Ancient and modern

Hannibal (and Alexander the Great) vs the Islamic State

Classical precedents suggest their conquests are unlikely to last

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

Whatever the Islamic State hopes ultimately to achieve by its current onslaught on all and sundry in the Middle East, Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, would certainly understand why it has been successful (so far); but Hannibal, who came within an ace of conquering Italy, might offer a word of warning.

In the ancient world, conquest of territory was the route to enrichment: other people’s resources became yours to use as you wished. By 358 BC Philip had trained up what would turn out to be an almost unbeatable army. Moving south from Macedon, he picked off Greek city-states one by one, until by 338 BC he had gained effective control over all of Greece. He then planned an assault on Persia, but was assassinated in 336 BC. Alexander fulfilled his father’s ambitions.

Philip’s success, however, was not simply down to his army, superb though it was; it was the fact that he knew that the ever-disunited, squabbling Greek cities would never combine against him. He could therefore take them out piecemeal, which he did. IS has made exactly the same calculation about the situation in Syria and Iraq. But where does it go from there?

Hannibal enjoyed spectacular successes against the Romans in his assault on Italy from 218 BC — at Cannae (216 BC) he took out both consular armies and controlled almost all Italy. But he still depended on winning over local Italians in order to succeed. He failed; and even worse, he was unable to maintain contact and supply-lines with his base in Carthage in North Africa. IS has no base anyway, and prefers genocide to winning over locals.

So, surrounded as it is by potential enemies, IS seems unlikely to have any long-term future. The interesting question is: what will the state that masterminds its defeat do in the region? As a Greek foresaw of the Rome-Carthage conflict, the victor would not sit on his laurels: and Rome certainly did not. So IS’s ultimate legacy may be to create a new super-power in the Middle East.

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  • LastmaninEurope

    “conquest of territory was the route to enrichment:other people’s resources became yours to use as you wished”

    Islamic fundamentalism is funded by OPEC states and will continue until the oil runs out.

    When it does, and providing the ‘Caliphate’ has not been established, the West needs to follow the example of Rome with Hannibal’s Carthage.

    • Al Bowlly

      Delenda est.

      • LastmaninEurope

        Delenda est indeed.

      • Encryption

        ‘Delenda est’ indeed…but that’s a big IF.

    • Guest

      Yes, delenda est indeed…but that’s a big IF.

  • edithgrove

    “In the ancient world, conquest of territory was the route to enrichment: other people’s resources became yours to use as you wished.”

    That’s still the way it’s done.

  • AJAX

    The ragged-arsed bandits of Islamic State’s paramilitarist forces are more akin to the Khmer Rouge than the Macedonians, Romans or Carthaginians.

  • Roger Hudson

    A more useful lesson from history is that of the period 1500 to 1700 AD when Europe was riven by petty dynastic and religious squabbles so failed to unite to crush the Moors and Turks. Europe, including Russia, must stand united, steely in anger and resolve and destroy the evil of ISIS (and Turkey,Saudi, Qatar and its slaves).

    • Encryption

      ISIS is not the threat to Europe. Islam is. And for the most part Europe is caving and appeasing, not rallying and uniting.

  • Carter Lee

    ISIS contains the seeds of its own eventual demolition. It is made of Sunni Arab
    tribal entities that make temporary tribal alliances that eventually fall apart and then they resume inter-tribal bickering and conflict.

    Much like a super nova ISIS will pass through the expansionist phase of great energy and brightness only to ultimately collapse into a black hole.

    The American’s exploit such circumstance to give a plausible pretext for meddling and to justify their inept brand of interventionism and their incompetent military adventures.

    As an American it saddens me to watch the British who were wise enough to stay out of the Viet Nam debacle in this case tag along like a dog on a leash as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is even sadder is that American public doesn’t even acknowledge or credit you for being such loyal pets, they only care about Israel.

  • The reality is that if the West decided to crush ISIS it would be defeated within 24 hours. That decision has not yet been made.

  • Ringstone

    All commendably classicist, Boris would be impressed, but I think you’re looking at the wrong historical epoque. The millenarian Taiping rebellion in China seems a better [if inexact] fit; “within the land it controlled, the Taiping Heavenly Army established a theocratic and highly militarized rule. However, the rule was remarkably ineffective, haphazard and brutal; all efforts were concentrated on the army, and civil administration was non-existent”. The sobering thing is that by the time the dust had settled something like twenty million people were dead.

    • El_Sid

      A better analogy would be the Mahdists of Sudan – that overcame European-trained Egyptians despite inferior numbers and saw off half-hearted British presence (Gordon of Khartoum and all that). They started off as a mess but soon established a proper Islamist state that enforced sharia law, collected taxes etc. They were only finally sorted at Omdurman by the British putting thousands of boots on the ground under Kitchener to reinforce the Egyptians who had performed so poorly in previous battles.

  • Michael Hartigan

    and Obama is pulling for Iran

  • Donafugata

    Hannibal’s limited assault on the Roman Empire may have been due to ” winning over local Italians”, or not as in this case but IS will receive a better welcome as they have vast numbers of “locals” already installed throughout Europe.
    This, of course, is the purpose of the demographic invasion of Muslims that we have experienced since the millennium.

  • LarryInIowa

    Hannibal’s story might well have turned out differently if he had not paused for the night before sacking Rome. Imagine the world with no Imperial Rome.