Downer, Bergen, Ibrahim
Latin II, English 10, World History T/TH
18 October, 2010
Hannibal: The Best Thing to Ever Happen To Rome
Historians agree that Hannibal was Rome’s greatest enemy, but in actuality he was also one of its best influences, pushing it to become an international superpower. Hannibal Barca, son of Hamilcar Barca, was the champion of Carthage, and the terror of the Roman Republic. His father and the people of Carthage trained him to become the greatest enemy Rome would ever meet. Nearly undefeated on the battlefield, his genius military strategies delivered him decisive victories that would resound through the annals of history. In fact, his tactics were so terrifyingly effective that the Romans themselves adopted them, and Scipio Africanus used Hannibal’s very own formation to ultimately defeat him and end the Second Punic War at Zama. Because Carthage was the only real threat to Rome, by defeating Hannibal, Rome was able to become the Mediterranean superpower we study today. And Hannibal’s memory lived on in the streets and homes of Rome itself, manifesting itself in the speeches of senators, or the scolding of Roman mothers. Universally feared, but equally respected, Hannibal was the influence that turned Rome into a superpower.
From his birth in 248 BC, Hannibal was raised to destroy Rome. His father, Hamilcar Barca, the chief Carthaginian general of the First Punic War, bitterly despised the Roman Republic. Hannibal grew up just after the close of the First Punic War. Hamilcar, determined to reestablish Carthage (and his own reputation) set off to Spain to conquer new territories in the name of the empire. He took his young son with him.
Before they departed for Spain, Hamilcar forced Hannibal swear a famous oath: “His father commanded him [Hannibal], at only nine years old, to swear that he would never be a friend to Rome, and try with all his power to one day destroy it” (Prevas 41). Since his childhood, Hannibal received military training and education from his father, and he studied Roman strategy and tactics from the First Punic War. Together with his father (who died in battle) and his brother Hasdrubal, Hannibal subjugated the people of the Iberian Peninsula. Soon, Carthage controlled all of Spain. Rome observed Carthaginian progress warily, and finally sent an emissary to Hasdrubal, commander of the Carthaginian army, with an offer: Rome would not expand south of the Ebro River as long as Carthage would not expand north. For several years, all went smoothly, and Carthage continued to steadily consolidate its Iberian interests. However, in 221 BC, Hasdrubal was assassinated, and Hannibal took charge of the Carthaginian army.
Hannibal called the assassination a breach of the treaty, and marched on the Roman town of Saguntum with the support of the people and government of Carthage (Polybius 70). The siege lasted only eight months. From there, Hannibal famously marched with his elephants all the way from Spain through Gaul to Italy, and across the Alps. In 218 BC, Hannibal finally engaged the Roman army in the Battle of Trebia, the first real battle of the Second Punic War. Hannibal tricked the Roman army using signal fires, and pushed the Roman legions into a river. He showed no mercy at the Battle of Trebia, where “…he [Hannibal] ordered that none of the Romans be left alive; they were pushed all the way into the river, where the remainder of them drowned. From then on, rumor spread of Hannibal’s military genius, as well as his brutality” (Cotrell 62). After Trebia, Hannibal moved south, and again tricked the Romans, achieving an easy victory at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC. Hannibal surrounded the Romans and forced them into the nearby lake, where many drowned.
Hannibal had a unique strategy which he employed effectively, but often, against the Romans. The Carthaginian army would form up in a crescent, and then slowly envelope the Romans. Over time, the Romans learned many effective battle techniques from Hannibal that they would later employ against him.
In 216, Rome suffered the greatest defeat in its entire history at the Battle of Cannae. Growing increasingly terrified of Hannibal, Rome sent both of its consuls Paullus and Varro with a huge army of 100,00 men in an unprecedented maneuver to the field of Cannae. The Romans hoped that sheer numbers could overwhelm the smaller Carthaginian army of 35,000. Paullus did not want to fight Hannibal; he felt that Hannibal could only be defeated through attrition. However, Varro was a more traditional Roman commander and wanted to face Hannibal head-on. So the two consuls decided to alternate command of the legions daily. One day while the army was in his control, Varro decided to engage Hannibal (Polybius 74). Forced into action, Paullus had no choice but to cooperate.
The Roman army took its traditional legion formation, which liked to push forward and break through the enemy line. However, Hannibal decided to arrange his troops in an unusual manner: a crescent. As the legion pushed forward, the Carthaginian line simply started to bend around the Romans ever so gradually. Finally, when it was too late, the Romans realized they were completely encircled; there would be no escape that day. Hannibal clearly showed his prowess as a general and “…was able to not only defeat, but annihilate, the Roman force of 100,00 men with his smaller force of only 35,000” (Lazenby 77). Of the massive Roman army that arrived at Cannae, 70,000 were killed. Cotrell wrote that “Hannibal’s strategy at Cannae was like an atom bomb, and later Scipio Africanus would come to use it to his own advantage” (142). Ironically, Paullus was killed and Varro managed to escape back to Rome.
