Hannibal Historical Context



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Hannibal
1. Historical Context
- Geography, topography and resources of the Western Mediterranean


  • The Mediterranean linked three continents: Africa, Europe and Asia.

  • Areas bordering on the Western Mediterranean Sea include southern Spain, southern France, Italy, islands such as Sicily and Corsica, as well as the north coast of Africa.

  • Sicily was a natural bridge between north Africa and Italy and was strategically important to both Rome and Carthage.

  • Environment and topography of the Mediterranean was highly heterogeneous. Bioclimatic conditions favoured agriculture and breeding.

  • The resources of the Western Mediterranean included iron, oil and pottery from Italy; grain, fruit and wool from Sicily; grain and copper from Sardinia; marble, pottery and wool from Numidia; gold, copper, silver, lead and fruit from Spain.

  • Carthage, Rome, northern Spain and Sicily all had agricultural surpluses.


- Overview of the social, political, military and economic structures of Carthaginian society


  • Carthage was originally a monarchy, but by Hannibal's time it was a merchant oligarchy.

  • Power lay with the sufetes, who were two magistrates elected each year from influential families. One controlled the Senate, which was influential and had 300 members.

  • A general was chosen by the popular assembly to control military affairs, yet he was more professional than an actual commander.

  • The economy of Carthage relied heavily on trade. Commerce was the pillar of its society and its prosperity.

  • Carthage was geographically well situated to capitalise on trade from the east and west, and its trade was based on the notion of buying cheap and selling dear.

  • The Spanish colonies brought in enormous wealth through their gold and silver mines. The Carthaginians traded for their horses and food.

  • Carthage didn't mint its own coinage until the third century BC.

  • To enable them to concentrate on trade, the citizens formed small, elite corps of soldiers and relied heavily on mercenaries from Africa and Spain.

  • The mercenaries were hired for particular skills, such as the Numidians for cavalry and the Balearic Islanders as slingers.

  • The seamanship of the Phoenician sailors was regarded as the best in the world. The Carthaginian warships were supreme fighting vessels. They were huge quinqueremes with rowers and a huge ram attached to the front.

- The First Punic Was and developments leading to the Second Punic War




  • During the third century BC, both Rome and Carthage were commercially expanding, and eventually came into conflict over Messana.

  • The Mamertines had seized Messana and were in turn sieged by Hiero of Syracuse. The Mamertines appealed to both Rome and Carthage for help, and both responded.

  • Syracuse initially sided with Carthage, then allied with Rome.

  • The war lasted 23 years, with the strategies used including naval battles and sieges of the cities of Sicily.

  • Hamilcar Barca began a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Romans in 247 BC, and the Romans were unable to dislodge him from Sicily.

  • In a “last ditch effort”, the Romans raised a fleet 200 strong and won the final, decisive battle at the Aegate Islands in 241 BC.

  • Polybius says there were three causes of the Second Punic War:

    • The loss of Sicily and huge reparation payments to Rome.

    • The loss of Sardinia and Corsica to Rome after the Romans threatened war.

    • The Carthaginian success in their conquest of Spain.

  • These losses also filled Carthage, in particular Hamilcar and his son Hannibal, with an increased hatred for Rome.


2. Background and rise to prominence
- Family background and influences


  • Hannibal was born in 246 BC during the First Punic War.

  • He was the eldest son of Hannibal Barca and had three older sisters and two younger brothers, Mago and Hasdrubal.

  • The early influences on Hannibal were his aristocratic background where he learned pride in Carthage and its history and culture, as well as his father and his military background.

  • During his early years he witnessed Carthage reduced from the jewel of the Mediterranean to a humiliated victim of Rome. This, plus his father's hatred, fostered his own hatred of Rome.

  • Livy claims that Hamilcar had Hannibal swear an oath of eternal enmity to Rome when he was nine years old.

