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A beardless Hannibal on a coin by Hannibal.
A beardless Melqart on a coin
of Hannibal (©!!)
The Carthaginian general Hannibal (247-182 BCE) was one of the greatest military leaders in history. His most famous campaign took place during the Second Punic War (218-202), when he caught the Romans off guard by crossing the Alps.

Youth (247-219) Livy: Periochae The Alps I
Saguntum to Cannae (219-216) Appian: Hannibal The Alps II
Cannae to Zama (216-202) Appian: Spain
Looking for Revenge (202-182) Appian: Africa
Assessment, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

Spain during the Second Punic war. Design Jona Lendering.

Youth (247-219)

When Hannibal (in his own, Punic language: Hanba'al, "mercy of Ba'al") was born in 247 BCE, his birthplace Carthage was about to lose a long and important war. The city had been the Mediterranean's most prosperous seaport and possessed wealthy provinces, but it had suffered severe losses from the Romans in the First Punic War (264-241). After Rome's victory, it stripped Carthage of its most important province, Sicily; and when civil war had broken out in Cartage, Rome seized Sardinia and Corsica as well. These events must have made a great impression on the young Hannibal.

He was the oldest son of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, who took the ten-year old boy to Iberia in 237. There were several Carthaginian cities in Andalusia: Gadir ('castle', modern Cádiz), Malkah ('royal town', Málaga) and New Carthage (Cartagena). The ancient name of Córdoba is unknown, although the Punic element Kart, 'town', is still recognizable in its name.

Hamilcar added new territories to this informal empire. In this way, Carthage was compensated for its loss of overseas territories. The Roman historian Livy mentions that Hannibal's father forced his son to promise eternal hatred against the Romans. This may be an invention, but there may be some truth in the story: the Carthaginians had excellent reasons to hate their enemies.

When Hamilcar died (229), Hamilcar's son-in-law, the politician Hasdrubal the Fair, took over command. The new governor further improved the Carthaginian position by diplomatic means, among which was intermarriage between Carthaginians and Iberians. Hannibal married a native princess. It is likely that the young man visited Carthage in these years.

The citadel of Saguntum. Photo Anita Bronner.
The citadel of Saguntum

In 221, Hasdrubal was murdered and the Carthaginian soldiers in Iberia elected Hannibal as their commander, a decision that was confirmed by the government.The twenty-six-year old  general returned to his father's aggressive military politics and attacked the natives, capturing Salamanca in 220. The next year, he besieged Saguntum, a Roman ally. Since Rome was occupied with the Second Illyrian War and unable to support the town, Saguntum fell after a blockade of eight months. Already in Antiquity, the question whether the capture of Saguntum was a violation of a treaty between Hasdrubal and the Roman Republic was discussed. It is impossible to solve this problem. The fact is, however, that the Romans felt offended, and demanded Hannibal to be extradited by the Carthaginian government.


The first phase Second Punic war. Design Jona Lendering.
First phase of the
Second Punic war (©**)

From Saguntum to Cannae (218-216)

While the negotiations about his fate were going on, Hannibal continued to extend Carthage's territory: he appointed his brother Hasdrubal (not to be confused with Hannibal's brother-in-law) as commander in Iberia, and in May 218 he crossed the river Ebro in order to complete the conquest of the Iberian peninsula. On hearing the news, Rome declared the Second Punic War and sent reinforcements to Sicily, where they expected the main Carthaginian attack.

Hannibal interrupted his campaigns in Catalonia, and decided to win the war by a bold invasion of Italy before the Romans were prepared. In a lightning campaign, he crossed the Pyrenees with an army of 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry and 37 elephants; next, he crossed the river Rhône (at Arausio, modern Orange), ferrying his elephants across the water on large rafts. Thence, by a heroic effort, made difficult by autumn snow, he crossed the Alps, probably taking the Col du Mont Genèvre (more...). In October 218, 38,000 soldiers and 8,000 cavalry had reached the plains along the river Po in the vicinity of the Italian town Turin.

The plains along the Po were inhabited by Gauls who had recently been subjected to Rome, and were only too willing to welcome Hannibal and throw off the Roman yoke. The Romans were aware of the danger that Hannibal might entice the Gauls into rebellion, and immediately sent an army to prevent this. However, in a cavalry engagement at the river Ticinus (east of Turin), the Carthaginians defeated their opponents. Immediately, some 14,000 Gauls volunteered to serve under Hannibal. Thanks to their help, Hannibal won a second victory at the river Trebia (west of modern Piacenza), defeating a Roman army that had been supplemented with the troops that had been sent to Sicily earlier that year (December 218).

In the early Spring of 217, Hannibal left his winter quarter at Bologna, traversed the Apennines and ravaged Etruria (modern Tuscany). During a minor engagement, he lost an eye (although some historians claim that he suffered from opthalmia). The Romans counterattacked with some 25,000 men, but their consul, Gaius Flaminius, was defeated and killed in an ambush between the hills and the Trasimene lake. Two legions were annihilated. Hannibal expected that Rome's allies would now leave their master and come over to Carthage. This, however, did not happen, and he was forced to cross the Apennines a second time, hoping to establish a new base in Apulia, the 'heel' of Italy. At the same time, Rome attacked his lines of conmuciation and his supply base in Iberia (more).

The battle of Cannae. Design Jona Lendering.
Cannae (©**)
While Hannibal tried to win over Rome's allies by diplomatic means, the Romans appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as a dictator (a magistrate with extraordinary powers). He tailed the invader, but evaded battle; the Romans found Fabius' strategy unacceptable and would later call him 'the dawdler' (Cunctator). This was not entirely fair: Fabius had no experienced troops and had to train an army, and this policy was successful. Besides, a Roman army had attacked Carthage's African possessions, which prevented the Carthaginians to sent reinforcements. And, contrary to Hannibal's expectation, Rome's allies remained loyal.

In 216, the Roman Senate decided that time had come to solve the problem by one great, decisive battle. Taking no risks, the two consuls raised an army of no less than 80,000 men, whereas Hannibal's army counted some 50,000 men. In July, the Romans pinned down the Carthaginian army in the neighborhood of Cannae on the Italian east coast; battle was engaged on the second of August. Hannibal's convex, crescent shaped lines slowly became concave under pressure of the Roman elite troops in the center, which, being encircled and finally surrounded by the Carthaginian cavalry in the rear, failed to break through  the Carthaginian lines and were eventually destroyed.

After this event, many Roman allies switched sides. Sardinia revolted; Capua became Hannibal's capital in Italy. The successful commander was thirty years old when he entered Capua, seated on his last surviving elephant. His brother Mago Barca was sent to Carthage to announce this victory. He made quite an impression when he poured out hundreds of golden rings taken from the bodies of the Romans killed in action at the entrance of the Carthaginian Senate building.

>> to part two >>

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 1995
Revision: 15 March 2008
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