Hannibal Barca Statue

Hannibal Barca Statue

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The Greatest Generals in Ancient and Medieval History Part 3, Hannibal Barca

Hannibal Barca was one of the greatest generals in ancient history. Now let’s try to know who was Hannibal Barca? Hannibal was of the greatest generals of his time who used to live in the second and third century B.C. He was born at 247 B.C. into a Carthaginian military family. His father Hamilcar Barca was a famous general of his time. After Carthage was defeated by the Romans in the first Punic war in 241 B.C., Hamilcar tried his best in improvement of the Carthaginian army. When Hannibal was very young, Hamilcar took him to Spain and made him swear eternal hostility towards the Roman Empire.

When Hannibal was 26 years old, he was given command of an army to consolidate the Carthaginian control of Iberia. He successfully did this. He married Imilce, a princess from lberian origin and this helped him to make allies with numerous Iberian tribes. He set his home base at the sea port of Qart Hadasht. In 219 B.C. Hannibal attacked the town of Saguntum which caused the Second Punic War.

Second Punic War

The Second Punic War was fought between Carthage and Rome between 218 B.C. and 201 B.C. This war involved confrontations in Spain, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and North Africa. The Carthaginian army was led by Hannibal Barca while the Roman army was led by Scipio Africanus.

Now let’s try to know the reason of the war. Following the term of surrender in 241 B.C., Carthage was forced to withdraw his control from Sicily and pay reparations to Rome of 3,200 talents. This cost a great deal trouble for Carthage. Without a significant fleet and having lost their strategically important fortresses in Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, the Carthaginians had to look elsewhere for a source of money to fund their armies. The answer was Spain. This caused the background of Second Punic War. In the year 218 B.C. Hannibal surprised the Romans by marching his army from Liberia, through Gaul. With the help of Gallic allies he became victiorous over the Romans at the battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene. Hannibal defeated the Romans again at the Battle of Cannae, where he annihilated the largest army the Romans had ever assembled. The Romans decided to embark an army for Spain and another troop for Sicily and Africa. However before they could complete their preparation Hannibal began a series of operations by which he dictated the course of war for great part of its duration. He decided to cut off the supply line of the Roman army and for that he tried to carry the war into Italy so that he could cause a disruption of the league. However his chances of reaching Italy seemed too difficult as the sea was guarded by well-equipped Roman fleets and land route was very distant. But Hannibal was determined to execute his plans. So he marched his army towards Italy and after six months of effort and marching his army through Spain and Gaul and also over the Alps, he arrived in the plains of the Po in autumn 218 B.C. His force consisted of 20,000 infantry and 6,000 horses represented the pick of his Africans and Spanish men. However his further advancement was interrupted by the Romans, but the superiority of the Carthaginian cavalry forced the defenders to move backwards from their

defending position. Hannibal by superior military tactics and strategies thus routed the significantly larger Roman army and made his position in North Italy secure.

However gradually the Romans regained their power and self-confidence and provided a much better resistance against Hannibal.

Background and early career

Hannibal Barca ("mercy of Baal") was the son of Hamilcar Barca. 'Barca' was an epithet, meaning " lightning" and not a family name, but it was carried by his sons. Historians refer to the Hamilcar's family as the Barcids to avoid confusion with other Carthaginians of the same name. After Carthage's defeat in the First Punic War, Hamilcar set out to improve his family's and Carthage's fortunes. With that in mind and supported by Gades, Hamilcar began the subjugation of the tribes of the Iberian Peninsula. Carthage at the time was in such a poor state that its navy was unable to transport his army to Iberia ( Hispania) instead, Hamilcar had to march it towards the Pillars of Hercules and ferry it across the Strait of Gilbratrar (present-day Morocco).

According to Livy, Hannibal much later said that when he came upon his father while he was making a sacrifice to the gods before leaving for Hispania, Hannibal, then a boy, begged to go with him. Hamilcar agreed and demanded him to swear that as long as he lived he would never be a friend of Rome. Other sources report that Hannibal told his father, "I swear so soon as age will permit. I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome."

(Some historians consider that Hannibal swore at the altar to Ba'al "never to be a friend to Rome". According to Polybius, that "Barcid Rage" is a mere post-war Roman opinion. Being a friend of Rome could also be a political point of view, advocated by some influential groups in Carthage.)

Hannibal's father went about the conquest of Hispania. When he was killed in a battle, Hannibal's brother-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded to his command of the army. Hasdrubal pursued a policy of consolidation of Carthage's Iberian interests, even signing a treaty with Rome whereby Carthage would not expand north of the Ebro River, so long as Rome did not expand south of it.

After he assumed command, Hannibal spent two years consolidating his holdings and completing the conquest of Hispania south of the Ebro. However, Rome, fearing the growing strength of Hannibal in Iberia, made an alliance with the city of Saguntum which lay a considerable distance south of the River Ebro and claimed the city as its protectorate. Hannibal perceived this as a breach of the treaty signed with Hasdrubal and so he laid siege to the city, which fell after eight months. Rome reacted to this apparent violation of the treaty and demanded justice from Carthage. In view of Hannibal's great popularity, the Carthaginian government did not repudiate Hannibal's actions, and the war he sought was declared at the end of the year. Hannibal was now determined to carry the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Hispania and southern Gaul.


The main reliable accounts of Gannibal's life come from The Moor of Peter the Great, Pushkin's unfinished biography of his great-grandfather, published after Pushkin's death in 1837. Scholars argue that Pushkin's account may be inaccurate due to the author’s desire to elevate the status of his ancestors and family. There are a number of contradictions between the biographies of Pushkin and the German novel The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, based on his great-grandfather. [4] An historical biography by Gannibal's son-in-law, Rotkirkh, was largely responsible for the myth, propagated by some historians, that Gannibal was born in Ethiopia. [5] However, more recent research by the scholars Dieudonné Gnammankou and Hugh Barnes has established that the general was instead likely born in Central Africa, in an area bordering Lake Chad in present-day Cameroon. [5] [4]

Abduction Edit

Richard Pankhurst, the former professor at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, believed the young Abram, Ibrahim or Abraham, as he named him, was born around 1698. He was the son of a minor "prince" or chief whose capital was Logon (now part of present-day Cameroon). His father was relatively affluent, owning many slaves both inherited and taken in battle. He had several wives and 19 children. However, after his father died in battle trying to defend his territory from the Ottoman Turks, Abram was captured and taken to Constantinople by ship (see Slavery in the Ottoman Empire). His sister, Lagan, is said to have drowned in the sea in a desperate attempt to save her brother.

Abram stayed in the Ottoman Empire for about a year in the service of Sultan Ahmed III's household. At the time, the Russian ambassador Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, representing Peter the Great, was looking for "a few clever little African slaves" for the Tsar's palace in Moscow, as was the custom in those days at the great courts in Europe. On orders of Vladislavich's superiors (one of whom was Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy, great-grandfather of the celebrated writer Leo Tolstoy), Abram was selected for this purpose and soon ransomed from the Sultan's viziers with a bribe. In 1704, the ambassador immediately dispatched him by land to Moscow in order to be presented to Tsar Peter the Great.

