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Hannibal (247 – between 183 and 181 BC), fully Hannibal Barca, was a Punic military commander from Carthage, generally considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. His father Hamilcar Barca was the leading Carthaginian commander during the First Punic War. His younger brothers were Mago and Hasdrubal, and he was brother-in-law to Hasdrubal the Fair.
Hannibal lived during a period of great tension in the Mediterranean, when the Roman Republic established its supremacy over other great powers such as Carthage and the Hellenistic kingdoms of Macedon, Syracuse, and the Seleucid Empire. One of his most famous achievements was at the outbreak of the Second Punic War, when he marched an army which included elephants from Iberia over the Pyrenees and the Alps into Italy. In his first few years in Italy, he won three dramatic victories—Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae, in which he distinguished himself for his ability to determine his and his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and to play the battle to his strengths and the enemy’s weaknesses—and won over many allies of Rome. Hannibal occupied much of Italy for 15 years, but a Roman counter-invasion of North Africa forced him to return to Carthage, where he was decisively defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama. Scipio had studied Hannibal’s tactics and brilliantly devised some of his own, and finally defeated Rome’s nemesis at Zama, having previously driven Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal out of the Iberian Peninsula.
After the war, Hannibal successfully ran for the office of suffete. He enacted political and financial reforms to enable the payment of the war indemnity imposed by Rome; however, Hannibal’s reforms were unpopular with members of the Carthaginian aristocracy and in Rome, and he fled into voluntary exile. During this time, he lived at the Seleucid court, where he acted as military advisor to Antiochus III in his war against Rome. Antiochus met defeat at the Battle of Magnesia and was forced to accept Rome’s terms, and Hannibal fled again, making a stop in Armenia. His flight ended in the court of Bithynia, where he achieved an outstanding naval victory against a fleet from Pergamon. He was afterwards betrayed to the Romans and committed suicide by poisoning himself.
Hannibal is often regarded as one of the greatest military strategists in history and one of the greatest generals of antiquity, together with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Scipio, and Pyrrhus of Epirus. Plutarch states that Hannibal was questioned by Scipio as to who was the greatest general, and Hannibal replied either Alexander or Pyrrhus, then himself, or, according to another version of the event, Pyrrhus, Scipio, then himself. Military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge called Hannibal the “father of strategy”, because his greatest enemy, Rome, came to adopt elements of his military tactics in its own strategic arsenal. This praise has earned him a strong reputation in the modern world, and he was regarded as a great strategist by Napoleon Bonaparte and others.
Barca (BRQ) was the surname of his aristocratic family, meaning “shining” or “lightning”. It is thus equivalent to the Arabic name Barq or the Hebrew name Barak or the Greek epithet keraunos, commonly given to military commanders in the Hellenistic period. In English, his clan are sometimes collectively known as the Barcids. As with Greek and Roman practice, patronymics were a common part of Carthaginian nomenclature, so that Hannibal would also have been known as “Hannibal son of Hamilcar”.
Hannibal was one of the sons of Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian leader. He had several sisters and two brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. His brothers-in-law were Hasdrubal the Fair and the Numidian king Naravas. He was still a child when his sisters married, and his brothers-in-law were close associates during his father’s struggles in the Mercenary War and the Punic conquest of Iberia. In light of Hamilcar Barca’s cognomen, historians refer to Hamilcar’s family as the Barcids. However, there is debate as to whether the cognomen Barca (meaning “thunderbolt”) was applied to Hamilcar alone or was hereditary within his family. If the latter, then Hannibal and his brothers also bore the name ‘Barca’.
After Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War, Hamilcar set out to improve his family’s and Carthage’s fortunes. With that in mind and supported by Gades, Hamilcar began the subjugation of the tribes of the Iberian Peninsula. Carthage at the time was in such a poor state that its navy was unable to transport his army to Iberia (Hispania); instead, Hamilcar had to march it towards the Pillars of Hercules and transport it across the Strait of Gibraltar.
According to Polybius, Hannibal much later said that when he came upon his father and begged to go with him, Hamilcar agreed and demanded that he swear that as long as he lived he would never be a friend of Rome. There is even an account of him at a very young age begging his father to take him to an overseas war. In the story, Hannibal’s father took him up and brought him to a sacrificial chamber. Hamilcar held Hannibal over the fire roaring in the chamber and made him swear that he would never be a friend of Rome. Other sources report that Hannibal told his father, “I swear so soon as age will permit…I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.” According to the tradition, Hannibal’s oath took place in the town of Peñíscola, today part of the community of Valencia, Spain.
Hannibal’s father went about the conquest of Hispania. When his father drowned in battle, Hannibal’s brother-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded to his command of the army with Hannibal serving as an officer under him. Hasdrubal pursued a policy of consolidation of Carthage’s Iberian interests, even signing a treaty with Rome whereby Carthage would not expand north of the Ebro River, so long as Rome did not expand south of it. Hasdrubal also endeavoured to consolidate Carthaginian power through diplomatic relationships with native tribes.
