Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.1


T. Cornell, B. Rankov and Ph. Sabin, The Second Punic War: A Reappraisal. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1996. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 67. ISBN 0-900587-78-4 (pb).


Reviewed by David Potter, Department of Classical Studies, The University of Michigan.

This volume offers a collection of six essays that were presented at a conference in 1993 at the University of London. The conference itself seems to have been well planned, for all six contributions are good, and the volume as a whole should become a starting point for the study of the Second Punic War. It is stated in the preface that the impetus behind the conference was a course on warfare and society in the ancient world offered by the departments of history, classics and war studies. An interest in the way that wars were actually fought is evident here, with three articles that specifically address the nature of battle (by John Lazenby, Sabin and Philip Rawlings), and a fourth on the war at sea (by Rankov). John Rich contributed a very long article on the origins of the war, and Cornell produced an article on the impact on Italy.

Organized conflict is a form of activity as old as the state, but (with some notable exceptions over the years) classical historians have tended to steer clear of it. And when they do express an interest, this interest is greater with reference to the beginnings and ends of conflicts than to their actual course. Some reluctance to deal with the course of campaign and battle is legitimate. While studies of war were aimed at the reconstruction of maneuvers on the field of battle, there was very little that the historian wary of conjecture could reasonably offer. In recent years, however, one fruitful area in the study of human conflict that has blossomed is the anthropology of the battlefield. What actually motivates groups of human beings to walk across a field, usually a relatively small field, in the direction of another group of human beings who want to kill them? What are the relationships between men in the ranks? What do their weapons do to other people? What impact do long periods of marching have on the physical well-being of soldiers? The organized march is not only a way of getting soldiers onto a battlefield, it is also a technique for the destruction of large populations whose annihilation with edged weapons was impractical, and an organized march can rapidly transform itself into a catastrophe if its stages are not calculated with great precision. How do officers compel or inspire obedience? What is the job of the general? How did this job change over time? What is the impact of conflict on non-combatants? Our sources may not be good on topography, but they have an enormous amount to tell us in answer to questions such as these. Many of these questions are addressed in Adrian Goldsworthy's valuable new book on the Roman army from 100 BC-200 AD, and they are addressed by Philip Sabin's excellent article in the volume under review here.

The Second Punic war was marked by an almost unprecedented search for the decisive engagement, and it here that Hannibal was the master. As Sabin points out, battles were generally rather easy to avoid. If an army stayed in its camp, there was very little that a general who desired battle could do about it, a point thoroughly appreciated by Gnaeus Pompey in 48. But the Roman military doctrine of the second century was dedicated precisely to this sort of encounter. Hannibal understood this, and proved to be the master of grand tactical maneuvers that placed his opponents at a grave psychological disadvantage. Another point that Sabin brings out is the fact that most battles lasted for several hours, usually with comparatively light casualties. The reason for this is that the Roman infantryman (and his Punic counterpart) tended to stay away from his enemy. It is inconceivable that any human being could actively wield a weapon for an hour, rather the two sides would approach to within shouting distance, and engage in a series of brief encounters until, as a result of repeated push backs in short encounters an entire line began to move back. Hannibal took advantage of the nature of infantry combat with his superior cavalry, for the surprise attack on a flank or rear had an extraordinary impact on lines of tired men, causing them to panic, to bunch together, and cease to defend themselves. Units that have been in conflict tire very quickly, and the Roman system of battle reliefs served, in this war to ensure that all the troops would be exhausted. Tired soldiers tend to panic more readily than others.

Sabin confines himself to the battles of the Second Punic war, but his study of the nature of the battlefield has enormous implications for the general study of Roman imperialism. For it is through an understanding of the nature of battle that we can gain some insight into the expectations of the people who made the decisions to fight. Roman armies were designed to put immense pressure on their enemies for a short period of time, the system of battle reliefs, fatal in a drawn out battle, could be very effective in pushing a line back in the short term. A Roman consul and his army went out in search of the quick, decisive victory. This was the ideal that had emerged from warfare in Italy, reinforced by the ideology of the triumph, which celebrated precisely this kind of war. It took the experience of Hannibalic warfare to breed a different kind of general, a general who viewed a campaign as something other than the search for an opportunity to line his fellow citizens up and charge.