The Tsar is noted to have taken a liking to the boy’s intelligence and potential for military service, and brought the child into his household. [4] Abram was baptized in 1705, in St. Paraskeva Church in Vilnius, with Peter as his godfather. [2] The date of Gannibal’s baptism held personal significance he used that date as his birthday because he did not know his actual date of birth. [4]

Abram valued his relationship with his godfather, as well as that of Peter's daughter (Elizabeth), and was loyal to them as if they were family. [4] Starting at a young age, the boy Abram would travel alongside the emperor during his military campaigns, and at these military journeys he served as his godfather’s valet. [6]

In 1717, Abram was sent to Metz to receive an education in the arts, sciences and warfare from the highest institutes available. By then he was fluent in several languages and excelled in mathematics and geometry. In 1718 Abram joined the French Army with hopes of pleasing his godfather by expanding his learning in military engineering. [6] He enrolled in the royal artillery academy at La Fère in 1720.

During Abram's studies, conflict broke out between France and Spain, and he fought in the War of the Quadruple Alliance, rising to the rank of captain. While fighting in the French war against Spain, Abram received a head injury and was captured by the Spanish army. He was released in 1722 and continued his studies in Metz. [6]

It was during his time in France that Abram adopted the surname "Gannibal" in honor of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (Gannibal being the traditional transliteration of the name in Russian). [7] In Paris he met and befriended such Enlightenment figures as the Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire (this claim by his biographer Hugh Barnes is disputed by reviewer Andrew Kahn [8] ). Voltaire called Gannibal the "dark star of the Enlightenment". [9]

Gannibal returned to Russia the following year, and his advanced training enabled him to apply for and successfully acquire posts first as an engineer and then as a mathematics tutor for one of the Tsar's private guard units. [6]

Gannibal's education was completed by 1723, and he was due to return to Russia. After the death of Peter in 1725, Prince Menshikov gained power in Russia due to his good standing with Peter. However, Menshikov was not fond of Gannibal and was suspicious of his foreign origins and superior education. [6] Gannibal was exiled to Siberia in 1727, some 4,000 miles to the east of Saint Petersburg. He first traveled to Kazan, then to Tobolsk and Irkutsk, and then to Selenginsk near the Mongolian border. He was pardoned in 1730 due to his technical skills, and completed his service in Siberia in 1733. During this time he built a fortress and led several construction projects, where he became a master engineer.

Elizabeth of Russia became the new monarch in 1741. Gannibal became a prominent member of her court, rose to the rank of major-general, and became superintendent of Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), a position he held from 1742 to 1752. A letter signed on 22 March 1744 by "A. Ganibal" is held at the Tallinn City Archives. In 1742, the Empress Elizabeth gave him the Mikhailovskoye estate in Pskov Oblast with hundreds of serfs. [9] [11] He retired to this estate in 1762.

In an official document that Gannibal submitted in 1742 to Empress Elizabeth, while petitioning for the rank of nobility and a coat of arms, he asked for the right to use a family crest emblazoned with an elephant and the mysterious word "FVMMO", which may mean "homeland" in the Kotoko language. In his book, Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg, Hugh Barnes writes of meeting with the sultan of Logone-Birni, who gave him the same translation of the word. [3] However, Frances Somers-Cocks, author of The Moor of St Petersburg: In the Footsteps of a Black Russian, met the same sultan and received a different translation for FVMMO. She also suggested that FVMMO stands for the Latin expression Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Omnino which means "Fortune has changed my life entirely." [3]

Gannibal married twice. His first wife was Evdokia Dioper, a Greek woman. The couple married in 1731. Dioper despised her husband, whom she was forced to marry. The marriage between Dioper and Gannibal was very volatile, and he suspected her of infidelity early in their marriage. [12] Gannibal’s suspicions were confirmed when Dioper gave birth to a white daughter. [4] When Gannibal found out that she had been unfaithful to him, he had her arrested and thrown into prison, where she spent eleven years.

Gannibal began living with another woman, Christina Regina Siöberg (1705–1781), daughter of Mattias Johan Siöberg and wife Christina Elisabeth d'Albedyll, and married her bigamously in Reval, in 1736, a year after the birth of their first child and while he was still lawfully married to his first wife. His divorce from Dioper did not become final until 1753, upon which a fine and a penance were imposed on Gannibal, and Dioper was sent to a convent for the rest of her life. Gannibal's second marriage was nevertheless deemed lawful after his divorce. Gannibal’s second marriage to Christina was much happier, and he appreciated her fidelity and affection towards him. [4]

On her paternal side, Gannibal’s second wife was descended from noble families in Scandinavia and Germany: Siöberg (Sweden), Galtung (Norway), and Grabow (Denmark) / von Grabow (Brandenburg). [1] [13] Her paternal grandfather was Gustaf Siöberg, Rittmester til Estrup, who died in 1694, whose wife Clara Maria Lauritzdatter Galtung (ca. 1651–1698) was the daughter of Lauritz Lauritzson Galtung (ca. 1615–1661) and of Barbara Grabow til Pederstrup (1631–1696).

Abram Gannibal and Christine Regina Siöberg had ten children, including a son, Osip. Osip in turn would have a daughter, Nadezhda, the mother of Alexander Pushkin. Gannibal's oldest son, Ivan, became an accomplished naval officer who helped found the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine in 1779 and attained the rank of general-in-chief, the second-highest military rank in imperial Russia.

Alexander Pushkin, Gannibal's great-grandson through Osip

Debate over Gannibal's place of birth Edit

Gannibal's actual place of birth continues to be uncertain, and is subject to speculation by modern historians. Until recent scholarly field work, it was generally assumed that he originated in Ethiopia. [3] Chiefly Russian scholars for many years believed that he was from the vicinity of Medri Bahri, an ancient kingdom in present-day Eritrea. [14] In a letter he wrote to Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter, Gannibal stated that he was from the town of "Logon" [7] or "Lagone". [3] Anthropologist Dmitry Anuchin wrote an essay about Alexander Pushkin in which he theorized that "Lagone" referred to Logo-chewa in Eritrea. [3] In 1999, the Russian Institute in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, also campaigned for a commemorative stamp to honor Pushkin's bicentennial. [3]

The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea each claim that Gannibal was born in their respective territories. Under this belief, the Ethiopian government named a street in Addis Ababa after Alexander Pushkin, Gannibal's great-grandson. It also placed a bust of him near the African Union headquarters in 2002, and arranged for a statue of Pushkin to be transferred from Moscow to Addis Ababa in 2014. [15] However, the notion that Gannibal may have been born in Ethiopia holds little currency with the general Ethiopian population. [3] The Eritrean government asserts that Gannibal was instead born in Loggo Sarda, [15] an area in modern Eritrea. [16] It also erected its own statue of Pushkin and named a street for him in 2009. [15]

Vladimir Nabokov cast doubt on Gannibal's ancestry, based on research findings during his work translating Pushkin's novel Eugene Onegin. Nabokov disagreed with Anuchin's theory, stating that it was just as likely that Gannibal was referring to "the Lagona region of equatorial Africa, south of Lake Chad." [3] Support for Anuchin's theory of Ethiopian birth declined after it was exposed as racially based, implying that "hamitic" Ethiopian origins better explained Gannibal's success than "negroid" origins. [3]

