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Hannibal Barca: Military Genius
By Adel Beshara




Carthage Before Hannibal

Carthage, one of the most famous cities of antiquity, was founded on the north coast of Africa by the Phoenicians of Tyre (sur) in 814 B.C. The founding of Carthage was closely followed by the establishment of other Phoenician cities in the western Mediterranean. From then on, Carthaginian power expanded into Spain, Sicily and numerous other places in the northern Mediterranean. This brought them into direct conflict with the empires in Rome and Greece. At the start of the 3rd century B.C., Carthage was supreme in the western Mediterranean, enjoying the security of sea power and trading with her stations in Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain as well as with the shores of Africa.

Rome was painfully struggling to obtain mastery of central and southern Italy, where she had absorbed the power and culture of the Etruscans and gradually forged a federation of small states. It must have already become clear that there was not going to be room in the Mediterranean for both Rome and Carthage. The clash came over Sicily in the First Punic War (264-241 B.C), at the end of which Carthage lost Sicily. The Roman victory in Sicily induced Rome to cross the narrow straits to Africa and attack Carthage directly. Fortunately for Carthage, a strong and honest man appeared in the person of Hamilcar Barca, a commander who had evacuated his forces undefeated from Sicily in the best tradition of Dunkirk. Hamilcar was able to put down a mutiny in the Carthaginian army and restore order to it. The political situation at that time had a strangely modern flavor. Rome pursued a policy of cold war during which time it annexed Sardinia and Corsica, increased the reparations which Carthage was obliged to pay, and declared the Roman sphere of interest in Spain to extend from the North down to the river Ebro.

In Carthage, the peace treaty was in power with the commercially minded. Hamilcar Barca, on the other hand, had popular support and the command of the armed forces. With these he proceeded to develop the Carthaginian hold on Spain, ostensibly to enable Carthage to pay repatriation to Rome, but in fact, be- cause he saw in Spain a source of manpower and supplies and a base from which to attack Rome.

With his son-in-law Hasdrubal and his four sons Hannibal, Hasdrubal, Hanno, and Mago, the 'lion's brood' as he called them. Hamilcar barca soon succeeded in turning southern Spain into a sort of empire where new Carthage or Carthagena was founded. In 228 B.C. he fell in battle and was succeeded by hasdrubal his son-in- law who, in his turn was murdered seven years later in 221 B.C.


The Rise of Hannibal

The army thereupon unanimously chose Hannibal to be their general in spite of his youth, "because of the shrewdness and courage which he had shown in their service."





Hannibal was then 26 years old. This strange man, whose name means "Joy of Baal", had accompanied his father on his campaign in Spain, at the tender age of nine. Hamilcar Barca had agreed to take him on his campaign on one condition, that before the sacrifice, which he was then making to the gods, Hannibal should swear eternal enmity to Rome. No man ever kept a promise more faithfully. Hannibal's first military success was in Saguntum, which precipitated the Second Punic War. It is quite clear that Hannibal carried out a carefully prepared plan, which he had inherited from his father. His object was nothing less than the destruction of the power of Rome before Rome destroyed Carthage, and Rome's most vulnerable spot was in Italy itself where the Roman federation of states was still loose and the Celtic tribes of Gauls in the North were in revolt. But since Carthage had lost command of the sea to Rome, how was Hannibal to get to Italy with his troops?

The Romans never imagined for one moment that he could or would make the journey of 1500 miles overland from Spain, across the Pyrenees, the south of France, and the Alps; but that was exactly what Hannibal had decided to do. Having decided on his strategy and selected his theatre of operations? Hannibal followed two principles, which have grown no less important since his day: the seizure of the initiative, and the maintenance of the element of surprise. 218 B. C. may seem a long time ago. But, the manner in which Hannibal set about his task is identical with that which a competent commander would follow today. Hannibal first secured his bases at Carthage and Carthaginian. Next he collected detailed information about the countries and peoples through which he proposed to pass. For this purpose he sent for messengers (liaison officers) from the Gaulish tribes and asked for detailed accounts of the terrain and the fertility of the country at the foot of the Alps, in the midst of the Alps, and in the plain of the river Po. Today, this aspect of Hannibal's planning would come under the heading of logistics. He also wanted to know the number of the inhabitants of the various populations, their capacity for war, and particularly whether their enmity against the Romans was maintained.

