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The Second Punic War Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History 241 BC to 146 BC Notes

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Why did Hannibal not win the second Punic War?
"I am that Hannibal who after the battle of Cannae became master of almost the whole of Italy, who later advanced up to Rome itself, pitched camp within five miles of her walls, and there took thought as to how I should deal with you and your country. Today I am here in Africa, on the point of negotiating with you, a Roman, concerning my country's very existence and my own" (Polybius 15.7) These are the words of Hannibal to Scipio before the final decisive encounter of the second Punic war; up to this point he had never been defeated, in Italy or anywhere else, but he stood on the plains of Zama about to lose the battle and the war. How is it possible that, after annihilating the Romans three times in pitched battle in their own country, he had to return to his own just in time to lose the war itself? The answer to this question requires looking beyond the great feats of Hannibal, such as the crossing of the Alps and the nearperfect victory at Cannae, to assess the true depths of Roman strength and the fragility of Carthaginian hopes, which ultimately rested on the genius of one man. The ability of the Romans to summon up reserves of men from their own citizen body and their allies and then send legion after legion into the field meant that as long as they had the heart for the fight it would be nearly impossible to defeat them. This meant they could replace their armies no matter how crushing and total Hannibal's victories were and furthermore they could fight a war on multiple fronts, Spain, Africa, Sicily and Italy, in a way that the Carthaginians could not. This combined with the importance of the loyalty of the Italian and Latin allies, which should never be underestimated, and with the tactics of both Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus, meant that Hannibal had a task which was far greater than he could ever have possibly conceived. The accounts of the second Punic war in Italy given by Polybius and Livy make clear what strategy Hannibal was pursuing and how he intended to win the war against Rome. Despite Maharbal's comments the Carthaginian general never intended to besiege the city of Rome (he does march there in 211 but this is to relieve his allies besieged in Capua and he soon turns back once he realises there is another Roman force guarding the city), but rather he hoped to detach most of her allies from the Italian confederacy by consistently destroying her armies in the open field. The treaty which the Carthaginians sign with Philip the fifth of Macedon clearly shows that they never intended to destroy the city of Rome completely and the text envisions scenarios involving her explicitly stated as occurring after the second Punic war had been concluded. Furthermore the siege of a city of the size of Rome was in many ways not practicable for the type of forces Hannibal was commanding and the experience they had in the past; they were effective in the open field but, as the eight month siege of Saguntum showed, they were not adept at prolonged siege warfare. It is interesting to note that the only other city of a similar size which Hannibal captured, or even attempted to take, was Tarentum; this was through treachery and crucially he still failed to take the citadel which controlled the harbour he desperately needed. Therefore it makes sense that

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