Warfare has traditionally been studied, as a rule, from the viewpoint of the commander with regard to such matters as strategy, tactics, and organisation. In the light of John Keegan’s pioneering work in such books as The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command such an approach seems fundamentally flawed. Even to see the commander’s role as inevitably being primarily focused on strategy, tactics, etc. is to ignore the fact that different societies expect different things of their leaders and military command can therefore widely differ in nature from society to society.
In practice, commanders have two broad areas of responsibility: ‘function related’, which mainly concern administration, and ‘output related’, which involve the army’s basic raison d’être: to defeat the enemy in battle at minimum cost to itself. ‘Output related’ responsibilities themselves require two sets of skills, those of generalship and leadership. The former are essentially technical in nature and concern such things as intelligence gathering, tactics, and putting those tactics into practice. Leadership is a more difficult concept to define which involves exploiting the psychological factors governing the behaviour of troops to encourage them to fight more effectively.
It is interesting that Polybius, a second-century BC Greek historian, in evaluating Hannibal as his commander, regards his leadership as far more important than his generalship, thinking it his supreme achievement to have actually kept his polyglot army together as an efficient fighting force:
‘For sixteen years he waged ceaseless war in Italy, and throughout that time he never released his army from service in the field, but, like a good pilot, kept those numbers under his control and free from disaffection towards himself or one another. He succeeded in this despite the fact that he was employing troops who belonged not only to different countries but to different races. He had with him Africans, Spaniards, Ligurians, Celts, Phoenicians, Italians, and Greeks, men who had nothing naturally in common, neither their laws, their customs, their language, nor in any other respect. None the less the skill of their commander was such that he could impose the authority of a single voice and a single will even upon men of such totally diverse origins.’ (9.19.3-5)
This passage is highly significant as it largely flies in the face of modern military historiography, which has tended to emphasis the skills of generalship rather than those of leadership. This tendency is understandable as military history has generally been seen as most useful as an education for young officers and the principles of strategy and tactics are relatively straightforward.
Commanders have thus been evaluated primarily with regard to these easily understood principles. The problem with such an approach is that it assumes that the ‘rules of war’ and the commander’s role throughout history are unchanging. This is not the case. Armies are a reflection of the societies from which they issue and fight for their objectives and according to their values. As societies differ so too do armies, and the commander’s role varies in accordance with this fact.
Carthage, a powerful commercial city on the North African coast, seems to have been something of an anomaly in Antiquity in that her army was not essentially based on her citizen body; by the late third century BC there was no real citizen militia except for a small force of cavalry supplied by the aristocracy. Instead, the Carthaginian army, led by an officer corps of Carthaginian aristocrats, was made up of allied levies augmented by foreign mercenaries. This polyglot force was of many races: Libyans and Liby-Phoenicians from Carthage’s hinterland, Numidians, Moors, Balearics, Iberians, Celtiberians, Celts, Greeks, and Italians of various types.
Such an army, essentially fighting for booty, would have had no real commitment to the army, though in theory defeated generals could be crucified. The generals were evidently not trusted as, though elected for a specific campaign rather than a restricted time period, their role was a purely military one with no civil powers whatsoever. This peculiar limitation of powers may have been unique in the Classical world.
To a large extent then, the army was isolated from Carthage and became a society in its own right with a rather special link between the general and troops. In fact, by the time of the Second Punic War, in the late third century BC, the Barcid family, of which Hannibal is the most well-known member, had effectively become an imperial dynasty leading Carthage’s army in Spain.
In practice it seems that the citizen’s assembly in Carthage merely ratified the army’s choice as general, if Diodorus Siculus (25.12.1) and Polybius (3.13.3-4) are to be trusted in their accounts of the successions of Hasdrubal and Hannibal respectively. This may not always have been the case but the soldiers’ choice was certainly an important feature in the First Punic War, when they were so impressed by the generalship of the Spartan mercenary Xanthippus that the generals gave way to the soldiers’ demands for him to lead them into battle (Polyb. 1.22.4-5). In Carthage’s subsequent war with her former mercenaries and Libyan subjects the joint commanders of Carthage’s own army, Hamilcar and Hanno, quarrelled and the army was allowed to reject one of the two (Polyb. 22.214.171.124); Hanno was rejected and Hamilcar, Hannibal’s father, led his men to victory.