This would be called political intelligence. He was particularly anxious to win over the Gauls on both sides of the Alps, as he would only be able to operate in Italy against the Romans if the Gaul’s co-operated with him. He therefore planned a campaign of psychological warfare, to raise and maintain the morale of his supporters and to undermine the enemy's will and power to resist. The operations began in great secrecy in the spring of 218 B.C. after Hannibal delivered a morale boosting speech to his troops. Moved by the emotions of indignation and lust for conquest, his men then leapt to their feet and shouted their readiness to follow Hannibal. He praised them for their valor and fixed the date of D- day, which was about the end of May. In this episode Hannibal's actions were paralleled two thousand years later by another young general of about his age, like him about to cross the Alps, and again like Hannibal, to make his initial reputation thereby: Napoleon Bonaparte. From Carthaginian Hannibal marched his army to Ebro and then to Ampurias, through the Pyrenees and along the shore of the Mediterranean through the South of France, fighting much of the way. As far as the Rhone, there is little doubt about the route which Hannibal's army followed: but from the Rhone over the Alps into Italy, Hannibal's route has been a bone of contention for two thousand years.


Crossing of the Alps

Hannibal left Spain for Italy in the spring of 218 B.C. with about 35,000 seasoned troops. His force included a squadron of Elephants. The Romans planned to intercept him near Massilia (Marseille) and, after dealing with him, to invade Spain. Publius Cornelius Scipio was in charge of this operation, while Tiberius Sempronius led another army in Sicily, destined for Africa. However, Scipio had to send his legions to deal with a Gallic revolt, and by the time he reached Massilia by sea, he learned that he had missed Hannibal by only a few days.

Thereupon, Scipio returned to northern Italy and awaited Hannibal's arrival. In the meantime, Scipio had sent his brother Gnaue to Spain with an army to cut Hannibal off from his brother Hasdrubal. It appears that Hannibal crossed the Alps somewhere between the Little St Bernard and Montgenevre passes. He did not begin to cross until early fall, which meant that he encountered winter like conditions in the Alpine region. His force suffered greatly from the elements and the hostility of local tribesmen. He lost most of his elephants, and by the time he reached northern Italy, his army was reduced to about 26,000 men, 6,000 of whom were Cavalry. However, the number was quickly raised to about 40,000 by the addition of Gaul’s.


The invasion of Italy

In the first engagement with Roman troops, Hannibal's cavalry won a minor victory over Scipio's forces near the Ticinus River. This was followed by a decisive victory at the Trebia River in December 218 B.C. over Roman legions led by Scipio and Sempronius, who was recalled from Sicily when Hannibal invaded Italy. Hannibal's superior numbers in cavalry and his skill in the combined use of cavalry and infantry were key factors in his success at Trebia, as in later victories. Hannibal had a decided advantage in northern Italy, where the Gauls were friendly to his cause and where his cavalry could operate in the broad plains. The Romans therefore decided to withdraw to central Italy and await Hannibal who began to cross the Apennines in the spring of 217. The mountains again proved costly both to his army and personally to Hannibal, who lost the sight of one eye from an infection. The Roman consuls for 217, Gaius Flaminius and Servilius Geminus, had stationed themselves at Arretium and Ariminum to guard both possible routs, west and east, by which Hannibal might cross the Apennines. Hannibal selected Flaminius' western rout, but the consul refused to give battle alone. Allowing Hannibal to pass, Flaminius followed, harassing the Carthaginian army and hoping to meet Geminus farther south, where they would jointly give battle.

However, Hannibal ambushed Flaminius in a narrow pass near Lake Trasimene and destroyed almost his entire army of 25.000. At Rome, Quintius Fabius Maximus was elected dictator by the centuriate assembly. Rather than join battle with Hannibal, who had marched south into Apulia, he decided on a policy of caution and harassment that would keep Hannibal moving and gradually wear him down. Hannibal moved from Apulia into Campania, followed and watched by Fabius, who finally bottled him up in an area unfavorable to cavalry and decided to give battle. At night, however, Hannibal sent oxen toward Fabius' army with burning sticks tied to their horns; while the Romans investigated what they considered an attack; he escaped with his army to ADulia, where he wintered.


