I have written at times about my dislike for the “great man” theory of historical interpretation (here extensively). My objections to this theory, in brief, are that
- The writer invariably sees events only through one lens, which limits their vision
- The writer’s hero worship distorts their vision
I could not resist the Kindle deal of Theodore Dodge’s Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 B.C., with a Detailed Account of the Second Punic War. I suspected from some reviews that Dodge would fall prey to the aforementioned hero-worship, the besetting sin of many a 19th century historian. I happily discovered that while I took issue with some of Dodge’s emphasis and conclusions, he writes an informative and engaging account of the Punic War era. His is a much better book than Druesel’s Bismarck biography linked above, for example. Likely Dodge was simply a more sane and intellectually honest person than Druesel. Or it may be that Dodge’s more practical American sensibility and his own experience in our Civil War gave him better perspective. Whatever the reason, his book pleasantly surprised me. He delves into some hero worship, but keeps it to acceptable levels.
Dodge first argues briefly that Hannibal, with some help from Alexander the Great, invented the art of military strategy. This at first struck me as “hero worship” but upon reflection I mostly agree with him. For the ancients, battle was battle in the way for us that a handshake is a handshake. We don’t think of strategizing a handshake. Handshakes represent our pledge, ourselves. To strategize a handshake seems impersonal, disconnecting us from ourselves and putting up a false pretense.
For the ancients, in battle you lined up in a field and fought. Battle tested not the intellect but the will, the discipline, and the courage of the armies. To have it become something more than that struck many as absurd, or perhaps cheating. Certainly some Romans viewed Hannibal this way. Some of our generals in Vietnam felt similarly. I recall one of them saying, “To *&^% with them! They wouldn’t come out and fight!” So the attitude may have a universality beyond the ancient world.
Hannibal often fought with deception, move, and counter-move. At times he sacrificed a small portion of his men in hopes that Rome would bite on a bait-and-switch. He always seemed to have several tools in his bag to try and get what he wanted. I wondered with a colleague of mine how this came to be. What context helped create Hannibal? Major shifts like this do not happen in a vacuum.
Carthage had a great naval tradition, but little overt military tradition to speak of. A society centered around merchants, they contracted out nearly the entirety of their infantry. An army with dozens of different traditions is an army with no traditions. Dodge does a solid job of explaining the jigsaw puzzle that was the Carthaginian army, which would need a charismatic and forceful leader to hold together, let alone use effectively. Hannibal deserves much of the credit he receives.
Hannibal also spent the majority of his life away from Carthage in Spain with the army, including his formative years. Thus, Hannibal had little connection to Carthaginian civilization (something that would hurt him later in his war with Rome). He roamed as a “free agent” in many respects, and could be dedicated to victory while others dedicated themselves to honor or tradition.
Many of Hannibal’s admirers rightly point out that unlike Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon Hannibal faced rather than actually had the best army in the known world. True, Rome’s infantry distinguished itself for an almost 200 year unbroken string of victories by the time Hannibal invaded. But for someone like Hannibal Rome offered unique opportunities. Unlike Carthage, their army was embedded directly within their civilization of farmers. And, like farmers, Rome’s army stuck to routine. They could be counted on to charge at any red flag in any environment, and a patient commander with excellent command over his men might find a way to exploit this. Certainly Hannibal did, with Cannae as the exemplar par excellence of his theatrical genius.
In the end, however, Dodge reverts to the hero-worship mentality. The “objective” view (ok — my view) of Hannibal makes him a bit too clever by half. The 2nd Punic War ostensibly began as a dispute over territory in Spain. Had Hannibal stayed in Spain and waited for Rome to come to him, he would have been well supplied and could pick his spots more or less at will. One can easily foresee a significant victory for Carthage in that scenario. But Hannibal chose to play for much bigger and riskier stakes by invading Italy itself. Any full treatment of the 2nd Punic War then, must be largely a biography of Hannibal. Understanding what made him tick would make a great template for a great writer, but Dodge is not it. Granted, Dodge never claimed to write a Hannibal biography, but I don’t see how one can ignore this side of Hannibal in writing about the war. For example, in faithful hero-worship fashion, Dodge brushes off the many cruel acts of Hannibal and never uses them to try and gain insight into the man. When Hannibal makes two prisoners fight each other to the death for their freedom merely as an object lesson for his men, all Dodge can say is, “This had a remarkable effect on his army.”
Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy boiled down to:
- Crossing the Alps to invade Italy — this would surprise Rome and put him in a position to quickly ally himself with the Gauls in the north of Italy, long time enemies of Rome, then
- March south and hope to gather more allies as he went — to do this he would need a few big battles to impress/scare the locals
- Eventually he would have enough troops to march on Rome itself
I think Hannibal a great military commander, but we have to remember that he lost. It’s easy to love Lee, but Grant beat him. Napoleon is more interesting than Wellington, but Wellington had the last laugh. So if we avoid getting carried away with the brilliant nature of some of Hannibal’s victories, we may wonder how great a grand strategist Hannibal really was. His plan had significant flaws.
Many point out that Hannibal got very little support from Carthage itself, and then argue that had he had this support, he would have been victorious. Dodge writes,
That Hannibal eventually failed was not from lack of intelligent policy, but because he had no aid from home. . .
The opposition of Hanno [a Carthaginian politician] wrecked all of Hannibal’s wonderful work.
and later again,
When we look at the [internal condition of Carthaginian politics], it ceases to be a matter of curiosity why so little was done to aid Hannibal.
It is a mark of faith in the “great men” school of thought that nothing can ever be really the fault of the great man.
True, Hannibal received little support from Carthage, but Hannibal should have been quite familiar with the topsy-turvy nature of his home civilization’s politics. Besides, in crossing the Alps Hannibal adopted a strategy that would isolate him from any kind of supply line. Finally, and most tellingly for me, even Dodge admits that Carthaginian armies had a tradition of operating independently and self-sufficiently apart from Carthage’s government. All this Hannibal should have taken into account, and it was a serious mistake for him not to connect his strategy to his political situation. Again, even Dodge himself writes about the Carthaginian government,
. . . it was natural that [the Carthaginian government] should prefer to hold Spain to winning in Italy. They believed they could do the first, they doubted the other.
So Hannibal adopted a strategy (rather than hold Spain, go for the jugular in Italy) that he either knew or should have known went in direct opposition to Carthage’s political leadership. Carthage refused to take extra risks for a general that had defied them, and this should not surprise us, nor should it have surprised Hannibal. It seems to have surprised Dodge.
For Hannibal’s strategy to work, he would need to pry allies away from Rome. But in cutting his army off from a supply line, he forced them to rely on foraging the countryside, alienating the very people he tried to win over. Oil and water just don’t mix.
Besides this, I think Hannibal also showed a basic ignorance of Rome’s alliance system. Rome wasn’t perfect. No one is. But in general Rome offered a good deal to those they conquered and incorporated into their Republic. They required taxes and military service, and little else. How could Hannibal top this? What better offer could he make? He could, of course, exempt them from military service, but then their “help” would not be much help at all.
I think Hannibal failed to understand the political system his enemy really operated, and by my tally that means he failed to understand politics at all. A general who operated on Hannibal’s scale needed to, and this failure cost him everything. Dodge writes,
Like Napoleon, Hannibal saw that a peace, to be a peace, must be conquered at the doors of the enemy’s capital. This was his policy. It was the proper one; but it failed because he could not control the resources of Carthage.
That Dodge writes this without attaching any blame to Hannibal speaks volumes. Why should we praise a man who undertook a strategy that required he control Carthage’s resources when Hannibal lacked the power to control them? And why be so sure that Napoleon was correct when he too lost, and lost badly?
Those in the romantic “Great Men” school ultimately have to explain why their heroes lost (losers are always more romantic than winners). For R.E. Lee, it was his generals. “If only Jackson had lived, or Ewell had taken the hill, or if Stuart were there, etc. (Lee of course only blamed himself). Napoleon, serving as his own “Great Men” autobiographer, and perhaps the founder of the “Great Men” school, blamed fate. For him, I think, to blame others would have meant admitting that others had real power, which perhaps he hesitated to do. Alas, Dodge (though thankfully not Hannibal) takes refuge behind Fate as well, writing,
Hannibal . . . was hoping against hope; he recognized that the stars in their courses were fighting against him.
[Alexander the Great] was a prime favorite of Fortune. She smiled on Hannibal until after Cannae. Thereafter no man ever faced luck so contrary.
Fate is a refuge for those who refuse to face the message Reality wishes to convey.
In the end, the traditional story of the 2nd Punic War as a war of personal revenge of Hannibal on Rome may make the most sense. The strategy employed, the blitzkrieg nature of his execution, and his “anger” flaming out after Cannae may speak to the truth of this version.
So, I disagree with Dodge, but I enjoyed his book, and others will too. At least he had an opinion to go with his fine writing and interesting way of presenting Rome and Hannibal’s epic confrontation. Though Rome had the last laugh, Hannibal remains a fascinating figure.
Though see here for the possibility that Hannibal had the last, last laugh after all.