Ancient History & Civilisation


Hannibal and Rome

One of Hannibal’s friends, known as the ‘Gladiator’, remarked that as far as he could see there was only one way by which they could manage to reach Italy. Hannibal asked him to explain, and the ‘Gladiator’ replied that they must teach the army to eat human flesh and become used to it. Hannibal could not refute the boldness or the practicality of this idea, but he could not persuade himself or his friends to accept it.

Polybius, 9.24

The resulting Second Punic War with Carthage, from 218 to 202, strained Rome to the very limit, wracked Italy and ended by transforming Rome’s resources, range and ambitions. To us, the hero is Hannibal, twenty-nine years old at the outset, who astonished the Romans by crossing the Alps and offering ‘freedom’ yet again, but this time to Italians throughout the peninsula. No wonder his name was evoked later by Napoleon during a similar transalpine campaign to ‘liberate’ Italy. Yet Hannibal was also remembered for destroying 400 towns and costing 300,000 Italian lives. His supreme victory at Cannae killed 48,000 enemy troops and is still studied in Western military academies. The rate of killing during the battle has been estimated at 500 lives a minute.1 But even so, he did not win the war. The greater heroes turned out to be Roman: the noble Fabius Maximus, who turned defeat gradually into victory by a campaign of painful delay and devastation, and the brilliant young Scipio who ended by invading Africa and winning a last great battle near Zama in 202.

Had Hannibal’s father talked to his son of crossing the Alps one day and avenging the previous war (and the loss of Sardinia) on a startled Rome? Perhaps, and perhaps Romans were right to be nervous, especially as north Italy below the Alps was so troubled with the Gallic tribesmen. But even then, Rome was miles away and the territories which she controlled totalled some 15,000 square miles. After the many conquests and treaties which she had made in Italy since the 340s, her adult male citizens now numbered more than 270,000, increased by particular Italian communities. From other communities she could draw on Italians as allies too. These Italians’ treaties with Rome did not require them to pay tribute, but did oblige them to send and pay soldiers for Rome’s wars. Rome’s allied Italian manpower was more than 600,000, on top of her own ever-increasing citizenry. The heady days of the 390s, when a few Gauls could migrate south and seize Rome’s Capitol, belonged to another era: Rome’s potential soldiery was enormous, far bigger than the 30,000–50,000 citizens of classical Athens’ days of dominance.

During the previous twenty years, the preceding Carthaginian conquests in Spain had been a slow business. Nonetheless, it was from Spain that Rome’s greatest opponent emerged: the young Hannibal crossed the river Ebro in June 218 BC with 40,000 troops and thirty-seven elephants, only a fraction of the Carthaginian commanders’ herd. He then crossed the Pyrenees and by mid-August he had also crossed the broad river Rhône north of Avignon by ferrying the elephants across on camouflaged rafts (although some of them panicked and swam). His troops were vastly fewer than Rome’s potential manpower, and as he headed northwards up the Rhône’s far bank, the watching Roman general, Scipio, cannot have given him much chance of reaching Italy at all. The Alps towered in his way, but Hannibal turned east and took them on, probably crossing Mont Cenis (arguably by the Savine Coche pass, around 7,500 feet high) in late October.

Up in the Alps, he was later said to have used hot vinegar to split open rocks which blocked his path (where, though, would he have found enough firewood to heat up enough vinegar?). The elephants must have helped to clear the way and certainly scared off the hostile local tribesmen. When he came down into the plains above Turin he had only 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry; none of the elephants had yet died. Although his army was already halved, he still won a first skirmish against Roman troops by the river Po. He followed it up in late December with a crushing victory over a Roman consul and army at the river Trebbia (near Piacenza). A key to his success here was the doubling of his army with recruits from the anti-Roman Gauls in north Italy. They had at first hesitated to join him, but they were encouraged by his initial success and his terror tactics towards those who had refused.

With this army of hired Africans, Spaniards and Gauls, Hannibal was wary of a plot against his life, and in camp he is said to have worn different wigs in order to disguise himself.2 Disguise would have been difficult because he lost an eye while travelling through marshlands around the river Arno. By then he had also lost almost all his elephants: only seven survived the cold winter and Hannibal, the most famous ‘elephant-general’, never used them again in battle. However, the few (perhaps only one) who soldiered on were still a symbol: Italian towns on his route struck coins showing an elephant, even an Indian elephant (attended by a negro): perhaps Hannibal had acquired it from trade with the Ptolemies. If so, it is antiquity’s great traveller, from Egypt to Italy. It may be the one called the ‘Syrian’, remembered as the bravest in battle. It had only one unbroken tusk: did one-eyed Hannibal ride it? In June 217, at Lake Trasimene in Etruria, his one eye was still clear-sighted: he took advantage of misty weather and outwitted another Roman consul and a bigger army.