The Beninese historian Dieudonné Gnammankou, an expert on Russia, [3] studied Russian, French and African sources and argued that Gannibal was indeed from Logone-Birni and was most likely the son of a chief in the ancient sultanate. In 1995, Gnammankou asserted that the "Logon" Gannibal wrote about was actually Logone, capital of the old Kotoko kingdom of Logone-Birni, now located in northern Cameroon. [7] He believed that the pattern of slave trade around Lake Chad made that region a more plausible likelihood for Gannibal's birthplace than Gondar, Ethiopia. [3] Gnammankou's biography of Gannibal was translated into Russian, and was voted the best book on Pushkin at the 1999 Moscow Book Fair. [7]

Gnammankou's findings were in turn buttressed by the field work of Hugh Barnes. After consulting with the Sultan of Logone-Birni, Barnes found that an inscription on Gannibal's crest, which was hitherto undecipherable, corresponded with the term for "homeland" in the local Kotoko language of central Africa. [3]

Honor at La Fère Edit

In November, 2010, representatives from Russia and Estonia, the ambassador of Cameroon, and the sultan of Logone-Birni went to La Fère, France to unveil a commemorative plaque honoring Abram Petrovich Gannibal as a graduate of La Fère's royal artillery academy. The academy, which closed in the 1990s, had been started by King Louis XV shortly before Gannibal's enrollment there in 1720. The plaque declares that he was a graduate of the royal artillery academy of La Fère, and later became chief military engineer and general-in-chief of the Imperial Russian Army. It also notes that Gannibal is the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet. Dieudonné Gnammankou, whose research into Gannibal's background was largely responsible for the ceremony at La Fère taking place, also served as the main speaker at a symposium following the event. [7]

Literature Edit

Alexander Pushkin used his great-grandfather Abram Gannibal as the model for Ibrahim, the lead character in his unfinished novel The Moor of Peter the Great. After leaving school in 1817, Pushkin met Abram's last surviving son, Peter. He met Peter again in 1825, after writing in his diary about wanting to "get from him some memoirs about my great-grandfather." [17] He seemed to use his own experiences, along with Gannibal's to create the plot for The Moor of Peter the Great. [17] A stage version of the work was written by Carlyle Brown and premiered at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's 13th Southern Writers' Project in March 2001. [18]

Art and film Edit

Abram Gannibal is a protagonist of the Soviet comedy movie How Czar Peter the Great Married Off His Moor, although the film's plot has almost nothing to do with Gannibal's real biography. The film is partly based on Pushkin's Moor of Peter the Great. [19]

There are several portraits thought to depict Gannibal, which include a painting of the Battle of Lesnaya by Pierre-Denis Martin the Younger. The young boy present in Martin’s painting is argued to be Gannibal, because of the young boy’s role as valet to Peter during military campaigns and Gannibal’s possible connection to the artist while in France. [4] A portrait by Adriaan Schoonebeeck is also believed to portray Gannibal during his time with Peter the Great. In Schoonebeeck’s portrait of Peter the Great, the young servant boy directly behind Peter is thought to be Gannibal. [6] Although there are a variety of portraits that claim to contain Gannibal, there is little evidence to suggest the claims are accurate. [20] In the Lesnaya painting, the young boy is dressed in traditional slave attire, which Gannibal did not wear due to his status under Peter the Great. [20]

Why Was Hannibal a Great General?

The name of Rome is fearsome in military history. Over the centuries, the Roman legions propelled a small city along the Tiber to rule the entire known Western world. Yet there was one man, more than anyone else, whose name sent shivers through the Romans – Hannibal Barca. Hannibal, a Carthaginian from North Africa, was the most skilled and successful enemy that Rome ever faced. He successfully took an army of thousands of men, along with some elephants, on the very difficult journey across the Alps. He then stayed in Italy for nearly 15 years, with little significant help from Carthage, and defeated every Roman army he faced in a major battle. Although he eventually was recalled to defend Carthage and defeated in battle, he may have come closer than anyone to destroying the Roman Republic. How did he do it? How did he outwit so many Roman commanders? The answers shed light on his impressive achievements, and teach leadership lessons for the present day.

The Battle of Zama

1. Boldness
Without a doubt, Hannibal was a very bold soldier. Many of his greatest victories would have been impossible without it. He was not rash, but he knew that if he risked nothing, he would gain nothing. Consider his famous crossing of the Alps. The Alps have been crossed by armies many times throughout history, but never in the way Hannibal did it. He was the first general to take a foreign army across them, that was not from the area and familiar with the terrain. Before the era of maps, this is a shocking achievement. It is very likely that not one of his officers or soldiers had ever crossed the Alps before. It took incredible courage to enter very difficult and unmapped terrain, filled with unknown and hostile tribes, with the only thing waiting for him on the other side being the enemy’s country guarded by the Roman army – the best soldiers in the world. That shows his grit, determination, and fearlessness in the face of mighty obstacles.

A Statue of Hannibal. Source.

2. Always Learning
Often, Hannibal’s bold deeds were not reckless because he had spent time in study and preparation. His Alps crossing was likely conceived years earlier. Much time was spent laying the ground work in gaining knowledge and building relationships before the daring strike. When a foreigner came through Hannibal’s camp, he interviewed them and sought to learn not just the geography of the lands that he had never visited, but their history, customs and culture. Any of this information could prove critical at the proper time. While on campaign, he would disguise himself and travel the countryside, gleaning first hand information from the inhabitants.

As a fruit of all this study, Hannibal was able to remain fresh, fluid and innovative in his tactics. At one point, he did not seek to storm Rome, when many believed he had an opportunity to, because he did not think the time was right. But at a later moment he marched to just outside the city, to threaten the city and relieve pressure from another point. He used seals captured from Romans to send forged messages to Roman units, giving them false orders that suited his purposes. And he used his knowledge of specific enemy commanders against them, exploiting their own personal weaknesses to entice them into a tactical position where he could destroy them.

A Carthaginian Coin which may depict Hannibal

3. Understanding People
One key to Hannibal’s success was his ability to gain and retain the trust of his troops. Although he was almost completely cut off from support or reinforcement from Carthage for nearly a decade and a half, not once did his troops mutiny against him. He won their love and respect. Many of the ways that he did this were simple things. He made sure, whenever possible, that his men were well fed going into battle. He payed close attention to their attitude, and was ready to give encouragement or an inspiring speech if he saw their spirits flagging. He set rewards clearly before them if they were victorious, inspiring to fight their hardest. Not long after he arrived in Italy, he promised his army their choice of land or money once Italy was won, and promised that slaves who followed their masters into battle would be given their freedom, and that their masters would receive two other slaves to replace them.

Hannibal also was skilled in making allies. His goal in Italy was to break away Rome’s allies and win them over to the fight against Rome. It took great wisdom to win these political victories. Although he did not win enough allies to gain the victory, he always had allied troops fighting with him. When he left Italy after more than a decade, virtually all of his original army was gone. They had been replaced, in large part, by allied recruits, who fought faithfully under him.

