Hannibal Barca

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Hannibal Barca i
247 BC – 183 BC

This Roman marble bust of Hannibal was found at Capua (Museo Nazionale, Naples) and was apparently made in his honour during Hannibal's own lifetime.
Allegiance Carthaginian Empire
Rank General, commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian armies
Battles/wars Second Punic War: Battle of Lake Trasimene, Battle of Trebia, Battle of Cannae, Battle of Zama

Hannibal Barca ( 247 BC – c. 183 BC; sometimes referred to as Hǎnnibal Barca) was a Punic military commander and politician, later also working in other professions, who is popularly credited as one of the finest commanders in history. He lived in a period of tension in the Mediterranean, when Rome (then the Roman Republic) established its supremacy over other great powers such as Carthage, Macedon, Syracuse and the Seleucid empire. He is one of the best known Carthaginian commanders. His most famous achievement was at the outbreak of the Second Punic War, when he marched an army, which included war elephants, from Iberia over the Pyrenees and the Alps into northern Italy.

During his invasion of Italy he defeated the Romans in a series of battles, including those at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae. After Cannae, the second largest city in Italy, Capua, joined Hannibal through defection from Rome. Hannibal lacked the strength necessary to attack the city of Rome itself. He maintained an army in Italy for more than a decade afterward, never losing a major engagement, but never able to push the war through to a conclusion. During that period of time, the Roman armies regrouped. A Roman counter-invasion of North Africa forced him to return to Carthage, where he was defeated in the Battle of Zama. The defeat forced the Carthaginian Senate to send him into exile. During this exile, he lived at the Seleucid court, where he acted as military advisor to Antiochus III in his war against Rome. Defeated in a naval battle, Hannibal fled again, this time to the Bithynian court. When the Romans demanded his surrender, he preferred to commit suicide rather than submit.

Hannibal is universally ranked as one of the greatest military commanders and tacticians in history. Military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge once famously christened Hannibal the "father of strategy" because his greatest enemy, Rome, came to adopt elements of his military tactics in their strategic canon. This praise has earned him a strong reputation in the modern world and he was regarded as a "gifted strategist" by men like Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington. He has also been the basis for a number of films and documentaries.

Background and early career

Hannibal Barca: a 19th century engraved portrait based on the Capua bust
Hannibal Barca: a 19th century engraved portrait based on the Capua bust

Hannibal Barca ("mercy of Baal") was the son of Hamilcar Barca. 'Barca' was an epithet, meaning " lightning" and not a family name, but it was carried by his sons. Historians refer to the Hamilcar's family as the Barcids to avoid confusion with other Carthaginians of the same name. After Carthage's defeat in the First Punic War, Hamilcar set out to improve his family's and Carthage's fortunes. With that in mind and supported by Gades, Hamilcar began the subjugation of the tribes of the Iberian Peninsula. Carthage at the time was in such a poor state that its navy was unable to transport his army to Iberia ( Hispania); instead, Hamilcar had to march it towards the Pillars of Hercules and ferry it across the Strait of Gilbratrar (present-day Morocco).

According to Livy, Hannibal much later said that when he came upon his father while he was making a sacrifice to the gods before leaving for Hispania, Hannibal, then a boy, begged to go with him. Hamilcar agreed and demanded him to swear that as long as he lived he would never be a friend of Rome. Other sources report that Hannibal told his father, "I swear so soon as age will permit...I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome."

(Some historians consider that Hannibal swore at the altar to Ba'al "never to be a friend to Rome". According to Polybius, that "Barcid Rage" is a mere post-war Roman opinion. Being a friend of Rome could also be a political point of view, advocated by some influential groups in Carthage.)

Hannibal's father went about the conquest of Hispania. 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 north of the Ebro River, so long as Rome did not expand south of it.

