Sorry, I forgot exactly where I remember this from but as Hannibal moved towards the Alps with around 50,000 troops, he was pursued by Scipio with fewer troops (actually, if anyone can find a source with better details I would appreciate it).

Since Hannibal's immediate goal wasn't to lay siege to Rome, but rather to inflict defeat upon the Romans to prevent the war from coming to Carthage, and also to convince Italy to join him, why not engage Scipio in battle?

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe only the battle of Lake Trisemine required him to be on Roman soil and Cannae really only required flat ground to deploy is cavalry. So why not attempt one of his signature victories against Scipio and then proceed to enter Italy via the coast?

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    re "So why not attempt one of his signature victories against Scipio and then proceed to enter Italy via the coast?" - What? Hannibal was an extraordinary and confident commander, but no-one plans their victories that way. Hannibal didn't know in advance that he would win (arguably) the most dramatic victory of all time at Cannae, that would make his name memorable for over two millennia - it just happened that way because several circumstances aligned for a great commander. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 12 at 1:31
  • @PieterGeerkens Like okay no one know for sure the outcome of a battle, but they have a (hopeful optimistic) plan of some sort for the battle and what to do if they win. even if it's just that the Romans would agree to terms. But essentially why was Hannibal not confident of victory before losing so many men on the alps, but confident afterwards? p.s. I don't think this minor technicality mean you have to downvote my question – Hao Sun Jan 12 at 1:34
  • @HaoSun: read what Polybius has to say about Scipio and Hannibal; he is our main source for both: penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/home.html – Peter Diehr Jan 12 at 3:27
  • @HaoSun: Britannica has a detailed summary of the military and political career of Scipio Africanus: britannica.com/biography/Scipio-Africanus-the-Elder – Peter Diehr Jan 12 at 15:46
  • @HaoSun: "Publius Cornelius Scipio (died 211 BC) was a general and statesman of the Roman Republic and the father of Scipio Africanus." from Wikipedia article. The father was the Scipio at the Rhone; he died in Spain, fighting the Carthaginians allies there. The son, Scipio Africanus, is known for taking up the war in Spain, where he was victorious, and then taking the war to Africa. From the phrasing of the question, you may have mixed up your Scipio's! – Peter Diehr Jan 12 at 16:00

The reason is that this was the Second Punic War. During the First Punic War the Carthaginians beat the Romans more than once, destroying their fleets...and the Romans built another fleet. This was what the Romans did. They did not give up just because they lost an army or a navy. They just raised another. And the First Punic War was not exceptional. A century earlier, when Pyrrhus of Epirus invaded Italy the Romans fought him and lost, and fought him and lost again. And fought him and lost again until Pyrrhus had to withdraw, having lost too many men to continue while the Romans just raised another army.

Hannibal knew that attacking a Roman field army -- a chancy thing, anyway -- would do little to win a war against Rome. They'd fight, Rome might win or it might lose. If Rome won, Hannibal was done, because Carthage was a sensible merchant city who would cuts its losses. But if Hannibal won, Rome would raise another army and fight him again. And again. And Hannibal couldn't afford a Pyrrhic victory, either -- too many losses and Carthage pulls the plug.

Under these circumstance, a battle against Scipio in Spain was at best a distraction and at worst a no-win situation.

Instead of planning to meet and defeat one Roman army after another, Hannibal decided on a strategic plan of invading Italy and separating Rome from its Italian allies whose manpower was a major source of those endless armies. (Many of those allies were recently conquered -- why would they be loyal?) Hannibal judged that if he could put a powerful army in Italy, and especially if he could win a battle or two, Rome's allies would revolt, and Rome would be forced to come to terms. (And, note, he never needed to attack Rome itself -- the plan was to isolate it, not to storm its walls.)

Of course, it turned out he was wrong. Even though he won huge victories at Lake Trasimene and at Cannae, all he achieved was a stalemate and the revolt of a fraction of Rome's allies. He was cut off, Rome raised new armies and found a great general in Scipio. Scipio invaded Africa, Hannibal had to follow, lost the battle of Zama -- and Carthage cut its losses and surrendered.

If Rome had been Carthage, Hannibal would have won.

  • Very nice - just the answer I was trying to figure out how to write. The one point I wanted to work in is that after arriving in Italy, Hannibal's army basically turned into a protection racket. Each city state would play nice and pay a little tribute, than immediately return to Rome's side as soon as Hannibal marched on to the next city. It minimized Carthage's investment, but Hannibal and his men just kept aging and couldn't live forever. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 13 at 2:53
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    @Pieter Geerkens Good point. I've never understood their loyalty. While Rome was unique among ancient cities in integrating foes on generous terms, it wasn't that nice. I can only assume that Hannibal (or Carthage) had a rotten reputation and the Roman devil they knew was preferable to most Italian states. I can understand some loyalty, but not as much as Rome received. (The protection racket analogy is a good one -- was that the turnoff for the Italians?) – Mark Olson Jan 13 at 2:57
  • First defeating the Romans here doesn't mean nothing it would make his future battles against the Romans significantly easier and also protect Spain from immediate invasion. 2nd it would open the possibility of invading italy via the coastline rather than the alps which might lose fewer men to cold and terrain. Of course Hannibal would have to enter Italy to end the war but there is a matter of method and timing – Hao Sun Jan 13 at 3:02
  • Hannibal knew that if he entered into a war of attrition with the Romans he would lose. Hannibal was a very great general and knew that when the obvious strategy results in your defeat, you find a different one. He did. (The fact that it didn't work either was a surprise to everyone -- including Rome!) – Mark Olson Jan 13 at 3:05
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    @MarkOlson Maybe Roman allies remembered that Carthage was far away, and Rome very near, and they did not trust Carthage to defend them from Rome after the war was over. – SJuan76 Jan 13 at 11:17

Well, he wasn't the famous all conquering general of the history books as yet. Those victories were in the future. Taking the coastal roads is exactly what the Romans were expecting. That would work in their advantage, and against Hannibal's best interests.

The Romans would have much shorter supply lines, while those of Hannibal lengthened. It would be much easier for Romans to send in reinforcements. Even if they lost most of the engagements, Hannibal would find it more and more difficult to get more troops and supplies.

Apart from that, Hannibal couldn't simply march up and hope the inhabitants would join his cause. Many of them were Roman allies, and were not likely to change sides. In fact, it would be far more likely that the local population would prefer the Romans - if only because the Roman army was too close for comfort to decide otherwise. (Remember, this is before he crossed the Alps)

The area around the coastal roads was not Roman, but allied with Rome. Massalia was an independent Greek state, friend and ally of Rome. So was the entire area. Hannibal did know that Cisalpine Gaul was recently conquered by Rome. Instead of fighting his way through Roman held territory he choose to circumvent them and go there, using the completely unsuspected Alpine route. He'd have also to fight along the way (mainly the elements), but that was not a certainty. After crossing the Alps he would be in Cisalpine Gaul where he could reasonably expect to find allies and supplies.

  • That doesn't answer the question if hannibal crossed the alps he would have to battle the Romans anyways as well as lose a lot of men in those alps While the Romans didn't expect hannibal they were the ones at Trebia and Cannea that offered battle there wasn't really too much surprise value to be had. – Hao Sun Jan 12 at 23:46

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