Hannibal’s Elephants Crossing the Rhine River

4. Brilliant Tactics
Last but not least, Hannibal beat the long odds against him, and was victorious for so long against the Romans, because he had a brilliant mind for tactics. He used the terrain and the weaknesses of the enemy to defeat the superior Roman forces. Over and over again, he was able to find the enemy’s weakest point, and throw his strongest forces against it to win the day. His battles are famous in world history, and for good reason. From Lake Trasimene, where in an unparalleled feat he hid his entire army and ambushed the Romans, to Cannae, where he executed a double envelopment of the Romans opposing him, a feat which generations of generals have tried to replicate.

For years Hannibal sustained a war effort alone, with very little significant support, raising his own finances and new recruits in an enemies country, while holding the affections of his allies and seeking to bring more nations to his side. Although Carthage eventually fell to Rome, there is much that we can learn from his struggle, and his years of wise leadership in the face of incredible adversity.

Hannibal’s Army Crossing the Alps


(full name, Hannibal Barca). Born 247 or 246 B.C. in Carthage died 183 B.C. in Bithynia. Carthaginian military leader and statesman. He was descended from the aristocratic Barcine family and was the son of Hamilcar Barca.

Hannibal took part in the military campaigns of his father and later of his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, in subduing the Iberian tribes in Spain. In 225 he took over the command of the Carthaginian cavalry in Spain, and in 221, after Hasdrubal&rsquos death, he was proclaimed by the soldiers and confirmed by the popular assembly as the commander in chief of the Carthaginian Army. In 219, Hannibal attacked the city of Saguntum, which was allied with the Romans, virtually provoking the Second Punic War of 218-01. Carthage fought this war, just as it had fought the First Punic War of 264-41, in the interest of the circles who wanted to establish the preeminence of Carthage in the western Mediterranean.

In 218, in an attempt to anticipate the Romans, who intended to conduct military operations in Africa and Spain, Hannibal made a crossing of the Alps unparalleled in antiquity and invaded Cisalpine Gaul and Italy with a large, well-armed, and well-trained army of professional mercenaries. Here he won victories in battles on the Ticino and Trebia rivers in 218 and at Lake Trasimene in 217. In 216, Hannibal&rsquos army won a major victory at Cannae. Macedonia in 215 and Syracuse in 213 entered the war as Hannibal&rsquos allies. Several Italian cities and tribes also began going over to Hannibal&rsquos side. However, he did not succeed in breaking up the Roman-Italian alliance. More than that, Hannibal&rsquos army was greatly weakened by the tactics of the Romans, aimed at drawing out the war and exhausting the forces of the enemy, fighting on alien soil and cut off from its home and Spanish bases. From 212 on the initiative passed to the Romans, who won several victories in Sicily, Spain, and in Italy itself (the capture of Capua in 211). Hannibal&rsquos situation became still worse when the army of his brother, Hasdrubal, which moved up to help him, was defeated by the Romans in the Metaurus in 207. In 204 the Roman Army landed in Africa, and in 203 Hannibal was recalled to the homeland. In the battle at Zama in 202 the Romans completely routed Hannibal&rsquos army, and in 201 Carthage was forced to accept peace conditions dictated by the Romans.

After the war, Hannibal was a suffete (highest state position) until 195, heading the administration of Carthage. Suspected by the Romans of preparing a new war, he was forced to flee to Antiochus III, king of Syria, and became his military adviser. After Antiochus Ill&rsquos defeat in the war with Rome in 192-188, the Romans demanded the surrender of Hannibal. He took refuge in Armenia and then in Bithynia. Upon learning that Prusias, the king of Bithynia, under pressure from the Romans, intended to surrender him, Hannibal took poison.

Hannibal was one of the most important military leaders of antiquity. Despite his defeat in the war with Rome, Hannibal made a great impact on the history of the art of war. The characteristic features of Hannibal&rsquos strategy were the following: skill in using the dissatisfaction of Rome&rsquos Italian allies to draw them over to his side good organization of extended campaigns creation of main and intermediate bases on the marching route of the troops and in conquered territory, which ensured stability of the strategic rear and for a number of years reduced to a minimum the army&rsquos dependence on Carthage itself and intelligence work organized well in advance, including the careful study of the future theater of operations. Hannibal considered the ground troops the basis of the army the chief striking force was the highly maneuverable African cavalry, which surpassed the Roman cavalry in size and quality. The characteristic traits of Hannibal&rsquos tactics were good knowledge of the tactics of the enemy, careful preparation of the battle, skillful use of the terrain, the use of ruse and surprise, and execution of bold maneuver and of the decisive blow on the battlefield. Hannibal&rsquos art as military leader manifested itself most clearly at Cannae, which marked a new phase in the development of tactics: for the first time the main blow was struck not on one flank, as was done by Epaminondas and Alexander the Great, but on two flanks. Here the cavalry and the most battle-worthy part of the infantry of the Carthaginians were concentrated, attaining the complete encirclement and destruction of the superior forces of the enemy.


Hannibal's father, Hamilcar, was the commander of the Carthaginian forces at the end of the First Punic War. After Carthage lost the war, Hamilcar crossed to Hispania to conquer the tribes of what is now Spain. At the time of this invasion, Carthage was in a poor condition. Its navy could not carry its army to Iberia (Hispania). Hamilcar had to march towards the Pillars of Hercules and go across the Strait of Gibraltar. According to a story in Livy, Hamilcar made Hannibal promise that he would never be a friend of Rome. Hannibal told his father:

I swear so soon as age will permit. I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.

In return, Hamilcar agreed to take Hannibal with him to Hispania. Hamilcar spent two years finishing the conquest of Iberia south of the river Ebro. He died in 229/228 in battle, most likely drowning in the Jucar River. [6] His son-in-law Hasdrubal took command, but was assassinated in 221 BC.

With Hasdrubal's death, Hannibal became the leader of the army. Rome feared the growing strength of Hannibal. They made an alliance with the city of Saguntum and claimed to be protecting the city. Saguntum was south of the river Ebro. Hannibal attacked the city because of this. It was captured after eight months. With this attack of a Roman ally, Rome wanted justice from Carthage. Instead, the Carthaginian government saw nothing wrong with Hannibal's actions. The war Hannibal wanted was declared at the end of the year.

Overland journey to Italy Edit

Hannibal's army was made up of as many as 75,000 foot soldiers and 9,000 horsemen. Hannibal left "New Carthage" in late spring of 218 BC. He fought his way north to the Pyrenees. He defeated the tribes through clever mountain tactics and stubborn fighting. After marching 290 miles through Hispania and reaching the Ebro river, Hannibal chose the most trustworthy and loyal parts of his army of Libyan and Iberian mercenaries to keep going with him. He left 11,000 troops to keep watch over the newly conquered region. At the Pyrenees, he let go of another 11,000 Iberian troops. Hannibal entered Gaul with 50,000 foot soldiers and 9,000 horsemen.

Hannibal needed to cross the Pyrenees, the Alps, and many important rivers in the region. starting in the spring of 218 BC, he fought his way to the Pyrenees. He made peace deals with the Gaulic tribal leaders and reached the Rhône River. Arriving at the Rhône in September, Hannibal's army numbered 38,000 infantry, 8,000 horsemen, and thirty-seven war elephants.

