Before Hannibal Barca, battles between the armies of the ancient world were at best, simplistic. The opposite infantry lines clashed against each other, with cavalry and light infantry limited to a secondary, supportive role. Alexander the Great was the notorious exception, but he draw on the muscle and resources of Macedonia and its allies, while Hannibal had to fight for fifteen years isolated in hostile Roman territory, with negligent support from Carthage. And most extraordinarily, he didn’t lose a single battle during that period. Ultimately, he was beaten by Scipio Africanus in the battle of Zama, near Carthage, which sealed the fate of the latter and marked the ascendancy of Rome as sole mistress of the Mediterranean. Hannibal’s name however, endured past his native city as synonymous with strategical thinking, resourcefulness, and incomparable mastery of tactics. Let’s see then, the adventure of his life and struggle:

1# Africa

Hannibal Barca was born in the city of Carthage, in the year 247 BC. He was the eldest son of Hamilcar Barca, who had led Carthage in the struggle against Rome for the control of Sicily, during the First Punic War (264-241 BC). Located in the northern coast of Africa (modern Tunisia), Carthage was the scion of a series of Phonecian cities originated on the Levantine coast. Their culture was renowned for its sailing and trading skills, and for bequeathing the alphabet from which all subsequent writing systems, from Greek to Arabic script, and Latin derived.

Territorial changes of Carthage and Rome after the end of the First Punic War (264-241 BC). Author: Jon Platek and modified by Harrias. Source

Little is known of Hannibal’s childhood, except for an anecdote that became famous with his future antagonist, the Romans. Prior to their departure to the Iberian Peninsula (where Hamilcar hoped to expand Carthaginian power in order to compensate for the losses of the First Punic War), he took the nine-year old Hannibal and his other two sons, Hasdrubal and Mago, with him to a temple. There he made them swear in front of the gods, that they would never become a friend of Rome. By this, he meant they would never become vassals subject to the will and interests of the city on the Tiber. The three Barca brothers swore to uphold their vow, and the tale would later be told and retold to explain the antagonism between Hannibal and Rome.

2# Iberia

The conquest of the divided Iberian tribes was launched from Gades (modern-day Cadiz), another Phoenician settlement and older sister of Carthage. The young Hannibal learnt the arts of the war as his father secured the gold and silver mines around Sierra Morena. The untimely death of Hamilcar during an ambush in 228 BC, left the conquest unfinished. Since his sons were still too young, his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal the Fair, took over his role as commanding officer in Iberia. Unlike the war-like Hamilcar, Hasdrubal preferred diplomacy as means to expand Cartaginian influence, thus cultivating the friendship of the Iberian tribes and taking a native bride. His greatest achievement was the founding of a new port in the old Iberian settlement of Masia. He renamed it as Qart Hadasht (New City). Nova Cartago in Latin. New Carthage (modern Cartagena, Spain). Soon it became the centre of Carthaginian operations in Iberia.  

Hasdrubal too was assassinated in 221 BC, and this time the soldiers, fond of the well-loved Hamilcar, elected Hannibal as their general. The ruling council in Carthage wasn’t fully convinced about the soldier’s choice, but a well-timed delivery of silver from the Iberian mines kept them silent for the moment. Due to his life having been spent in military encampents, the young Hannibal was spartan in habits, eating and sleeping sparingly and giving himself no time for celebrations after victories, always brooding over the next step. He was a cultured and educated man, avid reader and possessor of an insatiable curiosity for new peoples and their cultures. Apart from his native Phoenician, he spoke fluent Greek, Latin, and several of the speeches of Iberia. From Hasdrubal, he learnt to co-opt the locals through diplomacy, enlisting Iberians in his multi-ethnic army, and taking a local wife himself, Imilce, who gave him an unnamed son.

