Ancient History & Civilisation


In many ways Hannibal represented the growing chasm between Barcid Spain and Carthage. He was a product of ‘the camp’. He had left North Africa at the age of 9, and his formative years had been spent among the troops on campaign in Spain. The later Roman historian Livy described the young general’s martial qualities as follows:

Power to command and readiness to obey are rare associates; but in Hannibal they were perfectly united . . . Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability once it was upon him. Indefatigable both physically and mentally, he could endure with equal ease excessive heat or cold; he ate and drank not to flatter his appetites but only so much as would sustain his bodily strength; waking and sleeping he made no distinction between night and day; what time his duties left him he gave to sleep, nor did he seek it on a soft bed or in silence, for he was often to be seen, wrapped in an army cloak, asleep on the ground amid common soldiers on sentry or picket duties. His clothing in no way distinguished him from other young men of his age; but his accoutrements and horses were eye-catching. Mounted or unmounted he was unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, always the last to leave the field.37

With the appointment of Hannibal, the perception that the Spanish command was a Barcid family possession was confirmed. In his account Livy emphasized the sense of resentment towards the Barcids that had built up among some of the Carthaginian political elite, in a diatribe supposedly delivered by Hamilcar’s old enemy Hanno in the Carthaginian Council of Elders. Although the words are undoubtedly Livy’s, the sentiments that they impart are probably genuine:

Are we afraid that it will be too long before Hamilcar’s son surveys the extravagant power and the pageant of royalty which his father assumed, and that there will be undue delay in our becoming slaves of the despot to whose son-in-law our armies have been bequeathed as though they were his patrimony?38

It is clear from the Barcid coinage of this period that Hannibal was keen to promote his familial links with Hamilcar. A series of silver coinage issues appeared showing a portrait of Heracles–Melqart depicted with a number of elements associated with the Greek Heracles, including a club resting on his shoulder and a laurel wreath.39 The figure is a clean-shaven young man, and on the reverse is an African elephant. At roughly the same time a double-shekel silver coin was released which showed a similar figure with laurel wreath and club. Although this Melqart displays very similar characteristics, he sports a beard and is clearly older. On the reverse there is again an African elephant, but here with a driver on its back. These coins are a progression from earlier coins depicting Melqart, in that they attempt to associate the Barcids and the god.40 The war elephant was a symbol that came to be increasingly linked with the Barcids during this period.

Hellenistic kings and leaders had long blurred the division between personal and divine portraiture. There often appears to be an almost deliberate ambiguity between the human and the divine in the portraits on the coins of Alexander and his successors, which bolstered the issuers’ claims to divine protection and favour. In the Barcid context there also appears to be the added focus on articulating the legitimacy of Hannibal taking command as Hamilcar Barca’s son. That legitimacy over the Spanish realm was further bolstered when, as his predecessor Hasdrubal had done, Hannibal married an Iberian woman, from Castulo, ‘a powerful and famous city’, which was in close alliance with the Barcids.41

Hannibal spent the first two years of his generalship mopping up opposition and expanding Barcid territory towards the north-west of Spain. He would soon prove his genius as a military commander. Not only did he storm a number of important Celtiberian strongholds, but he also showed great cunning in his destruction of a dangerous enemy force. In the spring of 220 BC, finding themselves threatened by a formidable foe, Hannibal and his army feigned retreat by crossing the river Tagus and set up camp on its left bank. The trap was now baited by leaving enough space between his trenches and the banks of the river to encourage the enemy to attack. When the enemy started to cross the river, they found themselves under attack from the Barcid cavalry. Those who managed to struggle across found forty of Hannibal’s war elephants waiting to trample them underfoot. Hannibal then crossed the river with the rest of his army to deliver the coup de grâce. This victory was so emphatic that others now knew not to test the military worth of the young general.42

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