Hannibal got away from a Roman force sent to fight him in Gaul. He then went up the valley of one of the streams of the Rhône River. By Autumn, he reached the foot of the Alps. His journey over the mountains is one of the most famous achievements of any military force. After this journey, Hannibal came down from the foothills into northern Italy, to the surprise of the Romans. He had arrived with only half the forces he had started with and only a few elephants. Hannibal had lost as many as 20,000 men crossing over the mountains.

Battle of Trebbia Edit

Publius Cornelius Scipio commanded the Roman force sent to stop Hannibal. He did not expect Hannibal to cross the Alps. He expected to fight Hannibal in Spain. With a small army still in Gaul, Scipio tried to stop Hannibal. He moved his army to Italy by sea in time to meet Hannibal. Hannibal made the area behind him safer by defeating the tribe of the Taurini (modern Turin). The opposing forces fought at Carthage. Here, Hannibal forced the Romans to get out of the plain of Lombardy. This victory did much to weaken Roman control over the Gauls. The Gauls decided to join the Carthaginians. Soon all of northern Italy was unofficially allied. Gallic and Ligurian troops soon raised his army back to 40,000 men. Hannibal’s army was ready to invade Italy. Scipio retreated across the River Trebia. He camped at the town of Placentia and waited for more troops.

The Senate had ordered Sempronius Longus to bring his army from Sicily to meet Scipio and face Hannibal. Hannibal was in position to head him off. Sempronius avoided Hannibal and joined Scipio near the Trebbia River near Placentia. At Trebia, Hannibal defeated the Roman infantry by a surprise attack from an ambush on the flank.

Battle of Lake Trasimene Edit

Arriving in Etruria in the spring of 217 BC, Hannibal decided to lure the main Roman army led by Flaminius into battle. Hannibal found Flaminius camped at Arretium. He marched around his opponent’s left side and cut Flaminius off from Rome. Hannibal made Flaminius chase him. On the shore of Lake Trasimenus, Hannibal destroyed Flaminius's army in the waters or on the nearby slopes. He killed Flaminius as well. He had got rid of the only force that could stop him from getting to Rome. He realized that without siege engines he could not hope to take the capital, so he decided to continue into central and southern Italy. He hoped this show of strength would create a revolt against the Roman government. After Lake Trasimene, Hannibal said, “I have not come to fight Italians, but on behalf of the Italians against Rome.”

Fabius Edit

Rome was put into an immense state of panic. They appointed a dictator named Quintus Fabius Maximus. He was an intelligent and careful general.

Fabius adopted the "Fabian strategy". He refused open battle with his enemy, and put several Roman armies near Hannibal to limit his movement. Fabius sent out small forces against Hannibal’s foraging parties. Residents of small northern villages were told to post lookouts. They could gather their livestock and possessions and go to fortified towns. This would wear down the invaders’ endurance.

Hannibal decided to march through Samnium to Campania. He hoped that the destruction would draw Fabius into battle but Fabius refused to be drawn into battle. His troops became irritated by his “cowardly spirit”. His policies were not liked. Romans were used to facing their enemies in the field and the people wanted to see a quick end to the war.

The rest of Autumn continued with frequent skirmishes. After six months, Fabius was removed from his position in accordance with the Roman law.

Battle of Cannae Edit

In the Spring of 216 BC Hannibal captured the large supply depot at Cannae in the Apulian plain, effectively placing himself between the Romans and their source of supply. [7] The Roman Senate resumed their Consular elections in 216. They chose Caius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus as Consuls. The Romans raised largest army to this point in their history to defeat Hannibal. It's estimated that the total strength of the army was around 80,000 men.

The Roman army marched southward to Apulia. After a two days’ march, they found Hannibal at the Audifus River. Consul Varro was a reckless man full of pride and was determined to defeat Hannibal. Varro's arrogance got the better of him and allowed Hannibal to drew him into a trap. With brilliant tactics, Hannibal surrounded and destroyed most of this force.

It is estimated that 50,000-70,000 Romans were killed or captured at Cannae. [8] Among the dead were eighty senators. The Roman Senate was no more than 300 men – this was 25%–30% of the governing body. The Battle of Cannae one of the worst defeats in the history of Ancient Rome. It is also one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history in terms of the number of lives lost in a single day. After Cannae, the Romans refused to fight Hannibal in battles. They tried instead to defeat him by wearing him down. They relied on their advantages of supply and manpower.

Because of this victory most of southern Italy joined Hannibal's cause. During that same year, the Greek cities in Sicily revolted against Roman control. The Macedonian king, Philip V supported Hannibal. This started the First Macedonian War against Rome. Hannibal made his new base in Capua, the second largest city of Italy.

Stalemate Edit

Without the resources from his allies or reinforcements from Carthage, Hannibal could not do much more and began losing ground. He continued defeating the Romans whenever he could bring them into battle but was never able to score another decisive victory.

End of War in Italy Edit

In 212 BC conspirators in Tarentum let Hannibal into the city. They then blew the alarm with some Roman trumpets. This let Hannibal's troops pick off the Romans as they stumbled into the streets. Hannibal told the Tarentines to mark every house where Tarentines lived so they wouldn't be looted. Even with the looting the citadel held out. This stopped Hannibal from using the harbor and Rome was slowly gaining ground over Hannibal. In the same year, he lost Campania.

In 211 BC the city of Capua fell. In summer of that year, the Romans destroyed the Carthaginian army in Sicily. Meanwhile, Hannibal had defeated Fulvius at Herdonea in Apulia, but lost Tarentum. With the loss of Tarentum in 209 BC and the Romans capturing of Samnium and Lucania, his hold on south Italy was almost lost.

In 207 BC he retired into Bruttium. These events marked the end to Hannibal's success in Italy. In 203 BC, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage to lead the defence of his homeland against a Roman invasion.

The Battle of Zama Edit

Both Scipio and Hannibal met on the field of Zama. Hannibal had about 50,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. Scipio had 34,000 infantry and 8,700 cavalry. For years, Hannibal had won victories with his experienced army. He now faced the best of the Roman army, while he led a makeshift army. They did not do well against the Romans. Hannibal was defeated. 20,000 men of Hannibal’s army were killed at Zama. The same number of men were taken as prisoners. The Romans lost as few as 500 dead and 4,000 wounded. With their best general defeated, the Carthaginians accepted defeat and surrendered to Rome.

Exile and death (195–183 BC) Edit

Seven years after the victory of Zama, the Romans demanded Hannibal's surrender. Hannibal went into voluntary exile. He journeyed to Tyre, the mother-city of Carthage, and then to Ephesus and Syria.

In 190 BC he was placed in command of a Phoenician fleet but was defeated in a battle off the Eurymedon River. Hannibal went to Crete, but he soon returned to the Asia Minor. At Libyssa on the eastern shore of the Sea of Marmora, he was going to be turned over to the Romans. Rather than letting himself be taken, he drank poison. The precise year of his death is not certain. It is believed to be 183 BC. He died in the same year as Scipio Africanus.

Legacy [ edit | edit source ]

Military history [ edit | edit source ]

The material of legend: in "Snow-storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps", J.M.W. Turner envelopes Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in Romantic atmosphere.

