Three lessons about strategy from ancient battles

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient military battles. But not the guts, honour or patriotism displayed by the soldiers, impressive and inspiring though they are.

Instead, they showed that wars are ultimately won not because of one’s bravery or fighting skill (mostly). Wars are almost always won with intellect rather than brute force. In short, it is strategy which determines victory.

Here are three lessons on strategy I learnt from ancient battles (of the West).

1. Don’t just fight. Pick your battles: Why Hannibal lost

Hannibal is best known for his victorious battles of annihilation, including the famous slaughter of 70,000 Romans at the Battle of Cannae. And yet, he ultimately lost the war, his homeland Carthage was conquered and its soil salted (to prevent anything from growing), and it was Rome which became the famous empire.

And so, it was not Hannibal’s famous double-envelopment at Cannae which most impressed me, or really, any of his pioneering battlefield tactics. Instead, it was the strategy devised by the Roman statesman Quintus Fabius Maximus (whose statue is pictured), in response to Hannibal’s military skill.

Given Hannibal’s skills as battlefield commander, Fabius realized Rome just couldn’t win pitched battles against him. More importantly, Fabius realized Hannibal’s strategy, which was to achieve victories in the field until the Roman Senate sues for peace.

Indeed, Hannibal’s army, despite its many victories, was actually relatively small and cut off from any permanent supply lines. Hannibal had to rely on continuous victories to convince Roman allies to defect and support his army logistically. In other words, Hannibal, albeit his victories, cannot win, strategically speaking.

Fabius’ strategy thus sought to deprive Hannibal of these victories, rather than allow them if he were to fight Hannibal, where he would likely lose. (Perhaps here we have that famous adage from Sun Tzu: “Know yourself and know your enemy, and in a hundred battles, you will never peril.”)

Although he had the largest Roman army raised at the time, Fabius doesn’t directly engage Hannibal. In fact, he avoids battle at all costs. For example, he ends out small strike teams to harass Hannibal’s foragers, scorches the land to prevent Hannibal’s army gaining supplies, and burns towns which provide Hannibal refuge, targeting Hannibal’s smaller forces separated from the main body (One can compare this to another of Sun Tzu’s principles: engaging smaller targets where victory was certain).

It was this strategy which eventually forced Hannibal, deprived of victories, to leave the Italian peninsula and sail home. And in the end, Rome successfully defeated Carthage and annexed it.

Reflection

At first, I thought Fabius was practicing that famous adage: “The best way to win a war is not to fight at all.” But no. He was still fighting a war, just in a way which was most effective given the enemy’s and his own forces.

Wars are always only a means to some political end. Hannibal’s war against Rome was really a means for Carthage to gain favourable concessions from Rome (A previous war had limited Carthage — a naval state — to only 100 ships in its navy). To accomplish that end, Hannibal launched a war to defeat the Romans in battles, in the hope that such defeats would force a peace treaty.

By denying Hannibal these victories in the field, which was the only viable way to force a Roman concession (Rome was walled and Hannibal didn’t have the capabilities or resources to besiege and take the city), Fabius frustrates Hannibal’s intended goal. His strategy of denying Hannibal victories in the field, which was Hannibal’s own strategy to force concessions, thus dictated Fabius’ (successful) attrition tactics.

In the end, it was only through the Fabian strategy that Hannibal was driven out of the Italian peninsula, who, despite winning multiple amazing battles, ultimately lost the war, and that’s all that matters ultimately.

(Of course, the Fabian strategy has its disadvantages, in that it allows for an enemy to remain in one’s territory and harass one’s own citizens, threatening to reduce local support and loyalty. But faced with someone as tactically brilliant as Hannibal, Fabius’ strategy stands out among other purely battle-centric military strategies in history.)

2. Pivot! Change your approach: The Battle of Alesia

Julius Caesar is one of the most influential figures of history — an integral cause in the Roman Republic’s transition to that famous empire. Militarily, he is most famous for his annexation of Gaul (mostly modern-day France) and his victory in the later civil war.

