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3. Historical Context
and Hannibal

© Bret Mulligan, CC BY 4.0

Early History of Carthage

Legend holds that Carthage was founded around 825 BC by Dido. Dido had fled from the city of Tyre to escape her murderous brother Pygmalion. Archaeological evidence confirms that Phoenician traders from Tyre founded the city of Qart‒adašt—or “New City”, as Carthage was known in its native language—in the second half of the ninth century BC. The settlement of Carthage was part of a centuries‒long pattern of colonization by the Phoenicians in the eastern Mediterranean aimed at dominating the lucrative trade in tin, gold, silver, and copper. Eventually the Phoenicians established over 300 coastal colonies throughout North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania).

By the third century BC, an independent Carthage had grown into one of the more powerful states in the Mediterranean, controlling much of the coast of western North Africa, Sardinia, and Corsica, along with sections of Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. The city itself grew to be the second largest in the ancient Mediterranean, behind only Alexandria, the magnificent capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. With its powerful fleet, Carthage dominated trade throughout the western Mediterranean and even into the Atlantic.

As the city grew in size and power during the seventh century BC, it progressively asserted its independence from Tyre, founding colonies of its own and expanding its territory in Africa. Even so, Carthage continued to signal its allegiance to its mother city by dispatching an annual embassy to Tyre’s temple of Melquart, the city’s patron deity.

2. Carthaginian and Roman territory on the eve of the First Punic War.1

3. Dido Building, Carthage (1815) by J. M. W. Turner.2

After Tyre was conquered by the Babylonians in the early sixth century, the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean turned to powerful Carthage for protection and support against their Greek rivals. Old Phoenician colonies, such as Utica and Gades in Hispania, became bound by treaty to Carthage. While Roman allies participated in a mutual defensive organization under the leadership of Rome, which gradually integrated its allies by granting their people rights and even citizenship, Carthage preferred to extract punitive taxes from its looser confederation of subjects and subject allies. These taxes were used in turn to finance Carthage’s fleet and to pay mercenary soldiers. Carthage had slowly evolved from a colony to the capital of a new empire.

Despite their extensive contact with their Greek neighbors and Libyan subjects, the Carthaginians retained their Punic language, a dialect of Phoenician and a Semitic language related to Hebrew. Punic would long outlast Carthage’s empire. It was still spoken in northern Africa as late as the fifth century AD, but died out soon thereafter, leaving only a few inscriptions and scattered quotations as witnesses. The Carthaginians also retained distinctive customs, including the sacrifice of infants to Baal Hammon and his consort Tanit, a practice that had long since been abandoned in Tyre and the other Semitic kingdoms of the Levant. Recently, scholars have questioned whether the Carthaginians engaged in widespread child sacrifice, or if it was reserved for especially dire moments, or if the substantial archaeological evidence indicating such sacrifice has been misinterpreted, colored by the biased accounts of Carthage’s enemies, from whom we derive most of our information about the city and its people. It remains a controversial question.

As the head of a Punic coalition, Carthage forged an anti‒Greek alliance with the Etruscans, who controlled Rome until the late sixth century BC. They also courted the support of the far‒off Persians, who were attempting to conquer the Greeks in the eastern Mediterranean. It was said in antiquity that on the same day (in 480 BC) the united eastern Greeks destroyed the fleet of the Persian King Xerxes at Salamis, a coalition of western Greeks routed a Carthaginian force at Himera in Sicily. This coincidence is almost certainly a later fabrication, but it does demonstrate that events throughout the eastern and western Mediterranean were understood to be part of one grand narrative in antiquity. After their defeat at Himera, the Carthaginians avoided open conflict with the Greeks in Sicily, turning their attention instead to expanding their territory in Africa, exploring and colonizing the Atlantic coast (perhaps as far south as modern Cameroon), and developing their inland trade routes to the south.

As Carthage grew into a major military power, its political system was evolving from a monarchy to a more inclusive republican form of government—a transformation experienced by many other city‒states throughout the ancient Mediterranean at this time, including Rome. Eventually, Carthage’s government came to be led by two annually elected magistrates (suffetes or “kings”); a Council of Elders (the adirim or “Mighty Ones”) consisting of the leading men of the city; and an assembly of citizens who could arbitrate between the suffetes and Council when they were at odds. Unlike the Romans, whose annually‒elected magistrates managed both civilian and military affairs, the Carthaginians created a separate office of general, who was appointed for a specific mission. Because these generals often continued in office until that mission was completed, they could accumulate considerable influence. Their power was checked, however, by the Council of 104 judges, who had the authority to convict and crucify delinquent generals. Carthage’s political system was often praised in antiquity: Aristotle thought Carthage possessed one of the best constitutions. In practice, however, a single preeminent family often acquired political supremacy for extended periods of time. Sometimes this family would rule collaboratively with other members of the aristocracy; at others, it would exercise near absolute authority in the city.

To understand the savage tenacity displayed by the Carthaginians and Romans in the Second Punic War, it is necessary to understand the previous conflicts between the two powers. Early in their history, Rome and Carthage signed several treaties of friendship and even fought as (somewhat unenthusiastic) allies against adventuring Greek potentates. But Rome’s growing involvement with Carthage’s Greek adversaries in southern Italy and Sicily—combined with Rome’s traditional fear of powerful neighbors—caused increasing tensions between the two powers. Beginning in 264 BC, Rome and Carthage would fight three brutal wars for control of the western Mediterranean. Collectively these conflicts are known as the Punic Wars after the Latin word for “Phoenician”, Poenus.

First Punic War (264‒241 BC)

The seeds of the First Punic War had been sown in the 280s BC when a small band of unemployed Italian mercenaries, known as the Mamertines or the “Sons of Mars”, occupied the strategic town of Messana in northwest Sicily. Situated on the narrow straight that separates Italy from Sicily, Messana controlled commerce and communications between Sicily and the mainland. When Hiero II of Syracuse attempted to dislodge the Mamertines in 265, they enlisted the aid of a nearby Carthaginian fleet, whose swift intervention forced Hiero to withdraw. The Mamertines soon regretted the Carthaginian occupation and appealed to Rome for protection, citing their status as Italians. Rome was hesitant to become entangled in a conflict outside of Italy or to come to the aid of the piratical Mamertines. Indeed, Rome had only a few years before executed a similar group who had occupied the Italian town of Rhegium. Yet Rome’s fear of a Carthaginian stronghold so close to Italy—and greed for plunder in what they assumed would be a short war against Syracuse—outweighed their concerns. The Romans, under the command of the consul Appius Claudius Caudex, invaded Sicily and marched to the Mamertines’ aid.

When the Mamertines learned that the Romans were approaching, they persuaded the Carthaginian general to withdraw his forces from the city. The general, regretting this decision to abandon the city, took the fateful steps of allying with Hiero. The combined Carthaginian and Syracusan forces then besieged Messana. After attempts to negotiate a truce failed, Carthage and Rome began hostilities. Both sides were confident of a quick and decisive victory. Neither side anticipated the horror that was to come: a ferocious, generation‒long war, which would witness many large‒scale disasters and innumerable small‒scale atrocities. This war would transform the Roman and Carthaginian empires, upend the balance of power in the western Mediterranean, and set the stage for Hannibal’s avenging assault on Italy.

It was in Sicily that the war began, and in and around Sicily where most of the fighting took place. Roman forces swiftly crossed over into Sicily, captured Messana, and then forced Syracuse to capitulate. Carthage, after crucifying the tentative general who had lost the strategic initiative by permitting Rome’s invasion, adopted the cautious strategy that they had honed in generations of intermittent fighting against the Sicilian Greeks. Their mercenary army, operating from fortified towns, would harass the allies of Rome and Syracuse, eventually sapping their will to continue the fight, while allowing Carthage to make opportunistic gains whenever an opportunity arose. It was a defensive strategy, designed to preserve a status quo that was quite satisfactory to the Carthaginians. But the Carthaginians would soon realize that the Romans were a decidedly more powerful and more lethal foe than the loose confederations of Greek city‒states that they had previously fought.

In 262, the Romans moved against the fortified city of Agrigentum. After Roman forces defeated a Carthaginian army that had been sent to lift the siege, they brutally sacked the city. Rome was not interested in restoring the status quo; they sought to expel Carthage from Sicily. The sack of Agrigentum stiffened Carthaginian resolve. Attempts by Rome to follow up on their success by capturing other Carthaginian cities in Sicily proved costly and ineffective. A bloody strategic stalemate developed in which cities would be taken and switch sides only to be retaken or betrayed again.

Rome realized that defeating Carthage would require a navy that could attack the Carthaginian homeland in Africa and thwart Carthage’s ability to resupply its beleaguered coastal cities in Sicily. To counter Carthage’s naval superiority, Rome undertook a rapid armament program, building and training a navy in a matter of months. After early losses at sea, Romans determined that they could exploit their own superiority in close‒quarter fighting by equipping their ships with a hooked gangplank—the corvus or “crow”—that allowed Roman marines to grapple, board, and capture Carthaginian ships. Eventually, in 256 a Roman fleet of over 300 ships and 150,000 men defeated the Carthaginians off Cape Ecnomus. The path to Africa lay open.