- Early career in Spain to 218 BC




  • Carthage, under the command of Hasdrubal (Hannibal's brother in law) developed a new Carthaginian empire in Spain.

  • Hannibal, then 25, was Hasdrubal's chief executive officer and in charge of the cavalry.

  • Rome became worried by Hasdrubal's success in Spain and attempted to limit Carthaginian expansion. They renewed peace treaties, fixing the Ebro River as a boundary and Saguntum as a buffer.

  • Hasdrubal was assassinated in 218 BC, and Hannibal took command of the Carthaginian forces in Spain aged 26.


3. Career
- Hannibal and Saguntum


  • After Hannibal took command in Spain, he set about consolidating the Carthaginian gains.

  • Hannibal conquered and pacified the remaining territories, so that the territory between the Tagus and Ebro rivers was Carthaginian.

  • However, Hannibal avoided Saguntum, as it was an “ally” of Rome. Hannibal only took measures against the city when it began to rise against him.

  • The Romans warned Hannibal not to interfere with Saguntum's independence, but Hannibal, who was confident and backed by a revitalised Carthage, ignored and sieged Saguntum in 219.

  • Rome sent no assistance to their so called friend, yet they demanded the surrender of Hannibal. After a siege lasting 8 months Saguntum fell and Carthage refused to surrender, to which the Romans announced “then we give you war”.

- Strategies and campaigns of the Second Punic War: the crossing of the Alps, the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae.




  • After the declaration of war, Hannibal made his plans to engage the Romans. He left his brother Hasdrubal in Spain with a small navy, a contingent of cavalry, 21 elephants and a force of African troops.

  • Rome commanded the seas, so Hannibal audaciously planned to Italy by land. It was a 2400 km journey, which the Romans thought impossible.

  • According to Polybius and Livy, Hannibal began the journey with a large army of 90 000 infantry, 12 000 Celtic and African cavalry, 37 elephants, pack animals and siege weapons.

  • Dexter Hoyos notes that the army was implausibly large. By the time he crossed the Pyrenees he had 50 000 infantry and 9 000 cavalry, crossed the Rhone with 38 000 infantry and 8 000 cavalry and finally arrived in Italy with 20 000 infantry and 6 000 cavalry.

  • Hannibal left 10 000 infantry and 1 000 cavalry in north-east Spain, and allowed 10 000 disillusioned Celtiberians to go home.

  • Accompanying Hannibal were his brother Mago, his nephew Hanno (who he left in charge of the force in north-east Spain), and his trusted officers Marharbal and Gisgo.

  • Hannibal crossed the Ebro, where he left Hanno, and proceeded through the Pyrenees. His forces were shrinking, due to desertion of him having to place garrisons of troops along the way.

  • Along the route Hannibal either placated or conquered small territories of tribesmen.

  • Hannibal then crossed the Rhone. He sent his cavalry ahead and then ferried his men and elephants across. He defeated the waiting army by pincering them between his infantry and cavalry, a tactic he would revolutionise and become renowned for.

  • Hannibal's army then marched through the Alps. There was no road through or over them, yet they still climbed.

  • Appian says that Hannibal heated the rocks with burning wood, and then quenched them with ashes and vinegar. He then proceeded to smash the brittle rocks with hammers, forcing a passage.

  • Many men were lost due to fatigue, the cold and persistent raids by local tribes as well as provision shortages.

  • Polybius estimates that the journey from Spain took five months and the crossing of the Alps fifteen days, arriving in Italy before the Romans even knew.

  • Hannibal’s next engagement was at Ticinius. The Roman commander, Publius Cornelius Scipio, had narrowly missed Hannibal in Gaul but wanted to confront them across the Po River, in the area called Ticinius.

  • Scipio moved his cavalry and spearmen forward to engage the Numidian cavalry led by Marharbal. The two cavalry forces were evenly matched until Scipio’s spearmen got in the way.