Upon the assassination of Hasdrubal ( 221 BC), Hannibal was proclaimed commander-in-chief by the army and confirmed in his appointment by the Carthaginian government. Titus Livy, a Roman scholar, gives a depiction of the young Carthaginian:

Hannibal Barca
No sooner had he arrived...the old soldiers fancied they saw Hamilcar in his youth given back to them; the same bright look; the same fire in his eye, the same trick of countenance and features. Never was one and the same spirit more skillful to meet opposition, to obey, or to command...
Hannibal Barca

After he assumed command, Hannibal spent two years consolidating his holdings and completing the conquest of Hispania south of the Ebro. However, Rome, fearing the growing strength of Hannibal in Iberia, made an alliance with the city of Saguntum which lay a considerable distance south of the River Ebro and claimed the city as its protectorate. Hannibal perceived this as a breach of the treaty signed with Hasdrubal and so he laid siege to the city, which fell after eight months. Rome reacted to this apparent violation of the treaty and demanded justice from Carthage. In view of Hannibal's great popularity, the Carthaginian government did not repudiate Hannibal's actions, and the war he sought was declared at the end of the year. Hannibal was now determined to carry the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Hispania and southern Gaul.

Second Punic War in Italy (218–203 B.C.)

Overland Journey to 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 Academy

Hannibal departed New Carthage in late spring of 218 B.C. He fought his way through the northern tribes to the Pyrenees, subduing the tribes through clever mountain tactics and stubborn fighting. He left a detachment of 11,000 troops to garrison the newly conquered region. At the Pyrenees, he released another 11,000 Iberian troops who showed reluctance to leave their homeland. Hannibal reportedly entered Gaul with 50,000 foot soldiers and 9,000 horsemen.

Hannibal recognized that he still needed to cross the Pyrenees, the Alps, and many significant rivers. Additionally, he would have to contend with opposition from the Gauls, whose territory he passed through. 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 along his passage, reached the Rhône River before the Romans could take any measures to bar his advance. Arriving at the Rhône in September, Hannibal's army numbered 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and thirty-seven war elephants.

After outmaneuvering the natives, who had tried to prevent his crossing, Hannibal evaded a Roman force sent to operate against him in Gaul. He then proceeded up the valley of one of the tributaries of the Rhône River and by autumn arrived at the foot of the Alps. His passage over the Alps is one of the most celebrated achievements of any military force in ancient warfare. Hannibal successfully crossed the mountains, despite numerous obstacles such as harsh climate and terrain, the guerrilla tactics of the native tribes, and the challenge of commanding an army diverse in race and language. He descended from the foothills and arrived into northern Italy, but accompanied by only half the forces he had started with, and only a few elephants. From the start he seems to have calculated that he would have to operate without aid from Hispania. Historian Adrian Goldsworthy, however, points out that the figures for the number of troops he had when he left Hispania are less than reliable.

Battle of Trebia

Hannibal's perilous march brought him into the 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.

A diagram depicting the tactics used in the Battle of Trebbia
A diagram depicting the tactics used in the Battle of Trebbia

Publius Cornelius Scipio, the consul who commanded the Roman force sent to intercept Hannibal, had not expected Hannibal to make an attempt to cross the Alps, since the Romans were prepared to fight the war in Iberia. With a small detachment still positioned in Gaul, Scipio made an attempt to intercept Hannibal. Through prompt decision and speedy movement, he succeeded in transporting his army to Italy by sea, in time to meet Hannibal. After 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). While moving down the Po Valley, the opposing forces were engaged in a small confrontation at Ticinus. Here, Hannibal forced the Romans, by virtue of his superior cavalry, to evacuate the plain of Lombardy. This victory, though essentially a minor engagement, did much to weaken Roman control over the Gauls. As a result of Rome’s defeat at Ticinus, the Gauls were encouraged to join the Carthaginian cause. Soon the entirety of northern Italy was unofficially allied, both Gallic and Ligurian troops soon bolstering his army back to 40,000 men. Hannibal’s army, significantly supplemented, now stood poised to invade Italy. Scipio, severely injured in the battle, retreated across the River Trebia with his army still intact, and encamped at the town of Placentia to await reinforcements.