The African campaign of 256‒255 met with early success. Romans under the consul Atilius Regulus ravaged the African countryside and won a smashing victory that forced Carthage to sue for peace. But when Rome offered terms that were excessively punitive, Carthage hired the Spartan Xanthippus to reorganize its army and plan the defense of its territory. Xanthippus lured Regulus into a battle on open ground, where Carthage’s war elephants and its advantage in cavalry overwhelmed the Romans. Only 2,000 Romans—from a force of over 15,000—survived to be evacuated by the Roman fleet. The consul Regulus was captured (he would later be tortured to death). Compounding the disaster, a storm wrecked nearly the entire evacuation fleet before it reached Italy. As many as 90,000 men drowned, taking with them Rome’s hopes of invading Africa and forcing a quick end to the war. Attention turned again to Sicily and the brutal war of attrition.

While Rome regrouped and rebuilt its fleet, Carthage enjoyed a brief period of success in Sicily. Rome, however, soon regained the offensive, capturing numerous cities in rapid succession and securing all but the westernmost region of the island. Yet Rome failed to press its advantage. Since they sought the capitulation of Carthage, they sent their fleet in 253 to raid the Libyan coast, where it was lost in a storm—another 150 ships lost and over 60,000 men drowned. In the meantime, Carthage was able to transport 100 war elephants to Sicily, further deterring the Romans, who were mindful of the role the elephants played in the destruction of Regulus’ army. Rome would require two years before it could resume serious offensive operations, when they besieged the stronghold of Lilybaeum, the lynchpin of Carthage’s remaining defenses in Sicily.

Old patterns soon reasserted themselves. The Romans were unable to prevent the Carthaginians from resupplying the garrison by sea. Indeed, the daring Carthaginian admiral Ad Herbal often simply sailed his better‒trained and nimbler ships past the Roman fleet in broad daylight. Provoked by this humiliating display of superior Carthaginian seamanship, the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher prepared a surprise assault against the Carthaginian fleet at Drepana. Appearing outside the harbor at dawn and with the element of surprise, Pulcher appeared to be on the brink of a decisive victory that might well have won Rome the war. Instead, the Roman assault was fatally delayed as they awaited a favorable omen, allowing Ad Herbal to clear the harbor. Pulcher’s fleet, now hopelessly outmaneuvered and trapped against the Sicilian coast, lost ninety ships. Within days, a second Roman fleet of 120 ships and 800 transports was destroyed by a storm in eastern Sicily. The Romans would never take Lilybaeum by force; seven years would pass before the Romans had the courage and financial resources to build another fleet.

The war in Sicily was again at a stalemate. With the exhausted opponents no longer able to mount large scale operations, the war devolved into a series of small‒scale ambushes and atrocities. Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, began waging an audacious guerilla campaign against Roman forces and allies. Finally in 243 BC the Roman Senate resolved to resume large‒scale offensive operations. A new fleet, financed by onerous loans, was constructed. After the destruction of one Carthaginian fleet by storm in 241 and another at the Battle of the Aegates Islands, a faction of wealthy landowners that favored peace came to power in Carthage. The long war drew to a close.

Rome had outlasted Carthage, which had never adapted to Rome’s aggressive strategy. As Rome systematically worked to expand its territory in Sicily and pressure Carthage by invading and raiding Africa, Carthage passively reacted to Rome’s moves, stubbornly fighting a defensive war geared towards not losing the conflict. Although individual Carthaginian generals displayed brilliance at sea and on land (none more so than Hamilcar), Carthage never devised a strategy to defeat the more populous Rome, which routinely absorbed horrific losses and staggering defeats only to regroup and resume the attack. Hamilcar would pass these hard‒won lessons to Hannibal, who would devise a bold, aggressive strategy to defeat Rome.

As part of the terms of the peace, Carthage agreed to surrender Sicily and its naval bases on the surrounding islands to the Romans, avoid conflict with Syracuse and other Roman allies, release Roman prisoners without ransom, and pay an enormous indemnity of 3,200 talents or the equivalent of nearly 100 tons of silver. Rome, which before the war had never fought outside of Italy, now controlled a wealthy overseas territory—its first of many. Nevertheless, their victory must have been bittersweet. During the long 23 years of conflict, Rome lost over 600 ships, Carthage at least 500. As many as 50,000 Roman citizens and another 350,000 allies had been killed, most suffering horrific deaths at sea. The Carthaginians too suffered terribly in the war, a losing effort that left them economically bankrupt, deprived of their possessions in Sicily, and bereft of their signature navy. Before the war, Rome and Carthage were wary rivals with a long tradition of coexistence and even cooperation; afterwards, they were bitter enemies, each steeped in a generation of blood. For the Romans, their erstwhile allies were now seen as bloodthirsty and duplicitous. Indeed, the phrase Punica fides (“Carthaginian loyalty”) became a byword for the most vicious kind of treachery. Romans simultaneously reviled Carthaginians as cruel and cowardly: they were said to sacrifice children and eat dogs, while being in the emasculating grip of eastern‒style luxury and enervated by Africa’s climate. We can assume that the same animus roiled the Carthaginians against the Romans. The peace, like the war, would last for 23 years. But the stage had been set for an even greater conflict, one that would push first Rome and then Carthage to the brink of destruction.

Between the Wars

Carthage’s humiliating defeat and the economic depression that followed precipitated a vicious rebellion by Carthage’s mercenary soldiers and African allies known as the Truceless or Mercenary War (241‒237 BC). Rome, which officially supported Carthage in the conflict, nevertheless took advantage of Carthage’s weakness to seize Sardinia and Corsica and to extort additional reparations. Eventually, under the leadership of Hamilcar and Hannibal’s brother‒in‒law, Hasdrubal the Fair, Carthage was able to suppress the rebellion. Because of Hamilcar’s role in rescuing Carthage from this crisis, he and his family gained considerable influence among the Carthaginian people, as well as widespread support throughout the Carthaginian government.

With its territories in Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica lost to Rome, Hamilcar sought new conquests in Hispania, a wealthy region that included the richest silver mines in the Mediterranean. By the 220s Carthage had recovered from its defeat in the First Punic War. Meanwhile Rome, content with the status quo, recognized Carthage’s gains in Hispania and turned its attention to governing its new territories and completing the conquest of northern Italy. The Romans organized Sicily and then Sardinia and Corsica as their first overseas provinces. From 225 to 222 BC, Rome pacified the Gauls in northern Italy and then began campaigning in Illyria across the Adriatic Sea. Rome’s eastward expansion into Illyria, however, was cut short by unforeseen events in Hispania, events that would soon involve Rome in a fight for its very survival.

Second Punic War (218‒201 BC)

In 219 BC, Hannibal laid siege to Saguntum, a coastal city in northeast Hispania that enjoyed a treaty of friendship with Rome. In 226 BC Hasdrubal the Fair signed a treaty with Rome that acknowledged Carthage’s control of Hispania south of the Iber River (modern Ebro). Saguntum’s status, therefore, was ambiguous: was it an ally of Rome or a ward of Carthage? When the besieged Saguntines appealed to Rome, Rome pressured the Carthaginians to recognize their alliance with Saguntum. Even as the Romans attempted to negotiate a settlement to the crisis, Hannibal captured the city after an eight‒month siege. When Carthage refused Roman demands for Hannibal’s extradition, both sides prepared for war.

Rome and Carthage enjoyed different military advantages than they had during the last war. Hannibal now fielded the best‒trained and equipped army in the ancient world; the Romans enjoyed complete naval superiority, which they could use to invade Carthaginian territory at will. Rome expected to exploit this advantage to wage a quick, offensive war that would compel Carthage to sue for peace on Rome’s terms. Hannibal, however, had a plan to restore Carthage’s supremacy in the western Mediterranean. First, he would neutralize Rome’s advantage at sea through a daring invasion of Italy across the Alps. Hannibal correctly saw that the presence of a foreign army in Italy would compel the Romans to abandon their planned assault on Carthage. Once across the Alps, Hannibal planned to recruit soldiers from the recently conquered regions of northern and southern Italy and convince other kingdoms in the East to join forces against Rome. At the head of this combined force, Hannibal would cut at the roots of Roman military power by disrupting the intricate web of alliances that bound the cities and peoples of Italy to Rome. It is important to note that Hannibal’s goal at the start of the war was not to destroy the city or exterminate the Romans, despite the claims made by later Roman authors. Hannibal assumed that a few decisive victories in Italy would compel Rome to negotiate a new peace treaty on terms favorable to Carthage. At the least, he thought he could restore Carthaginian holdings in Sicily and Sardinia and a recognition of their empire in Hispania. Roman resolve, however, would again surprise the Carthaginians.

