What Can an Ancient General Teach Us About Modern Leadership?

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Patrick N. Hunt discusses his new book on Hannibal and how much of his success was based on solid financing.

picFew military leaders hold as much allure for historians as Hannibal Barca of Carthage (today’s Tunisia). Born in 247 B.C., he is still studied today because of his unparalleled ability to strategize and get inside the mind of his opponent in battle. Archaeologist Patrick N. Hunt, who had been the director of Stanford’s Alpine Archaeology Project, has written a new book about the legendary figure that is simply titled Hannibal. He joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 to explain why Hannibal was so intriguing and why his story still endures. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why did you want to write a book about Hannibal, and why was he considered to be such a great military leader?

Patrick N. Hunt: He’s really an enigma because here’s a guy who wins almost every battle, except the last one. Here’s a guy who is enormously capable of wonderful tactics that totally strike fear into the heart of his enemy, but he doesn’t win the war. All history, in my whole purview, is economic history. The bottom line is ultimately history. Hannibal was successful until his silver ran out — the Spanish silver from the Spanish silver mines. Once the Romans took those silver mines and stopped that flow of his supply chain, Hannibal’s military intelligence dried up. He could no longer find out and exploit the weaknesses of his enemies because he didn’t have enough dirt on them.

When you read Machiavelli’s The Prince, Machiavelli goes into lengthy details surrounding Hannibal’s circumstances, how he was both a fox and a lion, stealthy but also strong. You’ve heard that famous phrase, “It’s better to be feared than loved.” Yet Hannibal might have preferred to be loved and feared.

Hannibal is the actual story about which Machiavelli is writing. People don’t always realize that. Hannibal struck fear into the hearts of Rome, the fear of Hannibal at the gates. Hannibal went with his father at a very early age, between 9 and 10, to Spain from Carthage and saw how much silver was coming out of those mines. Carthage was run as a mercantile society. For them, economics is the bottom line. And Hannibal, with his father, built up a war chest in Spain to take the war back to Rome, the second war called Hannibal’s War.

Hannibal could buy his spies. He had a huge spy network [built using] that Spanish silver. When you think about it, you don’t need a financial algorithm here, it’s plain as day. Hannibal’s successes ran out when he could no longer purchase grain, purchase food, when he had to depend upon just burning and looting instead of being able to buy things. Without Spanish silver, Hannibal suddenly was no longer successful.

“Carthage was run as a mercantile society. For them, economics is bottom line.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What drew his father to go to Spain in the first place?

Hunt: That’s fascinating, too, because Hannibal was a very successful general in the First Punic War. When that war was over, reluctantly, because he felt that Carthage threw in the towel too early, he came back and put down some mercenary revolts. Most of the Carthaginian army was paid. It was mercenary, and that’s very unusual. They didn’t have a high population density like other places, including the archenemy, Rome. Their soldiers had to be paid. You have a lot of soldiers who might be fighting for loot booty. But his father goes to Spain because the council of elders in Carthage are very uncomfortable with this successful charismatic general, Hannibal’s father, around. We don’t know for sure whose idea it was, but when he takes off for Spain to help run the colony there, the council of elders is thrilled to get this potential dictator out of the way.

Knowledge@Wharton: This is a period of strength for the Roman Empire. Carthage was in Tunisia, which was close to the core of the Roman Empire.

Hunt: Exactly. National Geographic supported quite a bit of my research, and I’m one of their expedition experts. Carthage is only 100 miles from Sicily, and that’s way too close for comfort. Everybody will remember the later anecdote of Cato, who holds up a ripe fig in the Senate and says, “This came from Carthage, and it’s still edible.” That’s how uncomfortably close Carthage was to Rome.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was his relationship with his men?

Hunt: He can be pretty intimidating. You know he’s going to be brutal towards the enemy, so you better not cross him. But he was charismatic enough and a dedicated leader who did not accrue personal wealth through his campaigns. He distributed very fairly. Even more important for leadership, he endured the same hardships as his men. He literally would lie down on the cold, hard ground with a blanket and sleep with them. I think that’s really impressive.

“Hannibal was successful until his silver ran out — the Spanish silver from the Spanish silver mines.”

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the battles that Hannibal is associated with is in Italy, the Battle of Cannae (in the Second Punic War). That was one of the more effective events of his career, correct?

Hunt: Hannibal exploited at every battle where he could the two-consul command that Rome had. One of the commanders was always a military veteran, and on alternating days it would be a political appointee as a consul. Hannibal always found out what he could about the other opponent, got into his mind. This opponent at Cannae, Terentius Varro, was someone who was hasty and impetuous. Hannibal knew how to draw him out. Hannibal always chose the battle site first, reconnoitered, scouted it out, learned the topography, checked out the terrain, chose the best spot.