The other Roman consular army was rushed to the Po Valley. Even before news of the defeat at Ticinus had reached Rome, the senate had ordered the consul Sempronius Longus to bring his army back from Sicily to meet Scipio and face Hannibal. Hannibal, by skillful maneuvers, was in position to head him off, for he lay on the direct road between Placentia and Arminum, by which Sempronius would have to march in order to reinforce Scipio. He then captured Clastidium, from which he drew large amounts of rations for his men. But this gain was not without its loss, as Sempronius avoided Hannibal's watchfulness, slipped around his flank, and joined his colleague in his camp near the Trebbia River near Placentia. There, in December of the same year, Hannibal had an opportunity to show his superior military skill at Trebia; after wearing down the excellent Roman infantry he cut it to pieces by a surprise attack from an ambush in the flank.

Battle of Lake Trasimene

Having secured his position in northern Italy by this victory, Hannibal quartered his troops for the winter with the Gauls, whose support for him abated. So, in spring 217 BC Hannibal decided to find a more reliable base of operations farther south. Expecting Hannibal to carry on advancing to Rome, Cnaeus Servilius and Gaius Flaminius (the new Consuls of Rome) took their armies to block the Eastern and Western routes Hannibal could use to get to Rome.

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

The only alternate route to central Italy lay at the mouth of the Arno. This route was practically one huge marsh, and happened to be overflowing more than usual during this particular season. Hannibal knew that this route was full of difficulties, but it remained the surest and certainly the quickest route to Central Italy. As Polybius claims for four days and three nights, Hannibal’s men marched “through a route which was under water” suffering terribly from fatigue and enforced want of sleep. He crossed the Apennines (during which he lost his right eye because of conjunctivitis) and the seemingly impassable Arno 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.

Arriving in Eturia in the spring of 217 BC, Hannibal decided to lure the main Roman army under Flaminius into a pitched battle, by devastating under his very own eye the area he had been sent to protect. As Polybius tells us, “he [Hannibal] calculated that, if he passed the camp and made a descent into the district beyond, Flaminius (partly for fear of popular reproach and partly of personal irritation) would be unable to endure watching passively the devastation of the country but would spontaneously follow him . . . and give him opportunities for attack.” At the same time, he tried to break the allegiance of Rome’s allies, by proving that she was powerless to protect them. Despite this, Hannibal found Flaminius still passively encamped at Arretium. Unable to draw Flaminius into battle by mere devastation, Hannibal marched boldly around his opponent’s left flank and effectively cut Flaminius off from Rome (thus executing the first recorded turning movement in military history). Advancing through the uplands of Etruria, Hannibal provoked Flaminius to a hasty pursuit and, catching him in a defile on the shore of Lake Trasimenus, destroyed his army in the waters or on the adjoining slopes while killing Flaminius as well (see Battle of Lake Trasimene). He 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 encouraging a general revolt against the sovereign power. After Lake Trasimeno, Hannibal stated, “I have not come to fight Italians, but on behalf of the Italians against Rome.”

The Romans appointed Fabius Maximus as a dictator. Departing from Roman military traditions, Fabian adopted the Fabian strategy — named after him — of refusing open battle with his opponent while placing several Roman armies in Hannibal’s vicinity to limit his movement.

Hannibal - Silver double shekel, c. 230 BC, The British Museum
Hannibal - Silver double shekel, c. 230 BC, The British Museum

Having ravaged Apulia without provoking Fabius to battle, Hannibal decided to march through Samnium to Campania, one of the richest and most fertile provinces of Italy, hoping that the devastation would draw Fabius into battle. Fabius closely followed Hannibal’s path of destruction, yet still refused to let himself be drawn, and thus remained on the defensive. This strategy was unpopular with many Romans who believed it was a form of cowardice.

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. To avoid this, Hannibal deceived the Romans into thinking that the Carthaginian Army was going to escape through the woods. As the Romans moved off towards the woods, Hannibal's army occupied the pass, and his army made their way 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. What Hannibal achieved in extricating his army was, as Adrian Goldsworthy puts it, "a classic of ancient generalship, finding its way into nearly every historical narrative of the war and being used by later military manuals". This was a severe blow to Fabius’s prestige, and soon after this, his period of power ended.