Upon the assassination of Hasdrubal in 221 BC, Hannibal was proclaimed commander-in-chief by the army and confirmed in his appointment by the Carthaginian government. Livy, a Roman scholar, gives a depiction of the young Carthaginian:
No sooner had he arrived…the old soldiers fancied they saw Hamilcar in his youth given back to them; the same bright look; the same fire in his eye, the same trick of countenance and features. Never was one and the same spirit more skillful to meet opposition, to obey, or to command…
After he assumed command, Hannibal spent two years consolidating his holdings and completing the conquest of Hispania, south of the Ebro. In his first campaign, Hannibal attacked and stormed the Olcades’ strongest centre, Alithia, which promptly led to their surrender, and brought Punic power close to the River Tagus. His following campaign in 220 was against the Vaccaei to the west, where he stormed the Vaccaen strongholds of Helmantice and Arbucala. On his return home, laden with many spoils, a coalition of Spanish tribes, led by the Carpetani, attacked, and Hannibal won his first major battlefield success and showed off his tactical skills at the battle of the River Tagus. However, Rome, fearing the growing strength of Hannibal in Iberia, made an alliance with the city of Saguntum, which lay a considerable distance south of the River Ebro and claimed the city as its protectorate. Hannibal not only perceived this as a breach of the treaty signed with Hasdrubal, but as he was already planning an attack on Rome, this was his way to start the war. So he laid siege to the city, which fell after eight months. Rome reacted to this apparent violation of the treaty and demanded justice from Carthage. In view of Hannibal’s great popularity, the Carthaginian government did not repudiate Hannibal’s actions, and the war he sought was declared at the end of the year. Hannibal was now determined to carry the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Hispania and southern Gaul.
This journey was originally planned by Hannibal’s brother-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair, who became a Carthaginian general in Iberia in 229 BC. He maintained this post for eight years until 221 BC. Soon the Romans became aware of an alliance between Carthage and the Celts of the Po River valley in Northern Italy. The Celts were amassing forces to invade farther south in Italy, presumably with Carthaginian backing. Therefore, the Romans preemptively invaded the Po region in 225 BC. By 220 BC, the Romans had annexed the area as Gallia Cisalpina. Hasdrubal was assassinated around the same time (221 BC), bringing Hannibal to the fore. It seems that the Romans lulled themselves into a false sense of security, having dealt with the threat of a Gallo-Carthaginian invasion, and perhaps knowing that the original Carthaginian commander had been killed.
Hannibal departed New Carthage in late spring of 218 BC. He fought his way through the northern tribes to the foothills of the Pyrenees, subduing the tribes through clever mountain tactics and stubborn fighting. He left a detachment of 20,000 troops to garrison the newly conquered region. At the Pyrenees, he released 11,000 Iberian troops who showed reluctance to leave their homeland. Hannibal reportedly entered Gaul with 40,000 foot soldiers and 12,000 horsemen.
Hannibal recognized that he still needed to cross the Pyrenees, the Alps, and many significant rivers. Additionally, he would have to contend with opposition from the Gauls, whose territory he passed through. Starting in the spring of 218 BC, he crossed the Pyrenees and reached the River Rhône, by conciliating the Gaulish chiefs along his passage, before the Romans could take any measures to bar his advance, arriving at the Rhône in September. Hannibal’s army numbered 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 38 elephants, almost none of which would survive the harsh conditions of the Alps.
Hannibal outmaneuvered the natives who had tried to prevent his crossing, then evaded a Roman force marching from the Mediterranean coast by turning inland up the valley of the Rhône. His exact route over the Alps has been the source of scholarly dispute ever since. (Polybius, the surviving ancient account closest in time to Hannibal’s campaign, reports that the route was already debated.) The most influential modern theories favor either a march up the valley of the Drôme and a crossing of the main range to the south of the modern highway over the Col de Montgenèvre or a march farther north up the valleys of the Isère and Arc crossing the main range near the present Col de Mont Cenis or the Little St Bernard Pass. Recent numismatic evidence suggests that Hannibal’s army may have passed within sight of the Matterhorn.
By Livy’s account, the crossing was accomplished in the face of huge difficulties. These Hannibal surmounted with ingenuity, such as when he used vinegar and fire to break through a rockfall. According to Polybius, he arrived in Italy accompanied by 20,000 foot soldiers, 4,000 horsemen, and only a few elephants. The fired rockfall event is mentioned only by Livy; Polybius is mute on the subject and there is no evidence of carbonized rock at the only two-tier rockfall in the Western Alps, located below the Col de la Traversette (Mahaney, 2008). If Polybius is correct in his figure for the number of troops that he commanded after the crossing of the Rhône, this would suggest that he had lost almost half of his force. Historians such as Serge Lancell have questioned the reliability of the figures for the number of troops that he had when he left Hispania. From the start, he seems to have calculated that he would have to operate without aid from Hispania.
