Quora Question: Who was Hannibal Barca and What Books Should I Read to Learn More About Him?

During the third and second centuries B.C. the ancient civilizations of Rome in Italy and Carthage in North Africa fought three wars, these are known as the Punic wars-the word Punic comes from the Roman word for Phoenician as the Carthaginians were descended from Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon.

In the first Punic war there was a general named Hamilcar Barca. He was probably the most successful general the Carthaginian had, he fought in Sicily and never lost a battle. He was not happy when Carthage sued for peace in 241 B.C. after twenty-three years of war, a peace which was granted on Roman terms.

Hamilcar Barca had three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago, whom he called his lion cubs, and he brought them up to hate Rome. When Hannibal, the eldest, was nine he accompanied his father to Spain where Hamilcar Barca was developing and administering a Carthaginian colony. Before he left he took Hannibal to the Shrine of Elissa (the founder of Carthage) and made him swear an oath which according to the Roman Poet Silius Italicus was as follows:

“When I come to age, I shall pursue the Romans with fire and sword and enact again the doom of Troy. The Gods shall not stop my career, nor the treaty that bars the sword, neither the lofty Alps, nor the Tarpeian Rock. I swear to this purpose by the divinity of our native god of war, and by the shade of Elissa.”

Hamilcar Barca died in a conflict with one of the native Spanish tribes when Hannibal was eighteen. His place was taken by his Son in Law, Hasdrubal the Fair. Eight years later Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated and Hannibal, now twenty-six, was chosen commander of all of the Carthaginian military forces in Spain.

Hasdrubal the Fair had been willing to maintain peace with the Romans, who were, themselves establishing their influence in the north of Spain, but Hannibal was keen on going to war with them. He provoked the Romans into declaring war by attacking and destroying their ally Saguntum in Spain.

In September of 218 B.C. Hannibal took an army of 70,000, mostly Spanish and African mercenaries, over the Alps. They brought along 23 elephants. The trek was arduous and they were attacked by native tribesmen along the way so they lost about half their number through death or desertion, but they arrived in northern Italy after about three weeks. Hannibal was able to augment his ranks by recruiting Gallic tribesmen in Northern Italy who hated the Romans.

During the next two years Hannibal confronted the Romans in four battles, each of which he won decisively-Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae. During the Battle of Cannae the Romans lost some 50,000 Roman and allied soldiers and had some 10,000 taken prisoner and sold into slavery. It was one of the biggest military disasters of ancient times.

After the Battle of Cannae the Romans largely stopped fighting Hannibal on his own terms and they gradually clawed back his territorial gains. By 206 B.C. Hannibal and his forces were confined to a small area of Bruttium in Southern Italy. In the meantime, the Romans had developed a military genius of their own, Publius Cornelius Scipio, who went to Spain in 210 B.C. and, in four years cleared the peninsula of Carthaginian forces.

In 207 B.C. Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal took an army over the Alps, hoping to join up with Hannibal, but he and his army were annihilated by the Romans at the Battle of the Metaurus River.

In 206 B.C. Scipio returned from Spain and ran for Consul, the highest office in Rome. He prepared an Army and invaded Africa in 203 B.C. The Carthaginians summoned Hannibal home from Italy in 202 B.C. and he and Scipio fought the final battle of the Second Punic War, the Battle of Zama. By this time Hannibal’s forces were depleted and he had to rely partially on new recruits, while Scipio’s legionaries were well trained and he had the advantage in cavalry. It was a decisive victory for Rome, and Carthage was once again forced into a treaty on Roman terms.

Scipio generously permitted Hannibal to return to Carthage where he became a businessman and a politician. He might have been alright but he offended the Carthaginian oligarchy with his attempted reforms and they appealed to Rome for interference. Hannibal fled Carthage and offered his services to Antiochus III, an enemy of Rome. After Rome defeated Antiochus at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 B.C., Hannibal fled and took refuge in various places in the Middle East. His last refuge was in Bithynia in 183 B.C. at the court of King Prusius, but the Roman Proconsul Titus Quinctius Flamininus ordered the King to give Hannibal up. Rather than be taken to Rome in chains, Hannibal took poison that he had been keeping in a ring and died.

As for books about Hannibal, there is Hannibal, the Greatest Commander by Jacob Abbot, Hannibal, by Robert Garland, and The Fall of Carthage by Adrian Goldsworthy. If you want something less academic I have written two books on the Second Punic War, The Death of Carthage, and In the Wake of Hannibal, both available on Amazon and Kindle.

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