Battle of Cannae

Destruction of the Roman army, courtesy of The Department of History, United States Military Academy.
Destruction of the Roman army, courtesy of The Department of History, United States Military Academy.
Hannibal counting the rings of the Roman knights killed during the battle, statue by Sébastien Slodzt, 1704, Louvre
Hannibal counting the rings of the Roman knights killed during the battle, statue by Sébastien Slodzt, 1704, Louvre

In the Spring of 216 B.C. Hannibal took the initiative and seized the large supply depot at Cannae in the Apulian plain. By seizing Cannae, Hannibal had placed himself between the Romans and their crucial source of supply. Once the Roman Senate resumed their Consular elections in 216, they appointed Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus as Consuls. In the meantime, the Romans, hoping to gain success through sheer strength in numbers, raised a new army of unprecedented size, estimated by some to be as large as 100,000 men.

The Roman and Allied legions of the Consuls, resolving to confront Hannibal, marched southward to Apulia. They eventually found him on the left bank of the Audifus River, and encamped six miles away. On this occasion, the two armies were combined into one, the Consuls having to alternate their command on a daily basis. The Consul Varro, who was in command on the first day, was a man of reckless and hubristic nature, and was determined to defeat Hannibal. Hannibal capitalized on the eagerness of 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. Hannibal drew up his least reliable infantry in a semicircle in the centre with the wings composed of the Gallic and Numidian horse. The Roman legions forced their way through Hannibal's weak centre but the Libyan Mercenaries in the wings swung around by the movement, menaced their flanks. The onslaught of Hannibal's cavalry was irresistible, and who commanded the left, pushed in the Roman right and then swept across the rear and attacked Varro's cavalry on the Roman left. Then he attacked the legions from behind. As a result, the Roman army was hemmed in with no means of escape.

Due to these brilliant tactics, Hannibal, with much inferior numbers, managed to surround and destroy all but a small remainder of this force. Depending upon the source, it is estimated that 50,000-70,000 Romans were killed or captured at Cannae. Among the dead were the Roman consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus, as well two consuls for the preceding year, two quaestors, twenty-nine out of the forty-eight military tribunes, and an additional eighty senators (at a time when the Roman Senate was comprised of no more than 300 men, this constituted 25%–30% of the governing body). This makes the Battle of Cannae one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of Ancient Rome, and one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history (in terms of the number of lives lost within a single day). After Cannae, the Romans refused to fight Hannibal in pitched battles, aiming instead to defeat him by attrition, relying on their advantages of supply and manpower.

The effect on morale of this victory meant that most of southern Italy joined Hannibal's cause. As Polybius notes, "How much more serious was the defeat of Cannae, than those which preceded it can be seen by the behaviour of Rome’s allies; before that fateful day, their loyalty remained unshaken, now it began to waver for the simple reason that they despaired of Roman Power.". During that same year, the Greek cities in Sicily were induced to revolt against Roman political control, while the Macedonian king, Philip V pledged his support to Hannibal – thus initiating the First Macedonian War against Rome. Hannibal also secured an alliance with newly appointed King Hieronymous of Syracuse. 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. However, only a few of the Italian city-states which he had expected to gain as allies consented to join him.


The war in Italy settled into a strategic stalemate. The Romans utilized the attritional strategies Fabius had taught them, and which, they finally realized, were the only feasible means of defeating Hannibal. The Romans deprived Hannibal of a large-scale battle and instead, assaulted his weakening army with multiple smaller armies in an attempt to both weary him and create unrest in his troops. For the next few years, Hannibal was forced to sustain a scorched earth policy and obtain local provisions for protracted and ineffectual operations throughout Southern Italy. His immediate objectives were reduced to minor operations which centered mainly round the cities of Campania.

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. Hannibal still won a number of notable victories: completely destroying two Roman armies in 212 BC, and at one point, killing two Consuls (which included the famed Marcus Claudius Marcellus) in a battle in 208 BC. Nevertheless, without the resources his allies could contribute, or reinforcements from Carthage, Hannibal could not make further significant gains. Thus, inadequately supported by his Italian allies, abandoned by his government, and unable to match Rome’s resources, Hannibal slowly began losing ground. Hannibal continued defeating the Romans whenever he could bring them into battle, yet he was never able to complete another decisive victory that produced a lasting strategic effect.

