In Livy’s series of books about the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.E.) there is a scene in which after the battle of Cannae in which a commander of the Carthaginian cavalry Maharbal has a conversation with Hannibal, who was in command of the Carthaginian army in Italy.
Now Cannae was a catastrophic defeat for Rome when that terrible day in August 216 B.C.E. ended something like 48,000 troops of the Roman Republic were dead a little over 10,000 were captured and probably at most 15,000 escaped. The losses given above are likely underestimates. As it was an army numbering c. 70,000-75,000 men had been effectively annihilated in a set piece battle on an open plain by force significantly inferior in numbers. In fact Hannibal was out numbered two to one in infantry with a total, including cavalry of c. 40,000 men on the field of battle. Hannibal had used daring tactics involving an ambush in plain sight along with his superiority in cavalry, (Hannibal had 10,000 cavalry has against the Roman total of 6,400.), to secure a crushing, overwhelming victory.1
By the time that Hannibal won this victory he had spent nearly two years in Italy, (He arrived in northern Italy in November 218 B.C.E.), and had made little progress in disrupting the Roman confederacy. This was so despite great victories at the Trebbia, (218 B.C.E), in the Po valley and the almost complete annihilation of a Roman army in a gigantic ambush at Lake Trasimene (217 B.C.E.). So Hannibal was able to march wherever he wanted but was unable so far to break the Roman political system.2
The Roman’s decided in the summer of 216 B.C.E., to have a showdown with Hannibal, whose army was devastating Italy and get rid of him once and for all. This played right into Hannibal’s hands and the result was the disastrous defeat at Cannae. Which shook Rome to its core. The largest army that Rome had ever raised had been smashed and destroyed and it seems that Rome was helpless.3
So Livy records the following conversation between Maharbal and Hannibal.
Hannibal's officers crowded round him with congratulations on his victory. The others all advised him, now that he had brought so great a war to a conclusion, to repose himself and to allow his weary soldiers to repose for the remainder of that day and the following night.  But Maharbal, the commander of the cavalry, held that no time should be lost. “Nay,” he cried, “that you may realize what has been accomplished by this battle, in five days you shall banquet in the Capitol! [p. 369]Follow after; I will precede you with the cavalry,1 that the Romans may know that you are there before they know that you are coming!”  To Hannibal the idea was too joyous and too vast for his mind at once to grasp it. And so, while praising Maharbal's goodwill, he declared that he must have time to deliberate regarding his advice.  Then said Maharbal, “In very truth the gods bestow not on the same man all their gifts; you know how to gain a victory, Hannibal: you know not how to use one.” That day's delay is generally believed to have saved the City and the empire.4
Makes for a dramatic story and certainly it has been used again and again to attack Hannibal for missing the moment. It is also largely wrong. For many reasons. But before I go into that the following must be made clear.
First the conversation is almost certainly a story about an event the never happened.
Our surviving sources for the Second Punic war and thus the career and life of Hannibal are entirely Roman based. Even the great Greek Historian Polybius writes from a Roman point of view. Writers tend to forget that he lived for many years with the family of the Scipios whose ancestor was the great Scipio Africanus, the great enemy of Hannibal. I am constantly amazed about how this probable source of bias, is ignored while judging Polybius’ history. That also goes along with Polybius’ bias in favour of the Romans. Thus Polybius almost certainly was not completely fair-minded concerning this war and at the very least magnified the achievements of Scipio Africanus. Despite this it is clear that Polybius did make a real effort to gather reliable information and his account is considered to be basically trust worthy. Sadly most of Polybius’ account of the Second Punic War is lost, although it is almost complete right up to the battle of Cannae.5
For the rest of the War we are dependent on Livy, who sadly makes it quite clear that his history is basically a celebration of Roman achievement and whose portrait of Hannibal is consequently distorted.5 Thus we get Roman achievements magnified and the creation of mythical victories over Hannibal and apparently the suppression of some Roman defeats. Still all in all Livy can be used but must be used with care.6
Thus we simply don’t get Hannibal’s point of view. What Hannibal was planning or doing is largely ignored. It is the Roman’s whose reactions are the focal point. Thus Hannibal’s intentions can only be inferred from his actions as described by the Romans, his enemies.
