The First Punic War, fought between the Romans and Carthaginians between 264 and 241 BC, resulted in an ultimate Roman victory. Relations, however, remained dismal between the two powers after the peace treaty.
Carthage was plagued with revolts from mercenaries demanding money for their service in the past war. It took two years for the Carthaginians to suppress these uprisings. Meanwhile the Romans saw their chance to steal Corsica and Sardinia from right under the Carthaginians’ noses.
Hamilcar Barca – a formidable Carthaginian general and veteran of the First Punic War – saw this act as a personal insult. His popularity with the people and respectability amongst the opposition party in the Carthaginian assembly granted him the means to begin training a new generation of troops. By 236 BC, and without permission from the Carthaginian government, Hamilcar set out on his own crusade.
What started the Second Punic War?
Furious and humiliated by Rome, Hamilcar intended to carve a new empire in Spain. Rich in natural resources, the Iberian Peninsula was the perfect springboard to take revenge on Rome. Among those Hamilcar took with him on campaign was his son, Hannibal. It was then that Hamilcar made his son swear the infamous oath: that he would never be a friend of Rome.
Hamilcar campaigned as far north as Barcelona today. But his untimely death in battle in 228 BC left his work unfinished. Fortunately, his legacy became the family business. For the next ten years, his sons – Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago – consolidated Carthaginian rule on Spain’s east coast and began subduing tribes further inland. Rome was sure to keep notice.
Paranoid with the growing Carthaginian power in Spain, Rome persuaded Hasdrubal the Fair, leader of the Carthaginian forces after Hamilcar’s death (not to be confused with Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s brother) to sign a treaty setting the Ebro River as the border between the Roman sphere of influence to the north and Carthage’s sphere to the south. But then disaster struck. In 221 BC Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated and Hannibal became commander-in-chief. What were the chances the peace would hold?
The peace breaks: Saguntum
Rome could not help itself from butting in. Aware of a coalition between the Carthaginians and the Celts in northern Italy, Rome lost no time in annexing the Alpine region. Still not satisfied, Rome allied with the stronghold of Saguntum, a city on Spain’s east coast far to the south of the Ebro and well within the Carthaginian sphere. Perhaps it was simply the Romans’ pre-emptive war instincts? Or maybe this was a way for the Romans to confine the inevitable war with Hannibal to Spain?
Hannibal could not proceed with his plans without first securing his authority in the Iberian peninsula – something Rome’s alliance with Saguntum directly threatened. The Romans were forcing Hannibal into a corner. Sooner or later he would have to act.
Besieging Saguntum would be a long, arduous and necessary task. Yet the Barcid knew the rewards for its capture would be far-reaching, providing Hannibal with lucrative plunder necessary to pay his mercenary troops. Timing would be everything. Whilst the Romans were engaged fighting Demetrius, the ruler of Pharos who had been sacking cities in Illyria allied to Rome, Hannibal saw his chance. In 219 BC he attacked Saguntum. The Second Punic War had begun.
But was this Hannibal’s or Carthage’s war against Rome in the first place? The high drama of the author Livy would have you believe the former – Hannibal – the main antagonist and Rome’s deadliest foe. Hannibal never received the unconditional endorsement of the Carthaginian assembly of the war against Rome, even when he was close to achieving complete victory But in the end, he didn’t need to.
Thanks to the foresight of Hamilcar, Hannibal already had a power base in Spain to facilitate the war. The Spanish territories under his command were some of the wealthiest in the region, so much so that,
One of these mines, which at the present day is still called Baebelo, furnished Hannibal with three hundred pounds’ weight of silver per day.
Pliny, Natural History 33.31.6
Ultimately, Hannibal was not completely dependent on Carthage to conduct this undertaking. But neither was he entirely independent. Nonetheless, the Second Punic War would prove much bigger than any one individual; it encompassed the whole of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece.
The scale and complexity of the war was evident from the beginning. Despite the Romans being occupied in Illyria, they were confident they could deal with Demetrius before turning their attention to Hannibal. This was a serious miscalculation. Saguntum fell after only eight months, too soon for Roman legions to arrive. Their hope of isolating Hannibal in Spain looked increasingly slim. But who amongst them could have predicted the existential threat Hannibal would pose?
Hannibal crosses the Alps
The crossing had been years in the planning. Before embarking on this intrepid voyage, Hannibal had determinedly won the support of the tribes in the Alpine regions, especially those of Cisalpine Gaul. Peoples like the Insubres and Boii, who had long been disillusioned with Rome, had intimate knowledge of the terrain. Hannibal realised that having their support was therefore crucial if he were to descend safely into northern Italy.
With local aid, Hannibal’s use of guerrilla warfare put Rome on the back foot. Unlike the conflict of attrition which the First Punic War exemplified, Hannibal was gambling with the alternative. His plan was ambitious, risky and decisive which, if successful, would bring an end to Rome once and for all. The necessity of a speedy crossing of the Alps was essential to protect supply lines once he had landed in Italy. Consequently, Hannibal had conducted a complete topographical reconnaissance.
By dividing his army into three divisions, Hannibal swiftly conquered resisting tribes in the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, Hannibal left behind his younger brother, Hasdrubal, to prevent the Romans from invading Iberia and isolating Hannibal in Italy. In the spring of 218 BC, Hannibal set off on his epic journey, crossing the Rhône by September. What precise route Hannibal took over the Alps scholars continue to debate. Suggested routes range from the southerly path through the Drôme valley to the northerly route up the Isère valley near what is today Grenoble.
A costly journey
Regardless of the specific route, battling with the logistical challenges of the climate and terrain ensured that accomplishing the feat was a triumph in itself. Hannibal’s arrival in northern Italy in November 218 BC caught the Romans completely off-guard. Even so, Hannibal’s army paid dearly: only half of his original force survived the journey.
In contrast, the Romans had waves of reserves at their disposal. Anxious to know their precise strength, all Roman men of military age were obliged to present themselves to the authorities. The Romans and Campanians by themselves could raise 250,000 soldiers. Combined with their allies, Rome was capable of mustering 700,000 troops. Most troops were, however, confined to their barracks.
With Hannibal’s army weak and demoralised from crossing the Alps there was no margin for error. He seized the initiative: Hannibal quickly established a foothold by conquering the Taurini, a Celtic tribe hostile to Hannibal’s regional allies, the Insubres. Revitalised from their arduous Alpine crossing with this success, Hannibal’s 20,000-strong army now felt ready to confront the Romans in battle.
The opportunity came soon enough. In a skirmish at the Ticino River, Hannibal forced a Roman army to retreat. Then in December 218 BC, he met Roman troops again at the River Trebia. It would be the first major battle of the Second Punic Wwar.