A marble bust found in Capua, allegedly representing Hannibal. No contemporary images of the great warrior have survived. Illustration from Mommsen’s “Römische Geschichte” page 265, Hannibal. Source

3# The Second Punic War

Armed with the military talent of his father and the diplomacy of his uncle, Hannibal continued the Carthaginian advance north, where inevitably the Romans took notice of him. Although by treaty, Rome and Carthage had agreed on the Ebro River as the dividing border between each other’s sphere of influence, Rome had ignored it and extended its protection to the city of Saguntum, well south of the Ebro. Hannibal voiced such violation to the Roman envoys, and put Saguntum under siege after the latter had attacked his Iberian allies. Only Roman accounts have survived of the episode, and those place the blame of the incoming war entirely on Hannibal’s shoulders, so we should take this with a pinch of salt. His Iberian mines were a coveted resource so it’s more tempting to see Saguntum as a convenient Casus Belli for the Roman Republic than Hannibal’s warmongering. Moreover, as later history would prove, Rome’s latter expansion at sea inevitably precluded the existence of an equal on the Mediterranean.

The ruling council in Carthage supported Hannibal’s actions in Saguntum, and thus the Roman Senate chose to declare war on Carthage. It was 218 BC. The start of the Second Punic War. Knowledgeable of the superior Roman resources and manpower―they could muster multiple armies and fleets, capable to operate in several fronts at once with larger forces than Carthage could ever dream of fielding―Hannibal only saw a possibility of victory. He would bring the war to Rome itself before Rome brought it to his home. Sending his wife and infant son to Carthage, and leaving his younger brother Hasdrubal in charge in Iberia, Hannibal departed Iberia at the head of his army. He swiftly crossed and brought the Pyrenees to his control, and headed towards the Alps. His march was about to become the stuff of legends.

Carthage and Rome on the eve of the start of the Second Punic War. Rome saw with growing concern the spectacular Iberian conquest of the Barca family. Author: Grandiose (Wikipedia User). Source

4# The crossing of the Alps      

On Gaul (modern France) he avoided the watch of Rome’s long-standing ally, the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseille), and first showed a taste of his tactical mastermind by crossing the Rhone River against the oppisiton of the hostile Volcae Gauls, by sending a secret force to cross upstream and catch them unaware on their backs. This resembling the strategy of Alexander the Great on the Battle of the Hydaspes. He marched so fast that at first, the Roman army sent to Massilia to intercept him didn’t believe the scouts reporting him east of the Rhone, having expected him still to be south of the Pyrenees.

With winter upon, Hannibal knew that a crossing of the Alps would he extremely hazardous. But the careful general must also have understood that waiting was even more dangerous. The way back to Iberia was then closed by the Romans, while waiting for spring to cross the Alps would give his foes critical time to raise a new army. Only a charismatic leader like Hannibal could have led the different tribes and ethnicties that formed his heterogenous army, through the highest mountain range of Europe amdist clusters of deep snow, hostile mountain tribes, and sharp falls. His 50.000 strong army, mostly from the warm climates of Iberia and Africa, was unnacostumed to such harsh Alpine conditions, and casualties were great, specially amongst his war elephants. However, he succeded in leading more than 30.000 of them down to the safety of the Po Valley, on the southern feet of the Alps. There the severe losses were replaced with local Gauls, who had been recently conquered by Rome, and thus resented the latter.

There exists a lack of consensus regarding the identity of the pass that Hannibal and his army took across the Alps. In the map you can see the most likely candidates. Author: Ursus. Source

5# First victories

Although crossing the Alps was a feat that had brought him to the heart of enemy territory, ahead of Hannibal awaited―according to the previous Roman census―777.000 men of fighting age. The conscription pool of the Roman Republic was unrivalled in the Ancient World, and its legions were disciplined, excellently trained, and well-armed. With the Alps closed after him, Hannibal had to find a way to defeat these legions if he ever hoped to see home again. Their first engagement was fought near the Ticinus River, where the Numidian cavalry won the day for Hannibal. Although the legionaries of Rome didn’t take the field against him, Hannibal quickly grasped his enemy’s obvious advantages, as well as their not-too-obvious disadvantages. In the subsequent Battle of the Trebia, he demonstrated his acumen by pinning the strong, but unflexible Roman line of legionaries, while his superior cavalry routed the Roman counterpart, and then proceeded to strike at the flanks and back of the legions with the support of light infantry detachments.

