(ca. 247-ca. 183 B.C.)
Hannibal’s leading the Carthaginian army across the Alps stands as one of the most monumental military feats in ancient military history. Often called the “father of military strategy” for his visionary conduct of warfare, Hannibal was able to sustain a fifteen-year campaign against Rome because of his innovative cavalry tactics. It is noteworthy that no Carthaginian accounts of Hannibal’s life survive. The only firsthand information available about Hannibal are the writings of the Romans, who respected, feared, and hated their enemy.
After his birth in about 247 B.C. in Carthage, northeast of modern Tunis in North Africa, Hannibal studied under his nobleman-father Hamilcar Barca. During the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.), Hannibal accompanied his father to Spain to fight the Romans. Supposedly, during this unsuccessful campaign, Hannibal swore to his father an eternal hatred of Rome and promised to dedicate his life to fighting the empire.
In 221 B.C., Hannibal, now in his mid-twenties, had the opportunity to fulfill his vow. On the death of his brother-in-law, Hannibal assumed command of Carthaginian forces on the Iberian Peninsula. Within two years, he had subjugated all of Spain, violating Carthaginian treaties with Rome. The Romans demanded that Carthage surrender Hannibal to them, and when the city refused, they declared war in 218 B.C., beginning the Second Punic War.
Rather than respond to Roman tactics, Hannibal decided to take the war directly to Rome. In September 219 B.C. he set out with an army of fifty thousand men and about forty elephants to cross the Alps. Despite heavy losses of men and animals to bad weather and hostile mountain tribesmen, Hannibal succeeded in his epic fifteen-day trek, and his better-trained and disciplined army defeated the unprepared Romans in the Battles of Ticinus and Trebia. Hannibal now occupied northern Italy.
Recruiting local Gauls, traditional enemies of Rome, Hannibal moved south. During 217 B.C., Hannibal defeated Roman consul Gaius Glaminius at Lake Trasimeno and the ravaged the fertile Campania region. The following year, Hannibal and his Carthaginians encountered a series of cautious, ineffectual delaying actions by the Romans, but no large-scale attempt to stop them occurred until they reached Cannae, on the Aufidus River. Here Hannibal attacked the Romans, using his superior cavalry mobility to encircle the center of the Roman defenses and destroy most of the defenders. More than fifty thousand Romans fell to Hannibal, who lost less than seven thousand of his own force.
Hannibal could now advance on both Rome and Naples, but his plan of being joined by deserting allies of Rome did not materialize, and his request to Carthage for reinforcements went unanswered because of political jealousies. Despite these difficulties, Hannibal pushed on, and he would have succeeded had he possessed proper siege weapons and sufficient personnel. He continued to master the Roman army in the field, but the principal cities were able to repulse his attacks in 215 and 211 B.C.
Unable to secure replacements from Carthage, Hannibal asked his younger brother Hasdrubal, commander of an army in Spain, to assist him. Hasdrubal was in the process of responding when Roman Claudius Nero learned of the army’s route and ambushed the force at the Metaurus River in 207 B.C. The Romans delivered Hasdrubal’s severed head to Hannibal as notification of their victory.
Yet Hannibal continued the fight. Not until 204 B.C., when Scipio Africanus – the obscure son of a general whom Hannibal had defeated after initially crossing the Alps – invaded Carthage, did Hannibal finally withdraw from Italy to return home. Hannibal then organized a new army of nearly fifty thousand around a core of veterans from his fifteen-year campaign in Italy to meet the invading Romans. Scipio met the great Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in March 202 B.C. Hannibal, who had gained most of his victories because of his cavalry advantage, now faced defeat by superior enemy horsemen. By the end of the fight, Scipio had vanquished Hannibal and earned the title “Africanus.”
Even though Carthage and Rome established a peace in 201 B.C., Hannibal plotted within his government and military to resume the struggle, earning suspicion from Rome and distrust from his own countrymen. In 196 B.C., Carthage, at Rome’s insistence, exiled Hannibal to Syria, where he assisted in a brief, unsuccessful uprising against Rome before escaping to Bithynia in northern Asia Minor. There, in 183 B.C., or possibly a year later, Hannibal, at about the age of seventy, committed suicide by taking poison rather than face capture by approaching Romans. According to Roman records, Hannibal died after stating, “Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since they think it too long to wait for the death of an old man.”
Hannibal, more famous for taking his army and elephants across the Alps than for any enduring accomplishment, nevertheless was Carthaginian’s greatest general. For fifteen years he led a successful campaign far from home by surviving off the land, the spoils of victory, and his tactical wits. He shared the hardships and dangers with his men, losing an eye to an infection while in winter camp in 217 B.C. Even his Roman chroniclers recognized his leadership in writing that “he never required other to do what he could not and would not do himself.”
Although his fame outlasted his country by far and the romanticized tales of his life often portray him as the greatest of all military leaders, Hannibal the man does not merit such accolades. He was bold in actions, audacious in command, and brilliant in cavalry tactics. In many ways, Scipio was the better commander and proved it in battle. Yet Hannibal, whose story was recorded only by his enemies, remains the name associated with great feats and courage, demonstrating that with the passage of time, fame and “glory” often supersede a person’s actual abilities and accomplishments and alter the nature and extent of their influence.
Today Hannibal’s widely studied and hailed feats, especially in crossing the Alps with his elephants, overshadow Scipio, known only to the most diligent students of military history. For that reason the defeated Hannibal ranks above the victor Scipio on this list.