  • Scipio’s cavalry was defeated and he retreated to the River Trebia, where he took up a position on the hills.

  • Hannibal’s force crossed the River Po, took the town of Clastidium for 400 gold pieces and recruited 14,000 Gauls and Celts.

  • The following battle at Trebia was a resounding victory for Hannibal. The other consul, Sempronius, met up with Scipio on the other side of the river.

  • The key to Hannibal’s success was the ambush. He hid 1000 cavalry and 1000 infantry along the bushes of the river.

  • Early the next morning, while Hannibal was feeding, oiling and resting his troops, he sent out light Numidian cavalry to harass the Romans. Sempronius reacted sharply, mustering his troops.

  • The Roman cavalry chased the retreating Numidian cavalry over the river, soon followed by the whole Roman army.

  • Hannibal’s army was about 2km from the river. The 20,000 infantry were in a straight line, with the 10,000 cavalry and elephants on the flanks.

  • The Roman army, already wet, tired, hungry and cold, were also formed with cavalry flanking infantry.

  • The two infantry forced engaged, while the Carthaginian cavalry beat the Roman cavalry and began to flank the Romans. Mago then sprung from behind, ambushing the Romans.

  • The Romans fled back across the river but were either hamstrung or drowned. Sempronius and the 10,000 men in the centre fought their way out and escaped to Placentia.

  • After Scipio rallied the remnants of the retreated Roman army, he found 15,000 – 20,000 lay dead.

  • As a result of Hannibal’s victories, the Romans raised 11 new legions. The consuls for 217BC were Geminus and Flaminius.

  • Flaminius had his army stationed at Arretium, and let Hannibal’s army pass rather than engage him in the open. Aim to harass.

  • Flaminius followed Hannibal so that Hannibal had to engage him in open combat. Did this by preparing an ambush at Lake Trasimene.

  • Hannibal lit camp fires at the end of the Borghetto Pass, making the Romans believe he was camped there.

  • The next morning, Flaminius led his forces along the pass, unaware that Hannibal had laid out his troops in an enveloping formation, surrounding the Romans.

  • Hannibal ordered a general charge; the Romans were caught on three sides by the Carthaginian forces and on one side by the lake.

  • Flaminius and most of his 25,000 strong army were killed.

  • Rome was in despair, and in a state of emergency decided to appoint a dictator – Fabius Maximus Cunctator (the “Delayer”).

  • As Hannibal ravished the lands for food and supplies, he sent for more men and money. Carthage declined.

  • Fabius decided to take a non-confrontational stance with Hannibal, just followed, harassed and wore him down – a policy of attrition.

  • Hannibal was unable to gain allies through Fabius’ tactics. Meant Roman resources guaranteed.

  • In 216 two new consuls were elected – Paullus and Varro. The Romans found Hannibal’s presence in Italy intolerable and they levied four new legions.

  • Varro was rash and foolhardy and particularly wanted to attack the Carthaginians. Appian writes that Paullus wanted to delay and exhaust Hannibal.

  • Polybius writes that Paullus differed with Varro over the best way to engage Hannibal.

  • The Battle of Cannae took place in August 216BC on the bank of the Aufidus River.













  • Roman force was around 75,000 strong.

  • Varro placed 1,600 Roman cavalry on his right wing, 70,000 infantry in the centre and 4,800 allied cavalry on his left wing.

  • Hannibal placed his Spanish and Celtic cavalry on his left wing, the Numidian cavalry opposite the Allied cavalry and the 40,000 Spanish, Celtic and African troops in the centre.

  • As the two infantry armies engaged, the superior Carthaginian cavalry overpowered the Roman cavalry. The Numidian cavalry held the Allied cavalry until the Carthaginian cavalry arrived.

  • Whilst this was occurring, the superior numbers of the legions were driving the Spanish and Gallic infantry back, who were purposely conceding ground.