Hannibal became to the Romans an infamous bugbear, a terrifying image of near destruction. Basically a demonic force and not a man.
Thus we are almost totally out of the loop for trying to figure out Hannibal’s strategy, his long term goals, his strategic reading of the war has a whole and any plans he may have had for that. What we are left with are his actions has recorded by his enemies, who blackened his character and used him as a myth to build up themselves. Thus the Roman’s argued that if they could overcome someone like Hannibal they could overcome anyone.7
This has not prevented some modern day armchair generals from judging Hannibal has a general and finding him wanting. A certain book alleges that Hannibal was obsessed with the war in Italy and took little interest in the war outside and that the Carthaginian government had other priorities, such as the war in Spain etc. Aside from the fact we do not know in much detail Hannibal’s over all plans, there are indications in the surviving, albeit from the Roman point of view, reports of Hannibal’s activities that indicate a concern for areas outside of Italy, and an attempt and widespread diplomacy including, but not limited to, negotiations with Philip V of Macedonia. The silliest part of this stuff is that the author alleges that the Carthaginian government was right to leave Hannibal to his own resources while concentrating on areas of greater / more important concern to Carthage.8
Aside from the fact that this idea merely asserts Hannibal’s un-interest in the war outside of Italy and doesn’t in the least demonstrate it. There is another problem. The problem quite simply is that from the Carthaginian point of view the decisive theatre was in fact Italy. The bottom line was that in terms of military trained manpower Rome’s resources hugely exceeded Carthage’s. Quite simply Carthage had nothing like Rome’s resources in military manpower. Further Carthage had lost control of the sea to Rome in the First Punic War, (265-241 B.C.E.). When Rome used its huge resources of manpower and the resources of the Greek Italian city states that supplied Rome with huge numbers of Sailors. Carthage’s naval supremacy had given it a chance during the First Punic War but that was lost when the Roman’s found a way to use their huge reserves of trained manpower at sea. The other thing the Romans had was a will to win that was rather extreme for the time and a refusal to give up despite all sorts of disasters and difficulties. When a “normal” state at the time would have given up Rome would persevere and try and try again.9 This made Rome a very dangerous enemy.
That Carthage lost the First Punic War was hardly a surprise but the contest was brutal and protracted much of it because the Carthaginians proved to be resourceful. So the war ended with a Roman victory but a less than crushing Carthaginian defeat. Carthage was able to recover and by taking over much of Spain able to replace the resources and territory she had lost to Rome.10
Still Rome was a serious threat and Hannibal probably reasoned a showdown was inevitable. However now the circumstances were much worst for Carthage than just before the First Punic War. Rome had further increased the size of its confederacy and now had naval supremacy in the Western Mediterranean. This made going to war with Rome a long shot. Given that Rome could easily just invade Africa like it did during the First Punic War or send an army to Spain.
Simply waiting for Rome in Spain and North Africa was self-defeating. In such a contest Rome would simply send one army after the other if one was defeated. And given the large superiority of Roman manpower in size and overall quality, to say nothing of Roman determination; the outcome of such a contest of attrition would be Roman victory and Carthaginian defeat.11
Given that, the only way to defeat Rome was to break up the Roman confederacy, and that could only be done by invading Italy. Rome could win the war outside of Italy and Carthage lose it in Spain and North Africa but Carthage could only win in Italy. Any Carthaginian strategy that ignored Italy would give victory to Rome in the end. And if the Carthaginian Senate in fact did adopt such a strategy, of making areas outside Italy have priority, which it appears that they did, they were adopting a strategy virtually guaranteed to give Rome victory.
It was Hannibal who by tying down a huge proportion of Roman military manpower in Italy that delayed the Carthaginian defeat. As it is the war lasted c. 17 years and was a bloody and very costly victory for Rome. In the end only a relatively small portion of Rome’s military might was required to defeat Carthage in North Africa and force Carthage to sue for peace. Which of course gives a true indication of the actual balance of military power between Rome and Carthage. Quite simply Carthage was hugely out-manned by the military power of Rome at the start of the Second Punic War and it was the genius of Hannibal that transformed the struggle from a one sided war that Rome could have won without undue difficulty into a terrible life and death struggle for Rome.12
Hannibal by invading Italy was seeking to disrupt and destroy the Roman confederacy of colonies and allied states and thus destroy the foundations of Roman military power. Hannibal appears to have been convinced that Rome could only be defeated in Italy and frankly he was right. It was his great military talent that made this a possibility.
