Innovation Lessons from Rome’s Greatest Enemy

What innovation lessons can we learn from Hannibal, one of history’s most illustrious generals? In this piece based on a chapter from Paul Sloane’s ‘Think like an Innovator’, we’ll look at how Hannibal’s battle strategies and tactics can apply to innovation today - from using new and unexpected resources, to outflanking your competition, to understanding the importance of networking.

Hannibal (247 – 182 BC) was an illustrious general of the North African state of Carthage, Rome’s enemy and rival for control of the Mediterranean. His father was a Carthaginian general, Hamilcar, who made his 9-year-old son swear undying enmity for Rome. As a boy Hannibal went to Spain, which was under Carthaginian control, and trained to be a soldier. At the age of 26 he was put in command of an army and led an attack on the city of Saguntum – near Valencia.

In 218 BC he set out on an audacious invasion of Italy. He took a huge army of infantrymen and cavalry from Spain, across southern France and through the Alps to attack the Roman Empire from the north. His army included 38 battle-trained elephants, a weapon the Roman soldiers had never seen before. He had to fight off fierce ambushes by the local tribes and to face ice, snow and avalanches. He lost thousands of men but when he reached Italy he caught the Romans completely unawares.

The Romans hurriedly sent an army to repel the invasion but Hannibal defeated them at the battle of Trebia (218 BC) thus gaining control of northern Italy. He turned many of Rome’s previous allies into his own. The next year Hannibal crossed into central Italy and defeated another Roman army at the battle of Trasimeno. A year later Hannibal won his third great battle in Italy at Cannae. He opposed an army of 50,000 Romans. He drew up his army with his best soldiers on the flanks. He attacked with his centre to engage the Romans and then his centre retreated. The Romans followed into the centre of Hannibal’s crescent whereupon he commanded his flanks to close in on the Roman army most of whom were killed or captured.

Hannibal’s reputation as a brilliant and daring general inspired his troops and frightened his opponents. It has also enthused historians. His tactics of envelopment at the battle of Cannae are renowned and studied in military academies to this day.

Hannibal continued to fight in Italy but he never attacked the heavily fortified city of Rome. He could not get the supplies he needed from Carthage but had to forage for local provisions. He was outnumbered and harried by the Romans but displayed great leadership and clever military tactics to sustain his occupation of Italy for 15 years. In 203 BC he was recalled to Carthage to fight against a Roman invasion led by Scipio. He was defeated by Scipio at the battle of Zama in 202 BC. He continued to serve Carthage but eventually had to flee to Bithynia in Asia Minor. When the king of Bithynia was defeated in battle by the Romans Hannibal chose to commit suicide rather than be captured by his vengeful enemies.

Insights for Innovators

Use a new and unexpected weapon. Hannibal placed great value in his specially trained elephants, which struck terror into foes who had never seen this animal before. They roared as they trampled enemy troops and they had sharpened tusks to gouge horses and men.

Outflank your competition. Come at them from an unexpected direction. Hannibal crossing the Alps was one of the most daring ventures in military history. It was immensely difficult taking a huge army over freezing, tiny and precipitous mountain paths. However, the news that he had reached northern Italy shocked and terrorised the Romans. We see many examples in business of companies bypassing competitors with an alternate way to reach customers – think of Amazon side-stepping bookstores and Uber outflanking taxi companies.

Hannibal displayed outstanding skill in strategy and tactics. He was an astute networker who forged alliances and a shrewd forager for resources. He was an inspirational and courageous leader. He is a role model for entrepreneurs and innovators.

Based on a chapter in Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane and published by Pearson.

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at destination-innovation.com.

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