Caesar had established relative control over Gaul, and was on his way to consolidating his conquest, when the Gallic tribes united under a leader named Vercingetorix. The pan-Gallic combined army was now a few times Caesar’s army, and determined to chase the invader out of their lands. They carried out hit-and-run attacks against Caesar’s forces, scorched their own crops to deprive the Romans living off the land, increasingly wearing down and inhibiting Caesar’s conquest (curiously similar to Fabius’ strategy).

Caesar now had to find a way to directly engage the Gauls with his better-trained, better-equipped, professional army, instead of getting bogged down in a war of attrition. Indeed, it was due to the relative disunity of the Gallic people that Caesar’s militarily-superior Roman forces were able to subjugate them easily at first. But now, he had to face with a significant, and unified (albeit still disorganised), force.

And so, after one of these hit-and-runs, Caesar feinted a retreat towards Rome. Vercingetorix, unawares, moves his entire army to his main base at the walled and hilled city of Alesia, which proved to be a serious mistake. Caesar doubles back and now traps the Gauls in the city, forcing the battle he so badly-needed.

However, the well-protected city would be difficult to conquer directly, and even if Caesar managed to do so, it would result in heavy casualties, which he could not afford. Without a significant force, Caesar may not be able to complete his conquest of Gaul. (Perhaps it was also because his war was not officially sanctioned by the Roman Senate, something which his political rivals would use to press charges against him).

So Caesar, instead of attacking the city immediately, laid siege to it, but in the most amazing way. In an engineering marvel, Caesar built a wall, surrounding the Alesian walls, to completely enclose and entrap the city and the Gallic army inside, and effectively cutting off any supplies. (Such a tactic is called circumvallation.)

Vercingetorix, realizing he was in trouble, decided to send his cavalry to recruit relief forces (a mistake in retrospect). So Caesar, in another brilliant feat, constructed another wall surrounding his first wall, to defend against any arriving external force. (This strategy is called contravallation.)

After months of starvation and failed attacks against Caesar’s two walls (the relief force had arrived), Vercingetorix was forced to surrender. Caesar completed his conquest of Gaul and it became a Roman province. (The conquest also had far-reaching political effects: It gained Caesar wealth and popularity, and the disgruntled Roman Senate under Pompey called Caesar to trial. Caesar’s refusal eventually led to civil war, Caesar’s dictatorship, then his assassination and the birth of the Roman Empire.)

Reflection

In retrospect, the militarily-inferior Gauls, who had been relying on attrition and scorched earth tactics, were employing the correct strategy, successfully denying Caesar victory outright. Their large force and home advantage allowed them to successfully harass the Romans, in the hopes of forcing a withdrawal, whilst taking the necessary punches.

Caesar, faced with this impasse, changed his approach and forced the Gauls into battle by feinting retreat, then besieging their city. The Gauls couldn’t escape. They could only fight to the end or surrender to the militarily-superior Romans. Coupled with his brilliant tactics, Caesar was thus able to force his badly-needed battle to defeat the Gauls, while making the largest single conquest in Roman history.

3. Sometimes, the strategy is to just fight, and do what you can with what you have: The Battle of Marathon

Before the 300 Spartans and their famous last stand, there was another battle 50 years before, which influenced their tactics at the Pass of Thermopylae.

In the Battle of Marathon, a Persian force attempted to march on Athens and burn it to the ground (for violating a treaty which was miscommunicated with the Athenians). The Athenian army was only half the size of the Persians, who also had cavalry. Persia was the most powerful and largest empire in the region at the time. Athens seemed doomed.

But to burn down Athens, the Persians had to get there. So the Athenian general, Miltiades, simply decided to block the road. But he stations the Athenian army in an excellent location: a narrow valley which could be filled up and defended by his limited forces.

That location determined everything and ultimately ensured victory.

Firstly, the Greek infantry formation, the phalanx, while effective at advancing or standing their ground, was particularly weak and easily overcome at the flanks. The narrow valley thus protected their flanks.

Secondly, the Persians had cavalry, which was a key to their military success on the open plains of Anatolia where they established their empire, but which the Athenians didn’t have any good counter. With the steep slopes bordering on their flanks, Miltiades prevents the Persians from drawing their cavalry against his flanks.

