I just finished reading The Punic Wars, by Adrian Goldsworthy. That was on the heels of finishing The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic, by Robert L. O’Connell. Before that, I read Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama & the Fall of Carthage, by Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfree and John Cairns. Lately, I had been on a binge studying Rome and Carthage.
For those who are not versed in the Second Punic War, in 218 BC a Carthaginian army composed of Numidians, Spaniards and Libyans under the command of Hannibal Barca (“barca” meaning “thunderbolt,” a name applied to his family in a society which generally had no surnames), crossed the Alps into Roman Italy. Hannibal then proceeded to swell his army with recruits from Gallic tribes who were traditional enemies of the Romans.
The Romans tried to stop the Carthaginian advance at the River Ticinus. They lost. Badly.
The Romans tried again, attacking the Carthaginians across the River Trebbia. They lost. Badly.
The Romans tried again, attacking the Carthaginians across a defile between a series of hills and Lake Trasimene. They lost. Badly.
At this point, a Roman senator named Quintus Fabius Maximus was appointed dictator, a standard move in military emergencies in Republican Rome. He acquired the nickname cunctator (“delayer”) for his tactics against Hannibal. Fabius (Maximus was a title given to his family by the Senate several generations before) did not attack Hannibal directly – not surprising given the record expressed above. While Hannibal would burn, pillage and loot the land of Rome and her allies, Fabius’ army would basically stay on the ridges just following Hannibal’s army but not attacking directly. It was said that he would dog and delay Hannibal.
Eventually, after a weird nighttime engagement involving oxen with flaming tree branches tied to their horns, Rome tired of merely delaying Hannibal and wanted to take him out. Fabius was replaced. Another army, this one extremely large, was raised, and in 216 BC it went down to a Roman supply depot recently occupied by Hannibal at a place called Cannae and went on the offensive.
The result was the worst defeat in the history of the Roman Republic, and one of the biggest in history. Rome’s army was completely destroyed. Cannae established Hannibal as a military genius. Many cities and towns in southern Italy, especially those that had been founded by the Greeks, switched their allegiance to Carthage.
Nevertheless Rome did not surrender, did not even discuss it, a point of inspiration for me. Envoys from Hannibal to discuss surrender terms were not even allowed to approach the city. Yet another new army was raised. Fabius was again put in command. His tactics of “dogging and delaying” Hannibal were again in vogue. There would be no more large pitched battles between Rome and Hannibal until 202 BC, when a Roman army under Publius Cornelius Scipio, ironically filled with survivors of Cannae, defeated Hannibal at a currently unidentified North African location called Zama, basically at the gates of Carthage. According to the Greek historian Polybius, it was Hannibal’s only defeat at the hands of the Romans. Carthage was forced to surrender. The Roman Senate gave Scipio the title “Africanus.”
While Scipio Africanus is widely regarded as the Roman answer to Hannibal, it is also widely held that Fabius, a political enemy of Scipio, saved Rome during its darkest hour after Cannae. Rome was saved by Fabius’ tactics of “dogging and delaying” Hannibal.
However, it occurred to me that in many of these histories, very, very few explain what “dogging and delaying” actually is. The concept is counterintuitive. The entire purpose of a military is to protect people, either through defensive or offensive actions, usually of an unsavory nature. Having an army sit back and watch while an enemy army pillages, loots, burns and rapes those very things the army is supposed to be protecting may well make one question what precisely that army was for. In fact, the best explanation that I have seen is in The Anatomy of Error: Ancient Military Disasters and Their Lessons for Modern Strategists, by Barry S. Strauss and Josiah Ober.
But there is a definite logic to Fabian military tactics. It arises out of the old maxim that “good generals think tactics, great generals think logistics.”
The Roman army in Italy could not defeat Hannibal in open battle. Trebbia River, Lake Trasimene and Cannae had proved that. But Hannibal and his polyglot army of Libyans, Numidians, Spanish and Gauls was not without weaknesses. Its biggest weakness was supply: it had no supply lines, either back to Punic Spain or Carthage itself. It had no ports from which to import supplies and reinforcements. It had to live off the land; the burning, pillaging and looting of Roman territory was in part necessary to keep itself supplied, part necessary to show that Rome was weak and Hannibal (not necessarily Carthage) strong.
In order to effectively loot the territory, Hannibal’s army had to disperse into small parties over a large area. This is where Fabius would come in.
Fabius and his army would select a good defensive position, usually on high ground, and set up the standard fortified Roman camp there. Hannibal would not attack the Romans in such an environment; remember that Hannibal’s victories came from goading the Romans to attack him in circumstances unfavorable to the Romans. And Fabius in turn would not directly attack Hannibal, no matter how much Hannibal dared him to attack. Seeing this, Hannibal would disperse his army to forage and pillage.
From his fortified camp, Fabius would send out large expeditions to ambush Hannibal’s individual foraging parties. Not all of them, of course, but Fabius could create local numerical superiority over each of Hannibal’s foraging parties. One would be ambushed here, another would disappear there.
Hannibal would move his army away from the Roman army to new foraging territory. Fabius would follow. The process would repeat.
Eventually, Hannibal was forced to stop dispersing his army into foraging parties when the Roman army was within striking distance. But that created even more problems for Hannibal. Unable to disperse, his plundering and foraging would extremely limited in terms of territory. His army would quickly exhaust whatever forage was available in its immediate area. Then it would have to move, simply to find new forage.
The Punic army in Italy would thus be constantly on the move simply to keep itself supplied. In so doing, its strategic options were extremely limited. Always low on supplies, it would struggle to attack, though to be sure Hannibal was always a master on the tactical defense. With little plunder, Hannibal would always be strapped for cash, barely able to pay his own troops, let alone hire more of the mercenaries on which Carthage depended for its armies. Hannibal’s army would thus always be small.
Additionally, with little cash, Hannibal could not bribe Italian towns into switching sides. Convincing them to switch sides would also be a problem with Fabius’ Roman army always shadowing him, because once Hannibal left, the Romans would still be there ready to retake the town. Hannibal did not have enough troops to protect them, and his own tactics depended on mobility, which prevented him from staying in any one place, such as in defense of a Punic-allied town, for a lengthy period.
Fabius’ tactics amounted to a slow but steady strangulation of the Punic army in Italy. It was not spectacular or sexy, it provided no morale-boosting great victories, but it did take advantage of Rome’s most precious asset over Carthage – her will to win.
It’s not clear to me if such slow but steady tactics can be victorious in the political environment of today.