Hannibal the Carthaginian

March 28th, 2007


Believed by many military historians to have been the greatest general ever to have lived, there is precious little information about the man the Romans called “The Mad Carthaginian.” Why? Because Hannibal and his small yet devoted army instilled so much fear in the Roman Empire that Rome decreed all references to Hannibal be “purged from memory, lest others be inspired.” Still, his name and campaigns against Rome remain legendary, bordering on mythical. A brief look at the life and times of Hannibal.In the centuries following Hannibal’s death, a phrase became part of the vernacular of Roman life- “Hannibal at the gates!” Mothers would scold misbehaving children with this warning, echoing the words that Romans called out in the streets amid Hannibal’s anticipated and even rumored advances upon Rome during the Second Punic War. The phrase itself can be traced to the very real sense of terror that permeated the Italian peninsula more than 2,200 years ago. Today, casual references to Hannibal are usually associated with barbarism or perhaps an expedition across the Pyrenees via elephant. Yet to early Romans his name struck the hearts and minds of soldiers and civilians alike with panic and fear. So who was Hannibal of Carthage really, and how did he reduce the great Roman Empire to such a state, even if only for a brief time?

Hannibal was born to a Carthaginian general named Hamilcar Barca around 227 B.C. Hamilcar was a well-respected warrior, whose army included conscripts and mercenaries from many different cultures, countries and backgrounds. As the eldest son of their leader, the young Hannibal would have been able to move freely among the fires of his father’s mountain encampments on the southern Mediterranean seashore near modern Tunis in Tunisia. He would have seen the strange clothing of Africans and Iberian horseman, and heard the languages of Greeks, Egyptians, Roman deserters, and even Mongols and Indians. His father was respected by this diverse collection of soldiers for many reasons, not least of which because he demonstrated tolerance and respect for the many different cultures and customs that made up his army. In turn, their respect for him was evident in Hamilcar’s ability to hold out against Roman siege for so long as Roman influence spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean during Hannibal’s youth. When Rome finally relented, Hamilcar was given free passage with his family, soldiers, and slaves back to Carthage. This concluded the First Punic War, a victory for Rome, whereupon Rome stripped Carthage of Sicily and then took Sardinia and Corsica as well.[1]

After this passage, Hamilcar enjoined Hannibal and his brothers in a blood oath, making them swear to never yield against Rome, and to never give up the struggle. It undoubtedly left a deep impression on Hannibal, as this conviction consumed most of his adult life.

Hannibal’s Mediterranean World

Before the Second Punic War, you could divide the Mediterranean roughly in two, not only geographically but practically. The world west of where southern Italy and Sicily served to demarcate Rome’s influence has been treated by some historians as the “edge of the civilized world” at that point in time. However the Carthaginian’s forebears, the Phoenicians, had mastered the waters of the western Mediterranean and were routinely exploring and forming commercial ties all up and down the waters of the European and African coastline as north as modern Britain and as far south as the Ivory Coast and beyond. Carthaginian merchants and explorers brought great wealth to Carthage. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, Carthage once ruled more than 300 cities in Libya and up to 700,000 people in Carthage alone.

Iberia (modern Spain) was key to the western Mediterranean region, and that is precisely where Hamilcar took Hannibal and the rest of his family in 237 B.C. There were already several Carthaginian cities in the region of Andalusia- Gader, Malkah, and New Carthage (Cartagena). Rome continued to exert strong pressure (military and political) on the Carthaginians to relinquish more and more control to the Empire. In 221, Hannibal took command of the Carthaginian army in Spain. In 220 he captured Salamanca. In 219 he took Saguntum, a Roman ally.

The personal magnetism and leadership qualities of Hannibal simply cannot be overestimated. He quickly formed strong alliances and gained respect among the various tribal leaders and peoples of his adopted home. He learned the local language and dialects, and even married an Iberian princess. His life became a single measure of purpose: total independence from Rome’s influence. And he surely understood that given the times and Rome’s spreading power, the only path was war: to take the battle to the Romans before it came to them. What is interesting to note is that while he was establishing control over Spain and pursuing this “conquer or be conquered” strategy, Hannibal effectively sparked the first real “World War” which would be fought in Spain, southern France, Italy, and northern Africa.

