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The Impact of Hannibal (4 November 2022)

The Impact of Hannibal 

Presented Online

Nicholas Hardwick

Carthage, in present day Tunisia, which was the colony of Tyre in Phoenicia, established an empire in the western Mediterranean region, which reached its greatest extent in the third century BC.

The state was led at different times by several powerful families.  In the third century, the Barca family was the most powerful, and its most famous member was Hannibal (247-between 183 and 181).  Particularly significant for his leadership of the Carthaginian army during the Second Punic War (218-01), Hannibal was one of the most successful generals in history, and his actions had an impact on world history.

The other significant power in the western Mediterranean region during his life was the Roman Republic (c.509-27), which was what the Roman form of government was called during this period.  Its capital was the city of Rome, and its territory, at the time when Hannibal came to prominence, occupied most of modern day Italy, except for the north, as well as Corsica.  It was against the Roman Republic that Hannibal fought the Second Punic War.

The adjective ‘Punic’, meaning ‘Carthaginian’, comes from the Latin adjective ‘Punicus’, which is derived from the Latin name for the Carthaginians, ‘Poeni’.  This in turn comes from the Greek name of the Phoenicians, derived from the Greek word phoinix, which means ‘purple’, because of the purple dye which they traded.  Thus, their descendants, the Carthaginians, are also considered by the Romans to be the people who traded the purple dye.

In the third century, the Carthaginian Empire expanded in the region of the southern Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal, and Morocco and Libya in north Africa.  The most significant colony was ‘Carthage’, founded in 227 and named after Carthage, which was called ‘Carthago Nova’ by the Romans, and is present day Cartagena, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.  In the Second Punic War, it was from this city in 218 that the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, began his march across the Alps and into Italy in his unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Roman Republic.

Unlike the other Phoenician cities which were focussed on trade and commerce, Carthage had military and imperial ambitions, and thus became an expansionist power.  Prior to the Barca family, it was largely ruled by members of the Magonid family from the sixth until the end of the fourth century.

The Barca family dominated the leadership and military command of Carthage from the third to the second centuries.  Its members are distinguished in some cases by names which commence with ‘H’, and include Hamilcar (c.275-28), the general in the latter part of the First Punic War (264-41) and the father of Hannibal, Hasdrubal (245-07), a general in the Second Punic War and the brother of Hannibal, and Hanno, the nephew of Hannibal, who was a military officer during the same war.  However, the most famous member was Hannibal.

During the Second Punic War, Hannibal conducted a campaign of invasion from Spain which crossed the Alps and entered Italy, with a force which included elephants.  In Italy, Rome suffered significant defeats by Hannibal at the Battles of Trebia (218), Lake Trasimene (217), and Cannae (215), which threatened the very existence of Rome.  The Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236/235-183), finally defeated Hannibal in Africa at the Battle of Zama (202), near Carthage.

Hannibal’s actions in the Second Punic War are recorded by the Greek historian, Polybius (c.200-c.118), and the Roman historian, Livy (59 BC – AD 17).  Polybius, who came from Greece and lived for much of his life in Rome, was associated with the highest Roman social and political circles.  He had the advantage of living close to the time of the events which he described, and, indeed, the early years of his life overlapped the later years of Hannibal’s life.  In his historical method, he believed in the importance of interviewing people who witnessed actual events, which he described.  He also could call upon written sources from the recent past, which referred to the events which he described.  These sources may not have survived for later historians to consult.

By contrast, Livy, who lived much of his life and wrote during the time of the Roman emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BC-14 AD), was writing about events long before his life, so did not have the advantage of speaking to eye witnesses or consulting recent literary sources.  Thus, the accuracy of his work can be questioned.  For the life of Hannibal, we are fortunate that Livy’s history of Rome from its beginning in 753 BC until the death of Drusus, the stepson of Augustus, in AD 9, entitled Ab Urbe Condita (Latin forFrom the Founding of the City), of which much is lost, is complete for the periods of the Second Punic War and of the later life of Hannibal.  Polybius was one of Livy’s major sources in this section of his work.

Born in Carthage, Hannibal was the son of Hamilcar and an unknown mother, and his brothers were Hasdrubal and Mago, and he had sisters whose names are unknown.