Finally, the short front neutralized the numerical advantage the Persians had, as both sides had the same front line length. (This was the same tactic which allowed the Spartans to counter an even larger Persian force at the narrow Thermopylae Pass.)

Miltiades also does as much as he possibly could to strengthen his defensive position. He felled trees which he put as natural obstacles on his flanks, further enhancing the protection and making any attempt to flank his forces using cavalry impossible.

With a strong defensive position, the Athenians were able to hold off the advance of the larger Persian force, since the individual Athenian soldier was militarily superior to the Persians in close combat.

At the end of the battle, the Persians were forced to retreat, and Athens remained free.

While there is also something to be said of how the Athenians understood their strengths, their enemy’s, and chose the battlefield accordingly, I am more impressed by the Athenians’ strategy to fight on, despite the odds. That’s perhaps not a rational strategy given the situation, but sometimes, in retrospect, what is rational may not be the best approach. This was later repeated

(If the name ‘Marathon’ sounds familiar, it’s because this is where the marathon run originated. After the victory, a runner was sent to Athens, the same distance of 26 miles. What they forget to tell you is after yelling Nike (‘victory’), the runner collapsed and died.)

Reflection

Sometimes we aren’t given the luxury of a strong hand, and will face odds as terrifying as they are almost insurmountable, as the Athenians were. In such a situation, one may point out the impossibility of victory or the futility of fighting, and be tempted to give up, which is not only easier but perhaps the more rational option.

However, as history has shown, sometimes, with enough determination, and perhaps some luck, one may still be able to achieve success, or at least avoid utter defeat. But all that would be impossible if one had chosen to give up.

Instead, perhaps we should fight on, and the situation may improve itself, to the point we can minimise our possibly immense losses and maximise our limited gains. To do so, one should properly leverage your strengths and advantages as much as possible.

Of course, that alone may still be insufficient. In the same Battle of Marathon, even though the Athenians had barricaded themselves into the narrow valley, it was still wider than the Athenians had enough troops to fill. It was only due to Miltiades’ tactic of flexible redeployment (quite impressive given the inherent rigidity of the Athenian phalanx), and perhaps with a little luck given the chaos of battle, that the Athenians managed to defend the valley and hold their position.

A similar situation occurred during the Battle of Kadesh, when the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II fell into a trap set up by the enemy. With depleted forces and the enemy advancing, Ramses was in grave danger of being captured, which would almost certainly have crippled the Egyptian state. But Ramses fought on still. As the battle progressed, the enemy made several mistakes, Egyptian relief forces arrived, and together, Ramses managed to avoid complete destruction and end the battle in a military draw.

That’s not to say that not giving up, and fighting to the end in a last stand will always result in victory (as was the case of the 300 Spartans or the Alamo), and one could question the rationality of fighting a losing war, but we should always consider everything and do what we can given with what we have. (Given the legacies of Thermopylae and the Alamo, one could even consider them to be rational from the larger and longer-term benefits of psychological and emotional motivation.)

Conclusion

In these three battles, we deduce perhaps the most important lesson: strategy precedes tactics.

In all these battles, whatever the tactics, brilliant as they were, were not as important as the underlying strategy: Hannibal lost the war despite winning many battles. Caesar, even with a professional army, only won when he switched his strategy to directly engage the enemy (something Hannibal could perhaps learn from). In the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians properly leveraged their strengths in pursuing the strategic goal of preventing the Persians reaching their capital, instead of seeking complete victory (arguably impossible) or surrendering when they have the ability to preserve their capital city at least.

Perhaps this is where we get another famous adage: “Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals study logistics.” Much of the military context — the environment, one’s own forces, the opponent’s — are outside of our control, and would likely dictate only a narrow set of possible strategies that one could possibly pursue. The correct strategy seems almost given (though whether we would be able to identify it is another question altogether).

In other words, given one’s goals and the general situation, there is some ‘right’ strategy that must necessarily be employed. And given this strategy, all that’s left, everything else from tactics to execution, comes down to just the nitty-gritty details — the necessities and conditions of the situation on the ground.

But the strategy still stands.

*This article was previously published on LinkedIn on 11 May 2020.