Such an arrangement as developed would certainly have made sense as the army would be picking a tried soldier who had served with them as a junior officer and in whose abilities they would have had confidence. This would have allowed an impressive esprit de corps to develop, focused on the mystique of the commanders who virtually became a hereditary monarchy in Spain with political power in Carthage, based on and justified by their military authority and success.
However, to command effectively, commanders cannot solely rely upon their hierarchical link with their men. Rather they must know how to speak directly to them, especially at times of crisis, such as the eve of battle. This is what Keegan identifies s ‘The Imperative of Prescription’, one of the most important duties of any commander. The failure to fulfil this can lead to a distinct lack of morale among the men, as the ‘chateau generalship’ of the First World War clearly showed. Troop morale was described by Montgomery as ‘the single most important factor in war’ and while as a rule the Carthaginian commander would have been a significant enough focus for the soldiers’ loyalty to bind them together, this was not necessarily so at times of crisis.
Prior to his account of the Battle of Cannae in late Summer, 216 BC, Polybius has Aemilius Paulus, the Roman commander, declare to his men that he has no real to exhort or address them before battle as they are already fully commented as they are fighting for their homes and families, but that:
‘For those who in some countries serve for hire or for those who are about to fight for their neighbours by the terms of an alliance, the moment of greatest peril is during the battle itself but the result makes little difference to them, and in such a case exhortation is necessary.’ (3.109.6)
Whether Paulus ever said such a thing is debatable; the speeches before Cannae have been described as full of commonplaces and unlikely to go back to a genuine record. Nevertheless, what is significant is that Polybius deems such a sentiment worthy of inclusion and favours a citizen militia as being more highly motivated than an army consisting of hired troops, as he points out elsewhere in his Histories, when he contrasts the military system of Carthage with that of Rome (6.52.).
An examination of the early books of Polybius seems to support the claim attributed to Paulus, as exhortation is far more frequently referred to in a Carthaginian context than a Roman one. Polybius refers to exhortations by Carthaginian officers several times in his account of the First Punic War (1.27.1, 32.8, 44.1, 45.2-4, 49.10) but never mentions any Roman exhortations. Furthermore, Polybius only refers to two instances of exhortation by Romans in the Second Punic War prior to the battle of Cannae (3.64, 109), one of which, being that of the elder Scipio at the Trebia, is definitely unhistorical, and the other, being Paulus’ speech prior to Cannae, is fraught with problems, whereas he mentions Hannibal exhorting his offers or men at least eight times (3.34.7-9, 43.11, 44.4-13, 54.1-3, 63, 71.8, 71.10-11, 111). It would seem that exhortation was one of the most important duties of Carthaginian commanders and its frequency was a hallmark of their leadership style.
Of course, the question must then be asked of how this was done. The first obvious problem is one of scale. Apparently Hannibal had over 50,000 troops at Cannae, yet he is presented as addressing the entire army at once. If this was the case it seems unlikely that he could have been heard by the bulk of the army. To take some modern examples, Benjamin Franklin was able to prove to his own satisfaction that a certain travelling preacher, reputed to have addressed crowds of 25,000, could have actually addressed up to 30,000 at once, but Lincoln was badly heard at Gettysburg, addressing 15,000. Gladstone was regularly heard by crowds of 5,000, but that was indoors. In practice it seems that it would not have been feasible to address gatherings larger than 5,000 unless a natural amphitheatre was used. This may well have been done – Philip V of Macedon addressed his men in Corinth’s amphitheatre at one point (5.25.4-5). It would seem to have been more common to ride along the line of battle or among the army addressing units of troops, as was done by Ptolemy and Antiochus at the Battle of Raphia in 217 and by Scipio Africanus at Zama in 202 (5.83.1-2, 15.10.1). It is worth noting that even doing this, Philopoemen had difficulty being heard at the Battle of Mantinea because of the reaction of his men:
‘Such was their ardour and zeal that they responded to his address with what was almost a transport of enthusiasm, exhorting him to lead them on and be of good heart.’ (11.12.2)
Another major problem for Carthaginian commanders would have been that the army, being multinational in character, lacked a common tongue. Such problems weren’t unique to Carthaginian armies, as Persian armies had been polyglot in character too, as was Alexander’s army after the conquest of Persia.