End of War in Italy

In 212 BC Hannibal captured Tarentum but he failed to obtain control of the harbour. The tide was slowly turning against him, and in favour of Rome.

The Romans mounted two sieges of Capua, which fell in 211 BC, and the Romans completed their conquest of Syracuse and destruction of a Carthaginian army in Sicily. Shortly thereafter, the Romans pacified Sicily and entered into an alliance with the Aetolian League to counter Phillip V. Philip, who attempted to exploit Rome's preoccupation in Italy to conquer Illyria, now found himself under attack from several sides at once and was quickly subdued by Rome and her Greek allies. Meanwhile, Hannibal had defeated Fulvius at Herdonea in Apulia, but lost Tarentum in the following 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 Barca. On hearing, however, of his brother's defeat and death at the Metaurus he retired into Bruttium, where he maintained himself for the ensuing years. The combination of these events marked the end to Hannibal's success in Italy. With the failure of his brother Mago Barca 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. In 203 BC, after nearly fifteen years of fighting in Italy, and with the military fortunes of Carthage rapidly declining, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage to direct the defense of his native country against a Roman invasion under Scipio Africanus.

Conclusion of Second Punic War (203–201 B.C.)

Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus

Return to Carthage

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 met Scipio in a fruitless peace conference. Despite mutual admiration, negotiations floundered due to Roman allegations of "Punic Faith," referring to the breach of protocols which ended the First Punic War by the Carthaginian attack on Saguntum, as well as perceived breach in contemporary military etiquette (Hannibal's numerous ambuscades). The decisive battle at Zama soon followed.

Battle of Zama

Unlike most battles of the Second Punic War, the Romans had superiority in cavalry and the Carthaginians had superiority in infantry. This Roman cavalry superiority was due to the betrayal of Masinissa, who had earlier assisted Carthage in Iberia, but changed sides in 206 B.C. with the promise of land and due to his personal conflicts with Syphax, a Carthaginian ally. This betrayal gave Scipio Africanus an advantage that had previously been possessed by the Carthaginians. Although the aging Hannibal was suffering from mental exhaustion and deteriorating health after years of campaigning in Italy, the Carthaginians still had the advantage in numbers and were boosted by the presence of 80 war elephants.

Painting of the Battle of Zama by Cornelis Cort, 1567
Painting of the Battle of Zama by Cornelis Cort, 1567

The Roman cavalry won an early victory, and Scipio had devised tactics for defeating Carthaginian war elephants. However, the battle remained closely fought. At one point it seemed that Hannibal was on the verge of victory, but Scipio was able to rally his men, and his cavalry attacked Hannibal's rear. This two-pronged attack caused the Carthaginian formation to disintegrate and collapse. With their foremost general defeated, the Carthaginians had no choice but to accept defeat and surrender to Rome. Carthage lost approximately 31,000 troops with an additional 15,000 wounded. In contrast, the Romans suffered only 1500 casualties. The battle resulted in a loss of respect for Hannibal by his fellow Carthaginians. It marked the last major battle of the Second Punic War, with Rome the victor. The conditions of defeat were such that Carthage could no longer battle for Mediterranean supremacy. However, Hannibal has still been glorified despite this loss due to the fact that Scipio had used Hannibal's tactics to defeat him.

Later career

Peacetime Carthage (200–196 B.C.)

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 Hundred and Four, stipulating that its membership be chosen by direct election rather than co-option. He also used citizen support to change the term of office in the Hundred and Four from life to a year with a term limit of two years.

Exile and death (195–183 B.C.)

Seven years after the victory of Zama, the Romans, alarmed by 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 then 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 to his courtiers and would not entrust Hannibal with any important office.

