Hannibal: Rome's greatest enemy

Hannibal was born during the Sicilian War (or first Punic War). While Carthage withdraws from Rome, his father, Hamilcar Barca, is appointed head of the Carthaginian armed forces.

He managed to reverse the course of the war, but, after a naval defeat, the senators of Carthage decided, against all logic, to stop the hostilities.


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Undefeated in the field, Hamilcar considered the senators' decision a betrayal and resigned as head of the army.

The defeat led to the Mercenary Revolt that threatened Bizerte, Utica and Carthage.

But with the withdrawal of Hamilcar at the head of a small army of citizens, often fighting 1 against 10, Carthage managed to change the situation in its favor.

The rioters are definitely eliminated in the "Parade of the Saw" (El Monchar?).

While Carthage was greatly weakened as a result of this terrible conflict, Rome took the opportunity to declare war on it.

Exhausted, the Punic metropolis had to accept all the conditions imposed by the Romans: the annexation of Sardinia and Corsica, in addition to the increased damage from the war.

Aware of the extreme danger in which Rome kept Carthage, Hamilcar abandons all political pretensions, even within his reach, and begins the execution of a plan aimed at returning to the Republic all the power and wealth lost.

The leader

He negotiated with the conservatives a military reform that gave the army the choice of its leader, and then, at the head of the army, he set out in 237 to conquer the rich Iberian Peninsula.

On his death in 228, Hamilcar left a powerful and rich Punic Iberian state. Thanks to him, Carthage compensated its lost territories and developed its commercial circuit.

In addition, Iberia provided him with significant agricultural and mining wealth.

Hamilcar's successor and son-in-law, Hasdrubal Le Beau, continued the expansion of the Iberian-Punic state to the north and in 227 founded a new capital, Cartago La Nueva (today Cartagena).

In the year 226, Hasdrubal negotiates with Rome -which is concerned about the power recovered from its enemy- a treaty that limits the Carthaginian area of influence to the river Ebro (Ebro, which gave its name to the Iberians).

Hasdrubal was killed in 221. The army then chose Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, commander in chief of the Carthaginian forces. He was 26 years old.

As Livy Titus relates in a famous text, Hannibal knew how to obey and order and therefore was the favorite of officers and soldiers alike.

Cultivated, polyglot, frugal, tireless, he was worshipped by his men who were faithful to him throughout his term of office.

To consecrate the Iberian-Punic character of the State, he married a Spanish princess, Imilce, from Castulo, now Linares, thus achieving, in an Alexandrian gesture, the fusion of the two peoples.

Hannibal's tactical genius became evident as soon as he took command.

The first example that has been communicated to us is that of his tactic used during the Battle of the Tagus, in which he optimized the use of the land to destructure the opponent and, from then on, launched all his attacking force.

Hannibal, still revered by the world's greatest military, is the inventor of the most brilliant military tactics in history.

His army included special bodies such as the "Comandos" led by his brother Magon, or the Corps of Engineers, the Communications Corps and a famous Intelligence Corps, "had spies as far as the Senate of Rome" reported the Ancients.

Its staff included generals from all countries allied with Carthage, from Libya to Spain.

As for their soldiers, they came from all the countries of the western Mediterranean. They were not mercenaries but soldiers from countries allied with Carthage.

Adapted to today's weapons, their tactics are still studied in the most prestigious military schools in the world. They are used in most major conflicts (here).

In 218, Rome, concerned about the recovered power of Carthage, used a false pretext and declared war on it.

While the Romans were preparing two expeditionary forces, one destined for Spain and the other for Carthage, Hannibal positioned his forces in all the territories under his authority, prepared the attack on Sicily from Carthage, launched a formidable war propaganda and prepared a great march from Cartagena in Spain to Italy.

Its objective is clearly defined: to break the Roman military force, to restore the freedom of the Italic peoples and to obtain the restitution of the Carthaginian territories of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.

At the head of an army of 110,000 men, he left Cartagena, crossed the Ebro, the Pyrenees, the Rhone and finally the Alps, which were thought to be impassable. For this feat, even before fighting, Hannibal became part of the legend.

The choice of the Alps is judicious: the surprise is total, the army has the possibility to rest and finally, the plain of the Po is populated by Gauls subdued by Rome. Come in Hannibal a liberator...

Hannibal takes Turin in October and, a month later, inflicts on Rome a first defeat in Ticino. A few days later, the battle of Trebbie (December 24th) gives him control of the Po Valley.

Hannibal then crossed the Apennines and inflicted a third great defeat on Rome at Lake Trasimeno (March 21, 217).

Hannibal was then 150 km from Rome and the submissive Italic peoples, who saw in him a liberator, began to rise against Rome.

Fabius Maximus and the time strategy

Rome is in a state of panic, the revolution is rumbling even within its walls. The most extreme solutions are being applied.

25 revolutionaries are executed, calls for denunciation are multiplied. Fabio Máximo is named dictator.

He demolished all the bridges that could have led Hannibal to Rome, reinforced the walls, raised 17 new legions (255,000 men) and radically changed Rome's war strategy, which from then on could be summarized in three directives.

Absolute prohibition of confronting Hannibal. - To attack, in his absence, the cities that had promised him loyalty. - To prevent, at all costs, that he receives reinforcements.

This is the famous strategy of "temporization" that gave Fabius Maximus his nickname, "Cunctator".

To avoid a Carthaginian landing, the Roman navy occupied all Italian ports; and to prevent his brothers, who had remained in Spain, from sending troops to him, the Ebro was enclosed.

Fabio's strategy seriously challenged the objectives of Hannibal, who then simulated some military setbacks to manipulate the Senate of Rome and push it to abandon "temporalization" and adopt warlike measures.

Finally, he went to Cannae, in Puglia, where he seized the wheat reserves of the Roman army.
Humiliated, the Senate dismissed Fabius and his "cowardly" strategy and formed a new army of 8 legions (120,000 men) that launched all against Hannibal alone.

The Battle of Cannae

In Cannae (August 216), using the ingenious tactic of "erasing the center", Hannibal eliminated the Roman legions, thus proving Fabius Maximus Cunctator and his theory of refusing to fight...

In less than two years, between 25 and 30% of Italians fit to carry weapons had died.

That is more than enough to admit defeat. But Rome rejects the armistice. Hannibal's officers wanted to incite him to take Rome, but he refrained from attacking a city whose soldiers had all fallen in Cannes, a city populated by women, children and the elderly: "I did not come to Italy to wage a war of extermination, I came for the dignity and sovereignty of Carthage," he said, quoted by Titus Livius.

After Cannae

In 215, giving in to popular pressure, the Senate of Carthage decided to send reinforcements to Italy.

But the setbacks in Spain diverted these reinforcements, leading us to wonder about the intentions of a Carthage that was more interested in defending its possessions in Spain than in helping Hannibal achieve his victory already achieved in Italy.

Faced with the manifest ill will of Carthage, and having a small force that he cannot disperse without danger, Hannibal travels to Italy to try to defend the great cities that have promised him their loyalty.

In vain because Rome, as soon as she turns her back, takes the opportunity to attack her allies.

Thus fell the great Capua, the true economic capital of Italy and the prestigious Syracuse, defended by the fantastic inventions of Archimedes.

Its inhabitants are massacred to dissuade other cities from allying with Hannibal, who nevertheless manages to trap and crush several Roman armies in many other battles, but Rome will never again question his strategy of delay.


In the year 209, a ray of hope came from the Spanish front: the Carthaginian armies destroyed the Roman armies and killed their leaders, the Scipio brothers. The lock of the Ebro was opened!

Hannibal's brothers will be able to send reinforcements. But Rome, aware of the danger, sends new forces across the Ebro led by Cornelius Scipio, son and nephew of the generals killed in Spain, to close the Ebro and prevent the reinforcements from leaving for Italy.

But twice, Scipio will fail in his mission.

In 207, Hasdrubal bypassed Scipio's forces and led his troops into Italy.

But after he crosses the Alps and before he manages to join his brother, his army is destroyed, in the river Metaure, by two Roman armies.

Hannibal, then ordered his last brother, Magon, to join him. It is a decision that endangers the Punic presence in Spain. Carthage will not forgive him.

To avoid the Ebro lock, where Scipio is now mobilizing all his forces, Magon chooses to arrive in Italy by a maritime expedition. He gathers his army in Menorca, in the Balearic Islands.

Scipio is panicking. For him, a second failure would mean an early end to his career.

In an attempt to retain Magon, he moves to Siga (Numidia) to reactivate the alliance with Syphax against Carthage and divert Magon's army to Africa. But Scipio fails to secure Syphax's alliance.

However, in Siga, Scipio had an unexpected encounter with Hasdrubal Giscon, general of the 3rd Carthaginian Army of Spain on his way to Carthage.

According to several sources, Giscone and Scipio had long discussions marked by a strange, rather untimely intimacy between two enemy generals.

Was Scipio then informed of the execrable relationship between Hannibal and Carthage and did he devise a plan to exploit these dissensions to win the war?

We can speculate, especially since everything that will happen after the Siga meeting will confirm these hypotheses.

While Spain was emptied of its armies by the departure of Hasdrubal and then Magon, Scipio goes to Rome where he presents himself as the "conqueror of Iberia".

The Roman people, humiliated for years, welcome him as a hero, but in the Senate, the reception is much more mixed and he is denied the victory for the conquest of Spain because Scipio failed in his main mission which is to prevent the reinforcements of Spain to Italy.

Scipio asks the Senate for an army with which he plans to confront Carthage in its territory.

The Senate, which is in favor of methodical warfare, rejects it because it considers that first it is necessary to defeat Hannibal, who occupies the South, and Magon, who occupies the North.

Scipio insists and makes the Senate believe that the end of the war is imminent, before the double offensive of Hannibal and Magon.

A compromise is then reached: Rome will not deprive itself of any of its soldiers or ships and will not finance Scipio's expedition, but the Senate appoints him proconsul of Sicily.

There, he will manage to find money, build a fleet, gather an army and take it to Africa.

While Hannibal and Magon prepare to join their armies, Scipio hastily gathers an unprofessional army and lands in Tunis.

There he wins two small victories and strangely enough, Carthage decides to stop the war and signs an armistice. This is how the Second Punic War ends, with a fish tail.

Hannibal, on his return from Italy, stigmatized the betrayal of the Carthaginian senators: "[here I am] defeated, not by the Roman people, whom I have so often torn to pieces and made flee, but by the Carthaginian Senate, an instrument of slander and envy.

The shame of my return will give less joy and pride to Scipio than to this Hannon, who was not afraid to sacrifice Carthage for lack of another revenge in order to massacre our family. (quoted by Titus Livius)

Zama, a Polybius invention?

Of all the writings related to the "Hannibal War", the only text that has reached us is that of the official historian of Rome, Polybius.

In the service of his master Scipio Emiliano, who destroyed Carthage half a century after the Second Punic War, Polybius rewrote the history of war, invented a new declaration of war and a defeat of Hannibal.

With the intention of counteracting, in the minds, the immense defeat of Cannes and thus try to erase a little the humiliation that Hannibal made suffer to Rome.

This rewriting had other objectives: to increase the prestige of Scipio's family and justify the terrible genocide in Carthage.

But this polybial version of history is today highly questioned by inescapable archaeological and historical arguments.

Hannibal remained at the head of the army and then became president of the Republic, while Scipio was accused of corruption by a peace treaty.

Even more obvious: according to the peace treaty reported by Polybius, Carthage could no longer have a military navy, but archaeological research has shown that the famous military port of Carthage, with a capacity of 220 ships, was built after the war, proving that Carthage maintained all its military capacity and even developed it.

However, this fundamentally calls into question the end of the war reported by Polybius, who speaks of a crushing victory for Rome.

Almost 7 years after the war (196), Hannibal was elected President of the Republic. The presidential mandate in Carthage, although limited to one year, was enough to fight corruption, turn around the economy of Carthage and ensure its invulnerability.

Hannibal in the East

In 195, Hannibal left for the East, not as a fugitive, as Polybius wanted to count, but to ally with the most powerful enemy of Rome, the king Antiochus III, and to prepare with him a double offensive on Italy.

But King Seleucid will not listen to Hannibal's advice and will eventually lose the war. Hannibal, during this conflict, will command a fleet with verve.

In 191, he went to Crete where he tried to gather an expeditionary force to attack Italy through Carthage, but the Punic leaders, committed to Rome during Hannibal's absence, rejected the project.

