Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fighting Hannibal – The Man and not the Phalanx

My last post used the words of Polybius to answer a question regarding the effectiveness of the Roman manipular technique against the phalanx formation. In this post we will delve deeper into the subject, specifically the Roman battles against Hannibal and his phalanx, to show that victory had more to do with leadership and skill than the phalanx as a superior military tactic. Hannibal was superior in every way to the Roman generals of the Republican period because he was an expert tactician and charismatic leader. Having said that, we have to give the Roman generals some slack because they were hamstrung by politics and the command philosophy of the Republican political system.

In the first years of the Second Punic War, the Romans fought Hannibal on three occasions: Trebbia in November 218, Lake Trasimene in June 217, and Cannae in August  216. All were disasters for Rome. In each case Hannibal used topography, the element of surprise, and speed to defeat his enemy. The Romans were unprepared to fight a superior tactician and in at least the first two cases vastly underestimated their adversary.

At Trebbia, Hannibal set up the battle so the Romans missed their breakfast and had to wade through ice cold water to get to him, exhausting themselves before they could engage. After Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry chased off the Roman horsemen, the maniples became vulnerable to attacks from the side as they moved forward. Then, with elephants trampling the wings of the Roman front, an ambush from behind was launched. Eventually the Romans were able to puncture the center of the Punic line, but the battle was lost everywhere else by that time. Roman casualties amounted to some 15,000.

The phalanx at the Punic center had been manned by expendable Gauls who were not the tactical focal point of the battle but instead were used as a drawing card for the Roman legions.

It’s hard to believe that Hannibal had only arrived in Italy a couple of weeks earlier after his tortuous journey over the Alps where he lost as many as 20,000 men. To plan and engage in a major battle in that short time is a testimony to his leadership.

Before moving on to Lake Trasimene, we need to discuss the politics and structure of the Roman Army as it impacted military operations during this period. At the time of the second Punic War no consul was allowed to have more than two legions under his command, severely limiting the size of his army. Moreover, on those occasions where the consuls represented rival factions in the Senate, they refused to cooperate in a combined command structure and, instead, operated separately. The only option to overcoming this limitation was to invoke a dictatorship, but the Senate had not yet lost confidence in its commanders in the period after Trebbia.

Flaminius and Germinus were elected consuls for 217 B.C. and each took command of his army in the spring. Flaminius was positioned to pursue Hannibal if he chose the center route through Italy while Germinus’ army was located to the west. Once Flaminius became aware of Hannibal’s moves in his direction he made the unwise decision to go after him without waiting for Germinus to reinforce him. Aware of Flaminius by reconnaissance, Hannibal’s movements took him near Lake Trasimene which he immediately recognized as the perfect location for an ambush.

Hannibal distributed his troops along a defile that framed the eastern shore of the lake and deployed cavalry and skirmishers on the road to the north. Flaminius, following Hannibal, marched around the north side of the lake with no sense of what lie ahead of him. In the morning mist the Romans encountered the vanguard of the Punic army thinking it was their rear. As they pushed on, they came under fire by the Punic troops stationed above them on the hillside. Then as they continued to press southward into the defile, the Romans were annihilated.

The photograph below shows defile on the right of the modern road with the lake on the left.

Roman loses were 15,000 killed, including Flaminius, and 10,000 captured.

The loses at Trebbia and Lake Trasimene demanded the appointment of a dictator and Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus was named. Little was accomplished during his tenure which amounted to the remainder of 217 B.C. Fabius dogged Hannibal but would not fight him. This frustrated Hannibal because the Punic leader believed that Rome could only be taken if its allies could be turned and the allies could only be turned if they saw the Roman army defeated. At the end of 217 B.C, the dictatorship was suspended.

The year 216 B.C. brought new consuls into the command position: C. Terentius Varro and L. Aemilius Paullus. They readied their armies in the spring and picked up Hannibal’s trail that summer, arriving at Cannae on the last day of July. Both commanders knew how important it was to operate with  a combined force as they agreed to alternate command on a daily basis. On the day of the battle Varro served as the overall commander. His plan was to apply the lessons of Trebbia by eliminating the wings that were decimated in that battle so he collapsed his maniples into a phalanx of overwhelming strength designed to destroy the center of the Punic line. The absence of wings meant that the infantry contingent had to be protected by cavalry or it would be vulnerable on all sides.

This was to be one of the classic battles of all time, studied by military strategists ever since. Hannibal had his strongest troops on the wings with the weakest in the center drawn up in a narrow crescent. Those wings were protected by a superior cavalry which routed the Roman horsemen and left the Roman sides vulnerable. The Roman infantry punched through the center but was then attacked by the Punic wings who had performed a ninety degree turn toward the flanks of the Romans and formed a phalanx on each side. They pressed forward and compressed the Roman army into a box. New assaults from the rear completed the box and made the rout complete. Fifteen thousand were killed or taken prisoner and Paullus was slain.

The Romans at Cannae had used a collapsed manipular formation against a Punic phalanx designed to give way. Once the Romans had pushed to their deepest penetration, the wing phalanxes of the Carthaginian army turned inward and destroyed them. At Cannae, Hannibal’s master plan came to fruition. The pincer movement that failed at Trebbia worked brilliantly here. He used speed against the strength of the Roman center by offering only minimal resistance to it and then maneuvering around it until the trap was sprung.

In each of these battles we see the phalanx as a component of the Carthaginian formation but not the key. There was never a pure phalanx/maniple face-off that would prove the military superiority of one versus the other because there were other more important factors that determined the outcome.
Enhanced by Zemanta


Prufrock said...

Great post, thanks! When you talk about the Carthaginian phalanx, what exactly do you mean? Do you believe they operated in a similar fashion to the Macedonian phalanx, or are you using the term to mean a mass of heavy infantry that fought hand-to-hand with spear and shield?
Also, the consul Publius Laverius Laevinius is thought to have had four legions with accompanying allies at Heraclea in 280BC, so was there a specific law limiting a consul's command to two legions, or are you talking about the customary allocation? Of course, at Cannae there were 8 legions plus allies, so they could clearly change things when they needed to!

Enjoying your blog. Thanks!

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Hi Mike:

A wonderful site you have here. I will have to spend more time with it to really grok it.

That aside, the reason I’m writing is I wanted to tell you and your readers that I am holding a Mesopotamian Cookoff over on Silk Road Gourmet through the end of September. We are using recipes from Bottero and other sources that I have re-analyzed and in most cases corrected for accuracy.

Chefs from three continents (so far) have submitted dishes based on these recipes from 4,000 years ago. Dishes include Lamb and Carob Stew, Pistachio stuffed dates, Lamb with Licorice and Juniper Berries and more. I’ll be posting new recipes this weekend and am urging other cooks and chefs to step up with their creative interpretations of their dishes!

Check it out if you are interested in ancient cookery.


Laura Kelley

J.J. said...

Thanks for the valuable information. I am a high school history teacher and will be sure to not to overemphasize the importance of the phalanx in his victory.