Hannibal’s crack troops were his cavalry, of which he had many thousands. His Numidians, from north Africa, were brilliant horsemen, able to direct their horses without any bridles by their clever use of a neck-rein. They had a flexibility which mounted Romans and Italians could not match. It is, then, for horses that Hannibal’s march should be famous: when he pushed on to reach the eastern coast of Italy he reconditioned his horses there with the contents of the local cellars: he bathed them in old Italian wine, a vintage tonic for their coats.3 Personally, Hannibal was not a drinker and his only luxury was the food he had to consume. He had also left his Iberian wife back in Cadiz. Not until three years later, when he was in south Apulia at Salapia, is he known to have succumbed to an Italian woman, and she was a prostitute.4

In August 216 Hannibal won his supreme victory at Cannae in south-east Italy by pitting what were now some 50,000 troops against a much bigger Roman army which was probably about 87,000 strong. Once again, his mobile cavalry and ingenious battle-order proved unbeatable. After a day of slaughter, a Carthaginian, Maharbal, is said to have urged Hannibal to hurry straight to Rome, 250 miles away, where he could be ‘dining on the Capitol after four days’.5 It would have been an amazing multi-ethnic dinner-party above the Forum, but Hannibal hung back. Instead, he won successes in the south, above all when he detached the powerful state of Capua from Rome’s alliance. His troops then wintered in the town which had so long been famous for its luxury, including a council-chamber called ‘the White House’, a big scent-market and a tempting line in women and soft bedding. Moralists later said that this winter in Capua corrupted him, but oft-cited ‘luxury’ was not really the root of his problems.

Fundamentally, they were political. On entering Italy Hannibal had proclaimed freedom. His quarrel, he said, was not with Italy but with Rome. Italian prisoners were courteously dismissed. Just as he had hoped to profit from Rome’s Gallic enemies north of the Po (in what is now, but was not then, ‘north Italy’), so he hoped to detach Rome’s many differing allies and dependencies throughout Italy. His brother Mago was sent down into the south to activate Pyrrhus’ former stamping ground and liberate the Greek cities too. Attempts were to be made on all the Roman gains of the fourth and third centuries BC, including Naples and Tarentum. An alliance was even struck with King Philip V of Macedon over in northern Greece. Hannibal was certainly not acting as a lone adventurer without the approval of the Carthaginian government in Africa: in 215 they did manage to send him some more elephants across to southern Italy. His treaty with Philip makes his official support clear. Nor was he aiming to flatten Rome. She was to be left with a role, but without a confederacy, as if history could be turned back two hundred years. Hence, in part, Hannibal’s refusal to hurry from Cannae straight to Rome’s Capitol hill.

If Hannibal had succeeded, history until Hadrian’s lifetime would have been completely different. Hannibal knew about Pyrrhus; he could read and speak Greek and Greek historians accompanied him. Nonetheless, did he simply repeat Pyrrhus’ mistakes? Pyrrhus had been called a brilliant dice-thrower who could not exploit the results; Hannibal, too, was said to know how to win, but not how to use a victory. Actually, Hannibal had more in his favour. Unlike Pyrrhus, he had the full support of an established home government with the capacity to reinforce him, both from Africa and Spain. His victories were not ‘Pyrrhic’: they were crushingly one-sided triumphs. Neither Pyrrhus nor Hannibal made decisive use of their elephants, but Hannibal was a cavalry-king, the great Alexander’s equal. Whereas Pyrrhus was a Homeric Achilles in combat, Hannibal was a consummate trickster, more of an Odysseus. He was a master of ambushes, of cunning battle-plans and false letters. He even tied blazing sticks to the horns of two thousand oxen and herded them away from his army by night so as to mislead his enemy about the ‘lights’ and line of his troops on the move. Like Pyrrhus, he came within a few miles of Rome (in 211, on a diversionary march northwards) but ultimately, like that of Pyrrhus, his was yet another ‘liberation betrayed’. Even in the south, there were Greek city-states which never fully took his side.

For this hesitation, there were good reasons. Whatever Hannibal’s personal culture, his troops were mostly random barbarians with little charm for the wary, civilized Greeks or for Rome’s most favoured Latins. What would ‘freedom’ really mean when offered by a wild Gaul or a Carthaginian oligarch? The more Hannibal had to wait around, the more he devastated the countryside, while his own reprisals in captured cities could be dreadfully harsh. Above all, southern Spain had been blocked off from Italy by shrewd, long-term Roman generalship. Right from the start, in 217, the two elder Scipios, Rome’s generals in Spain, had realized that they must keep troops on the coast there to block more troops from reaching Hannibal. If Hannibal had galloped to Rome after Cannae, there would have been the obstacles of the city’s walls, many Roman survivors and some robust street fighting. But could he not have succeeded, like the Gauls in the 390s and without the treacherous geese?