4. Hannibal’s route into Italy.3

5. Snow Storm. Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1810‒1812)
by J. M. W. Turner.4

At the start of the war, the Romans assumed that Hannibal, whose army was in constant danger of being outflanked by sea, would seek to protect Carthage’s hard‒won territory in northern Hispania. The Roman strategy assumed that one army would pin Hannibal down in Hispania, freeing another to invade the Carthaginian homeland in Africa. But Hannibal, ever bold, seized the initiative and marched towards Italy with a large army. He evaded the first Roman army sent against him and arrived at the Alps in late 218 BC with 38,000 infantry troops, 8,000 cavalrymen, and 37 war elephants. The brutal march over the mountains in the early winter cost Hannibal nearly a third of his army and most of his irreplaceable elephants. But his gamble worked. He was able to lead an intact army into Italy. Hannibal then won a cavalry engagement at Ticinus and forced the Romans to withdraw south of the Padus River. Facing an enemy army in Italy, the Romans recalled the forces that were being marshaled for the planned invasion of Africa. Hannibal had succeeded in forestalling the invasion of Carthage. His audacity had gained him the chance to win the war in Italy.

In quick succession, Hannibal inflicted two crushing defeats on a stunned and unprepared Rome. At Trebia, 30,000 freezing Roman soldiers were lured into an ambush and killed. Hannibal then crossed the Padus River into central Italy. Despite the shocking defeat, Rome refused to negotiate terms with the invader. In 217, the two consuls raised a new army and led it against Hannibal. At Lake Trasimene, Hannibal again demonstrated his mastery of battlefield tactics when the consul Gaius Flaminius Nepos and more than 40,000 soldiers were ambushed on the narrow path along the shore of the lake. Nearly all of the Roman soldiers in Flaminius’ army were either killed or captured. After this second disaster, Rome was seized by panic and memories of the Gallic Sack of 390 BC. But still the Romans refused to surrender or even negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Instead, Fabius Maximus was elected dictator and invested with unlimited power to confront the threat to Rome.

Unlike his impetuous colleagues, Fabius accurately assessed the tactical and strategic situation facing Rome. Fabius realized that Hannibal’s decisive advantage in cavalry forces made it too risky to engage him in a large‒scale battle on level ground. He also recognized that Rome’s superior manpower would eventually yield victory, provided that he could thwart Hannibal’s strategic goal of separating Rome from her Italian allies. Fabius therefore avoided a direct confrontation with Hannibal’s forces. He focused instead on protecting Rome’s allies and wearing down Hannibal’s army through small raids. This “Fabian” tactic of avoiding decisive battle spared Rome’s soldiers and preserved Rome’s alliances, but his caution lost him favor among the more aggressive‒minded Roman senators who were eager to confront Hannibal, as well as many other Roman citizens whose property was being destroyed by Hannibal’s army.

Unchecked, Hannibal ranged throughout Italy, eventually destroying 400 towns and capturing several large cities. In the face of such devastation, two new consuls were elected on the promise to make short work of Hannibal. Under the burning summer sky, the largest army that Rome would ever field within Italy marched to crush what they saw as Hannibal’s gaggle of barbarians. Outside of the strategic town of Cannae, however, Hannibal annihilated both consular armies: as many as 70,000 Romans and allies were butchered in a single afternoon—among the worst defeats ever suffered by Rome, or indeed by any army.

Rome’s allies began to waver as Hannibal’s successes mounted. Several major cities revolted, as did large swaths of southern Italy. Soon after Cannae, another army was destroyed while attempting to pacify a Gallic tribe that had defected to Hannibal. Hannibal’s army and his allies had killed upwards of 175,000 Roman and Italian soldiers in just over 20 months. At this moment, Philip of Macedon agreed to open a second front against Roman interests in Illyria. By almost any reckoning, Hannibal had won the war. Rome’s power base had been reduced to central Italy and Sicily. It had lost the core of its army and a large portion of its military and political aristocracy, its allies were abandoning it, and rival powers were beginning to line up behind Hannibal, who must have thought he was on the verge of victory. Yet even in the face of these manifold disasters, Rome rejected even the thought of peace on Hannibal’s terms. It banned public displays of mourning, refused to negotiate, and began recruiting new armies. Improbably, the war had only just begun.

In this moment of crisis, Rome resumed the Fabian strategy. Decisive battles were avoided whenever possible, allies were protected, disloyal or captured cities were slowly re‒conquered. The Romans deployed their fleet to limit reinforcements from Philip of Macedonia or Carthage. They used clever diplomacy to enmesh Philip in a costly and distracting war in Greece. With the immediate crisis averted, Rome’s superiority in manpower and organization eventually began to turn the tide.

