The Second Punic War

by Lord_Morningstar

The Second Punic War

I would have liked to have finished this sooner, but here it is; a belated sequel to my earlier article.


In many ways, the Second Punic War is more interesting than the First. For a start, we have the dashing hero, Hannibal Barca, who we can cheer on through his great victories and weep at his sad end. We have great and epic battles in Italy, Spain, Sicily and North Africa in the place of raiding, skirmishing and blockade. We know far more about the second war than the first, thanks largely to the detailed and fairly objective accounts of Polybius and Dio Cassius. Finally, we can probably say that the stakes were higher; both Rome and Carthage came perilously close to destruction, and Syracusian power would finally be broken.

I will assume that any reader here has some knowledge of the events of the earlier war [hint: read my article on it]. As such, I won't go over the background in detail. Suffice to say that, at the time, the Italian Confederation, headed by Rome, controlled Italy and Sicily, and had recently taken the Po Valley from the Gauls. Carthage was down, but not out, and in Spain, the Carthaginian General Hamilicar Barca had carved out a Kingdom for himself based at Carthago Nova (Cartagena).

II. HANNIBAL: 221-219 BC

Most people have heard of Hannibal, even if only from his brief mention in Gladiator. Of all of the Carthaginian names that I have typed so far, including Hamilicar, Hanno, Bomilicar and Hasrubal, my spell checker only recognises Hannibal. He is, far and away, the most famous Carthaginian, and his name brings up vague images of Romans and elephants among many. Those with an interest in ancient history can go further, and discuss his epic march over the Alps, his great victory at Cannae, his defeat by Scipio Africanus and his final death. His fame isn't undeserved, either. Despite starting from a fairly weak position, he managed to bring Rome to her knees, achieving success that his predecessors in the earlier war could only dream of from the decks of their warships or from behind strong walls in Lilybaeum. Fortunately, we happen to know a fair bit about him. Enough, even, to make a decent movie.

His appearance is known from coins minted in the Barcid Kingdom from 221 to 219, and from a bust excavated at Carthage in 1944. Livy may describe Hannibal as being a terrifying Cyclops whose hideous appearance matched the cruelty and barbarism of the soul within, but contemporary evidence shows us a pleasant, rounded face with sharp eyebrow ridges and a strong, aquiline nose. Personally, I think he bears a slight resemblance to a young Julius Caesar. Overall, he looks the part of a Hellenic prince, and would have certainly been given a Greek upbringing and education. He was a flexible character, able to act like a Gaul around Gauls and a Greek around Greeks. The ancients give him credit for his education and diplomacy, while modern scholars tend to be in awe of his imaginative, original and highly effective strategy and tactics. He would mediate alone on a decision for a long time, carefully weighing up the alternatives, and when he came up with a plan, would only reveal it at the last minute. He retained a long lasting hatred of Rome, but was never so irrationally blinded by emotion that he couldn't see when he could fight no longer. To give final, dating-service-style description, Hannibal Barca was an intelligent, introverted, calm, proud, cunning and diplomatic individual, young and full of energy yet mature enough not to let himself get carried away in the manner of his hero, Alexander the Great.

Twenty-four is very young to take the fate of the known world on your shoulders. Still, immediately upon becoming King of Barcid Spain in 221, Hannibal clearly intended to throw himself into a life-or-death struggle with Rome. Made to swear an oath of eternal hatred against the eternal city in a sinister temple of Baal at the age of eight, hardened by army life from his childhood and inspired by tales of Alexander the Great, Hannibal was clearly not going to continue to pursue the inoffensive democracy and economic projects of his late uncle and predecessor, Hasdrubal the Elder.

Hannibal inherited the Barcid Kingdom; not exactly thriving, but chugging along strongly enough for his purposes. To the north, a number of tribes had accepted Roman protection, and by the conditions of Hasdrubal's treaty with the Romans, the Barcids could not cross the Jucar River, marking the northern end of their domains, in force. Immediately upon taking the throne, Hannibal launched a military expedition against the Olcaids, who lived in the Jucar hinterlands, and then into the far northeast of Iberia against the Vaccieni. He did not cross the Jucar, yet he managed to bring a good deal of pressure on Rome's allies in the region.

