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African Armour on the Eve of the 2nd Punic War:

New Perspectives

Graeme Walker


Ancient historians never fully describe the military system of the Karthaginians. This makes it difficult to reconstruct the battles in which they took part. Karthage employed mercenaries on a larger scale than other states, and these would have armed and fought in their native manner. when Karthage employed mercenary Greek forces during the fourth century BC, this meant spears and Argive shield, in phalanx formation.

Differing Interpretations

While the combat styles of the majority of mercenary people in Karthage's employ are sufficiently well known, that of the African infantry is not. some modern writers have suggested that these troops were armed in the Greek style in the later third century BC, and even used the Macedonian sarissa. Terence Wise, in Armies of the Carthaginian Wars, supposes that Hannibal's African troops converted from sarissa bearers to the Roman style of combat in Italy, ironically, after having devastated Roman arms in three major battles. Peter Connolly, in Greece and Rome at War, considers that they were, and remained, sarissa bearers for the duration of the war. There are references to Greeks in the mercenary forces down to c.260BC, but when Karthage lost the first Punic War to Rome, the maritime connection to the Greek lands was lost as well. it seems ore likely to me that, by the time of the Hannibalic war, Karthage's African infantry were fighting with sword and shield in the west Mediterranean fashion. The Account of Polybios Polybios, a Roman admirer, wrote a detailed history of the war, using eye witness accounts and privileged state information, fifty years after the vent. Critical parts of his work are available to us. Livy, the patriotic and biased historian of Rome, wrote 200 years after Hannibal, adapting and shortening Polybios into Latin. The following are some notes made from Polybios (chapter and verse given for ease of reference) that should be considered:

III.49. During his march to the Alps, those with damaged equipment in Hannibal's army ere supplied with Keltic replacements.

III.56. Hannibal entered Italy with 12,000 African and 8,000 Spanish infantry, and 6,000 cavalry.

III.72. Hannibal drew up his heavy infantry in a single line at the battle of the trebbia. (The modern translation of Polybios' history by Scott Kilbert incorrectly introduces the word "phalanx" here. that by Paton, which has the advantage of parallel Greek text, shows that the word does not appear, and was added by the Penguin translator. Polybios said the line contained the Spanish and kelts, as well as the Africans. It also contained maniple gaps for the light troops to retire trough. There is no indication that the Africans, or any other unit, were armed as phalanx troops.)

III.83. For the battle of Trasimene, the African infantry occupied a hill. (This position would have been better assigned to troops with swords, as phalanxes tend to break up when attacking on uneven ground.)

III.87. After the battle of Trasimene, Hannibal re-armed his African troops with captured Roman equipment, selecting the best weapons available. (Most probably, Hannibal replaced damaged equipment, like shield, with undamaged but essentially similar Roman equipment. This is the only text, because it single out the Africans, that could presumably be used to support the idea that these troops adopted a new style of fighting. This argument suggests an uncharacteristic lack of forethought by Hannibal, who could easily have armed his men like this before setting out. It fails to show how the men were trained, mid campaign, to use the new weapons. It goes against the organisation of the rest of Polybios' account. Finally, it still doesn't indicate that a phalanx combat system was being replaced.)

III.114. At the battle of Cannae, the African troops are described as equipped with Roman armour and weapons.

XV.11. The battle of Zama. Hannibal's army is in three divisions, much like the Romans. Light armed first, new Karthaginian recruits second, and the last line his seasoned veterans.

XV.13. These veteran mercenaries, from the Italian campaigns, old spears prior to the final conflict. They seem to have been armed similarly to the Roman Triarii.

XV.14. Hannibal's army is said to be equally matched to the Roman army in weapons.

