Rome, Carthage, and Counterintelligence: Why No Victory or Defeat Has to Be Final

Rome, Carthage, and Counterintelligence: Why No Victory or Defeat Has to Be Final
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Did you say “over?” Nothing is over until we decide it is!
--Bluto Blutarsky (
Animal House)


In counterintelligence it helps to take a long and broad view. CI professionals—indeed, anyone concerned with the business of CI—will improve their effectiveness in addressing the issues of the day if their understanding includes perspectives from a variety of disciplines, places, and times.

In this spirit, I suggest we can find important lessons for the 21st century by looking at the consequences of a battle that the armies of two long-vanished empires fought more than 2,000 years ago.

Once Upon a Time in Italy and Africa

Hannibal Barca of Carthage was one of history’s most remarkable commanders. In 218 BCE, at the start of the Second Punic War, he led an army of Carthaginian regulars, barbarian allies, and mercenaries—not to mention a few elephants—over the Alps into Italy and over the next few years nearly brought Rome to its knees. Hannibal scored a series of victories, which climaxed at then Battle of Cannae in August 216 BCE, where his 50,000 soldiers enveloped and destroyed nearly twice as many Roman legionnaires, including both consuls of the Roman Republic.

After Cannae, Hannibal controlled nearly all of Italy. Roman military forces on the peninsula were in tatters, and the republic was on the verge of panic. But this great triumph—still studied today as the model for a battle of complete annihilation of the enemy—turned out to be a strategic dead-end. Its aftermath was 15 more years of war and a harsh Roman-dictated settlement that ended centuries of Carthaginian power in the Western Mediterranean.

I think the reasons for Hannibal’s ultimate defeat lay not so much in any failings on his part as in the resilience and flexibility of the Roman Republic.[1] Resilience was built into the nature of the state and the character of its citizens. This fundamental trait made it possible for Rome’s Senate and other institutions to shake off their initial panic and adapt to the new situation created by Cannae. They mobilized the Republic’s manpower and other resources with a ruthless efficiency would have made Albert Speer blink. While new legions were being formed and trained, Roman command in Italy went to a septuagenarian ex-consul, Quintus Fabius Maximus. He refused to engage his limited forces in pitched battle against Hannibal and focused instead on pinprick harassment and the disruption of Carthaginian supply lines.[2]

When the Romans had regained strength and confidence, new adaptations were made. Roman institutions harnessed the energy and lust for glory of an aggressive young commander, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Scipio led an offensive into the Carthaginian heartland in North Africa and inflicted the final defeats on Hannibal ’s army that ended the war on Roman terms.

A Simple Lesson for Counterintelligence in the 21st Century

Counterintelligence, cyber security, and allied professionals often feel like the Romans in the days immediately after Cannae. Pervasive cyber hacking and human spying against government and corporate secrets—such as the apparent Chinese access to millions of sensitive US Government personnel files at the Office of Personnel Management and reported Russian penetration of US and European energy firms—create the impression that our adversaries have engineered a double envelopment and are poised to annihilate us.

But, just as Rome was not annihilated and in fact endured for centuries after Cannae, US and Western institutions need not lose the war to protect their sensitive information and operations. Rome triumphed because it demonstrated resilience in the fact of disaster and flexibility as conditions changed—not by digging in behind high walls and deep moats.

Corporations and government agencies will prosper if they follow Rome’s example. Success in counterintelligence and security doesn’t come from hunkering down and at all costs avoiding defeats and setbacks, which are inevitable in anything that we flawed bipedal primates undertake. Rather, success comes from displaying resilience as we endure defeats, learning from these mistakes, and adapting our operations as we learn.

[1] According to the historian Polybius, Hannibal’s cavalry commander would have disagreed with my assessment. After Hannibal decided against moving on Rome immediately after Cannae, Maharbal the Numidian reportedly said, “You know how to win a victory, Hannibal, but you do not know how to use a victory. (Victoria scis, Hannibal. Victoria uti, nescis.)

[2] The English word “Fabian”—referring to actions intended to gain their objective through indirect or gradual methods—was coined in remembrance of the Roman general.

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