Of course, war would have to come sooner or later, and Hannibal settled on the sooner alternative. In 219 he attacked the town of Saguntum, which was an ally of Rome. It resisted bravely, but was taken in the end and its population put to the sword. The Romans sent embassies to Carthage, demanding that Hannibal be handed over for trial as a war criminal. It would have been a fruitless exercise; Hannibal always carried a bottle of poison with him and would have taken his own life before he allowed himself to be captured. The Carthaginians mildly pointed out that they had no real control over the Barcids, and besides, they were still bound by the treaty of Lucitatus. Hasdrubal's agreement not to cross the Jucar did not affect them. Of course, ignoring the fact that a town of your allies has just been taken and its population massacred is never wise. Rome was, as usual, divided between the conservative Fabii and expansionist Claudii and Scipii, and there was a debate in the Curia over the crisis. In the end, it was decided that Rome would need to go to war. Immediately, the preparations were made for an invasion of Africa, and troops were transferred to Massilia, an ally of Rome, in preparation for an attack on Spain. Hannibal, however, would move faster.


Hannibal was not the only person on the move at the time. For several years now, the Celts had been migrating, moving in bands, southwards across Europe. They had invaded Italy in 225, and had caused a lot of damage, routing the Etruscan militia before being crushed by the legions at Clastidium in 222. In Italy itself, there were other problems. Some of the southern cities, chiefly Capua and Tarentum, were starting to grow discontented, especially as their economies were slowing. Still, the Confederation remained strong. As usual, the Fabii were taking the inward-looking conservative approach, and their current leader was a certain Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. A number of other nobles supported him, notably Claudius Marcellus (not a member of the Claudii but coming from a plebian family of the same name), famous for killing the Gallic king with his own hand at Clastidium. Of course, there were others who saw opportunities from Rome in Illyria, Gaul and Spain, and they were championed by the Scipii, who had become quite successful. They were led by two brothers, Publius and Gnaeus the Bald. The recent Gaulish invasion of Italy had given the imperialist faction some extra weight in the assembly. Curiously, we now also see a number of people's parties, made up of plebeians, who tended to support expansionist policies. Chief among them was Gaius Flaminius, who was known for his engineering projects, including a road on the Adriatic coast and a Circus in Rome.

While the Romans busied themselves with politics, Hannibal left Cartagena with an army estimated to be up to 100,000 strong, composed mostly of Spanish and African mercenaries. The Romans controlled the sea, but he intended to reach Italy by land. It was a daring move; and one that the Romans almost certainly did not expect. His first obstacle was an Iberian confederation which had just allied with Rome; he suffered heavy losses defeating them. Ignoring remaining hostile strongholds (he had gone off the idea of siege warfare since the long and bloody affair at Saguntum) he trusted northeastern Spain to the command of a certain Hanno (yes, another one). Continuing on, now with a force of some 50,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry, he entered the territory of the Volcae Celts, who welcomed him. He established a garrison at the mouth of the River Enserune and his army was resupplied by sea. Hannibal's luck held, and the Sayles Celts also decided to take sides with the Barcids, allowing Hannibal to reach the Rhone unopposed. It was at the crossing, though, that he had his first opportunity to show off his tactical finesse.

A party of renegade Volcae decided to resist Hannibal's attempts to cross the river. They were joined by additional forces from Masillia, and a Roman army under one of the newly elected Consuls for the year 218, Publius Cornelius Scipio, was on its way. Placing part of his force under the command of his nephew, Hanno (not the same Hanno who was currently the master of northern Spain), Hannibal was able to send an attack across the river upstream that fell on the Gauls from behind. When the Romans arrived, the found that Hannibal had made his crossing and already left northwards towards Savoy. Why north? The Celtic tribes there were at war, and by joining in the dispute and supporting the winner, Hannibal was able to gain several new allies. He then turned south and east, into the Alps - and towards Italy.

2,000 years later, Napoleon would cross the Alps himself, and claim that it was no great feat. He had heard of Hannibal, of course, and expected great hardship in the high passes. His conclusion was that Hannibal exaggerated the difficulty of the journey. Hannibal was cunning, and was not above letting the 'media' of the third century BC from embellishing accounts of his exploits. Polybius chided this behaviour, calling it immature. Personally, I can see Hannibal sitting in a tent in Italy listening with great amusement to travelers reciting epic tales of the great march over the Alps.

All that being said, bringing a huge army, including elephants, over the Alps in October isn't a walk in the Curia. For thirty days, soldiers used to the blazing sun of Africa and Spain waded knee-deep in snow and icy slush. Hundreds perished. Most probably, Hannibal made his crossing near St Bernard, using fire and vinegar to shape the rough mountain tracks into a useable road. The Ligurian-Celtic tribes of the area proved about as hospitable as the climate, eschewing welcome mats in favour of constant attacks.

The Roman standing army in Italy at the time comprised of six legions, totaling 32,000 Roman Infantry and 16,000 Roman cavalry, supported by 30,000 allied infantry and 2,000 allied cavalry. A reserve force, almost as large, could be mobilized in days, and allied militias of vary quality could also be called up if necessary. All up, the Italian Confederation could field some 340,000 infantry and 37,000 cavalry to make life very difficult for an invader. Against this juggernaut, Hannibal bought down 20,000 very footsore infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 3 elephants from the Alps in the dead of winter, 218 BC.


Upon arriving in Piedmont, Hannibal found that the Cisalpine Gauls had broken into a general revolt, massacring the Italian soldiers in the area. Consul Sempronius had to abandon his planned invasion of Africa to race north, and Consul Scipio had to leave his pet project, an attack on the Barcid Kingdom in Spain, in order to aid him. However, he left most of his army is Masillia under his brother, and left him to continue the campaign.

Contrary to the customs of the day, the battle for Cisalpine Gaul took place in midwinter. Scipio was the first to make contact with Hannibal, but his force was too small and he was defeated and badly wounded in battle at Vercelli. Sempronius then took command of the operation, with disastrous results for Rome.

He sent his legions, without breakfast, on a cold December morning to wade the icy River Trebia and make an uphill attack on the Carthaginian camp. They were ambushed as they attempted to reform, and 20,000 of the 30,000 men were killed. This was the first of Hannibal's three great victories over the Romans. Overall, however, its effect was fairly minor; the Romans could replace their losses, a number of the Celtic tribes remained loyal to them, and the ones that were not were beginning to tire of Hannibal's company.

218 turned to 217, which meant that it was time for new Consular elections in Rome. Flaminius, the leader of the popular people's movement, promised to devalue the currency to lighten the plebeian's debts, and was elected along with Servilius Germinus. Hannibal, for his part, had two options. The Apennines rose before him, and he could march either east; down the Adriatic Coast towards Bologna or west; into Tuscany and Etruria. The Romans decided to protect both sides of the mountains, with Flaminius taking up a position on the western route at Arezzo while Servilius moved his army to the Adriatic side.

Going down west into Liguria seemed Hannibal's best option. From there, contact could be made with the Sardinians and Corsicans, and the Etruscans could perhaps be persuaded to remember their old alliance with Carthage and rebel. Such an attack could have been deadly to Rome. However, nature was to have the deciding say; the spring rains of 217 were especially heavy, flooding the rivers and leaving Hannibal and his army sitting in the marshes of the Po Valley, very wet and miserable. The remaining elephants died, and Hannibal himself caught ophthalmia and lost an eye.

With the rivers still flooded, Hannibal set off towards Rome along the via Cortona over an unguarded Apennine pass. As such, he bypassed both Servilius and Flaminus, and the two Roman armies had to set off in hot pursuit. On June 21, 217, Flaminius was leading his army, in good order, between the mountain forests and Lake Transimene. Suddenly, Barcid banners appeared to the front and side, and the Romans were driven into the lake. Flaminius was killed, speared by a Gaulish mercenary, and 15,000 of his soldiers died with him. Servilius arrived just in time to loose 4,000 men to Hannibal's cavalry. Once again, Hannibal had shown a remarkable aptitude for trapping and destroying an enemy army.

Despite the magnitude of his victory, Hannibal was still not strong enough to attack Rome itself. The Romans had gone back to an unusual practice and appointed a dictator, Fabius Maximus, who immediately began preparing the city for siege. Normally, a Dictator could only be appointed by both Consuls, but as one was dead and one was trapped somewhere in the North, the Assembly decided to cut a few corners. Maximus needn't have overly worried himself; Hannibal was not going to risk everything in one throw, and had other plans. He sent out his emissaries among the people of Italy, to see if any would defect from the Italian Confederation and join him. The Sardinians and Corsicans rebelled, but the Romans managed to deal with them. Capua was on the edge of a knife, but didn't openly join Hannibal just yet.