Hannibal, constructor

In 189, Hannibal moved to Armenia, where he advised King Artaxias, whom he had met in the retinue of Antioch. He would be his town planner for the construction of his new capital Artaxata (today Artashat).

Finally, in 187, he joined the kingdom of Bythinia, led by Prusias, for which Hannibal fought at sea and won against the powerful Eumene II of Pergamon, an ally of Rome.

Hannibal will build for Prusias his new capital, Brousse, which will become much later the capital of the Ottomans.

Hannibal, writer

It is in this last asylum that Hannibal will end his days. He will write two books to warn the Greeks of the coming loss of their independence, a "Letter to the Athenians" and a "Letter to the Rhodians".

Hannibal's Death

But as long as Hannibal is alive, Rome does not feel safe. An ambassador, Flamininus, is sent to Prussian (some say it was Prussian's son who betrayed him) to ask for Hannibal's head.

One day in 183 B.C., Hannibal discovers that all the exits, even the most secret ones, from his palace are guarded by Romans.

So he makes the last gesture in his power and poisons himself, preferring freedom to life.

Roman disinformation

Hannibal's story will be misinformed by a Rome unwilling to let this symbol of resistance and freedom flourish.

Thus, the Roman authors, obscuring their political message, transmitted only their tactical genius.

But in recent decades a new and much more powerful image of Hannibal has emerged from historical research.

The destruction of Carthage, prelude to the Roman Empire

If destiny finally consecrated the Roman victory, it was not because Rome heroically resisted the steamroller Barca.

But rather because the Carthaginian government had freed itself from a conflict of which it did not measure the extent, and because Hannibal was too committed to humanism to turn his struggle into a war of extermination.

Rome did not have the same scruples. Half a century later, it ended up sacking Carthage and then partly achieved the Carthaginians' goal: the unity of the Mediterranean.

But this Pax Romana was achieved at the expense of freedom and diversity; Rome razed other civilizations to the ground by imposing a standardization whose effects were humanly, culturally and politically devastating.

Hannibal's story teaches us that freedom is not negotiable. His struggle remains, because the world we live in today still depends on that imperialism that the Carthaginian fought all his life, but finally triumphed over him for lack of allies with the foresight to understand that it was the struggle of all.

In short, twenty-two centuries later, humanity is still at the same point.

Hannibal: Key dates

August 2, 216 B.C.: Hannibal's victory over the Romans in Cannes

The Carthaginian general Hannibal, great strategist, obtains a crushing victory over the Romans of Varron and Paul Emile, in Cannes, Puglia (south of Italy).

It was one of the biggest defeats of the Romans: more than 50,000 of them died and almost 10,000 were taken prisoner.

This victory was added to the one he had won the previous year at Lake Trasimeno. These two events will lead several cities, such as Capua, Syracuse or Taranto, to break their alliance with Rome.

Despite this, the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) will end with the defeat of Hannibal in 202 B.C. Hannibal went into exile and then poisoned himself to escape the Romans in 183 BC.

October 19, 202 B.C.: End of the Second Punic War

After having crushed the Carthaginians in Spain, the Roman general Scipio landed in North Africa in 204 B.C., to crush the Carthaginians.

Meanwhile, Hannibal continued to advance in Italy, not finding the opportunity to crush Rome. In difficulty, Carthage finally called his general for help.

Hannibal immediately returned to his homeland to defend it, but he ran into the Numidian king, Massinissa, who was allied with Scipio.

In 202 B.C., Hannibal suffered a crushing defeat against enemy forces in Zama. Carthage was forced to cede Spain and the islands of the Mediterranean and pay a heavy compensation to Rome.

On his return, Scipio will take the nickname "Scipio the African".

Content (Click to view)
  1. The leader
  2. Fabius Maximus and the time strategy
  3. The Battle of Cannae
  4. After Cannae
  5. Scipio
  6. Zama, a Polybius invention?
  7. Hannibal remained at the head of the army and then became president of the Republic, while Scipio was accused of corruption by a peace treaty.
  8. Hannibal in the East
  9. Hannibal, constructor
  10. Hannibal, writer
  11. Hannibal's Death
  12. Roman disinformation
  13. The destruction of Carthage, prelude to the Roman Empire
  14. Hannibal: Key dates
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