Why Did Carthage Give So Little Support to Hannibal During the Second Punic War?

It is true that the Carthaginian Senate was divided during the Second Punic War. The “Merchant Party” supported Hannibal while the “Land Party” did not.

The “Land Party” was led by Hanno the Great who was a staunch political enemy of Hamilcar Barca, the father of Hannibal. Livy quotes him as saying this at the beginning of the Second Punic War:

“It is against Carthage that Hannibal is now moving his vineae and towers, It is Carthage that he is shaking with his battering rams. The ruins of Saguntum (Oh that I may prove a false prophet!) will fall on our heads and the war commenced against the Saguntines must be continued against the Romans. Shall we therefore deliver up Hannibal? In what relates to him I am aware that my authority is of little weight on account of my enmity with his father. But I rejoice that Hamilcar perished, for this reason, that had he lived we should have now been engaged in a war with the Romans; and this youth, as the fury and firebrand of this war I hate and detest! I therefore give my opinion, that ambassadors be sent immediately to Rome to satisfy the Senate; others to tell Hannibal to lead away his army from Saguntum, and to deliver Hannibal himself according to the treaty to the Romans; and I propose a third embassy to make restitution to the Saguntines.”

But Hanno the Great was clearly in the minority as far as Carthaginian support went. Most of the members of the Carthaginian Senate were enthusiastic about the war in the early years. After the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. Hannibal sent his brother Mago back to Carthage with an urn containing more than 200 signet rings taken from Romans who died on the battlefield of Cannae. Only upper class Romans wore these rings. Mago poured them out onto the floor of the Carthaginian Senate. Shouts of jubilation filled the Senate house and nearly everyone cheered Mago’s words loud and long. Only old Hanno the Great sat silent and unsmiling. Finally, when the cheering died down, Himilco, Hannibal’s ally in the Carthaginian Senate turned to face Hanno and shouted,

“What now Hanno? Do you still regret that we chose Hannibal as our military leader? Do you still regret that we started this war?”

Hanno rose. “I would have preferred to remain silent upon this occasion and not seek to spoil your joy at these tidings Mago brings, but since Himilco called upon me to answer, it would be rude and haughty of me not to make my opinion known. Yes, I still do regret that we made Hannibal our military leader, and yes, I still do regret that we have started this war. You are asking for money, supplies and reinforcements, the same things you would be asking for if you had been defeated, rather than victorious. Let me ask a question of you, Mago. You say that many of the peoples of Italia have revolted against Rome. Tell me, Mago, have any of the thirty-five tribes of Latium deserted the Roman cause?”

“No,” replied Mago.

“That means that Rome still has considerable reserves of loyal allies to draw upon for its armies. One other question; has Rome sent any emissaries to sue for peace?”

“No,” replied Mago.

“Then we are still at war, the same as we were when Hannibal’s army first entered Italia.These victories change nothing. How often victory shifted in the previous war, as many of us are alive to remember. Never did our fortunes seem more favorable on land and sea than they did before the consulships of Gaius Lutatius and Aulus Postumius, but in the consulships of Lutatius and Postumius we were utterly defeated of the Aegates Islands.

“The fortunes of war can change drastically, and I say that now is the time to restore peace, when we are at the height of victory and can make a peace favorable to ourselves. I say that rather than send more supplies, gold and mercenaries to Hannibal, we put a stop to this war now. Otherwise we will regret it someday when the Romans get the upper hand.”

Few in the Senate paid any heed to old Hanno and it was decided to send reinforcements to Hannibal.

But what happened?

It seemed that Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal had lost a major battle at Dertosa in Spain to the elder Scipios, Publius, the father of Scipio Africanus, and his brother Gneius. Much of his army had been destroyed and the Carthaginians were afraid that they might lose their Spanish province where they had highly productive gold and silver mines. The Senate decided to send the bulk of their armed forces and materiel to Spain and sent only a token force of 4000 Numidians and twenty elephants to Hannibal. Two armies of 25,000 each under Mago and Hasdrubal Son of Gisco were sent to Spain to reinforce Hasdrubal Barca.

After the Battle of Cannae a lot of Italian cities, towns and tribes allied with Hannibal, but the Roman largely stopped confronting Hannibal on the battlefield and the war became one of attrition. Eventually the Romans clawed back most of the gains Hannibal had made, punishing some of the populations that had allied with Hannibal by selling them into slavery. This happened to the populations of Capua and Tarentum. Hannibal had wanted to capture a port where he could safely receive supplies from Carthage, but the Roman managed to prevent this. The Roman navy carefully protected the ports of the Italian Peninsula and after 215 B.C. Hannibal never receive substantial aid from Carthage. With Hannibal bogged down in Italy, enthusiasm for the war effort waned over time.

In 211 B.C. The Carthaginian generals in Spain, Hasdrubal Barca, Hasdrubal Son of Gisco and Mago Barca scored a major victory over the Romans at the Battles of the Upper Baetis. Both Publius Cornelius Scipio and his brother Gneius were killed. There were only about 8,000 survivors of a total of some 32,000 legionaries who remained in Spain. They managed to hang onto the Roman province at the northeastern corner of Spain.

Two years later the Romans sent Publius Scipio’s son, Publius, then 25 years old, to Spain with an Army. He conquered New Carthage, and then defeated Hasdrubal Barca at the Battle of Baecula.

Hasdrubal Barca then decided to recruit an army and take it over the Alps to join with Hannibal. He succeeded in doing so, but his forces were annihilated at the battle of the Metaurus River. He was killed and his severed head was thrown into Hannibal’s camp.

Young Scipio then went on to defeat Hasdrubal Son of Gisco and Mago Barca at the Battle of Ilipa. In four years he had cleared Spain of all Carthaginian forces.

So the reasons why the Carthaginians did not give Hannibal the support he needed were complex. They boiled down to three issues:

  1. Priorities. The Carthaginian Senate regarded Spain as more important.
  2. Logistical. Hannibal had no safe port and the Romans patrolled the access ways to the Italian Peninsula carefully.
  3. Political divisions within the Carthaginian Senate itself and a waning enthusiasm for the war as Hannibal became less and less effective in a war of attrition.

 

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