Hannibal was not an ideologue. He never attempted to play 'freedom from Roman imperialism' or 'democracy against oligarchy' cards to the Italians. Despite this, he managed to gain a good deal of support from among the common people of the allied territories. It was not enough, though, as the genius of Rome's control over the Confederation became apparent; they had left the local aristocracies in power and built up strong alliances with them. The common people may had muttered and mumbled, but their overlords stood firm behind the Romans; for now.

Hannibal crossed the length and breadth of Italy, ravishing the countryside and destroying centres of Roman power. Fabius followed him, but was content to skirmish and reinforce his garrisons. He had a few imprudent commanders under him who sometimes got themselves into tight spots and needed to be rescued, but overall he had managed to avoid being crushed, which was a lot better than any previous Roman commanders who had faced Hannibal had done. Still, the people were bored, and wanted to see the Barcid menace ground into the soil of Campania. In the Consular elections of 216 BC, they ditched Maximus in favour of Amilius Paulus, a close friend of the Scipii, and Terentius Varro, a protégé of the Cornelii.

If this was a movie, we would now see dramatic shots of Hannibal, on a horse, leading his army down an Italian highway. The music would go especially somber as he passed a 'welcome to Cannae' sign. We would then shift back to Rome, to see a massive recruiting and arming operation taking place. Both Consuls and most of the Senate had decided on a decisive end to the war, and had ordered a general mobilization. The Romans were assembling the largest army that the Italian peninsula had yet seen. Conscription was conducted from Tarentum to Liguria, and new legions were created in a matter of weeks to replace those lost at Trebia and Transimene. All in all, some 70,000 men, almost two and a half times as many as would form a normal Consular army, were fielded. Normally, the Consuls would have an army each, but for this massive force a policy of joint command was taken.

When I first saw a map showing the location of Cannae, I was surprised; what was Hannibal doing down there? Cannae is near the Adriatic Coast, quite far down towards the 'heel' of Italy. Back then, as a ten-year-old historian, I didn't get why he hadn't marched on Rome. These days, I understand the real strategy of the Barcid general. Hannibal was not strong enough to take Rome, and he needed to draw out Paulus and Varro to where he could fight them on his own terms. The fort of Germanium, where he had holed himself up, was in a region with plenty of supplies, and where the local Hellenized populace was a little less than happy with Rome. Personally, I also think that he chose an area where the climate and geography was most suited to his African and Spanish mercenaries. With the troops he had picked up in Cisalpine Gaul, Bologna and Campania, he now had some 50,000 men.

On July 31, 216 BC Roman and Carthaginian came face-to-face beside the banks of the Aufidus River, just outside Cannae. The two armies skirmished intermittently beneath the burning sun, but neither side moved out onto the plain. Paulus counseled caution; if this was a Star Wars movie, he would almost certainly claim to 'have a bad feeling about this'. Varro, however, branded him as a coward, took command of the army, and ordered an attack.

Living in Queensland, Australia, I know a little about hot, dry weather and dry, flat, countryside. On a day like August 2, 216 BC on the Plain of the Aufidius near Cannae, the last thing I would want to be doing is marching around in armour in the sun. Instead, I would seek some air conditioning, probably a library where I could research the history articles that I periodically submit to this website. Of course, air conditioning was not invented in 216 BC, libraries were not common and many of the soldiers would have been illiterate and broadly ignorant of history (not to mention that they were there to fight Hannibal in the first place), so the Romans had no choice but to march onto the hot, dusty, plain.

Sixteen Legions, eight Roman and eight allied, deploying in the morning sun of August 2, 216 BC must have been an impressive sight. The Roman army had improved since the battles in Sicily 20 years before; it had become more streamlined and better trained, equipped and disciplined. Despite this, Roman commanders still fought by the book. Not taking the terrain or their enemy into account, the Romans arrayed their army in the old Triplex Acies; a checkerboard of legions, with Varro commanding the Roman Cavalry on the left and Paulus commanding the allied cavalry on the right, beside the river. As usual, the legions were led into battle by a swarm of velites, behind which marched hastatii, princes and triarii. From the air, the discipline of the Romans would be apparent; on the flat ground their formation would look like a diagram in a book. To the east, Hannibal's forces massed, a thick line of infantry with all of his cavalry concentrated on his right flank, away from the river. He deployed his Celts and Iberians in the centre and his better quality African mercenaries on the flanks. He had some 32,000 infantry, 8,000 skirmishers and 10,000 cavalry to the Roman's 60,000 infantry, 10,000 skirmishers and 6,000 cavalry.