Hannibal’s vision of military affairs was derived partly from the teaching of his Greek tutors and partly from experience gained alongside his father, and it stretched over most of the Hellenistic World of his time. Indeed, the breadth of his vision gave rise to his grand strategy of conquering Rome by opening a northern front and subduing allied city-states on the peninsula, rather than by attacking Rome directly. Historical events which led to the defeat of Carthage during the First Punic War when his father commanded the Carthaginian Army also led Hannibal to plan the invasion of Italy by land across the Alps.
The task was daunting, to say the least. It involved the mobilization of between 60,000 and 100,000 troops (see Proctor, 1971) and the training of a war-elephant corps, all of which had to be provisioned along the way. The alpine invasion of Italy was a military operation that would shake the Mediterranean World of 218 BC with repercussions for more than two decades.
Hannibal’s perilous march brought him into the Roman territory and frustrated the attempts of the enemy to fight out the main issue on foreign ground. His sudden appearance among the Gauls of the Po Valley, moreover, enabled him to detach those tribes from their new allegiance to the Romans before the Romans could take steps to check the rebellion. Publius Cornelius Scipio was the consul who commanded the Roman force sent to intercept Hannibal (he was also Scipio Africanus’ father). He had not expected Hannibal to make an attempt to cross the Alps, since the Romans were prepared to fight the war in Iberia. With a small detachment still positioned in Gaul, Scipio made an attempt to intercept Hannibal. He succeeded, through prompt decision and speedy movement, in transporting his army to Italy by sea in time to meet Hannibal. Hannibal’s forces moved through the Po Valley and were engaged in a large scale skirmish at Ticinus. Here, Hannibal forced the Romans to evacuate the plain of Lombardy, by virtue of his superior cavalry. The victory was minor, but it encouraged the Gauls and Ligurians to join the Carthaginian cause, whose troops bolstered his army back to around 40,000 men. Scipio was severely injured, his life only saved by the bravery of his son who rode back onto the field to rescue his fallen father. Scipio retreated across the river Trebia to camp at Placentia with his army mostly intact.
The other Roman consular army was rushed to the Po Valley. Even before news of the defeat at Ticinus had reached Rome, the Senate had ordered Consul Sempronius Longus to bring his army back from Sicily to meet Scipio and face Hannibal. Hannibal, by skillful maneuvers, was in position to head him off, for he lay on the direct road between Placentia and Arminum, by which Sempronius would have to march to reinforce Scipio. He then captured Clastidium, from which he drew large amounts of supplies for his men. But this gain was not without loss, as Sempronius avoided Hannibal’s watchfulness, slipped around his flank, and joined his colleague in his camp near the Trebia River near Placentia. There Hannibal had an opportunity to show his masterful military skill at Trebia in December of the same year, after wearing down the superior Roman infantry, when he cut it to pieces with a surprise attack and ambush from the flanks.
Hannibal quartered his troops for the winter with the Gauls, whose support for him had abated. In the spring of 217 BC, Hannibal decided to find a more reliable base of operations farther south. Gnaeus Servilius and Gaius Flaminius (the new consuls of Rome) were expecting Hannibal to advance on Rome, and they took their armies to block the eastern and western routes that Hannibal could use.
The only alternative route to central Italy lay at the mouth of the Arno. This area was practically one huge marsh, and happened to be overflowing more than usual during this particular season. Hannibal knew that this route was full of difficulties, but it remained the surest and certainly the quickest way to central Italy. Polybius claims that Hannibal’s men marched for four days and three nights, “through a land that was under water”, suffering terribly from fatigue and enforced want of sleep. He crossed without opposition over both the Apennines (during which he lost his right eye because of conjunctivitis) and the seemingly impassable Arno, but he lost a large part of his force in the marshy lowlands of the Arno.
He arrived in Etruria in the spring of 217 BC and decided to lure the main Roman army under Flaminius into a pitched battle by devastating the region that Flaminius had been sent to protect. As Polybius recounts, “he [Hannibal] calculated that, if he passed the camp and made a descent into the district beyond, Flaminius (partly for fear of popular reproach and partly of personal irritation) would be unable to endure watching passively the devastation of the country but would spontaneously follow him… and give him opportunities for attack.” At the same time, Hannibal tried to break the allegiance of Rome’s allies by proving that Flaminius was powerless to protect them. Despite this, Flaminius remained passively encamped at Arretium. Hannibal marched boldly around Flaminius’ left flank, unable to draw him into battle by mere devastation, and effectively cut him off from Rome (thus executing the first recorded turning movement in military history). He then advanced through the uplands of Etruria, provoking Flaminius into a hasty pursuit and catching him in a defile on the shore of Lake Trasimenus. There Hannibal destroyed Flaminius’ army in the waters or on the adjoining slopes, killing Flaminius as well (see Battle of Lake Trasimene). This was the most costly ambush that the Romans ever sustained until the Battle of Carrhae against the Parthians.
Hannibal had now disposed of the only field force that could check his advance upon Rome, but he realized that, without siege engines, he could not hope to take the capital. He preferred to exploit his victory by entering into central and southern Italy and encouraging a general revolt against the sovereign power.