So what does this have to do with Hannibal’s alleged mistake in not marching on Rome after Cannae? Well a lot. Despite two disastrous defeats before Cannae Hannibal had made barely a dent in the Roman confederation. He had an army on the move through Italy with no base or large city to fall back on. All the allies he had so far gained were some Celtic tribes in the Po Valley. They had supplied some much needed manpower but against the Roman political system he had gained virtually nothing. Then the Romans foolishly abandoning the Fabian strategy of avoiding battle with Hannibal sought out a pitched battle with him. Which is what Hannibal wanted hence the slaughter at Cannae. It was then that the Roman confederation started to crumble. Large sections of Southern Italy defected to Hannibal, finally giving him a secure base, rather than just leading a marauding army from place to place living off the country.
Thus since Hannibal’s aim was to disrupt the Roman confederacy marching on Rome would serve little purpose. Besides in the immediate aftermath of Cannae Hannibal still had no allies and no secure base area. His army had suffered significant casualties, at least 8,000 and was now burdened with over 10,000 captives to say nothing of the immense booty of the Roman camps. Hannibal’s ability to move quickly was not great. Further despite the words attributed to Maharbal a few thousand cavalry would have stood no chance against the walls of Rome. And as for a few days march perhaps by forced marches Hannibal could have got to Rome in c. two weeks. But Rome was even then the largest city in Italy and along with its garrison much of the civilian male population was available to man the city walls. To say nothing of given two weeks the Romans could have rushed forces into Rome from areas much nearer to Rome than Hannibal was.13
In other words on his march to Rome Hannibal would have faced the problem of besieging a large well-fortified city with a garrison by this time almost as large if not larger than his own army. And Hannibal would still have had no base area and no secure source of supply in order to conduct a siege. And of course the Romans would have raised large forces to relieve the city and would possibly have hemmed Hannibal in; putting him between a large well garrisoned city and large relieving forces with no-where to fall back on. Militarily that would have been stunningly dangerous. Hannibal’s logistical problems would likely have become insurmountable if he tried to besiege Rome. Given that the Romans would likely have devastated the area around the city and Hannibal’s own army would have fairly quickly taken and consumed what was left.14
The only reasonable basis for marching on Rome would have been if such a march would have or been likely to have caused a severe collapse of Roman morale and thus the collapse of the Roman state. Was such an event likely? Certainly Hannibal could reasonably think otherwise. After all not only had Roman morale not collapsed with the two previous great defeats and the devastation of much of Italy by Hannibal’s army but if anything the Roman’s seemed even more determined to prosecute the war. In fact the Roman reaction after Cannae was to stoically continue the war and intensify war preparations. In fact the Roman reaction after Cannae is a strong indication that just marching on Rome would not likely have cracked Roman morale. Given past experience Hannibal could not reasonably expect a collapse of Roman morale if he marched on Rome or the unravelling of the Roman confederacy. Instead he might just be walking into a potentially disastrous situation. Trapped between a heavily garrisoned Rome and relieving armies in a devastated countryside with no base to fall back on. A march on Rome would have been a great gamble that based on past performance would accomplish little. Further given that the Romans would have had time to prepare the gamble was even less likely.15
Further Hannibal seems to have known that the Roman hold on Southern Italy was less secure than that of central Italy and marching away from potential supporters would have been a grievous error if Rome did not collapse at his approach which was very unlikely. And has I mentioned above Hannibal had significant casualties and was burden by many prisoners and immense booty, so he was in little position to march on Rome anyway. As much of Southern Italy defected to him in the aftermath of Cannae it seems clear that Hannibal was right or at least made a perfectly reasonable choice.