Although resisting on the centre, the flanks of the legions broke piecemeal under the charges of Carthaginian cavalry, and only 10.000 Romans out of 40.000 managed to flee and regroup. Hannibal had understood what the Romans only grasped after paying with the blood of tens of thousands, that their strategy was lacking and their tactics were too linear. Their testudo formation lacked flexibility. They could follow orders and fought as one in a tight and impregnable line, but when faced with the adaptability and strategic manoeuvring of Hannibal and his diverse troops, they proved slow and vulnerable. Even two-thousand years after Hannibal, when the weapons have changed beyond imagination, the principles he mastered like pinning the main enemy army while using flanking tactics and encirclement, are still the basis of military strategy.

After wintering with his new Gaulish allies, in 217 BC Hannibal marched south across the lands of the Etrurians, whom unlike the Cisalpine Gauls showed little enthusiasm to overthrow the overlordship of Rome. It was during this time that Hannibal lost his right eye due to conjunctivitis, but this didn’t dim his military genius at all. By using the first recorded turning movement (a military tactic), Hannibal moved at the back of a second, entrenched, Roman army, placing himself between them and the path to Rome, and thus forcing them to abandon their strong positions and chase him to a terrain of his own choosing. This was Lake Tresimeno, whose northern hills hid most of his army waiting in ambush. When the Roman column passed between the hills and the shore, Hannibal launched his surprise attack, with the result that the entire Roman army, 25.000 men, were killed or captured. Once more, he proved the inherent weakness of the rigid Roman formations, when facing an adaptable and supple army under a competent leadership like his.

6# The Battle of Cannae

Drunk with victory, his lieutenants urged him to march on undefended Rome but Hannibal, always down-to-earth, knew that he lacked engines or manpower enough to succeed in besieging Rome. Etruria wasn’t proving very cooperative and there wasn’t any guarantee that Latium (the region around Rome) would prove any better. Moreover, the new strategy of the new Roman dictator, Fabius, sought to avoid a pitched battle against him at all costs, knowledgeable that they could replace their losses better than Hannibal, so far from Carthaginian reinforcements. The Fabian strategy proved deeply unpopular in Rome, and eventually a 80.000 strong army under the command of the consuls Varro and Paullus was dispatched to the village of Cannae, with the mission of annihilating the Hannibalic threat once and for all.

Facing a force twice as large as his own, Hannibal guessed (and he guessed right) that the legions would predictably try to break his own centre with sheer numbers. He invited them to do so, by placing light-armed Iberians, Celtiberians, and Iberians on the centre, with Carthaginian heavy hoplites on the flanks. His cavalry was divided in two detachments, one in each flank, facing the Roman counterparts. His Iberian and Gaulish horsemen on his left flank quickly routed and pursued the horsemen opposing them, after which they circled behind the Roman infantry and attacked the back of the rest of Roman horsemen, who were engaged with the Numidian cavalry on Hannibal’s right flank. While the cavalry fought on, Hannibal had the centre of his line retreat in good order under the pressure of the Roman centre, while his flanks held in place. As a result, the Carthaginian line bent inwards like a bow, and like a flexible bow it held. This was the turning point of the battle, when the cavalry returned and charged at the packed mass of the legions, thus completely encircling them into a giant cauldron from where there was to be no escape. More than 50.000 Romans were killed, with 20.000 captured and later sold as slaves, nearly destroying the fighting capability of Rome. The Battle of Cannae has often been cited as the perfect battle, in which an entire enemy force is annihilated in one stroke. To the day, it’s still studied in military academies, and its undoubtedly Hannibal’s greatest contribution to military science, just like Austerlitz was for Napoleon, or Alessia for Caesar.      