Hannibal is usually ranked among the best military strategists and tacticians. According to Appian, several years after the Second Punic War, Hannibal was a political advisor in the Seleucid Kingdom and Scipio was sent there on a diplomatic mission from Rome.

It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, "Alexander of Macedonia".

To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, "Pyrrhus of Epirus", because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general "for it would not be possible", he said, "to find two kings more enterprising than these".

Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him but Hannibal replied, "to myself for when I was a young man I conquered Hispania and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules.

As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, "where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?" Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, "in that case I should have put myself before Alexander". Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a indirect manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.

At the end of this conversation Hannibal invited Scipio to be his guest, and Scipio replied that he would be so gladly if Hannibal were not living with Antiochus, who was held in suspicion by the Romans. Thus did they, in a manner worthy of great commanders, cast aside their enmity at the end of their wars. ⏊]

Hannibal's exploits (especially his victory at Cannae) continue to be studied in military academies all over the world.

Hannibal's celebrated feat in crossing the Alps with war elephants passed into European legend: detail of a fresco by Jacopo Ripanda, ca. 1510, Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Maximilian Otto Bismarck Caspari, in his article in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, praises Hannibal in these words:

As to the transcendent military genius of Hannibal there cannot be two opinions. The man who for fifteen years could hold his ground in a hostile country against several powerful armies and a succession of able generals must have been a commander and a tactician of supreme capacity. In the use of strategies and ambuscades he certainly surpassed all other generals of antiquity. Wonderful as his achievements were, we must marvel the more when we take into account the grudging support he received from Carthage. As his veterans melted away, he had to organize fresh levies on the spot. We never hear of a mutiny in his army, composed though it was of North Africans, Iberians and Gauls. Again, all we know of him comes for the most part from hostile sources. The Romans feared and hated him so much that they could not do him justice. Livy speaks of his great qualities, but he adds that his vices were equally great, among which he singles out his more than Punic perfidy and an inhuman cruelty. For the first there would seem to be no further justification than that he was consummately skillful in the use of ambuscades. For the latter there is, we believe, no more ground than that at certain crises he acted in the general spirit of ancient warfare. Sometimes he contrasts most favorably with his enemy. No such brutality stains his name as that perpetrated by Claudius Nero on the vanquished Hasdrubal. Polybius merely says that he was accused of cruelty by the Romans and of avarice by the Carthaginians. He had indeed bitter enemies, and his life was one continuous struggle against destiny. For steadfastness of purpose, for organizing capacity and a mastery of military science he has perhaps never had an equal. ⏋]

Even his Roman chroniclers acknowledged his supreme military leadership, writing that, "he never required others to do what he could and would not do himself". ⏌] According to Polybius 23, 13, p.𧊧: "It is a remarkable and very cogent proof of Hannibal's having been by nature a real leader and far superior to anyone else in statesmanship, that though he spent seventeen years in the field, passed through so many barbarous countries, and employed to aid him in desperate and extraordinary enterprises numbers of men of different nations and languages, no one ever dreamt of conspiring against him, nor was he ever deserted by those who had once joined him or submitted to him."

Count Alfred von Schlieffen's eponymously titled "Schlieffen Plan" was developed from his military studies, with particularly heavy emphasis on Hannibal's envelopment technique he employed to surround and victoriously destroy the Roman army at Cannae. ⏍] ⏎] George S. Patton believed that he was a reincarnation of Hannibal as well as many other people including a Roman legionary and a Napoleonic soldier. ⏏] ⏐] Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the Coalition Forces in the Gulf War, claimed that "The technology of war may change, the sophistication of weapons certainly changes. But those same principles of war that applied to the days of Hannibal apply today." ⏑]

According to the military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge,

Hannibal excelled as a tactician. No battle in history is a finer sample of tactics than Cannae. But he was yet greater in logistics and strategy. No captain ever marched to and fro among so many armies of troops superior to his own numbers and material as fearlessly and skillfully as he. No man ever held his own so long or so ably against such odds. Constantly overmatched by better soldiers, led by generals always respectable, often of great ability, he yet defied all their efforts to drive him from Italy, for half a generation. Excepting in the case of Alexander, and some few isolated instances, all wars up to the Second Punic War, had been decided largely, if not entirely, by battle-tactics. Strategic ability had been comprehended only on a minor scale. Armies had marched towards each other, had fought in parallel order, and the conqueror had imposed terms on his opponent. Any variation from this rule consisted in ambuscades or other stratagems. That war could be waged by avoiding in lieu of seeking battle that the results of a victory could be earned by attacks upon the enemy’s communications, by flank-maneuvers, by seizing positions from which safely to threaten him in case he moved, and by other devices of strategy, was not understood. [However] For the first time in the history of war, we see two contending generals avoiding each other, occupying impregnable camps on heights, marching about each other's flanks to seize cities or supplies in their rear, harassing each other with small-war, and rarely venturing on a battle which might prove a fatal disaster—all with a well-conceived purpose of placing his opponent at a strategic disadvantage. That it did so was due to the teaching of Hannibal. Ζ]

Hannibal in literature [ edit | edit source ]

A ca. 1817 French Empire mantel clock depicting Hannibal by Deniére et Matelin. Currently displayed in the Blue Room of the White House.

Hannibal's name is also commonplace in later art and popular culture, an objective measure of his foreign influence on Western history.

Like other military leaders, Hannibal's victories against superior forces in an ultimately losing cause won him enduring fame that outlasted his native country within North Africa. His crossing of the Alps remains one of the most monumental military feats of ancient warfare ⏒] and has since captured the imagination of the world (romanticized by several artworks).

Hannibal: The Carthaginian general who almost toppled Rome

Hannibal is one of the greatest military generals in history, whose tactics are still studied to this day. He famously led a Carthaginian army, including 38 elephants, over the Alps and came within sniffing distance of Rome. For nearly 20 years, the Republic had to live with Hannibal on its doorstep, constantly outwitting and surprising them. Although unable to achieve the final blow, Hannibal would go down in legend as Rome’s greatest adversary.

Hannibal was born in 247 BC in Carthage (modern Tunis, Tunisia), the great trading empire in North Africa. His father, Hamilcar Barca, was a senior general in the army who’d fought the Roman’s during the First Punic War (264-241 BC). The Carthaginians had lost that war and the subsequent peace treaty stripped them of island territories in the Mediterranean and heavy financial reparations had been demanded from Rome.

Hamilcar believed that the way to improve fortunes for his city was to claim territories and resources on the Iberian Peninsula. At the age of just nine, Hannibal was invited by his father to join him on his campaign in Spain, making the young boy swear an oath to ‘never be a friend of Rome’. It was an oath Hannibal lived by until his death.

For the next nine years, Hamilcar conducted a fruitful campaign in Iberia, seizing lands and sending resources back to Carthage. Growing up in such an environment laid the educational groundwork that saw Hannibal develop into one of history’s greatest military tacticians.
After his father’s death in battle, Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal the Fair, took command of the army and began consolidating Carthaginian gains in the area. He even signed a peace treaty with Rome, agreeing neither side should cross the river Ebro. When Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated, 26-year-old Hannibal took command of the invasion force and it wasn’t long before the peace treaty with Rome was in tatters.

