"I have come not to make war on the Italians, but to aid the Italians against Rome."
Before a fictional serial killer turned his first name into something sinister, Hannibal Barca was known as a Carthaginian military leader and the most hated enemy of Ancient Rome. Roman vilification aside, Hannibal has gone down in history as one of the greatest military commanders who ever lived. These 42 facts only confirm that, while perhaps his name isn't quite as well known as Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, Hannibal has earned his place in the upper echelon of ancient leaders.
Hannibal was a son of Hamilcar Barca (his mother’s name has been lost to history). He’s recorded as having three sisters and at least two brothers, named Mago and Hasdrubal. Hm, there’s a sad pattern here regarding which names were remembered, and which ones weren’t…
Hannibal’s first name is said to actually have been Hanniba’al in the original Carthaginian. This translates to “grace of Ba’al,” which is a tribute to the god Ba'al, who was worshipped by the Carthaginians.
As for Hannibal’s surname, Barca, it might not have even been his surname. His contemporaries would have called him "Hannibal, son of Hamilcar." Hannibal’s father was the first to be recorded with the name Barca, though it may have been a nickname. "Barca" translates to "thunderbolt" or "lightning," (presumably because he was “very very frightening” to the Romans). Whether it was a genuine surname or a nickname which got passed down to Hannibal and his brothers, their family has since been referred to as the Barcids for identification.
By the time Hannibal was born in 247 BC, things weren’t great for his home state of Carthage. They had fought a 23-year-long war with Rome, the First Punic War, for supremacy of the Mediterranean, and they had lost. Carthage had lost the island of Sicily to the Romans and was forced to pay them for the privilege of losing the war. To add insult to the injuries, the Romans violated the peace treaty they’d signed with Carthage when they seized Sardinia and Corsica too. This made the Barcids angry, and you wouldn't like them when they're angry.
When Hannibal was just a boy, his father prepared to go to what is now Spain, where Carthage was carving out new territory for itself to try and rebuild its empire. The historian Polybius wrote that when Hannibal wanted to go along with his father, Hamilcar made his little boy swear an oath to never be a friend of Rome. There are a few versions of this story, including one where the oath involved Hamilcar holding Hannibal over a fire while he swore the oath.
The conquest of Spain by Carthage took a very long time, and became a costly affair in terms of human life. One of the lives lost was Hamilcar himself, when Hannibal was 18 years old. With the death of Hamilcar, Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal the Fair, took command of the Carthaginian armies. He too was killed a few years later, and Hannibal took full command at age 26, just in time to finally start paying off his student loans.
Before he was killed, Hasdrubal the Fair preferred consolidating Carthage's territories rather than conquering new ones. He even signed a treaty with Rome that stated the Carthaginian conquest wouldn’t go north of Spain's Ebro River. However, when Hannibal took charge, he was very much his father’s son. He went on the warpath, completing the conquest of Spain south of the Ebro and winning his first victories on the battlefield, but that was just the beginning.
Rome eventually had to raise an eyebrow at the stories of Hannibal’s success in Hispania (what they used to call Spain). They made a deal with the city of Saguntum to make it a Protectorate of Rome. Since Saguntum was well south of the Ebro River, Hannibal saw this as an underhanded violation of the treaty which Rome had signed. However, he also reckoned that he could use this as an excuse to make war on Rome itself. He laid siege to Saguntum, taking it after eight months. Rome demanded justice from Carthage, but because of his incredible success and popularity, the Carthaginian government reckoned that they’d rather mess with Rome than with Hannibal, and so they stayed the course.
With the declaration of the Second Punic War in 218 BC, Hannibal had the excuse to launch his plans for taking the war to Rome itself. He raised a large army at New Carthage (you might know it better as the Spanish city of Cartagena) and battled his way to the foot of the Pyrenees, conquering the northern tribes in the process.
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One of Hannibal’s sisters married a judge named Bomilcar. Her son, Hanno, would serve under his uncle Hannibal’s command (and alongside another uncle, Mago) during his campaigning in Italy. He would even lead part of the Carthaginian cavalry at the Battle of Cannae. Hamilcar, Hannibal, Hanno, I'm seeing a trend here...
After the Pyrenees, Hannibal took a more conciliatory tone, since he was travelling through the territory of the Gauls, and they would wear his army down if he needed to fight them the whole way. He made alliances with the Gauls (something that sounds particularly un-Roman) so that his large army made it safely to the Alps. Getting there was simple—crossing them, however, would be a different story.
As Hannibal approached the Alps, he was faced with 11,000 of his troops, native to Hispania, who were loyal to Carthage, but unwilling to leave their homeland. While this would be a point where we’d normally talk about the warlord making a bloody example of them, Hannibal allegedly let them go home. He saw the wisdom in bringing only the troops who truly wanted to go, rather than having a greater number of troops, many of whom were there reluctantly.
