Joshua J. Mark
published on 20 December 2011
Although Hannibal’s forces were defeated on the field at the Battle of Zama (202 BCE) the groundwork for this defeat was laid throughout the Second Punic War through the Carthaginian government’s refusal to support their general and his troops on campaign. As they had done with his father, Hamilcar Barca, in the First Punic War, the Carthaginian senate continually refused aid and reinforcements to Hannibal in the hope that he would somehow defeat Rome without their having to involve themselves too much in his campaigns. Rome had never known an adversary like Hannibal, who struck in their own back yard, and, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal was in a position of power to crush Rome completely. He had the brilliant strategies, he had the momentum of victory; but he did not have the resources.
According to legend, Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca (the great Carthaginian general of the First Punic War) made his son swear an oath of enmity towards Rome for life. Hannibal allegedly took this oath and, throughout his campaigns against the Romans, made good on it. Born in Carthage in 247 BCE, Hannibal traveled with his father on campaign when he was only ten years old. After Hamilcar’s death, Hasdrubal the Fair assumed command of the army and, on his assassination, Hannibal was unanimously elected to command by the army.
Following the First Punic War, Rome set about the task of unifying Italy under Roman rule. They subdued the Gauls and, through the Ebro Treaty with Hasdrubal the Fair, secured the boundary in Spain at the Ebro River. Rome would control all territories north of the river and Carthage those territories to the south. The Gauls saw the Romans as conquerors and occupiers and so, when Hannibal began his operations in Iberia, they did little to stop him. He not only had the support of the people but, equally important if not more so, the devotion of his army. Only twenty-eight years old upon assuming command, Hannibal had spent most of his life in army camps on campaign. The historian Durant, quoting Livy, writes, “He was the first to enter the battle and the last to abandon the field” (48). Hannibal’s army knew they could depend on him to take care of them just as surely as they knew the punishments he would wreak upon them if they disappointed him. In this same way, the people of the region looked to Hannibal to relieve them of the Romans. With a general like this in command of the troops, Carthage had only to keep him well supplied and equipped to conquer all of Spain and even Italy.
In 219 BCE, the Romans organized a coup in the city of Saguntum, south of the Ebro, which created a government hostile to Carthaginian interests. Hannibal laid siege to the city and took it. As the city was on Carthaginian territory, Rome had no legal say in the region but, even so, protested against the action as Saguntum was an ally of Rome. The Roman senate demanded that Hannibal be handed over to them. Carthage refused the demand and so started the Second Punic War.
Unlike his father, who had to rely on mercenaries in the First Punic War, Hannibal swelled his ranks with Carthaginians, Gauls, Spaniards and Libyans who hated Rome. In 218 he crossed the Ebro into Roman territory with 50,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry. His army grew as he marched as he consistently portrayed himself as a liberator to the conquered people of the region. Hannibal was determined to bring the battle to Rome and so, famously, led his troops across the Alps into northern Italy. After seventeen days in the mountains, Hannibal’s forces, now greatly reduced by the hazardous march, descended onto the plains of Italy. Though now numbering less than 26,000 total, Hannibal seized towns and marched south toward Rome, defeating a numerically superior Roman force at the Ticino River. At Lake Trasimeme, Hannibal defeated another large force, under the command of Caius Flaminius, in 217, and stood in control of all of northern Italy. At this time he sent word to Carthage asking for reinforcements and supplies; he was refused. The Carthaginian senate felt he would do better to have his army forage and live off the land.
As his forces were too small to take large scale cities, and as he had lost many of his elephants in the Alps and had no siege engines, Hannibal’s strategy was to lure the cities of the Romans to his side through repeated victories and promoting himself as a liberator of the people. Hannibal won every engagement Rome sent against him until finally they stopped sending anyone. The Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus (known as `the delayer’) thought it most prudent to refrain from battle and simply keep Hannibal pinned down in southern Italy. Fabius engaged Hannibal in a cat and mouse game in which Fabius hoped that the Carthaginian forces would succumb to disease and starvation. In 216, however, the Roman senate, tired of inaction, elected Minucius Rufus to command with Fabius. Fabius still held to his policy of caution while Rufus pursued action against the enemy. He proceeded to lead the forces and was swiftly defeated by Hannibal.
Fabius was then deposed and the armies were given to Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Caius Terentius Varro who followed Rufus’ policy of action in the field. At the Battle of Cannae, in 216, the Roman army was so badly beaten that they were almost annihilated. By the end of battle, the Romans had lost 44,000 men as opposed to Hannibal’s losses of 6000. According to Durant, Hannibal
placed the Gauls at his center, expecting that they would give way. They did; and when the Romans followed them into the pocket, the subtle Carthaginian, himself in the thick of the fray, ordered his veterans to close in upon the Roman flanks and bade his cavalry smash through the opposed horsemen to attack the legions from behind. The Roman army was surrounded…It was a supreme example of generalship, never bettered in history. It ended the days of Roman reliance upon infantry and set the lines of military tactics for two thousand years (50-51).
General Paulus was killed in battle along with eighty senators who had enlisted as soldiers under him. Varro escaped to Canusium along with ten thousand other survivors; among them was the young Publius Cornelius Scipio who would meet Hannibal at Zama fourteen years later and become known as Scipio Africanus Major.
Hannibal now declared war on Rome. Carthage, finally rousing to some interest in her general’s continual pleas for men and supplies, sent him some meager reinforcements and aid. The Romans called every able-bodied citizen to arms; the veterans of Cannae refused pay as did the new recruits. Hannibal, however, felt his force of 40,000 was too little to take Rome and continued his policy of small engagements and winning over the minor cities to his cause. One of his aides famously remarked to him, “You know how to win a victory, Hannibal, but you do not know how to use it” (Durant, 52). While it is understandable how one would conclude this after the brilliant win at Cannae, Hannibal was actually right. He did not have enough men to take Rome and, even if he had, did not possess the power to hold it. He, like his father before him, was constantly asking Carthage for help in winning their war for them and, just as they had with Hamilcar Barca, Carthage refused. Rome, at this time, was weak and, further, was paralyzed with terror after their defeat at Cannae. Had Carthage acted on Hannibal’s requests, the Second Punic War could have ended with a Carthaginian victory over Rome. Instead, they sent only as much aid as would not inconvenience them and Hannibal had no choice but to fight those battles which he felt he could win.
After Cannae, Hannibal won every other engagement in Italy but they were all minor actions which gained no further ground. In the meantime, his brother, Hasdrubal, who had taken command of the Carthaginian forces in Spain, had been killed and his army dispersed by Scipio. All of the advancements Hannibal had achieved for the Carthaginian cause in Spain were lost and, when Scipio invaded North Africa from Sicily in 205, Hannibal was called home, thus losing all the ground gained in Italy. At the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE, Hannibal’s forces were defeated by Scipio Africanus and Carthage fell to Rome. Although a brilliant strategist and general, Hannibal was finally defeated, not on the field, but by the government whose interests he had fought for. Carthage lost the Second Punic War and was indebted to Rome for the next fifty years. After the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), brought about by this loss and the treaty they had signed, Carthage, again defeated, was destroyed by the Romans.