Heir to Greatness: Part 7 – Hannibal at the Gates

Hannibal Barca is a name synonymous with military genius. Probably the most famous Carthaginian from a civilisation that lasted for at least five-hundred years, if not longer (the exact date of the foundation of the original colony by Phoenician settlers being in question), Hannibal exemplifies the tragic commander archetype – a man born to conquer who is ultimately undone by insufficient resources and a lack of support (coupled, in this case, with the rise of an almost equally skilled general, Scipio Africanus of Rome).

Born in 247BC to the respected Hamilcar, a veteran commander of both the First Punic War and its aftermath, the Mercenary War, Hannibal was raised from a young age to be a bold and enterprising man of action, as well as a staunch opponent of Rome.

Along with his father and brother he campaigned in Iberia (modern Spain) against the native tribes there, opening up the peninsula to Carthaginian control and mitigating the recent loss of Sicily to the Romans.

It was only after the death of both Hamilcar and Hasdrubal, his brother, that Hannibal succeeded to the command of the Carthaginian army and found the opportunity to pursue revenge against the Roman Republic. In 219BC the city of Saguntum on the east coast o Iberia sided with Rome rather than Carthage, and in response Hannibal sieged it for eight months, eventually conquering it and incurring the ire of the Roman senate. Unwilling to acquiesce to Roman demands for justice, the Carthaginian leaders gave Hannibal the go-ahead for an ambitious plan to bring Rome to its knees and exact retribution for their previous losses.

To that end, in 218BC, Hannibal left New Carthage in Iberia with an army of some forty-thousand infantry, eight-thousand cavalry and a contingent of war elephants, and marched north. No-one in Rome could have suspected his intent: to cross into Gaul (modern France), and from there surmount the Italian Alps, attacking them from the one direction they would not expect.

It was a staggering undertaking that shocked the incredulous Romans when they learned of its success (albeit, at a cost of almost half his forces lost to Gallic tribes and the conditions of the march).

A series of crushing victories followed for Hannibal: Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae – the last being a perfect example of tactical superiority that is still taught to this day! In a single battle Hannibal’s numerically inferior army completely surrounded and annihilated fifty-thousand Roman soldiers, amongst them one of the two Roman consuls for that year, as well as two consuls from the preceding year, two quaestors, twenty-nine military tribunes and at least eighty senators.

It was one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of Ancient Rome, and one of the bloodiest battles in history.

After this, the way to victory should have been wide open for Hannibal and the Carthaginians. But the Romans, in characteristic fashion, refused to admit defeat, and prolonged the war long enough to allow their forces to regroup.

By using delaying tactics and refusing to be drawn into a pitched battle, the Roman commanders made it possible for men like Scipio to change the dynamic of the war. With an invasion of the Carthaginian territories in Iberia and then an attack aimed at Carthage itself, Scipio managed to draw Hannibal away from the gates of Rome and into a battle of his design.

At Zama, in 202BC, Hannibal was defeated by the man who would become known as Africanus – the conqueror of Africa.

What followed was hardly worthy of such a man as had brought Rome to its knees: disgrace, exile and death. In 183BC, Hannibal Barca died from self-ingested poison, rather than fall into the hands of the Romans.

Interestingly, some years before Scipio and he had met while Hannibal was a military advisor at the Seleucid court; and in an oft-repeated story, the Roman asked the Carthaginian who he thought the three greatest generals in history had been, to which Hannibal replied:

1) Alexander the Great
2) Pyrrhus of Epirus
3) Himself

And conceded that, had he defeated Scipio at Zama he would have placed himself first on the list.

We can see here that Hannibal was a keen student of Alexander and his successors, and in many ways sought to emulate their fortitude and zeal.

In terms of military genius, Hannibal can be counted amongst the greatest generals who ever lived. And in both leadership and vision he was a titan in the mould of Alexander himself – had he concluded the Second Punic War in favour of the Carthaginians, people might be saying ‘Alexander who?’ But the fact of the matter is that Hannibal, as the lone pillar of Carthaginian military success in this period, was no match for the innumerable Romans who continued to assail him even after they should have, by all rights, been defeated. And therein lies the fault:

The Second Punic War wasn’t about Carthage vs. Rome.

It was about Hannibal vs. Rome. And one lion cannot defeat a nation of wolves, no matter how ferocious he may be.

Thus, by the narrowest margin does Hannibal fall short of Alexander: magnanimity he had, but whatever legacy might have been gleaned from his successes was destroyed for good with the final destruction of Carthage and the ascendency of the Romans.

Next week: The Glories of Eternal Rome

About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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2 Responses to Heir to Greatness: Part 7 – Hannibal at the Gates

  1. Pingback: The Ghosts of Cannae: Robert L.O’Connell, 2011 Random House Paperbacks | Percypaschal's Blog

  2. Pingback: READ: Ancient Man and His First Civilizations- The Berbers-Tuareg-Moors of North Africa | 3rdeyeviZion

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