6. Hannibal’s campaign in Italy.5

During the decade from 215 to 205 BC Rome fielded as many as seven and never fewer than four two‒legion armies every year in Italy. At its peak mobilization in 212 BC, Rome fielded 25 legions and a massive fleet with over 200,000 men, which it used to conduct simultaneous operations from Hispania to Africa to the Aegean. Hannibal, who was never able to field more than three large armies at a time, was thus constantly made to react to Roman operations against his new Italian allies.

In 211, Hannibal at last marched against Rome. It would be more than 600 years before a foreign army would again marshal outside of Rome’s gates. Even so, Hannibal was incapable of sustaining a prolonged siege against the well‒defended city. This move was only a diversionary tactic to forestall a Roman expedition to Africa. By 209, Rome had retaken most of the cities in Italy and begun to make inroads against Carthaginian territory in Hispania. Hannibal, however, still hoped to win the war. A decade of continual war had wrecked the Italian economy. Rome’s allies were exhausted and eager for peace. Even the Latin cities, Rome’s staunchest allies, refused new levies, claiming that no men remained in their towns.

At this crucial juncture Hannibal suffered three disastrous setbacks. First his brother Hasdrubal, who was attempting to reinforce Hannibal by land, was killed and his army destroyed at Metaurus in 207. Then Scipio Africanus completed the conquest of Hispania in 206. Finally, a large resupply fleet from Carthage was destroyed in 205. Hannibal’s daring gambit—his attempt to destroy Rome’s alliances before its superior resources and population could provide it with a decisive advantage—had failed. When Roman forces began operating in North Africa, Hannibal was recalled to defend the Carthaginian homeland.

In 204, Scipio Africanus invaded North Africa and promptly annihilated a large army of Carthaginians and Numidians in a daring nighttime assault. The stage was set for a climactic showdown between Hannibal and Scipio Africanus. In 202 at the Battle of Zama, Hannibal was at last able to deploy war elephants against the Romans. But Scipio had developed tactics to minimize their effectiveness and Hannibal’s young, untrained elephants did more damage to the Carthaginians than the Romans. The battle was won when Scipio’s superior Numidian cavalry routed its Carthaginian counterpart and attacked the Carthaginian rear lines. While Roman losses in the battle numbered under 2,000, nearly ten times as many Carthaginians died.

Even as Hannibal attempted to regroup, Carthage sued for peace. The terms were onerous: Carthage agreed to surrender all territory outside Africa, to wage war only with Roman permission, and to pay a massive indemnity of 5,000 talents (later raised to 10,000) over fifty years. Carthage’s empire and its military power were broken. Rome stood unchallenged as the most powerful state in the western Mediterranean.


After the war, Carthage was beset by another financial depression, one exacerbated by the crippling burden of the indemnity owed to Rome. In the depths of this crisis, Carthage turned to Hannibal. Elected suffete, Hannibal reformed the tax system and stabilized the economy, enabling Carthage to reinvent itself from an imperial capital into a flourishing commercial hub. It is likely that Carthage constructed its famed double harbor at this time.

Carthage’s revival soon provoked Roman fears of a resurgent Carthage, as well as greed for the wealth that it was so rapidly accumulating. For a time, while Rome was preoccupied with pacifying its new overseas territories in Hispania and in settling old scores with Philip of Macedon, Rome was content to profit from Carthage’s prosperity. But when Carthage paid off the last of its reparations in 152, Rome ceased to benefit from Carthage’s success. The Roman senator Cato the Elder began to stoke Roman eagerness for war. At the end of every speech—regardless of the subject—he was said to declare his belief that Rome must be freed from the threat of Carthage.6 Carthage, however, scrupulously observed its obligations under the terms of the peace and even supported Rome’s wars in the East. But by 150 BC relentless expansion by the Numidians, now a Roman ally, forced Carthage to act in self‒defense without Roman authorization. The treaty was abrogated. Both sides prepared for war.

The following year Carthage sent ambassadors to accept peace on the terms offered by Rome. They must have expected the Romans to leverage the crisis to extort monetary and territorial concessions, as they had so many times before. After first agreeing to the demands that they surrender their weapons and deliver hundreds of children as hostages, the Romans demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and resettle ten miles inland, a concession that the ambassadors knew their fellow Carthaginians would never accept. Rome had at last bowed to Cato’s advice: Carthage would be destroyed.