After Rome made an allegiance with the city of Saguntum, which lay south of the river Ebro, Hannibal took this as his chance to declare war on the Republic. After an eight-month siege, Hannibal captured Saguntum in 218 BC and Rome sent an ultimatum to Carthage – hand over Hannibal or face war. The wealthy aristocrats back in Carthage had been enjoying the bountiful treasures of the Iberian Peninsula and so stood by their young general. The Second Punic War had begun.

Taking the fight to Rome, Hannibal achieved the first of many military surprises by successfully crossing the Pyrenees and Alps into northern Italy. Along the way, his army of around 40,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 38 elephants not only had to face the difficult terrain and inclement weather but also the local tribes. By the time they emerged on the other side some 17 days later, Hannibal’s force had been depleted by nearly 50%, including the loss of most of the elephants.

However, Hannibal soon made his numbers back by recruiting soldiers from the local population by presenting himself as a liberator. Taken completely by surprise, Rome sent two consular armies to face Hannibal. The first under Publius Cornelius Scipio was routed with relative ease at the Battle of Ticinus. Hannibal similarly dispatched the second Roman army, under Tiberius Sempronius Longus, by cleverly luring his eager enemy onto favourable terrain before completely surrounding them.

The victory saw Hannibal’s numbers swell, as local cities switched allegiance to his cause. In the spring of 217 BC, Hannibal began to move south. Blocking the two main routes to Rome were the consular armies of Gnaeus Servilius and Gaius Flaminius. Displaying his ingenuity once again, Hannibal took a third route – the Arno river valley. The area was one big marsh and had been designated as impassable by the Romans who left it unguarded.

Hannibal’s army crossed it in just four days, although at a great cost of life and Hannibal himself even lost one of his eye’s, due to an infection contracted during the crossing. Hannibal then marched behind Flaminius’s ranks, effectively cutting the Roman consul off from his route to Rome. Flaminius had no choice but to hastily pursue Hannibal who now lay in wait by Lake Trasimene.

Hannibal’s forces surprised the Romans with an ambush, one that has gone down in history as the largest ambush in terms of soldiers involved. It was a slaughter, of the 30,000 Roman troops, half either died in battle (including Flaminius) or drowned in the lake trying to escape. With Servilius’s army pinned down by a surprise attack from the Gauls, Hannibal had a clear route to Rome.

However, he’d left all siege equipment on the other side of the Alps and so decided to bypass Rome and begin campaigning in central and southern Italy in the hope of creating a local revolt.

Back in the capital city, Rome appointed the general Quintus Fabius Maximus as their dictator in what seemed a last-ditch attempt to save their beloved Republic. Fabius employed a different strategy to his predecessors and refused to engage Hannibal in open battle, instead choosing to stalk him around Italy and contain his movements.
This tactic drew ire from Rome who believed Fabius’s tactics were cowardly. As the Carthaginian general laid waste to the southern Campania region, an area many Roman nobles had land in, Fabius’s time in charge was now under threat.

Fabius looked to regain some credibility when he seemingly had Hannibal pinned down in an area in Campania in late 217 BC. Hannibal, however, had other plans. As night fell, the encircling Roman forces saw a trail of light and sound heading towards a wood near one of the guarded passes out of the area. When the nearby Roman force left their post to investigate, Hannibal’s army used the now unguarded pass to sneak out of the trap laid by Fabius. The trail of light and sound was, in fact, a column of cattle with flaming torches attached to their horns, a tactical distraction ordered by Hannibal.

After eluding Fabius, Hannibal seized the initiative once again and captured the important supply depot at Cannae. Fabius’s reign as dictator ended and two new consuls were elected by Rome to take on Hannibal - Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus.

This time Rome united it’s two consular armies into one, with Varro and Paullus having to alternate command every day. The force was said to be around 80,000 strong. When the two armies met at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal’s military ingenuity shone through once again. With Varro in charge the day of the battle, Hannibal exploited the eagerness and arrogance of his opposing number and placed his weaker light infantry in the middle of his line and the heavy infantry on the flanks. Although the Romans had the numerical advantage, Hannibal’s plans would see that advantage disappear before Varro’s very eyes. c

As Hannibal’s light infantry was pushed back, the heavy infantry on the sides held firm. The tightly packed Roman lines advanced deeper into Hannibal's middle section, effectively creating a half-moon shape. The Romans soon found themselves surrounded on both flanks and when Hannibal’s cavalry charged their rear, they were effectively trapped. It’s estimated that up to around 70,000 Romans died in the encirclement, making the defeat one of Rome’s heaviest and bloodiest in its entire history.

Rome finally took the lessons that Fabius had been trying to teach them and refused to engage Hannibal in open battle again. Hannibal’s war in Italy ground to a stalemate and without proper support from Carthage, who refused to send him supplies, siege equipment and reinforcements, Hannibal was unable to take the city of Rome and bring an end to his occupation of Italy.
Soon, the Romans began campaigning in Spain, reclaiming territories taken by the Carthaginians. In 203 BC, Hannibal was eventually recalled by Carthage as a Roman force under Scipio Africanus (the son of Publius Cornelius Scipio who’d previously been defeated by Hannibal), had landed in North Africa. In 202 BC, at the Battle of Zama, Scipio outsmarted his opposite number, subdued the effectiveness of the 80 Carthaginian war elephants and dealt a fatal blow to Hannibal’s army, one it could not recover from. The Second Punic War was finally over.

After the War, heavy reparations and limitations were placed on Carthage. Hannibal entered politics in his home city in an attempt to help its citizens out of the situation it now found itself. He was so successful that just a few years after Zama, Carthage looked prosperous once again. An alarmed Rome, along with Carthaginian noblemen hostile to Hannibal, denounced the famed general to the point he knew he had to flee his homeland or face being handed over to the Romans.

Accepting a position as the military advisor to the Seleucid King Antiochus III, in Anatolia (modern Turkey), Hannibal remained there until Rome defeated Antiochus at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BC. Fearing once again he'd be handed over as part of the peace treaty, Hannibal fled to Bithynia and sought refuge under King Prusias. The threat of Roman retribution never left Hannibal and with forces closing in on him once again, he decided to take his own life by drinking poison sometime between 183-181 BC.

How (and Where) Did Hannibal Cross the Alps?

Chris Allen perches on a ledge of the Col de la Traversette, thinking hard, listening to silence, looking at the unseen. As pale as paper and nearly as thin, the 50-year-old microbiologist has spent the better part of this midsummer morning climbing the narrow mountain pass that lies at the border southeast of Grenoble in France and southwest of Turin in Italy. And now, staring into the mists of antiquity, he imagines a scene that may have unfolded here 2,235 years ago: the Carthaginian general Hannibal mustering his downcast troops during their brazen invasion of the Roman Republic at the start of the Second Punic War.

