Call me a sucker for the romanticism, but I love reading about Alexander
. They are only overrated if one claims they are without question
the 2 greatest ever. There's no such thing, and being a great general doesn't have to require being a wizard. Look at Bertrand de Guesclin
and Albrecht von Wallenstein
With all things considered, such as the innovations of Epaminondas
, the maker of a 'New Model Army' from the likes of Philip II of Macedon
and Gustavus Adolphus
, the tactical brilliance of Hannibal
, the scope of the conquests of Chinggis Khan
, the overral greatness in every facet of war on the part of Marlborough
, the adeptness in guerilla-style warfare of Paul von-Lettow Vorbek
and Mao Tse Tung
, it is a good argument, in my opinion, that Alexander the Great
was the towering figure of military history, from a specific view;his ability to successfully adapt strategy and tactics to virtually every branch of warfare possibly sets him apart from every other great commander. He took his army some 20,000 miles in 13 years, not once suffering a major setback, let alone a defeat. His opponent always chose the battlefield and ususally heavily outnumbered him. For what it merits, no other has successfully 'linked' the East and West, thus he was an immense cultural reformer, which is what he wanted to do. He indeed commanded an army much superior than what he faced, but he was outnumbered considerably and his battle dispositions at Gaugamela were perfectly planned to accord with what Napoleon
described as 'a well reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive followed by rapid and audacious attack'. In this regard, Alexander
shined as well as any other in military history (IMHO of course).
The military machine left to Alexander
from Philip II
was the world's first standing army and raised by the world's first universal military service. But Philip II's
son took his machine and succeeded, perhaps, beyond the Macedonina king's wildest dreams. A brilliantly, scientifically-balanced constructed army is just potential; it is the commander that must lead it to victory, and advantages in troop quality and technology only produce advantages if used effectively. Alexander
innovated the efficacy of combined arms to a much further degree than his great father. He also introduced the use of reserves on the battlefield that could take advantage of any unforeseen opportunities or reverses against the front lines. He also was the first great commander to use catapults tactically on the battlefield. In the Balkans, he lined the machines hub-to-hub along the bank of the Apsus River to cover the crossing of his withdrawing troops against the attacks upon him by the Illyrian tribes under Cleitus
. Contrarily, 6 years on the other side of the 'world', he effectively used catapults to drive the Scythians from the riverbank of the Jaxartes as he conducted an amphibious assault against them. Alexander's
defeat of the Scythians on the banks of the Jaxartes River was possibly, from a tactical standpoint, his greatest battle, even though the clash didn't involve huge numbers of troops. He defeated the best nomadic horse-archers of the steppes of the times, supposedly unbeatable due to their swarming tactics of encirclement and speed. I'll spare the details, or we can discuss them later, but he basically restricted their mobility and created a situation that forced them to engage.There has perhaps been no greater practitioner of a great system.
It is incredible what Hannibal
achieved at Cannae in 216 B.C. The amazing 'reverse-refusal' he administered with his infantry maneuver constituted a giant trap. His center was deployed in a convex manner, so as to entice the advancing Romans (aggressive by nature) to attack them, and the placing of 2 strong blocks of African infantry on either wing and further back meant not only would the enemy tend to suck into the center, but if things went amiss fugitives from his Celtic and Iberian units would also be funnelled into the center where they could bunch and slow the Roman advance - even if they didn't want to. Hannibal
personally commanded the center, as he intended his troops at this point to stage one of the most difficult maneuvers a unit could be asked of by their commander to pull off in battle - they were to fall back under the pressure of the Romans' advance, but not break. In these battles of antiquity, most of the casualties were suffered as the defeated fled in rout. Of course, those who fled first had the best chance of getting away. For an army to fight effectively, particularly under these circumstances, each soldier had to trust that his comrades would not leave him in the lurch. This paramount level of trust was tested to its fullest when thier battle line started to bend backwards. Amazing leadership of polyglot contingents. His unusual placing of the more numerous shock cavalry on the confined flank near the Aufidus River, with the Numidians on the other side, actually slightly outnumbered by the Roman allied cavalry, meant that the Roman contingent would most likely be checkmated by the maneuverable Numidians, while the heavy cavalry would dispose of the Romans easily on their side, and be available for other tasks. Varro
, the Roman consul, should be at least credited for realizing the right bank of the river was less suitable for cavalry, but Hannibal
came up with an answer. The only way to significantly seduce Rome's allies was to destroy
Roman armies, not just best them. No victory could have been greater for this purpose. But in the long run, Cannae simply cemented the loyalty of Rome's core allies - something nobody could predict without applying such a test. Part of Hannibal's
genius lay in his ability to transcend the traditional ability of many soldiers of Iberian and Gallic heritage etc.