According to Polybius, Hannibal began the Alps journey with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 38 elephants. It was a monumental trek, and it wasn't without its costs. By the time they reached the other side, many of the elephants were dead, along with about half of his followers.
As with several other legendary feats of history, not a single person can identify Hannibal’s route over the Alps, or how he managed to do it. Even Polybius, writing just over a generation later, reported that nobody could figure out how Hannibal managed the epic journey. A popular theory presented by Livy was that Hannibal would use a combination of fire-setting and vinegar to break down rocks in the mountains to create pathways. No evidence of this technique has been found, however, but that didn’t stop Doctor Who from referencing it to try and make a fight against a farting monster less ridiculous (it didn’t work, for the record).
A big factor in Hannibal’s success was the sheer loyalty he inspired amongst his troops, despite the fact that his army was made up of people from very diverse backgrounds. Hannibal would lead by example by going hungry when his troops did, sleeping in the open air alongside them, and leading his men in the fiercest parts of battles.
As with much of ancient history, many details about Hannibal's career are mainly guesswork at this point, due to contradictions in historical records. For example, our knowledge of Hannibal’s victory at the Battle of the Trebia is discussed by both Livy and Polybius. While both sources present the same outcome of the battle, they disagree on where it exactly took place, where the Roman army was camped, and therefore which direction they crossed the Trebia river. So if you see any of that on a history test, remember: It's a trick question!
After crossing the Alps, Hannibal arrived in the north of Italy, where his reduced forces were reinforced by thousands of Celts and Italian tribesmen who wished to put an end to the Roman Republic. They met their first real challenge from the Romans at the Trebia River. With both armies evenly matched at around 40,000 men, Hannibal caught the Romans by surprise, forcing them to cross the freezing cold river to attack him. A subsequent ambush of men on their flanks sealed the day for the Carthaginians and their allies.
Shortly before the Battle of the River Trebia, Hannibal fought another, smaller battle. The Battle of Ticinus pitted the Carthaginians against a small Roman force which was hastily sent against him when the Romans found out that he’d actually crossed the Alps. They were led by Publius Cornelius Scipio, who was badly wounded in the fight. He was only spared from death when his teenaged son, also named Publius, rode out onto the battlefield and retrieved his father. Given what happened later on in history, we can only imagine that Publius Scipio Jr., later known as Scipio Africanus, took a moment to glare at Hannibal and ominously declare that they would meet again, while the movie soundtrack got more intense.
After Hannibal’s victory at Lake Trasimene, the Romans appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus as their temporary dictator (our new favorite oxymoron, by the way). Fabius’ plan was to deny Hannibal the chance to fight a pitched battle, since he was proven to be good at those. Fabius tried fighting smaller conflicts, and shadowing Hannibal’s forces. However, Hannibal was able to outmaneuver Fabius, and he plundered the Italian countryside as he tried to force Rome’s allies to desert her. After a while, Fabius was denounced for his cowardly tactics and he was promptly fired from dictatorship.
At this time, the Roman infantry’s standard technique was to throw two pilum (javelins) at their enemies before close-quarters fighting began. To counter this, Hannibal relied on Balearic slingers as his ranged troops. Not only were their rocks able to outreach the javelins, but they were far more accurate to boot. They were actually so effective as ranged infantry that Hannibal much preferred them to archers.
Hannibal and his men captured the huge food stores at Cannae in the spring of 216 BC, cutting the Romans off from one of their biggest stores of supplies, by which time the Roman Senate decided that enough was truly enough. They sent two Roman armies combined into one, commanded by the two consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. This time, the Roman army consisted of between 70,000 and 85,000 men, against Hannibal’s 50,000.
Despite being outnumbered in total, Hannibal's cavalry outnumbered the Roman horsemen. They were a diverse group, ranging from the very skillful light Numidian cavalry to the heavily armed Gallic horsemen, and the Spanish cavalry who fell somewhat in between. Hannibal ended up using his cavalry to help seal the fate of thousands of Romans at Cannae.
When Hannibal lined his infantry up at Cannae, he placed his highly skilled African infantry on the ends of his line, while forming an outward crescent in the middle to tempt the Roman infantry. The strategy worked, and the well ordered Romans quickly devolved into a mass of men rushing forward to break his line through sheer force.
When he set up his battle positions at Cannae, Hannibal relied on his Gallic infantry to hold the middle of the line, where the fighting would be most brutal and overwhelming. He did this not out of dislike for the Gauls, but because their culture and way of life favored individual glory over teamwork. Warriors would try to outdo each other in battle, which made it hard to make them take part in battle strategies beyond "kill as many of them as you can." This also made them useful to hold the brunt of the fighting, because their warrior pride was more important than their lives.
