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.
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.
(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.
The Germans have a wonderful expression for culpability in war: Kriegsschuldfrage. Who is to blame for the initiation of war and its concomitant horrors? Related to this question is the determination of whether a war was justified or not. A “just war” is often regarded as one waged in self-defense, as when one nation repulses invasion by another, but the matter becomes slippery when pre-emptive aggression is labeled “just.” As for the notion of a “good” war, I would argue that war is never good, as it invariably produces carnage afflicting the innocent. In recent times some historians have referred to WWII as “the good war,” arguing that it was so because it countered the menace of Hitler, but history is never that simple. Even in that conflict, the “good” side committed horrendous crimes against humanity, such as the incineration of innocent civilians in the fire-bombing of Dresden, or in the holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the atom bomb. No, there is no “good war,” but a war may be “just,” and that matter often hinges on the determination of the Kriegsschuldfrage.