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A marble bust of Hannibal

Hannibal: The African general who almost toppled Rome

A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal, found in Capua in Italy | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hannibal is one of the greatest military generals in history, whose tactics are still studied to this day. He famously led a Carthaginian army, including 38 elephants, over the Alps and came within sniffing distance of Rome. For nearly 20 years, the Republic had to live with Hannibal on its doorstep, constantly outwitting and surprising them. Although unable to achieve the final blow, Hannibal would go down in legend as Rome’s greatest adversary.

Hannibal was born in 247 BC in Carthage (modern Tunis, Tunisia), the great trading empire in North Africa. His father, Hamilcar Barca, was a senior general in the army who’d fought the Roman’s during the First Punic War (264-241 BC). The Carthaginians had lost that war and the subsequent peace treaty stripped them of island territories in the Mediterranean and heavy financial reparations had been demanded from Rome.

Hamilcar believed that the way to improve fortunes for his city was to claim territories and resources on the Iberian Peninsula. At the age of just nine, Hannibal was invited by his father to join him on his campaign in Spain, making the young boy swear an oath to ‘never be a friend of Rome’. It was an oath Hannibal lived by until his death.

For the next nine years, Hamilcar conducted a fruitful campaign in Iberia, seizing lands and sending resources back to Carthage. Growing up in such an environment laid the educational groundwork that saw Hannibal develop into one of history’s greatest military tacticians.

After his father’s death in battle, Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal the Fair, took command of the army and began consolidating Carthaginian gains in the area. He even signed a peace treaty with Rome, agreeing neither side should cross the river Ebro. When Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated, 26-year-old Hannibal took command of the invasion force and it wasn’t long before the peace treaty with Rome was in tatters.

After Rome made an allegiance with the city of Saguntum, which lay south of the river Ebro, Hannibal took this as his chance to declare war on the Republic. After an eight-month siege, Hannibal captured Saguntum in 218 BC and Rome sent an ultimatum to Carthage – hand over Hannibal or face war. The wealthy aristocrats back in Carthage had been enjoying the bountiful treasures of the Iberian Peninsula and so stood by their young general. The Second Punic War had begun.

Taking the fight to Rome, Hannibal achieved the first of many military surprises by successfully crossing the Pyrenees and Alps into northern Italy. Along the way, his army of around 40,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 38 elephants not only had to face the difficult terrain and inclement weather but also the local tribes. By the time they emerged on the other side some 17 days later, Hannibal’s force had been depleted by nearly 50%, including the loss of most of the elephants.

However, Hannibal soon made his numbers back by recruiting soldiers from the local population by presenting himself as a liberator. Taken completely by surprise, Rome sent two consular armies to face Hannibal. The first under Publius Cornelius Scipio was routed with relative ease at the Battle of Ticinus. Hannibal similarly dispatched the second Roman army, under Tiberius Sempronius Longus, by cleverly luring his eager enemy onto favourable terrain before completely surrounding them.

The victory saw Hannibal’s numbers swell, as local cities switched allegiance to his cause. In the spring of 217 BC, Hannibal began to move south. Blocking the two main routes to Rome were the consular armies of Gnaeus Servilius and Gaius Flaminius. Displaying his ingenuity once again, Hannibal took a third route – the Arno river valley. The area was one big marsh and had been designated as impassable by the Romans who left it unguarded.

Hannibal’s army crossed it in just four days, although at a great cost of life and Hannibal himself even lost one of his eye’s, due to an infection contracted during the crossing. Hannibal then marched behind Flaminius’s ranks, effectively cutting the Roman consul off from his route to Rome. Flaminius had no choice but to hastily pursue Hannibal who now lay in wait by Lake Trasimene.

Hannibal’s forces surprised the Romans with an ambush, one that has gone down in history as the largest ambush in terms of soldiers involved. It was a slaughter, of the 30,000 Roman troops, half either died in battle (including Flaminius) or drowned in the lake trying to escape. With Servilius’s army pinned down by a surprise attack from the Gauls, Hannibal had a clear route to Rome.

