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How Hannibal beat the Alps but couldn't beat Rome

Robin Lane Fox reveals how the classical general, famed for his crossing of the Alps, was defeated because he couldn't fulfil his promise of liberation from Rome

Hannibal’s war elephants are defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. (AKG)
Published: August 10, 2017 at 1:32 pm
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The Second Punic War pitted Rome against Carthage from 218 to 202 BC. It strained Rome to the very limit, wracked Italy and ended by transforming Rome’s resources, range and ambitions.


To us, the hero is the Carthaginian general Hannibal, 29 years old at the outset, who astonished the Romans by crossing the Alps with his elephants and offering freedom to Italians throughout the peninsula. No wonder his name was evoked later by Napoleon during a similar transalpine campaign to “liberate” Italy. Yet Hannibal was also remembered for destroying 400 towns and costing 300,000 Italian lives. His supreme victory at Cannae killed 48,000 enemy troops and is still studied in Western military academies. The rate of killing during the battle has been estimated at 500 lives a minute. But even so, he did not win the war. The greater heroes turned out to be Roman: the noble Fabius Maximus, who turned defeat gradually into victory by a campaign of painful delay and devastation, and the brilliant young Scipio who ended by invading Africa and winning a last great battle near Zama in 202 BC.

An 18th-century print of Hannibal's forces in 210 BC. (Hulton)
An 18th-century print of Hannibal's forces in 210 BC. (Hulton)

In the 20 years preceding the war, Carthage had been slowly making up for the losses it suffered in the First Punic War by campaigning in Spain. And it was from Spain that Rome’s greatest opponent emerged: the young Hannibal crossed the river Ebro in June 218 BC with 40,000 troops and 37 elephants. He then crossed the Pyrenees and by mid-August he had also crossed the broad river Rhone north of Avignon by ferrying the elephants across on camouflaged rafts. His troops were vastly fewer than Rome’s potential manpower, and as he headed northwards up the Rhone’s far bank, the watching Roman general, Scipio, cannot have given him much chance of reaching Italy at all. The Alps towered in his way, but Hannibal turned east and took them on, probably crossing Mont Cenis (arguably by the Savine Coche pass, around 7,500 feet high) in late October.

When he came down into the plains above Turin he had only 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry; none of the elephants had yet died. Although his army was already halved, he still won a first skirmish against Roman troops by the river Po. He followed it up in late December with a crushing victory over a Roman army at the river Trebbia (near Piacenza). A key to his success here was the doubling of his army with recruits from the anti-Roman Gauls in north Italy. They had at first hesitated to join him, but they were encouraged by his initial success and his terror tactics towards those who had refused. With this army of hired Africans, Spaniards and Gauls, Hannibal was wary of a plot against his life, and in camp he is said to have worn different wigs in order to disguise himself. Disguise would have been difficult because he lost an eye while travelling through marshlands around the river Arno.

Antique bust of Hannibal, whose war elephants conquered the Alps but failed to conquer Rome. (Mary Evans)
Antique bust of Hannibal, whose war elephants conquered the Alps but failed to conquer Rome. (Mary Evans)

By then he had also lost almost all his elephants: only seven survived the cold winter and Hannibal, the most famous “elephant-general”, never used them again in battle. However, the few (perhaps only one) who soldiered on were still a symbol: Italian towns on his route struck coins showing an elephant. It may be the one called the Syrian, remembered as the bravest in battle. It had only one unbroken tusk: did one-eyed Hannibal ride it? In June 217 BC, at Lake Trasimene in Etruria, his one eye was still clear-sighted: he took advantage of misty weather and outwitted a bigger Roman army.

Hannibal’s crack troops were his cavalry, of which he had many thousands. His Numidians, from north Africa, were brilliant horsemen, able to direct their horses without any bridles by their clever use of a neck-rein. They had a flexibility which mounted Romans and Italians could not match. It is, then, for horses that Hannibal’s march should be famous: when he pushed on to reach the eastern coast of Italy he reconditioned his horses there with the contents of the local cellars: he bathed them in old Italian wine, a vintage tonic for their coats. Personally, Hannibal was not a drinker and his only luxury was the food he had to consume. He had also left his Iberian wife back in Cadiz. Not until three years later, when he was in south Apulia at Salapia, is he known to have succumbed to an Italian woman, and she was a prostitute.
In August 216 BC Hannibal won his supreme victory at Cannae in south-east Italy by pitting what were now some 50,000 troops against a Roman army which was probably about 87,000 strong. After a day of slaughter, a Carthaginian, Maharbal, is said to have urged Hannibal to hurry straight to Rome, 250 miles away, where he could be “dining on the Capitol after four days”. But Hannibal hung back. Instead, he won successes in the south, above all when he detached the powerful state of Capua from Rome’s alliance. His troops then wintered in the town which was famed for its luxury. Moralists later said that this winter in Capua corrupted him, but luxury was not the root of his problems. Fundamentally, they were political.