On the Roman side, awesome prodigies were recorded for 218 and 217, as if the gods were communicating trouble: a six-month-old child called out ‘triumph’ in Rome; in Italian towns the sun seemed to be fighting the moon and shields were seen in the sky.6Nonetheless, as Cineas was said to have predicted, the many-headed monster could regenerate and struggle on. In Italy alone, 100,000 citizen troops were put in the field in the year after Cannae, besides those in Spain and those already on board a scattered fleet of 150 big ships. It was a fantastic effort. In 214 the Roman commander, a Gracchus, recruited at least 8,000 slaves and took them down to Beneventum, formerly the scene of a ‘Pyrrhic’ victory. This time, he won decisively against the Carthaginians and slaughtered many of them, whereupon the grateful Beneventans feasted his troops at tables which they set out in the streets. Gracchus freed the slaves and had the scene painted, showing his slave-soldiers wearing caps or white bandannas, and then dedicated this remarkable work of art in Rome’s temple to Liberty.7

To confront the crisis, exceptional religious rites were carried out. As in the 220s, a pair of Greeks and a pair of Gauls were buried alive in the Cattle Market (Forum Boarium) in the centre of Rome. Human sacrifice was not the Roman way, so they were left to die naturally. Divine reinforcements were also brought in, Venus from the Carthaginian sector in Sicily and in 204 the ‘Great Mother’ (Cybele) and her black stone from Pergamum in Asia (her cult turned out to be wilder than the Romans expected, with exotic chants and self-castrated priests). Women were active too, particularly in hymns and processions to Juno in the later stages of the war: Juno was identified with the Carthaginian goddess Astarte and the honours to her would help to win her over to the Roman side.8

Rome’s financial spirit was also not broken. The city, when war began, no longer conformed to its ideal of austerity. Already shops selling luxuries clustered round the Forum, a distinctive element of Roman life whose townsmen were so very much a ‘nation of shop-keepers’. After Cannae, however, Rome’s women gave up their jewellery so that it could be melted down for the war effort (in north Africa, women had done the same, but they were African women helping the mercenaries’ revolt against Carthage). Roman citizens’ tax was doubled and rich Romans even agreed to man warships at their own expense. In the crisis, a new silver coin, the denarius, was introduced; it would remain a part of Rome’s coinage for centuries. Of course, there was still scope for fraud by those who contracted to supply armies in the field, but there was also a real ‘Dunkirk spirit’. The Senate even refused to ransom Roman prisoners from Hannibal, including noblemen, because the money paid over would strengthen him.

In 215, while reinforcements for Hannibal (including elephants) could still be shipped over from north Africa, Rome’s chances of long-term victory were slim. In the south of Italy, most of Tarentum had now turned to Carthage, no doubt with memories of Rome’s harsh conduct to her since the 280s. Most importantly, King Hiero had died in Sicily and Syracuse had defected from Rome. But from 214 BC onwards the Roman fleet held enough of the Italian coast to block any more foreign support from reaching their enemies. From now on, Roman control of the sea proved crucial, both in Italy and in Spain. By land, meanwhile, Fabius insisted on a strategy of devastating the crops and avoiding battles on Hannibal’s terms. The Carthaginians began to be bottled up.

For the Romans, the year 212/1 was a turning point. In Spain, their generals, the two elder Scipios, were killed in a setback, but their son and nephew, the younger Publius Scipio, leapt over the usual political career and was promptly made commander while still in his mid-twenties. He proved to be a bold genius, adored by his troops and also (men said) by the gods. In Italy, meanwhile, the able Fulvius Flaccus recaptured Capua and punished it ferociously. Above all, in Sicily the hard and proven general Claudius Marcellus attacked rebellious Syracuse. It could not even be saved by the skills of Archimedes, the famous Sicilian Greek engineer; it is only a legend that he built giant mirrors so as to burn up the attacking Roman ships. As at Capua, the Romans sacked the place with a stunning brutality. Ship-loads of precious Greek art-works were transported back to Rome. For the first time, a great Greek city suffered the brutality of the she-wolf’s Roman kinsmen on the rampage, although Marcellus was said to have tried to moderate them.9