The Romans advanced, their armour shining through the clouds of dust thrown up by their marching feet. The Romans went for depth, hoping to quickly smash through the Carthaginian centre, although they were hindered by the hot wind blowing dust into their faces. Still, at first contact, Varro seemed to have been proved right; the Celts fell back, and the Romans drove in on the buckling line. At that moment, Hannibal's cavalry charged Varro's. Outnumbered, the Romans were routed, and Varro fled the field. Without the cavalry guarding their flank, the legions were vulnerable to Africans who wrapped around the side of the Roman army. Hannibal's cavalry charged the rear. The more and more the Romans advanced, the tighter and tighter they became packed together. Princeps crashed in hastatii, and triarii into princeps. Eventually, they had no room to draw their swords, and Hannibal's Africans could advance through the legions, hamstringing the helpless soldiers and killing them as they fell. From the ground, Paulus wouldn't have been able to see a thing. As his cavalry was trapped, he dismounted, and led the legions on foot in a final advance towards the Gauls and Spanish, where he fell with sword in hand. He was proved right; but lost his life in life in the process. In one of history's great ironies, Varro escaped.

The magnitude of the disaster is difficult to comprehend. Livy claims that 70,000 Romans were killed. His figures are probably exaggerated, but even Polybius claims that close to 45,000 Romans perished. Overall, it is likely that only 10,000 Romans escaped; 10,000 were captured and 50,000 were slain. Terrified and locked together, the legionaries, mostly inexperienced new recruits, would have been cut down like corn. In addition to Paulus, the ex-Consul Servilius was also killed there, and many, many others of rank. One young man, Publius Scipio, son of ex-Consul Scipio, managed to escape, but he was one of the lucky few. Rome had never suffered a worse defeat before, and would never suffer a worse defeat again, even at the time of the fall of the Empire. Not Queen Boudicca, nor the Parthians at Carrhae, nor Arminis in the Teutoburg Forest, nor the Goths at Adrianople, nor even Attilia the Hun and his allies would kill so many Romans in one battle.

Immediately following the engagement, Capua left the Confederation and went over to Hannibal. In Syracuse, Hieronymus, Old Hieron's successor also defected to Carthage. The Italian Hellenes also began to turn away from Rome. Still, the greater part of the alliance held firm, and remarkably, Rome managed to refill its legions with new recruits. Even so, Rome's situation had never seemed blacker.


When Mago walked into the assembly at Carthage and emptied buckets of gold rings, worn by Roman Patricians and taken from their bodies at Cannae, on the floor, the effect was electrifying. Immediately, Carthage voted to support Hannibal, and threw itself into the war. Punic fleets put to sea, bound for Sicily, Italy, Sardinia and Spain.

When we last heard of Spain in 218, Consul Scipio had just dispatched an army there. In 216, free from the constraints of Consulship, the two Scipios were free to pursue their project, making use of continuing Roman naval superiority to land in the Barcid Kingdom and rally a number of Celtiberian tribes to their cause. Hannibal's brother, Hasdrubal was defeated, Saguntum restored, and anti-Carthaginian revolts triggered as far away as Baetica in the far south. The Barcid kingdom had made an excellent staging point for Hannibal's campaign, but in reality, it was very weak. It was these successes, in part, that encouraged the Romans to risk fighting at Cannae.

Following the end of the period of great battles, however, Mago was able to bring a Carthaginian army to Spain and settle affairs with the Scipii. Even worse for the Romans, Hannibal was able to secure an alliance with Philip V of Macedon, who promised to send 200 ships to Italy. Here, we see Hannibal's plans for Rome; it was not to be destroyed, but made into a weak state, subject to Carthage and its allies in Italy. The Mediterranean would be divided between Carthage and Macedon.

