Dealing With Treachery And Treason

Betrayal, treachery, and treason are among the most hated of crimes.  From antiquity until our own time, commanders have devised numerous ways to prevent or limit them.  Some examples are presented here.  The reader will discover that all of them involve either incentives or punishments; sometimes a mixture of the two is employed.  The Roman commander Frontinus, in his Stratagems (III.16), provides us with several examples.

When Hannibal invaded Italy during the Second Punic War, he was counting on the various municipalities in Italy to rise up against Rome and rally to his side.  This plan was not delusional.  Roman domination of Italy was resented by many of the regional Italic peoples; then, as now, Italy was diverse in culture and habits.  After the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal sought the support of the people from a municipality named Nola.  One of his captives was a man named Lucius Bantius, who was from Nola.  In 216 B.C., Hannibal released him, sending him back to Nola and asking him to convince his people there to throw in their lot with Hannibal.

The Roman commander in the area, Claudius Marcellus, heard of Bantius’s mission and sought to intercept him.  Knowing that killing him would rouse the people of Nola against Rome, he sought to buy his support with bribery and flattery.  He spoke to Bantius in person and called him an excellent soldier, and tried to persuade him not to defect to Hannibal.  To further sweeten his words, he gave Bantius the gift of a horse (a very valuable item in those days).  In this way was Bantius’s loyalty secured:  instead of using threats or terror, the Roman commander used flattery and payoffs.  In our own time, we see this kind of tactic used by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the support of local communities is won by spreading around money and gifts.  Bribery is often an effective inoculation against treachery.

The subtle Hannibal once dealt with treachery with a brilliant bluff.  After he had crossed the Alps and had arrived in Italy, he was faced with some mutinous soldiers.  He tried to persuade them to stay with him, but was unsuccessful; one night, a large group of them slipped way and melted into the countryside.  Hannibal did not want the word to get out that some units had deserted, because he feared that might trigger more defections.  So he told his army (falsely) that he had “dismissed” the deserters and sent them away because they were no longer needed.  His army not only believed the story, but actually marveled at the confidence of their commander, who was so sure of victory that he could afford to dismiss surplus military forces.  In this way Hannibal, that master of guile, solved his problem with the deserters.

During the First Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar (a common Carthaginian name and not to be confused with Hannibal’s father) used a different method to prevent treachery.  Hamilcar had attached to him many men from Gaul who were in the habit of defecting to the Romans.  He realized that he needed to put an end to this immediately, and chose a ruthless and effective method of doing so.  He had some of his best troops pretend to defect to the enemy; and when the Romans came out to welcome them, these “defectors” pulled out weapons and attacked the Romans.

Thus the Romans learned quickly not to trust Gallic defectors from that point forward.  Potential defectors in Hamilcar’s ranks began to think twice before betraying their commander.  In modern times, we have seen variations of this tactic in America’s wars in Korea (1950-1953) and Vietnam.  There were many instances of “civilians” approaching American lines who suddenly pulled out weapons and started firing.  With this tactic the enemy was able to drive psychological wedges between the American military and local civilians, a fact that helped further their cause.

Along these same lines, the Carthaginian general Hanno used an even more ruthless tactic to deal with betrayal in his army while campaigning in Sicily.  Hanno learned that about four thousand Gauls were planning to desert to the Romans, for the reason that they had not received any pay for a long time.  Hanno knew he was in a delicate situation:  he dared not punish the Gauls for fear of triggering a general mutiny of his entire army.  Instead, he destroyed them by stealth.  To the disgruntled Gauls, he was all smiles, promising them that he would increase their pay substantially and give them other privileges.  He also promised to allow them to leave camp and forage for food on a certain date.

At the same time, however, he secretly sent a trusted emissary, posing as a deserter, to the Roman commander Otacilius.  The emissary pretended he was a fugitive from Hanno’s army after having been indicted by Hanno for embezzlement.  The “deserter” told Otacilius that at a certain day and time, he would be able to find a contingent of Gauls foraging for food in the countryside.  Of course, these were the same four thousand disgruntled Gauls whom Hanno had allowed to leave camp.  Otacilius had several units of his men lie in ambush for the Gauls at the given day and time, and they fell upon the Gauls, massacring many of them.  The Gauls also killed many Romans during the melee.

Through this devious ruse was Hanno able to solve two problems in one stroke:  he disposed of the mutinous Gauls who were causing him problems, and at the same time he was able to weaken the Romans by inflicting casualties on them.


Read more about stratagems and tactics still relevant to us today in my new translation of Sallust: