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Hannibal, Carthaginian Military Leader

October 27, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
As a young boy, Hannibal Barca swore to his father that the Roman Republic would be his lifelong enemy. The fierce Carthaginian general never broke that oath, and is remembered as a military genius for his innovative strategies.

Hannibal’s Rise to Power

The Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire (also known as Carthage) of North Africa were both eager to expand their boundaries in the 3rd century B.C. Conflict between the two empires seemed inevitable, and in 264 B.C., the First Punic War erupted, lasting for 23 years. The Carthaginians lost and the Roman Republic took control of Sicily Island.

Wanting to avenge his country, Hamilcar Barca, a respected Carthaginian general, sought to expand his country beyond North Africa and establish a base in Hispania. He agreed to take his eldest son, Hannibal Barca, who was born around 247 B.C., along with him.

But the young Hannibal had to agree to one condition: According to legend, he had “to swear that he would make the Roman Republic his enemy for life,” Vickie Chao writes for “Hannibal, who was only about nine years old at the time, took the oath and never broke it.”

When Hamilcar was killed around 229 B.C., Hasdrubal, his son-in-law, took over as leader. Under the command of Hasdrubal, Hannibal gained notoriety as a young officer in Spain.  

When Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221 B.C., the army proclaimed Hannibal commander in chief and the Carthaginian senate ratified his appointment. Just 26 years old, Hannibal set out to consolidate his power in Spain and provoke the Romans in the process. He married a Spanish princess, Imilce, and attacked several Spanish cities, including Saguntum, an ally of Rome on the Ebro River. After an eight-month siege, the Romans declared war in 218 B.C., launching the Second Punic War.

Hannibal as Carthaginian General

Hannibal spent the winter in Cartagena making preparations for war against the Romans. Rome had several advantages that the Carthaginians did not. As Boise State University explains, one of Rome’s strengths was the great number of alliances the empire held throughout Italy, but many of those allies were unhappy with the treatment they received from Rome.

Hannibal knew that his army was too small to defeat Rome on its own, but he reasoned that the Italian allies were so unhappy under Roman rule that, should he win a few early victories, they would desert Rome and join him.

Rome also had superior fighting ships—and more of them than the Carthaginian army. Attacking Rome by sea would be a mistake, in Hannibal’s eyes. “In a master stroke of military strategy that was as unconventional as it was daring, Hannibal made the courageous and outrageous decision to cross the mighty Alps with his invasion force, choosing to attack Rome by land rather than by sea,” Social Studies for Kids explains.

In the spring of 218 B.C., Hannibal left Spain and crossed the Pyrenees Mountains with his army and a number of war elephants. Though he suffered great losses, Hannibal reached the Rhone River in Gaul (now known as France) and recruited thousands of Gauls to fight with his army. Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio, meanwhile, was caught off guard and realized too late that Hannibal was planning to cross the Alps; he returned to northern Italy to meet him there.

In 15 days he marched through rugged, unknown mountain passes, with his enormous army of diverse origin and language and his 38 war elephants, in the midst of enemy attacks, landslides, and early autumn snow—a heroic feat which has captured the imagination of historians and poets alike,” Encyclopedia of World Biography explains.

Greek historian Polybius and Roman historian Titus Livius (or Livy) provided accounts of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps.

When Hannibal arrived in Italy’s Po Valley, he soundly defeated Scipio’s army. Other victories would follow at Lake Trasimenus, Apulia and Campania, culminating in one of the worst losses Rome had ever suffered at Cannae. Once again, Hannibal’s tactics of outflanking and ambushing the enemy proved superior to Rome’s greater numbers.

For several years, Hannibal held ground in Italy. In 203 B.C., however, he was called back to Carthage to defend his homeland against the army of Publius Cornelius Scipio the Elder (Scipio Africanus Major). At the Battle of Zama, Hannibal was finally defeated.

After the war, Hannibal was made a suffete (civil magistrate) and made changes in the government that angered some of the Carthaginian nobility. He fled to Ephesus, and then was sent to command a naval fleet against the Romans but was defeated at Pamphylia. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romans demanded that Hannibal be surrendered and he fled again, eventually poisoning himself in Libyssa, probably around 183 B.C.

Hannibal’s Legacy

Although much has been written about Hannibal’s epic battle against Rome—particularly his treacherous crossing of the Alps—the exact location of his route through the Alps remains unknown.

“Most historical questions don't have this aura of mystery and legend,” Stanford archaeologist Patrick Hunt told Ulrich Boser of Archaeology Magazine in 2007. Hunt has been hiking the Alpine passes of France, Italy and Switzerland since 1996, and believes that the Col de Clapier Pass may have been Hannibal's route.

Hunt isn’t the only one who thinks the Clapier Pass may be the one: In 1959, John Hoyte, an Oxford engineering student, borrowed an elephant named Jumbo from the Turin zoo and set out to prove that the pass was indeed Hannibal’s route. “At week's end Hoyte's progress corresponded roughly to Hannibal's timetable,” a 1959 Time Magazine article declared.

Geomorphologist William Mahaney and his team have studied three routes that may be possibilities. Based on accounts from Polybius and Livy, who described a “two-tier rockfall,” Mahaney’s team believes that the Col de la Traversette was Hannibal’s route. In many ways, “this location meets the criteria outlined by Livy and Polybius,” the team concluded.

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