The last stages of the battle. Author: Frank Martini. The Department of History, United States Military Academy. Source

7# Hannibal at the gates

Cannae was Hannibal’s finest moment, the key to the doors of southern Italy where he found new allies in the Greek colonists, most notable Tarentum and Capua, then Italy’s second largest city. Roman-allied Syracuse also rose to overthrow the Roman garrisons off Sicily, while Philip V of Macedonia signed a treaty of alliance with Hannibal, seeking to dislodge the Roman legions from their outposts on the Illyrian coast. This was Rome’s darkest hour, and on smelling its imminent defeat, several former allies deserted them. Their ranks had been depleted so badly at Cannae that it’s said that there were few families in Rome who hadn’t lost a relative in that bloodied field, where even eighty Senators (nearly a third of the Senate) had also perished.

But it was in their moment of greatest vulnerability that Rome showed itself at its finest, and the people and the Senate nearly unanimously decided to refuse peace terms and to continue the war to final victory. Refusing to recall the army sent to Iberia, the Senate managed to conscript new legions to face the Hannibalic threat, including the release and enlistment of slaves, criminals, and youths to make up the numbers. Even human sacrifice was performed for the first time in a long time, to secure the favour of the gods. It was then that the saying: Hannibal ad portas, Hannibal at the gates, took roots, and nowadays it’s still used when one is faced with calamity.

8# The failure of Hannibal’s strategy

But despite his astonishing victories, Hannibal knew he still lacked the necessary strength to lay siege on Rome. His depleted and weary army needed time to recover, and unlike his opponents who were true masters of engineering, Hannibal lacked their knowledge, means, or manpower necessary to conduct such operations. In time, it proved one of his most decisive weaknesses, for not all the cities in southern Italy turned their backs on Rome. Moreover, as soon as his army departed an allied city, one of the many smaller Roman armies walked in, all now carefully avoiding pitched battle against Hannibal. Their strategy begun paying dividends, for Hannibal couldn’t defend all his new Italian allies at once, while the Romans could simoultaneously attack multiple targets. The war dragged into stalemate, with Rome recapturing Syracuse in 212 BC, and Capua in 211 BC, still avoiding Hannibal’s attempts to draw them into open battle. The advance of Philip V of Macedon over Roman Ilyria was checked by the Aetolian League, ally of Rome, while Roman squadrons maintained their dominance of the sea, thus preventing African reinforcements to reach Hannibal. The tide of the war was slowly turning against him.   

The last hope for victory died together with his brother Hasdrubal, when his reinforcing army crossed into Italy in 207 BC, but was decisively defeated thanks to the quick marching of reinforcements of the general Gaius Claudius Nero. Hasdrubal’s severed head was thrown into Hannibal’s camp. There was yet another failed attempt by his other brother, Mago, to reinforce him from Liguria, in 205 BC. Deprived of reinforcements except those small local levies he could raise in southern Italy, and of another decisive Cannae, Hannibal was thrown into a defensive war, and retreated into Campania. He had proved to be intractable in the battlefield, but the Romans found other ways to defeat him.  After fifteen years fighting in enemy territory, he was finally recalled to Carthage, which now faced the threat posed by the brilliant Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio. The future Africanus.

Marble bust believed to represent Scipio Africanus. Photo by Sergey Sosnovskiy, 2008. Collection of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Source

9# Scipio Africanus

Scipio had taken over the Iberian legions after the death of his father and uncle at the hands of Hannibal’s brothers. Despite facing the Barcas’ three larger armies, he managed to take Carthago Nova by surprise in 209 BC, and by 206 BC he had decisively beaten the Carthaginians at the battle of Illipa, securing Roman control of southern and western Iberia, and depriving Carthage of its silver and gold mines. Perhaps the only contemporary equal to Hannibal in terms of strategic thinking, Scipio urged the Senate to bring the war to Africa, convinced that it would force Carthage to recall its most able general. 

The Senate demurred, forcing Scipio to take to himself the task of raising the necessary legions and ships for the undertaking. Being himself a survivor of Cannae, he quickly found enough of them eager for a rematch against Hannibal. In 204 BC he landed at the head of his army near Utica, Africa, and although he failed to take the city, he defeated the allies of Carthage, the Numidians, and placed a Numidian chieftain ally, Massinissa, as their king. Now Scipio could count on the skilled Numidian cavalry to support his legions in the home straight of the long war.  