The Battle of Cannae

When Fabuis' tenure as dictator expired, the consuls for 216, Lueius Paullus and Gaius Varro, took charge of the war against Hannibal. On learning that Hannibal had captured the Roman depot at Cannae, in Apulia, the consuls decided to give battle, and Hannibal now faced two formidable armies. However, at Cannae he again selected ground favorable to his tactics and strong cavalry. While the Romans relied on their superior numbers, and their fighting skill. Hannibal's plan called for his cavalry, positioned on the flanks of a crescent shaped line, to defeat the Roman horsemen quickly and to attack the Roman infantry from the rear, as it pressed upon a weakened center of Spaniards and Gauls: his superior African troops, at the crucial moment, Were to press from the flanks and complete the encirclement. The plan succeeded and the Romans suffered 25,000 dead and l0,000 captured.


Hannibal's Political Strategy

The ancients were fond of debating why Hannibal did not immediately march on Rome following his victory at Cannae, but clearly he could not have taken the city after having taken part in numerous battles across Italy. His main objective was not the total destruction of Rome but a settlement that would free Carthage from Roman intervention. Hannibal had hoped that his victories would bring about the wholesale defection of Italian cities from the Roman confederacy. However, the only major defection from Rome was Capua. When it was obvious to Hannibal that he could not effectively surround Rome with a ring of hostile Italian states, he broadened the conflict to draw off Roman's manpower and to spread its resources thin. In 215 he made an alliance with Philip V of Macedon; doubtless he did not want Philip to invade Italy but merely to drain Roman strength by waging war in Greece.

The alliance came to naught because Hannibal could not supply Philip with a navy and because Rome checked Philip with its own navy and Aetolian allies (first Macedonian War, 214-205). Hannibal also brought Syracuse into the war against Rome. Hiero, ruler of Syracuse and long an ally of Rome, died in 215. His grandson, Hieronymous took control of the city and made an alliance with Hannibal. Hieronymous was soon killed in a revolt, but Punic agents gained control of Syracuse. However, Roman control of Sicily was generally restored by 211, when Syracuse fell.

First Reverses Following the defeat at Cannae, the Romans resorted back to Fabius' tactics of harassing Hannibal while avoiding formal engagements. This seemed to have rendered Hannibal's tactical skill and superior cavalry ineffective. Consequently, the Romans were able to retake Capua although their resources were heavily stretched by Hannibal 's international diplomacy. However, the real blow to Hannibal came from without. In 209, the Romans took Carthagena and forced Hasdrubal out of Spain. This cut his main supply route off. When Romans discovered that Hasdrubal had crossed the Alps to link up with Hannibal they left a small force to watch Hannibal and marched quickly with their main force to the Metaurus River, where they defeated Hasdrubal. Hannibal learned of the defeat when Hasdrubal's head was thrown into his camp. Hannibal knew that he was without hope of reinforcement. For the rest of the Italian campaign he was generally restricted to Bruttium. Hannibal had no supporting navy and appeared indifferent to that Roman naval supremacy which in the first place was able to cut off reinforcements and in the second to bring about unimpeded the invasion of Carthage.

Although his tactics in the field, as attested even by Scipio, were brilliant, and he himself by his personal appearances and quick marches up and down Italy dazzled the Romans and complicated their strategy, he was at a decided disadvantage as regards reinforcements and provisions. In 204, the Italian general Scipio landed in Carthage and was so successful that the following year Carthage sued for peace, terms were agreed upon, and Hannibal was recalled. The sight of Hannibal reinforced the Carthaginian will to resist, however, and hostilities were renewed. The two armies met at Zama in 202, in a battle that decided the outcome of the war. This time Hannibal met his match; he was outnumbered by a superior cavalry and was let down by the commercially minded rulers of Carthage. Hannibal, his army destroyed, escaped. Peace was made the next year. Rome severely restricted the Carthaginian navy and demanded a heavy indemnity. Carthage was forbidden to make war outside its African domain, and could fight within Africa only with Roman permission. Since failure to accept the peace terms would have meant the destruction of Carthage, Hannibal worked for their acceptance and retired to private life in 200.

