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Hannibal The Conquere
Hannibal's feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: a fresco detail, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museums, Rome


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hannibal's feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: a fresco detail, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museums, Rome Hannibal (from Punic, literally "Baal is merciful to me", 247 BC - 183 BC) (sometimes referred to as Hannibal Barca) was a politician and statesman, and is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history.

Hailing from Carthage, Hannibal was best known for his achievements in the Second Punic War in marching an army from Hispania over the Pyrenees and the Alps into northern Italy and defeating the Romans at the Battles of the river Trebia (218 BC), Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC). After Cannae, the Romans refused to fight him in pitched battles, instead aiming to defeat him by sheer attrition (the Romans had obvious and huge advantages of supply). After years of occupying Roman territory in a series of fits and starts, a counterinvasion of North Africa by the Romans under Scipio Africanus in 204 BC forced Hannibal to return to Carthage, where Scipio defeated him at Zama (202 BC).

As the son of Hamilcar Barca, he is often called Hannibal Barca. In fact Barca was a nickname, meaning lightning, and not a surname. However for convenience Hamilcar's family are called by historians the Barcid family, and calling him Hannibal Barca does avoid confusion with other minor Carthaginians who shared his name but not his fame.

Following the end of the war, Hannibal led Carthage for several years, aiding its recovery from the devastation of the war, until the Romans forced him into exile in 195 BC. He went to live at the court of Antiochus III of the Seleucid Kingdom. In 190 BC the Romans, having defeated Antiochus and imposed the Peace of Apamea (188 BC), demanded that he turn Hannibal over to them and the general fled again, this time to the court of King Prusias I of Bithynia. When the Romans demanded that Prusias surrender him in 182 BC, Hannibal left but soon committed suicide rather than submit. He died in 183 BC

Hannibal is universally ranked as one of the greatest military commanders and tacticians in history, alongside Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon I of France, and only a few others. Military historian, Theodore Ayrault Dodge, once famously christened Hannibal as the "father of strategy".

Background and early career

Hannibal Barca: an imaginary portraitHannibal Barca ("mercy of Baal"), son of Hamilcar Barca, was born in 247 BC. After Carthage's defeat in the First Punic War, Hamilcar set about the task of improving Carthage's fortunes. To do this, Hamilcar began the subjugation of the tribes of Spain. Carthage at the time was in such a poor state that its navy was unable to ferry his army to Iberia (Hispania); instead, he had to march it to the Pillars of Hercules and cross there. According to a story he later told at the court of Antiochus, Hannibal came upon his father while he was making a sacrifice to the gods before leaving for Hispania. Hannibal, then quite young, begged to go with him. Hamilcar agreed and allegedly made Hannibal swear that as long as he lived he would never be a friend of Rome. Hannibal is reported to have told his father, "I swear so soon as age will permit...I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome."

Hannibal's father went about the conquest of Hispania with all the skills given to military men. When he was killed in a battle, Hannibal's brother-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded to his command of the army. Hasdrubal pursued a policy of consolidation of Carthage's Iberian interests, even signing a treaty with Rome whereby Carthage would not expand past the Ebro River, so long as Rome did not expand south of it.

Upon the death of his brother-in-law (221 BC) Hannibal was acclaimed commander-in-chief by the army and confirmed in his appointment by the Carthaginian government. After two years spent completing the conquest of Hispania south of the Ebro, he began what he felt to be his life task, the conquest and humiliation of Rome. Accordingly, in 219 BC he used a pretext for attacking the town of Saguntum, which stood under the special protection of Rome. Disregarding the protests of Roman envoys, he stormed it after an eight-month siege. As the Carthaginian government, in view of Hannibal's great popularity, did not venture to repudiate this action, the war he sought was declared at the end of the year.

Second Punic War and invasion of Italy

Hannibal´s route of invasion given graciously by The Department of History, United States Military Academy

Hannibal´s route of invasion given graciously by The Department of History, United States Military AcademyOf the large army of Libyan and Iberian mercenaries that he had at his disposal, Hannibal selected the most trustworthy and devoted contingents and determined to carry the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Hispania and southern Gaul. Starting in the spring of 218 BC, he easily fought his way through the northern tribes to the Pyrenees and, by conciliating the Gaulish chiefs on his passage, contrived to reach the Rhone before the Romans could take any measures to bar his advance. After outmaneuvering the natives, who endeavored to prevent his crossing, Hannibal evaded a Roman force sent to operate against him in Gaul; he proceeded up the valley of one of the tributaries of the river Rhone (probably the Isere) and by autumn arrived at the foot of the Alps. His passage over the mountain chain (probably in the vicinity of the Col de Mont Cenis) was one of the most memorable achievements of any military force of ancient times. He had arrived, however, with only half the forces with which he is said to have set out. Adrian Goldsworthy (The Fall of Carthage) is skeptical of the explanation that Hannibal had left forces in Gaul to maintain his line of communication with Hispania. Hannibal from the first, seems to have calculated that he would have to operate without aid from Hispania. On the other hand, the figures for the amount of troops he had when he left Hispania are less reliable. Nonetheless, Goldsworthy thinks that due to the opposition of the natives and the difficulties of ground and climate the costs of Hannibal's march were considerable.

