualties of the war with Hannibal had resulted in the Senate being replenished by men chosen because of conspicuous military service, lowering the age but increasing the experience of the body which provided the army’s senior officers. Roman armies of the early second century вс were as well trained and disciplined, and at least as efficient as any of the professional armies they faced. Their tactical system was, however, very different. Hellenistic armies were based around the heavy infantry of the phalanx. The phalanx was no longer composed of hoplites but of pikemen, men wielding the two-handed sarissa spear, which sometimes reached a length of 6.4 metres (21 feet). Phalanxes formed at least eight ranks deep, and often deeper, the Seleucids at Magnesia in 190 вс deploying in thirty- two ranks. Such depth gave the phalanx tremendous staying power in combat, and the hedge of spearpoints, five of which projected in front of each man in the first rank, made it very difficult for an enemy to fight his way in from the front. The long pikes themselves also tended to keep the ranks in place and make such a phalanx less subject to the degeneration of cohesion and formation to which most units were subject in combat. A phalanx was very hard for the enemy to break, but it was more likely to win a melee by its staying power than its actual fighting qualities. It was also difficult for it to move over anything but the flattest terrain without losing its order. In Alexander’s army the phalanx had only ever been intended to pin the enemy and subject him to a steady pressure, the decisive charge being always delivered by the cavalry. By the early second century Hellenistic armies were not capable of fielding the numbers of cavalry seen in the armies of Philip II and Alexander; good horses, just as much as citizen manpower, were always in short supply. As a result they had come to rely more and more on the phalanx to win the battle, a task for which it had never really been suited. To supplement it, and gain an edge in wars often fought against nearly identical armies, various monarchs experimented with gimmick weapons such as scythed chariots and war elephants. The chariots were rarely effective while the elephants, which did win some spectacular successes, were very much a two-edged sword, being inclined to panic and trample both armies indiscriminately.

Philip V of Macedon's concern with the growth of Roman influence on the Illyrian coast led him to make an alliance with Hannibal during the Second Punic War, an aggressive act which the Romans never forgave. Although their first expedition to Macedonia achieved little, it was only a short time after the conclusion of peace with Carthage that the Romans decided to send another army. At Cynoscephalae in 197 вс, the Romans under Flaminius destroyed Philip's Macedonian regulars.

This terracotta statuette depicts an Indian elephant in the service of one of the Hellenistic kingdoms. A tower is carried on the animal’s back hut no crewman is visible in it. The elephant itself, rather than the crew, was the main weapon, trampling down the enemy ranks and, as here, grasping soldiers with its trunk. The crew added to the force of the attack by throwing missiles, but their main role was to protect the elephant from enemy light infantrymen, whose missiles might wound or panic it. Polybius’ description of the battle of Raphia in 217 вс claims that elephants fought each other by butting their heads together and pushing. Once unbalanced and its trunk pushed aside, the opposing elephant would be gored by the victor’s tusks.

Hellenistic armies formed with virtually all their units in a single line, centred around the deepest possible infantry phalanx. They were commanded by a king whose role it was to charge at the head of his cavalry in the manner of Alexander. A commander fighting in this way could not have hoped to control troops kept in reserve, since he would have been able to see only what was happening and influence the troops immediately around him. The aim of a commander was to deploy his army in such a way as to put steady pressure on the whole enemy line, before leading in person an irresistible hammer blow at a single point. The Roman system of deploying the legions in three lines ensured that much of the army was kept in reserve. At both Cynoscephalae in 197 вс and Magnesia in 190 вс the Roman line was broken at one point, but the situation was restored by fresh troops front the rear lines. Interestingly, in both cases the reserves were brought up by a relatively junior Roman officer acting on his own initiative, an indication of the high quality of the Roman officer corps at this period. Once the Romans created a breakthrough in the enemy line reserve troops were available to exploit the gap, but their Hellenistic opponents lacked both the reserve troops and the command structure to control them. The manipular legion was flexible while the phalanx was not, and this proved the decisive factor in a clash between the two, especially at Cynoscephalae and Pydna, both of which occurred accidentally and were disorganized affairs.