Hannibal was still only 43 and soon showed that he could be a statesman as well as a soldier. Following the conclusion of a peace that left Carthage stripped of its formerly mighty empire, Hannibal prepared to take a back seat for a time. However, the blatant corruption of the oligarchy gave Hannibal a chance to re-emerge and he was elected as suffete or chief magistrate. The office had become rather insignificant, but Hannibal restored its power and authority. The oligarchy, always jealous of him, had even charged him with having betrayed the interests of his country while in Italy, for neglecting to take Rome when he might have done so. So effectively did Hannibal reform abuses that the heavy tribute imposed by Rome could be paid by installments without additional and extraordinary taxation. He also reformed the Hundred and Four, stipulating that its membership be chosen by direct election rather than co-option. He also used citizen support to change the term of office in the Hundred and Four from life to a year, with a term limit of two years. Under the leadership of Hannibal, who proved to be as talented an administrator as he was a commander, the indemnity was paid well ahead of schedule and Carthage once again focused on trade. The city-state began once more to strengthen and grow wealthy, for the land she possessed, unlike today's Tunisia, was among the most productive farmland of its age.

In 196 Hannibal attacked the position, power, and corruption of the aristocrats so vigorously that they told the Romans he was scheming with Antiochus III of Syria and planning another war with Rome. A Roman investigation commission was sent to Carthage on a pretext, but Hannibal knew it was aimed at him, and he eventually made his way to Antiochus. The charge that Hannibal had plotted with Antiochus is unsupported, but after he became a member of the Syrian court he certainly advised the King to attack the Romans. After Antiochus IIIs defeat, Hannibal went to Anatolia in 183 B.C., but the Romans, by what means it is unknown, put themselves in a position to demand his surrender. Unable this time to escape arrest, In 183 B.C, Hannibal committed suicide in the ancient port city of Libyssa Anatolia (present-day Diliskelesi in Gebze Turkey), rather than face capture by the Romans.

The Third Punic War

The Numidian King Masinissa, (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in present-day Algeria) whose country abutted Carthage to the west, indirectly provoked the Third Punic War. Through his alliance with Rome in the previous war, he was able to gain permission to reacquire lands Carthage had taken from Numidia. Since Carthage was originally established on Numidian land and with its cooperation, Masinissa could theoretically have occupied all of the territory Carthage controlled. Rather than attract too much attention from Rome, the Numidian king reclaimed small pieces of territory at a time when Rome was occupied in other parts of the Mediterranean world. In 155 b.c. Carthage complained to Rome about their ally's acquisitions, but received little satisfaction. Three years later Rome sent an embassy to investigate, the leading member of which was the senator Cato. Seeing the renewed bounty Carthage Within Carthage, political factions struggled. In 151 a strong democratic party that took an aggressive stance expelled those citizens who favored cooperation and perhaps even union with Numidia from the city. Carthaginian complaints to Rome grew more strident as their rejections of Masinissa's envoys grew more insulting. Masinissa also sent appeals to Rome, pressing his claims. In 151 a Carthaginian army under their leader Hasdrubal attacked Numidia, but was defeated and after being besieged in their camp was virtually destroyed by starvation. That violation of the peace terms, as well as Cato's oratory in the Senate, convinced the Roman government military action was necessary. Hasdrubal, however, was evicted from power in Carthage and emissaries were sent to beg forgiveness on any terms to avoid war. An army had been dispatched by the time the embassy arrived, and they gave the Senate a virtual blank check to avert conflict.

The Senate demanded that their army should be allowed to do anything it wished, all territory and possessions of Carthage to become Roman-controlled, and 300 hostages surrendered. The ambassadors agreed to this total surrender, a deditio in fidem. In return for their surrender, Rome guaranteed the Carthaginians freedom, their own laws, nominal control over all their territory, and possession of personal and public property. Unfortunately, the arrival of the army brought even more difficult conditions. The Roman commander Manius Mani-lius obliged the city to surrender all its weapons of war; they did. Reportedly armor and weapons for 200,000 men were turned over to the Romans, as well as 2,000 catapults. One final condition was unacceptable: the demand that the city of Carthage be destroyed and all the inhabitants removed inland. "Whenever you look on the sea, you remember the great fleets you once had, the spoils you captured, the harbours into which you brought them, to fill your dockyards and arsenals" (Appian, quoted in Dorey and Dudley, Rome against Carthage, p. 161). Carthage responded by declaring war on Rome.