According to Cicero, while at the court of Antiochus, Hannibal attended a lecture by Phormio, a philosopher, that ranged through many topics. When Phormio finished a discourse on the duties of a general, Hannibal was asked his opinion. He replied: "I have seen during my life many an old fool; but this one beats them all." Another story about Hannibal in exile gives a strange slant to 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 the Roman Republic, to which Hannibal replied, "Yes, enough for the Romans, however greedy they may be." It should be noted that in this situation Hannibal had not been given command of the army, but Antiochus himself had developed the battle plan and was subsequently defeated.

In 190 BC he was placed in command of a Phoenician fleet but was defeated in a battle off the Eurymedon River. According to Strabo and Plutarch, Hannibal also received hospitality at the Armenian court of Artaxias I 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, who was engaged in warfare with Rome's ally, King Eumenes II of Pergamum. Hannibal went on to serve Prusias in this war. In one of the victories he gained over Eumenes at sea, it is said that he used one of the first examples of biological warfare - he threw cauldrons of snakes into the enemy vessels. 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 was 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 at the age of sixty four.

Legacy to the ancient world

Long after his death, his name continued to carry a portent of great or imminent danger within the Roman Republic. It was written that he taught the Romans, who claimed to be fierce descendants of Mars, the meaning of fear. 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 whenever 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 still used when a client arrives through the door or when one is faced with calamity. This illustrates the psychological impact Hannibal's presence in Italy had on Roman Culture.

A grudging admiration for Hannibal is evident in the works of Roman historians such as Livy and Juvenal. The Romans even built statues of the Carthaginian in the very streets of Rome to advertise their defeat of such a worthy adversary. It is plausible to suggest that Hannibal engendered the greatest fear Rome had towards an enemy. Nevetheless, they grimly refused to admit the possibility of defeat and rejected all overtures for peace, and they even refused to accept the ransom of prisoners after Cannae (Livy, The War With Hannibal 22.61).

During the course of the war there were no Roman revolutions, no factions with the Senate that desired peace, no pro-Carthaginian Roman Quislings, no coups or dictatorships ; and Roman aristocrats still ferociously competed with each other for positions of command to fight against Rome's most dangerous enemy. Hannibal's military genius was not enough to really disturb the Roman political process and the collective political and military genius of the Roman people. Rome's attitude towards Hannibal was amply demonstrated when he marched on Rome in 211 and the real estate that his army was encamped on was sold at the very time of its occupation, and for the same price. After Cannae the Romans showed a considerable steadfastness in adversity, but this is not to say that they were at the same time unafraid. After the disaster Rome was left virtually defenseless, but the Senate still chose not to withdraw a single garrison from an overseas province to strengthen the city. In fact, they were reinforced and the campaigns there maintained until victory was secured; beginning first in Sicily under direction of Claudius Marcellus, and later Spain under Scipio Africanus . Although the long-term consequences of Hannibal's war are debatable, this war was undeniably Rome's "finest hour".

Most of the sources available to historians about Hannibal are from Romans. They considered him the greatest enemy Roma 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 is sometimes revealed. When Hannibal's successes had brought about the death of two Roman consuls, he vainly searched for the body of Gaius Flaminius on the shores of Lake Trasimene, held ceremonial rituals in recognition of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, and sent Marcellus' ashes back to his family in Rome. Any bias attributed to Polybius, however, is more troublesome, since he was clearly sympathetic towards Hannibal. Nevertheless, Polybius spent a long period as a hostage in Italy and relied heavily on Roman sources, so there remains the possibility that he was reproducing elements of Roman propaganda.

Legacy to the modern world

The material of legend: in "Snow-storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps", J.M.W. Turner envelopes Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in impressionist atmosphere
The material of legend: in "Snow-storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps", J.M.W. Turner envelopes Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in impressionist atmosphere

Hannibal's name is also commonplace in later art and popular culture, an objective measure of his influence on Western European history. Although his influence should not be mixed up with the Saint Hannibal Mary Di Francia ( external source).

Like other military leaders Hannibal's victories against superior forces in an ultimately losing cause won him enduring fame that outlasted his native country. His crossing of the Alps remains one of the most monumental military feats of ancient warfare and has since captured the imagination of the Western World (romanticized by several artworks and subject to Roman folklore). In many schools in Rome, and even Italy overall, when a child behaves badly, the teacher will say, "Behave well or Hannibal will come and get you". This shows how his legend and fear still goes on today.

