Great African Military Leaders: Hannibal of Carthage

November 22, 2010

The contribution of African military commanders and warriors is yet another missing page in history. The names Hannibal, Sonni Ali Ber, Shaka Zulu, Toussiant L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Queen Nzingha, Amílcar Cabral, are never mention as a part of the pantheon of military leaders who shaped military science. Yet, all of the military leaders mentioned above have the bonafides as those of the most celebrated military icons in history. There are certainly many more that could be add to this illustrious and distinguished list of great military leaders. The leaders mentioned above are a starting point, not an end, to rescuing and reconstructing the history of great African military commanders and warriors.

Hannibal of Carthage

Hannibal ingenious strategies and tactics used to organize his armed forces and to outmaneuver his enemy have awed military strategies for centuries. He single handedly put his nation on the world’s map, for without his existence, Carthage would be unknown.  Put in context, Hannibal put together a coalition of fighters who defeated the greatest force the Europe had ever thrown into a single battle. For fifteen years, Hannibal battled the Roman Empire, defeating it best and brightest.

Often regarded as the greatest military tactician and strategist in history, Hannibal is considered as one of the greatest generals of antiquity. Military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge once famously called Hannibal the “father of strategy”, because his greatest enemy, Rome, came to adopt elements of his military tactics in its own strategic arsenal. This praise has earned him a strong reputation in the modern world, and he was regarded as a “gifted strategist” by men like Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington.

Background and historical context

When Hannibal was born in 247 BCE, his birthplace Carthage was about to lose a long and important war. The city had been the Mediterranean’s most prosperous seaport and possessed wealthy provinces, but it had suffered severe losses from the Romans in the First Punic War (264-241). After Rome’s victory, it stripped Carthage of its most important province, Sicily; and when civil war had broken out in Cartage, Rome seized Sardinia and Corsica as well. These events must have made a great impression on the young Hannibal.

After Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War, Hamilcar set out to improve his family’s and Carthage’s fortunes.  Carthage at the time was in such a poor state that its navy was unable to transport his army by sea.  His father was killed in battle, Hannibal’s brother-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded to his command of the army with Hannibal serving as an officer under him. Hasdrubal was later assassinated of Hasdrubal, making Hannibal commander-in-chief by the army and confirmed in his appointment by the Carthaginian government.  Recalling his commitment and oath to his father to do everything in his power to bring an end to Rome’s imperial supremacy, Hannibal begin to prepare himself and his army for his life’s vocation- the defeat of the Roman Empire.

Hannibal and his era

By Hannibal’s era the practice and scope of warfare had evolved sufficiently to endanger the existence of virtually every state, large and small alike. Many had already perished; innumerable families have been extinguished and their peoples subjugated; and others tenuously survive only through adroit to political maneuvering and servile submission. Moreover, he lived during a period of tension in the Mediterranean, when Rome (then the Roman Republic) established its supremacy over other great powers.

After he assumed command, Hannibal spent two years consolidating his army and completing the conquest of Hispania south of the Ebro. However, Rome, fearing the growing strength of Hannibal in Iberia, made an alliance with the city of Saguntum, which lay a considerable distance south of the River Ebro and claimed the city as its protectorate. Hannibal perceived this as a breach of the treaty signed with Hasdrubal and so he laid siege to the city, which fell after eight months. Rome reacted to this apparent violation of the treaty and demanded justice from Carthage. In view of Hannibal’s great popularity, the Carthaginian government did not repudiate Hannibal’s actions, and the war he sought was declared at the end of the year. Hannibal was now determined to carry the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Hispania and southern Gaul.

Hannibal’s Military Achievement

Hannibal’s vision of military affairs, derived partly from the teaching and experience gained alongside his father, stretched over most of the Mediterranean World of his time. Indeed, the breadth of his vision gave rise to his grand strategy of conquering Rome by opening a northern front and subduing allied city-states on the peninsula rather than by attacking Rome directly.

Hannibal accomplished what is considered even today as the most incredible military feat in history- the march across the icy and treacherous terrain of the Alps with horses and elephants. Hannibal and his men confronted almost immovable frozen boulders in their path, using scientific techniques to melt the boulders. This man of vision and uncompromising resolution challenged the shocks of nature and surprise attacks from bands of soldiers from surrounding nations in his quest to take on the mighty empire of Rome.

Hannibal’s Military Methods

War is a Science: Hannibal approach war and warfare as a science which required disciplined commanders and troops. He believed that success was gained by not doing as much as knowing what to do.  Hence, though Hannibal’s primary goal was to defeat Rome, he knew it would be a rash decision to charge Rome directly with act if war.

The Primacy of Troop Formation: Hannibal’s military feats demonstrate that troop formation is one of the most important issues of strategy and combat. In battle after battle, Hannibal showed his brilliance in devising troop formations, which resulted in encircling the Roman soldiers.  His tactic of encircling enemy troops would be adopted and emulated by the Romans.

Planning and Strategy: Hannibal’s approach to military battles was thoroughly analytical, mandating careful planning and the formation of an overall strategy before beginning a campaign. Though out numbered, Hannibal was able to achieve victory over the Romans through thoughtful and scientific planning (In crossing the Alps (with elephants), Hannibal had to use science and meticulous planning). In his many military campaigns against the Roman army, Hannibal stressed the necessity to avoid all engagements not based upon expensive, concrete analysis of the over all situation, including the combat options and one’s own capability.

Warfare is deception: Hannibal employed classic asymmetry tactic in battling the Romans. His asymmetry tactic included initiating a battle with a few troops and then striking the Romans with overwhelmed force elsewhere on the battle field. He showed weakness to draw enemy forces out in the open and then would hit them with the full force of his army.

In one classic battle with the Roman commander Fabius, Hannibal used cattle 4,000 cattle had dry twigs and small branches tied to their horns and set on fire. Terrified by the flames with tormented them, the cattle raced away from the battlefield, giving the impression that Hannibal was retreating. This gave Hannibal a path to pass through and led to his routing the Roman soldiers.

Humanitarian Treatment of Captives: Well before their was even a thought of humanitarian protocols of war, Hannibal observed a  protocol of war which included humane treatment of captives, prohibition against raping women captives and burial of the commanding officer of the opposing army.

For fifteen long years, Hannibal was Rome’s nemesis. In battle after battle, he dealt the Roman army decisive defeats, until he has succeeded in shaking the very foundation of the Roman Empire. His military prowess ranks him among the leading military figures in history. To be sure, Hannibal is one history’s first and great warrior-kings.

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