Hannibal continued to defeat the Romans in every military encounter, and occupied Italy for about fifteen years. Because he was unable to receive reinforcements, he was never able to march on Rome. Hannibal rampaged around the countryside in Campania (southern Italy), but he was beginning to be harassed by the Roman commander Fabius. When he heard that Carthage itself was under attack in 203 BC, Hannibal retreated completely from Italy (Polybius 82). The new Roman general Scipio Africanus “…adopted the Carthaginian formation among his legions at Zama, and… using his own tactics against him, Scipio defeated Hannibal decisively” (Carey, 116-117). Hannibal’s tactics were so brilliant that the Romans inevitably adopted them and used them against him. So even though Hannibal crushed the Romans in most of the battles of the Second Punic War, he inadvertently taught them effective strategies that made them invincible on the battlefield. After the Battle of Zama and the defeat of Hannibal, Rome imposed grueling terms for a peace treaty from which Carthage would never fully recover.
With Carthage (and Hannibal) out of the way, Rome was able to dominate the rest of the Mediterranean and become the superpower that would conquer the rest of the known world. Before the fall of Hannibal at Zama, Carthage was the greatest empire in the Mediterranean. But after the Second Punic War, Carthage could no longer maintain its power, and Rome replaced it. If Rome had never overcome Hannibal, Carthage would likely have swallowed it up. The Second Punic War “…was far more than just the second round in the struggle with Carthage- it was, rather, the crucial stage in Rome’s rise to dominion over the Mediterranean world” (Lazenby 233). Without the obstacle of Hannibal, Rome might not have developed the strength it need to become a dominant world power.
With the defeat of Carthage after the Second Punic War, Rome quickly began to expand, having seized all previously Carthaginian lands and territories outside of Africa. During this period, “…the Roman Republic had already begun to transform into what would become the greatest empire in history… Carthage was erased from the map” (Prevas 218). Rome had become an unstoppable force, rolling through the ancient world like a mighty boulder; no one could halt its progress now that Hannibal was out of power. When Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal and caused the complete collapse of Carthaginian dominance, “…the Battle of Zama brought about the beginning of a new world order- one in which the Roman Republic ruled over all” (Cottrell 239). Because Carthage was effectively eliminated as Rome’s greatest rival, Rome could freely expand and dominate the world around it. The balance of power in the ancient world had finally shifted.
Before Hannibal challenged Rome to rise to the occasion, it was simply a relatively unknown city-state on the Italian peninsula. But after the Second Punic War specifically, Rome flourished into a mighty Republic: “The legacy of the Punic Wars is that they transformed Roman civilization forever” (Carey 163). Because Carthage was no longer strong enough to check Rome’s power, Rome expanded and grew so dominant that it came to control the entire Mediterranean seaboard. In fact, once Carthage fell, Rome was free to conquer the rest of the known world with little true resistance.
After the Battle of Zama, Hannibal spent some time as a statesman, and became the chief magistrate of Carthage. He enacted reforms so successful that soon Rome feared Carthage would recover and come back to destroy the Republic. So, the Roman Senate demanded that Carthage surrender Hannibal. Instead, Hannibal chose exile, and he spent the remainder of his life advising anti-Roman kings in Asia Minor (Polybius 85). He took his own life in 183 BC when he heard rumors that Roman assassins were coming to kill him.
Even after his death in 183 BC, Hannibal still haunted Roman culture. Allusions to the Carthaginian warlord appeared frequently in Roman society: “Hannibal was dead. Yet for centuries afterward, whenever the Roman Senate was threatened, or in a less heroic sense, when matrons wished to quiet their rebellious children, the cry would go up, ‘Hannibal ad portas! – Hannibal at the gates!” (Cottrell 246). Hannibal developed into an almost supernatural figure in Roman history, a boogeyman ready to spring back from the grave at any time. For centuries after his death, memories (or more likely, nightmares) of Hannibal still strongly influenced Rome, and helped Rome develop its trademark sense of paranoia towards ‘the outsider’.
Hannibal was bred to hate Rome. His passion led him to defeat Rome in almost every battle, but he introduced many new strategies to the Romans, which they effectively used against him. Using Hannibal’s own strategies against him, Scipio Africanus vanquished Hannibal at the Battle of Zama and conquered Carthage. This opened the door for Rome to become a dominant superpower in the ancient world. After his death, Hannibal remained an ever-present and powerful influence in Roman society for many centuries. Hannibal was considered Rome’s greatest enemy, but he was also the catalyst that propelled Rome to become the most dominant super power the world has ever seen.
Lazenby, J.F. Hannibal’s War. University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
Prevas, John. Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion Of Italy and the Second Punic War. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Cottrell, Leonard. Hannibal: Enemy of Rome. London: Evans Brothers Publishing, 1960.
Carey, Brian Todd. Hannibal’s Last Battle. Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2008.
Polybius. Histories, Volume 2. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. translator. London, New York. Macmillan. 1889. Reprint Bloomington 1962. Perseus Database, 11/7/10