Hannibal Barca, Carthaginian general; b. Carthage 247 BCE, d. Libyssa (near modern Bursa), Bithynia 183 or 182 BCE.
"Of all that befell the Romans and Carthaginians, good or bad, the cause was one man and one mind--Hannibal." --Polybius, Roman historian
Of all the great generals the world has seen, Hannibal Barca, son of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, ranks as one of the most able--and one of the most unlucky. His many victorious battles yielded scant gain and his few defeats were monumental in consequence. His name translates to "Joy of Baal" but ultimately the gods of Rome would laugh last.
Legend says that young Hannibal first went to war, alongside his father, during the conquest of southern Iberia. Following the First Punic War and the loss of Carthaginian territories, the Carthaginians turned their attention westward and let the Romans keep the Mediterranean islands they had gained. There in Iberia, the same story goes, his father, as part of the deal to take him to Iberia with him, swore him to dedicating his life to fighting Rome. Whether he took that oath as a child or not, this did become Hannibal's single pursuit in life.
Hannibal who, along with his brothers Hasdrubal, Hanno and Mago, would be one of a fearsome foursome of generals dubbed "the lion's brood" by the Romans, was afforded the education worthy of a general's son and was groomed for military life from a very young age. Indeed, by the age of 26, he had proven himself a skilled commander in the field and was himself chosen to be a general by the army he would command, taking over the Carthaginian troops in Iberia following the death of his brother-in-law (who had himself taken over after the death of Hamilcar in 230). He began to consolidate the Carthaginian hold on Iberia, took a local princess by the name of Imilce for his wife and, one by one, picked off any of the peninsula's tribes that resisted him.
In 218 the Second Punic War began. Hannibal viewed the close Roman relationship with Saguntum, an independent Greek enclave in Carthaginian territory, as a threat to the Carthaginian dominion in Iberia. With an army of veterans under his command, he attacked Saguntum and set the stage for a direct confrontation with Rome. After the eight-month siege ended in victory, he crossed the Ebro river and set out against Rome. It is during the sixteen years that followed that Hannibal and the motley army of mercenaries that he held together with sheer willpower and skilled leadership became a fighting force that is studied in military training 22 centuries later.
His trek across the Pyrenees and the Alps with his band of Numidian, African and Iberian men, overcoming hostile tribes in the former and famously guiding his elephants over the latter (though the exact route he took and whether it was the same one followed by Napoleon 2000 years later is still the subject of debate), is now the stuff of legend. Between the two mountain ranges, he fought and negotiated his way through Celtic, Greek and Roman territory but never intended to hold it. His mind was set on one prize: to break Roman domination over northern Italy and once again make Carthage mistress of the western Mediterranean.
In single-midedly pursuing this grand goal he ravaged Italy, leaving Roma and her allies with a death toll of at least 300,000. Every Roman legion he encountered, he routed with insight and tactics ahead of his day and age. He proceeded thoughtfully, taking care to have a good base in the rear before advancing and pioneered modern-style military intelligence where scouts, doubling as liaisons to the indigenous tribes, went ahead of the army and gathered useful information about the terrain and population ahead.
Indeed, nothing seemed to be able to stop this masterful general from taking his 35000 men and 37 elephants all the way to Rome. While he lost most of his elephants and 9000 of his men on his way to Italy, some due to defections by Iberian troops, some due to the Alpine winter and the hostile tribes of the Alps, his forces numbered about 40000, including a 6000-strong cavalry (with the addition of the Gaulish allies he had gained in the area). Since most of his elephants perished in the Alps, they did not all charge into the Roman legions spreading panic, as romantic historians would have it. A few elephants only go so far towards inciting fear and it was his cavalry that won victory over the Romans.
During the two years that followed he pressed southwards but skirted Rome itself, preferring instead to take a show of strength on the road and try to impress Rome's allies into switching allegiance while he solidly defeated every Roman army that came his way. In the field of diplomacy, his greatest but by far not sufficient success came when 12 of 30 colonies refused to contribute men to the Roman struggle. Even when he came within three miles of the city walls, he never made the decision to attack the city itself but continued to try and incite hostility against the Romans. Given Rome's track record of rebounding given half a chance, that turned out to be a grave strategic error.
Around the same time he made a pact with Philip V of Macedonia, wanting him to keep the Romans occupied in Greece. His good political sense did not have the material backing he had promised Philip and, when the Carthaginian navy never materialised to help Philip in his own war, the alliance fell apart.
"Hannibal ad portas!" -- "Hannibal at the gates," was a Latin phrase which is still used today to indicate an imminent threat by a formidable force. His name served Roman parents as an ancient equivalent of the bogeyman for many years.
