Hannibal, one of the greatest generals of all time, and Rome's most dangerous enemy, was born in Carthage in 247 BC while his father, Hamilcar Barca, was fighting the Romans in Sicily in the First Punic War. In this war Carthage lost her flourishing colonies in Sicily because she lost control of the sea to the Romans at the battle of Aegates Islands.
Hannibal's oathAfter the war many of the Carthaginians' African soldiers mutinied, and the Romans seized the opportunity to demand Corsica and Sardinia as well. From then on leading Carthaginians felt that they could never trust the Romans. Hamilcar Barca, now appointed Carthaginian commander in Spain, in fact took his nine-year-old son, Hannibal, before an altar, and made him stretch out his hands over a newly sacrificed victim and swear that for as long as he lived he would hate the Romans. All his life Hannibal kept that oath.
In SpainWhen Hannibal was 18 his father died, and when he was only 26 he himself succeeded his brother-in-law as supreme commander of the Carthaginian forces in Spain. He and his family used their time well. By trade and conquest they built up in Spain an empire to replace the lost wealth of Sicily, and they enlisted and trained many fine fighting-men from the warlike Spanish tribes. Hannibal himself also made friends with various Gallic tribes, especially those which controlled the passes over the Alps. The Gauls had recently been defeated by the Romans, and Hannibal knew that if he acted quickly he could count on their support.
In 219 BC, after eight months of siege, Hannibal captured the Spanish city of Saguntum, which, although 100 miles south of the River Ebro (frontier of the Carthaginian empire in Spain), happened to be an ally of Rome. This he knew meant renewed war with Rome (the Second Punic War). But how could Rome be attacked? Not directly from Carthage, because the Roman fleet controlled the sea; so Hannibal dared what no one thought possible; he decided to march his great army over the Pyrenees, across Provence, and over the Alps, to crash down like a thunderbolt into northern Italy. He hoped and expected that Rome's allies in Italy, shielded by the Carthaginian army, would seize their chance to desert her, and that Rome would be forced to yield.
Across the Alps
Campaigning in ItalyHannibal soon showed his amazing gifts as a general. His first great victory was at the River Trebia, where the Carthaginians warmed themselves at fires and rubbed their bodies with oil to keep out the cold, before fighting Romans whom they had enticed into wading waist-deep across the icy stream before breakfast. Next Hannibal lured another Roman army into a narrow pass between Lake Trasimene and the mountains where his cavalry lay hidden by thick mist until ordered to fall upon the Roman rearguard and close the trap.
After these two defeats the Romans tried different tactics. Fabius, the new Roman commander, avoided a pitched battle, but kept close to Hannibal as he marched south into Campania. When Hannibal was about to return across the Apennines, Fabius blocked all the passes except one, and waited for him there. But Hannibal caught a herd of cattle, tied lighted torches to their horns and drove them at night in a different direction. In the darkness the Roman guards mistook the cattle for the Carthaginians and followed them, while Hannibal's army was able to pass through unobserved.
But Fabius' delaying tactics were very unpopular among the Romans. Next year the consuls determined to fight another pitched battle with Hannibal. Hannibal chose his ground carefully, at Cannae. With excellent discipline, the Carthaginian center deliberately fell back before the Roman attack but did not break ranks, while the wings closed upon the Romans, who thus were surrounded and massacred. Cannae was the greatest of Hannibal's victories. Never again did the Romans fight a pitched battle with him on Italian soil.
Hannibal's failure and recall
Eventually the Romans, under Scipio, attacked the Carthaginians in Africa itself, and Hannibal was recalled to defend his native country. There, at Zama, south-west of Carthage, in 202 BC, the decisive battle took place, and Hannibal was defeated.
The war over, Hannibal tried to save Carthage from the results of defeat: but when he discovered his enemies were planning to hand him over to the Romans he went into exile, where at last he killed himself rather than submit to Rome.
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