Race and Culture in Hannibal’s Army

160322elephantTor.com published an article online today about diversity in Hannibal’s army written from the point of view of historical wargaming. It is a interesting article and well worth a read, but unfortunately it misses the opportunity to really address questions of racial and cultural diversity in ancient warfare. Here is a quick attempt to address some of the things that were lacking.

Race and culture

Race is a term with a lot of baggage, as we are all painfully aware, but it means different things in different contexts. In modern parlance, it describes a socially-constructed division of human beings into more or less arbitrary categories, largely on the basis of skin color and other physical features. In a fantasy context, it refers to distinct species of intelligent creatures like Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, and so on.

The unaddressed problem in the Tor.com article is the conflation of race and culture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, overtly racist theories of history posited that people of different genetic backgrounds naturally had different qualities. Many of these stereotypes still linger in our popular culture: the stoic Indian, the mischievous Irishman, the passionate Italian, etc. This belief in racial character was encoded in early classic works of fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which gave us the stubborn Dwarf, the ethereal Elf, the vicious Orc, etc.

Even as we struggle to root out this conflation of race and culture from our modern life, it lingers on in works of fantasy and science fiction: the logical Vulcan, the boisterous Klingon, the decadent Centauri, the proud Dothraki. As we look back at history, we have to think of the people of the past not in terms of racial qualities but in terms of cultural contexts. People of different origins often do behave differently, but those differences are explained by the cultures they lived in, not the races they represent.


Carthage was founded by Phoenicians from Tyre, led by Queen Elissa (called Dido in later mythologized versions of Carthaginian history). Carthage flourished and grew at the center of a network of trade that spanned the Mediterranean, the Sahara desert, and the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa. Much is unknown about the history of Carthage because of the destruction of the city by Roman armies and the loss of literary sources, but we can be confident that, like many other great centers of far-flung trade networks—Baghdad, Rome, Shanghai, Karakorum, London, New York—it drew people from many different places to become part of its population. Carthage must have been a highly diverse city even by the standards of the ancient Mediterranean, whose diversity is often overlooked in popular history.

The Carthaginian Army

Carthage had a core army of citizen-soldiers who trained and equipped in the manner of Greek hoplites, but most of the fighting forces Carthage deployed against Rome were professional mercenaries because it was politically and practically untenable to keep an unpaid citizen army in the field for decades at a time. The turmoil of the Mediterranean world in the generations after Alexander’s empire collapsed meant there were plenty of veterans with military training and no other livelihood available for relatively cheap. These soldiers came from many places around the Mediterranean world where Greek-style hoplite fighting had been adopted.

The Greek hoplite phalanx was a highly organized style of fighting that depended on well-trained, well-equipped heavy infantry holding formation and executing coordinated maneuvers. It could fall apart without a strong sense of discipline and trust among its troops and was vulnerable to lightly-armed skirmishers, but against less well-trained and equipped infantry it was highly effective.

Carthage recruited cavalry from the North African interior where the climate of the desert fringe encouraged a lifestyle of seasonal migration and so there was a well-established tradition of horse breeding and riding. The Numidian kingdoms of this region had an unsettled relationship with their Carthaginian neighbors, but there were usually some factions within Numidia who were willing to trade mercenary service for Carthaginian backing in their own internal conflicts.

Numidian cavalry were typically lightly-armed with javelins and short spears. Having grown up riding in a culture where horse skills were valued, they were adept at coordinated maneuvers and could pelt enemy forces with a withering hail of javelins before wheeling away to lure undisciplined enemies into breaking up their formation in pursuit, only to wheel back on them and attack again.

The native elephants of North Africa (now extinct) were trained for use in war. Elephants are not naturally aggressive under most conditions and training them to withstand the noise and chaos of a battlefield was an enormous investment of time and resources for relatively little utility. They were mostly effective as a psychological force for the way their size and loud trumpeting could terrify inexperienced enemy soldiers. Horses that had not been accustomed to elephants could also be spooked by them, disrupting cavalry forces.

Hannibal’s additional troops

In addition to the usual Carthaginian forces, Hannibal recruited native warriors from Iberia and the Alps (these latter were referred to by Roman sources as Gauls, but the applicability of that name is up for debate). Though their armaments varied, these various peoples came from similar experiences of conflict: inter-tribal struggles for the dominance of mountainous upland regions and valley trade routes. Their style of warfare was directed towards forcing the enemy into submission, not destroying them. Accordingly, they opened their battles with ostentatious displays of personal strength and courage intended to intimidate and demoralize opposing troops. We can find parallels for this kind of intimidating display in everything from the Maori haka to the British redcoats’ musket drill.

Nevertheless, despite Roman propaganda to the contrary, these peoples were quite capable of putting up a good fight and holding their own on the battlefield. In protracted battles on open ground they tended to fare poorly against more organized troops not from any lack of tenacity but because their native fighting styles, adapted to mountain valleys, prized small, mobile skirmishing forces over large armies. As skirmishers attached to Hannibal’s regular infantry troops, though, they were a potent fighting force.

A diverse army

Hannibal’s army was diverse in the ethnic origins of its troops. Soldiers from different cultures fought differently, not because they represented different “racial” characteristics but because they came from different cultural traditions grounded in the geographic, social, and political realities of the societies they trained in.

Hannibal’s army was also most likely diverse in the racial terms we would recognize today (which are not the same as the categories recognized by ancient authors). Carthaginian society was itself diverse and it was connected by trade and diplomacy to many different parts of Europe, Africa, and southwest Asia. Even without a census breakdown of the ethnicities of Hannibal’s troops, we can be confident that they included peoples of many different origins.

What needs to be said, emphatically and repeatedly, is that the diversity of ethnic origins and the diversity of culturally-linked fighting styles in Hannibal’s army, while both real, are not the same thing. Numidians are not Dwarves; Iberians are not Klingons; race is not culture.

Further reading:

  • Anglim, Simon, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
  • Bonfante, Larissa, ed. The Barbarians of Ancient Europe: Realities and Interactions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Cunliffe, Barry. The Celts: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Douglas, Bronwen. “Notes on ‘Race’ and the Biologisation of Human Difference,” Journal of Pacific History 40, no. 3 (December 2005): 331-8.
  • Douglas, Christopher. “’You Have Unleashed a Horde of Barbarians!’: Fighting Indians, Playing Games, Forming Disciplines.” Postmodern Culture 13, no. 1 (September 2002).
  • Gruen, Erich S. Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Jacobsen, Howard. “Dido.” Mnysmosyne 4th ser., 58, fasc. 4 (2005): 581-2.
  • Snowden, Frank M. Before Color Prejudice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
  • Thompson, Lloyd A. Romans and Blacks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Williams, J. H. C. Beyond the Rubicon: Romans and Gauls in Republican Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Post edited to correct formatting errors

Image: Hannibal crossing the Rhone via Wikimedia (1878; etching; by Henri Motte)

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3 thoughts on “Race and Culture in Hannibal’s Army

  1. arwen1968 August 1, 2016 / 03:58

    Informative… and I certainly never came across a post on a bit of history that was provoked by fantasy games. 🙂 I think the point about people behaving differently based on the culture on their origin rather than because of their race is very well made, BTW.


    • Erik August 1, 2016 / 08:46

      Thanks! As a fantasy fan and historian, I really enjoy finding the places where they overlap.

      Liked by 1 person

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