At that time of year in August — and I’ve endured it myself — even in the Mediterranean and around Sicily and in Italy there are big sand storms that can blow out of the Sahara Desert. Hannibal chose his position carefully. He boxed the Romans in, with their almost 80,000 men, in a valley where they couldn’t outflank him because there’s the river on one side and the hills on the other. He compressed them into this box. And of course, he had the advantage of cavalry. But the Romans with far more men outnumbering them could outflank Hannibal if they had the space. Hannibal wouldn’t let them do it.

He made Varro come to battle when the other general said, “No, don’t do it. We’re not ready.” So, Hannibal primes the battle scene, gets a premature Roman Army that’s not terribly trained, a lot of recruits, the sand is blowing in the Roman Army’s eyes because they’re facing south. He has some of his soldiers on his two sides disguised like Romans because they took so much armor from previous battles.

And Hannibal does this thing. He has this bulge at the first part of the battle. His slingers, using slingshots, take out the real general with a face wound. He’s bleeding profusely. He’s out of commission. Everything is dependent on this political appointee, Terentius Varro. Hannibal makes the army chase him into this box, so he pulls back in the center, leaving his two sides out there. The Romans move in until they are surrounded on three sides, and the wind with the dust in their faces. Maybe they didn’t even realize that the two flanks of Hannibal are actually not their own men.

Hannibal’s cavalry had chased the Roman horsemen totally off the field, and Terentius Varro had fled the battle completely, so the Roman soldiery is leader-less. Hannibal closes that box on all four sides with his return cavalry, and the compressed Roman Army can really only fight on the outside of that box. They are so close together in the middle, they can’t even raise their weapons. And Hannibal just butchers 55,000 Roman soldiers.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have spoken glowingly about his tactics. If you were to bring him forward into the realm of war since World War II, where would he fit in terms of being an effective general?

Hunt: Excellent question. I think that he’s been so carefully studied around the world even today. I speak often at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and you wouldn’t believe how many officers come to hear about, “How did Hannibal do this? What are his tactics?” I knew one of the military attaches for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Schwarzkopf believed that Hannibal’s tactics, like the famous Hannibal Double Envelopment, were important.

“All history is economic history, that bottom line is everything.”

We often remember, not all so fondly, the German blitzkrieg. That was probably a maneuver adapted from Hannibal, the lightning quick move to come in. You have to move fast, but you move effectively and you do your recon first. The name Barca, his family name, clan name, actually means lightning strike.  Napoleon, too, loved Hannibal. In fact, Napoleon hedged his bets and went over at least four Alpine passes to make sure he followed in Hannibal’s footsteps

I mentioned that all history is economic history, that the bottom line is everything. I may be one of the few historians who really takes that seriously. People think that literature is important, but what we forget in the history is writing was invented not for literature but for accounting.

Accounting comes first, thousands of years of people scratching in ledgers. You can see that the numeracy came long before literacy. If you are applying Hannibal to modern day history, modern day battles, it is intriguing to me that everyone recognizes how brilliant his tactics were, how he could thoroughly take an enemy and surprise them and then strike fear into them, paralyzing them with the fear in the pit of the stomach. But again, if you don’t have the financial resources to carry on a war, to sustain it for years, if you can’t count on the people back home supporting it, if you can’t count on a supply line that keeps your soldiers paid — forget it.

Knowledge@Wharton: The twist at the end of the story of Hannibal is the fact that he is exiled after he loses his last war. I guess the people of Carthage were like, “you lost. Why do we want you anymore?

Hunt: That’s right. They even tried to ship him off to Rome. Intriguingly, Hannibal spends the rest of his life in exile as a mercenary. He has to hire himself out to try to foment rebellion against Rome, to Macedon, to Bithynia, and his life is sort of a sad story. It’s a tragic story. It’s an enigma. This is a man who never gave up fomenting trouble for Rome. But again, he has to have the resources to do it.

There’s another funny story about Hannibal: He got tipped off that they were going to take him away, so he fled Carthage to the island of Crete. The Greeks knew he had wealth with him. You store your wealth in a temple where it’s safe. Well, the Cretans tried to get into that temple and steal his wealth, but he had hidden most of the money in his villa, buried in the ground. What was in the temple were just these big clay pots with just a little bit of silver on the top. Everything underneath was just garbage.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you think history, there weren’t too many generals that could match up with the Roman Empire at that time like Hannibal could.

Hunt: No, and Rome had endless manpower and was never going to throw in the towel.

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