Nobody said he was a great mathematician. But he may be the greatest general you never heard of. His actions over 2,000 years ago are a great example of how we can influence our future by the way we react to what’s coming at us today.
Scipio Africanus was an immensely successful Roman general during the Second Punic War from 211 to 202 BC. By age 35, he had successfully ousted Carthaginian armies from the Iberian Peninsula and a large swath of northern Africa.
He was undefeated as a commander going into his greatest challenge in 202 BC: facing the much feared Hannibal in the Battle of Zama in modern-day Tunisia.
A win could finally end the long war for Rome. A loss would mean the conflict would drag on for years. The problem was, things did not look good for Scipio.
Hannibal had significantly more troops. Worse, he also had 80 fearsome war elephants that could wreak havoc among the Roman foot soldiers.
Scipio knew that if he tried to keep his ranks firm, the elephants would tear them apart. With his lines in disarray, it would then be easy for Hannibal to swoop in and clean up the mess with his own infantry. That’s what always happened when the elephants charged.
To deal with the elephants, Scipio needed to change how he would respond to them.
Opening the Door
On the day of battle, the armies formed long lines facing each other. Hannibal had his elephants out front, and opened the contest by ordering them to charge.
As the war elephants thundered toward the Roman lines, Scipio did the unexpected. He ordered blocks of his infantry to step to the side at the last moment, suddenly creating gaps in his lines. Instead of trying to resist the elephants, Scipio was opening the door and inviting them in.
Unable to change direction, the charging elephants took the path of least resistance and simply passed through to the rear. Scipio’s javelin throwers were waiting there to deal with them. In minutes, the elephants were neutralized and out of the fight.
In the close-fought battle that followed, Scipio’s forces ultimately routed Hannibal with a cavalry attack from behind. Carthage soon sued for peace, and the Second Punic War was over.
Facing Elephants – The Takeaway
Like Scipio, we all have elephants to face from time to time: odds that seem long, challenges that may seem insurmountable.
Most of the time we can’t control what elephants we face. What we can control is how we respond to them.
As Malcolm Gladwell says in his excellent David and Goliath, size has its advantages, but it also comes with disadvantages..
When we’re facing elephants, it may be best to think about the disadvantages they represent, and then match strengths against those weaknesses.
Open the door, and let the javelin throwers do their work.
The elephants are never as big as they seem.