During this campaign, the Romans countered with a propaganda war, which was designed to discourage their smaller allies from siding with Hannibal. While the man may have been made the subject of many rumours, including cannibalism, the less biased accounts portray him more in the light of the gentlemanly (by the measure of the times, of course) warrior more commonly seen in the 18th and 19th centuries who treated his slain enemies with respect, negotiated prisoner swaps and took no more property than he needed to provision his army. Any sins the Romans ascribed to him were more likely to have been committed by his lieutenants or generals than by the man whose wit and personality held together an unprecedented patchwork of men for sixteen years and took care of them as well as their animals.
After a relative stalemate for the next few years in which Hannibal continued to parade up and down the Italian peninsula and gained and lost Sicily while the Romans reconsolidated their hold on northern Italy, the year 209 saw the war turn against him. Roman forces not only captured Cartagena, one of his main supply bases but also defeated his brother Hasdrubal in northern Spain as he marched to join Hannibal and gave Hannibal the news by throwing his head into his camp. For the next five years the Romans fought a war of attrition against the virtually resident invasion force and Hannibal saw his supplies stretched thinner and thinner while the Romans decided how to get rid of him. Hannibal proved himself to be an unrivalled master of tactics in the field but his army, like any army in hostile territory, was vulnerable to the Roman version of guerilla warfare. In the end, he was a fine strategist but not good enough to overcome the odds piling up against him and too bent on his own campaign to pay attention to the big picture and to his own domain.
In 204 Rome finally decided that the best way to get Hannibal out of Italy would be to reciprocate Hannibal's occupation of Italy by launching an invasion of Carthage. Scipio the Younger, later Scipio Africanus in honour of his African exploits, not only landed in North Africa but also, with his successes, forced Hannibal to send word that Carthage should sue for peace and accept his recall to his homeland. There, however, the presence of the hated Romans was too much for him to resist and he broke the armistice and attacked them. The decisive battle of that war in 202 saw a better-equipped Scipio, long a student of Hannibal's tactics, apply them against his unwilling teacher and deal him a solid defeat.
Following the end of the war that established Rome as the supreme power in the western and central Mediterranean and left Carthage without a navy or the ability to wage war, Hannibal remained an influential figure in Carthage and became a Shophet, or chief magistrate between 200 and 196. Hannibal, an honest man who, despite his failures in the field, had only the best in mind for his country, launched a full-scale attack on the privileges and corruption of the ruling aristocrats. As a leader of the people he became so influential and listened to that the rulers of Carthage themselves wanted him gone. They denounced him as part of a plot involving Antiochus III of Syria to attack Rome again. Rome promptly dispatched a team of investigators to Carthage but Hannibal was more or less convinced that they were coming to shoot first and ask questions later.
His flight took him to the court of his alleged co-conspirator in Ephesus, where he turned what had probably been a frame job into reality and incited Antiochus to take on Rome. An exile now, he still believed in Rome being the ultimate enemy. Antiochus' defeat in 190 spelled another journey for Hannibal since Antiochus' terms of surrender included handing over Hannibal to the Romans. His whereabouts during the following years are unknown but his mastery of both Latin and Greek (and probably an acquired skill in local dialects and knowledge of customs) saw him by some accounts in Crete, by others in Armenia where he helped found the city of Artaxata. Ultimately he found himself in Bithynia, at the court of king Prusias I whom he served as military advisor in his war with the Roman-backed king Eumenes II of nearby Pergamum, in which war he scored his only and famous naval victory by hurling pots full of snakes at the enemy ships in a crude and odd but imaginative form of biological warfare.
In 183 or the following year, unknown by what means, the Romans finally cornered their aging nemesis in a Bithynian village called Libyssa. There the old warrior, rather than suffer humiliation at the hands of his eternal foe, took the poison he had carried with him for at least 15 years in anticipation of this finale. Ironically, around the same time, his victor, Scipio, died... himself ostracised by his native Rome. In fact, Plutarch tells of an encounter at Ephesus in which Hannibal placed himself third on the list of
great generals, after Alexander and Pyrrhus, both of whom he had studied as a youth. Upon Scipio's remark that he had, after all, defeated him, Hannibal said that, had he not been defeated by Scipio, he would have ranked himself first. Plutarch also mentions an oracle foretelling the circumstances of Hannibal's death: "Libyssan shall Hannibal enclose." The same historian, in his biography of Flaminius, also provides Hannibal's famous last words:
"Let us ease," said he, "the Romans of their continual dread and care, who think it long and tedious to await the death of a hated old man."
His tomb, built by the Roman emperor Severus, still exists near the Turkish town of Gebze.
One strange influence Hannibal has had on today's world comes, surprisingly, from the field of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud refers to Hannibal as a key to his own identity and role in life as a Jew under attack by Rome, the Rome of today being the Catholic church. Freud identifies himself and his father with Hannibal and Hamilcar and compares the impact of being told one of his father's childhood tales of oppression to that of the oath taken hy Hannibal as a boy.
And thus, with that little twist, ends the tale of one of the great warriors of old.