J.M.W. Turner: Hannibal crossing the Alps

Hannibal's perilous march brought him into Roman territory and frustrated the attempts of the enemy to fight out the main issue on foreign ground. His sudden appearance among the Gauls of the Po valley, moreover, enabled him to detach those tribes from their new allegiance to the Romans before the latter could take steps to check the rebellion.

J.M.W. Turner: Hannibal crossing the AlpsAfter allowing his soldiers a brief rest to recover from their exertions, Hannibal first secured his rear by subduing the hostile tribe of the Taurini (modern Turin), and, moving down the Po valley, forced the Romans by virtue of his superior cavalry to evacuate the plain of Lombardy. In December of the same year he had an opportunity to show his superior military skill when the Roman commander attacked him on the river Trebia near Placentia; after wearing down the excellent Roman infantry he cut it to pieces by a surprise attack from an ambush in the flank.

Having secured his position in northern Italy by this victory, Hannibal quartered his troops for the winter with the Gauls, whose zeal in his cause thereupon began to abate. Accordingly, in spring 217 BC Hannibal decided to find a more trustworthy base of operations farther south. He crossed the Apennines without opposition, but in the marshy lowlands of the Arno he lost a large part of his force, including, it would seem, his remaining elephants, through disease and himself became blind in one eye. Advancing through the uplands of Etruria he provoked the main Roman army to a hasty pursuit and, catching it in a defile on the shore of Lake Trasimenus, destroyed it in the waters or on the adjoining slopes (see Battle of Lake Trasimene).

Battle of Lake Trasimene, -217.
From the Department of History, United States Military AcademyHe had now disposed of the only field force which could check his advance upon Rome, but, realizing that without siege engines he could not hope to take the capital, he preferred to exploit his victory by passing into central and southern Italy and exciting a general revolt against the sovereign power. It was in Apulia that a fresh Roman army began to dog his steps. Hannibal expected to be able to defeat this too but the commander Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, stuck firmly to defensive positions in the hills. Having ravaged Apulia without provoking Fabius to battle, Hannibal decided to march through Samnium to Campania. Campania was a rich area that included the key Roman ally of Capua, but though his ravaging of the countryside showed the weakness of Rome it still did not provoke Fabius to battle. As the year wore on Hannibal decided that it would be unwise to winter in the already devastated lowlands of Campania but Fabius had ensured that all the passes out of Campania were blocked. Hannibal escaped by sending a herd of cattle with brands tied to their horns,so drawing off the Roman force guarding the pass, allowing Hannibal to move through the pass unopposed. Fabius was within striking distance but in this case his caution worked against him. Smelling a stratagem (rightly) he stayed put. For the winter, Hannibal found comfortable quarters in the Apulian plain.

Battle of Lake Trasimene, -217.
From the Department of History, United States Military Academy

In the campaign of 217 BC Hannibal had failed to obtain a following among the Italians; in the following year he had an opportunity to turn the tide in his favor. A large Roman army advanced into Apulia in order to crush him and accepted battle at Cannae. Thanks mainly to brilliant cavalry tactics, Hannibal, with much inferior numbers, managed to surround and destroy all but a smallish section of this force. Hannibal capitalized on the eagerness of the Consul Varro and drew him into a trap by using an envelopment tactic which eliminated the Roman numerical advantage by shrinking the surface area where combat could occur. Depending upon the source, it is estimated that 50,000-70,000 Romans fell at Cannae, the most catastrophic defeat in the history of that city.

The moral effect of this victory was such that all the south of Italy joined his cause. Had Hannibal now received proper material reinforcements from his countrymen at Carthage he might have made a direct attack upon Rome; for the present he had to content himself with subduing the fortresses which still held out against him, and the only other notable event of 216 BC was the defection of Capua, the second largest city of Italy, which Hannibal made his new base. Moreover, with a force of only 26-30,000 men, he lacked the strength to take the city.

