Hannibal and the Punic Wars: Synopsis and Historical Background

Hannibal Carthage was founded by Phoenicians in 814 BCE, on the coast of what is now Tunisia. It grew to become a resplendent commercial metropolis with a glorious dual harbor—an architectural marvel for all to see. At its zenith its population may have approached a million. Contrary to popular myth and the fantasies of Flaubert in Salammbo, the Carthaginians did not engage in child sacrifice. The tophet in Carthage was a cemetery for children, but recent research by M. H. Fantar and others has revealed that the bones are of children of various ages, including many fetal remains, with no evidence that they were sacrificed—clearly the result of the infant mortality of the times. (More in another article.)

Carthage was not a militaristic city-state, and did not maintain a regular army. Mercenaries, serving under Carthaginian and, sometimes, Greek officers, were hired to defend the city when circumstances required it.  Nevertheless, out of this relatively peaceful mercantile society emerged a family, the Barcas, that would produce some of the greatest generals and warriors that history has ever known.

Three long wars, from 264 to 146 BCE, pitted Carthage against the militaristic and expansionistic power of the emerging Roman Republic, founded in 753 BCE, and which, unlike Carthage, required compulsory long-term military service of its landed citizens and its allies, and made social advancement contingent on military experience and distinction.  

All three wars were initiated by Rome, the first (264-241) by sending an army to Sicily, under the pretense of defending renegade mercenaries at Messana, although Rome had severely punished a similar group that had taken over Rhegium across the narrow strait separating Italy from Sicily. The prelude to the second war (218-201) was the Roman annexation of Sardinia, a Carthaginian territory, at a time when Carthage was unable to respond due to the war it was forced to wage against its own mutinous mercenaries. When the Carthaginians expanded into Spain, Rome imposed the Ebro treaty limiting their advance, made an accord with Saguntum, south of the Ebro (and thus within Carthaginian territory), and encouraged the massacre of Carthage partisans and allies. When Carthage reacted, Rome used this as an excuse to declare war. The third conflict (149-146), waged against a Carthage that no longer posed any threat to Rome, led to the total destruction of the city after a three-year siege. In a vicious instance of ethnic cleansing, the city was razed and burned to the ground, the inhabitants slaughtered, and the survivors sold into slavery.

The first great general to emerge from the Barca family was Hamilcar, father to the more famous Hannibal and his brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. He lived from ca. 275 to 228 BCE, and during the last six years of the first war waged successful guerilla operations against the Romans in Sicily. He remained unvanquished at the time Carthage was forced to capitulate following the naval defeat of the Aegates Islands in 241 BCE. In charge of Carthaginian withdrawal from Sicily, he sent back successive groups of mercenaries so that they could be paid separately. The magistrates of the city miscalculated, waiting until all mercenaries had returned, and then attempted to negotiate reduced pay. The ensuing mutiny threatened the survival of the city, triggering a war with atrocities on both sides until Hamilcar crushed the rebellion, at one point trapping enemy forces in a gorge and having them trampled to death by his elephants.

Following the loss of Sardinia, Hamilcar was put in command of Carthaginian expansion in Spain. His oldest son, Hannibal, then aged nine, asked to accompany him, and supposedly swore on a sacrifice to Baal to never be a friend of the Romans. This did not imply sworn hatred, but a determination not to accept subjection to Rome (more in another article). In Spain, Hamilcar expanded Carthaginian territory until his death in an ambush (in 228 BCE) where he sacrificed himself to save the lives of his sons.

Hamilcar’s successor was his son-in-law, Hasdrubal the Handsome, a skilled diplomat and negotiator, who continued the Carthaginian expansion and founded Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena). During his rule, in 226 or 225 BCE, the Romans sent a delegation to establish the treaty under which Carthage agreed not to cross the boundary of the river Ebro in arms.  Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221, following which 26-year-old Hannibal was elected by acclamation the new commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian forces. While his younger brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago, also became competent generals, later defeating two Roman armies in Spain (in 211 BCE), it was Hannibal who was to prove himself a strategic and tactical genius of the first order.

Hannibal’s charismatic personality and character engendered admiration and devotion in his soldiers, who saw in him a Hamilcar reborn. An educated man, fluent in Greek, Latin, and several other languages, he shared the privations of his men, eating the same food, and even sleeping on the ground among them, wrapped only in his military cloak. He could endure extremes of heat and cold and was indefatigable. He took risks together with his men, demonstrating great bravery. During all his military campaigns, including the 16 years in Italy, when his army had to live off the land and he did not have the means to pay his mercenaries, his men followed him unquestioningly and he never experienced mutiny or rebellion.  

Hannibal’s first military tests came during the two years (221-220) he spent expanding and consolidating Carthaginian control in northwest Spain.  In his first campaign he defeated the Olcades, capturing their capital, and the following year battled against the Vaccaei, taking the city of Hermandica. On his return he was attacked by a Celtiberian confederation of Olcades, Vaccaei, and Carpetani, facing an army of 100,000 in central Spain. Here Hannibal demonstrated his genius for the first time, achieving an unlikely victory. Retreating with his much smaller army across the river Tagus, he took up a defensive position, and lured his opponents to cross the river in pursuit. Once they were midstream, his cavalry cut them down while the elephants trampled those who managed to reach the riverbank. Then the main army attacked, scattering the enemy in all directions. (More in another article.)

Following the Roman-inspired attack on Carthaginian partisans at Saguntum and the aggression of the Saguntines against the Turboleti, who were allies of Carthage, Hannibal marched against the city and took it by storm after an eight-month siege. Despite repeated entreaties, the Saguntines failed to get any help from Rome. When the city fell, in 219 BCE, the Romans sent a delegation to North Africa demanding that Hannibal be surrendered to them. Upon the refusal of the Carthaginian assembly, Rome declared war against Carthage.

The Romans controlled the Mediterranean and expected to be immune to attack by sea. Since the massive Alps in the north were believed to be impassable for an army, they were confident that the war would be waged in Spain and North Africa. Having defeated the Carthaginians before, they expected an easy victory. They were in for a big surprise, for they had never faced a military genius of Hannibal’s calibre.