Hannibal Barca was born in 247 BC in Carthage, on the eastern side of the Lake of Tunis in what is now Tunisia. He was born into an era of war between Carthage and the Roman Republic, who were competing for supremacy in Sicily and North Africa. At the age of twenty-six Hannibal succeeded his father, Hamilcar Barca, as commander of the Carthaginian forces in Spain.
Hannibal made the decision to take the war to Rome and in 218 BC he lead a force which conquered northern Spain. He then entered Gaul (travelling through what is now Southern France) and made the arduous journey across the Alps with 40,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry and, most famously of all, forty elephants. The conditions proved to be much worse than anyone had anticipated however. Half the Carthaginian force perished in the severe cold, and only one elephant survived the journey.
Arriving in Italy with little more than 24,000 men, Hannibal nevertheless recovered, going on to fight and win three hugely important battles against the Romans.
The Battle of the Trebia (December 218 BC) took place in the flat country of the Province of Piacenza on the left bank of the Trebbia River. Roman general Tiberius Sempronius Longus, allowed himself to be provoked into a frontal assault, failing to see that the cunning strategist Hannibal was luring him into a trap. This resulted in a resounding victory for the Carthaginians, the Romans suffering heavy losses.
The Battle of Lake Trasimene (June 217 BC) remains to this day the largest ambush in military history – the only recorded instance of an entire army waiting to ambush another. Of the initial Roman force of about 30,000 men, more than half were either killed in battle or drowned while trying to escape into the lake. A further 5,000 Romans were captured, while only 2,500 of Hannibal's own men were killed (though hundreds more did die of their wounds after the battle).
The Battle of Cannae (August 216 BC) was an attack by Roman forces upon the Carthaginians. Hannibal had seized the large supply depot at Cannae (South East Italy) placing himself between the Romans and their crucial source of supply. 80,000 Roman soldiers launched an attack against the 40,000 men under Hannibal's command. Less than 15,000 of the Romans survived the battle, and most of those were taken prisoner by Hannibal.
Despite remaining in Italy for more than ten years however, Hannibal's army never grew large enough to threaten Rome directly. One Roman who had survived both Trebia, and Cannae was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Scipio hated the Carthaginianas and Hannibal, having lost his father, uncle, and would-be father-in- law in the battles. In 204 BC Scipio, now a revered Roman general, took an army by sea and landed at Utica (in modern day Tunisia). There they defeated the Carthaginian army at the Battle of the Great Plains. The Carthaginian senate promptly recalled Hannibal from Italy.
At The Battle of Zama (October 202 BC) Hannibal's forces met with those of Scipio on the plains of Zama Regia, eighty miles south-west of Tunis. Hannibal's army consisted of 35,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 80 war elephants, while Scipio had a total of 30,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry. Scipio was a great strategist and knew that elephants could be ordered to charge forward, but they could only continue their charge in a straight line, exposing Hannibal's forces to attack. As a result half of Hannibal’s men were killed outright, the remaining taken as prisoners. The Romans, on the other hand, suffered as few as 2,500 casualties. It was a humiliating defeat for Hannibal and one that marked the end of that war (known now as the Second Punic War) between Carthage and Rome.
DID YOU KNOW?
1. Some say the lone surviving elephant from the trek was used by Hannibal to ride in triumph into the Italian city of Capua after he and his army captured it in 212 BC.
2. In 1959 British engineer John Hoyte led an experimental archaeology expedition that tried to re-enact aspects of Hannibal's legendary crossing of the Alps. The British Alpine Hannibal Expedition took the female Asian elephant, Jumbo, provided by a zoo in Turin, from France over the Col du Mont Cenis into Italy. Jumbo wore special shoes, made by Lotus of Northampton, to protect her feet. The shoes can been seen on display at the Northampton Shoe Museum today.
3. After his defeat at Zama Hannibal went into voluntary exile. Even so he continued to act as a military commander and adviser for the likes of the Greek Seleucid Empire, and Prusias I of Bithynia who was engaged in warfare with Rome's ally King Eumenes II of Pergamon.
4. Hannibal's youngest brother Mago Barca also played a major part in the Second Punic War. After Cannae, Mago was sent to Spain to fight alongside his older brother, Hasdrubal (who was tragically killed in battle). Mago then led a third Carthaginian invasion of Italy. In spring 205 BC Mago made the journey, by sea, from Minorca to the Ligurian coast with thirty ships and 15,000 men. They took Genoa and Savona and, after receiving reinforcements, occupied for three years.