From a young age, Hannibal campaigned in Iberian Peninsula with his father, Hamilcar, where the latter was building up Carthage’s strength.  After the death of his father, and of his father-in-law, Hasdrubal, in 221, he succeeded as commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian army at the age of 26 years and consolidated Carthaginian control in the Iberian Peninsula.

Fearing Hannibal’s increasing power, the Romans made an alliance with the city of Saguntum, south of the River Ebro, a river in the north and north-east of the Iberian Peninsula.  Hannibal considered this a violation of the treaty between Carthage and Rome, which had been signed by Hasdrubal and defined the Ebro as being the boundary between Roman and Carthaginian expansion.  This led to the Seige of Saguntum by Hannibal in 219, when the city fell after eight months.  The Roman response was to declare war on Carthage, which led to the beginning of the Second Punic War.

Hannibal’s feat of using elephants in his invasion force which crossed the Alps has been remembered as one of the great historical military achievements.  Despite the fact that the crossing began with 38 elephants, only a few survived to reach Italy.  The feat was thus important for its ambitions and innovativeness, although the force of elephants contributed little to the subsequent campaign in Italy.

Hannibal had considerable military success in Italy and defeated the Romans in three major battles.  These battles had a large impact on Roman military resources, due to the large amount of casualties. Hannibal managed to gain the support of many Italian cities and regions, which thus allowed him to campaign for several years a long way from his supply lines in Spain.

The first was the Battle of the Trebia, which took place on the bank of the Trebia River, a tributary of the River Po, in northern Italy, near modern Piacenza and not far from Milan.  The Roman commander was Tiberius Sempronius Longus (c.260-after 215), who was consul in 218, that is, one of the two leading Roman magistrates.  He was decisively defeated by the Carthaginians.  The battle was significant for the use of war elephants, which had survived the crossing of the Alps.

The second was the Battle of Lake Trasimene, which took place in Tuscany in central Italy, and the Carthaginian tactics were the ambush of the Roman army beside the north shore of the lake, and the complete defeat of the entire Roman army, killing and capturing 25,000 men, with few Carthaginian casualties.  Destruction by ambush by one army of another army is considered a unique occurrence in military history.

An important figure during the early part of the war was Gaius Flaminius (c.275-17), the leading Roman politician, twice consul (223, 217).  He was killed in the Battle of Lake Trasimene, where he was the leader of the Roman army.

The defeat led to the appointment in 217 as dictator, that is, a magistrate with absolute power in a time of crisis, of a significant figure through most of the war, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, named Cunctator (meaning ‘the delayer’) (c.280-203), the Roman statesman and general, who was consul on five occasions (233, 228, 215, 214, and 209) and previously dictator in 221.  His extra name, ‘Cunctator’, which is referred to in Latin as an agnomen (that is, ad ‘to’, and nomen ‘name’), refers to his strategy against Hannibal of attacking supply lines and having smaller engagements, rather than large battles.  This strategy was a reaction to the earlier defeats in large battles.

Leading Romans were impatient with these tactics and wished to engage Hannibal in battle. Thus, Fabius Maximus’ term as dictator was not renewed and in 216, Gaius Terentius Varro (d. after 200) and Lucius Aemilius Paullus (d. 216) were elected as consuls, and they prepared to engage Hannibal with a new large army.

This took place at the Battle of Cannae, perhaps on 2 August 216, at Cannae in Apulia in south-eastern Italy.  Hannibal’s tactics in this battle were to surround the Roman army, and it is remembered for its particular military significance.  As with all ancient battles, the number of casualties is difficult to determine accurately, but the result was a massive defeat for the Roman army, with a loss of at least 67,000 men, including over 48,000 killed, compared to a loss by the Carthaginians of over 5,500 men killed in the battle.  One of the Roman commanders, the consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was killed.  The Roman army had one of its greatest defeats and the battle is considered to be one of the greatest military tactical achievements ever.

Later in 216, the city of Capua in Campania, south of Rome, defected to Hannibal.  At that time, it was the second largest city in Italy.  This was retaken by the Romans after two sieges in 212 and 211.  During the latter years of the war, the Romans managed to regroup their forces and, despite some military successes, Hannibal retreated to Africa in 203.  The Romans then took the war to Africa in the vicinity of Carthage. 

The Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio, led the Roman forces in the latter part of the war.  He came from one of the leading Roman aristocratic families, which had held high office for many years during the Roman Republic.  His first major military appointment was in 211 in Hispania, modern day Spain, at the age of 25 years, when he was appointed proconsul, that is, a Roman magistrate representing the chief magistrates, the consuls, as the military governor of a Roman province.

Scipio defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama, which took place in Tunisia, near Carthage.  The Carthaginian forces included 80 war elephants, but the Romans defeated the Carthaginians, with the latter sustaining over 20,000 killed, compared to about 4,000 deaths of the Roman forces.  This victory over Hannibal was decisive and led to the ultimate Roman victory in the Second Punic War.  Scipio took the agnomen ‘Africanus’, because of his victory in the Battle of Zama.  His name thus became ‘Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus’.

Carthaginian coinage was issued during the Second Punic War in the metals electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), silver, bronze and billon (an alloy of silver debased with copper).  A significant issue, struck in Spain, which alludes to the events of the period, is the quarter shekel of silver, 1.72 g, dated c.237-09, with, on the obverse, the left facing laureate bust of perhaps Hannibal with the features of the Punic god Melqart and club over his shoulder, and, on the reverse, a war elephant facing right.  Melqart was identified with the Greek hero Herakles, whose attributes he had, such as a club.  Carthaginian coinage was struck in Spain until the Roman conquest in 205, and from 215-10, it was struck for Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal in southern Italy, and in Sicily from 213-10.

During this period, the reform of the Roman coinage during the Second Punic War led to the introduction of the silver denarius of 4.50 g in c.211, which was the standard Roman silver coin until the third century AD.

After the Second Punic War, Carthage was reduced to the city and the neighbouring region in North Africa.  Conservative forces in Rome, led by Cato the Elder (234–149), thought that Carthage should be destroyed completely, so that it would not pose a threat to Rome in future.  Cato had been consul, and censor, that is, the magistrate responsible for the census of the state and other responsibilities, and had thus held two of the most senior magistracies.  Indeed, Cato ended every speech which he gave in the Senate with words to the effect that, in Latin, ‘Delenda est Carthago’, which is translated as ‘Carthage must be destroyed’.

The Third Punic War (149-6) led to the final destruction of Carthage and annexation of its territory by Rome by the Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185-29), known as Scipio Aemilianus, who was the grandson by adoption of Scipio Africanus.

After his defeat at the Battle of Zama, Hannibal lived in Carthage from 202-195, and was elected suffete, that is, the one of the two chief magistrates of the state.  In addition to being a general, he distinguished himself as a statesman, and enacted significant reforms at Carthage.  These reforms were unpopular with the Carthaginian aristocracy as well as with the Romans.

The Roman Republic feared his influence in the resurgence of Carthage as a power, and Hannibal was forced to go into exile in various kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean region.

He served as a general and admiral for various Greek and other kingdoms in that region.  He was first the military advisor of the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III (reigned 222-187), whose empire stretched from Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, to Iran, where the Seleucid dynasty ruled as successors to Alexander the Great (reigned 336-23).  He was, however, unsuccessful as a commander against the Romans and their allies in various battles, including the Battle of Magnesia (December 190 or January 189) in western Asia Minor.

Hannibal fled to the court of Artaxias I (reigned 189-60) of Armenia, which is the region of present day north-eastern Turkey, Armenia and northern Iran, and may have assisted him with his administration.

During the last years of his life from 189, he lived in Bithynia, which is a region of Asia Minor, and which borders the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.  Here he served as a military commander for Prusias I of Bithynia (reigned 228-182).  The date of his death is uncertain, but it was in the years 183-1.

As an historical figure, Hannibal had a significant impact on world history.  He was an outstanding military and naval commander and a gifted statesman and administrator.  His important position in the Carthaginian state meant that he was one of the most powerful men of his time.  His conflicts with Rome resulted in Roman supremacy in the western Mediterranean region, which in turn led to the dominance of Latin culture in that area, instead of the Semitic culture of Carthage.


For a Carthaginian silver quarter shekel: www.cngcoins.com/Coin.aspx?CoinID=191596