Hannibal and the Punic Wars: Synopsis and Historical Background


Hannibal’s strategic thinking was sound. He would take the war to Italy arriving by the most unexpected route—directly across the impassable Alps. He would defeat the Romans in battle, demonstrating that they could be beaten and gaining support from the Gallic tribes. Rome’s confederation of allies—won by conquest and naturally resentful of their masters—would unravel as the result of Roman defeats on the battlefield. His goal was to liberate the oppressed peoples of Italy, including the Greek cities at the south of the peninsula. He did not intend to destroy Rome but to restrict the Romans to their domain around the Tiber, as evidenced by the text of the treaty he signed with King Philip V of Macedonia in 215 BCE. His plan almost succeeded, for a number of Rome’s allies did go over to Hannibal and at one point 12 of Rome’s Latin colonies refused to continue supplying manpower. The war could have been won had Hannibal received needed reinforcements from Carthage—the city leaders foolishly sent them to Spain, to defend their silver mines, rather than to Italy, where the key battles had to be fought. It was this miscalculation that resulted in their eventual defeat.

Hannibal’s supreme tactical genius is undisputed, although its extent is often not realized. In 218 BCE, after crossing the Alps in an epic struggle, arriving with only 20,000 infantry and 6,000 horse, he defeated the Romans (who had a man power potential of 700,000) first at the Ticinus river and then at the Trebia, crushing the much larger combined army of consuls P. Cornelius Scipio and Sempronius Longus. The impulsive Sempronius was lured to attack in the early morning across the freezing river and his army was cut to pieces by a combination of infantry, cavalry, and elephants, plus an ambush from the rear led by Hannibal’s brother Mago. Incidentally, this is the only one of the famous victories of Hannibal in which elephants took part. Of the 37 elephants that accompanied Hannibal across the Alps, only one survived the winter.

At Lake Trasimene, in 217 BCE, Hannibal managed to hide practically his entire army in ambush and destroyed the legions of consul Gaius Flaminius, an experienced military officer who had previously led a successful campaign against the Gauls. But Hannibal’s battlefield masterpiece was Cannae, in 216 BCE, where he faced the largest Roman army ever assembled, consisting of 80,000 infantry and a cavalry contingent which recent research (details in another article) puts as high as 12,000, with his own army of 40,000 infantry and 10,000 horse. The battle was fought on a plain where no ambush could be hidden, but Hannibal was able to spring a deadly trap in plain sight. The total envelopment of the Roman army left 70,000 Roman dead on the battlefield, according to Polybius. Hannibal lost 5,000, mostly from the weaker Spanish and Gallic forces in the center of his formation, where he himself and his brother Mago commanded, and whose deployment was essential for the victory. Often criticized for not marching immediately against Rome following the battle, Hannibal's decision was not a strategic error, as will be made clear in another article.

Claims that after Cannae Hannibal did not win any more battles because the Romans fought a war of attrition avoiding major clashes, and that his army was softened by wintering among the luxuries of Capua, are incorrect. Hannibal did achieve further victories every time some Roman general grew arrogant enough to think he could take on the great Barcid. For instance, in 212 he defeated consuls Q. Fulvius Flaccus and Appius Claudius at Capua, although the Roman army escaped. The same year he was the victor at the Silarus, where he destroyed the army of the praetor M. Centenius Penula in Campania, and at the first battle of Herdonea, wiping out the forces of Gnaeus Fulvius in Apulia, with casualties comparable with those at lake Trasimenus. In 210 the second battle of Herdonea took place, where Hannibal destroyed the army of Fulvius Centumalus, who was killed. Hannibal remained undefeated during his 16 years in Italy. (More in another article.)

Hannibal’s genius shone even in the final battle, the one he supposedly lost, at Zama, in 202 BCE, against Publius Cornelius Scipio the Younger. The information in the classical sources indicates that he almost won that one, too, despite having an inferior army and lacking the cavalry forces he had had in Italy, for he managed to lure the superior enemy horse from the battlefield and was in the process of crushing the Roman infantry when Massinissa and his cavalry returned to the field to turn the tables in favor of the Romans. Recent research by Abdelaziz Belkhodja and others has raised a number of questions concerning the authenticity of this final battle, to be discussed in another article.

After the end of the second war with Rome, Hannibal served as Carthaginian magistrate (suffete) and was able to eliminate corruption and restore the city’s shattered economy. During his years of exile that followed, he assisted Antiochus III of Syria, Artaxias of Armenia, and Prusias of Bithynia, and remained true to his ideals, steadfastly refusing to become a vassal of Rome. Some have called Hannibal the last hero of the free world of Antiquity. After his death in 183 BCE, taking poison in order to prevent the Romans from capturing him after being betrayed by King Prusias in Bithynia, nothing could stand in the way of the expansion of what would become the predatory Roman Empire.

Belkhodja, A. (2012). Hannibal Barca: L'histoire veritable. Apollonia (Tunis).
Fantar, M. H. (1998).  Carthage, the Punic City.  Alif, les Editions de la Mediterranee.
Faulkner, N. (2008). Rome: Empire of the Eagles. Pearson/Longman.
Lancel, S. (1998). Hannibal. Blackwell.
Mosig, Y., & Belhassen, I. (2006). “Revision and reconstruction in the Punic Wars: Cannae revisited”. The International Journal of the Humanities, 4(2), 103-110.
Mosig, Y., & Belhassen, I. (2007). “Revision and reconstruction in the second Punic War: Zama-whose victory?” The International Journal of the Humanities, 5(9), 175-186.
Mosig, Y. (2009). “The Barcids at war: Historical introduction.” Ancient Warfare, 3:4, 6-8.
Polybius (Patton translation).  The Histories (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.

© Yozan Mosig, 2012
(Note: A somewhat different version of this article appeared in Ancient Warfare magazine in 2009, and parts are used here with the kind permission of J. Oorthuys.)

yozan-mosig-miniAbout The Author

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 20 years. His Hannibal Library contains over 10,000 items. Read more about Yozan »