7. The Capture of Carthage (1539). Engraving by George Pencz.7

Despite their hopeless situation, the Carthaginians valiantly resisted for three years. But finally, in 146, Carthage’s massive fortifications were breached by Roman forces under the command of Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus. As Carthage burned, for six days savage fighting raged from house to house. At last, 50,000 exhausted Carthaginians surrendered the citadel. So horrible was the carnage in that once magnificent city that Scipio, a man hardened by years of bloody campaigning in Hispania, was said to have wept at the sight. The surviving Carthaginians were sold into slavery. The city was abandoned and its land cursed.

It is a modern fable that Romans salted the earth to prevent anything from growing at the site. Rome, having destroyed its greatest rival, organized Carthage’s African territory as a new province. The Punic language and elements of Punic culture would survive. And in time, a new settlement would grow in the ashes of the old. But this was a Roman city on the shores of a Mediterranean dominated by Rome.


Hannibal was born into a prestigious Carthaginian family in 247 BC, as the First Punic War (264‒241 BC) was drawing to a close. In the waning years of that war, Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, had waged a brilliant guerilla campaign in Sicily and conducted daring raids against the Italian coast, earning the nickname “Barca” or “Thunderbolt”, a name that was adopted by his descendants. After Carthage’s calamitous defeat in that war, Hamilcar helped suppress a dangerous rebellion by Carthage’s mercenaries and subject allies in North Africa (240‒238 BC). After Hamilcar had rescued the Carthaginian state, he forged a new empire for Carthage in Hispania (modern Spain). It was during Hamilcar’s campaigns in Hispania that Hannibal would learn the military skills that he would turn against Rome.

About Hannibal’s mother, nothing is known. It is possible that she was a foreigner, since Carthaginian noblemen routinely practiced exogamy, or marriage to foreigners. Hannibal’s sisters, for example, were married to royalty in Numidia, a region that comprised a substantial portion of Carthage’s empire in North Africa. Hannibal had two younger brothers: Hasdrubal and Mago, both of whom served as Hannibal’s lieutenants in the Second Punic War. Hamilcar famously declared that his sons were a “brood of lion cubs raised for Rome’s destruction”—or so later Romans imagined.8 About Hannibal’s childhood we hear only the story of his oath of hatred against Rome, which was recounted by most ancient authors who discuss Hannibal’s life in any detail, including Nepos (2.3‒4). Shortly before he marched against Italy, he married an Iberian woman. If he had a son, he died young. About Hannibal’s physical appearance we are ignorant, apart from a few idealized portraits on contemporary coins.

A clearer picture of Hannibal’s character emerges from the many ancient historians who recounted his exploits. The Greek historian Polybius claims that Hannibal had a violent temper.9 An anecdote from the aftermath of his defeat in the Second Punic War suggests that age and experience did little to soften his irritability. When an arrogant politician spoke against the peace treaty, an enraged Hannibal physically assaulted the speaker, dragging him from the podium.10 Hannibal later returned to the senate and apologized for his conduct, citing his unfamiliarity with the customs of politics after a lifetime spent in military service.

8. Roman bust of Hannibal. Statue in marble. Capua, Italy.11

The Roman historian Livy reports that he combined “the most reckless daring for undertaking risk” (plurimum audaciae ad pericula capessenda) with “the most judicious calm when in danger” (plurimum consilii inter ipsa pericula) and was “more wonderful when facing adversity than in enjoying his success”.12

Many ancient authors observe that Hannibal could withstand extreme physical hardships and was moderate in his consumption of food and drink. The harsh realities of his life, which was spent almost entirely at war or in exile, suggest the truth of this assessment. Nevertheless, we should remember that ancient authors tend to characterize individuals as falling into one of two camps: those who were toughened by physical hardship and deprivation and those who were weakened by soft living and indulgence in luxury. These historians, therefore, perhaps tell us more about how Hannibal was thought to behave than about the man he actually was.

Most Roman sources, on which we are largely dependent, dwell on Hannibal’s savagery and wickedness. According to Livy, he possessed an “inhuman cruelty, treachery worse than usual for a Carthaginian, disregard for truth and the sacred, a lack of fear towards the gods and respect for oaths and any religion”.13 Seneca the Younger offers the grim vision of a depraved Hannibal gazing at a trench filled with blood and declaring “what a beautiful sight!” (o formosum spectaculum).14 Like most of the testimonials preserved by hostile Roman witnesses, such anecdotes should be viewed with skepticism. At the same time, we must remember that Hannibal did engage in a vicious war in Italy for over a decade. The accounts of the atrocities that he committed while attempting to break the will of the Romans and their allies cannot be dismissed simply as the product of Roman bias. There was doubtless good reason why “Hannibal at the gates” (Hannibal ad portas) became shorthand for a looming crisis and an admonition used to frighten Roman children into behaving. It should be noted that Nepos omits any mention of such lurid tales, crafting, all in all, the most favorable portrait of Hannibal offered by any ancient author.

