A Matter of Hatred: The Myth of Hannibal’s Oath

Did the young Hannibal swear an oath of hatred?

Hannibal’s hatred of Rome is so well known that it has become proverbial and allusions to it abound in literature. How many times have we read that a character was possessed of “a hatred like Hannibal’s” or that “he hated with the intensity of Hannibal”? When hyperbole is sought, as in the description of Captain Ahab’s feelings toward the great white whale, we read that “his hatred was greater than Hannibal’s.” But is there actually any factual basis for this Hannibalic stereotype?

The classical sources (Polybius and Livy) tell us that when Hannibal’s father, the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, was preparing his expedition to Iberia, nine year old Hannibal asked to be allowed to accompany him. Hamilcar, the story goes, asked his son put his hand on the sacrificial animal offered on the altar to Baal, and made him swear that he would never be a friend of Rome (Polybius). Livy’s version changes this to “forever being an enemy of Rome,” and although he later accepted Polybius’s wording, the harm was done. There is only a small step from forever being an enemy to eternal enmity and, consequently, eternal hatred.

There is little doubt that patriotic Romans like Livy hated the man who practically brought Rome to its knees, humiliating the arrogant Roman legions by defeating them time after time in the 16 years of the war, and almost succeeded in stopping Rome’s imperialistic expansion beyond the Italian peninsula. Roman hatred for Hannibal was easily projected into the assumption that it was Hannibal, rather than the Romans, who was motivated by hate. This was not just an unconscious psychological defense mechanism on the part of Livy and other pro-Roman historians, but part of a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation designed to attribute the blame for the start the conflict to Hannibal, whose “aggression,” allegedly manifested in the siege and conquest of Saguntum, was portrayed as motivated by his virulent hatred of the city on the Tiber and its inhabitants. A careful examination of the extant evidence, though, places the responsibility for the initiation of all three so-called Punic Wars at the gates of Rome.

But where does the story of Hannibal’s childhood oath come from? Polybius (3.11) reports that Hannibal, then 54, in exile at the court of Antiochus III, needed to convince the king of his trustworthiness as an enemy of Rome, and related the story of his youthful oath to dispel any doubts triggered by his alleged earlier meeting with the Roman delegate Publius Villius Tuppulus in 193 BCE. It is not clear how the anecdote reached Polybius, or that it is at all authentic. Livy’s version (21.1), which changes “not being a friend” into being an enemy, is clearly based on the Polybian account, as shown by Livy’s return to Polybius’s original wording when repeating the incident (35.19). Others followed Livy’s enmity/hatred version (e.g., Silius Italicus, Punica, Book 1, 100-121) and the image of the hate-filled bogeyman from Carthage was formed.

Not only is the authenticity of the story questionable, but the meaning of the Polybian version, “not to be a friend of Rome,” must be examined within the context of the significance of Roman expressions of the time. An “amicus” of Rome does not have the same meaning as the word “friend” in modern usage, for amicus signified also a “client,” and therefore a subject, of Rome. A city or state that was a friend (amicus) of Rome was one that not only was not bellicose, but was actually subservient to Rome. If we were to accept for a moment that the anecdote is not fictitious, the meaning of Hannibal’s swearing that he would never be a “friend” of Rome would most likely be that he promised not to accept being subjugated by Rome, or submitting to Roman hegemony. This is a far cry from “eternal hatred,” indeed.

Hannibal’s widely acknowledged practice of honoring the Roman commanding officers fallen in the battlefield also militates against acceptance of the notion that he was moved by hate of the enemy. He consistently sought the bodies of slained generals or captains to accord them the honor of a military funeral, showing deep respect for those he had defeated. When the body of the consul Gaius Flaminius, killed by a Gallic warrior in the battle of lake Trasimene, could not be found, Hannibal was distressed. It is worth noticing that the Romans did not accord a similar respect to the Carthaginian dead, and when Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal fell in the battle of the Metaurus, the Romans dishonored his body and threw his severed head at Hannibal’s camp. Who, then, was truly motivated by hate?

Another indication that Hannibal was not consumed by hatred can be found in the treaty with King Philip V of Macedon. The document Hannibal prepared for his proposed alliance of Carthage with Macedonia, in 215 BCE (recorded by Polybius, 7:9), reveals, on the one hand, that Hannibal was highly educated, respectful of religious traditions, and well aware of diplomacy and protocol, and on the other, that his plans and intentions did not include the destruction of Rome. It is clear from this document that he merely intended to curb the expansionistic military imperialism of Rome, and restrict the Romans to their own geographical region in the middle of the Italian peninsula. This would have resulted in freedom for the cities previously subjugated by the Romans, especially the Greek colonies at the south, as well as in the liberation of the Gallic tribes in the north. Naturally, it would also have allowed Carthage to retain its commercial pre-eminence in the Mediterranean. When we add to this the fact that Hannibal consistently released without ransom any non-Roman allied soldiers captured in the many battles of the war, we can see that he was perhaps closer to a liberator than a conqueror, a role incompatible with his alleged “eternal hatred” of Rome.

Hannibal’s motivations during the second war of Carthage with Rome were undoubtedly complex and cannot be reduced to any simplistic formula, such as the postulation of an unending hatred connected with a probably fictitious childhood oath.

Livy (Foster, trans.). History of Rome: Books 21-22 (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.
Livy (Sage, trans.). History of Rome: Books 35-37 (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.
Polybius (Paton, trans.)  The Histories (Loeb Classical Library).  Harvard.

© 2013 by Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 20 years. His Hannibal Library contains over 10,000 items.

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