Another distinction between the two armies was that, while the Romans had adopted the organization and discipline of a ‘modern’, civilized army, they still fought with great savagery. Alexander’s men had been as ferocious as this in their campaigns against the Persians, but the conflicts between the culturally and militarily similar armies of his Successors had made Hellenistic warfare rather more genteel. At Cynoscephalae the defeated Macedonian pikemen stood holding their pikes upright to signify their surrender, but were cut down by the legionaries. Only after someone had explained what the gesture meant to the Roman commander was he able, with some difficulty, to end the massacre. The Romans fought to destroy the enemy army and end its capacity ever to fight them again.


The battle of Magnesia teas fought after nearly two weeks of cautious manoeuvring as the rival armies attempted to gain an advantage. The Romans gradually camped further and further forward and deployed their battle line so close to the Seleucids that Antiochus the Great was forced to fight. The Roman armies which fought against the Hellenistic kingdoms in the early second century were exceptionally experienced, well trained and led by men who had learned their trade in the hard school of the war with Hannibal.

It was a very different culture to the Hellenistic expectation that wars should be ended by negotiation, to avoid unnecessary bloodshed on both sides. Both Pyrrhus and Hannibal made several attempts to open peace negotiations with the Romans after they had defeated them in battle and were surprised at the Romans’ refusal to consider a treaty. The Macedonian and Seleucid kings similarly sent their heralds to the Romans on numerous occasions, hoping to end conflict through diplomacy. The Roman negotiating position was always the same: a demand for the other side to concede total defeat regardless of the current military situation. For the Romans war was a life or death struggle which could only end in one of two ways. The first was for the enemy to cease to be a threat, either because he had become a subordinate ally of Rome, or because he had ceased to exist as a political entity. The only alternative was for Rome herself to be destroyed, but this was something that neither Carthage nor any other state possessed the resources to achieve. Not only that, but it is unlikely that any commander produced by the Hellenistic tradition would ever have considered this as an option.

By his own understanding of war Hannibal won the Second Punic War at Cannae, but the Romans were following a different set of rules and when they did not admit defeat there was little more that he could do to force them. The Romans did not fight for the limited gains other states expected from victory. A defeated enemy was turned into an ally who not only presented no threat to Rome, but actively supported her wars elsewhere. The army they sent against Philip V in 200 was fed by grain supplied by the recently defeated Carthage, and Philip in turn aided the Roman force which fought against the Seleucids. Rome did not tolerate a former enemy existing as anything more than a clearly subordinate ally. The kingdom of Macedonia was dismembered in 168 and Carthage destroyed in 146 вс simply because they had begun to show signs of renewed independence and again assumed the role of potential enemies.

Why did the Romans adopt such an uncompromising attitude to warfare? Their great resources of military manpower, which allowed them to endure the appalling losses of the Punic wars, explains to a great extent how they were able to maintain their resolve. Rome’s internal political stability and the strength of the confederation of allies she created around herself were also vital factors. The disaster at the Caudine Forks in 321 вс was the last time that Rome accepted peace as the clear loser in a war. The fourth-century вс struggle against the expanding hill peoples of Central Italy was certainly bitter and may have encouraged the Romans to think of war as a struggle for their very existence. Both Pyrrhus and Hannibal, with their armies marching through Italy, equally seemed to threaten Rome itself, and one of the reasons for the aggressive policy against Macedonia and the Seleucids was the fear that their powerful navies gave them the potential to land an army on the Italian peninsula. Whatever the reasons for it, Rome’s attitude to warfare was a major factor in her success in this period and throughout the rest of her history. When wars were decided as soon as one side admitted defeat, it was very difficult for any state to beat a people who were never willing to concede this.

The Roman city of Carthage was built on top of the Punic city destroyed in 146 вс, so that very few remains of the latter are visible today. A few sections of Punic Carthage have been uncovered by archaeologists and attest to the wealth of the city, particularly in the period immediately before the final war with Rome.

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