Was Hannibal Rome’s Deadliest Foe?

Colin Ricketts

3 mins

23 Jul 2018

Carthage was Rome’s biggest rival as the city grew to be the centre of a Mediterranean empire, and Hannibal was certainly the hero of the Carthaginians. He scaled the Alps to all but destroy the Roman Army on multiple occasions – most famously at Cannae.

Carthage, close to modern Tunis, was a maritime and trading city with outposts around the Mediterranean. To the Romans, this was ‘Mare Nostrum’ or ‘our sea’, so Carthage had to be taken on. Sparked by a local dispute in Sicily, the three Punic Wars (264 to 241 BC, 218 to 201 BC and 149 – 146 BC) became an epic struggle for dominance of the Mediterranean.

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Hannibal Barca’s father Hamilcar fought the Romans first, as Carthage’s leader in the First Punic War. While serving in an invasion of Hispania (modern Spain), he persuaded his young son to swear to never be a friend of Rome.

The Second Punic War

Hannibal was made commander-in-chief of Carthage’s armies in 221 BC after the assassination of his brother-in-law and soon started to make good on his vow to his father.

His best known achievement was the land invasion of northern Italy. Starting from Hispania in 218 BC he fought his way north and crossed the Pyrenees, marching east to the Rhone, before heading into the Alps with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 38 elephants. He descended with just a few surviving elephants, 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry.

Carthiginian war Elephants

Hannibal crossing the Rhone.

Rome’s power overthrown?

Hannibal defeated two Roman armies, but lacking the heavy siege engines to attack Rome itself, decided to incite local tribes into rebellion while devastating the countryside of central Italy.

In 216 BC he won his greatest victory at Cannae. He seized a major supply depot there, frightening the Romans into raising an army of up to 100,000 men to finally crush the invaders. His brilliant tactics tricked the Romans into an attack on ground which Hannibal had cleverly chosen. He killed or captured between 50,000 and 70,000 Roman troops, including a huge proportion of the city’s ruling elite. It is still one of the bloodiest single-day engagements in human history.

Stalemate ensued. Hannibal still lacked the equipment to tackle Rome and the Romans refused to engage him in battle again. However, the defeat so shook the image of Roman power that Italian cities started to go over to Hannibal while Macedonia (in Greece) declared war.

It still wasn’t enough, however. Hannibal’s forces remained in Italy, winning several more notable victories. Still lacking support from home, however, they were slowly losing their upper hand.

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The end for Hannibal

A Roman counter-invasion of Carthage in 203 BC forced Hannibal back to North Africa where he was defeated by another great general, Scipio, at the Battle of Zama. Rome’s victory forced Carthage into an unfavourable peace treaty.

With no battles left to fight, Hannibal started a political career, the success of which was to be his undoing. He so effectively tackled corruption that war indemnities were easily paid and Rome was afraid that Carthage was rising again. They demanded that surrender of Hannibal, who went into voluntary exile in order to save his city from further attack.

Bust of Scipio Africanus

Bust of Scipio Africanus – who defeated Hannibal at Zama. Photo by shakko via Wikimedia Commons.

He travelled the Mediterranean, a general for hire, sometimes helping some of Rome’s many foes. Finally, the Romans still on his trail, he committed suicide by poison at Libyssa, probably between 183 and 181 BC.

Hannibal got the best of Rome militarily, but he never rocked the political core of the growing state – the Romans still believed in their superiority and believed they would win through in the end.

His strategic and tactical genius is universally recognised and still studied in military schools today. In a history that stretches for around 1,100 years, almost all of it spent fighting, Rome encountered just a few men who could rival Hannibal.