After Cannae, however, the war lost its brilliance and became bogged down, just like the First Punic War before it. As any Rome: Total War player knows, Marharbal said that Hannibal 'knew how to gain a victory but not how to use it'. There is an element of truth in this, but the blame for the eventual Carthaginian defeat cannot be laid entirely at his feet. A series of defeats such that the Romans had just suffered would break many powers. The Persian Empire of Darius III was crushed by Alexander following Issus and Guagemela, and the Romans had taken worse at Trebia, Transimene and Cannae. Still, the remarkable ability of the Romans to recover from losses is never shown as clearly as it is during the second Punic War. Every available soldier was recruited, and legions were formed of freed criminals and slaves. Fabius Maximus, who became known as the delayer for his tactics, avoided open battle, preferring to shut himself in strong fortresses or strike wherever Hannibal wasn't; like a pack of dogs circling a lion. Hannibal remained unwilling to conduct sieges, and was left high and dry in Southern Italy.

In 213, Tarentum defected to Hannibal. It was a bold move, but not as helpful as he would have hoped. He had been struggling in vain to overcome the Campanians, but in the end was forced to leave Capua to fight on its own. In 211, it fell to the Romans.

Most of Sicily had gone over to Carthage, but the Roman commander, Marcellus, slayer of the Gallic King, was able to effectively blockade Syracuse. The city's situation was dire, but it had unlikely help in the form of the old mathematician Archimedes, famous for running naked through the streets calling out 'Eureka!' and inventing a device for raising water to elevated fields (Archimedes ' screw). He invented an odd device called 'Archimedes' Claw', which was said to be able to seize ships and capsize them. This, along with Archimedes' range of new and improved artillery, kept Marcellus's 200 ships at bay. In addition, Syracuse had some of the best defences in the Mediterranean, including a network of forts and caves carved into the rock of the hills above the city. Famously, they imprisoned captured Athenians there during the Peloponnesian War. All this, though, was not enough to resist Roman determination, and the city was taken and its population put to the sword in 211. The Romans possibly tried to capture Archimedes alive, but he was killed in the general massacre.

211 was also the year that Hannibal went to Rome. 'Hannibal at the gates!' the people cried, and it seemed that the eternal city was doomed at last. However, at the second milestone of the Apennine Way, Hannibal turned back. He had heard reports of Rome's stone walls, and the thousands of militia assembled to defend it, and once again decided that he was not strong enough to take the city. The war would be decided at other places and other times. The Carthaginian commander rode around, surveying the city from his black horse. From the walls, the people, stony-faced as the masonry itself, watched him. On that same day, the land where Hannibal was camped was sold at auction inside Rome. The Romans were not letting their fear of Hannibal get the better of them, and Hannibal still could not assail the fortifications. He left, never to return.

The fall of Capua and Syracuse marked the end of Carthage's realistic chances of winning the war. Without control of the naval bases in Sicily and Italy, they could no longer keep Hannibal supplied, and Sicily was once again in Roman hands. Carthage had one final respite when Rome's Spanish Auxiliaries revolted, massacring the Scipios along with most of their army, but it was not enough. From then on, Carthage was on the defensive in Italy, Spain, and eventually, Africa itself.


A young nobleman named Claudius Nero was entrusted with the war in Spain, and he proved an able commander. However, he was unable to gain the respect of the old veterans, and the Senate replaced him with Publius Scipio, who had the narrow escape from Cannae. Unfortunately for Carthage, Scipio proved to be an excellent general, making use of terrain and skilled tactics to flank and defeat an army under Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal in 209, capturing the Barcid capital of Cartagena in 206 and gaining the support of the Celtiberian tribes. In 209, Tarentum fell to Fabius Maximus himself, but at least Hannibal had the comfort of seeing Marcellus killed in the fighting. Still, he was forced to withdraw into Calabria and fortify it. In the meantime, the Carthaginian admiral, Bomilicar, in addition to filing to save Syracuse and Tarentum, failed to help Philip of Macedon, meaning that he remained sidelined.

Hasdrubal, ever audacious, departed Spain with his army in 208, following his defeat, and repeated Hannibal's march, arriving in northern Italy in 207. The other two Carthaginian armies were left to the mercy of Publius Scipio, but help had come that could allow Hannibal to turn the tide of the war in Italy.

Once again, Rome was in grave danger. The citizen population had been halved by the war, the allies, especially the Etruscans, were openly rebellious, and 12 out of 30 colonies refused to continue paying up. Italy was ravaged and sick of fighting. If Hannibal and Hasdrubal could join up, Rome may have sued for peace.

