Early Career of Hannibal Barca


The elderly general was a visitor at court. No longer in command of any armies, he was a wandering exile. He was hoping to be military adviser to Antiochus the Great, lord of many of the Asian lands conquered a century before by Alexander the Great. The king was pondering a war with that annoying new Mediterranean power, Rome, and was uncertain of his guest’s loyalty.

In response, the old man told a story to prove his bona fides:

I was nine years old and my father was about to set off on a military expedition to Spain. I was standing beside him in the temple of Baal Hammon where he was conducting a sacrifice. The omens proved favorable, and my father poured a libation to the gods and performed the usual ceremonies. He then ordered all present to stand back a little way from the altar and called me to him. He asked me affectionately if I would like to come on the expedition. I was thrilled to accept and, like a boy, begged to be allowed to go. My father took me by the hand, led me up to the altar and made me place my hand on the victim that had been sacrificed and swear that I would never become a friend to the Romans.

The king was convinced and put the old man on his payroll.

For the little boy, the oath he swore that day was a defining, emotionally purifying moment. It remained a vivid memory and guided his actions all his life. He was Hannibal the Carthaginian—a military genius and, in all its long history, the Roman Republic’s most formidable enemy.

When, as commander of a great army, he camped outside Rome’s walls, it was a monstrous, never-to-be-forgotten image of nightmare; in future, if Roman children were boisterous their parents would calm them by uttering the worst threat imaginable: “Hannibal ad portas” (“Hannibal’s outside the city gates”).

Hannibal’s father was the energetic Hamilcar Barca, who had commanded Carthage’s armed forces in Sicily during the final years of the First Punic War. His arrival on the island in 247 coincided with his son’s birth. Barca was not a family or clan name but a nickname meaning “lightning” or “sword flash” (the word is related to the Hebrew barak), which conveys a reputation for liveliness and drive.

This was a quality Hamilcar appears to have asserted in his private as well as his public life. As well as siring three sons and at least one daughter, he became besotted with an attractive young male aristocrat, Hasdrubal (nicknamed the Handsome). Since Hamilcar was a leading politician and general, this gave rise to much critical comment (indeed, his rivals may have invented the story) and the authorities charged with oversight of morals banned the two men from seeing each other. Nothing daunted, Hamilcar married his lover to a daughter of his, on the grounds that it would be illegal to prevent a father-in-law and his son-in-law from meeting.

Once Hamilcar had negotiated the peace that brought the war in Sicily to a close, he sailed back to Carthage, leaving to others the thankless task of repatriating the multiethnic Punic mercenary army. Being an agile tactician, he wanted to distance himself as far as possible from the humiliating capitulation to Rome and the problem of how a bankrupt state could pay off its soldiery. He also had to deal with charges of maladministration brought by his political enemies.

The return of twenty thousand mercenaries proved to be a mistake of truly disastrous proportions and nearly led to the destruction of Carthage. They were not Punic citizens, and their first loyalty was, very naturally, to themselves, not to their employers. The cash-strapped authorities paid them only a small proportion of the money owed, and the men promptly revolted. It was a mortal crisis, for the rebels were the national army and there was no other soldiery with which to resist them. The Carthaginians were obliged to recruit in short order a citizen force and, with the small amount of cash in its coffers, hire some new mercenaries.

To begin with, an incompetent commander was appointed and the war went very badly. So Hamilcar was given a small force to try his hand at defeating the insurgents. Both sides perpetrated disgusting acts of cruelty. Hamilcar trapped the mercenary army and eventually the revolt collapsed. Anyone luckless enough to fall into his hands was crucified. One of the main leaders, an African named Matho, endured a parody of a triumphal procession through the streets of Carthage. He was led along by young men who, Polybius writes, “inflicted on him all kinds of torture.” What this may have meant in practice was imagined by Flaubert in his novel Salammbo:

A child tore his ear; a young girl, with the point of a spindle hidden in her sleeve, split his cheek. They tore out handfuls of hair and strips of flesh; some had sponges steeped in excrement on the end of sticks and rammed these into his face. Blood was streaming from his throat and the sight of it excited the crowd to a frenzy. To them this man, the last of the barbarians, symbolized the entire barbarian army; they were avenging themselves on him for all their disasters, their terror and their shame.