However, he’d left all siege equipment on the other side of the Alps and so decided to bypass Rome and begin campaigning in central and southern Italy in the hope of creating a local revolt.

Back in the capital city, Rome appointed the general Quintus Fabius Maximus as their dictator in what seemed a last-ditch attempt to save their beloved Republic. Fabius employed a different strategy to his predecessors and refused to engage Hannibal in open battle, instead choosing to stalk him around Italy and contain his movements.

This tactic drew ire from Rome who believed Fabius’s tactics were cowardly. As the Carthaginian general laid waste to the southern Campania region, an area many Roman nobles had land in, Fabius’s time in charge was now under threat.

Fabius looked to regain some credibility when he seemingly had Hannibal pinned down in an area in Campania in late 217 BC. Hannibal, however, had other plans. As night fell, the encircling Roman forces saw a trail of light and sound heading towards a wood near one of the guarded passes out of the area. When the nearby Roman force left their post to investigate, Hannibal’s army used the now unguarded pass to sneak out of the trap laid by Fabius. The trail of light and sound was, in fact, a column of cattle with flaming torches attached to their horns, a tactical distraction ordered by Hannibal.

After eluding Fabius, Hannibal seized the initiative once again and captured the important supply depot at Cannae. Fabius’s reign as dictator ended and two new consuls were elected by Rome to take on Hannibal - Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus.

This time Rome united it’s two consular armies into one, with Varro and Paullus having to alternate command every day. The force was said to be around 80,000 strong. When the two armies met at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal’s military ingenuity shone through once again. With Varro in charge the day of the battle, Hannibal exploited the eagerness and arrogance of his opposing number and placed his weaker light infantry in the middle of his line and the heavy infantry on the flanks. Although the Romans had the numerical advantage, Hannibal’s plans would see that advantage disappear before Varro’s very eyes.

As Hannibal’s light infantry was pushed back, the heavy infantry on the sides held firm. The tightly packed Roman lines advanced deeper into Hannibal's middle section, effectively creating a half-moon shape. The Romans soon found themselves surrounded on both flanks and when Hannibal’s cavalry charged their rear, they were effectively trapped. It’s estimated that up to around 70,000 Romans died in the encirclement, making the defeat one of Rome’s heaviest and bloodiest in its entire history.

Rome finally took the lessons that Fabius had been trying to teach them and refused to engage Hannibal in open battle again. Hannibal’s war in Italy ground to a stalemate and without proper support from Carthage, who refused to send him supplies, siege equipment and reinforcements, Hannibal was unable to take the city of Rome and bring an end to his occupation of Italy.

Soon, the Romans began campaigning in Spain, reclaiming territories taken by the Carthaginians. In 203 BC, Hannibal was eventually recalled by Carthage as a Roman force under Scipio Africanus (the son of Publius Cornelius Scipio who’d previously been defeated by Hannibal), had landed in North Africa. In 202 BC, at the Battle of Zama, Scipio outsmarted his opposite number, subdued the effectiveness of the 80 Carthaginian war elephants and dealt a fatal blow to Hannibal’s army, one it could not recover from. The Second Punic War was finally over.

After the War, heavy reparations and limitations were placed on Carthage. Hannibal entered politics in his home city in an attempt to help its citizens out of the situation it now found itself. He was so successful that just a few years after Zama, Carthage looked prosperous once again. An alarmed Rome, along with Carthaginian noblemen hostile to Hannibal, denounced the famed general to the point he knew he had to flee his homeland or face being handed over to the Romans.

Accepting a position as the military advisor to the Seleucid King Antiochus III, in Anatolia (modern Turkey), Hannibal remained there until Rome defeated Antiochus at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC. Fearing once again he'd be handed over as part of the peace treaty, Hannibal fled to Bithynia and sought refuge under King Prusias. The threat of Roman retribution never left Hannibal and with forces closing in on him once again, he decided to take his own life by drinking poison sometime between 183-181 BC.