For the next few years Hannibal was reduced to minor operations which centred mainly round the cities of Campania. He failed to draw his opponents into a pitched battle, and in some slighter engagements suffered reverses. As the forces detached under his lieutenants were generally unable to hold their own, and neither his home government nor his new ally Philip V of Macedon helped to make good his losses, his position in southern Italy became increasingly difficult and his chance of ultimately conquering Rome grew ever more remote. In 212 BC the Romans had so alienated Tarentum that conspirators admitted Hannibal to the city. The conspirators then blew the alarm on some Roman trumpets allowing Hannibal's troops to pick off the Romans as they stumbled out into the streets. Hannibal was able to keep control of his troops to the extent that there was no general looting. Instead Hannibal having committed himself to respect Tarentine freedom told the Tarentines to mark every house where Tarentines lived. Only those houses not so marked and thus belonging to Romans were looted. The citadel, however, held out so denying Hannibal the use of harbor. Further, in the same year, he lost his hold upon Campania, where he failed to prevent the concentration of three Roman armies round Capua. Hannibal attacked the besieging armies with his full force in 211 BC and attempted to entice them away by a sudden march through Samnium that brought him within 3 km of Rome but caused more alarm than real danger to the city.

But the siege continued, and the town fell in the same year. In 210 BC Hannibal again proved his superiority in tactics by a severe defeat inflicted at Herdoniac (modern Ordona) in Apulia upon a proconsular army, and in 208 BC destroyed a Roman force engaged in the siege of Locri Epizephyri. But with the loss of Tarentum in 209 BC and the gradual reconquest by the Romans of Samnium and Lucania his hold on south Italy was almost lost. In 207 BC he succeeded in making his way again into Apulia, where he waited to concert measures for a combined march upon Rome with his brother Hasdrubal. On hearing, however, of his brother's defeat and death at the Metaurus he retired into the mountain fastnesses of Bruttium, where he maintained himself for the ensuing years. With the failure of his brother Mago in Liguria (205 BC-203 BC) and of his own negotiations with Philip of Macedon, the last hope of recovering his ascendancy in Italy was lost.

Return to Africa

In 203 BC, when Scipio was carrying all before him in Africa and the Carthaginian peace party were arranging an armistice, Hannibal was recalled from Italy by the war party at Carthage. After leaving a record of his expedition engraved in Punic and Greek upon brazen tablets in the temple of Juno at Crotona, he sailed back to Africa. His arrival immediately restored the predominance of the war party, who placed him in command of a combined force of African levies and his mercenaries from Italy. In 202 BC Hannibal, after meeting Scipio in a fruitless peace conference, engaged him in a decisive battle at Zama. Scipio came up with an ingenious method of neutralizing Hannibal's elephants. Hannibal lost all of his original elephant troops (who crossed the Alps with him) by the battle of Cannae, but they were replenished in Africa. First of all, Scipio knew that elephants could only be ordered to charge forward, but they could only continue their charge in a straight line. It also meant that they did not care whether or not they killed Romans in the process. Scipio realized that intentionally opening gaps in his troops meant that the elephants would continue between them, without harming a soul. He did this, and after the elephants passed through his troops harmlessly, they were picked off on the other side, and his troops fell back into formation and continued marching. Unable to cope against the well-trained and confident Roman soldiers with his own indifferent troops after losing his notorious advantage, Hannibal experienced a crushing defeat that put an end to all resistance on the part of Carthage.

Peacetime Carthage

Hannibal was still only in his forty-sixth year and soon showed that he could be a statesman as well as a soldier. Following the conclusion of a peace that left Carthage stripped of its formerly mighty empire Hannibal prepared to take a back seat for a time. However, the blatant corruption of the oligarchy gave Hannibal a chance of a come back and he was elected as suffet, or chief magistrate. The office had become rather insignificant, but Hannibal restored its power and authority. The oligarchy, always jealous of him, had even charged him with having betrayed the interests of his country while in Italy, for neglecting to take Rome when he might have done so. So effectively did Hannibal reform abuses that the heavy tribute imposed by Rome could be paid by installments without additional and extraordinary taxation. He also reformed the Council of One Hundred, stipulating that its membership be chosen by direct election rather than co-option

Exile and death

Seven years after the victory of Zama, the Romans, alarmed at Carthage's renewed prosperity, demanded Hannibal's surrender. Hannibal thereupon went into voluntary exile. First he journeyed to Tyre, the mother-city of Carthage, and thence to Ephesus, where he was honorably received by Antiochus III of Syria, who was preparing for war with Rome. Hannibal soon saw that the king's army was no match for the Romans. He advised him to equip a fleet and land a body of troops in the south of Italy, offering to take command himself. But he could not make much impression on Antiochus, who listened more willingly to courtiers and flatterers and would not entrust Hannibal with any important charge. In 190 BC he was placed in command of a Phoenician fleet but was defeated in a battle off the river Eurymedon.