  • The Lybians flanked the Roman legions, and when the two cavalry units attacked from behind, the Romans were crushed.

  • Paullus was killed, Varro fled with 15,000 men and the Roman dead numbered between 50,000 and 70,000.

  • In a devastating blow for Rome, Hannibal only lost 6,000 to 8,000 men.

- Military actions in Italy after Cannae




  • After Cannae, Rome resumed Fabian tactics. Hannibal was trapped in southern Italy and Rome did not sue for peace after Cannae. Neither did Hannibal make them.

  • Hannibal’s’ supplies were precarious and he needed to capture southern ports. However, Rome was able to counter his alliances with some of their own.

  • Rome regrouped and Hannibal, with only a few reinforcements, lost the initiative. Only one resupply came in 215, due to Rome’s naval dominance and Carthage’s reluctance to help.

  • Hannibal’s gamble of the Italian confederates joining him had failed. Rome’s confederate states were able to resupply her.

  • In 207, Hasdrubal was desperately trying to reinforce his brother from northern Italy with 30,000 men but was intercepted and defeated at the battle of Metaurus.

- Opponents: Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus




  • Quintus Fabius Maximus “Cunctator” was appointed dictator of Rome after the defeat at Lake Trasimene. Policy was to delay Hannibal.

  • Many Romans were unhappy about this policy. After the election of Varro and Paullus the disaster of Cannae occurred, and Fabian strategy was again implemented.

  • This policy was successful as Hannibal was chased around southern Italy, his forces thinned, unable to gain allies and support and losing cities he had previously gained.

  • He implemented a scorched earth policy to deny Hannibal food.

  • Fabius trapped Hannibal outside Rome but was outwitted by him as Hannibal used sheep in the middle of the night as a decoy to allow his army to escape.

  • Scipio Africanus was Hannibal’s match.

  • In 210 he was appointed commander in Spain and he captured New Carthage in 209.

  • In 205 he raised a volunteer army and crossed to Sicily then to Africa. In 203 he fought the Battle of the Great Plains and in 202 discussed peace terms with Carthage.

  • Hostilities resumed and ended at the Battle of Zama where he defeated Hannibal. Peace was made on Roman terms.

  • Scipio was named “Africanus” for his campaign in Africa.

- Recall to Africa and the Battle of Zama




  • Scipio allied with a Numidian prince, Masinissa, and landed in Africa with a well trained army and ample logistical support.

  • Hasdrubal and Syphax entered in skirmishes with Scipio, with nothing major occurring until the Battle of the Great Plains, where Hasdrubal and Syphax were soundly defeated.

  • Carthage made an armistice but as a precaution they recalled Hannibal in 203. Hannibal engaged in peace talks with Scipio, who demanded unconditional surrender. Hannibal refused, which led to Zama.

  • Hannibal intended the elephants to break up the roman lines and create chaos.

  • However, Scipio left lanes so that his troops could herd them.

  • Laelius and Masinissa both defeated their opposing cavalry.

  • Both the infantry armies were evenly matched and the battle was poised until the Roman cavalry attacked the rear of Hannibal’s forces.

  • Hannibal’s troops were decisively defeated. He went to Carthage and negotiated peace. Carthage surrendered its fleet, recognized Spain as a Roman province and paid an enormous reparation of 10,000 talents.

- Career after Zama




  • Hannibal was blamed for the loss of the Second Punic War, but he retained his military command.

  • Hannibal was elected as a sufete and introduced democratic and constitutional reforms. He reduced the power of the judges and spread tax more evenly, which alienated members of the oligarchy.

  • In 194 he was reported to Rome for conspiring with Syria which prompted him to flee to Antiochus III at Ephesus.

  • The Hellenistic kingdoms came into conflict with Rome but the small fleet commanded by Hannibal was defeated.

  • Hannibal then fled to Bithynia and was made an admiral in the navy in their war against Pergamun. He was successful in defeating Pergamum’s fleet in 184.