Hannibal was still capable of effective ambushes and as late as 208 both the Roman consuls were killed in action at either end of Italy. In summer 207 one of his brothers did at last manage to bring reinforcements (and fresh elephants) into Italy from Spain. However, his dispatches were intercepted and he was defeated by a swift Roman counter-action up the east coast of Italy, encountering him at the river Metaurus in Umbria. It was the Carthaginians’ last chance and without more reinforcements Hannibal became only a long-running sore on Italy’s toe. In 205 the young Scipio crossed to Sicily, trained up a cavalry corps and then boldly sailed over to Africa in 204. During his campaign in Spain he had struck up a friendship with a most useful prince in north Africa, Masinissa the Numidian. Like Hiero in Sicily, Masinissa would give support to Rome for some fifty years. On African soil, his cavalry proved crucial allies and in 202 Hannibal (now back from south Italy) was decisively beaten. He had assembled eighty African elephants, but, like those of Pyrrhus, they ended by stampeding and doing more harm to their own side than to Rome’s, even though Hannibal’s father had pioneered a method of hammering spikes into the skulls of any beasts who went wild and began to charge their own supporters.

Both in Carthage and in Rome, the politics of the war and the generals had not gone smoothly. Hannibal always had enemies, and at Rome, the system had had to show a saving flexibility. For the ‘struggle of the orders’ had not vanished with the defeat of Pyrrhus. In principle, the people’s decisions at Rome were now binding and there were ambitious senators who were ready to push this system in a more ‘populist’ direction. Nonetheless, Roman ‘traditions’ proved adaptable enough in the face of a crisis. Slaves were enlisted as troops; one dictator, then an unprecedented two at once, were appointed; when the conservative Fabius overruled an elected candidate to the consulship by citing improprieties in the religious context, he was allowed (just this once) to replace him with the man he wanted. Even the great Scipio jumped straight into his command of an army after only one lowly public job and then found himself being hailed as ‘king’ by his troops in Spain (a true Roman, he refused). To the Greek historian Polybius, the Roman ‘constitution’ appeared with hindsight to be in its best condition at the time of the disaster at Cannae. On closer inspection, it was still riddled with the contradictions of its evolution. It was rescued by its flexibility and its overall ability to absorb and to make exceptions.

The effects of the Hannibalic War have been much discussed by modern historians, but they left a lasting impact on Italy. None of Rome’s closest dependencies, her Latin towns, went over to Hannibal, despite a bout of war-weariness at Rome’s endless calls on their levies of troops. As elsewhere, the local upper classes preferred the known support and protection of Rome to the prospect of freedom for their own lower classes, especially when backed by savage Gauls and Carthaginians. In south Italy, defection to Carthage had been most evident, but Rome took a very fierce revenge. Hannibal’s long presence in the south had already burdened the local harvests and led to much devastation. In reply, Rome confiscated considerable territory as public land. The local peasantry suffered huge losses in many areas, or fled to the towns. Rich Romans would then farm this new public land with slaves, their fruits of military conquest. In parts of the south, ‘Hannibal’s legacy’ probably did amount to a long-term change in farming and land-use; the use of flocks and herds increased over the planting of arable crops, and these herds were tended by slaves, not free peasants.10

On Carthage’s side, defeat required her to hand over her war-elephants and to promise never to train any more: they disappear from her army, while the survivors went up to Rome to grace young Scipio’s spectacular triumph. The loss of the war did not lead to Carthage’s total urban decline, but obliged her to make much bigger payments to the victor, Rome. It also made Hannibal into history’s first global warrior. For more than thirty years, he had been out of Carthage, fighting in Spain, the Alps, then Italy. Rome’s final terms for Carthage did not enforce his personal surrender; the Carthaginian political system continued and Hannibal held office as a reforming magistrate. Not until six years later was he driven out of Carthage, this time by his Carthaginian enemies. Supposedly, he was being too populist. He headed east, where he served with Rome’s next major opponent, the Seleucid King Antiochus III in Asia Minor and in Greece. After a detour to Syria, he ended up, first in Armenia, then in Bithynia (north-west Turkey), two places where he was credited with designing and helping to found new towns. Eventually, aged sixty-seven, he was poisoned at the Bithynian court because of its courtiers’ fears of reprisals from a Roman embassy. He was found to have built himself a fort with seven underground tunnels, a real bunker for Rome’s ablest opponent. He had not taken plunder and riches for himself. Similarly, when his conqueror Scipio died his house was found to be a simple, turreted fort with a set of old-fashioned baths.11 The two of them had been worthy opponents, and Hannibal’s memory continued to haunt Rome. Years later, in the 90s AD, a Roman senator was said to be hoarding maps of the world and the speeches of great kings and generals, and maintaining two household slaves whom he had named Hannibal and Mago.12 It was enough for the suspicious Roman emperor to have him executed.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

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