Hannibal and the Punic Wars: Synopsis and Historical Background


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.

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. His goal was to liberate the oppressed peoples of Italy, including the Greek cities at the south of the peninsula. He did not 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 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 (details in another article) 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 Roman dead on the battlefield, according to Polybius. Hannibal lost 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, Hannibal’s decision was not a strategic error, as will be made clear in another article.

Claims that after Cannae Hannibal did not win any more battles because the Romans fought a war of attrition avoiding major clashes, and that his army was softened by wintering among the luxuries of Capua, are incorrect. Hannibal did achieve further victories every time some Roman general grew arrogant enough to think he could take on the great Barcid. For instance, in 212 he defeated consuls Q. Fulvius Flaccus and Appius Claudius at Capua, although the Roman army escaped. The same year he was the victor at the Silarus, where he destroyed the army of the praetor M. Centenius Penula in Campania, and at the first battle of Herdonea, wiping out the forces of Gnaeus Fulvius in Apulia, with casualties comparable with those at lake Trasimenus. In 210 the second battle of Herdonea took place, where Hannibal destroyed the army of Fulvius Centumalus, who was killed. Hannibal remained undefeated during his 16 years in Italy. (More in another article.)

Hannibal’s genius shone even in the final battle, the one he supposedly lost, at Zama, in 202 BCE, against Publius Cornelius Scipio the Younger. The information in the classical sources indicates that he almost won that one, too, despite having an inferior army and lacking the cavalry forces he had had in Italy, for he managed to lure the superior enemy horse from the battlefield and was in the process of crushing the Roman infantry when Massinissa and his cavalry returned to the field to turn the tables in favor of the Romans. Recent research by Abdelaziz Belkhodja and others has raised a number of questions concerning the authenticity of this final battle, to be discussed in another article.

After the end of the second war with Rome, Hannibal served as Carthaginian magistrate (suffete) and was able to eliminate corruption and restore the city’s shattered economy. During his years of exile that followed, he assisted Antiochus III of Syria, Artaxias of Armenia, and Prusias of Bithynia, and remained true to his ideals, steadfastly refusing to become a vassal of Rome. Some have called Hannibal the last hero of the free world of Antiquity. After his death in 183 BCE, taking poison in order to prevent the Romans from capturing him after being betrayed by King Prusias in Bithynia, nothing could stand in the way of the expansion of what would become the predatory Roman Empire.

Belkhodja, A. (2012). Hannibal Barca: L’histoire veritable. Apollonia (Tunis).
Fantar, M. H. (1998).  Carthage, the Punic City.  Alif, les Editions de la Mediterranee.
Faulkner, N. (2008). Rome: Empire of the Eagles. Pearson/Longman.
Lancel, S. (1998). Hannibal. Blackwell.
Mosig, Y., & Belhassen, I. (2006). “Revision and reconstruction in the Punic Wars: Cannae revisited”. The International Journal of the Humanities, 4(2), 103-110.
Mosig, Y., & Belhassen, I. (2007). “Revision and reconstruction in the second Punic War: Zama-whose victory?” The International Journal of the Humanities, 5(9), 175-186.
Mosig, Y. (2009). “The Barcids at war: Historical introduction.” Ancient Warfare, 3:4, 6-8.
Polybius (Patton translation).  The Histories (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.

© Yozan Mosig, 2012
(Note: A somewhat different version of this article appeared in Ancient Warfare magazine in 2009, and parts are used here with the kind permission of J. Oorthuys.)

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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