Hannibal Barca: 9 Facts About The Great General’s Life & Career

One of the greatest generals ever seen, Hannibal Barca, crossed the Alps and almost brought Rome to its knees. Hannibal of Carthage was one of Rome's greatest but most respected enemies.

Apr 11, 2021By Edd Hodsdon, BA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological Trust
hannibal barca
Bronze bust of Hannibal Barca, possibly owned by Napoleon, Jeff Glasel, c. 1815; with Hannibal Crossing the Alps, by Heinrich Leutemann, 19th century; and Hannibal In Italy fresco, by Jacopo Ripanda, 16th Century


Hannibal Barca was one of the greatest generals of all time and one of Rome’s most feared enemies. After taking command of an army at 25, Hannibal launched an ambitious campaign to cross the Alps and attack Rome itself. After 15 years of campaigning and a strategically brilliant victory at Cannae, Hannibal of Carthage had to retreat to defend his city against a Roman invasion. After losing the battle, Hannibal was made a scapegoat for Carthage’s defeat and exiled, but he continued to oppose Rome until his death. Here are nine facts about his life and career.


9. Hannibal Barca Was Born During The First Punic War

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Dido Building Carthage, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1815, via The National Gallery, London


The city of Carthage had been the dominant power in the Mediterranean for centuries, establishing colonies on islands such as Sicily and Sardinia, with influence reaching into Spain and across to its Phoenician homelands. However, the rapidly emerging Roman Republic had ambitions to expand its own influence, and a clash between the two empires was inevitable.


In 264 BC the first of the Punic Wars began after Rome took over the town of Messana on the island of Sicily. Hannibal Barca was born during the war, around 247 BC. After 23 years of war across the island, Rome emerged victorious in 241 BC. Hamilcar, Hannibal’s father, was an aristocrat appointed by the Carthaginian Senate to command the army. The Barca family wielded considerable influence in Carthage, making them de-facto leaders.


However, the Senate hadn’t given him the resources to win outright, hoping for equitable settlement instead. After the war, Rome inflicted heavy taxes on Carthage. At that time, Carthage relied mainly on mercenary fighters for its armies, who had to be paid. With the coffers empty thanks to Rome, they couldn’t pay them, and Hamilcar then had to deal with a mercenary revolt. 


8. He Took Command Of The Army At 25 Years Old

oath of hannibal john west
The Oath of Hannibal, by John West, 1770, Royal Collection Trust

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After getting the mercenaries under control, Hamilcar planned to take them to Spain. Now aged nine, Hannibal begged to accompany his father, who agreed on one condition. He made his son swear an oath that he would never be a friend to Rome, and Hannibal agreed. In Spain, Hamilcar sought to expand Carthage’s power and get the empire back on stable financial ground. He achieved this through conquest and plunder, particularly focused on Spain’s silver mines, and rapidly refilled Carthage’s coffers.


Hannibal Barca spent 16 years growing up around the army, learning how to command soldiers and employ ingenious tactics. At 23 years old, Hannibal was given command of the cavalry, and he quickly proved his mettle as an officer. However, during the campaign, Hamilcar was killed in 228 BC while fighting in Spain. Command passed to Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, who set about consolidating Hamilcar’s hard-won gains. 


Then Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221 BC, and Hannibal of Carthage applied to take over command of the army. He was well known to several senior officers as well as the rank-and-file, and the army supported his case. Convinced, the Senate ratified the decision and approved Hannibal’s generalship.


7. Hannibal Barca Fought In Spain And Gaul

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Engraving of Hannibal of Carthage, by John Chapman, 1800, Getty Images via Britannica


Hannibal of Carthage eagerly continued his father’s campaigns in Spain. Carthage had been permitted to retain its influence in Spain through the treaty signed with Rome after the First Punic War. However, the Romans installed their own puppet government in the city of Saguntum, near modern-day Valencia. Hannibal began to expand Carthage’s territory towards the city, which needed Rome’s protection against local tribes.


In 218 BC, Hannibal ignored warnings from Rome and besieged the city, beginning the Second Punic War. Despite their outrage, the Romans seemed to act slowly. They complained to the Carthaginian senate, demanding that Hannibal be punished. When Carthage refused, Rome dispatched an army to intercept Hannibal. But by the time the Roman forces reached Seguntum, the city was in ruins, and Hannibal was already moving north.