On Allen’s left, a cutting wind scythes across a row of rock needles and down to the valley on the Italian side, nearly 10,000 feet below. To his right, Mount Viso—the twin-peaked colossus—looms against a bowl-blue sky. Allen reaches into his rucksack, withdraws a copy of Polybius’ Histories and reads a passage aloud: “Hannibal could see that the hardship they had experienced, and the anticipation of more to come, had sapped morale throughout the army. He convened an assembly and tried to raise their spirits, though his only asset was the visibility of Italy, which spreads out under the mountains in such a way that, from a panoramic perspective, the Alps form the acropolis of all Italy.”

The moment hangs in the air. “What road led Hannibal to Rome?” Allen asks a visitor from America. The vexed question is one of those problems on the borderline of history and geography that are fascinating and perhaps insoluble. Much ink has been spilled in pinpointing the route of Hannibal’s improbable five-month, thousand-mile trek from Catalonia across the Pyrenees, through the Languedoc to the banks of the Rhone, and then over the Alps to the plains of Italy. Many boots have been worn out in determining the alpine pass through which tens of thousands of foot soldiers and cavalrymen, thousands of horses and mules, and, famously, 37 African battle elephants tramped.

Speculation on the crossing place stretches back more than two millennia to when Rome and Carthage, a North African city-state in what is now Tunisia, were superpowers vying for supremacy in the Mediterranean. No Carthaginian sources of any kind have survived, and the accounts by the Greek historian Polybius (written about 70 years after the march) and his Roman counterpart Livy (120 years after that) are maddeningly vague. There are no fewer than a dozen rival theories advanced by a rich confusion of academics, antiquarians and statesmen who contradict one another and sometimes themselves. Napoleon Bonaparte favored a northern route through the Col du Mont Cenis. Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was said to be a fan of the Col du Montgenèvre. Sir Gavin de Beer, a onetime director of what is now the Natural History Museum in London, championed the Traversette, the gnarliest and most southerly course. In 1959, Cambridge engineering student John Hoyte borrowed an elephant named Jumbo from the Turin zoo and set out to prove the Col du Clapier (sometimes called the Col du Clapier-Savine Coche) was the real trunk road—but ultimately took the Mont Cenis route into Italy. Others have charted itineraries over the Col du Petit St. Bernard, the Col du l’Argentière and combinations of the above that looped north to south to north again. To borrow a line attributed to Mark Twain, riffing on a different controversy: “The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.”

A relative newcomer to the debate, Allen insists that until now no hard material evidence has been presented that would indicate the most likely path. “Nada, zero, zip, zilch,” he says. “Everything has been guesswork based on readings of the classical texts.” He believes that he and his team of collaborators—led by Canadian geomorphologist Bill Mahaney—recently unearthed the first compelling clues, thanks to a massive patty of ancientmanure.

Embedded 16 inches deep in a bog on the French side of the Traversette is a thin layer of churned-up, compacted scat that suggests a large footfall by thousands of mammals at some point in the past. “If Hannibal had hauled his traveling circus over the pass, he would have stopped at the mire to water and feed the beasts,” reasons Allen. “And if that many horses, mules and, for that matter, elephants did graze there, they would have left behind a MAD.” That’s the acronym for what microbiologists delicately term a “mass animal deposition.”

By examining sediment from two cores and a trench—mostly soil matted with decomposed plant fiber—Allen and his crew have identified genetic materials that contain high concentrations of DNA fragments from Clostridia, bacteria that typically make up only 2 or 3 percent of peat microbes, but more than 70 percent of those found in the gut of horses. The bed of excrement also contained unusual levels of bile acids and fatty compounds found in the digestive tracts of horses and ruminants. Allen is most excited about having isolated parasite eggs—associated with gut tapeworms—preserved in the site like tiny genetic time capsules.

“The DNA detected in the mire was protected in bacterial endospores that can survive in soil for thousands of years,” he says. Analyses by the team, including carbon dating, suggest that the excreta dug up at the Traversette site could date to well within the ballpark of the Punic forces’ traverse.

Since Allen’s conclusions at times rest on the slippery slopes of conjecture, what they add up to is open to considerable interpretation. Andrew Wilson, of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, maintains that the date range doesn’t follow from the data presented, and that the MAD layer could have accumulated over several centuries. Allen, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, is unfazed. “I believe in hypothesis-driven science,” he says. “Naturally, some people are going to be skeptical of our deductions and say they are—for lack of a better word—crap. Which is perfectly healthy, of course. Skepticism is what science is all about.”

(Margaret Kimball)

Allen’s long, ascetic face, with narrow eyes and raised eyebrows, lends him an expression of perpetual seriousness that belies his sardonic good humor. This is an Englishman whose appreciation of pathogenic bacteria derived in part from Monty Python (Q: What’s brown and sounds like a bell? A: Dung!) and who named the goldfish in his backyard pond Nosey, Scrumpy, Motley, Blind Pew, Spunky and William. “I hand-feed William peas and garlic,” Allen says. “He won’t eat mealworms. He’s too discerning.”

He was delighted last year when the Belfast Telegraph headlined a front-page feature about his research team: QUEEN’S DUNG BOFFINS GET TO BOTTOM OF HANNIBAL ALPS RIDDLE IN PIECE OF 2000-YEAR-OLD POO. (“Boffin,” Allen kindly explains, is British slang for a scientist with technical expertise.) The accompanying cartoon depicted him holding an enormous roll of toilet paper. “Ever since that article appeared, people all over the world have been mailing me fecal samples,” Allen says. He pauses. “I’m only kidding!”

He learned to jest as a lad in Bristol, hometown of the great conceptual jokester Banksy. “I was a rather confused child,” Allen says. He toyed with the idea of becoming a paratrooper and then a train driver before deciding that “a career in science would be cool.” His earliest memories of scientific endeavor include designing a burglar alarm for his bedroom (age 6), leaving homemade stink bombs on his neighbor’s doorstep (age 8) and “looking at bits of unpleasant things” under the microscope (age 9). “Little did I know that the latter would later become my main source of income,” he says.

While in college—he has a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Warwick—Allen realized that he could have a lot of fun and generate research pay dirt by “doing things that other people hadn’t thought of yet”: Hence his current research interests are as diverse as understanding the microbial ecology defining the Anthropocene, corpse microbiology, hunting for microbial genetic signatures associated with ancient comet impact events and, of course, solving the Hannibal Enigma through metagenomics—the study of micro-organisms by direct extraction and cloning of DNA.

Allen is the latest British boffin to argue for the Traversette. The earliest was a naturalist named Cecil Torr, who in his 1924 book Hannibal Crosses the Alps tells us that as a teenager he set out, fruitlessly, to find traces of vinegar used, after fires were set to heat rock, in fracturing boulders that blocked the Carthaginian army. (A procedure, notes Cambridge classical scholar Mary Beard, “which has launched all kinds of boy-scoutish experiments among classicists-turned-amateur-chemists.”) Still, Torr was branded a Hannibal heretic and the route he recommended was dismissed as untenable. His theory was largely ignored until 1955, when Gavin de Beer took up the cause. In Alps and Elephants, the first of several books that the evolutionary embryologist wrote on Hannibal, he displayed something of the Kon-Tiki spirit with the claim that he’d personally inspected the topography. For centuries only traders and smugglers had used the Traversette scholars avoided it not just because the climb was so dicey, but due to what de Beer called “the ease with which triggers are pulled in that area.”

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