Louis Rawlings' study of warrior societies complements Sabin's study. The Romans were used to fighting Gauls, whose habits were ideally suited to the provision of Roman triumphs. Warrior societies, as Rawlings shows, place enormous stress on personal displays of valor. Gauls delighted in challenging their opponents to single combat, and in overwhelming their enemies with a single charge. The Roman technique of battle reliefs was ideally suited to an enemy that sought victory at the first press. The result was that the Gauls tired quickly, and the Roman capacity to bring in fresh troops meant that they had little time to recover. The rate of exhaustion in a Gallic army plainly being faster than in the Roman, battles would end faster and there was no need to worry about the peripherals to the main infantry encounter.

After Cannae, Maharbal is said to have told Hannibal that he knew how to win battles, but that he did not know what to do with his victory. Lazenby takes issue with this, in his thoughtful essay on Hannibal's strategy. In his view, Hannibal recognized that the war could only be won if he fought it with Rome's resources. His aim was to draw upon the manpower of Italy to defeat Rome. He was not so impractical as to think that he could destroy Rome; a point that is obvious in the terms of his treaty with Philip V (a document that deserves rather more attention than it gets here). The greater issue that emerges from Lazenby's study, just as it does from the contributions of Sabin and Rawlings is the capacity of Hannibal, and others, to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman military system. The study of Hannibal's war offers an insight into the way that an intelligent contemporary "read" Roman society in the third century BC.

By way of contrast to the First Punic War, the Second Punic war saw no decisive encounter at sea. Rankov points out that the reason for this lies in geography. In order for large fleets to operate, they need to control harbors. As a result of the first Punic war, the Carthaginians did not have access to landing spots in Sicily, and thus could not support Hannibal by sea. This is an intelligent piece of work with implications for other periods of ancient history, where control of the sea (and landing places) proved less than decisive in the absence of an enemy who was prepared to contest the point. It was only when Rome could free up resources to take advantage of its command of the sea, that sea power mattered. Anyone interested in the viability of the "Periclean" strategy for the Peloponnesian war ought to read this article.

Rich and Cornell talk about the beginning and the end. Rich argues, with considerable conviction that the Roman attitude towards Carthage in 218 was essentially defensive, that Roman interests in Spain prior to 219 were likewise defensive, and that some Romans (e.g. Fabius) were aware of serious divisions within Carthaginian political society over the wisdom of the Barcid policy in Spain. The embassy that was sent to Carthage in 218 was intended, by Fabius, to attempt to exploit these divisions, but the terms which the embassy delivered were far from what Fabius would have hoped, in that they invited a declaration of war. This is rather important as a corrective to the view that the Roman state pursued a single-mindedly aggressive policy in the third century BC. Cornell takes issue with the view (represented most plainly in Brunt's Italian Manpower) that the Second Punic War had serious, long term consequences for Italy. Reviving the notion of Toynbee that Roman society was set on a new course by the destruction of Italy in the course of more than a decade of struggle, Cornell sees a connection between the enormous losses in manpower and the introduction of slave-based agriculture. It is an impressively constructed argument, but one that I am less than comfortable with. The proof, it seems to me, of a long term decline in manpower or a deracination of the Italian peasantry is lacking in the face of the huge armies of Italian peasants that were mobilized for the Social War and the civil wars of the first half of the first century BC. These issues will, of course, remain open as long as there is debate as to what it was that Tiberius Gracchus thought he was talking about. Those who want to see a serious problem in the late second century BC will take comfort from Cornell.

All in all, this is an impressive volume, the papers are all good. They raise issues of genuine importance for the study of conflict and society in the Roman world.