Hannibal continued to fight the native tribes, his soldiers gaining experience. Aware that the Romans were on his tail, he left a portion of the army in Spain under the command of his brother, Hasdrubal. Hannibal Barca styled himself as a liberator, freeing Spain of Roman control and attracting new recruits to his banner. Then, he hatched a bold plan to take the fight directly to Rome itself.


6. Hannibal Crossed The Alps With His Army

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Hannibal Crossing the Alps, by Heinrich Leutemann, 19th century, via Yale University Art Gallery


There was no way that Hannibal could launch an attack on Rome by sea. After the First Punic War, Rome had supplanted Carthage as the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean. And so any attack would have to be launched overland. Hannibal was determined to cross the mighty Alps in order to invade Italy.


Hannibal Barca and his forces surged up through Northern Spain and into Southern Gaul, battling tribes and establishing garrisons. When Hannibal set out from Seguntum, he had around 80,000 troops, including approximately 40 war elephants. But he had decided to start in the autumn, universally regarded as perhaps the worst time to attempt to cross the Alps. He also had to abandon his siege weapons, as they would slow the army down too much. 


The crossing was treacherous. Battles in Gaul, harsh conditions, and desertion saw Carthaginian numbers dwindle. The move was regarded as almost insane, with one of Hannibal’s commanders claiming it could only be done if they ate the bodies of dead prisoners. But after 17 days, Hannibal reached Italy. According to an inscription left in his wake, he had 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalries when he arrived in Italy. 


5. Hannibal Of Carthage Campaigned Across Italy For 15 Years

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Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae, by John Trumbull, 1773, via Yale University Art Gallery


Although often outnumbered, Hannibal of Carthage was a canny general, able to utilize terrain with great effect. At the Battle of the Trebia, he hid some of his soldiers in the river. As the Romans entered the water, Hannibal’s hidden troops rose, and his cavalry attacked from the flanks, butchering the Romans. Hannibal spent 15 years campaigning in Italy, fighting 22 major battles. 


In 216 BC, at the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal Barca produced one of the finest military maneuvers in history. With his forces supplemented by Gauls from Northern Italy, Hannibal’s army numbered around 45,000. The Romans fielded 70,000 troops, more than they had deployed before. Hannibal arranged his army in a crescent formation with the weaker Gallic units in the center and his African veterans on the flanks.


The Romans charged the center and began to gain ground, but Hannibal’s horsemen decimated their cavalry. Hannibal’s hardened African veterans then attacked the flanks of the Romans while his cavalry charged in to attack from the rear. The Romans suffered 50,000 losses in the genius double envelopment, while Hannibal lost around 12,000. It is claimed that around 100 men every minute were killed at Cannae. 


4. Hannibal Barca Chose Not To Attack Rome Itself

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Hannibal In Italy fresco, by Jacopo Ripanda, 16th Century, via Musei Capitaloni


After the convincing victory at Cannae, Hannibal had a decision to make. Should he attack Rome itself? Conventional wisdom dictated he should press his advantage. However, to besiege Rome, he would need to remain in place for months, without the siege weapons he had been forced to abandon before crossing the Alps.


Hannibal did not believe that he had enough troops for a lengthy siege. A number of city-states in southern Italy had also joined Hannibal’s cause. However, as well as keeping his own army alive, Hannibal now had to protect those new allies from Roman attacks. He decided to head south to resupply his army, prompting criticism from his generals. Marhabal, commander of the cavalry, quipped, “You how to win a victory, Hannibal but you do not know how to use one.” 


The Romans adopted a strategy pioneered by Fabius Maximus, who had been named dictator after Hannibal’s victory at Trasimeme in 217 BC. Rome avoided direct confrontation with Hannibal Barca, as Roman and Carthaginian forces battled across the Mediterranean. With Hasdrubal fighting the Romans in Spain and Carthage refusing to lend him aid, Hannibal could not rely on them for reinforcements or supplies.


