One of the greatest strategists, a hero in his time who undertook one of the most daring feats in military history, paid the price for his own arrogance and impetuosity with the loss of achieving the thing he desired most – the conquest of Rome. A single act of impetuosity led to the destruction of half his army, ruining one of the great invasions of history.
I am referring to Hannibal, Commander of the Carthaginian army at the tender age of 22. In 218 BC Hannibal set off from Cartagena (near present day Tunis) and decided to lead an army of 50 000 troops, 9000 horses and pack animals, and 37 elephants directly across the little known Alps in order to conquer Rome. It was a bold and audacious maneuver and one that was to become ‘one of the most second-guessed troop movements in history’ according to author Stephen Weir. However, in such indiscriminate impetuosity lay the seed of Hannibal’s ultimate failure.
On the decent Hannibal’s army found the going far tougher than they had encountered on the way up. The pathway down was uncertain and the footing treacherous with a lethal mixture of mud and ice to negotiate. During the decent an early autumn snowstorm added to the challenges faced, causing the horses and elephants to become stuck bringing the entire army to complete halt. It was at this point that Hannibal, furious at the delay and the possible cost it might have on his element of surprise, marched to the front and slammed his walking cane into the ground to prove that solid ground lay beneath. That single act of hitting the ground, at a place where a mere whisper is enough to trigger a deadly Alpine avalanche, proved more than enough to trigger an enormous slide. It took four days for Hannibal’s army to dig themselves out and by the time he emerged from the Alps, 15 days after having entered this unchartered territory, Hannibal had less than half his army intact and only a handful of elephants and pack animals. History shows that Hannibal was still able to defeat the Roman army on the plain of Cannae, but he had insufficient forces to attack Rome itself – his ultimate goal.
Hannibal’s trek across the Alps provokes awe and is one of the most famous verifiable incidents of ancient times. However, in his moment of madness Hannibal destroyed his campaign before it had even begun. In fact it is not unreasonable to suggest that Hannibal’s act of anger that triggered the destruction of most his resources, changed the entire shape of European civilization. Victory for the Carthaginians, essentially an African power, could have led to a very different world from the one the Romans did so much to shape. Hannibal’s downfall is a reminder of the lessons to be learnt from the classic tale of the tortoise beating the hare and his journey from Spain to Italy serves several stark reminders to contemporary leaders who find themselves in their own treacherous ‘Alps’:
- In unchartered terrain, slow is sometimes better than fast
- Caution in sometimes better than risk – especially when the footing is uncertain
- The summit doesn’t mean the end of the journey – going downhill can be tougher than going uphill
- Unreasonable ranting can lead to events that ultimately bury you
- Pride always comes before a fall (or avalanche)
- Getting stuck is part of the journey; what you then do about it matters a great deal
Hannibal’s younger brother Hasdrubal, answering a call for reinforcements, followed Hannibal’s footsteps over the Alps where he succeeded in getting his entire army (and animals) over safely. He was also able to persuade some 30 000 additional men from various Gallic tribes to join his cause. However, the Romans this time were ready and waiting for Hasdrubal and proceeded to destroy his army as soon as it entered Italy. The Romans beheaded the unfortunate Hasdrubal and by tossing his head into Hannibal’s camp, provide us with one more salient leadership lesson: getting a head might not always be the best thing!