There were two great powers in the Mediterranean region of 264BC: the Romans on the Italian peninsula, and Carthage, a North African maritime power settled by Phoenician travelers some 800 years earlier, in modern day Tunisia.
A dispute in Sicily that year led to war between the two powers, ending in Roman victory in 241BC and a vanquished Carthage being stripped of her Navy.
Hamilcar Barca was a great general of this, the first “Punic” war, the name deriving from the Latin word for Phoenician. Barca made his then 12-year-old son Hannibal swear undying hatred for the Romans.
At the age of 20, Hannibal Barca set out on what would become the second Punic war. It was late Spring, 218BC, when Hannibal left the Iberian outpost of “New Carthage”, now the Spanish city of Cartagena. Crossing into hostile Gaul (France) at the head of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants, Hannibal arrived at the Rhône River in September.
Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing almost half his force before entering Italy that December.
What followed was a series of crushing defeats for Rome. First at the Battle of Trebia, then Lake Trasimene, Hannibal’s army laid waste to the Italian peninsula.
There was almost no family in all of Rome that didn’t lose one or more members in the swath of destruction brought down on them by Hannibal and his Carthaginian army.
At this point, Rome took the extreme step of appointing one man, absolute dictator of the Roman Republic. His name was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. Rather than joining the Carthaginians in pitched battle, Fabius sought to wear them down in a series of “hit & run” and “scorched earth” tactics.
Fabius was right. His tactics were a military success and bought the Republic time in which to rebuild its military, but they were a political flop. The Roman psyche would accept nothing short of pitched battle. In six months, Fabius “Cunctator” (“the Delayer”) was replaced by the co-consuls Gaius Terentius Varro, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus.
In the co-consul system, Varro would be supreme commander of the army on one day, and Paullus the next. Knowing full well how this system worked and wanting to draw the more aggressive Varro into pitched battle, Hannibal sprung his trap on a day when Varro was in command.
The Battle of Cannae, fought this day in 216 BC, is studied by historians and military tacticians to this day. A Roman army, estimated at 86,000 Roman and allied troops, was drawn in and enveloped by Hannibal’s far smaller force. Squeezed into a pocket so tightly they could barely raise their weapons, the Legions were attacked from all sides.
Unable to function as a disciplined unit, as many as 75,000 Romans were hacked to death, equivalent to the seating capacity of the New York Mets’ Citi Field and Harvard Stadium, combined.
Another 10,000, were captured. Among the dead was a current Consul, the most powerful elected official in the Roman Republic, as well as both consuls from the preceding year.
80 senators, almost a third of the entire Roman Senate, were wiped out on that single day.
There was now no military force left between Hannibal and Rome itself. Most powers would have admitted defeat, and sued for peace. Not Rome. Unable to defeat the Carthaginian army in open battle, Rome returned to Fabian tactics, harassing the Carthaginians and wearing them down in an endless series of scorched earth and guerrilla tactics.
For 16 years, Hannibal remained undefeated on Italian soil, while his political adversaries at home never once sent him reinforcement. He was finally recalled to Carthage to defend his homeland against Roman attacks in North Africa and Spain. Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics at the Battle of Zama, the second Punic War ending in 201BC.
Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power as Hannibal grew into his old age, but some in Rome wouldn’t let it go. Misbehaving Italian children were threatened that Hannibal would come and get them if they weren’t good. Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, ended his every speech, “Carthago delenda est”, “Carthage must be destroyed“.
The third Punic War saw the Romans attack Carthage itself. After three years of siege, the city fell in 146BC. Thousands were slaughtered, as many as 70,000 sold into slavery. Though the salting of fields is probably a later embellishment to the story, the city was sacked, then burned to the ground. Utterly destroyed.
Hannibal himself had grown elderly by the time of 181-183BC, fleeing from one town to the next to escape his Roman pursuers. Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, Hannibal committed suicide by poison sometime that same year. In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too weighty a task, to wait for the death of a hated old man”.
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