Rome’s Greatest Nemesis: Hannibal Barca

Rome had a lot of enemies . The greatest enemy faced by the Republic, was Carthage. After 3 bloody wars, Carthage was wiped out. Yet in the second war, one general of Carthage caused a lot of grief to the Romans. He’d go down history as one of the greatest generals.

Hannibal Barca.

The Athenian Inspector and myself, over various discussions, ranked military commanders in the Ancient Greco-Roman World. We agreed that Hannibal would edge out Scipio Africanus, as the 3rd greatest general, behind only Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. There’s no shame in being third to those two brilliant generals.


Early Life and Family

Hannibal was the son of Hamilcar Barca. A well reputed general himself, he waged guerilla warfare against the Roman legions during the First Punic war. He successfully put down the Mercenary revolt against Carthage after the war.  Taking his family to Hispania, he conquered a large area, the resources helping Carthage immensely. After his father’s death he served under his brother in law, Hasdrubal the fair. Hannibal assumed command after Hasdrubal’s assassination in 221 BCE.

To the Carthaginian Army, Hannibal was an ideal candidate. He was just seen as a younger version of his father, a popular and efficient commander. The Barca family’s conquest of Spain was vital to Carthage. A mineral rich land known for its silver mines, it would supply much needed finance for the Carthage and eventually Rome.

Apart from his brilliance at logistics and military command, there was one steadfast trait in Hannibal. His desire to see Rome destroyed.  Depending on the source, Hannibal as a child vowed to his father that he would never be a friend of Rome, or his father made him swear as a child. The message is still the same.

He said that at the time when his father was about to start with his army on his expedition to Spain, he himself, then nine years of age, was standing by the altar, while Hamilcar was sacrificing to Zeus. When, on the omens being favourable, Hamilcar had poured a libation to the gods and performed all the customary rites, he ordered the others who were attending the sacrifice to withdraw to a slight distance and calling Hannibal to him asked him kindly if he wished to accompany him on the expedition. On his accepting with delight, and, like a boy, even begging to do it besides, his father took him by the hand, led him up to the altar, and bade him lay his hand on the victim and swear never to be the friend of the Romans  – Polybius Book 3.

Start of the Second Punic War: March to and through the mountains.

Hannibal had been planning to invade Italy and Rome for years. The plan to cross the mountains had been conceived nearly a decade ago (228BCE). The requisite information would have taken years to gather. Alliances had to be forged with the Celts in the Northern Italy. Since the Romans just conquered the area, there would be willing allies in the area to aid Hannibal.

Apart from Seguntum, a Roman ally, Carthage controlled most of Hispania. The army consisted of 90,000 infantry, 13,000 cavalry and around 50 elephants. 20,000 men and 1,000 cavalry were left behind upon reaching the Pyrenees. These men were reluctant to leave, and loyal men were needed to garrison the country and prepare for the eventual Roman invasion. This force would guard Hannibal’s rear as he entered the mountains.

 The march was brutal. Crossing the Pyrenees, would cost the Carthaginians 13,000 men in conquering the hostile natives.

Crossing the Alps and Pyrenees would have been brutal. Most of the troops were from Africa and Iberia. They were not used to the cold.

The Romans, led by the father and uncle of Scipio Afrricanus were alerted to his march. They failed to intercept him in the mountains (though the cavalry forces had a few skirmishes). The Romans would not pursue, and would wait in Italy and invade Hispania.

The ascent into the Alps was brutal. To overcome defensive fortifications built by hostile natives, Hannibal lead his men through alternate routes. This taxed man and beast heavily. Losses were high and morale was low. However, after 5 months since their departure , they could see the Po Valley of Northern Italy. The Punic Army reached Roman territory

Winter was now approaching and the early snows were now settling on the mountaintops. Hannibal realised that his men were demoralised as a result of both the hardships they had already endured and the prospect of yet more to come – Polybius, Book 3

Winter military activity was a rarity, let alone moving an army across two mountain ranges. To have arrived with as many men as he did (40,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry and a few elephants) is a testament to his brilliant logistical and organizational skills.

Years of success (218-216BCE)

Hannibal devastated Roman forces during those years. Victories at Trebia (218), Lake Trasimene (217) and Cannae (216) saw the Roman forces lose more than 130,000 men. These victories saw many North and South Italian states join Hannibal and Carthage. Of these battles, Cannae was the greatest victory of his career. Over 70,000 of 86,000 of the Roman forces were killed. In his battles, he generally had a weak center, with heavy infantry and cavalry deployed on the either side and the wings. They would then encircle the Romans who would charge at the center, and slaughter them. His battlefield tactics have been studied by commanders over the next 2000 years. These battles sealed his battlefield legacy.

Battle of Cannae. A Roman bloodbath, and Hannibal’s greatest victory

Hannibal also had to deal with the skirmishing and harassment of his forces by Fabius Maximus. This method of warfare, strained his supplies and saw losses that would not have been easy to replace.  Yet, the Romans undid themselves when they relived Maximus and mobilized for the eventual Battle of Cannae.

Inability to siege Rome and later years in Italy.

After Cannae, the situation was bleak for Rome. Half of Italy switched alliegance to Hannibal. Carthage controlled most of Hispania and its riches. Macedon declared war on Rome (though it was not a major threat as they wanted to attack the Greek cities there) and Syracuse, a Roman ally had a Pro-Carthage tyrant as their new ruler.

The result of the battle being as I have described,  the general consequences that had been anticipated on both sides followed. The Carthaginians by this action became at once masters of almost all the rest of the coast, Tarentum immediately surrendering, while Argyrippa and some Campanian towns invited Hannibal to come to them, and the eyes of all were now turned to the Carthaginians, who had great hopes of even taking Rome itself at the first assault. – Polybius

The big question: Why didn’t Hannibal besiege Rome? With Roman forces and morale shattered, it should have been an easy matter.