The exploits of Hannibal’s life reveal a man of remarkable competence and rare abilities. He inspired breathtaking loyalty and extraordinary obedience among his troops, which included Carthaginians as well as mercenaries recruited from throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Sources recount how he slept on a military cloak, eating the food of the common soldiers and sharing their hardships. As a tactician, his genius was of the first rank. Military leaders to this day study Hannibal’s victories at the battles of Trebia, Trasimene, and above all Cannae. In peacetime, he proved himself a dynamic and principled, if not always tactful, politician. Imagine the fortitude it must have taken to return to Carthage after losing a war undertaken at his initiative. Carthaginians, it should be remembered, were in the habit of crucifying defeated generals.

Hannibal not only survived—in no small part because he retained the loyalty of the army—but within a few years he was elected to the highest office in Carthage. As Carthage strained under the terms of its humiliating treaty with Rome, Hannibal worked to prevent the entrenched aristocracy from exploiting the suffering people of the city. He proved himself so successful at reorganizing Carthaginian finances that he offered to pay off early the full total of the war reparations owed to Rome. When Rome spurned the offer, Hannibal’s enemies in Carthage engineered his downfall, forcing him to flee the city. In later times, his cunning determination in resisting Roman expansion made him a symbol of the downtrodden and the underdog. It is no coincidence that Hannibal was adopted as an ancestor of the Irish, who imagined themselves in the role of Carthage against the imperial might of the British Empire.

9. Hannibal’s travels in the East (196‒183 BC).
Adapted with permission from images © Ancient World Mapping Center, CC BY-NC-ND.

Evaluating Hannibal

The life of Hannibal grants many opportunities to wonder what might have been: what if Hannibal had reached Italy earlier in the season and thus had not lost so many troops and elephants in crossing the Alps; what if Hasdrubal had succeeded in reinforcing Hannibal from Spain; what if reinforcements had come sooner from Carthage...? And yet, one can also look at Hannibal’s life as a series of fleeting tactical successes punctuating a record of strategic failures. He inherited a wealthy and expanding empire only to leave Carthage prostrate and at Rome’s mercy. He failed to leverage his smashing victory at Cannae to better strategic advantage. He never devised a strategy to combat the Fabian tactics of harassment and disengagement. For all his military daring, he was unable to break Rome’s hold over Italy, and misjudged the loyalty of Rome’s most important allies. His diplomatic efforts failed to entice another powerful state to attack Rome in Italy. His fugitive latter days, when he fled from the court of one eastern potentate to another, bear the mark of a man obsessed with fighting a war that he had lost years before. In the memorable words of Plutarch, he was now “a tame and harmless bird that had grown too old to fly and had lost its tail feathers”.15 Indeed what seemed his only enduring success—the reinvention of Carthage as a vibrant commercial power—would eventually stoke Roman fear of renewed Carthaginian power and greed for the fruits of its enemy’s newfound prosperity. In 146 BC, less than forty years after Hannibal’s death, Carthage would be razed to the ground by Scipio Aemilianus, the son of Hannibal’s great nemesis, Scipio Africanus. Hannibal had achieved immortality—but at a terrible cost. This melancholy tension is perhaps best captured by this short poem by Robert Frost:

Was there even a cause too lost,

Ever a cause that was lost too long,

Or that showed with the lapse of time too vain

For the generous tears of youth and song?

— ”Hannibal” (1928)

1 Adapted with permission from images © Ancient World Mapping Center, CC BY-

2 Now at the National Gallery, London. Wikimedia,

3 Adapted with permission from images © Ancient World Mapping Center, CC BY-

5 Adapted with permission from images © Ancient World Mapping Center, CC BY-

6 Cato is often said to have concluded every speech with the same dire advice—censeo Carthaginem esse delendam (“I recommend that Carthage must be destroyed”), from which arose the dictum “Carthago delenda est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”). But it is more likely that this expression was fabricated by later authors, who sought to dramatize Cato’s relentless drive to destroy the city with a single pithy phrase (Little 1934).

7 Now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Wikimedia,

8 Valerius Maximus, 9.3 ext.2.

9 Polybius, 3.15.9.

10 Livy, 30.37.

11 Now at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Wikimedia,

12 Livy, 21.4.5, 28.12.3.

13 Livy, 21.4.

14 Seneca the Younger, On Anger 2.5.4.

15 Plutarch, Life of Flamininus 21.