Hannibal’s Return to Africa III

With his work in North Africa completed, Scipio prepared to return to Rome. Before leaving, he assigned all the cities, towns, and territory held by the defeated Numidian king Syphax to Massinissa and then, crossing the Straits of Messina, travelled overland to Rome dragging the chained Numidian behind his chariot. Crowds lined the route to watch the parade and cheer the man who had saved Italy. Scipio entered Rome to the greatest triumph ever awarded a victorious general. He displayed the spoils of his campaign in Africa and deposited over sixty tons of silver into the treasury after paying a bonus to each of his soldiers. The senate declared a period of thanksgiving, with games and festivals, and Scipio picked up the bill for everything. Of all the honors bestowed on Scipio the greatest was the cognomen or nickname Africanus—a name that reflected his conquest of Carthage and that he would carry for the remaining years of his life. The appellation was a first for the Romans, and it would become an honor every powerful Roman after Scipio coveted and future emperors of Rome would bestow on themselves for their conquests, real or imagined. Whether the title was bestowed on Scipio by his soldiers, by the people of Italy, or by the senate is never made quite clear in the sources. What is evident is that even though Scipio returned to Italy a national hero and probably the most popular political figure in Rome, opposition to him and his family grew—led by a conservative, stridently anti-Carthaginian Tuscan landowner and senator named Cato.

Scipio spared Hannibal from execution or imprisonment, and it is generally conceded by scholars that the senate at Rome agreed due to Scipio’s popularity with the people. Sparing Hannibal made Scipio more enemies in the senate. Besides holding Hannibal in high esteem, Scipio had a practical reason for sparing him. There can be little doubt that, among the potential leaders at Carthage, Scipio considered Hannibal to be the most likely to honor his commitments, uphold the terms of the treaty, and make sure the payments to Rome were made in full and on time.

Nothing is known for certain about Hannibal’s activities in the years immediately following the end of the war (201 B.C.–196 B.C.). Only two ancient sources report on him during the five years following the peace between Carthage and Rome, and those references are scant and even contradictory. Hannibal seems to drop from sight shortly after the peace, but from one source we learn that he remained head of the army and that, in a vague statement, “with his brother Mago at his side, continued to make war in Africa until 200 B.C.” However, we know from other sources that Mago died at sea nearly three years earlier. Nor is it clear in this reference who Hannibal was fighting: Africans or Romans? There is also a reference in a much later source to Hannibal’s concern about the effect of idleness on his soldiers, so much so that to offset it he had them plant olive trees. However, since the reference is not tied to any specific year, the planting could have occurred in the year before the battle of Zama, during Hannibal’s time in Hadrumetum, or after peace with Rome was ratified. What is certain is that Hannibal seems to have withdrawn into private life for at least part of this period, and that he stayed away from Carthage.

The only references found in the main sources to continued Carthaginian resistance against Rome around 200 B.C. concern the actions of Hamilcar the Carthaginian, an officer who had been left behind in northern Italy by Mago in 203 B.C. Another source maintains this Hamilcar was left behind by Hasdrubal when his army passed through northern Italy in 207 B.C. In either case, he could have been left by Hasdrubal and then later joined with Mago, but it is curious that his activities in northern Italy are never mentioned in any detail by the main sources. This Hamilcar apparently operated in Italy for several years, raiding Roman colonies like Placentia and Cremona with his army of Gauls and Ligurians. His army apparently became sizable, numbering some forty thousand, if the sources can be believed, making it as large as if not larger than, any of the armies commanded by Hannibal, Hasdrubal, or Mago in northern Italy.

Because the Roman armies in northern Italy were apparently never large enough to confront this Hamilcar directly, envoys were sent from Rome to Carthage, demanding his recall or surrender. The best that Carthage could do, in reply to the Roman demand, was to declare Hamilcar an outlaw and confiscate his family property in North Africa. This indicates he could have been a rogue operator and not under any orders from Carthage. Finally, Roman legions, considerably reinforced, confronted Hamilcar and his Gauls at Cremona, where his army was defeated and he was killed in the battle along with an alleged thirty-five thousand of his soldiers—another highly suspect number because it makes the battle deaths there second in number only to the horrendous Roman losses at Cannae.

In a later recounting of the battle, the same source has Hamilcar captured alive, and then in a third rendition, he is captured and led in chains before the chariot of the triumphant Roman commander Cornelius on his return to Rome. Regardless of Hamilcar’s fate, killed in battle or executed, his presence in northern Italy is confusing. It could be interpreted as evidence of clandestine Carthaginian resistance to Rome, a “black ops” operation of sorts, or that he was acting independently—as a warlord of sorts, leading the Gauls. Hamilcar’s presence in northern Italy with his army of Roman-hating Gauls could have been a reason for Hannibal, as we will see in the next chapter, to have encouraged King Antiochus of Syria to invade Italy rather than Greece.