The Second Punic War

In 218 he moved to establish complete control over the entire Iberian peninsula. As expected, Rome declared war (thus beginning the Second Punic War) and sent an army to Sicily, where they entirely expected Hannibal to organize and mount an attack by sea. But Hannibal was well aware of the absolute dominance which Rome held on the water. He had no intention of putting his entire force at risk before even having a chance to engage the legions in a land battle. So he envisioned saguntum_s (Hannibal).jpgand executed a brilliant and unorthodox plan by creating opportunity where none had existed before. He took his army of 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry and 37 war elephants on his fabled march over the Pyrenees, and into the Po Valley across the Rhone river, ferrying his elephants over the water on rafts. This march is significant because not only did it represent a brilliantly unorthodox military maneuver, but also because of the speed and discipline with which it was conducted (it took two weeks, and was completed in October, as the winter snows were beginning to fall). Less than 45,000 troops survived the crossing.

They encamped near modern Turin. Here they joined forces with several of the Gallic tribes of modern France, to whom he had made discreet overtures before his trip across the mountains. The Gauls were an extremely fierce and proud people, with long hair and huge mustaches. They disliked foreign rule of any kind, and were predisposed to Hannibal’s overtures of alliance. Here Hannibal advanced a theme that he would try to use time and time again during his attempts at enlisting the native peoples of Rome’s conquered territories: send the invaders back home. Whenever Hannibal would engage people such as the Gauls, he would try and form a kindred spirit by promoting the idea that Rome was their common enemy, and an alliance was not only beneficial but absolutely necessary to throw the foreigners back. Harold Lamb[2] recounts one legendary episode in which Hannibal showed some Gallic leaders a stone tablet, upon which was written an edict which the Romans had made during their conquest. The tablet stated that the territory was subject to more or less martial law, subjecting the territory to the laws of a province, without the privileges of Roman citizenship (1). Whenever he moved into a new territory, or took in Roman deserters and/or prisoners, he often displayed mercy and generosity whenever possible or prudent to try and turn the countryside to his favor. Although this tactic proved unsuccessful late in the war, it proved to sway many tribal chiefs early in his campaigns.

The First Victory

In the summer of 218, the Romans moved an army against Hannibal just east of Turin. In the darkness before dawn of the second day of the battle, Hannibal sent African cavalry units to stir up the Roman encampment as part of a feinting maneuver, awakening the soldiers from their sleep. In the ensuing confusion and the threat of imminent attack by the Carthaginian army, the Romans rushed onto the field before they had breakfast. Many of the troops marched into formation or mounted their horses without even any water. They moved onto the plain, and waited. Hannibal positioned his weakest troops at the center, a highly unorthodox move, given that these soldiers would be expected to face the heart of the legion formations. Hannibal then placed his cavalry and expert archers at the perimeter. When the legions advanced, the perimeters essentially closed in and decimated the flanks of the Roman army. At the same time, Hannibal had placed an elite set of troops in reserve, hidden from view by a small hill beside the battlefield. Here was the first practical application of a strategy he had learned from his father – try and make the land itself work for you. When the now tired, hungry and thirsty Roman troops began to fall back, Hannibal gave the signal for his select units to attack. As the hidden troops suddenly rushed onto the field, an entire Roman legion disintegrated and went into full retreat.

With roughly 14,000 new Gaul recruits, the Carthaginian army won a second engagement at the Trebia river. Here another theme of Hannibal’s army became apparent. To even the lowliest conscript in his army, he promised some measurable gain upon victory. Whether it was tribute or spoils, land or actual silver payment, he promised and followed through on providing his army with some goal to strive for during their campaigns. As Lamb describes, Hannibal created a sense of enfranchisement among his troops; he needed them, and they fought for him.