One final twist in the story deepened the rancor against Rome among leading Carthaginians. Mercenaries on the Punic island of Sardinia revolted in solidarity with their comrades in Africa. They came under pressure from native inhabitants and appealed to Rome for help. In 238/7, the Senate decided to send an expedition to take over the island. When the Carthaginians learned of this, they reminded the Senate that Sardinia was still regarded as their possession and they intended to recover it. The response was both surprising and cynical. Despite the fact that they had not a shred of justification, the Romans claimed that Carthage’s preparations were a hostile act and delivered an ultimatum demanding an abdication of all its rights to the island and an indemnity of twelve hundred talents. These new conditions were added to the treaty of 241. Rome took possession of Sardinia and, with it, Corsica, which became a single province, like Sicily.

This was grand larceny. The historian Polybius was a great admirer of Rome, but even he condemned the annexation out of hand. He observed, “It is impossible to discover any reasonable ground or pretext for the Romans’ action,” and noted that men like Hamilcar neither forgot nor forgave the injustice.

Immediately after the war ended, Hamilcar set off for Spain. Carthage was no place at present for a child, and it was little wonder that he took young Hannibal with him. But the motive for his departure was not personal; it was nothing less than to reverse the misfortunes of his motherland.

Little is known of internal Carthaginian politics, but there appear to have been two factions—one representing the landed interest, which much preferred expansion in Africa and the development of agriculture to risky foreign escapades, and the other consisting of merchants and traders who sought military protection for their activities in international waters. The former represented the governing oligarchy, and the latter advocated democratic reform.

Hamilcar was a leading figure in the second group. Although he was respected as a prudent statesman, the defeat in Sicily and the agony of the Mercenary War appear to have radicalized him. According to Diodorus:

Later on after the conclusion of the Mercenary War, he formed a political power base among the lower classes, and from this source, as well as from the spoils of war, amassed wealth. Perceiving that his successes were bringing him increased power, he gave himself over to demagoguery and to currying favor with the People. In this way, he induced them to put into his hands for an indefinite period the military command over all Spain.

Hamilcar was behaving very much like a common Hellenic political type—the turranos, whose one-man rule was backed by the ordinary citizen. However, as it turned out, he had no ambitions to stage a coup d’état at Carthage. He merely wanted a free hand in Spain.

Two basic and interlinked challenges faced Carthage. How was it to rebuild its ruined economy? Both trade abroad and agricultural production at home had been gravely damaged by the recent military struggles, and the huge indemnity was an annual financial hemorrhage. And, taking the longer view, how was Carthage ever to get its own back on the Romans?

For Hamilcar, the answer to both questions lay in the Iberian Peninsula, which boasted a large human reservoir of potential military recruits and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of silver, iron, and other metals. He accepted that the loss of Sicily was permanent. Like all Carthaginians, he was humiliated by Rome’s decision to annex the Punic islands of Corsica and Sardinia, a clear and scandalous breach of the peace treaty. The Phoenicians had long had mercantile outposts in Spain, and Gades was a great city and port. Hamilcar now decided to create a large and powerful Carthaginian province in the peninsula. Predictably, even those tribes which were accustomed to a Phoenician coastal presence put up resistance. Hamilcar applied the combination of clemency and cruelty that had served him when dealing with the rebellious mercenaries.

He brought with him his son-in-law-cum-lover, the beautiful Hasdrubal, who turned out to be as persuasive a diplomat as he was an aggressive and resourceful commander. Hasdrubal tactfully chose a Spanish princess as a second wife. During the next decade, the two leaders conquered most of southern and southeastern Spain. The Carthaginians also reorganized the silver-mining industry, massively increasing its productivity. It has been calculated that in later centuries a labor force of forty thousand slaves worked the mines and created a hundred thousand sesterces of profit every day. There is no reason to suppose that the Carthaginians in Hamilcar’s day were any less efficient.

Having no strategic interest in Spain or assets to protect, the Romans paid little attention to these developments, but after a time decided to look into reports of Punic expansion (not that this meant Carthage had in any way breached an agreement). They sent an embassy to Hamilcar to ask for a briefing. It was received with carefully controlled courtesy. The Carthaginian general replied to its inquiries with a plausible explanation. “I have to make war on the Spaniards,” he asserted, “to find the money to pay our indemnity to Rome.” This very effectively silenced the envoys.

