The renowned Carthaginian general Hannibal is perhaps best known for his infamous crossing of the Alps to begin his invasion of Italy, but while reading Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, I was made aware of an incident that is, in my opinion far more robust in demonstrating the aplomb of Hannibal.
Hannibal had long been entrenched in the Italian countryside, and his tactical and military prowess, as well as the relative incompetence of opposing Roman generals, had determined that few pitched battles took place between Roman and Carthaginian forces. During this period Hannibal used the time to dig in his troops, forge alliances with local Italian cities looking for a better option than Rome, and prepare his forces for a protracted conflict.
The Romans eventually began to switch strategy from open conflict to attempting to provoke small contingents of Carthaginian troops into small scale battles, hoping for a an eventual victory by attrition. The Roman general Fabius was particularly adept at this form of strategy, even though it was quite unpopular among the leaders back at Rome. Nevertheless, Fabius managed to keep his troops in check, even though in grand Roman tradition they were itching for a fight.
Fabius and Hannibal thus engaged in a sort of cat-and-mouse game where Fabius would bring his army into plain sight to provoke an open conflict, even though he never intended one. Hannibal knew that an open battle could prove disastrous at this time, and himself had to keep his army from rushing into the fray. After all, supplies were limited and reinforcements were not immanent.
Plutarch relates how Hannibal made a choice to finally remove his army from Fabius’ reach. Finding native guides, he instructed them to take him to the district of Casinum, an area rich in pasture land. Unfortunately, Hannibal’s pronunciation was quite foreign to the guides, and they heard him say that he wanted to be taken to the district of Casilinum. Without knowing the mistake, the army broke camp and began to relocate.
Hannibal only realized too late that he had actually led his army into a trap. Casilinum was encompassed by high mountains with a river dividing it, lots of marshes, sand- definitely not the ideal location for an army. Essentially, Hannibal became pinned in by the terrain.
While Hannibal was on the move, Fabius was watching and shadowing. Knowing the topography well, he was able to position his troops along the heights surrounding Casilinum, with the remaining contingent cutting off the rear. Having boxed Hannibal in, it appeared that the Carthaginian threat could soon be neutralized.
Hannibal, upon discovering the mistake, was furious and had the guides executed for their mistake. (I find it equally likely that such a ‘mistake’ in hearing his pronunciation may have been a foil for more devious intentions, but that is beside the point.) But Hannibal was nothing if not tenacious and clever. Realizing that Fabius was no fool and that an ambush was immanent, he reached into his tactical bag of tricks and decided on a rather unconventional means of counter-attack.
The entire purpose of relocating to Casinum was to find good pasture land for the large contingent of animals that accompanied the Carthaginian army. Hannibal thus had burning brands attached to the heads of 2000 of the cattle within his supplies and caused them to be driven up the slopes towards the Romans lying in ambush. This occurred in the middle of the night, and the utter shock of this evidently sent the Romans into a frenzy, thinking that a counter-attack was underway. Fabius was not able to maintain control, and the majority of the Roman ambush was dispersed, allowing Hannibal and his army to relocate without further incident.
Disaster could have occurred for Hannibal, all because of a botched pronunciation.
But in the end, it’s all ‘puh-tato’, ‘pah-tat-to,’ right?