3. He Had To Abandon The Campaign Because Rome Attacked Carthage

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Bust of Scipio Africanus, by Chiurazzi and De Angelis Foundry, 19th Century, via Art Institute Chicago


Rome decided that the best way to deal with Hannibal was to attack Carthage itself. Hannibal had feared such a move and was losing ground in Italy. In Spain, a young Roman general called Scipio Africanus won a series of battles. He reclaimed the province for Rome in 205 BC, forcing the Carthaginians to retreat. The following year, Scipio sailed across the Mediterranean. 


Faced with an invasion, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage, and the two generals met in 202 BC at the Battle of Zama. Scipio had 30,000 troops and 5,500 cavalry and had studied Hannibal’s tactics. Hannibal arrived with around 47,000 men. He also tried to deploy a unit of war elephants, but the Carthaginians hadn’t had time to train them fully. Scipio’s men panicked the animals and forced them back towards Hannibal’s lines, where they went on a rampage. 


Crippled, Hannibal’s army was easy prey for a rear attack by the Roman cavalry, suffering around 20,000 losses. Hannibal agreed to terms, ending the Second Punic War. Carthage’s fleet was dismantled, and her coffers emptied once again by heavy Roman taxes. Spain remained in Roman hands. Rome had asserted itself as the dominant power in the Mediterranean.


2. Hannibal Offered His Services To Rome’s Rivals

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Battle of Zama, part of the History of Scipio tapestry, after Giulio Romano, 17th Century, the Louvre


After the defeat at Zama, Hannibal Barca retired from military service and instead became a magistrate. Ironically, he was charged with overseeing the payment of Carthage’s fines to Rome. Despite this, Hannibal enacted a series of reforms that allowed Carthage paid its debts quickly. These changes focused on eliminating corruption. But political opponents in the Senate saw their interests affected by these measures and sought to remove Hannibal. 


During the war, Hannibal had repeatedly petitioned the Carthaginian Senate for supplies and reinforcements. They had Senate refused, reluctant to spend more money on the war and wary of Roman reprisals. Instead, they insisted that Hannibal did not need help. Despite their backstabbing, Hannibal tried to serve as best he could, but his opponents began to claim that he was rebuilding Carthage’s power to challenge Rome again. 


Seeing that his countrymen had turned against him, Hannibal of Carthage escaped the city in 195 BC. He made for the Middle East, reaching the Seleucid court of King Antiochus III, one of Rome’s enemies. He was appointed as an advisor, but the Seleucids were initially wary of giving him military powers. When Rome defeated the Seleucids in 189 BC, Hannibal fled to avoid capture.


1. Hannibal Barca Died Surrounded In His Villa

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Bronze bust of Hannibal Barca, possibly owned by Napoleon, Jeff Glasel, c. 1815, University of Saskatchewan, via The Sheaf


Hannibal eventually came to the court of Prusias I, the King of Bithynia, who granted him sanctuary. In 183 BC, the Romans closed in on Hannibal, who was living in Libyssa, a village in the Bithynian countryside. Prusias agreed to deliver Hannibal to the Romans. As soldiers surrounded his home, Hannibal considered his options. He is alleged to have said, “Let us rid the Romans of their fear of this troublesome old man.” before ingesting poison


Even in his own time, Hannibal Barca left an indelible legacy. Roman generals like Scipio, who pardoned Hannibal after the Battle of Zama, respected him immensely. Scipio’s studies of Hannibal’s tactics influenced Roman military strategy for centuries. Prominent generals such as Napoleon acknowledged Hannibal as one of the greatest commanders in military history. 


“Hannibal ad portas” (Hannibal is at the gates), a refrain describing Hannibal’s near conquest of Rome, was still used to scare naughty Roman children for decades after his death. Even though the Third Punic War broke out around 30 years later, Hannibal represented the end of Carthage’s threat to Rome in the Mediterranean. Hannibal of Carthage proved a worthy, memorable foe to the mightiest empire of the Ancient world.

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By Edd HodsdonBA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological TrustEdd holds a BA in Professional Writing, he has worked at the Dover museum as well as the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. He is most fascinated by the Achaemenid Persian Empire and has been interested in the Ancient world his entire life. His hobbies include walking, philosophy, history, photography, and writing fiction.