Plutarch records that volunteerism within the Roman army swelled. More than 100 senators resigned their posts and joined the ranks of the legions. Lamb tells of Roman knights of all ages enlisting in cavalry units, and enlistment in infantry units from every station in life. There was strong political movement to promote leaders who favored the all-out mobilization of the people. One thought began to consume the populace- destroy the threat of Hannibal and the Carthaginians. A sleeping giant had awakened.


In the spring of 216 B.C. Hannibal moved south against Cannae on the Ofanto River in central Italy. In late summer Hannibal engaged the Roman legions in the now infamous Battle of Cannae, in which Hannibal again employed ingenious tactics to crush a numerically superior opponent. Hannibal employed what military historians call a “double-envelopment” maneuver. The Roman army numbered almost 80,000 men; Hannibal, had 35,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. Both armies advanced against each other. Hannibal’s forces overpowered the Roman cavalry on the right flank. Overwhelmed, the Roman horsemen dispersed. Hannibal then turned the Roman flank and moved against the Roman cavalry on the other wing. Pressed on both sides, the Romans were summarily crushed, as the Carthaginians turned against the rear of the Roman formations. T he Romans had pushed deep into the middle of the opposing infantry, but Hannibal’s Libyan infantry and cavalry held on all sides, enveloping and slaughtering the Roman ranks. What Roman ranks fled were literally hamstrung as Hannibal’s cavalry pursued, slashing at hamstrings, later returning to kill the immobilized men. 48,000 Romans were killed. Again, Hannibal showed clemency to non-Roman prisoners, sending them home. What survivors remained were executed or sold to Greek tradesman as slaves. Carthaginian losses were about 6,600 men.

It was the largest defeat in the short but prescient history of the Roman republic; it subsequently sent the Roman populace into what can only be described as a state of panic. Rome had lost not only an entire army, but all of the 100 senators who had volunteered. Fabius, the senior statesman and the early, lone voice for strong reaction to the threat to Rome, had cleverly called on Romans to engage in all manner of sacrificial and communal activities, declaring that the whole citizenry would need to spiritually “purge” the city. This rally served to distract the people from the real threat which was presently forming, and gave Fabius valuable time to organize.

To best appreciate the source and context of this fear, it is useful to understand a bit about Roman society at the time. Roman culture was such that discipline ruled much of everyday life and decisions. It was not uncommon for senior commanders to execute a son for disobeying orders. This discipline derived from a strong sense of self- a code of discipline in one’s everyday life. However, this code could, and did work against the Romans when things went badly. As Lamb describes, the highly organized and drilled Roman legions were a very impressive and effective fighting force. But when these ranks could be turned or broken, as at Cannae, the discipline soon worked into panic, as a sense of order was replaced by complete disorganization and chaos. And this sense of chaos, in turn, worked its way into the populace’s mind, as their sense of safety and order became threatened.

This fear proved to be as useful a mobilizer and motivator of the Roman will to conquer as anything imaginable.


Tarentum, a Roman provincial outpost, was able to briefly hold out against Hannibal’s army, but after a series of clandestine meetings between Hannibal and several leaders of the city in which they agreed to help the general take the city peacefully, the Carthaginians took command of the city on 212 B.C. Once again, Hannibal made it a point to spare all non-Roman inhabitants, slaughtering or selling off the surviving Roman soldiers and citizens. In 209 B.C. the Roman general Marcellus began a serious pursuit of Hannibal’s army, which had recently abandoned Tarantum. They met on a nearby plain, and over the course of several days the Romans succeeded in breaking the Carthaginians ranks, causing Hannibal to retreat under cover of darkness . Marcellus could not pursue because of the vast numbers of wounded in his camp.

On the Spanish front, the Roman general Nero, under command of the Consul Livius, chased and met the forces of Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, at the Metaurus River, south of Arminum on the Adriatic Sea. Hasdrubal tried to escape with his army north over the Pyrenees, but became cornered and had to fight. With his army of 30,000, he tried to use the land as much to his advantage as possible, placing a contingent on his left flank against the river Metaurus where it was toosnowalps_with_elephants (Hannibal).jpg deep to cross. He placed his Gauls in and along a ravine that ran in front of the army. He placed the remainder of his army in the center, with his elite Spanish troops on his right. He also had several war elephants, which he now positioned in front of the Spanish.

