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Hannibal ("mercy" or "favor of Baal"), Carthaginian general and statesman, son of Hamiclar, was born in 249 or 247 BC. Destined by his father to succeed him in the work of vengeance against Rome, he was taken to Spain, and while yet a boy gave ample evidence of his military aptitude. Upon the death of his brother-in-law Hasdrubal (221) he was acclaimed commander-in-chief by the soldiers and confirmed in his appointment by the Carthaginian government. After two years spent in completing the conquest of Spain south of the Ebro, he set himself to begin what he felt to be his life's task, the conquest and humiliation of Rome. Accordingly in 219 he seized some pretext for attacking the town of Saguntum (modern Murviedro), which stood under the special protection of Rome, and disregarding the protests of Roman envoys, stormed it after an eight months' siege. As the home government, in view of Hannibal's great popularity, did not venture to repudiate this action, the declaration of war which he desired took place at the end of the year.
Of the large army of Libyan and Spanish mercenaries which he had at his disposal Hannibal selected the most trustworthy and devoted contingents, and with these determined to execute the daring plan of carrying the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Spain and Gaul. Starting in the spring of 218 he easily fought his way through the northern tribes to the Pyrenees, and by conciliating the Gaulish chiefs on his passage contrived to reach the Rhone before the Romans could take any measures to bar his advance. After outmaneuvering the natives, who endeavored to prevent his crossing, Hannibal evaded a Roman force sent to operate against him in Gaul; he proceeded up the valley of one of the tributaries of the Rhone (Isère or, more probably, Durance), and by autumn arrived at the foot of the Alps. His passage over the mountain chain, at a point which cannot be determined with certainty, though the balance of the available evidence inclines to the Mt. Genèvre pass, and fair cases can be made out for the Col d'Argentière and for Mt. Cenis, was one of the most memorable achievements of any military force of ancient times. Though the opposition of the natives and the difficulties of ground and climate cost Hannibal half his army, his perilous march brought him directly into Roman territory and entirely frustrated the attempts of the enemy to fight out the main issue on foreign ground. His sudden appearance among the Gauls, moreover, enabled him to detach most of the tribes from their new allegiance to the Romans before the latter could take steps to check rebellion. After allowing his soldiers a brief rest to recover from their exertions Hannibal first secured his rear by subduing the hostile tribe of the Taurini (modern Turin), and moving down the Po valley forced the Romans by virtue of his superior cavalry to evacuate the plain of Lombardy.
In December of the same year he had an opportunity of showing his superior military skill when the Roman commander attacked him on the river Trebia (near Placentia); after wearing down the excellent Roman infantry he cut it to pieces by a surprise attack from an ambush in the flank. Having secured his position in north Italy by this victory, he quartered his troops for the winter on the Gauls, whose zeal in his cause thereupon began to abate. Accordingly in spring 217 Hannibal decided to find a more trustworthy base of operations farther south; he crossed the Apennines without opposition, but in the marshy lowlands of the Arno he lost a large part of his force through disease and himself became blind in one eye. Advancing through the uplands of Etruria he provoked the main Roman army to a hasty pursuit, and catching it in a defile on the shore of Lake Trasimenus destroyed it in the waters or on the adjoining slopes. He had now disposed of the only field force which could check his advance upon Rome, but realizing that without siege engines he could not hope to take the capital, he preferred to utilize his victory by passing into central and southern Italy and exciting a general revolt against the sovereign power. Though closely watched by a force under Fabius Maximus Cunctator, he was able to carry his ravages far and wide through Italy: on one occasion he was entrapped in the lowlands of Campania, but set himself free by a stratagem which completely deluded his opponent. For the winter he found comfortable quarters in the Apulian plain, into which the enemy dared not descend. In the campaign of 217 Hannibal had failed to obtain a following among the Italians; in the following year he had an opportunity of turning the tide in his favor. A large Roman army advanced into Apulia in order to crush him, and accepted battle on the site of Cannae. Thanks mainly to brilliant cavalry tactics, Hannibal, with much inferior numbers, managed to surround and cut to pieces the whole of this force; moreover, the moral effect of this victory was such that all the south of Italy joined his cause. Had Hannibal now received proper material reinforcements from his countrymen at Carthage he might have made a direct attack upon Rome; for the present he had to content himself with subduing the fortresses which still held out against him, and the only other notable event of 216 was the defection of Capua, the second largest city of Italy, which Hannibal made his new base.
In the next few years Hannibal was reduced to minor operations which centered mainly round the cities of Campania. He failed to draw his opponents into a pitched battle, and in some slighter engagements suffered reverses. As the forces detached under his lieutenants were generally unable to hold their own, and neither his home government nor his new ally Philip V of Macedon helped to make good his losses, his position in south Italy became increasingly difficult and his chance of ultimately conquering Rome grew ever more remote. In 212 he gained an important success by capturing Tarentum, but in the same year he lost his hold upon Campania, where he failed to prevent the concentration of three Roman armies round Capua. Hannibal attacked the besieging armies with his full force in 211, and attempted to entice them away by a sudden march through Samnium which brought him within 3 miles of Rome, but caused more alarm than real danger to the city. But the siege continued, and the town fell in the same year. In 210 Hannibal again proved his superiority in tactics by a severe defeat inflicted at Herdoniac (modern Ordona) in Apulia upon a proconsular army, and in 208 destroyed a Roman force engaged in the siege of Locri Epizephyrii. But with the loss of Tarentum in 209 and the gradual reconquest by the Romans of Samnium and Lucania his hold on south Italy was almost lost. In 207 he succeeded in making his way again into Apulia, where he waited to concert measures for a combined march upon Rome with his brother Hasdrubal. On hearing, however, of his brother's defeat and death at the Metaurus he retired into the mountain fastnesses of Bruttium, where he maintained himself for the ensuing years. With the failure of his brother Mago in Liguria (205-203) and of his own negotiations with Philip of Macedon, the last hope of recovering his ascendancy in Italy was lost. In 203, when Scorpio Africanus was carrying all before him in Africa and the Carthaginian peace-party were arranging an armistice, Hannibal was recalled from Italy by the "patriot" party at Carthage. After leaving a record of his expedition, engraved in Punic and Greek upon brazen tablets, in the temple of Juno at Crotona, he sailed back to Africa. His arrival immediately restored the predominance of the war-party, who placed him in command of a combined force of African levies and of his mercenaries from Italy. In 202 Hannibal, after meeting Scipio in a fruitless peace conference, engaged him in a decisive battle at Zama. Unable to cope with his indifferent troops against the well-trained and confident Roman soldiers, he experienced a crushing defeat which put an end to all resistance on the part of Carthage.
Hannibal was still only in his forty-sixth year. He soon showed that he could be a statesman as well as a soldier. Peace having been concluded, he was appointed chief magistrate (suffetes, sofet). The office had become rather insignificant, but Hannibal restored its power and authority. The oligarchy, always jealous of him, had even charged him with having betrayed the interests of his country while in Italy, and neglected to take Rome when he might have done so. The dishonesty and incompetence of these men had brought the finances of Carthage into grievous disorder. So effectively did Hannibal reform abuses that the heavy tribute imposed by Rome could be paid by installments without additional and extraordinary taxation.
Seven years after the victory of Zama, the Romans, alarmed at this new prosperity, demanded Hannibal's surrender. Hannibal thereupon went into voluntary exile. First he journeyed to Tyre, the mother-city of Carthage, and from there to Ephesus, where he was honorably received by Antiochus III of Syria, who was then preparing for war with Rome. Hannibal soon saw that the king's army was no match for the Romans. He advised him to equip a fleet and throw a body of troops on the south of Italy, adding that he would himself take the command. But he could not make much impression on Antiochus, who listened more willingly to courtiers and flatterers, and would not entrust Hannibal with any important charge. In 190 he was placed in command of a Phoenician fleet, but was defeated in a battle off the river Eurymedon.
From the court of Antiochus, who seemed prepared to surrender him to the Romans, Hannibal fled to Crete, but he soon went back to Asia, and sought refuge with Prusias, king of Bithynia. Once more the Romans were determined to hunt him out, and they sent Flaminius to insist on his surrender. Prusias agreed to give him up, but Hannibal did not choose to fall into his enemies' hands. At Libyssa, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Marmora, he took poison, which, it was said, he had long carried about with him in a ring. The precise year of his death was a matter of controversy. If, as Livy seems to imply, it was 183, he died in the same year as Scipio Africanus.
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 stratagems 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 Africans, Spaniards 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.
Subject of books:
Ernle Bradford. Hannibal: The General From Carthage. McGraw Hill Book Company. 1981. 223pp.
Robert L. O'Connell. The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic. New York: Random House. 2010. 336pp.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 5th Edition (p.663)
Benet's Readers Encyclopedia, 4th Edition (p.445)
The MacMillan Dictionary of Military Biography (p.152)
Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography (p.313)
Hutchinson Paperback Dictionary of Biography (p.223)
Concise Biographical Dictionary of Famous Men and Women (p.269)
Who's Who in the Roman World (pp.131-34)