In final defeat at Zama, Hannibal
showed he had lost none of his touch. He knew he was finally outclassed in cavalry, and up against a great general in Scipio
. Though our sources don't imply this, he probably deliberately sacrificed his horsemen to lure the Romans and Massinissa
off the battlefield, where he had greater chance with his infantry. By using his cavalry units as decoys, however, he was taking a risk by doing so, because it still involved their defeat, exposed his flanks, and the Roman/Numidian cavalry could return before he had finished off Scipio's
smaller but better body of infantry. But he had to do something, and I don't think if they had held their ground they would have lasted long. The fact it was pretty close later shows Hannibal
made a viable decision. Furthermore, Scipio
had superior cavalry and proved his adeptness with 'boomerang' style tactics before. Hannibal
was a student of war, and a master of simple and even 'double' bluff. He also knew his history, particularly that of the Hellenistic kingdoms (he had Greek tutors). He knew what happened to Antigonus
when his son, Demetrius Poliorcetes
, went off in pursuit of Seleucus'
cavalry at the great battle of Ipsus in 301 B.C. It has been suggested that Seleucus
did indeed have his horses feign retreat. But, unlike Hannibal
, he had 400 elephants that day, so he could deploy some in reserve in case Demetrius
returned. He never did. Did Scipio
order his cavalry to merely ride out and ride back in the manner they did? Why didn't Scipio
try a flank maneuver with his cavalry, as Hannibal
had done at Cannae? He was certainly capable, and with superior material at his disposal. Scipio
doubtless did not wish for the complete departure of his own cavalry. Having driven the enemy away, he no doubt counted on them to attack the flanks of the main Carthaginian body, instead of pursuing a fleeing foe. He has been justly praised how well he handled the elephants at Zama, but it shouldn't be forgotten that Hannibal
certainly knew all about the tendencies and contingencies of elephants in battle. He surely hoped they would do their stuff, but he easily could have known they would do exactly what they did do - swerve out to the flanks and disrupt things, which would aid his cavalry deception. It is impossible that Hannibal
thought things would go smoothly with recently levied war elephants, and it is possible they didn't do as much harm to his cavalry squadrons as the ancients imply (I stress 'possible', OK?) We have a scholarly point of view from H.H. Scullard
, from his terrific Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician
"...Since it would take longer to convert a nominal into an actual flight than to drive a defeated enemy off the field, and since in fact the Roman cavalry only returned in the nick of time, it seems more probable that the Carthaginians deliberatley drew them away. After getting rid of the Roman cavalry, though with little hope that his own could rally against them, Hannibal would throw all his weight against Scipio's numerically inferior infantry. The elephant charge, with which he had hoped to confuse his foe, miscarried somewhat, partly through Scipio's foresight in leaving gaps in his line for the animals to run through, partly because they were always of rather doubtful quality, and here fell afoul of the Carthaginian cavalry. However, they cannot have done great harm to their own side, since their drivers had the means of killing them if they got out of hand..."
, more than any scholar of this period we're discussing, wrote a book about elephants in ancient warfare. I would like to believe he wasn't far-fetched with his research.
only mentions it was Hannibal's
left flank that was disrupted by elephants sent out of control. On the right flank he tells us that the scattered elephants that didn't charge down the lanes created by Scipio's
dispositions, "...fled towards the right and, received by the cavalry with showers of javelins, at length escaped out of the field. It was at this moment that Laelius, availing himself of the disturbance created by the elephants, charged the Carthaginian cavalry and forced them to headlong flight..."
. What confusion, Polybius
, if the elephants escaped out of the field? How did Gaius Laelius
so easily send the Carthaginian cavalry, though green but not outnumbered (assuming Masinissa's
4,000-strong was not interdispersed with the Romans), into flight? The flight seemed immediate. The answer is they quite possibly were ordered to give ground.
His infantry dispositions at Zama were also unusual, probably becuase he knew he was at a disadvantage here too. He surely wasn't going to try to repeat his tactics at Cannae against a brillaint general who had been there as a 17 or 18 year old, thus wouldn't be taken in. Moreover, Scipio
favored flank attacks with his best troops. Hannibal
adopted a Roman triple-line, but with his best unit, his veterans, the one unit who could match Scipio's
troops, at a further distance than the one between the 1st and 2nd line - a 'true reserve'. Scipio
could not do to him what he had so easily done to the other Carthaginian generals the past 7 years. Hannibal
legions, tiring them in the process, hoping to beat him head-on. It wasn't to be, as Scipio
was too good not to lose his advantage, as Polybius
said, and his army was too well-organized and well-drilled. But who knows what might have been if the 1st 2 lines hadn't turned on each other and Massinissa
and Gaius Laelius
hadn't returned 'providentially', as Polybius
Judging by his actions from when he first arrived in 218 B.C., a march on Rome itself never formed part of his plans. Assaulting Rome could only be practical with the total dissolution of the confederacy. For Hannibal
, the swiftest and most economical method of taking a city was by treachery, something inconceivable in the case of Rome, as the Senatorial class was far too patriotic. Despite Roman scaremongering, there were plenty of troops for the immediate defence of the Capitol. 2 city legions had been raised at the beginning of the year, and Marcellus
had a legion of marines at Teanum, as well as 1,500 men at Ostia, who would be sent to Rome. A considerable force was raised from the slave and criminal population (14,000 men), and 2 legions were to the north under one Postumius
, whose army would be ambushed and destroyed the following late winter/early spring by the Boii in Cisalpine Gaul. The Romans were still dominant at sea, and the Tiber provided a source of supply, thus they would easily have returned many, many troops from Sardinia and Sicily to hemm in a besieging army - one which had no immediate siege machinery.
The Second Punic War was a fascinating crossroad of history - a great general coming up short against a great republic, who changed the rules by never acquiescing when many others would have (probably).
But let's keep in mind no man is infallible, and every military action will, or should, be corresponded by a military re-action of adaptation etc.
Thanks Spartan JKM