Hannibal: Victories of the Great Hero from Ancient Carthage

Hannibal (247-183 BCE) was the greatest general to emerge from the Carthaginian Barca family. He was the son of Hamilcar Barca (ca. 275-228 BCE), the great and undefeated hero from the first Punic War and the Mercenary War. After the Roman annexation of Sardinia, Hamilcar was put in command of Carthaginian expansion in Spain. His oldest son, Hannibal, then aged nine, asked to accompany him. Hamilcar expanded Carthaginian territory until his death in an ambush (in 228 BCE) where he sacrificed himself to save the lives of his three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago.

Hamilcar’s successor was his son-in-law, Hasdrubal the Handsome, a skilled diplomat and negotiator, who continued the Carthaginian expansion and founded Qart Hadasht or “the New City,” named after the original Qart Hadasht or Carthage in North Africa (the Romans called it Carthago Nova, today’s 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 the 26-years-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 BCE) 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.

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 caliber.

Hannibal’s strategic thinking was sound. He would take the war to Italy arriving by the most unexpected route – directly across the impassable Alps. He would defeat the Romans in battle, demonstrating that they could be beaten and gaining support from the Gallic tribes. Rome’s confederation of allies – won by conquest and naturally resentful of their masters – would unravel as the result of Roman defeats on the battlefield. Hannibal’s goal was to liberate the oppressed peoples of Italy, including the Greek cities at the south of the peninsula. He did not to intend to destroy Rome but to restrict the Romans to their domain around the Tiber, as evidenced by the text of the treaty he signed with King Philip V of Macedonia in 215 BCE. His plan almost succeeded, for a number of Rome’s allies did go over to Hannibal, and at one point 12 of Rome’s Latin colonies refused to continue supplying manpower. The war could have been won had Hannibal received needed reinforcements from Carthage – the city leaders foolishly sent them to Spain, to defend their silver mines, rather than to Italy, where the key battles had to be fought. It was this miscalculation that resulted in their eventual defeat.

Hannibal’s supreme tactical genius is undisputed, although its extent is often not realized. In 218 BCE, after crossing the Alps in an epic struggle, arriving with only 20,000 infantry and 6,000 horse, he defeated the Romans (who had a man power potential of 700,000) first at the Ticinus river and then at the Trebia, crushing the much larger combined army of consuls P. Cornelius Scipio and Sempronius Longus. The impulsive Sempronius was lured to attack in the early morning across the freezing river and his army was cut to pieces by a combination of infantry, cavalry, and elephants, plus an ambush from the rear led by Hannibal’s brother Mago. Incidentally, this is the only one of the famous victories of Hannibal in which elephants took part. Of the 37 elephants that accompanied Hannibal across the Alps, only one survived the winter. At Lake Trasimene, in 217 BCE, Hannibal managed to hide practically his entire army in ambush and destroyed the legions of consul Gaius Flaminius, an experienced military officer who had previously led a successful campaign against the Gauls. But Hannibal’s battlefield masterpiece was at Cannae, in 216 BCE, where he faced the largest Roman army ever assembled, consisting of 80.000 infantry and a cavalry contingent which recent research puts as high as 12,000, with his own army of 40,000 infantry and 10,000 horse. The battle was fought on a plain where no ambush could be hidden, but Hannibal was able to spring a deadly trap in plain sight. The total envelopment of the Roman army left 70,000 dead on the battlefield, according to Polybius. Hannibal lost just over 5,000, mostly from the weaker Spanish and Gallic forces in the center of his formation, where he himself and his brother Mago commanded, and whose deployment was essential for the victory. Often criticized for not marching immediately against Rome following the battle, modern scholars conclude that Hannibal’s decision was not a strategic error.