The Romans, as Hannibal planned, pushed the crescent of men so that it bent the opposite way, and it seemed like they were on the cusp of victory. However, Hannibal’s African corps swung in on the Roman sides and trapped the crowded infantry into a pocket of death. Meanwhile, the trap was sealed when the cavalry units under Maharbal and Hanno killed or drove off the Roman cavalry and turned around to hit the Roman infantry in the rear. The trap was sprung, and all that was left was to wipe out the Romans. After four hours of fighting, nearly a third of Roman senators, one consul, and more than 50,000 Roman soldiers were dead, compared to just about 10,000 Carthaginians. It was the worst defeat that Rome ever suffered.
When word got out to the rest of the world, everyone either panicked or flew a white flag. King Philip V of Macedon eagerly made an alliance with Carthage to drive the Romans out of the Balkans. A few cites in Italy, such as Capua, surrendered to Hannibal and let him occupy their territory. Meanwhile, Carthage celebrated the victory as Hannibal sent home hundreds of gold rings that he’d collected off of Roman corpses (a gold ring signified that the Roman wearing it was a member of the upper classes).
Surprisingly, Hannibal did not march on Rome. There are a few explanations for why; Hannibal had lost many of his best troops, and he still lacked siege equipment to attack the city of Rome. Furthermore, according to the legend and histories, it also had to do with the fact that his general Maharbal allegedly lost his temper and declared that Hannibal knew how win a victory, but not how to use it.
Even worse, rather than being torn apart psychologically after their brutal losses to Hannibal, the Romans got over their shock, dug their heels in even harder, and determined to destroy Hannibal no matter the cost. Most of their Italian allies also kept faith with Rome, which disappointed Hannibal’s plans to turn Italy against the city. Not only that, after Cannae Hannibal would never again get to fight any major battles against the Romans, as they began to see the wisdom in a war of attrition against their hated enemy.
In Carthage, while Hannibal was a popular figure, the governing bodies were heavily split on what to do during the war. The people loyal to Hannibal were all for giving Hannibal support so he could finally defeat Rome once and for all. However, there was a staunch, anti-war faction was led by Hanno II the Great, so named for his defeats of Carthage’s African enemies. Hanno preferred Carthage conquering more of the African continent instead of fighting Rome, which he saw as a bad idea. He had been against Hamilcar Barca making war on Rome, and his attitude didn’t change after Cannae. Hanno II would be a large factor in Hannibal's lack of reinforcements while in Italy.
Hannibal spent a total of fourteen years in Italy after Cannae, his strength slowly whittling away. Since the Romans refused to face him in open battle, and since he was unable to conquer Rome, the stalemate went on as Rome attacked his allies overseas one by one. Finally, they attacked Carthage itself, prompting Hannibal to be recalled so he could defend the homeland from the Roman threat.
Back in North Africa, Hannibal found himself facing a Roman army at Zama. It was led by Publius Cornelius Scipio, the same man who had saved his father at Ticinus. Unfortunately for Hannibal, Scipio had been studying Hannibal’s tactics. To make the story short, Hannibal lost the Battle of Zama, and Carthage surrendered, bringing an end to the Second Punic War. In the aftermath, Scipio earned the honorary name "Africanus" for his victory over Rome's mortal enemy in Africa.
While most would expect that Hannibal’s life ended after the war, he actually switched gears and became one of Carthage’s highest-ranking magistrates. He battled corruption in the government and ensured that the war reparations Carthage had to pay Rome were duly paid without extra taxation needed. In fact, Rome was so shocked by Carthage’s recovery thanks to Hannibal’s efforts that he was forced to go into exile in 195 BC.
Living life as an international outlaw, Hannibal eventually travelled to Syria, where he was welcomed by King Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire (one of the empires which had emerged from Alexander the Great’s conquests). While Hannibal offered to lead his troops to southern Italy, Antiochus decided to invade Greece instead. According to the histories, when Antiochus showed off his army to Hannibal and asked him if they would be enough for the Roman Republic, the aging Hannibal allegedly replied, “I think all this will be enough, yes, quite enough, for the Romans, even though they are most avaricious." Unfortunately, he didn’t have a microphone to drop after making that burn.
Antiochus turned out to be no match for the Romans (as Hannibal predicted). His army was defeated by the Romans at Thermopylae in 191 BC (did nobody read their Ancient Greek history books back then??), and Rome immediately demanded that Antiochus give up Hannibal. With that, Hannibal hit the old dusty trail once more, reportedly finding hospitality in Armenia and Crete, presumably with the Romans chasing after him to the sound of a wacky soundtrack.
