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For other uses, see Hannibal (disambiguation).
Hannibal Barca
Hannibal Barca

Hannibal (247 BC182 BC) was a military commander of ancient Carthage, best known for his achievements in the Second Punic War in marching an army from Spain over the Pyrenees and the Alps into northern Italy and defeating the Romans at the Battles of the river Trebia (218 BC), Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC). After Cannae, the Romans refused to fight him in pitched battles, and gradually captured the cities that had gone over to Hannibal in southern Italy. An invasion of Africa by the Romans under Scipio Africanus in 204 BC forced Hannibal to return to Africa, where Scipio defeated him at Zama (202 BC).

Following the end of the war, Hannibal led Carthage for several years, helping it to recover from the devastation of the war, until the Romans forced him into exile in 195 BC. He went to live at the court of Antiochus III of the Seleucid Kingdom. In 189 BC the Romans, having defeated Antiochus in a war, demanded that he turn Hannibal over to them and the general fled again, this time to the court of King Prusias I of Bithynia. When the Romans demanded that Prusias surrender him in 182 BC, Hannibal committed suicide rather than submit.

Hannibal is often ranked as one of the best military commanders in history alongside Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, Genghis Khan and Napoleon.



Hannibal ("mercy or favor of Baal"), son of Hamilcar Barca, was born in 247 BC. After Carthage's defeat in the First Punic War, Hamilcar set about the task of improving Carthage's fortunes. To do this, Hamilcar began the subjugation of the tribes of Spain. Carthage at the time was in such a poor state that its navy was unable to ferry his army to Spain; instead, he had to march it to the Pillars of Hercules and cross there. According to a story he later told at the court of Antiochus, Hannibal came upon his father while he was making a sacrifice to the gods before leaving for Spain. Hannibal, then quite young, begged to go with him. Hamilcar agreed and made Hannibal swear that as long as he lived he would never be a friend of Rome.

Hannibal's father went about the conquest of Spain with all the skills given to military men. When he was killed in a battle, Hannibal's brother-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded to command of the army. Hasdrubal pursued a policy of consolidation of Carthage's Spanish interests, even signing a treaty with Rome whereby Carthage would not expand past the Ebro River, so long as Rome did not expand south of it. Upon the death of his brother-in-law (221 BC) Hannibal was acclaimed commander-in-chief by the army and confirmed in his appointment by the Carthaginian government. After two years spent completing the conquest of Spain south of the Ebro, he began what he felt to be his life task, the conquest and humiliation of Rome. Accordingly in 219 BC he used a pretext for attacking the town of Saguntum, which stood under the special protection of Rome. Disregarding the protests of Roman envoys, he stormed it after an eight-month siege. As Carthaginian government, in view of Hannibal's great popularity, did not venture to repudiate this action, the war he sought was declared at the end of the year.

March on Italy

Of the large army of Libyan and Spanish mercenaries that he had at his disposal, Hannibal selected the most trustworthy and devoted contingents and determined to carry the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Spain and Gaul. Starting in the spring of 218 BC, 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 (Isre or, more probably, Durance) and by autumn arrived at the foot of the Alps. His passage over the mountain chain was one of the most memorable achievements of any military force of ancient times. He had arrived, however, with only half the forces he had supposedly set out with. Adrian Goldsworthy (The Fall of Carthage) is skeptical of the explanation that Hannibal had left forces in Gaul to maintain his line of communications for Hannibal. Hannibal from the first seems to have calculated that he would have to operate without aid from Spain. On the other hand the figures for the amount of troops he had when he left Spain are less reliable. Nonetheless Goldsworthy thinks that due to the opposition of the natives and the difficulties of ground and climate the cost of Hannibal's march were considerable.

Hannibal's 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 to show 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 BC 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 (see Battle of Lake Trasimene). 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 exploit his victory by passing into central and southern Italy and exciting a general revolt against the sovereign power. It was in Apulia that a fresh Roman began to dog his steps. Hannibal expected to be able to defeat this too but the comanderb Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, stuck firmly to defensive positions in the hills. Having ravaged Apulia without provoking Fabius to battle, Hannibal decided to march through Samnium to Campania. Campania was a rich area that included the key Roman ally of Capua but though his ravaging of the countryside showed the weakness of Rome it still did not provoke Fabius to battle. As the year wore on Hannibal decided that it would be unwise to winter in the already devastated lowlands of Campania but Fabius had ensured that all the passes out of Campania were blocked. Hannibal escaped by sending a herd of cattle with brands tied to their horns so drawing off the Roman force guarding the pass allowing Hannibal to pass through the pass unopposed. Fabius was within striking distance but in this case his caution worked against him. Smelling a stratagem (rightly) he stayed put. For the winter, Hannibal found comfortable quarters in the Apulian plain, into which the Romans dared not descend.