The Battle

Carthage could not hope to take the war to Rome, only to force the Romans away from their capital. Carthage was the best-fortified city of its day, completely walled for its 21-mile perimeter and with access to the sea for resupply. The city was divided into northern and southern halves (Megara and Byrsa respectively). In spite of the earlier surrender of weapons, the citizens began producing new swords, spears, shields, javelins, and catapults at a prodigious rate. The women of the city cut their hair to serve as rope for the catapults. In their desperate situation, the Carthaginian government pardoned Hasdrubal and he took command of an army of 25,000 to 30,000 outside the city, based in the province of Byzacena to the south and southwest. The main city there, Nepheris, dominated the supply route to the farmland beyond.

Rome had 80,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry on site, with the port city of Utica (which had surrendered without a fight) just to the northwest to serve as a base. They had no siege engines, however, and three direct assaults against the western walls proved disastrous. A foray across the Lake of Tunis to gather wood ran into serious Carthaginian cavalry opposition, but ultimately sufficient wood was gathered to build two rams. The Romans had some success against the southern fortifications, but the defenders rebuilt the walls, then sallied to destroy the rams. As the summer of 149 grew hotter, the Roman camp between the lagoons became too unhealthy, so they relocated to the southern end of the city. Roman ships anchored there to provision the army, but they were almost completely devastated by Carthaginian fire ships. By year's end the Romans had made little progress.

In 148 b.c. Manilius changed his strategy somewhat. He moved his camp from south of Carthage to the northern flank. Rather than press the siege he instead gathered supplies and made plans to attack Nephiris, where Hasdrubal's force was based. On Manilius' staff was the young Scipio Aemilianus, adopted grandson of the Scipio Africanus who had won glory in the Second Punic War. He advised against the Nephiris attack but was overruled. When Manilius was on the verge of defeat at the hands of the Carthaginian cavalry commander, Himilco Phameas, Scipio's timely arrival with reinforcements covered the Roman retreat. He then played a key diplomatic role. Masinissa's offer of assistance early in the conflict had been brusquely rebuffed; now the Romans needed all the help they could get. Masinissa invited Scipio to join the Roman delegation visiting him. When they arrived, they found Masinissa dead (he was in his eighties) and his three sons awaiting Scipio, who was charged with choosing the successor. He chose all three: one to rule in the palace, one as minister of foreign affairs, one as minister of justice, each according to his talents. Scipio brought Foreign Minister Gulussa with him back to the Roman camp, along with a large cavalry force.

The arrival of Numidian reinforcements had a profound effect on Himilco Phameus, who perhaps sensed a change in the winds and defected to the Romans. That was the one high point of 148 for the Roman campaign. Mani-lius had decided to attack other Carthaginian cities both to keep his army busy and to allow them some booty to maintain their morale. These attacks had mixed success and Carthage even spared some manpower to aid at the siege of Hippo and some money for an uprising in Macedonia. With Roman fortunes at a low ebb, Scipio campaigned successfully in Rome for the command appointment; the people overwhelmingly backed the Scipio name, and he seemed to be in the mold of his adopted grandfather. Scipio took charge in the spring of 147.

He arrived to confront a crisis. Manilius had gained some success against the Megara section of the city, but his men had been cut off and morale was low. Scipio went to work, expelling the multitude of camp followers and focusing the army on its task: no rewards without victory. In the meanwhile, Hasdrubal was recalled to take charge of the city's defenses, leaving Diogenes (probably a Greek mercenary) in charge of the mobile force. Scipio launched an attack on Megara with early success, but withdrew under pressure. Hasdrubal responded by concentrating his force in Byrsa, then torturing Roman prisoners on the walls. This was intended to stiffen his troops' defensive resolve, but it instead motivated the Romans. Even with Megara's defenses lightened, Scipio realized that an assault on Byrsa was necessary, since the harbor was there. He spent the summer building fortifications: a series of palisaded ditches with sharpened stakes at the bottom, a wall facing the city with regularly spaced observation towers, and a four-story tower in the center. This completely isolated Carthage from landward approaches.

