Ancient History & Civilisation


Hannibal now held much of the territory north of the river Hiberus, with the important exception of the city of Saguntum, which a few years previously had reacted to the creeping northward advance of the Barcids by entering into an alliance with Rome. The Saguntines proved a useful source of information about Barcid activity in Spain, and the relationship was evidently close enough for Roman envoys to be invited to adjudicate when pro-Roman and pro-Barcid factions clashed within the city. Unsurprisingly, the Romans found in favour of the pro-Roman party, and a number of Barcid supporters were executed. The message was clear–any attack on Saguntum would be viewed in Rome as a serious provocation.43

Undeterred, over the next few months in 220 Hannibal slowly tightened his control over the territory around the city. Alarmed, the Saguntines sent increasingly persistent requests for assistance from their ally Rome. Eventually, after much prevarication, the Roman Senate dispatched envoys to parley with the Barcid general. Once again the Carthaginian Council of Elders was sidelined as the Roman embassy made its way directly to Spain.

The meeting that was held in the great palace at New Carthage was very different from the one six years previously, when the hard-pressed Romans had played for time by, in the words of Polybius, ‘flattering and conciliating’. The young general was solemnly warned not to attempt anything that would harm Rome’s ally Saguntum, as its citizens lay within Roman trust (fides). It was perhaps the hypocrisy of the ambassador’s pious reference to Roman fides which riled Hannibal into retaliation. The young general retorted that Rome itself had not delayed in interfering in the affairs of Saguntum, including the driving out and execution of pro-Carthaginian members of its elite. He then bitterly turned the whole question of faithfulness back on to the Romans: ‘The Carthaginians, he said, would not overlook this violation of good faith, for it was from old the principle of Carthage never to neglect the cause of the victims of injustice.’44 Hannibal did not even deign to mention the second Roman demand, that he respect Hasdrubal’s agreement not to cross the Hiberus, and he dismissed the envoys–who then sailed to Carthage to make their protests there.45

Hannibal’s rather high-handed treatment of the Roman ambassadors surely gives an indication of his growing confidence in the Barcid position in Spain. After all, the resources at his disposal were greater than any Carthaginian general had previously enjoyed. Hannibal now controlled almost half of the Iberian peninsula, an area of roughly 230,000 square kilometres. He had inherited an excellent fighting force of 60,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 200 elephants, honed by over sixteen years of campaigning against a determined and ferocious enemy. A series of alliances had been signed with the leaders of powerful Celtiberian tribes that added to his military strength. Huge mining production meant that there was enough money to meet war costs. A later Roman writer estimated that one mine at Baebelo, whose shafts ran for more than a Roman mile and half (2.2 kilometres) into the mountain, produced an enormous 135 kilograms of silver a day for Hannibal. Indeed the weight and purity of the silver coinage that was being produced for the troops was a reflection of robust economic health.46

It was perhaps with these great resources in mind that Hannibal now decided to defy Rome and attack Saguntum. The Saguntines resisted doggedly, and progress was very slow. They made particularly good use of the falarica, a type of oversized javelin, whose metre-long iron spike was bound with material covered in flammable pitch and sulphur and then set ablaze and hurled down on to the Punic attackers. Hannibal himself was wounded in the thigh by a javelin when he strayed too close to the city walls. Not long after, a new Roman embassy landed a short distance away from the Carthaginian camp, but Hannibal refused even to grant them an audience, explaining that he could not guarantee their safety and that he was in any case too busy commanding the siege.47

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!