In the campaign of 217 BC Hannibal had failed to obtain a following among the Italians; in the following year he had an opportunity to turn the tide in his favor. A large Roman army advanced into Apulia in order to crush him and accepted battle at 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 BC 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 centred 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 BC the Romans had so alienated Tarentum that conspirators admitted Hannibal to the city. The conspirators then blew the alarm on some Roman trumpets allowing Hannibal's troops to pick off the Romans as they stumbled out into the streets. Hannibal was able to keep control of his troops to the extent that there was no general looting. Instead Hannibal having committed himself to respect Tarentine freedom told the Tarentines to mark every house where Tarentines lived. Only those houses not so marked and thus belonging to Romans were looted. The citadel, however held out so denying Hannibal the use of harbor. Further, 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 BC and attempted to entice them away by a sudden march through Samnium that brought him within 3 kilometers 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 BC 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 BC destroyed a Roman force engaged in the siege of Locri Epizephyrii. But with the loss of Tarentum in 209 BC and the gradual reconquest by the Romans of Samnium and Lucania his hold on south Italy was almost lost. In 207 BC 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 BC - 203 BC) and of his own negotiations with Philip of Macedon, the last hope of recovering his ascendancy in Italy was lost.

Return to Africa

In 203 BC, when Scipio was carrying all before him in Africa and the Carthaginian peace party were arranging an armistice, Hannibal was recalled from Italy by the war 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 his mercenaries from Italy. In 202 BC Hannibal, after meeting Scipio in a fruitless peace conference, engaged him in a decisive battle at Zama. Unable to cope against the well-trained and confident Roman soldiers with his own indifferent troops, he experienced a crushing defeat that put an end to all resistance on the part of Carthage.

Peacetime Carthage

Hannibal was still only in his forty-sixth year. He soon showed that he could be a statesman as well as a soldier. Following the conclusion of a peace that left Carthage stripped of its formerly mighty empire he for time prepared to take a back seat. However, the blatant corruption of the oligarchy gave Hannibal a chance of a come back and he was elected as suffet, or chief magistrate. 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, for neglecting to take Rome when he might have done so. So effectively did Hannibal reform abuses that the heavy tribute imposed by Rome could be paid by installments without additional and extraordinary taxation. He also reformed the Council of 100, stipulating that its membership be chosen by direct election rather than co-option.

Exile and Death

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 thence to Ephesus, where he was honorably received by Antiochus III of Syria, who was 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 land a body of troops in the south of Italy, offering to take command himself. 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 BC 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 I of Bithynia. Once more the Romans were determined to hunt him down, and they sent Flaminius to insist on his surrender. Prusias agreed to give him up, but Hannibal determined not 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 is a matter of controversy. If, as Livy seems to imply, it was 183 BC, he died in the same year as Scipio Africanus.

The sources

Most of sources we have about Hannibal are Romans, who considered him the greatest enemy they had ever faced. Livy gives us the idea that he was extremely cruel. Even Cicero, when he talked of Rome and her two great enemies, spoke of the "honorable" Pyrrhus and the "cruel" Hannibal. Yet a different picture sometimes shows thru the bias. When Hannibal's successes had brought about the death of two Roman consuls, he searched vainly for one on the shores of Lake Trasimene, and he sent Marcellus' ashes back to his family in Rome. By contrast, when Nero had accomplished his wonderful march back and forth to and from the Metaurus he flung the head of Hannibal's brother into Hannibal's camp. The bias of Polybus is less obvious because he was clearly sympathetic to Hannibal. Polybus, however, spent a long period as a hostage in Italy and relied heavily on Roman souces and so the possibility is always there that Polybus is reproducing Roman propaganda even when he gives it a pro-Hannibal spin.

Place in History

Hannibal's name is commonplace in popular culture, an objective measure of his influence on Western European history. The author of the 1911 Encyclopdia Britannica article 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 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 skilful 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."

Hannibal in film

  • Hannibal (2006) — Starring Vin Diesel.
  • True Story of Hannibal (2005) — English documentary.
  • Hannibal: The Man Who Hated Rome (2001) — English documentary.
  • The Great Battles of Hannibal (1997) — English animation.
  • Annibale (1960) — Starring Victor Mature. Italian.

See also


  • "We will either find a way, or make one."—Hannibal in response to the claimed impossibility of crossing the Alps with elephants.

External links

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopdia Britannica.

de:Hannibal es:Anbal fr:Hannibal Barca it:Annibale nl:Hannibal ja:ハンニバル ko:한니발 pl:Hannibal pt:Anbal sr:Ханибал sv:Hannibal zh:汉尼拔


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