The General Livius possessed a force of roughly the same size, in addition to Nero’s 7,000 troops. Unaware of the ravine in front of them, Nero’s men attempted to advance against the troops across from them. Hasdrubal attacked first with his elephants, trying to evoke some fear and confusion among the legion on his left flank. Nero considered his options, and deployed a part of his force around the rear of the Roman army, and hit the Spanish contingent on their flank, turning the tide of the battle. More than 20,000 Carthaginians were killed, including Hasdrubal himself. The Gauls fled, and Livius instructed his men not to pursue, knowing that the Gauls would tell others what had happened. Nero had Hasdrubal’s head catapulted into Hannibal’s camp, pointedly reporting the defeat of his army. Hannibal knew at this point that much of his support in Italy would vanish now as the prospects of his planned advance on Rome were now a serious long-shot.

The Last Push- Ilipa

The last great batle of the Second Punic War was fought at Ilipa in 206 B.C. After recruiting and training new troops during the winter, the Carthaginians now had roughly 50-60,000 infantry 5,000 horsemen, and 30 war elephants. They marched east from Gades (modern Cádiz, Spain) to meet the Roman general Scipio, who had also spent much of the previous winter preparing his troops, instituting new organization reforms among his ranks and conducting rigorous training. With the help of some newly allied Celt-Iberian tribal chiefs, Scipio had a force of 45,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, more than half of which were non-Roman allies and conscripts. Scipio was an intelligent general; knowing his force was irregular and outnumbered, he designed and executed an elaborate deception plan over three days in order to give himself the best chance at success.

Scipio placed his battle camp among some small hills, directly opposite the Carthaginian camp, also deployed along a low series of hills. Scipio’s orientation was such that his force cut off the Carthaginians from their home base at Gades. As the Carthaginians attempted several calvary attacks along the Roman flanks, Scipio met them with cavalry of his own, always careful to keep his horses hidden until the last possible surprise moment. For the next 2 days the Carthaginians deployed their ranks out into the open at a late hour of the day, whereupon Scipio deployed an exact opposing formation. Neither side attacked, and both sides assumed that the next day would offer the same formations as the last, at the same late hour of the day. Scipio saw a possible advantage, and ordered his men fed and armed before daylight of the third day, and attacked the Carthaginian camp before dawn. The Carthaginians, as in the first engagement of the war, rushed onto the plain in some confusion, without breakfast or sufficient water, and deployed in the same exact manner as the day before. Scipio had successfully altered his own troop deployments, deploying his Spanish allies in the center and his Roman legions on the left and right flanks. Over the next several hours both armies advanced and retreated several times, and Scipio waited until late in the day for his real move, when the Carthaginians would truly be at a disadvantage from hunger and thirst.

In a series of flanking and wheeling maneuvers, Scipio slowly advanced the bulk of his army, engaging the Carthaginian units, as his cavalry units moved around to the rear of the Carthaginian army unchallenged. The war elephants, stationed on the wings of the Carthaginian army, panicked at the ensuing rush of horses, and began to turn and charge directly into the lines of the infantry. Hungry, exhausted, and outmaneuvered, the Carthaginians fled. Even a brief rainstorm could not save the Carthaginians from complete slaughter, as Scipio pursued the retreating lines, which were now cut off from their camp and Gades as well. The Carthaginian army was completely destroyed. Historians consider Ilipa to be a primary example of Roman military tactical skill, and Scipio is frequently mentioned as one of the greatest Roman generals in the history of the Empire as a result of the tactics he employed.