The Romans appointed Fabius Maximus as their dictator. Departing from Roman military traditions, Fabius adopted the strategy named after him, avoiding open battle while placing several Roman armies in Hannibal’s vicinity in order to watch and limit his movements.
Hannibal ravaged Apulia but was unable to bring Fabius to battle, so he decided to march through Samnium to Campania, one of the richest and most fertile provinces of Italy, hoping that the devastation would draw Fabius into battle. Fabius closely followed Hannibal’s path of destruction, yet still refused to let himself be drawn out of the defensive. This strategy was unpopular with many Romans, who believed that it was a form of cowardice.
Hannibal decided that it would be unwise to winter in the already devastated lowlands of Campania, but Fabius had ensured that all the passes were blocked out of Campania. To avoid this, Hannibal deceived the Romans into thinking that the Carthaginian army was going to escape through the woods. As the Romans moved off towards the woods, Hannibal’s army occupied the pass, and then made their way through the pass unopposed. Fabius was within striking distance but in this case his caution worked against him. Smelling a stratagem (rightly), he stayed put. For the winter, Hannibal found comfortable quarters in the Apulian plain. What Hannibal achieved in extricating his army was, as Adrian Goldsworthy puts it, “a classic of ancient generalship, finding its way into nearly every historical narrative of the war and being used by later military manuals”. This was a severe blow to Fabius’ prestige and soon after this his period of dictatorial power ended.
In the spring of 216 BC, Hannibal took the initiative and seized the large supply depot at Cannae in the Apulian plain. By capturing Cannae, Hannibal had placed himself between the Romans and their crucial sources of supply. Once the Roman Senate resumed their consular elections in 216 BC, they appointed Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus as consuls. In the meantime, the Romans hoped to gain success through sheer strength and weight of numbers, and they raised a new army of unprecedented size, estimated by some to be as large as 100,000 men, but more likely around 50-80,000.
The Romans and allied legions resolved to confront Hannibal and marched southward to Apulia. They eventually found him on the left bank of the Aufidus River, and encamped six miles (10 km) away. On this occasion, the two armies were combined into one, the consuls having to alternate their command on a daily basis. Varro was in command on the first day, a man of reckless and hubristic nature (according to Livy) and determined to defeat Hannibal. Hannibal capitalized on the eagerness of Varro and drew him into a trap by using an envelopment tactic. This eliminated the Roman numerical advantage by shrinking the combat area. Hannibal drew up his least reliable infantry in a semicircle in the center with the wings composed of the Gallic and Numidian horse. The Roman legions forced their way through Hannibal’s weak center, but the Libyan mercenaries on the wings, swung around by the movement, menaced their flanks. The onslaught of Hannibal’s cavalry was irresistible. Hannibal’s chief cavalry commander Maharbal led the mobile Numidian cavalry on the right, and they shattered the Roman cavalry opposing them. Hannibal’s Iberian and Gallic heavy cavalry, led by Hanno on the left, defeated the Roman heavy cavalry, and then both the Carthaginian heavy cavalry and the Numidians attacked the legions from behind. As a result, the Roman army was hemmed in with no means of escape.
Due to these brilliant tactics, Hannibal managed to surround and destroy all but a small remnant of his enemy, despite his own inferior numbers. Depending upon the source, it is estimated that 50,000-70,000 Romans were killed or captured. Among the dead were Roman Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus, as well as two consuls for the preceding year, two quaestors, twenty-nine out of the forty-eight military tribunes, and an additional eighty senators (at a time when the Roman Senate was composed of no more than 300 men, this constituted 25%–30% of the governing body). This makes the battle one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of Ancient Rome, and one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history (in terms of the number of lives lost within a single day).
After Cannae, the Romans were very hesitant to confront Hannibal in pitched battle, preferring instead to weaken him by attrition, relying on their advantages of interior lines, supply, and manpower. As a result, Hannibal fought no more major battles in Italy for the rest of the war. It is believed that his refusal to bring the war to Rome itself was due to a lack of commitment from Carthage of men, money, and materiel — principally siege equipment. Whatever the reason, the choice prompted Maharbal to say, “Hannibal, you know how to gain a victory, but not how to use one.”
As a result of this victory, many parts of Italy joined Hannibal’s cause. As Polybius notes, “How much more serious was the defeat of Cannae, than those that preceded it can be seen by the behavior of Rome’s allies; before that fateful day, their loyalty remained unshaken, now it began to waver for the simple reason that they despaired of Roman Power.” During that same year, the Greek cities in Sicily were induced to revolt against Roman political control, while Macedonian King Philip V pledged his support to Hannibal – thus initiating the First Macedonian War against Rome. Hannibal also secured an alliance with newly appointed Hieronymus of Syracuse. It is often argued that, if Hannibal had received proper material reinforcements from Carthage, he might have succeeded with a direct attack upon Rome. Instead, he had to content himself with subduing the fortresses that still held out against him, and the only other notable event of 216 BC was the defection of certain Italian territories, including Capua, the second largest city of Italy, which Hannibal made his new base. However, only a few of the Italian city-states defected to him that he had expected to gain as allies.