In 229, Hamilcar suffered a rare military setback at the hands of a Spanish chieftain. Hannibal and another son were with him, but he saved their lives by turning off onto a different road, the enemy following after him rather than the rest of his force. He was overtaken by the chieftain. To escape from him, he plunged on horseback into a river and drowned. Hamilcar’s death did not dent Punic dominance in the peninsula, and a successor was swiftly appointed. At eighteen, his son Hannibal, though popular and able, was too young to be considered. So the Council of Elders in Carthage confirmed Hasdrubal, who had shown himself to be far more than a pretty face.

The new commander-in-chief continued his predecessor’s good work, achieving as much by negotiation as by force of arms. This included a treaty with Rome: the Senate realized it had been “fast asleep” and let Carthage recruit and equip a large army. It sent a second embassy to Spain, and Hasdrubal agreed not to cross the river Hiberus (the present-day Ebro). This was some way north of territory then controlled by Carthage and was an easy concession; and, from Rome’s point of view, the accord satisfactorily protected the interests of its anxious ally, Massilia, and its colonies on the coast of northeastern Spain. The larger issue of the unwelcome Punic revival remained unsettled, and, indeed, even the most obdurate senatorial envoy could hardly expect Carthage to renounce its acquisitions simply on request.

Even if Rome had wanted to issue any threats at this time, it would not have been able to follow them up, for the Republic was facing a major crisis in northern Italy. The Celtic tribes that formed the population of the Po Valley were infuriated by Roman encroachments and had mobilized a vast horde of warriors. In 225, they were defeated at the Battle of Telamon but remained discontented and ungoverned neighbors.

Hasdrubal’s enduring accomplishment was the foundation of a new port, one of the best harbors in the Western Mediterranean, which he called Carthago Nova (New Carthage, today’s Cartagena). The name was appropriate, for, like the mother city, it was built on a promontory between a shallow lagoon and a bay. An island at the mouth of the bay broke the waves of the sea. Occasionally, a southwest breeze raised a slight swell, but otherwise few winds ruffled the surface of the water inside. It was an ideal spot, not merely for fishermen and merchants but as an up-to-the-minute export facility for the growing silver trade. On the city’s highest eminence, Hasdrubal erected a magnificent palace, which stood as a gleaming symbol of the new empire he and his father-in-law had created.

The message to the world was unmistakable: Carthage was back.

Hasdrubal’s pacific policies did not save him from a violent end. One night in 221, he was killed in his lodgings by a Celtic slave, whose master he had had executed. The assassin was seized by bystanders but showed no sign of fear or remorse. Under torture, the expression on his face never changed.

Hannibal was now twenty-five years old, popular with his men, daring, with a quick and fertile brain and, though still young, experienced; he had, after all, spent the past fifteen years at the center of affairs while his father pursued his self-ordained mission of conquest. As a member of a leading democratic family, the rank and file acclaimed him as the new commander-in-chief, as did the popular Assembly at Carthage. Despite some opposition in the Council of Elders, Hannibal’s appointment was confirmed.

He was soon to win Rome’s complete attention and his personality became of absorbing interest. Livy summed up the general perception:

Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability once he was at risk. Physically and mentally tireless, he could endure with equanimity excessive heat or excessive cold. He ate and drank according to need rather than for enjoyment. His hours for waking, like his hours for sleeping, were never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then and only then, he went to sleep, without needing silence or a comfortable bed. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground among ordinary soldiers on sentry or picket duty.… He was the first to go into battle, and the last to leave the field.

On the negative side, he was notorious among his fellow citizens for his love of money and among Romans for his cruelty. This, at least, was the general impression. The accuracy of these criticisms is obscured by the murk of hostile propaganda. Also, in Polybius’s wise words, pressure of circumstances made it exceptionally difficult “to pass judgement on Hannibal’s real nature.”

At this point, the young general’s thinking was unknown. For two years, he maintained the Carthaginian policy of expansion but reverted to his father’s aggressive military approach. He, too, took care to marry a local princess, as his brother-in-law had done. Soon Punic territory reached as far as the Hiberus. Did he have a long-term plan?