10# Battle of Zama

When Hannibal landed in Africa in late 203 BC, at the head of his diminished veteran troops, he found himself on a foreign land. He had been born and spent the first decade of his life there, but most of his adult life had been spent campaigning on Iberia and Italy. Moreover, the price to crossing to Africa had been high. His best weapon (bar his brilliant mind) his Iberian cavalry, had to be left behind. The horses at least, while Scipio had secured himself a larger number of them from the Numidian ranks. Both commanders, undoubtedly the greatest protagonists of the war, finally met each other on the eve of the Battle of Zama, on October 202 BC. Scipio counted nearly 30.000 Roman legionaries, which he deployed in the usual triplex acies, that was three lines, one behind the other. His 6,100 horsemen, most of them Numidian, were deployed on the flanks, with the Italians on the left, and the larger Numidian contingent on the right. Hannibal on the other hand, counted with 36.000 infantrymen, deployed in three lines too, with his Gaulish, Iberian, and Italian veterans on reserve, eighty war elephants on the front, and his 4,000 horsemen equally divided in two to try and stop Scipio’s.

Hannibal had counted on the elephants to break the cohesion of the Roman line, but Scipio had taken the necessary precautions. Loud horns were blown to frighten the beasts, while those who kept charging were funelled through deliberate gaps or lanes, opening in the Roman line. The elephants harmlessly passed through those, many falling dead with Roman javelins or being dealt with on the rearguard by the third line. Knowing his cavalry to be at disadvantage, Hannibal ordered them to lure the mounted Romans and Numidians away from the battlefield, hoping to deprive Scipio of their use to outflank him. Roman and Cartaginian infantrymen clashed, and although his first and second line weren’t a match for Scipio’s legionaries, his veterans of Italy were. That’s it, until Roman and Numidian cavalry returned after routing the Carthaginian horsemen, and charged at the back of Hannibal’s line. The battle was lost for the Carthaginians, who lost 20.000 and several thousand more captured. Hannibal managed to escape but his aura of invincibility had been broken, and with it, the chances of victory for Carthage in the Second Punic War.   

The counter-elephant tactics of Scipio during the Battle of Zama. In him, Hannibal found an equal commander. Author: Mohammad Adil. Source

11# From general to politician

Hannibal was under no illusions about the peace terms Scipio―now Scipio Africanus―and the Roman Senate would impose on Carthage, and believed that they had to submit if the city was to endure. Carthage accepted to relinquish all its overseas possessions, to pay crippling war indemnities, and to wage war only with the permission of the Roman Senate. At first the ruling council of Carthage feared not being able to pay the war reparations, but under Hannibal’s poltical leadership, reforms were enacted without the need of additional taxation. Basically, he limited political tenure and thus the opportunities for embezzlement, allowing Carthage to rapidly recover and met the payment due, but the measures also gained him powerful political enemies.

It was they who denounced him in front of the Roman Senate, falsely accusing him of collaborating with Rome’s enemies, chiefly Philip V of Macedonia, and plot another war. Still scarred with the wounds inflicted by Hannibal, and fearing a resurgence in Punic power under his leadership, in 195 BC the Senate sent a commission to Carthage to investigate the accusations. Hannibal didn’t wait around to face a mocking trial, or worse, being chained and shipped to Rome for the amusement of his foes. Secretly, he took a ship and left Carthage, never to see his native city, for which he had spent all his life on the battlefield. Roman sources only stressed his perfidy and vicious hatred of Rome, yet instead of rousing Carthage for a new war, Hannibal chose to remove himself from the stage, knowing his presence in Africa would have inevitably provided Rome with a new Casus Belli, and caused the certain destruction of Carthage. 