It was at this point that young Cladius Nero, along with an army under the Consul Livius Salinator, managed to block him. Hannibal was unable to push through to meet his brother, and the latter was overwhelmed and defeated. Hasdrubal's head was sent rolling into Hannibal's camp a few days later. Hannibal was left with no choice but to withdraw back to Calabria and hope that he would be able to strike a deal with Rome. The war, however, was moving on.

In 206, Publius Scipio finally defeated the Barcids in Spain with a flanking-and-enveloping maneuver similar to the one used by Hannibal at Cannae, and Mago fled to Liguria in Italy to keep up a Guerilla war there. Scipio returned to Rome, and ran successfully for Consul in 206. Once in power, he began to make plans for an invasion of Africa. Old Fabius the Delayer disagreed, but he was becoming increasingly sidelined by the new rising star.

Scipio landed near the mouth of the fateful Bagradas River in 204 to find the Carthaginians and Numidians fighting over the province of Massyli. Hanno, called the Great, was still ruling in Carthage, but his situation was going from bad to worse. He sent an army under Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, back from Spain, after Scipio but it was heavily defeated in 203. Another defeat saw Hanno voted out of power by the people's parties. While Scipio struck up a bargain with the Numidians, they prepared to sue for peace. The terms were not harsh; Scipio did not wish to see the end of Carthage. He demanded that Carthage relinquish all territories outside Africa (something that had more or less already happened), reduce its fleet and pay 5,000 talens in damages. The people were about to accept, when everything changed. Hannibal, having broken the blockade, landed in Byzacium in Africa. The peace talks were cancelled, and Scipio raced to meet his nemesis.

The fate of Carthage was decided in August or September of 202 BC, on the plain of Silinia, not far from the Massylian capital of Zama. Hannibal commanded 50,000 infantry, which was more than the Romans, although he was outnumbered by Scipio's Numidian cavalry. However, the scales were balanced by Hannibal's 80 elephants. For all its significance, the battle of Zama was fairly boring. Both leaders had shown remarkable tactical finesse on many occasions before, but none of this showed when they fought each other. It is possible, perhaps, that they feared what the enemy had in store and thus decided to minimize their risks. Hannibal launched a frontal assault on the Romans, lead by his elephants, but it was checked by the spears of the Roman triarii. Following that, the Roman cavalry surrounded the Carthaginian infantry. Defeated, Hannibal raced back to Carthage and urged its rulers to negotiate. For his part, Scipio became a national hero, and from then on was known by a new name; Scipio Africanus.

The peace terms the Romans offered were a little harsher, with more money and less ships, but they were still fairly mild. Carthage accepted, ending the war. It was a good compromise; Old Hanno the great was happy with it, and to his credit, Hannibal recognised that the best thing for Carthage would be to accept Rome's terms.


While Barcid Carthage, now with Hannibal holding office, sorted itself out, the Romans settled affairs with Philip of Macedon, fighting in Greece from 201 to 196, and winning a decisive battle at Cynocephalae in 197. In the meantime, interesting events were unfolding further east.

Following the death of Alexander the Great, his Empire split into several smaller kingdoms, known as the Diadochi, or successors. The largest of these was the Seleucid Empire, which included Mesopotamia, parts of Asia Minor and modern Iran. From 222 onwards, it was ruled by Antiochus III, who, like all of the diadochs, was determined to get as much of the old Empire back as possible. In 198, he seized Phonecia from the Ptolemaic Egyptian Empire, another one of the successors. As such, the Phoenicians became subjects of the Seleucids, and Carthage started to have a lot more to do with the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus did not wish to see Rome Supreme in Greece, and so he and Hannibal found that they had some common ground. In 195, Hannibal sailed to Tyre and became an advisor to Antiochus.

Unfortunately for Hannibal, the mighty Seleucid Empire proved to be a paper tiger. Following a war in Thrace, Antiochus invaded Greece but was defeated by the Romans at Thermopylae in 191, then again at Magnesia in Asia Minor in 190 by Scipio Africanus. He had ignored Hannibal's advice and only given him command of a fleet at the last minute, and probably missed out on a good chance to force a deal with Rome. Following the peace of Apamea in 188, Hannibal could no longer stay with the Seleucids, and was taken in by Prusias, King of Bithynia (a small Kingdom in Asia Minor). Bithynia was locked in a war with Pergamum, an ally of Rome, and so Hannibal, perhaps, didn't mind assisting so much. For his efforts, he was given a house to live in. It was there, in 183 or 182 BC, that he was surrounded by Bithynian troops, with King Prusias, making his sole contribution to history, deciding to hand Hannibal over to the Romans. Rather than be captured, he took his life with the bottle of poison he always carried with him.