  • When Rome heard that Hannibal was in Pergamun they set out to kill him, as they still saw him as a danger and threat.

- Manner and impact of his death




  • The king Hannibal was serving under, Prusias, was weak and did not want to anger the Romans. He told them they would have to take Hannibal from his house.

  • Hannibal knew Prusias was weak, and as such had several tunnels and exits out of his house.

  • When a slave told him they were surrounded on all sides, Hannibal committed suicide by drinking from a poisoned cup rather than be taken prisoner by the Romans.

  • He was 64 when he died in 183BC.

  • Plutarch comments that there were various responses to his death.

  • Some felt Flaminius was cruel to kill a harmless old man like Hannibal and he was only seeking glory by being associated with the death of Hannibal.

  • Comparisons were made with Scipio, who had treated Hannibal with clemency and honour after Zama.

  • Other praised Flaminius, saying as long as Hannibal lived he was a danger to all Romans.


4. Evaluation
- Impact and influence on his time


  • Hannibal had an influence on his time and beyond his life.

  • Rome believed it was his influence that caused the problems with the kings of the Hellenistic East.

  • The Second Macedonian War and the war with Antiochus can be seen to have direct links with the Hannibalic War.

  • After his death, Hannibal had a lasting impact on Rome.

  • The Third Punic War was part of Hannibal’s impact, as was the destruction of the city of Carthage.

  • The pressure of the Second Punic War resulted in significant changes and amendments to the Roman political system.

  • The devastation caused by Hannibal’s armies in Italy and the Fabian scorched earth policy led to a significant exodus of people from rural areas of Italy.

  • The encirclement tactics used by Hannibal at Cannae have been studied by military greats throughout history such as Napoleon, Clausewitz, Schlieffen, Montgomery and Schwarzkopf.

- Impact and influence on his time




  • Most sources on Hannibal are Roman; there are no Carthaginian sources on him.

  • All sources agree that he was a military genius. This was demonstrated by his incredible tactical skill, his capacity for leadership which commanded the loyalty of mercenary troops, and his development of the Hellenistic system of combining infantry with cavalry to outflank and annihilate the enemy.

  • Napoleon Bonaparte gives Hannibal the highest praise as a commander.

  • His later career shows he was not just a soldier; he was also a statesman and a diplomat.

- Legacy




  • During his life and immediately after his death he was feared as a “bogeyman” by the Romans.

  • By the first century AD he was treated with scorn and irony. Seen by Rome as a war criminal who used subterfuge and underhand tactics during war.

  • The fear of Carthage had somewhat receded by the time of Augustus who developed a new city on the ruins of Carthage.

  • Throughout the ages there have been numerous artworks and plays about the Punic leader.

  • Generally been typecast as the epic hero who met a tragic end and his name will forever be associated with elephants.

- Ancient and modern images and interpretations




  • Livy depicts Hannibal as power hungry, imperialistic, wanting to destroy Rome, a manic ogre.

  • Polybius is more detached and historical, less biased and more balanced. However wanted to depict Hannibal as manoeuvering Carthage into war with Rome based on Hannibal’s personal vendetta against Rome.

  • Livy goes to length to demonize Hannibal, playing on the sympathies of his Roman readers.

  • Polybius describes Hannibal as a true leader who worked and fought with his men, sharing the dangers and labour.

  • The purposes and influences working on Livy and Polybius differ. This dual image of Hannibal continues throughout the ages.

  • Modern writers and scholars have, on closer examination and with the example of Napoleon to compare with, marveled at the ingenuity and capabilities of Hannibal.

  • Hannibal recognised as an early “international hero”.

  • Goldsworthy sums up Hannibal nicely. He says the true character of Hannibal eludes us, due to the nature of the sources. We can say a lot about his deeds, but nothing with any certainty about what sort of man he was. Much as we try to understand Hannibal, he will always remain an enigma.


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