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A Note on Hannibal’s Losses During the Crossing of the Alps

Hannibal and his army forging their way through alpine snow Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian general, is famous, among other feats, for his epic crossing of the Alps in 218 BCE. At the time, such passage of the apparently impenetrable barrier of the Alps was regarded as impossible, but Hannibal accomplished it, true to the dictum most often attributed to him, “We will find a way, and if there is no way, we will make a way!” But, at what cost? He has been often criticized for the enormous losses of men and animals mentioned in the pro-Roman narratives of Polybius and Livy, the two main sources of what we know of his life and deeds. Essentially, these hardly impartial “historians” claim that he lost some 20,000 men, half of his army, to the elements and the attacks by hostile mountain tribesmen, a staggering toll to have paid. Although Napoleon actually praises him for the willingness to sacrifice half his army in order to secure his field of battle, others deride him for what they label one of the worst blunders or disasters in history. Did such massive losses actually occur?

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Understanding Cannae: Hannibal's Orders

Map by Johannes Kromayer, 1912 It is morning on August 2nd, 216 BCE. The Carthaginian army under Hannibal has deployed on the plain of Cannae, by the Aufidus River, facing the massive Roman army led by Consuls Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro.  The Roman forces outnumber the Carthaginians by practically 2 to 1, but Hannibal will prevail, literally annihilating the largest army ever fielded by Rome. How was this possible? What were Hannibal’s orders to the commanders of the different portions of his multi-ethnic army prior to the beginning of the battle? We do not know, but we can speculate.

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Hannibal Barca: A Biographical Sketch

A bust of Hannibal found in Capua and preserved in the National Museum of Naples, Italy. Hannibal (247-183 BCE) was the greatest general to emerge from the Carthaginian Barca family. He was the son of Hamilcar Barca (ca. 275-228 BCE), the great and undefeated hero from the first Punic War and the Mercenary War. After the Roman annexation of Sardinia, Hamilcar was put in command of Carthaginian expansion in Spain. His oldest son, Hannibal, then aged nine, asked to accompany him. Hamilcar expanded Carthaginian territory until his death in an ambush (in 228 BCE) where he sacrificed himself to save the lives of his three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago.

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New Perspectives on the Battle of Cannae

La Bataille de Cannes - François-Nicolas Chifflart (1863) (An edited transcription of a presentation delivered in Barletta, Italy, on the 2230th anniversary of Hannibal’s greatest victory, 2 August 2014, at the invitation of the Comitato Italiano Pro Canne della Battaglia.)

I’m essentially a psycho-historian; I try to figure out the motivations of historical characters. Not just of Hannibal and the Roman commanders during the wars between Carthage and Rome, but also of the historians who wrote the story. Particularly Polybius and Livy (Titus Livius), for those are the two main sources we have. The history of Hannibal is contained in the writings of Polybius and Livy. If you look at Polybius, you can see that the reason he wrote was to explain to his Greek countrymen why the Romans had been so successful in taking over the Mediterranean world. Polybius was a close friend of Scipio Aemiliano, who was the commander in charge of the destruction of Carthage in the year 146 BCE. He was in the employ of the Aemilian family.

Consequently, any time he wrote about the Aemilian/Scipionic clan, you have to wonder whether he was actually completely objective, or was he beautifying things in order to please his friend and his employers? The other main source is Titus Livius, or Livy, who, by his own admission, was essentially writing to instill patriotism in the youth of the age of Augustus.

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