The war in Italy settled into a strategic stalemate. The Romans used the attritional strategy that Fabius had taught them, and which, they finally realized, was the only feasible means of defeating Hannibal. Indeed, Fabius received the surname “Cunctator” (“the Delayer”) because of his policy of not meeting Hannibal in open battle but through guerilla, scorched earth tactics. The Romans deprived Hannibal of a large-scale battle and instead assaulted his weakening army with multiple smaller armies in an attempt to both weary him and create unrest in his troops. For the next few years, Hannibal was forced to sustain a scorched earth policy and obtain local provisions for protracted and ineffectual operations throughout southern Italy. His immediate objectives were reduced to minor operations centered mainly round the cities of Campania.
The forces detached to his lieutenants were generally unable to hold their own, and neither his home government nor his new ally Philip V of Macedon helped to make up his losses. His position in southern Italy, therefore, became increasingly difficult and his chance of ultimately conquering Rome grew ever more remote. Hannibal still won a number of notable victories: completely destroying two Roman armies in 212 BC, and killing two consuls (including the famed Marcus Claudius Marcellus) in a battle in 208 BC. However, Hannibal slowly began losing ground—inadequately supported by his Italian allies, abandoned by his government (either because of jealousy or simply because Carthage was overstretched), and unable to match Rome’s resources. He was never able to bring about another grand decisive victory that could produce a lasting strategic change.
Carthaginian political will was embodied in the ruling oligarchy. There was a Carthaginian Senate, but the real power was with the inner “Council of 30 Nobles” and the board of judges from ruling families known as the “Hundred and Four”. These two bodies came from the wealthy, commercial families of Carthage. Two political factions operated in Carthage: the war party, also known as the “Barcids” (Hannibal’s family name); and the peace party led by Hanno II the Great. Hanno had been instrumental in denying Hannibal’s requested reinforcements following the battle at Cannae.
Hannibal started the war without the full backing of Carthaginian oligarchy. His attack of Saguntum had presented the oligarchy with a choice of war with Rome or loss of prestige in Iberia. The oligarchy, not Hannibal, controlled the strategic resources of Carthage. Hannibal constantly sought reinforcements from either Iberia or North Africa. Hannibal’s troops who were lost in combat were replaced with less well-trained and motivated mercenaries from Italy or Gaul. The commercial interests of the Carthaginian oligarchy dictated the reinforcement and supply of Iberia rather than Hannibal throughout the campaign.
In 212 BC, Hannibal captured Tarentum but he failed to obtain control of its harbour. The tide was slowly turning against him, and in favor of Rome.
The Romans then mounted two sieges of Capua, which fell in 211 BC, and completed their conquest of Syracuse and destruction of the Carthaginian army in Sicily. Shortly thereafter, the Romans pacified Sicily and entered into an alliance with the Aetolian League to counter Phillip V. Philip, who attempted to exploit Rome’s preoccupation in Italy to conquer Illyria, now found himself under attack from several sides at once and was quickly subdued by Rome and her Greek allies. Meanwhile, Hannibal had defeated Fulvius at the battle of Herdonia in Apulia, but lost Tarentum the following year.
In 210 BC, Hannibal again proved his superiority in tactics by inflicting a severe defeat at Herdonia (modern Ordona) in Apulia upon a proconsular army and, in 208 BC, destroyed a Roman force engaged in the siege of Locri Epizephyri. But with the loss of Tarentum in 209 BC and the gradual reconquest by the Romans of Samnium and Lucania, his hold on south Italy was almost lost. In 207 BC, he succeeded in making his way again into Apulia, where he waited to concert measures for a combined march upon Rome with his brother Hasdrubal Barca. On hearing, however, of his brother’s defeat and death at the Metaurus he retired into Bruttium, where he maintained himself for the ensuing years. His brother’s head had been cut off, carried across Italy, and tossed over the palisade of Hannibal’s camp as a cold message of the iron-clad will of the Roman Republic. The combination of these events marked the end to Hannibal’s success in Italy. With the failure of his brother Mago Barca in Liguria (205–203 BC) and of his own negotiations with Philip V of Macedon, the last hope of recovering his ascendancy in Italy was lost. In 203 BC, after nearly fifteen years of fighting in Italy, and with the military fortunes of Carthage rapidly declining, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage to direct the defense of his native country against a Roman invasion under Scipio Africanus.
In 203 BC, Hannibal was recalled from Italy by the war party in Carthage. After leaving a record of his expedition engraved in Punic and Greek upon bronze tablets in the temple of Juno at Crotona, he sailed back to Africa. His arrival immediately restored the predominance of the war party, which placed him in command of a combined force of African levies and his mercenaries from Italy. In 202 BC, Hannibal met Scipio in a fruitless peace conference. Despite mutual admiration, negotiations floundered due to Roman allegations of “Punic Faith,” referring to the breach of protocols that ended the First Punic War by the Carthaginian attack on Saguntum, and a Carthaginan attack on a stranded Roman fleet. Scipio and Carthage had worked out a peace plan, which was approved by Rome. The terms of the treaty were quite modest, but the war had been long for the Romans. Carthage could keep its African territory but would lose its overseas empire, a fait accompli. Masinissa (Numidia) was to be independent. Also, Carthage was to reduce its fleet and pay a war indemnity. But Carthage then made a terrible blunder. Its long-suffering citizens had captured a stranded Roman fleet in the Gulf of Tunis (Tunisia) and stripped it of supplies, an action that aggravated the faltering negotiations. Meanwhile, Hannibal, recalled from Italy by the Carthaginian Senate, had returned with his army. Fortified by both Hannibal and the supplies, the Carthaginians rebuffed the treaty and Roman protests. The decisive battle at Zama soon followed; the defeat removed Hannibal’s air of invincibility.
