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Punic War II – Hannibal's War

As in the twentieth century, one big war was followed by a second big war. The settlement of the first big war had not been thoroughly settled in the minds of some of the defeated, and revenge was sought.

Carthage had expanded its enterprises in Iberia (Spain) in compensation for its losses of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, and Carthage's success in trade and mining operations in Iberia prompted Rome to establish an embassy there. Around the year 220 a prosperous Greek colony on the Mediterranean coast in Iberia, Saguntum, was quarreling with neighboring towns. Lacking friendship with Carthage and desperate for an ally, Saguntum sought help from Rome – a repetition of sorts of what had happened in the 260s. Seeing Rome as becoming involved in the dispute, the leader of Carthage, Hannibal, welcomed the opportunity to launch a war of revenge against Rome. More than twenty years had passed since the end of the first war between Rome and Carthage, and Hannibal felt that Carthage could now challenge Rome and that he could succeed where others before him had failed.


Hannibal, a marble bust originally found in ancient Capua. Some historians question its authenticity.

Hannibal was as aggressive as Hitler would be in opening the Second World War in Europe. While Rome was negotiating with Carthage, Hannibal sent an army against Saguntum, with orders to spare no male of military age. Saguntum fell, leaving Rome's Senate and the public enraged and regretting that they had not responded in time to help Saguntum. The Romans saw Carthage's attack on Saguntum as a challenge to their prestige, and they matched Hannibal's willingness for war.

The war against Hannibal would be a new kind of war for Rome. Previously, Romans fought only summer campaigns. Against Hannibal, the number of Romans fighting would increase ten fold and they would fight through the entire year. This was to be Rome's most intense war.

Hannibal sent armies to Sicily and Italy by sea. He and a force with cavalry and elephants moved north from Saguntum, across the coast of France, through the Alps and in October 218 down into the Po River valley in northern Italy.

Hannibal won Gauls to his side away from the Romans. He rallied his forces describing the Romans as "a pernicious and rapacious race intent on enslaving the world." Hannibal won at Trebbia in late December 218, his 30,000 men and 37 elephants against Rome's 42,000 and an incompetent general.


 Hannibal in the Italian peninsula (green line)

Hannibal and his army pushed south, living off the land as they went. Rather than try to win allies among the Italians, he burned and destroyed as he went, and not one Italian city joined him against Rome. He tried to keep himself informed about the Roman leaders sent against him, and occasionally he found weaknesses in these Romans. He took advantage of the untalented consul, Flaminius, who wanted to prove himself to his fellow Romans. Flaminius allowed Hannibal to choose where the battle between them would be fought, and in June 217 Flaminius marched his army into a trap at Lake Trasimenus (see map), where all but the few who were captured were cut down. In the wake of this disaster, in the depressing month of December, Rome introduced a festival called Saturnalia associated with the god Saturn, to spread cheer and lift the morale of its citizens. There were feasts, an exchanging of presents, gambling, games that involved role-switching between masters and slaves, and sacrifices were performed at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum.

Hannibal had another great success in August, 216, at Cannae (see map). There, Rome lost five out of every six soldiers it sent into battle. It seemed that Rome was on the verge of defeat, and now some Italian cities, wishing to be on the winning side, opened their gates to Hannibal. In Sicily, Syracuse went over to the side of Carthage. Macedonia's king, Philip V, offered Carthage an alliance.

Hannibal was trying to wear Rome down – a war of attrition. He continued to destroy Italian lands and to destroy villages that his forces could not hold. To starve Hannibal's forces the Romans scorched the earth in front of his advancing army, and they moved people from the countryside to towns. The Romans plundered towns they believed had befriended Hannibal and beheaded men they believed had fought on the side of Carthage.

Avoiding a direct clash with Hannibal in Italy, Rome moved a force to Sicily. There the Roman general Marcellus beheaded 2,000 of his troops whom he claimed had been deserters. Other soldiers under his command pillaged Syracuse, destroying and plundering treasures that had accumulated there for centuries. A soldier in Syracuse came upon the philosopher Archimedes and ran a sword through him.

In 211, Hannibal was thirty miles from Rome, and Roman women appealed to the gods by sweeping the floors of their temples with their hair. But rather than attack Rome and confront the two armies that Rome had placed before him, Hannibal decided to burn the nearby countryside and withdraw to fight elsewhere. He moved southward, back to Capua. In 209 he had his second battle at Tarentum, his 19,000 men against a Roman force of 17,000, has casualties and losses at 9,000, the Romans at 2,300.

Hannibal's war of attrition was a losing strategy. Rome benefited from fighting closer to home and having access to more manpower. Rome also benefited from the egocentricity and shortsightedness of Carthage's oligarchs. For a while at least, the oligarchs feared that Hannibal as a victor and hero would jeopardize their positions of power. They were reluctant to send him reinforcements. But Hannibal was recruiting Gauls into his army, which offended the Italians, who remembered that Rome had been a bulwark against the Gauls.

Rome managed to reconquer Sicily, and it was defeating Carthage in Iberia, at the Battle of Baeti in 211 and at Baecula in 2008. At Baecula the Romans had 30,000 men under a brilliant general: Scipio. Carthage had 25,000 men, most of them were Gauls, led by Hannibal's younger brother by two years: Hasdrubal. After the battle, Hasdrubal led his depleted force over the Pyrenees into Gaul and then into Italy, looking to join forces with his brother. He was defeated on the Italian peninsula's northeast coast, at Metaurus, his 30,000 men losing 10,000 killed and 10,000 wounded according to the historian Polybius. Hasdrubal was beheaded and his head rolled into Hannibal's encampment in the south of the peninsula.

Carthage sent a force to Iberia and another battle was fought there ten miles north of what today is the city of Seville. In 204 Roman transport ships carried no more than 35,000 soldiers to about 35 kilometers from Carthage, alarming that city, while Scipio captured towns and plunder the countryside.

It was the summer of that year that Hannibal was fighting in the far south of Italy around Croton (see map). All of Hannibal's forces were in the far south, hoping to establish a Carthaginian base there that it could trade for a peace treaty. The fighting around Croton continued into 203. Hannibal was ordered to return to Carthage to defend home territory. Ships arrived and he was able to depart safely.

In 203, Scipio won at Battle of Utica in North Africa, and again in 202 near Carthage he defeated Hannibal. He lost something like 2,500 killed out of 35,100 men, outmaneuvering and slaughtering Hannibal's army of 40,000, plus elephants.

Hannibal escaped to Carthage where he counseled immediate surrender. Carthage sued for peace. A council of twenty Roman priests – which governed treaties with foreigners – went to Carthage to present Rome's demands. The priests called on the god Jupiter to witness that the demands were just. This time, Rome wanted to weaken Carthage substantially. And Carthage agreed to reduce its territory to an area that approximates what today is Tunisia. It agreed to withdraw from participation in the affairs of Iberia, to pay Rome a huge indemnity and to surrender to Rome all but twenty of its warships.

Hannibal's attempt at revenge had failed. Rome wanted Hannibal's head, and he found refuge with the Seleucid king in Syria, Antiochus III.


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