Decisions: Hannibal and Rome, Jobs and Grad School


“I know that the plan seems a daring one, but in difficult circumstances which leave little to hope for the boldest measures are always the safest.” – Titus Livy, The History of Rome, Book XXV

I first learned this quote as a junior in college.  I fell in love with ancient history back then.  It was a nice occasional diversion from my engineering studies.  Livy’s quote has come up from time to time in my life although I admit I haven’t always considered carefully.  Livy’s quote was taken from Book XXV, “The Fall of Syracuse.”  Syracuse experienced a lot of warfare over the centuries.  In the classical period, this Greek (yes, Greek) city fought against other Greek city states, Carthage, and the Roman Republic.  Livy also wrote of the great struggles and tragedies of many nations against Rome.  The one that I often think of is Carthage. 

Carthage was the nation who sent its best general, Hannibal, and his army and war elephants from Spain, across the Alps to invade Italy in the Second Punic War.  Hannibal embodied Livy’s quote.  Two years after the outbreak of hostilities, and after Hannibal arrived in Italy, he found himself near the small town of Cannae in early August 216 BC, outnumbered two to one. Hannibal’s army of 40,000 was arrayed in the traditional Macedonian style of combined arms; it faced off against eight new legions of Roman infantry.  He lost most of his war elephants in the Alps crossing.  But he was strong in cavalry, ranks of spearmen, archers, slingers, and light to medium infantry.  His Roman opponents, Consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro, were heavily favored with two brand new armies of four legions each composed in the traditional Roman way with mostly heavy infantry, perhaps totaling nearly 80,000 men.

This wasn’t only going to be a life or death match between combatants and generals; it could have been the decisive fight that ended nations. Hannibal boldly arrayed his troops with strong cavalry on the wings and his infantry in the center in a crescent moon-shaped formation bulging towards the Romans. This had the intended effect of enticing the novice Roman army to attack Hannibal’s center.  After the customary exchange of arrows, stones, and javelins, the infantry closed in.  Meanwhile, the Roman cavalry was easily held off and then quickly defeated.  Hannibal’s lines of phalanx spearmen fought just hard enough to deceive the Romans. They were under orders to slowly fall back and invert the crescent moon into a bowl-like shape. The inexperienced Romans squeezed in ever tighter in the center to break the enemy lines. 

I can just imagine the Romans hacking and slashing with their murderous short swords against Hannibal’s veteran North African spearman and working themselves up to a fever pitch, breaking discipline and slowly losing their cohesion and formation.  Then a long thunderous set of trumpet notes sounded and all hell broke loose.  The Carthaginian heavy cavalry then swept forward and behind the Roman lines.  The front lines of Carthaginian spearman suddenly gave no more ground and the Romans rapidly found themselves encircled, crushed in upon one another. 

Needless to say, the Romans were defeated.  Well, slaughtered to be more precise.  Two massive legion armies were exterminated on that hot day in August, 216 BC.  Hannibal’s army achieved a tactical victory that generations of future soldiers hope to repeat. Had Rome’s armies been more experienced, perhaps they wouldn’t have fallen for the deception Hannibal laid out for them.   

The boldest moves are always the safest. 

Rome was on the defensive for a number of years afterwards.  Many Italian cities revolted against Rome and joined Carthage.  For the Roman nation with a well-earned confidence in fighting, this was a shakeup that required two new bold plans.  The first was to delay any decisive battles against Hannibal until they could recover and field new trained legions, capture by siege warfare the cities that revolted, and prevent reinforcements from reaching Hannibal.  The second was to give up large scale fighting in Italy in favor of invading Spain and then Carthage herself.

 In due time, the Roman forces found themselves facing off again with Hannibal in North Africa, near Carthage.  By then, Carthage had lost Italy, lost vital trade, resources, and manpower from Spain, and lost some of her much-needed allies in North Africa.  After a very hard fight at the Battle of Zama, Rome finally defeated Hannibal and won this war against Carthage.

The boldest moves are always the safest. 

But what is really a bold decision?  As of last week, I had a serious decision of my own to make.  The last time I was in this situation, I should have trusted my instincts but I didn’t.  I boldly made the wrong decision and paid the price.  Now the stakes are potentially higher and neither instinct nor reason really helped with making a decision one way or the other.  In the end, being bold is all well and good but you still got to win.  To win, for me in this phase of life, is to complete my doctorate.  It takes money and time to do this.  Without taking a job, I have too little of the former.  With the job, I may have too little of the latter.

The boldest moves are always the safest. 

Perhaps in our little lives our decisions, unlike those of warring nation-states, are difficult to discern what is a bold decision vs. a timid decision is and therefore what is safest in the long run.  Honestly, I didn’t want to take this job.  It is different from what I spent more than a dozen years working hard and getting good with it.  It is like an eye doctor deciding, after becoming very competent in that specialty to drop it and practice internal medicine instead.  The disciplines are different and the learning curve to switch over is steep.  In addition to the change in role, it is a massive time-consumer, but so would any job. In my case, maybe it is bolder to take on the new role and attempt to continue with full-time grad studies.  Perhaps instead, it would have been bolder to decline the job offer and hope a better situation would have arisen.  I honestly don’t know. 

I suppose the lesson here is that we don’t always know what constitutes a bold decision and we certainly don’t know if they will work out for the better.  Maybe Livy was just plain wrong interpreting the events of Syracuse?  Maybe we really have to exhaust all other avenues and truly have our back up against the wall before Livy’s quote becomes applicable?  But even then it still may be wrong.  Being bold failed for Rome at Cannae, but it worked for Hannibal.  Sometimes being bold can equate with being foolish.  Afterwards, ignoring Hannibal’s army in Italy and invading Spain and Africa was a bold move for Rome and it worked out well for them in the end. 

Are the boldest moves are always the safest? 

Only time can tell if a decision was indeed bold and if it really is the safest.  We have 22 centuries of playing armchair general to assess Rome and Carthage’s decisions.  We don’t have that kind of retrospect for today’s decisions. Nice try, Livy.  Maybe you are right and maybe you aren’t. Like many quotes it sounds impressive and full of wisdom but without context and analysis, it can be meaningless. After all, Syracuse eventually fell despite their formidable defenses.  Rome lost battles but Carthage lost the war.  The more applicable question, every bit as elusive as Livy’s advice, “is the decision a smart one?”  For me, I won’t know if casting my own dice and crossing my little Rubicon today will work out for the best.  But it is what I did and time will tell if it is bold or timid, smart or foolish, safe or dangerous.  In the meanwhile, I intend to make the most of it.

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