Unlike most battles of the Second Punic War, at Zama, the Romans were superior in cavalry and the Carthaginians had the edge in infantry. This Roman cavalry superiority was due to the betrayal of Masinissa, who had earlier assisted Carthage in Iberia, but changed sides in 206 BC with the promise of land and due to his personal conflicts with Syphax, a Carthaginian ally. Although the aging Hannibal was suffering from mental exhaustion and deteriorating health after years of campaigning in Italy, the Carthaginians still had the advantage in numbers and were boosted by the presence of 80 war elephants.
The Roman cavalry won an early victory by swiftly routing the Carthaginian horse, and standard Roman tactics for limiting the effectiveness of the Carthaginian war elephants were successful, including playing trumpets to frighten the elephants into running into the Carthaginian lines. Some historians say that the elephants routed the Carthaginian cavalry and not the Romans, whilst others suggest that it was actually a tactical retreat planned by Hannibal. Whatever the truth, the battle remained closely fought. At one point, it seemed that Hannibal was on the verge of victory, but Scipio was able to rally his men, and his cavalry, having routed the Carthaginian cavalry, attacked Hannibal’s rear. This two-pronged attack caused the Carthaginian formation to collapse.
With their foremost general defeated, the Carthaginians had no choice but to surrender. Carthage lost approximately 20,000 troops with an additional 15,000 wounded. In contrast, the Romans suffered only 2,500 casualties. The last major battle of the Second Punic War resulted in a loss of respect for Hannibal by his fellow Carthaginians. The conditions of defeat were such that Carthage could no longer battle for Mediterranean supremacy.
Hannibal was still only 43 and soon showed that he could be a statesman as well as a soldier. Following the conclusion of a peace that left Carthage stripped of its formerly mighty empire, Hannibal prepared to take a back seat for a time. However, the blatant corruption of the oligarchy gave Hannibal a chance to re-emerge and he was elected as suffete or chief magistrate. The office had become rather insignificant, but Hannibal restored its power and authority. The oligarchy, always jealous of him, had even charged him with having betrayed the interests of his country while in Italy, for neglecting to take Rome when he might have done so. So effectively did Hannibal reform abuses that the heavy tribute imposed by Rome could be paid by installments without additional and extraordinary taxation. He also reformed the Hundred and Four, stipulating that its membership be chosen by direct election rather than co-option. He also used citizen support to change the term of office in the Hundred and Four from life to a year, with a term limit of two years.
Seven years after the victory of Zama, the Romans, alarmed by Carthage’s renewed prosperity, demanded Hannibal’s surrender. Hannibal thereupon went into voluntary exile. He journeyed to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage, and then to Ephesus, where he was honorably received by Antiochus III of Syria, who was preparing for war with Rome. Hannibal soon saw that the king’s army was no match for the Romans. He advised equipping a fleet and landing a body of troops in the south of Italy, offering to take command himself. But he could not make much impression on Antiochus, who listened to his courtiers and would not entrust Hannibal with any important office. According to Cicero, while at the court of Antiochus, Hannibal attended a lecture by Phormio, a philosopher, that ranged through many topics. When Phormio finished a discourse on the duties of a general, Hannibal was asked his opinion. He replied, “I have seen during my life many old fools; but this one beats them all.” Another story according to Aulus Gellius is that when Antiochus III showed off the gigantic and elaborately equipped army he had created to invade Greece to Hannibal, he asked him if they would be enough for the Roman Republic, to which Hannibal replied, “I think all this will be enough, yes, quite enough, for the Romans, even though they are most avaricious.” In 191 BC, the Romans under Manius Acilius Glabrio routed Antiochus at Thermopylae and obliged him to withdraw to Asia. The Romans followed up their success by attacking Antiochus in Anatolia, and the Seleucids were decisively defeated at Magnesia ad Sipylum in 190 BC by Scipio Asiaticus.
In 190 BC, he was placed in command of a Seleucid fleet but was defeated in a battle off the Eurymedon River. According to Strabo and Plutarch, Hannibal also received hospitality at the Armenian court of Artaxias I. The authors add an apocryphal story of how Hannibal planned and supervised the building of the new royal capital Artaxata. When Antiochus seemed prepared to surrender him to the Romans, Hannibal fled to Crete, but he soon went back to Asia Minor and sought refuge with Prusias I of Bithynia, who was engaged in warfare with Rome’s ally, King Eumenes II of Pergamon. Hannibal went on to serve Prusias in this war. During one of the naval victories he gained over Eumenes, Hannibal had large pots filled with venomous snakes thrown onto Eumenes’ ships. Hannibal also went on to defeat Eumenes in two other battles on land until the Romans interfered and threatened Bithynia into giving up Hannibal. Hannibal also visited Tyre, the home of his forefathers. However the Romans were determined to hunt him down, and they insisted on his surrender.