By all accounts, Hannibal was a highly intelligent man. In fact, he was very well educated as a youth while his father was campaigning abroad. Hannibal took so much from his hired Greek tutors that he ended up bringing one or two educated Greeks with him when he went on his campaign as an adult. The Spartan historian Sosylos accompanied Hannibal across the Alps (too bad he didn’t write about that journey though, he’d have made a bundle for those memoirs).
Hannibal’s influence on Rome is impossible to doubt. He was their greatest enemy, the man who came closest to attacking the city and destroying the Republic. For years after his death, whenever a disaster came up, Romans would show their fear by exclaiming “Hannibal is at the gates!”
Despite being vilified as a bloodthirsty monster, Hannibal was also viewed with grudging respect by Roman historians. Polybius acknowledged that it took a very special man to spend upwards of seventeen years in a foreign country, fighting battle after battle without reinforcements from home, and still keep his army together. Centuries later, Hannibal’s reputation as one of the greatest generals in history was secure, with men like Otto Van Bismarck and George S. Patton citing him as an inspiration.
Amazingly, if Appian’s histories can be trusted, Hannibal and Scipio Africanus reunited when Hannibal was an advisor in the court of the Seleucid Kingdom. Allegedly, the two men met several times, and in one incident, in front of witnesses at the gymnasium, Africanus asked Hannibal who he thought the greatest military leaders of all time were. Hannibal gave the answer some thought and replied that the top three military leaders who’d ever lived were Alexander the Great, King Pyrrhus of Epirus, and himself. Africanus was reportedly annoyed at not being named (since he’d beaten Hannibal), and he snidely asked Hannibal where he’d put himself if he hadn’t lost at Zama. Hannibal replied that he would have put himself before Alexander the Great in that case. As much as that was bragging, Hannibal also paid Africanus the compliment he was looking for, since by that logic, Africanus had beaten the greatest general who’d ever lived. It could be too good to be true, but we'll just cling to the hope that this conversation really did happen.
At one point in the later part of his life, Hannibal found himself staying with King Prusias of Bithynia, and helped the king out with his war against King Eumenes of Pergamum, who was one of Rome’s allies. Hannibal proved that his mind for strategy was still sharp by winning a naval battle against Pergamum. His scheme? Fill clay pots with dangerous snakes and throw them onto the enemy ships during the battle. This guy never ran out of ideas!
Depending on which record you read, Hannibal either died of a sickness or took his own life in Bithynia to avoid being handed over to the Romans (one historical record claims that just before he died, he sarcastically offered to do it because Rome just couldn’t wait for an old man’s death). Historians are inconsistent with which year Hannibal died, but one of the main dates is 181 BC. If this one is true, then it would be a heck of a coincidence, since that was also the year that Scipio Africanus died. Even more coincidentally, Africanus may or may not have also killed himself, and by the time of his death, he had gone into self-imposed exile from Rome after his political enemies had ruined his reputation. The image of two former enemies dying alone in exile, failed by the nations they fought so hard to protect, just seems so fitting that we're forced to wonder if it’s really true, or whether a Roman historian had a great sense for storytelling.
One of Hannibal’s most important battles in Italy was the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Hannibal’s army, being over 50,000 men strong at this point, ambushed and trapped a Roman army of 30,000 led by Gaius Flaminius, the consul of Rome. Even to this day, the battle remains the largest ambush ever orchestrated by a military force. Hannibal’s forces attacked the Romans on three sides, who where penned in by the lake at their backs. Half the Roman force was killed, including Flaminius, while the other half were taken prisoner.
In 217 BC, after spending the winter with his Gallic allies, Hannibal went back on the warpath. When Roman armies blocked the eastern and western routes to Rome, Hannibal defied all expectations (again) by marching his army through the swamps at the mouth of the Arno River. Although it was the quickest route south without getting into a fight, the march took days, cost many lives in the process, and even led to Hannibal losing an eye to conjunctivitis (AKA, pink eye).
As Hannibal and his men were stuck in a stalemate in Italy after Cannae, his brother Hasdrubal tried to bring reinforcements for an attack on Rome. Unfortunately, the Romans got wind of Hasdrubal’s plans, and despite his easier travel across the Alps (Hannibal’s forces had apparently left constructions behind in case anyone else wanted to invade Italy), he found himself facing a Roman army which outnumbered his men, and Hasdrubal was no Hannibal. Not only was his army annihilated, but Hasdrubal himself was killed. Hannibal found out about his brother’s defeat when Roman riders threw Hasdrubal’s severed head into Hannibal’s camp. For once, we hope that Hannibal shot the messengers.
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