Who was Hannibal?

Sworn by his father to forever hate the Romans, Hannibal staged one of the most legendary attacks in the history of military warfare on the formidable army.

Illustration by Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, Spain/Bridgeman
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General Hannibal was one of the most creative military strategists in history.
Illustration by Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, Spain/Bridgeman

Who was Hannibal?

Sworn by his father to forever hate the Romans, Hannibal staged one of the most legendary attacks in the history of military warfare on the formidable army.

The Carthaginian general Hannibal was set on his memorable martial path at an early age. He was just six years old in 241 B.C. when Carthage—the Phoenician trading and military powerhouse in North Africa—was defeated in the First Punic War against Rome. Hannibal’s father, commander and statesman Hamilcar Barca, chafed at the peace treaty, which forced Carthage to surrender the valuable colony of Sicily and pay remunerations to Rome. According to Roman historians, Barca required the young Hannibal to swear a blood oath of eternal hostility toward the Romans.

To restore its fortunes, rebuild its forces, and prepare for retaliation against Rome, Carthage needed new sources of wealth and manpower. It found them in Spain. Hannibal accompanied Barca on the campaign, during which his father secured control of much of the Iberian Peninsula and its resources, including vast silver deposits. In Spain, Hannibal came into his own, taking his first commands under his brother-in-law Hasdrubal. In 221 B.C., Hasdrubal was assassinated, and at the age of 26, Hannibal became the army’s commander in chief.

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Hannibal used Spain as his base of operations as he set out to defeat Rome in the Second Punic War, beginning in 218 B.C. Carthage was no longer a great naval power, but its Spanish treasure allowed Hannibal to assemble a formidable army that included mercenaries from Spain, North Africa, and Gaul. Some of those recruits—particularly the Celts from northern Italy—were motivated more by hatred for Rome than loyalty to Hannibal. Hannibal’s daring advance through the Alps with at least 40,000 troops—and dozens of elephants—became legendary. The treacherous mountain conditions decimated his army to nearly half its size. The elephants, though, functioned as tanks do today, using their bulk to smash through enemy lines. As Roman historian Livy described it: “At the head of the column were the cavalry and elephants. Hannibal himself, with the pick of the infantry, brought up the rear, keeping his eyes open and alert for every contingency.”

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Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps.

Hannibal’s invasion stunned the Romans. In 216 B.C., he dealt them a staggering defeat at the Battle of Cannae by drawing back the endangered center of his line to form a pocket. The oncoming Romans were trapped when his resilient forces swept around their flanks and enveloped them. That maneuver remains among the most celebrated in military history. The Battle of Cannae is considered one of the deadliest single days of combat ever fought by a Western army.

Formidable foe

Hannibal’s strategic objective was to demoralize Rome’s Italian allies and cause them to defect. And some did in southern Italy, where Hannibal and his army held out for more than a dozen years. But in the end, Hannibal was forced to abandon Italy by a general as bold as he was: Publius Cornelius Scipio.

Scipio took the offensive first to Spain and then to North Africa, reckoning that Hannibal would have to engage him there to defend his capital. The two met in the climactic Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. Hannibal lost the battle and the war. Carthage ceded to Rome all its territories outside Africa and disbanded its army.

Hannibal spent much of his remaining years in exile around the Mediterranean. He kept his blood oath and maintained his enmity of the Romans until the end, which came around 183 B.C. at a fortress in Libyssa, in modern-day Turkey. Rather than surrender to the Roman forces that had surrounded him, Hannibal poisoned himself.

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.