Prusias agreed to give him up, but Hannibal was determined not to fall into his enemies’ hands. At Libyssa on the eastern shore of the Sea of Marmara, he took poison, which, it was said, he had long carried about with him in a ring. Before dying, he left behind a letter declaring, “Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.”
The precise year of Hannibal’s death is unknown. In his Annales, Titus Pomponius Atticus reports it occurred in 183 BC, and Livy implies the same. Polybius, who wrote nearest the event, gives 182 BC. Sulpicius Blitho records it under 181 BC.
Hannibal caused great distress to many in Roman society. It has been said that for generations, Roman housekeepers would tell their children brutal tales of Hannibal when they misbehaved. In fact, Hannibal became such a figure of terror that whenever disaster struck, the Roman Senators would exclaim “Hannibal ante portas” (“Hannibal is at the gates!”) to express their fear or anxiety. This famous Latin phrase became a common expression that is often still used when a client arrives through the door or when one is faced with calamity.
The works of Roman writers such as Livy, Frontinus, and Juvenal show a grudging admiration for Hannibal. The Romans even built statues of the Carthaginian in the very streets of Rome to advertise their defeat of such a worthy adversary. It is plausible to suggest that Hannibal engendered the greatest fear Rome had towards an enemy. Nevertheless, they grimly refused to admit the possibility of defeat and rejected all overtures for peace; they even refused to accept the ransom of prisoners after Cannae.
During the war there are no reports of revolutions among the Roman citizens, no factions with the Senate desiring peace, no pro-Carthaginian Roman turncoats, no coups. Indeed, throughout the war Roman aristocrats ferociously competed with each other for positions of command to fight against Rome’s most dangerous enemy. Hannibal’s military genius was not enough to really disturb the Roman political process and the collective political and military capacity of the Roman people. As Lazenby states,
“It says volumes, too, for their political maturity and respect for constitutional forms that the complicated machinery of government continued to function even amidst disaster—there are few states in the ancient world in which a general who had lost a battle like Cannae would have dared to remain, let alone would have continued to be treated respectfully as head of state.”
According to the historian Livy, the Romans feared Hannibal’s military genius, and during Hannibal’s march against Rome in 211 BC “a messenger who had travelled from Fregellae for a day and a night without stopping created great alarm in Rome, and the excitement was increased by people running about the City with wildly exaggerated accounts of the news he had brought. The wailing cry of the matrons was heard everywhere, not only in private houses but even in the temples. Here they knelt and swept the temple-floors with their dishevelled hair and lifted up their hands to heaven in piteous entreaty to the gods that they would deliver the City of Rome out of the hands of the enemy and preserve its mothers and children from injury and outrage.” In the Senate the news was “received with varying feelings as men’s temperaments differed,” so it was decided to keep Capua under siege, but to send 15,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry as reinforcements to Rome.
According to Livy, the land occupied by Hannibal’s army outside Rome in 211 BC was sold at the very time of its occupation and for the same price. This may not be true but as Lazenby states, “could well be, exemplifying as it does not only the supreme confidence felt by the Romans in ultimate victory, but also the way in which something like normal life continued. After Cannae the Romans showed a considerable steadfastness in adversity. An undeniable proof of Rome’s confidence is demonstrated by the fact that after the Cannae disaster she was left virtually defenseless, but the Senate still chose not to withdraw a single garrison from an overseas province to strengthen the city. In fact, they were reinforced and the campaigns there maintained until victory was secured; beginning first in Sicily under the direction of Claudius Marcellus, and later in Hispania under Scipio Africanus. Although the long-term consequences of Hannibal’s war are debatable, this war was undeniably Rome’s “finest hour”.
Most of the sources available to historians about Hannibal are from Romans. They considered him the greatest enemy Rome had ever faced. Livy gives us the idea that he was extremely cruel. Even Cicero, when he talked of Rome and its two great enemies, spoke of the “honourable” Pyrrhus and the “cruel” Hannibal. Yet a different picture is sometimes revealed. When Hannibal’s successes had brought about the death of two Roman consuls, he vainly searched for the body of Gaius Flaminius Nepos on the shores of Lake Trasimene, held ceremonial rituals in recognition of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, and sent Marcellus’ ashes back to his family in Rome. Any bias attributed to Polybius, however, is more troublesome, since he was clearly sympathetic towards Hannibal. Nevertheless, Polybius spent a long period as a hostage in Italy and relied heavily on Roman sources, so there remains the possibility that he reproduced elements of Roman propaganda.
