Hannibal Barca: History, Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Hannibal Barca was the greatest threat the Roman Republic ever faced. In this lesson, we're going to talk about Hannibal's life and career and see how he impacted ancient Rome.

Hannibal Barca

It's no secret that the ancient Romans controlled one of the most efficient military machines of all time. It took a lot to shake them, but few people in history made the Romans tremble as much as Hannibal Barca. Hannibal, widely considered amongst the greatest military leaders of all time, fought against the Roman Republic during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE. From his home in Carthage, roughly where Tunisia is today, Hannibal represented one of the greatest threats that Rome ever knew, and that's saying something.

Bust believed to be of Hannibal

Early Life and Career

Hannibal Barca was born in Carthage around 247 BCE, near the end of the First Punic War between Carthage and Rome. Carthage lost this war and their most important Mediterranean colony of Sicily. Hannibal's father, Hamilcar Barca, was a general in this war and instilled in his son a deep hatred of Rome.

Around 237 BCE, Hamilcar took Hannibal to the Carthaginian cities of the Spain. Hamilcar aggressively expanded Carthaginian control over the region, while Hamilcar's son-in-law took a diplomatic approach to this conquest of Iberia, arranging for peaceful acquisitions of power through strategic marriages. Hannibal himself was married to a local princess.

In 221 BCE, Hannibal was elected as the new commander of the Carthaginian army in Spain and he continued his father's war with vigor. Within two years, he had not only defeated several Spanish cities, but also one that was an important Roman ally named Saguntum. Rome prepared to defend Sicily, which they assumed was Hannibal's ultimate target. The Carthaginian general, however, had other ideas.

Hannibal Invades Italy

While Rome debated its best course of action, Hannibal quickly gathered his troops and invaded Italy, thus starting the Second Punic War. This would be easier said than done. With roughly 50,000 foot soldiers, 9,000 cavalry, and 37 elephants (yes, elephants), Hannibal had to first cross the Pyrenees, then the river Rhone, then finally the Alps themselves. All of this he did, and with such speed and efficiency against opposing armies that Rome was stunned. By 218 BCE, Hannibal and his elephants had survived the passage through the Alps and set foot in Italian territories.

His elephants made Hannibal an imposing foe

Rome was concerned. Not only did Hannibal make it into northern Italy, but he was also gathering all of Rome's Gallic enemies in that region and promising them freedom from Roman oppression if they fought with him. The Romans gathered an army to stop Hannibal, but were defeated. A second force was sent, and that too fell to Hannibal and his new Gallic friends. Around 217 BCE, Rome amassed a huge army of 80,000 men to meet Hannibal at Cannae on the east coast of Italy. After a lengthy battle, Rome was again defeated. Many of Rome's allies rebelled against the Republic at this point and sided with Carthage. Hannibal even took one of them, Capua, as his own capital in Italy.

Rome did have one advantage. They had managed to prevent Hannibal from seizing any coastal ports, which meant he wasn't able to get any reinforcements. He had to work with the troops he had, which were lessened after every battle. In 213 and 212 BCE, Rome (with fresh new Greek allies) was able to finally go on the offensive, pushing Hannibal into southern Italy and recapturing their northern allied cities. To further isolate Hannibal from other Carthaginian forces, the Romans met and defeated his brother on the west side of the Alps and then went on to conquer Iberia at heavy losses. Finally, the Romans invaded Carthage itself, forcing the Carthaginian government to pull Hannibal's troops out of Italy in 203 BCE.

Hannibal After the Second Punic War

After peace was signed between Rome and Carthage, Hannibal was forced to resign from the military, despite the fact that he had passed through nearly all of Southern Europe undefeated. However, Carthage itself was in ruin and so the people elected him as the new suffete, chief magistrate of the city. Under Hannibal, Carthage received a new level of democracy, began to recover economically, and restabilized within a year.

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