If he did not, events soon prompted him to create one. Saguntum was a small coastal town well south of the Hiberus, of no great military or commercial importance. It was on friendly but not formal terms with Rome, which at the town’s request had acted as arbiter in an internal political dispute. It is not known exactly when this entente with Rome was agreed, but if it was before Hasdrubal’s Hiberus treaty, then that, it might be supposed, superseded the entente. If afterward, Rome had incontestably breached the treaty, for Hasdrubal’s commitment not to march his forces beyond the Hiberus could only mean that territory south of the river lay inside Carthage’s sphere of influence. Either way, Hannibal had grounds for irritation with Roman meddling.

Then Saguntum became involved in a quarrel with a local, pro-Punic tribe, which appealed to Hannibal for assistance. For the Punic general, this was the last straw. However, he acted with caution, not wanting to give the Romans any pretext for war until he had completed his conquest of all territory south of the Hiberus, and fully secured his gains. This he achieved in 220, after a decisive victory over enemy tribes. He now controlled about half of the Iberian Peninsula, some 230,000 square kilometers.

Only Saguntum refused to recognize Punic dominance, but feared Hannibal’s anger. The townsfolk could feel the noose tightening around their neck and sent embassy after embassy to Rome asking for urgent assistance. The Senate, busy with other matters, took a long time to respond but eventually dispatched envoys to warn Hannibal against taking action against Saguntum.

The Carthaginian general found them at the palace at Carthago Nova, where he was to spend the winter after the end of the campaigning season. He launched into a critique of Rome for intervening in Saguntum’s internal affairs. He said, “We will not overlook this breach of good faith.”

The Roman delegation concluded that war was inevitable and sailed to Carthage to repeat their protests, to no avail. Hannibal reported to the home authorities that Saguntum, confident in its Roman support, had attacked a tribe under Punic protection and asked for instructions. There was some token opposition, but the Council of Elders hesitated to take a stand against a well-liked and successful general in command of a large army and with support among the People. Hannibal was given a free hand, if without great enthusiasm.

In early 219, he lay siege to Saguntum. The inhabitants put up a stiff resistance, believing that the Romans would come and save them. They were to be disappointed, for the Republic had just finished one war, against the Celts of northern Italy, and was now busy with another, against the piratical Illyrians on the far side of the Adriatic Sea. The Senate never liked to fight on two fronts, so Saguntum went to the wall. It fell to Hannibal in the autumn after eight long, desperate months.

The defenders were driven by starvation to cannibalism. Once they had despaired of Rome, they gathered together all their gold and melted it with lead and brass to make it unusable. Believing it best to die fighting, the men sortied from the town and battled bravely but futilely against the besiegers. Appian writes:

When the women watched the slaughter of their husbands from the walls, some threw themselves from housetops, others hanged themselves and others killed their children and then themselves.

Hannibal, whose temper had not been improved by a javelin wound, was so cross over the loss of the gold that he put all surviving adults to death by torture.

Everything now went into slow motion. Rome was of two minds what to do. The clan of the Fabii, led by a respected Senator, Quintus Fabius Maximus (to which was added the descriptive cognomen Verrucosus, or Warty, for he had a wart above his lip), opposed war, whereas the Cornelii Scipiones argued for it. It was not until early or late spring of 218 that, after a lively debate, the Senate sent some senior politicians to Carthage to deliver an ultimatum. They told the Council of Elders that either Hannibal was to be handed over to Rome or there would be war. A Punic spokesman pointed out that the annexation of Sardinia had been a Roman breach of the peace treaty of 241, and that Saguntum had not been listed in that treaty as a Roman ally and so was not protected by its terms from Carthaginian attack. The Romans did not like being seen to have acted illegally, and declined to reply to what had been said. Polybius reports what happened next:

The senior member of the delegation pointed to the bosom of his toga and declared to the Council of Elders that in its folds he carried both peace and war and that he would let fall from it whichever of the two they chose. The Carthaginian sufet answered that he should bring out whichever he thought best. When the envoy replied that it would be war, many of the Elders shouted at once, “We accept it.”

The Romans went home and, for a time, very little seemed to happen. It was assumed that the war would be fought out in Spain and in Africa. So the two consuls, Publius Cornelius Scipio and Titus Sempronius Longus, raised armies for that purpose. Sometime in the summer, they set off from Italy in different directions. Scipio took ship for Massilia, after which he was to march to the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, his colleague established himself in Sicily and laid his invasion plans.

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