The end of the Second Punic War saw the political situation at Carthage change dramatically. A struggle developed between the aristocratic elements that had traditionally controlled the society and the popular assemblies. Traditionally, the most powerful political body at Carthage was called the “order of judges,” and it consisted of some 104 of the richest men in the city, who were appointed for life terms. They were so intent on protecting their own financial interests that anyone at Carthage who offended one of them became the enemy of all of them. While corruption and mismanagement in the higher echelons of government were rampant, the judges were so powerful they had been able for years to stifle attempts at reform. They were the oligarchs, those who had made money during the war and were concerned only with lining their own pockets and taxing the poor to pay Rome.

When the first installment of the war indemnity for 199 B.C. came due, it was short, so the Carthaginians sent Rome a debased quality of silver. When the talents were received at Rome and tested by the officials in charge of the treasury, they found that 25 percent was base metal. The Romans, with good reason, were convinced that the Carthaginians were up to their old tricks again. Confronted with their blatant attempt to pay with debased silver and anxious to avoid any resumption of hostilities, the Carthaginian senate quickly made good the discrepancy by further taxing the common people. Popular dissent over the next couple of years reached crisis proportions. Hannibal believed the time had come to curtail the power of the oligarchs, and he reappeared on the scene in 196 B.C.—elected suffete, or chief executive officer, of Carthage by the popular assemblies. The position of suffete was the highest executive office in the government of Carthage and similar to the consulship in Rome. Normally, two suffetes were elected by the popular assemblies to serve concurrent one-year terms directing the administration of the state, just as two consuls were elected in Rome to do the same. Two were elected so that each could serve as a check on the other as they performed certain religious duties and judicial functions, controlled government finances, prepared legislation, and presided over the popular assemblies. Only Hannibal’s name is mentioned as suffete for the year 196 B.C.; it is possible that only he was elected, or, if a second suffete was elected, his name was simply lost to history.

Hannibal campaigned by condemning the “haughtiness” of the judges and accusing them of oppressing the liberty and economic well-being of the common people. He entered the political arena campaigning against the privilege and corruption of the very class from which he had come. Although Carthage had always been a plutocracy and the rich had traditionally governed there, the loss of the Second Punic War and the indemnities imposed by the Romans sparked a popular opposition when the oligarchs tried to shift the burden of paying that indemnity onto the backs of the middle class and the poor through a special assessment. The oligarchs had been so blatant in their mismanagement and even theft of public funds that Carthage was in danger of defaulting on its next payment to Rome and thus the reason for the special assessment. State revenues had been consistently mismanaged, stolen, and wasted. The treasury was rapidly being depleted, yet when Hannibal ordered an audit of the tax revenues from landholdings as well as duties collected at the ports, he found the amounts collected were more than sufficient to meet the obligations of the indemnity owed Rome, but they were routinely being siphoned off by the oligarchs. When the information became known, there was a popular outcry, and Hannibal became the champion of those who wanted to break the hold of the oligarchs over Carthage. Hannibal challenged the assessment and argued that excessive taxation at the expense of the people was unnecessary.

It was a charge that resonated with the popular assemblies, and as suffete, Hannibal was given the authority to reform the government and fiscal administration of Carthage, something that brought him into conflict with the oligarchs. While each member of the order of judges had been elected for life, Hannibal pushed a law through the popular assembly that required the annual election of judges and set two-year term limits. It was a radical challenge to the traditional power structure of Carthage, and although it made Hannibal popular with the lower classes, it incurred the animosity of the oligarchs.

The war changed Carthage. While limited democracy had existed there for centuries in the form of the popular assemblies, it was closely regulated by the oligarchs. Following the end of the war the popular assemblies increased their influence in public affairs by taking a stronger stand against the aristocracy. The people demanded more of a say in policy formulation, and the suffete, who presided over them and was elected directly by them, became, especially under Hannibal, their champion. While at Rome, the opposite was happening. The senate, with no basis in Roman constitutional law but because of its effective direction of the war, was coming to dominate the society at the expense of the popular assemblies and acting more and more in the interests of the aristocracy. The Roman senate had existed since the founding of the city by Romulus (756 B.C.) and was initially an advisory body to the Roman kings composed of the hundred richest men in the society. By the time of the Punic Wars, it had increased in size, prestige, and power. The consuls, the heads of the army, and the executive branch of Roman government came from the aristocratic class, and although the candidates for the consulship were selected by the senate, they were elected by the people. They reported to the senate, and at the end of their term, joined it for life. Thus, it was always in a consul’s interest to conform to the will of the group he would be joining at the end of his term and the group with which his economic interests were so closely aligned—not the constituency which had elected him. It would be several decades following the conclusion of the Second Punic War before Rome would undergo a transformation similar to the one that occurred, however briefly, at Carthage under Hannibal. That change at Rome came with the rise to power of the tribune—the man elected annually by the Roman lower classes, the plebeians, to champion their cause with the aristocracy and protect their interests in government.