Interpreters could be used to address armies, as they were at Raphai (5.83.7), and Hannibal did have interpreters with him (e.g. 3.44.5), but there is no record of him using them to address his army. Hannibal’s own knowledge of languages other than Punic and Greek is uncertain, though Zonaras claims he knew several languages, including Latin (8.24). At Zama, having arranged for the Ligurians, Celts, Balearics, and Moors, as well as the Carthaginians themselves, to be addressed by their own leaders (Polyb. 15.11.4-5), he apparently addressed the troops he had brought from Italy himself, imploring them to ‘remember their comradeship of seventeen years’ (15.11.6). He may well have addressed them in Punic rather than in their own languages or through an interpreter, as this seems to have been a lingua franca, to some extent, among veterans in Carthaginian armies; in the mercenary army that rose against Carthage after the First Punic War, a Celt named Autaritas became very influential due to his command of Punic, a language which all the mercenaries were familiar with to some degree (1.80.5-7).
Assuming the army was not addressed as a whole, Hannibal would have been able to appeal to each national grouping on different grounds. It was not unusual to exhort different parts of armies in different ways; for instance, at Raphia both Ptolemy and Antiochus spent more time addressing their phalanxes than any other part of their armies, as these were seen as the most important part (5.83.2). Such an approach made sense in forces as diverse as Successor or Carthaginian armies as the various contingents had their own very different reasons for fighting. Livy effectively describes how Hannibal and his officers did this at Zama, where:
‘In an army composed of men who shared neither language, customs, laws, weapons, dress, appearance, nor even a common reason for serving , the best means of arousing the fighting spirit was no simple matter; hopes and fears, to suit the case, had to be danged before their eyes.’ (30.33)
Different appeals were made to each grouping: booty as well as cash was offered to the auxiliaries; the Celts were inspired by their hatred of the Romans; the Ligurians were reminded of the riches of the plains of Italy; Moors and Numidians were threatened by the prospect of being ruled by the pro-Roman Masinissa; and the Carthaginians were urged to think of what they had to lose. In Polybius’ account the various national contingents are also described as being addressed in different ways.
To conclude, the commander’s role in any army is not limited merely to the traditional tasks of generalship, nor are these inherently his most important tasks. In the polyglot army of Carthage the leader’s skills were more important for commanders such as Hannibal than were the more technical skills of the general, though it must of course be borne in mind that the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive and exclusive and could often overlap.
Being chosen by the army for their ability, Carthaginian commanders had enough influence to bind the diverse elements under their command into an effective fighting force personally loyal to them, if not to the distant paymaster that was Carthage. However, at times of crisis, such as on the eve of a battle, that esprit de corps might not be enough to convince the troops to risk their lives, and so it would fall to their commander to speak to them and rouse their spirits. Despite the many obstacles to doing this effectively in such a large multiracial force, Hannibal proved so adept at this that Polybius considered the fact that he kept his army together in hostile territory for so long to have his supreme achievement.
-- Limerick, August 1997.
My first ever paper, this is another piece discovered recently in the parental shed, originally given as a talk to the Classical Association of Ireland's annual conference, which that year was held in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Some of this I still think holds up well, but other bits rather channel Keegan a bit too much.
If you've liked this, before I wrap up, then I suspect there's a high chance you'll also like Darkness Over Cannae. Don't take my word for it. Take a look.