Scipio next began attempts to block off Carthage's seaward supplies. He began building a mole across the mouth of the harbor. The Carthaginians responded by digging a new outlet to the sea due east from their circular harbor. They also began building ships out of whatever material they could find. When both fleet and outlet were complete they sallied, but inexplicably did not attack the empty Roman ships. When they finally mounted an assault on the third day, the Romans were ready and drove them back. Unfortunately, a bottleneck in the new outlet kept many Carthaginian ships exposed, and the Roman ships dealt with them harshly. Scipio then assaulted the outer quay protecting the commercial harbor, bringing in catapults and rams. This strategy suffered a setback when a night attack from the city destroyed most of them, but Scipio patiently rebuilt them and constructed fortifications as well. He finally managed to breach the walls, then breach them again after the first repair.

Scipio maintained pressure on the city but could not insert his men through the breach. He spent the remainder of 147 capturing what towns still remained loyal to Carthage, and defeated their mobile force at Nephiris after a twenty-two-day siege. That left the city of Carthage completely alone, with no source of supply. This provoked an offer to negotiate from Hasdrubal, but he would not concede to Scipio's demand that the city be razed. In the spring of 146 Scipio invoked the Carthaginian gods to abandon the city, then he launched his final assault. It came from the weakened walls near the outer quay and this time the Romans did break through. Hasdrubal set the harbor buildings alight but it did not slow the Romans down. What did slow them was the sack of the temple of Apollo, whose golden dome proved too inviting to the soldiers. When reinforcements entered the fray, the slow work of reducing the Byrsa citadel proceeded. Tall houses along narrow lanes proved to be individual fortresses, and the fighting was house-to-house, room-to-room, hand-to-hand for six days. Scipio finally ordered the houses burned to allow easier passage, and many noncombatants died in the conflagration. That proved the final blow to Carthaginian resistance. On the seventh day they surrendered wholesale, 50,000 men, women, and children giving themselves up to slavery. Hasdrubal and his family, along with 900 Roman deserters, were all that remained in the temple of Esmun. He did not display the valor of his earlier namesakes, but crawled to Scipio begging mercy as the deserters decided to die in the flames of the temple. Seeing his dishonor, Hasdrubal's wife called out to him: "‘Wretch!' she screamed, in a voice which raised itself above the universal din, ‘is it thus you seek to save your own life while you sacrifice ours? I can not reach you in your own person, but I kill you hereby in the persons of your children.'" (Abbott, History of Hannibal, pp. 292-293). She stabbed his two sons, threw them into the flames, then dived in after them.


Sack of Carthage

Scipio rewarded his men with time to plunder the city at their leisure. That done, the remainder of the city was set ablaze and burned for ten days. Rome decreed that no house should be built nor crop planted there. But a hundred years later, the city was refounded by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C, and became the capital of the enlarged province of Africa. By the second century A.D, Carthage had become the largest city in the west after Rome. The "New" Roman Carthage became first a famous educational centre, especially for law and rhetoric, and then a focus for Christianity in the west, especially in the time of Tertullian and Cyprian (second and third centuries A.D.). Carthage fell to the Vandals in 439 A.D, and became the capital of their king Gaiseric, but after the victory of Belisarius (Byzantine general) in 533, it remained loyal to the Roman empire in the east, until the Arab conquest at the end of the seventh century, when it was destroyed a second time in 698 A.D.

It is said that as the original city burned, Scipio wept. His tutor, the historian Polybius, spoke to him. "‘Is this not a splendid sight?' He grasped his hand and said: ‘A splendid sight indeed, Polybius, and yet I am in fear-I know not why-that some day the same order will be given to destroy my own country'" (Appian, quoted in Dorey and Dudley, Rome against Carthage, p. 174).

Control of the North African farmland provided the storehouse of grain for Rome for the next several centuries. Not until the Vandals conquered the region in the fifth century A.D. did it cease being Rome's granary. It became so once again, when Belisarius captured the province for the Eastern Emperor Justinian a century later.





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