According to Strabo and Plutarch, Hannibal also received hospitality at the Armenian court of Artaxias where he planned and supervised the building of the new royal capital Artaxata. From the court of Antiochus, who seemed prepared to surrender him to the Romans, Hannibal fled to Crete, but he soon went back to Asia Minor and sought refuge with Prusias I of Bithynia. Once more the Romans were determined to hunt him down, and they sent Flaminius to insist on his surrender. Prusias agreed to give him up, but Hannibal determined not to fall into his enemies' hands. At Libyssa, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Marmora, he took poison, which, it was said, he had long carried about with him in a ring. The precise year of his death is a matter of controversy. If, as Livy seems to imply, it was 183 BC, he died in the same year as Scipio Africanus.


Most of the sources we have about Hannibal are Romans, who considered him the greatest enemy they had ever faced. Livy gives us the idea that he was extremely cruel. Even Cicero, when he talked of Rome and her two great enemies, spoke of the "honorable" Pyrrhus and the "cruel" Hannibal. Yet a different picture sometimes shows through the bias. When Hannibal's successes had brought about the death of two Roman consuls, he searched vainly for one on the shores of Lake Trasimene, and he sent Marcellus' ashes back to his family in Rome. By contrast, when Nero had accomplished his wonderful march back and forth to and from the Metaurus he flung the head of Hannibal's brother into Hannibal's camp. The bias of Polybius is less obvious because he was clearly sympathetic to Hannibal. Polybius, however, spent a long period as a hostage in Italy and relied heavily on Roman sources and so the possibility is always there that Polybius is reproducing Roman propaganda even when he gives it a pro-Hannibal spin.


Cicero offers a story of Hannibal while at the court of Antiochus III. Hannibal attended a lecture by a certain Phormio, a philosopher, that ranged through many topics. When Phormio finished the portion about the duties of a general, Hannibal was asked his opinion. "I have seen," he replied, "during my life many an old fool; but this one beats them all."

There is another story told about Hannibal while in exile, which puts an odd spin on his supposed "Punic perfidy". Antiochus III showed off a vast and well armed formation to Hannibal and asked him if they would be enough for Rome, to which Hannibal replied, "Yes, enough for the Romans, however greedy they may be."


Hannibal's name is also commonplace in popular culture, an objective measure of his influence on Western European history. Long after his death, his named continued to carry a portent of great or imminent danger within the Roman Republic. For generations, Roman housekeepers would tell their children brutal tales of Hannibal when they misbehaved. In fact, Hannibal became such a figure of terror, that when ever disaster struck, the Roman Senators would exclaim " Hannibal ad portas" ("Hannibal is at the Gates!") to express their fear or anxiety. This famous Latin phrase evolved into a common expression that is often used when a client arrives through the door or when one is faced with calamity[1].

Hannibal's legacy also extends to the field of military history, as he is universally ranked as one of the greatest military strategists and tacticians of the Western world, alongside Alexander the Great, Julius Caeser, Gustavus Adolphus, The Duke of Marlborough, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon among others. His crossing of the Alps stands as one of the most monumental military feats of ancient warfare [2]. In fact, his exploits (especially his victory at Cannae) continue to be studied in several military academies all over the world.

The author of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article praises Hannibal in these words: "As to the transcendent military genius of Hannibal there cannot be two opinions. The man who for fifteen years could hold his ground in a hostile country against several powerful armies and a succession of able generals must have been a commander and a tactician of supreme capacity. In the use of stratagems and ambuscades he certainly surpassed all other generals of antiquity. Wonderful as his achievements were, we must marvel the more when we take into account the grudging support he received from Carthage. As his veterans melted away, he had to organize fresh levies on the spot. We never hear of a mutiny in his army, composed though it was of Africans, Spaniards and Gauls. Again, all we know of him comes for the most part from hostile sources. The Romans feared and hated him so much that they could not do him justice. Livy speaks of his great qualities, but he adds that his vices were equally great, among which he singles out his more than Punic perfidy and an inhuman cruelty. For the first there would seem to be no further justification than that he was consummately skilful in the use of ambuscades. For the latter there is, we believe, no more ground than that at certain crises he acted in the general spirit of ancient warfare. Sometimes he contrasts most favorably with his enemy. No such brutality stains his name as that perpetrated by Claudius Nero on the vanquished Hasdrubal. Polybius merely says that he was accused of cruelty by the Romans and of avarice by the Carthaginians. He had indeed bitter enemies, and his life was one continuous struggle against destiny. For steadfastness of purpose, for organizing capacity and a mastery of military science he has perhaps never had an equal."

According to the military historian, Theodore Ayrault Dodge, "Hannibal excelled as a tactician. No battle in history is a finer sample of tactics than Cannae. But he was yet greater in logistics and strategy. No captain ever matched to and fro among so many armies of troops superior to his own numbers and material as fearlessly and skillfully as he. No man ever held his own so long or so ably against such odds. Constantly overmatched by better soldiers, led by generals always respectable, often of great ability, he yet defied all their efforts to drive him from Italy, for half a generation."

Furthermore, Dodge christened Hannibal as the "father of strategy" due to his visionary conduct of warfare[3]. He wrote: "Excepting in the case of Alexander, and some few isolated instances, all wars up to the Second Punic War, had been decided largely, if not entirely, by battle-tactics. Strategic ability had been comprehended only on a minor scale. Armies had marched towards each other, had fought in paralell order, and the conqueror had imposed terms on his opponent. Any variation from this rule consisted in ambuscades or other strategems. That war could be waged by avoiding in lieu of seeking battle; that the results of a victory could be earned by attacks upon the enemy's communications, by flank-maneuvers, by seizing positions from which safely to threaten him in case he moved, and by other devices of strategy, was not understood . . .For the first time in the history of war, we see two contending generals avoiding each other, occupying impregnable camps on heights, marching about each other's flanks to seize cities or supplies in their rear, harasssing each other with small-war, and rarely venturing on a battle which might prove a fatal disaster-all with a well-conceived purpose of placing his opponent at a strategic disadvantage. . .That it did so was due to the teaching of Hannibal".

Even his Roman chroniclers acknowledged his military genius, writing that, "he never required other to do what he could and would not do himself" [4]. Napoleon Bonaparte himself regarded Hannibal as a gifted strategist, claiming that "the principles of Caesar were the same as those of Alexander [the Great] and Hannibal: to hold his forces in hand; to be vulnerable on several points only when it is unavoidable; to march rapidly upon the important points; to make use of great extent of moral means, such as the measures calculated to preserve the attachment of allies and the submission of conquered provinces.". In addition, Napoleon also described Hannibal as "the most audacious of all, probably the most stunning, so hardy, so sure, so great in all things." Alfred Graf von Schlieffen's famous pre-World War I strategy was developed from his military studies, with particularly heavy emphasis on Hannibal's victory at Cannae, emphasizing swift and annihilating force on two fronts. Patton believed that he was a reincarnation of General Hannibal as well as many other people including a Roman legionary. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the Coalition Forces in the Gulf War, claimed that "The technology of war may change, the sophistication of weapons certainly changes. But those same principles of war that applied to the days of Hannibal apply today".

Hannibal in film

  • Hannibal (2006) - starring Vin Diesel.
  • The Phantom of the Opera (2005) - the beginning Opera being rehearsed is one about Hannibal so titled Hannibal.
  • True Story of Hannibal (2005) - English documentary.
  • Hannibal: The Man Who Hated Rome (2001) - English documentary.
  • The Great Battles of Hannibal (1997) - English animation.
  • Annibale (1960) - starring Victor Mature. Italian.

See also


  • "We will either find a way, or make one."-Hannibal in response to the claimed impossibility of crossing the Alps with elephants.
  • "God has given no greater spur to victory than contempt of death."-Hannibal

Further reading

  • Dodge, Theodore Ayrault, Hannibal, Da Capo Press; Reissue edition, 2004. ISBN 0306813629
  • B. Dexter Hoyos, Hannibal's Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 B.C., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 041529911X (hbk) ISBN 0415359589 (pbk)
  • B. Dexter Hoyos, Hannibal: Rome's Greatest Enemy, Bristol Phoenix Press, 2005. ISBN 1904675468 (hbk) ISBN 1904675476 (pbk)
  • Cottrell, Leonard, Enemy of Rome, Evans Bros, 1965. ISBN 0237443201 (pbk)
  • Livy, Titus Livius and De Selincourt, Aubery, The War with Hannibal : Books XXI-XXX of the History of Rome from its Foundation, Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (July 30, 1965). ISBN 014044145X (pbk)

External links

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica.

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