It’s not known if he took his wife, Imilce, with him, and since there’s no mention of his son, who would have been a young adult by then, it’s assumed he died while his father battled in Italy. Be as it may, Hannibal travelled East, pausing first in Tyre, the mother of Carthage, and then to Antioch and Ephesus, the main cities of the Seleucid Kingdom, one of the successor kingdoms of the empire of Alexander the Great. Under the leadership of Antiochus III, the Seleucid Kingdom had dramatically expanded eastwards and westwards, and had recently defeated Ptolemaic Egypt, another successor estate. Now Antiochus looked to extend his sovereignty over the Greek kingdoms of Pergamom and Rhodes, and to proper Greece. This brought him into conflict with Rome, who had also increased its influence over the Hellenistic world after defeating Philip V of Macedon. In this context, Antiochus saw value in the experience of Hannibal in Roman warfare, and took him as advisor.

12# Later years and death

After suffering a major defeat at the hands of the Romans at Thermopylae, Antiochus gave command of his fleet to Hannibal. Like Napoleon, however, Hannibal’s extraordinary talents weren’t that extraordinary at the sea, and he was soundly repulsed by a Rhodian fleet at the Battle of Side (or Battle of Eurymedon). Several more Seleucid defeats (none in which Hannibal commanded) brought an end to the war, and signalled the beinning of expansion of Roman influence in Asia Minor. The Hellenistic dominance there had its days counted, so did Hannibal’s stay in Antiochus’ court. The peace treaty forced the monarch to hand over Hannibal to Rome, but the latter, always one step ahead of Rome, once again escaped their clutches.   

He hid on Crete for a while, but the arrival of a Roman fleet forced him to escape again, taking refuge under Prusias I of Bithynia, the south shore of the Black Sea. A former ally of Antiochus, Prusias also took counsel from Hannibal, who helped him wage war against Pergamom. This Roman-client kingdom protested to its master, so it happens that Rome learnt of the presence of Hannibal in Prusias’court. Prusias refused to handle the famous Carthaginian to Rome, but all the same, he sent guards to Hannibal’s home in Libyssa to prevent him from escape. Before surrendering to his old enemy though, the now 60 odd-year-general took poison, (sometime between 183 and 181 BC). Allegedly, his last words were:

It’s time to end the anxiety of the Romans, who have grown weary of waiting for the death of a hated, old man

13# Accomplishments and legacy

Like so many great characters of the Ancient World, Hannibal’s tomb was lost to the ages. His name however, endured, paradoxically thanks to his Roman foe, who never ceased revering and fearing his memory as the personification of impending calamity. Hannibal ad portas, which has survived to our days. As a result, the knowledge of Hannibal has also been transformed by the hostile pen of Roman writers, who depicted him as brutal and inhuman. Yet, he showed more restrain and humanity than many of his Roman opponents, at least to all those peoples and nations subjugated by Roman arms. And to the Roman consuls who fought him and fell, like Paullus at Cannae or Marcellus, he showed the civility and honours of a funeral which the Romans denied to his brother, Hasdrubal. That he fought in enemy territory for fifteen years, virtually unaided by Carthage and still managed to enlist the help of native Italians to his army, certainly doesn’t seem the work of a blood-thirsty warlord. Be as it may, much about the man has been and will remain lost forever.  

The general on the other hand, the strategist, the mastermind of Cannae, is still very much alive and present on the mind of every troop commander studying a map and considering the strategy to follow. His concepts of envelopment, flanking, turning movements and strategic warfare―in that he sought to deny strategic resources of the enemy, as opposed to the prevalent ancient mentality of army vs army―are still the backbone of modern strategy. Hannibal was the worthy successor of Alexander the Great, if not his superior in certain aspects. Only the overwhelming superiority of Roman resources, manpower, engineering, and naval strength deprived Hannibal from ultimate victory. He always remained one step ahead of his opponents, and only the other brilliant general of the day, Scipio Africanus, managed to beat him in his own game. Yet that doesn’t remove a tad of lustre to Hannibal’s brilliant carrying of military operations in Italy, and place him in the pantheon of greatest military generals of history. Hannibal Barca can be considered in many regards then, the father of military strategy, and that is undoubtedly his greatest legacy.   

If you liked this post please subscribe and leave a comment! What do you think about Hannibal and what would you like to see next? And don’t forget to check this fantastic book I used for this post, Hannibal: One man against Rome, by Harold Lamb, if you want to know more in detail about the great Carthaginian general.