In the short term, Hannibal seems to have instituted some reforms, but owing to the entrenched corruption among the aristocratic class and his subsequent flight into exile, he proved powerless to bring about any lasting changes as Carthage reverted to business as usual. Because Carthage had been spared the ravages of war, the economy was positioned to prosper. The Carthaginians had used mercenaries to do their fighting and had not suffered significant losses of manpower. Over the next ten years, Carthage made significant economic gains in North Africa even though she had lost her overseas possessions to Rome. The money Carthage had spent to fund wars now went into economic development—a phenomenon known as the “revenge of the defeated.” Carthage recovered to the point of being able to supply Rome with enough grain to feed the people in Italy as well as the Roman armies fighting in Macedon and Greece. Ten years later, Carthage was able to export over half a million bushels, and by 171 B.C. the amount had risen to over 2 million. So prosperous and rapid was the recovery, that Carthage was able to offer Rome the balance of the indemnity due in one final payment—which the Romans refused.

One area that contributed to the economic recovery was a brisk trade that developed between Carthage and Rome for finished products—the Carthaginians fabricating and selling, the Romans buying. The harbor at Carthage, according to fairly recent excavations, seems to have undergone extensive renovations and even expansion after the end of the Second Punic War—which can only be explained within the context of the economic recovery of the city. There are also indications of significant strides in urban development in and around the city during the period of Hannibal’s administration, and it is perhaps more than coincidental, as shall be seen in the next chapter, that he is reported to have undertaken the design of cities for the kings of Armenia and Bithynia.

The aristocrats or oligarchs at Carthage, largely because of Hannibal’s reform movement, faced a growing popular discontent and calls for holding them accountable for their corruption and mismanagement of the government. Faced with the prospect of losing their privileged position in the city and having to pay back to the state treasury the funds they had embezzled, a cabal of oligarchs plotted to discredit Hannibal and remove him from political office. A faction in the senate pulled the one chain they knew would alarm the Romans, the prospect of another military threat from Hannibal. They sent word to Rome that they suspected Hannibal was planning to invade Italy again, this time with an army composed in part of Macedonian mercenaries provided by King Philip. They maintained Hannibal was corresponding with King Antiochus III of Syria in an effort to gain financial support for his plan to invade Italy again, and even receiving the king’s agents at Carthage. The oligarchs further fueled the fire of suspicion by contending Hannibal was a man of “inherently violent disposition” who believed only war could bring prosperity, and that a people who remained at peace for any extended period would become soft and complacent.

When the matter was debated in the senate at Rome, Scipio rose to defend Hannibal. He objected to what he argued were groundless accusations and advised the senators not to be drawn into the petty squabbles and rivalries of the Carthaginian aristocratic political factions. But Scipio had his own problems at home; there were those in the senate who viewed him as too accommodating when it came to Hannibal. Scipio now found himself the target of a political inquiry into the mismanagement of state funds that had been allocated to him during his campaigns in Spain and Sicily.

In the late spring or summer of 195 B.C., a senatorial delegation from Rome was sent to North Africa under the cover of mediating a border dispute between Carthage and Massinissa. The three senators who constituted the delegation were openly hostile to Scipio and had come to build a case against Hannibal. Before the delegation arrived, Hannibal left Carthage—travelling by horseback south along the coast to Hadrumetum. There he hired a ship and set sail for the island of Cercina, some thirty miles due east off the coast of Tunisia. Cercina was a resupply depot used by ships plying the Mediterranean, and from there Hannibal intended to sail on to Tyre on the coast of Lebanon.

Landing at Cercina, Hannibal was recognized immediately. His reputation had made him a celebrity in the ancient world, and “in every city people were eager to catch a glimpse of him.” He explained his presence to the port authorities by contending he was on a diplomatic mission to Tyre. Fearing that word of his location might reach Carthage quickly by one of the ships daily leaving the port and complicate his departure from Cercina, he devised a ploy. Hannibal announced the preparation of a sacrifice to be followed by a great feast—all at his expense. The officers and crews of all the ships in port were invited, and to give the guests shelter from the midday summer sun, he asked the captains to remove their sails and erect them as sheltering canopies during the festivities. The sails from all the ships were taken down—except for those on Hannibal’s ship—and transported to the site of the festival. The sacrifice was held and the feasting went on well into the night. Late in the festivities, Hannibal returned to his ship and quickly set sail.

There was not a ship in port that next day that was capable of overtaking him. Crews had to recover from their binge and their ships had to be rigged for sailing again—a time-consuming process. When word reached Carthage that Hannibal was at Cercina, the senate sent two warships to try to overtake him. The judges and the senate declared him an “outlaw,” his family property was confiscated, and his homes demolished—perhaps to convince the Roman delegation that the aristocratic faction at Carthage was not a part of any Hannibal plan to resume war.

By the time the Carthaginian warships were at sea, Hannibal had found his first refuge as an exile. The man who for nearly a quarter of a century was the driving force for war in the western Mediterranean prepared to become a humble supplicant at the knees of the eastern Hellenistic potentates. His first stop, as irony would have it, was in the same city from which Elissa, the founder of Carthage, had fled over six centuries before. Hannibal was preparing to begin a new chapter that held little promise for the man who had terrified all Italy and come close to changing the very direction of history.

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