Hannibal is generally regarded as one of the best military strategists and tacticians of all time, the double envelopment at Cannae an enduring legacy of tactical brilliance. According to Appian, several years after the Second Punic War, Hannibal served as a political advisor in the Seleucid Kingdom and Scipio was sent there on a diplomatic mission from Rome.
It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia”.
To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus”, because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible”, he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these”.
Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “to myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Hispania and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules.”
As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “in that case I should have put myself before Alexander”. Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in an indirect manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.
At the end of this conversation Hannibal invited Scipio to be his guest, and Scipio replied that he would be so gladly if Hannibal were not living with Antiochus, who was held in suspicion by the Romans. Thus did they, in a manner worthy of great commanders, cast aside their enmity at the end of their wars.
Military academies all over the world continue to study Hannibal’s exploits (especially his victory at Cannae).
Maximilian Otto Bismarck Caspari, in his article in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, praises Hannibal in these words:
As to the transcendent military genius of Hannibal there cannot be two opinions. The man who for fifteen years could hold his ground in a hostile country against several powerful armies and a succession of able generals must have been a commander and a tactician of supreme capacity. In the use of strategies and ambuscades he certainly surpassed all other generals of antiquity. Wonderful as his achievements were, we must marvel the more when we take into account the grudging support he received from Carthage. As his veterans melted away, he had to organize fresh levies on the spot. We never hear of a mutiny in his army, composed though it was of North Africans, Iberians and Gauls. Again, all we know of him comes for the most part from hostile sources. The Romans feared and hated him so much that they could not do him justice. Livy speaks of his great qualities, but he adds that his vices were equally great, among which he singles out his more than Punic perfidy and an inhuman cruelty. For the first there would seem to be no further justification than that he was consummately skillful in the use of ambuscades. For the latter there is, we believe, no more ground than that at certain crises he acted in the general spirit of ancient warfare. Sometimes he contrasts most favorably with his enemy. No such brutality stains his name as that perpetrated by Claudius Nero on the vanquished Hasdrubal. Polybius merely says that he was accused of cruelty by the Romans and of avarice by the Carthaginians. He had indeed bitter enemies, and his life was one continuous struggle against destiny. For steadfastness of purpose, for organizing capacity and a mastery of military science he has perhaps never had an equal.
Even the Roman chroniclers acknowledged Hannibal’s supreme military leadership, writing that, “he never required others to do what he could and would not do himself”. According to Polybius 23, 13, p. 423:
“It is a remarkable and very cogent proof of Hannibal’s having been by nature a real leader and far superior to anyone else in statesmanship, that though he spent seventeen years in the field, passed through so many barbarous countries, and employed to aid him in desperate and extraordinary enterprises numbers of men of different nations and languages, no one ever dreamt of conspiring against him, nor was he ever deserted by those who had once joined him or submitted to him.”
Count Alfred von Schlieffen developed his eponymously titled “Schlieffen Plan” (1905/1906) from his military studies, with a particularly heavy emphasis on the envelopment technique which Hannibal employed to surround and destroy the Roman army at Cannae. George S. Patton believed himself a reincarnation of Hannibal as well as of many other people, including a Roman legionary and a Napoleonic soldier. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the Coalition Forces in the Gulf War of 1990-1991, claimed: “The technology of war may change, the sophistication of weapons certainly changes. But those same principles of war that applied to the days of Hannibal apply today.”
According to the military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge,
Hannibal excelled as a tactician. No battle in history is a finer sample of tactics than Cannae. But he was yet greater in logistics and strategy. No captain ever marched to and fro among so many armies of troops superior to his own numbers and material as fearlessly and skillfully as he. No man ever held his own so long or so ably against such odds. Constantly overmatched by better soldiers, led by generals always respectable, often of great ability, he yet defied all their efforts to drive him from Italy, for half a generation. Excepting in the case of Alexander, and some few isolated instances, all wars up to the Second Punic War, had been decided largely, if not entirely, by battle-tactics. Strategic ability had been comprehended only on a minor scale. Armies had marched towards each other, had fought in parallel order, and the conqueror had imposed terms on his opponent. Any variation from this rule consisted in ambuscades or other stratagems. That war could be waged by avoiding in lieu of seeking battle; that the results of a victory could be earned by attacks upon the enemy’s communications, by flank-maneuvers, by seizing positions from which safely to threaten him in case he moved, and by other devices of strategy, was not understood… [However] For the first time in the history of war, we see two contending generals avoiding each other, occupying impregnable camps on heights, marching about each other’s flanks to seize cities or supplies in their rear, harassing each other with small-war, and rarely venturing on a battle which might prove a fatal disaster—all with a well-conceived purpose of placing his opponent at a strategic disadvantage… That it did so was due to the teaching of Hannibal.
Hannibal’s name occurs commonly in later art and popular culture, an objective measure of his considerable influence on Western history.
As with other military leaders, Hannibal’s victories against superior forces in an ultimately losing cause won him enduring fame that outlasted his native North Africa. His crossing of the Alps remains one of the most monumental military feats of ancient warfare and has since captured the imagination of the world (romanticized by several artworks).
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