Of a truth the gods have not bestowed all things upon the same person. You know how to conquer, Hannibal; but you do not know how to make use of your victory.” – Mahrabal, commander of Numidian Cavalry   
– Livy, Histories of Rome.

One Answer

Lack of manpower. After Cannae, Hannibal would have had an army of around 45,000. This includes cavalry as well. Instead of sending reinforcements to Italy, Carthage sent forces to try and capture Sicily, which were defeated by the Roman forces on the island. Carthage’s oligarchy were opposed to war with Rome, thus barely supporting Hannibal.

As strong as it was, a 45,000 strong Punic Army could not siege Rome, which had walls running for almost 12 kilometers with 16 main gates, and the River Tiber.

Even after their losses, besieging a city the size of Rome required more men than what he had. The city gates would have to be blocked, siege constructed and the river Tiber would have to be blocked to stop grain shipments. With 45,000 men, Hannibal realistically could never lay siege on Rome. It would stretch his army too much and the Romans from the city could counter attack and break his lines. If he received reinforcements and support, creating a force of at least 70,000 men, a siege would have been possible.

Later years in Italy

Hannibal would remain in Italy for 13 years after Cannae. None of the engagements were decisive. Battlefield victories or draws were inconclusive. Time and men were resources that the Romans had and were expending it. Many cities would end up switching hands between the factions. As the war dragged on, Hannibal found it increasingly difficult to replenish his losses, as the support from Italian allies started to wane.

Any chance of salvaging the Italian theater was lost with the Roman victory at Metaurus. Scipio Africanus captured Hispania for Rome. One of Hannibal’s brothers, Hasdrubal marched with a force of over 30,000 men across the mountains. Just as they arrived in Italy, the Roman consuls of the year launched an attack, and destroyed this Punic army. Hannibal would be reinforced by his other brother Mago, but that was a tiny force.

After Cannae, Fabius Maximum’s strategy was not looked down upon. While he scored no major victory, he ensured Hannibal would struggle to maintain his grip in Italy.

In 203 BCE, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage.


The threat of a Roman invasion, meant a recall for Hannibal, who commanded a force of local levies, mercenaries and his veterans. His veteran army was considered by some historians as the greatest army of the ancient world. The climactic battle of Zama saw two talented commanders, in Hannibal and Scipio Africanus face off.

It wasn’t the first meeting between the Barca and Scipio families.

Hannibal and Scipio meeting before Zama. Both held mutual respect for one another. This was however not a first meeting between the Barca and Scipio families, who had served in both, the First and Second Punic Wars.

Peace negotiations broke down, despite mutual admiration by the commanders. Incidentally, Zama was a reverse situation for Carthage. The Romans (for a change) had superior cavalry as the Numidian price, Masinissa defected to Rome. Carthage had more infantry. Using similar tactics employed by Hannibal, the Romans defeated Hannibal, and ended the Second Punic War.

The Peace Terms imposed, would cripple Carthage. However, Hannibal was free to continue as a leader in Carthage.

Later Life

Hannibal proved to be an able politician and administrator. His reforms benefit the general population but the corrupt aristocracy of Carthage did not take kind to it. He helped Carthage rebuild, and Rome were worried Carthage could escape the terms of the peace treaty quickly. They demanded his surrender. To avoid so, he would flee Carthage, never to return. Yet, his hostility to remained.

Hannibal reached the court of Antiochus III, ruler of the Seleucid Empire. He was an advisor to the King and helped train his army. He even volunteered to lead the army after a sea landing in Italy. The courtiers of the King prevented him from rising in influence. In the end, the Seleucid army was defeated by the Romans (coincidentally, led by the Scipios).

Antiochus III of the Seleucid welcomed Hannibal for a while

Hannibal fled to Prusias I of Bithynia. He led the forces against a Roman ally, Pregamon. However, a landing by the Romans forced the surrender of Bithynia. Rome demanded Hannibal. The general, who would not give his opponents a chance to triumph, would commit suicide.

He is said to have either poisoned himself, or died of a fever from a sword wound he received while mounting his steed. Even the true year of death is unknown, with historians saying it might have happened any time between 183-181BCE.

Let us ease, the Romans of their continual dread and care, who think it long and tedious to await the death of a hated old man. Yet Titus will not bear away a glorious victory, nor one worthy of those ancestors who sent to caution Pyrrhus, an enemy, and a conqueror too, against the poison prepared for him by traitors.”- Hannibal before his death, According to Livy


The Athenian Inspector and myself have called Hannibal the 3rd greatest commander of the Greco-Roman world. His military exploits will be remembered forever. Cannae is one of the most studied and discussed battles of the ancient world. Even without support from his own state, he was a threat to Rome, right till the end.

Even his enemies would grudgling acknowledge him. Polyibus speaking on the character of Hannibal:

An admirable feature in Hannibal’s character, and the strongest proof of his having been a born ruler of men, and having possessed statesmanlike qualities of an unusual kind, is that, though he was for seventeen years engaged in actual warfare, and though he had to make his way through numerous barbaric tribes, and to employ innumerable men of different nationalities in what appeared desperate and hazardous enterprises, he was never made the object of a conspiracy by any of them, nor deserted by any of those who had joined him and put themselves under his command – Polybius Book 23

Hannibal was a brilliant general, organizer, tactician, politician and administrator. The proof of his legacy, comes from recognition by other great Commanders and military historians after him. Scipio Africanus is known to have admired the general. Napoleon Bonaparte listed Hannibal as one of the top 7 military commanders in history.

Hannibal Barca, the greatest foreign enemy of the Roman Republic

-Roman Imperium

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