Hannibal: Ancient Rome's Greatest Enemy

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Part 2: The Making of Another War

As Hannibal grew to manhood, his father and his brother, Hasdrubal, were waging war in Spain, which was just across what we now call the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa, most of which was controlled by Carthage at this time. Carthage was having difficulty convincing the people who lived in what we now call Spain that they would be happier living under Carthaginian rule. Hannibal, just 25, got the better of the Spanish peoples, and a good part of that land came under the Carthaginian yoke.

Looking to expand his city's influence, Hannibal attacked Saguntum, a city that was specifically friendly to Rome. The response was not immediate (since nothing was in those days), but it was swift: Rome declared war on Carthage—again.

Rome's success in the First Punic War was due in large part to its overwhelming manpower and, surprisingly, its ingenuity, specifically the invention of the corvus, which helped them turn naval battles into land battles, fights that Rome could win. This time around, the odds were stacked again in Rome's favor in that seapower between the two civilizations was about equal, meaning that Rome had neutralized Carthage's former advantage; further, Roman advances of late had included some improvements on earlier fighting ships, meaning that Rome had actually pulled ahead of Carthage, both in technology and in manpower. Roman ships now outnumbered Carthaginian ships. Hannibal the Rome-hater would have to find another way to take the fight to the enemy.

That is exactly what he did. In a master stroke of military strategy that was as unconventional as it was daring, Hannibal made the courageous and outrageous decision to cross the mightly Alps with his invasion force, choosing to attack Rome by land rather than by sea. He massed an army of 60,000 in Spain and then set out across Gaul (what we now call France). He gained some troops along the way, from tribes that hated Rome. The Carthaginians also faced resistance from some mountain peoples who were allied to Rome. What is all the more amazing is that he brought with him not only an army but all the equipment that would be needed to support that army—food, water, supplies, armor and weapons. He also included in that fighting force his standard battlefield complement of war elephants, which could scare an enemy force from the field just by mounting a charge.

The troops first had to cross the snowy Pyrenees Mountains, which divide what we now call Spain from what we now call France. Losses in the Pyrenees were substantial, but Hannibal pressed on, determined to reach Rome. Passing through Gaul, he recruited thousands of Gauls into his army, making up somewhat for the soldiers he had already lost. The losses mounted heavily on the trip through the Alps, as frozen mountain passes and fierce Alpine tribes made the crossing very difficult. When Hannibal's force reached northern Italy, it was down to just 26,000 troops. Still, those troops were determined to take the fight to the Romans.

An expedition that transported that many troops wasn't destined to be kept secret, even in ancient times. Word got passed on to Rome of Hannibal's daring plan, and Roman troops were ready when the tired Carthaginians burst into the Po Valley. The result wasn't exactly a Roman victory, however, not matter how much it might seem like the opportunity for one, what with a rested and ready Roman force just itching to teach the daring Hannibal and his exhausted troops a lesson. Instead, Rome got taught the lesson, one it would learn the hard way a couple more times before adapting to meet a superior challenge.

Battle of Trebia River

Next page > Pressing the Advantage > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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David White