The Conquest of Iberia

But Spain still remained to be completely conquered, and amid rumors of a serious illness, Scipio’s Spanish allied troops mutinied, primarily because of lack of pay and promised spoils of war during the previous four years of campaigning against the Carthaginians. At any rate, Scipio recovered and put down the revolt, putting the leaders of the mutiny to death and placed on public display. He also followed through and provided back-pay to all of his troops, and shortly thereafter won ahannibal_coin_s (Hannibal).jpg crushing victory over the Carthaginian-allied Celtiberean army. In 206 Scipio succeeded in capturing Gades (Cadiz), thereby ending Carthaginian control over Spain. This was an important strategic victory for the Romans as Hannibal, who was still in Italy, could no longer count on any further reinforcements from Spain.

Northern Africa

Scipio invaded northern Africa in 204 B.C., and advanced on Carthage itself, but not before subjugating the Numidians, Carthage’s principal ally on the coast. Peace talks ensued, and Carthage formally surrendered the following year in 203 B.C. But this surrender coincided with clandestine messages to Hannibal, who was recalled to defend the city itself from an expected attack by a Roman army bent on seeking revenge. The problem was that Hannibal had to find a way to get his 20,000 men to Africa without Roman detection. This was no easy feat as the Romans now held complete dominion over the Mediterranean, and the logistical challenges of moving more than 20,000 troops across the open ocean. To his credit, Hannibal pulled it off, and with new recruits, assembled a combined force of more than 35,000 men at Hadrumetum in modern Tunisia.

Carthage’s fears were somewhat allayed in the winter of 204 B.C. when Scipio brought forth terms defined by an armistice, under which Scipio had also issued terms of Carthage’s complete surrender. As these terms were being considered in Carthage, Hannibal violated the armistice by attacking a Roman supply train. Scipio called off the peace discussions, renewing hostilities once again. But this struggle was short-lived, and the Carthaginians surrendered again in 201 B.C. following the Battle of Zama.

Surrender, Exile, and Suicide

Again terms of surrender were drawn up, and not surprisingly, the Carthaginians fared worse under the new conditions. These new terms included clauses to the effect that the Carthaginians could not make war without Roman consent, and Carthage would pay a large Roman tribute in 50 annual installments. Carthage in return could live under their own laws.

Hannibal had spent nearly two decades fighting the Romans in Italy and northern Africa. Not surprisingly, Hannibal did not settle quietly into retirement; rather many histories suggest that he led many attempts to incited the Carthaginian leadership to revolt again. At any rate, h e fled Carthage for Ephesus in Asia in 195 B.C. to the court of Antiochus who was preparing for war with Rome himself. Scipio, recently granted the title Africanus or “leader of Africa”, also traveled to Ephesus to dissuade hostilities. Reportedly the two great generals met on numerous occasions, to the extent that Antiochus apparently began to grow distrustful of Hannibal, and he eventually fell out of favor with him. When Antiochus moved against Rome, Antiochus sent Hannibal to command a fleet for the Ephesians, and he was defeated by a Roman fleet at Pamphylia. Antiochus himself was crushed by none other than Scipio near modern Manisa in 190 by Scipio.

Once more, Hannibal was on the run. He abandoned his command following the naval defeat, and fled further into Asia to the kingdom of Prusias of Bithynia , who was in the middle of a war with one of Rome’s territorial allies, Eumenes of Pergamum. Here he fought with Prusias; one legend has it that in one naval battle he drew up alongside his opposing ship, and his men throw a large number of venomous snakes onto the deck of the enemy ship.

The Romans finally hunted Hannibal down in 182 B.C. somewhere in modern Turkey. Rather than be taken alive, Hannibal poisoned himself; coincidentally, Scipio also died about this time. Plutarch records that Hannibal, taking the cup of poison in his hand, said “Let us ease the Romans of their continual dread and care, who think it long and tedious to await the death of a hated old man.”

Further Reading

[1] Polybius of Megalopolis was born at the time of the Second Punic War. As a young man Polybius crossed the Alps to try and determine how Hannibal had invaded Italy, and sailed along the coast of western Africa. His World History is important and especially insightful in terms of a study of Hannibal, but sadly much of it has been lost.

[2] Harold Lamb’s Hanibal, One Man Against Rome, is an excellent source on the life of Hannibal.

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