So what went wrong for Hannibal?

Napoleon invaded Russia, Hitler ordered the Panzer divisions to halt in France, and Oda Nobunaga left himself poorly defended in the Honnoji in Kyoto with a treacherous general running around, but Hannibal never made a similar critical mistake. There isn't a single point where I can say 'and he if he hadn't have done that, ladies and gentlemen, he would have almost certainly won'. His handling of the war was exceptionally skilled, but he still lost.

But wait, I hear a voice in the audience say. Why didn't he attack Rome after he won at Cannae? Surely, an attack on the capital would have turned more of the Italian Allies to the Barcid side, and bought Rome to accept any peace agreement that Hannibal would offer.

I can't say for certain that these things wouldn't have happened. However, surveying the city from horseback on that day in 211BC, Hannibal knew several things. He knew that the Romans could afford losses that he couldn't. He was fighting in the heart of enemy territory; a single defeat could have ruined him. Rome was a large city, with thousands of well-equipped militia defending it, and strong stone walls. Hannibal knew that the Carthaginians were poor at seigecraft; his lightly armed African and Gaulish mercenaries may have been able to run swiftly over the plains, encircling Roman armies and peppering them with javelins; but they would quite likely be cut down trying to take the walls of Rome with ladders, or force its gates with rams. Rome would only fall after a long siege, one that would cost time and lives and leave the rest of Italy free to organize a counterattack. He was a cautious general, and unwilling to risk what he had worked so hard to gain in a single throw, no matter high the stakes.

So what did defeat Hannibal?

Wars are lost, but they are also won. Roman resilience throughout the conflict was extraordinary; greater than Hannibal or anyone else could have been led to expect. The Allies did not turn away, and every slain soldier was replaced with another. Romans lost battles; not wars. The Roman cities and forts were strong, and Hannibal was unwilling or unable to get bogged down in sieges. Also, for all the focus on him, Hannibal was not the only player in the game; he could win in Italy, but without similar successes in Sicily, Spain and at sea, all his victories were simply making up for the failures of others.

In many ways, I'd rather write about someone like Horatio Nelson who was killed at their moment of triumph. I think the story of Hannibal's later life is a sad one; the brilliant commander was traded like a used car, and finally disposed of when no one else was willing to buy him. When he set off from Spain in 219, Rome ruled Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. At his death in 202, it had added most of Iberia, Macedonia, Asia Minor and parts of Greece to its holdings. Throughout his life, for all his efforts, Hannibal only saw his enemy grow stronger and stronger; strong enough by the defeat the successors of Alexander. I am a self-confessed Roman sympathiser, but Hannibal remains one of my favourite historical characters.

The Second Punic War changed the world. Scipio Africanus was the first Roman general to take a conquered land as his surname, and the first to lead the same soldiers year after year throughout a war. Under him, the tradition of armies developing stronger loyalties to their commanders than to the republic started, a tradition that would lead to civil war. The entry of Macedonia into the war saw the legions fighting in Greece, and the influx of Hellenism changed the Republic completely. Carthage was wiped off the international stage; left to last out another fifty or so years of quiet retirement until its destruction in 146 BC. The last great challenge to Roman domination fell at Zama, and another would not rise until the Goths massacred a Roman army at Adrianople in 378 AD. Ironically, Hannibal probably hastened Carthage's end. Still, if Carthage was doomed, it at least it could look back on Trebia, Transimene and Cannae, and the young Spanish General who bought Rome to her knees like no single individual before or since.


Augusta, Honzack and Others (1991) 'Battles: The History of Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present Day', Treasure Press, Czechoslovakia.

Cary (1951) 'A History of Rome', Maxmillian P&R; Clarke Ltd.

Grant (1978) 'A History of Rome', Charles Schieber's Sons, USA.

'Hannibal Barca and the Punic Wars' at

Miller (1965) 'Sicily and the Western Colonies of Greece', Charles Schieber's Sons, USA.

Picard & Picard (1968) 'Carthage', Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., London.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia: