Director, Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project 1994-2010, Stanford University
Q/What do you find most compelling about Hannibal?
Hannibal seems so often to have gotten inside his enemies' minds, understanding exactly how they would react when he set up his battle strategies that the Romans predictably followed. His traps were ingenious and disastrous to the Romans at Trebbia, Trasimene, Cannae and elsewhere. His march over the Alps to Italy was intrepid and surprising to Rome, which thought itself safe behind its daunting fortress mountains. If Hannibal's vow as a boy to his father Hamilcar Barca that he would never be a friend to Rome has any historicity, Hannibal also seems to have never swerved from this oath to his father and his duty to force Rome to respect Carthage.
Q/ Hannibal is often lauded as one of the greatest leaders of ancient history. Do you think he deserves this position even though in the end he lost the 2nd Punic War?
Certainly Hannibal deserves this esteem. Rome's very survival was never so tested before or for so long after until its gradual demise. Rome lost so many men between 218-208 BCE perhaps it is more of surprise Rome had the will to go on. Roman perseverance may have surprised Carthage when other enemies would have surrendered after most of the battles in the Second Punic War, repeating the same dilemma of the First Punic War, and where only the last battle decided the outcome that Rome was victorious.
Q/ Did Hannibal ever have a chance against Rome? Why did he lose?
Carthage, so often ruled by mercantile interests, never gave him adequate reinforcements. Supply lines over half a continent from Spain to Rome - or more if one starts from North Africa - were always problematic and when Scipio Africanus first isolated Spain from both Carthage and Hannibal and then finally used Hannibal's tactic against him by marching upon Carthage, Carthage couldn't handle this reversal.
Q/ What do you think of the Wood Brothers aim to ride Hannibal's route on bicycles, from Cartagena to Carthage?
I think the Wood Brothers are great adventurers and I admire their imagination. I somehow think that Hannibal himself and his two brothers would have approved of the spirit and journey of the three Wood brothers following Hannibal only by their own physical strength over so many miles.
Q/ A number of professional historians have retraced Hannibal's route and you are one of them. Is it possible to confidently identify Hannibal's route over the Alps and why?
In attempting to match text and topography I certainly wouldn't have spent so many years trying to do exactly that, identify Hannibal's alpine route, if I didn't think it possible. Several including myself have identified at least a dozen criteria that can be extrapolated from the ancient sources. Surely very few passes and maybe ultimately only one will match up to these likely criteria if they are realistic criteria. Our Stanford team since 1996 believes we can eliminate most of the more than 25 suggested pass routes (we've been over all of them) that don't match up to the criteria Polybius and Livy suggest, especially the earlier Polybius who claims to have retraced the route himself not much more than a generation later and with a probable veteran or now lost accounts thereof. We are confident this matching can be done via careful scientific and historical research.
Q/ What is the main reason why Hannibal didn't attack Rome?
He found out from experience at Saguntum in Spain in 219 BCE how difficult and protracted a long siege could be if a city had adequate food and water as Rome certainly did, making Rome a much larger gamble than Saguntum which took at least half a year to succumb. Hannibal would have needed a much larger force to surround and take Rome as well as siege equipment his mobile army did not have. Although his lieutenants urged him to sack Rome, Hannibal seemingly waited judiciously even after the Roman debacle of Cannae when he almost owned Italy and the city of Rome was reduced to terror. Some years later, when his brother Hasdrubal's reinforcements were annihilated in 207 BCE at Metaurus, a tactician as clever as Hannibal must have seen the future of Carthage diminishing and Rome's destiny waxing. This severe loss of Punic reinforcements certainly gave Scipio opportunity to make his moves to preserve Rome even though Rome was not exactly behind Scipio at first.
Q/ When most people think of Hannibal they think of elephants? Were they really a major part of his arsenal?
For awhile the Punic elephants were veritable war machines on the battlefield - albeit expensive to maintain with their huge food needs - and similar to modern tanks in their ability to mow imperviously through infantry when they charged as directed or goaded. Horses were also afraid of their smell and often stampeded before elephants, rendering cavalry ineffective in those contexts. But Scipio at Zama in 202 BCE made his army units smaller and more mobile, training them to move aside when elephants charged. This essentially made elephants superfluous.
Q/What is an example of an important question/mystery about Hannibal and/or the Carthaginians that is still unanswered?
As mentioned, one example of a mystery I am fascinated to examine is that we are still trying to pinpoint his exact routes. Another mystery for many to fathom is exactly why he marched to Italy and stayed so long, almost two decades in Italy without going for the jugular of the city of Rome itself, although I think both of these are also mostly deducible and I address these in detail in my forthcoming book on Hannibal.
Q/Is there a piece of our historical record missing? I mean, is it fair to say that the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians are a bit of a mystery to us, even though they were an important civilization?
We always opine that the victors write the history. Because the Romans ultimately won, they also seem to have destroyed whatever little annals Carthage had recorded, if any. Phoenician and Punic literary and historical annals seem to have not been a priority for these cultures in the main, although in some sense we may never know since the primary Punic archives have not survived. Perhaps somewhere in the Mediterranean some trove of Punic history including their Phoenician antecedents is still buried, perhaps an archive of inscribed ceramic tablets or something else waiting for that moment of archaeological discovery.