It seems clear that a further defeat of proportions like Cannae would possibly have shaken the Roman confederacy past the breaking point and it would then have finally been broken. But in the years after Cannae the Romans were careful not to give Hannibal the large set piece battle that would have served Hannibal’s purpose of a grand battle of annihilation. Gradually by sheer attrition the Romans were able to wear Hannibal down and slowly drive him into the toe of Italy. They suffered huge losses in doing so and were frequently mauled by Hannibal but they avoided the grand set piece battle and by sheer force of attrition drove him into the boot of Italy but they were never able to drive him out until his army left in 203 B.C., under a preliminary peace treaty. Hannibal’s ability to maintain his army in Italy against the might of the Roman confederation for more than 10 years is one of the most remarkable displays of generalship ever. It is even more remarkable than his three great victories including Cannae.16
His refusal to march on Rome was not a mistake. He was pursuing a reasonable, even brilliant strategy that gave Carthage its only reasonable chance of victory. Perhaps we should see marching on Rome as part of a slightly different strategy that might have worked in the same manner that Hannibal was pursuing to disrupt and destroy the Roman confederation. If a march on Rome after Cannae was so much a pie in sky gamble that almost certainly would not have produced a collapse of the Roman state than perhaps the actual problem was not that but the problem of forcing the Romans to fight another decisive battle like Cannae.
For period of 6 months or so after Cannae Hannibal could march where he wanted so perhaps after securing a base to fall back on he could have marched on Rome. Not to try to take the city by storm not even to besiege it, for real but to operate near it and threaten it. Just maybe the threat to Rome would have drawn Roman troops away from other areas, encouraging defections and political collapse. Then if Hannibal either besieged Rome or looked like he would besiege the city the Roman forces would be forced to fight to relieve the city. Thus giving, possibly, to Hannibal the potential to inflict on Rome another Cannae and this time in the vicinity of Rome. Another Cannae near Rome would possibly have finally led to the Roman confederacy cracking, giving Hannibal and Carthage victory in the war.
Of course it would have been a great gamble but it just might have given Hannibal what he wanted the chance to fight another Cannae. There is also the likelihood that the Roman armies would have avoided battle and hemmed Hannibal in forcing him to leave the area of Rome and certainly a likely failure of supplies would have likely compelled him to leave also. Still the threat to Rome could have compelled the Romans to take risks that Hannibal could have taken advantage of. And in the wake of Cannae perhaps only by threating Rome could the Romans be in any way compelled to take such risks.
If Hannibal ever contemplated the above is not known. It is in many ways almost as risky as simply marching on Rome and trying to take her by siege. Also it should be remembered that Hannibal’s actual strategy was enormously damaging to the Romans and came far to frighteningly close to success for the Romans to easily stomach.
As it is Hannibal’s failure to march on Rome after Cannae was not a “mistake” it was a perfectly reasonable decision and likely a “right” one. The bottom line is that marching on Rome only made sense has part of a strategy that envisioned forcing another Cannae on the Romans and the likelihood of that happening even with a march on Rome were not good. Still the failure of Hannibal to secure another Cannae was probably the salvation of Rome.
Thus Hannibal was absolutely right the war could only be won in Italy, and that only by breaking up the Roman confederation. He set out to do so and came closer to doing so than anyone had a right to expect.
The Carthaginian leadership in Carthage by giving Hannibal surprisingly little support and spending their efforts elsewhere; in other words seeming to view Hannibal in Italy has little more than a distraction for the Romans, missed out. The war, to repeat, could only be won by Carthage in Italy; however Rome could win the war against Carthage outside of Italy. And given the disparity of forces available to both sides a war between Carthage and Rome fought outside Italy would most probably if not certainly end in Roman victory and Carthaginian defeat. The Carthaginian government by deciding that the decisive areas of the war were outside Italy and to devote virtually all their efforts to that in effect lost the war. In effect Rome could only stalemate Hannibal in Italy despite a huge predominance of force they did however win the war outside Italy in Spain and North Africa.17
Carthage was decisively defeated and Hannibal eventually went into exile where the Romans eventually tracked him down and to avoid failing into their hands Hannibal killed himself. Such was the hate and fear that Hannibal provoked among the Romans.18
As it is Hannibal’s “mistake” was in the end probably not a mistake but the right thing to do.
1. Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, ch. 49, at Perseus Here. ch 46, Here. Livy, History of Rome, Book 22, ch. 36, 52, Here. See also Livy, The War Against Hannibal, (Books 21-30 of Livy’s History of Rome.), Penguin Books, London, 1965, Book 22, ch. 49, p. 149, ch. 46, p. 146, ch. 36, p. 134. Polybius, The Rise of The Roman Empire, Penguin Books, London, 1979, Book 3, ch. 113, p. 270-271, ch. 117, p. 274. See also Polybius, The Histories, Book 3, ch. 113, ch. 117, LacusCurtius Here. Polybius says that the Romans numbered 86,000 men and that the Carthaginians numbered 50,000. However since both sides left men to guard their camps the numbers on the battlefield were less. See Lazenby, J. F., Hannibal’s War, Aris & Phillips Ltd, Warminster England, 1978, pp. 79-81, 84-85. Lazenby states that probably 10,000 men were left by the Romans in one camp and perhaps 5,000 in another smaller camp. The Roman army totaled 86,000 men of which c. 71,000 would be available for the pitched battle. Of those 6,000 were cavalry and c. 65,000 were infantry. Lazenby reduces it to 60,000 infantry on the battlefield. Hannibal is given by Lazenby 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. Strangely Lazenby does not take into account any forces left to defend Hannibal’s camp. We know that forces defending the camp repulsed a Roman attack and therefore perhaps c. 8,000 were left by Hannibal to defend the camp. So Hannibal was probably outnumbered two to one in infantry. Further most of his infantry seems to have been Celts from Gaul and Northern Italy who were overall inferior to Roman forces in a pitched battle. Certainly their weapons and armour were not as good as the Roman. So the odds were even more against Hannibal than the c. two to one odds. Of course it would turn out that cavalry would be the trump card that Hannibal would play. Polybius gives the number of Roman dead at Cannae as 70,000. That is almost certainly wrong. Livy gives a total of 48,200 Which is far more reasonable. See discussion in Lazenby, pp.84-85. Polybius gives Hannibal’s losses as 5,700 and Livy 8,000 dead. It is likely that Polybius’ figures are more correct and if you include the wounded they would have amounted to c. 8,000. If Hannibal had fought with c. 42,000 men at Cannae battlefield the loss of 8,000 men was a pretty high portion of his force c. 20% of 42,000 and c. 16% of 50,000. Rather significant losses.
2. Livy, Book 22, Polybius, Book 3, Lazenby, 1978, pp. 49-75.
3. Footnote 1, Lazenby, 1978, pp. 85-88.
4. Livy, Book 22, ch. 51, at Perseus Here. See also Livy, The War Against Hannibal, ch. 51, p. 151.
5. Lazenby, 1978, pp. 258-264, Walbank, W. F., Introduction, From Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, pp. 9-40.
6. IBID, Lazenby, 1978, Radice, Betty, Introduction, From Livy, The War with Hannibal, pp. 7-22.
7. This book shall remain nameless.
8. Lazenby, 1978, has some informed speculation about Hannibal’s possible plans at pp. 29-33 and 86.
9. IBID, pp. 5-12, 29-33, 233-238, O’Connell, Robert L., Ghosts of Cannae, Random House, New York, 2010, pp. 547-548, (I am using an electronic edition) It is from chapter 7 – Aftershocks.
10. See Lazenby, J. F., The First Punic War, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1996a, and Lazenby, 1978, pp. 21-22. See also Polybius, Rise of the Roman Empire, Book 1, pp. 51-110, The Histories, Lacus Curtius, Here.
11. Footnote 9.
12. Footnote 8 & 9 and pp. 226-227.
13. Lazenby, 1978, pp. 85-86, Lazenby, John, Was Maharbal Right?, From Editors Cornell, Tim & Rankov, Boris, & Sabin, Philip, The Second Punic War: A Reappraisal, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, London, 1996b, pp. 39-47.
14. IBID, Lazenby, 1978, 1996b. See also Shean, John F., Hannibal’s Mules: The Logistical Limitations of Hannibal’s Army and the Battle of Cannae, 216 B.C., in Historia, v. 45, 1996, pp. 159-187.
15. Footnote 9, and Lazenby, 1996b. See also regarding the various Italian states and their situation caught between Roman forces and Carthaginian forces under Hannibal, Fronda, Michael P., Between Rome and Carthage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010. For the Roman reaction see O’Connell, Robert L., pp. 536-588. (I am using an electronic edition) It is from chapter 7 – Aftershocks.
16. Lazenby, pp. 226-227, 1996b.
17. Lazenby, pp. 233-238, 1996b.
18. Nepos, Cornelius, Hannibal, Lives of Eminent Commanders, s. 12 Here.