Hannibal Barca is rightly remembered as one of the greatest enemies the Romans ever faced. Consistently ranked among ancient history’s top generals, his achievements have become a thing of legend. But just as remarkable is how this Carthaginian general rose to become such an accomplished commander. And this story deserves its time in the limelight.
Hannibal was born around 247 BC, as the First Punic War raged in the Western Mediterranean. Carthage and Rome were at war, fighting on land and at sea in the area around Sicily. The Romans ultimately won this titanic war in 241 BC, and the Carthaginians lost Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. It was in the heartlands of this much-reduced Carthaginian Empire that Hannibal spent his early years.
Frustratingly little is known about Hannibal’s family and their background. Hamilcar, his father, was a leading Carthaginian general during the First Punic War – cementing his reputation as a successful commander when he crushed a mercenary uprising among his former soldiers at the end of the war.
Next to nothing is known about his mother, but we know that Hannibal had older sisters (their names unknown) and two younger brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. All were probably taught to speak a series of languages, particularly Greek (the lingua franca of the Mediterranean at that time), but also probably African languages such as Numidian.
Scholars debate the origins of Hannibal’s family, the Barcids. One theory is that the Barcids were a very old, elite family that came over with the first Phoenician colonists that founded Carthage. But another interesting proposal is that the family actually hailed from the Hellenic city-state of Barca, in Cyrenaica (Libya today), and that they were incorporated into the Carthaginian elite after a Cyrenaican expedition against Carthage went awry in the late 4th century BC.
A military upbringing
Keen to revive Carthaginian military fortunes, in the 230s Hamilcar planned to take a Carthaginian army to Spain for a campaign of conquest. Before he left, however, he asked the 9-year-old Hannibal whether he would like to accompany him. Hannibal said yes and the famous story goes that Hamilcar kept his word, but on one condition. He took Hannibal to the Temple of Melqart in Carthage, where he made Hannibal swear a famous oath: never to be a friend of the Romans.
Hannibal headed to Spain with his father and his brothers, where he received a military education (which also involved philosophy). For several years he campaigned alongside his father, watching on as Hamilcar cemented a Carthaginian presence in the Iberian Peninsula. But Hamilcar’s luck ran out in 228 BC. Whilst fighting in the rearguard of a battle against Iberians, Hamilcar was killed – his sons supposedly being present when their father lost his life.
Hannibal remained in Spain following the death of his father, continuing to see service under his brother-in-law Hasdrubal. Hannibal, now in his early 20s, rose to a senior position under Hasdrubal, serving as his brother-in-law’s ‘hypostrategos’ (commander in charge of the cavalry). Serving in such a high position, despite his young age, only serves to further highlight the young man’s evident talent as a military leader and the great trust placed in him to command by his brother-in-law.
Hannibal continued to campaign alongside Hasdrubal in Iberia for much of the 220s – Hasdrubal’s most famous achievement perhaps being his founding of New Carthage (Cartagena today) in 228 BC. But in 222 BC Hasdrubal was assassinated. In his place, the officers of the battle-hardened Carthaginian army selected the 24-year-old Hannibal as their new general. And Hannibal now had, at his command, one of the most formidable forces in the Western Mediterranean.
A rising star
The army itself consisted largely of 2 components. The first component was an African contingent: Carthaginian officers, Libyans, Libby-Phoenicians and Numidian troops that served both as infantry and as cavalry. The second component was an Iberian one: warriors from various Spanish tribes as well as legendary slingers that hailed from the nearby Balearic Islands.
But among this Iberian contingent were also Celtiberians, fierce warriors of Gallic descent that also resided in Spain. All these units combined to form a formidable force – battle-hardened after many years of fierce campaigning in Spain. And, of course, we can’t forget to mention the elephants. 37 of which Hannibal would take with him on his legendary journey to Italy.
Following in the footsteps of his father and brother-in-law, Hannibal continued to campaign in Spain, perhaps reaching as far north as modern-day Salamanca. This aggressive Carthaginian expansion soon resulted in conflict.
Conflict with Saguntum
Saguntum itself was a formidable stronghold, beyond the area that Carthage dominated by 219 BC, but very much in the firing line of Hannibal’s rapid recent expansion. A dispute between the Saguntines and Hannibal soon arose when some of the latter’s allies complained about the Saguntines fighting on behalf of their rivals.
Hannibal came to the aid of his allies, putting him directly at odds with the Saguntines. Tensions were coming to a head in this area of southeast Spain, but this local dispute soon erupted into something much bigger.
Sometime during the 220s BC, the Saguntines had made an alliance with Rome. When Hannibal and his army arrived to threaten their city, the Saguntines sent a call for aid to the Romans, who in turn sent an embassy to Hannibal, demanding that he leave Saguntum alone. Hannibal, however, refused to back down and he soon laid siege to Saguntum.
After some 8 months, Hannibal’s troops finally stormed Saguntum and sacked the city. The Romans, aghast at how a former defeated enemy was behaving, sent another embassy to Carthage in which the Roman ambassador famously held out the folds of his toga in either hand, stating that he held in his hands either peace or war and demanded which the Carthaginians chose. The Carthaginians opted for war.
War with Rome
Hannibal had his war with Rome. Whether he had prepared for such a conflict in advance is unknown but he quickly opted for a strategy fighting the Romans very different from that employed by the Carthaginians during the First Punic War.
Roman attacks on Spain and North Africa were expected in the war ahead, especially given the power that Rome already held in places such as Sicily and Sardinia. Rather than wait for the expected attacks on Spain and North Africa, Hannibal decided that he would march his army to Italy and take the fight to the Romans.
The actions of the dashing Hellenistic general King Pyrrhus in Italy some 60 years earlier provided Hannibal a precedent for how he could conduct a war against the Romans in Italy. The lessons from Pyrrhus were several: that to beat the Romans you had to fight them in Italy and you had to take their allies away from them. Otherwise the Romans, in an almost hydra-like fashion, would continue raising armies until victory was eventually gained.
Getting to Italy would not be easy. Transporting his army by sea was out of the question. Carthage had lost access to the important ports in Sicily at the end of the First Punic War and its navy was not the formidable fleet that it had been some 50 years earlier.
Furthermore, Hannibal’s army consisted of a large proportion of cavalry. Horses – and elephants – are difficult to transport on ships. This is, of course, not to mention that Hannibal’s army is based around Spain, far away from the Carthaginian heartlands. All this combined made it clear to Hannibal that if he wanted to reach Italy with his army, he would have to march there.
And so, in the spring of 218 BC, Hannibal set off from New Carthage with an army of just over 100,000 soldiers and commenced his legendary journey to Italy, a journey that would see several remarkable feats: his securing of the River Ebro, his crossing of the River Rhone and, of course, his famous traversing of the Alps with elephants.