Discussion of Polybios' evidence

Polybios is the earliest historian to discuss differences between a phalanx and the legionary formation. He does this in the context of the second Macedonian War, which followed shortly after the second Punic war, in chapter XVIII, verse 28. The discussion implies that the two systems were only confronting each other for the first time now. Has Hannibal been using a phalanx, Polybios would certainly have compared the rival systems in his history for 218BC rathe than waiting until 200BC. Polybios says that when the two systems met, the Romans consistently won. If the Karthaginians used a phalanx system at Trebbia, Trasimene or Cannae, Polybios could never have made this assertion Hannibal's army is described using Greek technical terms but this isn't evidence that it was a phalanx. a look at the original text reveals that Polybios used Greek terms to describe the Roman army also! in fact Polybios never describes Hannibal's army as a phalanx until the battle of Zama, and at this point he also calls the Roman army a phalanx. the reason for this change of description must lie in the was that the battle was waged, rather than any change in martial hardware, but notice that the Karthaginian army is still being described in comparable terms to the Roman army. Again, Polybios says the Karthaginian system was shown to be no better than Rome's, when a general of equal brilliance to Hannibal was pitted against him. The 'system', which is not described, may well have been the difference between mercenaries and citizen troops. Finally, Polybios implies that Punic arms were inferior to Roman ones, not different! the Africans could have been armed and organised in a similar way to the Roman legion.

The Root of the Confusion

The issue is complicated when these authors consider another Karthaginian unit. Connolly refers to 'the Pikemen' in Polybios' account of Hannibal's army. Mistakenly, but understandably, he equates this unit to the sarissa bearers of a Macedonian army. Less understandably, he maintains that these pikemen are the African infantry. the pikemen are obviously light armed troops from the jobs they are given, while the Africans are not; they carry captured Roman arms at Cannae. it can be shown that pikemen and African infantry are different units entirely, and there is no connection between these 'pikemen', a Greek or Makedonian style phalanx, and the African infantry.

Connolly Disproved on Cannae

On pages 186-7 of Greece and Rome at War is a plan of the battle of Cannae. It is not true to the text of the historian. Polybios says that, for that battle, the slingers and pikemen were sent forward as a light armed screen while Hannibal formed his heavy troops into a battle line, with Kelts and Spaniards in the centre, and the two wings formed by the recently re-armoured Africans. The Africans and the pikemen have two different roles, and are employed on different parts of the field. Connolly's explanation, that the pikemen must have subsequently retired to the rear, to form the wings of the battle line, is fiction. he calls them Africans, but Polybios never gave them that ethnic tag.

So Who were the Pikemen?

The Pikemen are called Karthaginian, but this means only that they were on the Karthaginian side. They are never mentioned as being African, nor Balaeric, Spanish, Keltic or Numidian. Their exact ethnic identification remains unknown. They are also not pikemen! Pikemen is a translated from the word logcojoroi (logchophoroi, meaning logche bearers), from a succession of translators, but according to the Liddell-Scott bilingual dictionary, the word logch (logche) means a spear or javelin, and a number of examples are given showing the use of the word. None of these examples indicated a long weapon, certainly nothing approaching a six metre sarissa, but this inaccurate translation may have been what mislead Connolly and Wise. On this basis I would amend pikemen to spearmen, or just as likely, javelineers. If they also carried a light shield, they would have been comparable to the Velites, the first line of the Roman army.

In Conclusion

Karthage had the resources to copy the armour and drill used in the Makedonian kingdoms, if it wished. Greeks do not appear to have been recruited for Hannibal's invasion of Italy, and are last mentioned in the Karthaginian forces about 260BC. There is little evidence either way, but it seems unlikely that sarissa armed troops were in use outside Greece and the Makedonian kingdoms at this time. The mercenary forces of Hannibal's army, the African, Spanish, Keltic, Numidian and Balaeric troops, fought in their traditional styles. the African infantry, whose traditional style combat style is unknown, have been targeted by some modern writers as possible phalanx troops. No evidence has been cited to justify this assertion. From the evidence of Polybios' account, the African infantry could fight in a similar way to the other mercenaries under Hannibal's command, and also re use Roman arms and armour without modification of their combat style. Phalanx combat was quite different from, and did not intergrate easily with the sword and shield tactics of the western Mediterranean. I find it highly probable that the African infantry were armed and trained to fight in the Roman manner at some time prior to the invasion of Italy.

Graeme Walker.


Livy, The war with Hannibal, Penguin Classics, 1977

Polybios, The Histories trans. W.R. Paton. Loeb Classics, 1927.

Polybios, The Rise of the Roman Empire trans I. Scott-Kilvert. Penguin Classics, 1979.

Connoly, P. Greece and Rome at War, MacDonald Ltd, 1981

Wise, T. Armies of the Carthaginian Wars, Osprey MAA No 121, 1991

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