Hannibal at the Gates


The Second Punic War is, arguably, the most sweeping, destructive war of ancient times. It marked the end of a contest for power in the Mediterranean - the establishment of Roman hegemony over the entire Italian peninsula and deep into Iberia.

It was a hard fought victory for Rome, however; Hannibal Barca’s campaign in Italy, following his daring crossing of the Alps, nearly brought Rome to ruin. Catastrophic defeats at Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae shattered any faith Rome’s allies had in them, and almost imploded the Republic.

The brilliance of Hannibal as a strategist and tactician cannot be denied; he came closer than anyone else ever had or would to toppling Roman power, but his failure was underestimating Rome’s ability to endure. After weathering the worst of Hannibal’s assault, Rome struck back under the brilliance of Scipio and finally, on the field at Zama, Carthage’s dream came crashing to an end.

Many accounts of the Second Punic War come from Polybius and Livy, neither of whom were alive when the events they describe took place and wrote only from Rome’s perspective. Polybius in particular, is famed for being openly critical of Carthage (he was allegedly present for the final destruction of the ancient capital), and in particular the Barcids, so his accounts are heavily biased towards Rome and can almost be considered propaganda.

Although the power plays of Julius Caesar, and the formation of the Roman Empire under Octavian, were still many years away, Rome’s victory over Carthage and its confederates laid the foundations for Rome the superpower.

The Carthaginians

Hannibal Barca

God has given to man no sharper spur to victory than contempt of death. – Hannibal Barca

Hannibal is widely regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in history. He was a son of Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian leader who had fought in the First Punic War, remaining undefeated when Carthage sued for peace. Afterwards, Hamilcar conquered Iberia to regain Carthage’s lost fortunes, exploiting the silver deposits found there to pay its war reparations to Rome and make his nation powerful again. He famously made his young son swear that he would "never be a friend to the Romans". Following eight successful years in the region, Hamilcar was killed during battle against the Iberian tribes in 228BC.

Despite his young age – 26 years - Hannibal assumed power in Iberia following the assassination of his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal "the Fair" – so named for his preference for diplomacy over conflict. From here, he sacked the Roman protectorate of Saguntum and began the Second Punic War. His army’s journey over the Alps has become legend; a feat of daring and endurance that took Rome entirely by surprise.

Hannibal’s efforts during the war - scoring devastating victories at Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae - ravaged the Roman state and nearly brought the Republic to its knees. It is due to Hannibal, without a doubt, that Carthage’s war effort was successful for so many years. Ultimately, however, a series of setbacks, betrayals and a lack of support at home for the lengthy war stalled the conquest of Italy, eventually leading to his defeat at the climactic Battle of Zama in 202BC.

After the war, Hannibal became a successful governor of Carthage. However, political opponents soon forced him into exile, where he became military advisor to the Seleucid Empire and several other eastern Hellenistic states. Unfortunately, pressure from the Romans as they expanded into the east eventually led to Hannibal’s betrayal, and he poisoned himself to evade capture around 182BC.

The Romans

Scipio Africanus

Let us make war, since evidently, you have found peace intolerable. – Scipio Africanus

The man who became known as Scipio Africanus was the son of, and named for, Publius Cornelius Scipio, who was consul of the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. Although the elder Scipio was eventually killed in battle in 211BC in Iberia, at the hands of Hannibal Barca’s brother, Hasdrubal, at 18 it is said the young Scipio had saved his father’s life at the Battle of Ticinus by charging the enemy with what Polybius referred to as ‘reckless daring’. He survived that battle, as well as the massacres at Trebia and Cannae. Though focused on achieving ultimate Roman victory, Scipio had endured enough personal loss to desire vengeance on Carthage, and the Barcid clan particularly.

Although inexperienced, Scipio had won favour in Rome through enthusiasm and passion. Following his election to proconsul, he took the fight to Iberia - in his father’s footsteps, swiftly capturing Nova Carthago and dealing a sharp blow to the Barcids. From there, he pushed further into Iberia and shattered Carthaginian power across the peninsula following Rome’s victory at the Battle of Ilipa.

Having destroyed Hannibal’s Iberian powerbase, Scipio took the war to Africa and to Carthaginian home soil. He destroyed their network of alliances – crucially, with the Numidian tribes who had played such an important part in Hannibal’s early victories in Italy - before facing Hannibal himself on the final battlefield of the war, at Zama. Although the battle was close, it was ultimately decisive; Scipio countered Hannibal’s tactics and caused a mass rout of the untrained local levy. Shortly after this, the Carthaginian senate once again came to terms with Rome, giving Scipio the complete victory he had long sought. Although welcomed back to Rome triumphantly, he refused all honours offered him aside from the name ‘Africanus’, which symbolised his victory in the region.

Scipio Africanus went on to oversee Rome’s victory against the Seleucids at the Battle of Magnesia that concluded the Syrian War, before going back into politics. Following time served in office as Censor, Scipio died in approximately 193BC, after a quiet retirement spent trying, of all things, to protect his old rival, Hannibal from Rome’s vengeance.

Fabius Maximus

To be turned from one’s course by men’s opinions, by blame, and by misrepresentation shows a man unfit to hold an office. – Quintus Fabius Maximus

Quintius Fabius Maximus (280 – 203BC) was a Roman statesman and general who held the office of Consul and Prodictator several times during the Second Punic War. He is known primarily for radically changing the traditional Roman war strategy in the face of Hannibal’s crushing victories over consular armies in the field. Fabius’ knowledge of the conflict made him the ideal man for the job. According to Livy, he was present for the failed negotiations that officialised the Second Punic War. After hours of fruitless argument, Fabius gathered a fold in his toga, stating "We bring you peace and war. Take which you will". On the Carthaginian reply that they did not care, he dropped the fold and declared "We give you war."

After the destruction of a Roman army at Trasimene (where his predecessor was killed), the second such defeat in a row, a panicked Senate elected Fabius. He immediately initiated a new strategy of refusing Hannibal open battle, instead weathering him down through attrition and small, stinging skirmishes. Although it seemed, to many Romans, that Fabius was afraid, his fresh approach almost ensnared Hannibal on more than one occasion, and it was only the Carthaginian’s cunning and guile that saved his army from destruction.

Despite its success, unpopularity in Rome led to the policy’s eventual abandonment in favour of brute force – a move which ultimately led to the greatest single defeat in Roman history, at Cannae in 216BC. As they recovered from the defeat and attempted to deny Hannibal the strength to attack again, this time decisively, the Romans re-adopted the Fabian strategy. It remained in-place until the end of the war - Hannibal was never able to win another victory against them.

Vindicated, Fabius opposed Scipio’s desire to fight openly in Africa, but became gravely ill and died in 203BC; he saw his strategy successfully repel Hannibal from Italy, but never lived to see his nation’s ultimate victory at Zama a year later.