TV and film

Some controversy has been stirred up in recent years by an unreleased 20th Century Fox film project titled "Hannibal", starring Denzel Washington in the title role. It is notable that Vin Diesel is also planning his own project, in which he would take the starring role.

Year Film Other notes
2008 Hannibal Upcoming Motion Picture starring Vin Diesel
2006 Hannibal - Rome's Worst Nightmare TV film, starring Alexander Siddig
2005 Hannibal vs. Rome in National Geographic Channel
2004 The Phantom of the Opera The beginning Opera being rehearsed is one about Hannibal so titled Hannibal
2005 The True Story of Hannibal English documentary
2001 Hannibal: The Man Who Hated Rome English documentary
1997 The Great Battles of Hannibal English documentary
1996 Gulliver’s Travels Gulliver summons Hannibal from a magic mirror.
1960 Annibale Italian Motion Picture starring Victor Mature
1955 Jupiter's Darling English Motion Picture starring Howard Keel
1939 Scipio Africanus - the Defeat of Hannibal (Scipione l'africano) Italian Motion Picture
1914 Cabiria Italian Silent film


Novel unless otherwise noted

  • 1300s, Dante's Divine Comedy, poem, Inferno XXXI.97-132, 115-124 ( Battle of Zama) and Paradiso VI
  • 1700s, Gulliver's Travels, satirical work
  • 1862, Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô, set in Carthage at the time of Hamilcar Barca. Hannibal appears as a child.
  • 1996, Elisabeth Craft, A Spy for Hannibal: A Novel of Carthage, 091015533X
  • Ross Leckie, Carthage trilogy, source of the 2006 film (1996, Hannibal: A Novel, ISBN 0-89526-443-9 ; 1999, Scipio, a Novel, ISBN 0-349-11238-X ; Carthage, 2000, ISBN 0-86241-944-1)
  • 2005, Terry McCarthy, The Sword of Hannibal, ISBN 0-446-61517-X
  • 2006, David Anthony Durham, Pride of Carthage: A Novel of Hannibal, ISBN 0-385-72249-4
  • 2006, Angela Render, Forged By Lightning: A Novel of Hannibal and Scipio, ISBN 1-4116-8002-2

Theatre and opera

  • In Berlioz's Les Troyens, he appears in a vision to Dido just before she dies.

Military history

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 Caesar, Robert E. Lee, Erwin Rommel, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Frederick the Great among others. In fact, his exploits (especially his victory at Cannae) continue to be studied in several military academies all over the world.

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

The author of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article praises Hannibal in these words:

Hannibal Barca
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, Iberians 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.
Hannibal Barca

Even his Roman chroniclers acknowledged his military genius, writing that, "he never required others to do what he could and would not do himself". Napoleon Bonaparte regarded Hannibal as a gifted strategist, describing him as "the most audacious of all, probably the most stunning, so hardy, so sure, so great in all things." Alfred Graf von Schlieffen's eponymously-titled " Schlieffen Plan" was developed from his military studies, with particularly heavy emphasis on Hannibal's victory at Cannae. 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".

After his defeat, Hannibal reportedly met Scipio Africanus while in the court of Antiochus: the two commanders conversed amicably and Scipio asked Hannibal his opinion on who the greatest military mind of all time was. Hannibal said, "Alexander the Great". Scipio then asked him who was the second. " Pyrrhus of Epirus", said Hannibal. Scipio asked why he, who defeated Hannibal, was not included. Hannibal replied that this did not change his opinion, except that if Hannibal had defeated Scipio, he would then have ranked himself first, ahead of Alexander.

According to the military historian, Theodore Ayrault Dodge,

Hannibal Barca
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 marched 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. 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 parallel order, and the conqueror had imposed terms on his opponent. Any variation from this rule consisted in ambuscades or other stratagems. 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 . . .[However] 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, harassing 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.
Hannibal Barca
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