The trouble with politics

On entering Italy Hannibal had proclaimed freedom. His quarrel, he said, was not with Italy but with Rome. Italian prisoners were courteously dismissed. Just as he had hoped to profit from Rome’s Gallic enemies north of the Po (in what is now, but was not then, “north Italy”), so he hoped to detach Rome’s many differing allies and dependencies throughout Italy. Also, his brother Mago was sent down into the south to liberate the Greek cities that had been founded there. Hannibal was not aiming to flatten Rome. She was to be left with a role, but without a confederacy. Hence, in part, his refusal to hurry from Cannae straight to Rome’s Capitol hill. In this liberation, he was not successful, because in the south, there were Greek city-states that never fully took his side.

The Greeks had good reason to hesitate. Whatever Hannibal’s personal culture, his troops were mostly random barbarians with little charm for the wary, civilised Greeks or for Rome’s most favoured Latins. What would freedom really mean when offered by a wild Gaul or a Carthaginian oligarch? The more Hannibal had to wait around, the more he devastated the countryside, while his own reprisals in captured cities could be dreadfully harsh. Meanwhile, southern Spain had been blocked off from Italy by shrewd, long-term Roman generalship. Right from the start, in 217 BC, the two elder Scipios, Rome’s generals in Spain, had realised that they must keep troops on the coast there to block more troops from reaching Hannibal.

In 215 BC, while reinforcements for Hannibal (including elephants) could still be shipped over from north Africa, Rome’s chances of long-term victory were slim. In the south of Italy, most of Tarentum had now turned to Carthage. The Roman ally King Hiero had died in Sicily and Syracuse had defected from Rome. But from 214 BC onwards the Roman fleet held enough of the Italian coast to block any more foreign support from reaching their enemies. From now on, Roman control of the sea proved crucial, both in Italy and in Spain. By land, meanwhile, Fabius Maximus insisted on a strategy of devastating the crops and avoiding battles on Hannibal’s terms. The Carthaginians began to be bottled up.

For the Romans, the year 212/1 BC was a turning point. In Spain, their generals, the two elder Scipios, were killed in a setback, but their son and nephew, the younger Publius Scipio, was promptly made commander while still in his mid-twenties. He proved to be a bold genius, adored by his troops and also (men said) by the gods. In Italy, meanwhile, the able Fulvius Placcus recaptured Capua and punished it ferociously. Above all, in Sicily the hard and proven general Claudius Marcellus attacked rebellious Syracuse.

Scipio beat Hannibal in Africa, bringing the Second Punic War to an end. (HIP)
Scipio beat Hannibal in Africa, bringing the Second Punic War to an end. (HIP)

In summer 207 BC one of Hannibal’s brothers did at last manage to bring reinforcements (and fresh elephants) into Italy from Spain. However, his dispatches were intercepted and he was defeated by a swift Roman counter-action up the east coast of Italy. It was the Carthaginians’ last chance and without more reinforcements Hannibal became only a long-running sore on Italy’s toe. In 205 BC the young Scipio crossed to Sicily, trained up a cavalry corps and then boldly sailed over to Africa in 204 BC. During his campaign in Spain he had struck up a friendship with a most useful prince in north Africa, Masinissa the Numidian. On African soil, his cavalry proved crucial allies and in 202 BC Hannibal (now back from south Italy) was decisively beaten at Zama. He had assembled 80 African elephants, but they ended by stampeding and doing more harm to their own side than to Rome’s, even though Hannibal’s father had pioneered a method of hammering spikes into the skulls of any beasts who went wild and began to charge their own supporters.

The effects of the Hannibalic War left a lasting impact on Italy. None of Rome’s closest dependencies, her Latin towns, went over to Hannibal, despite a bout of war-weariness at Rome’s endless calls on their levies of troops. As elsewhere, the local upper classes preferred the known support and protection of Rome to the prospect of freedom for their own lower classes, especially when backed by savage Gauls and Carthaginians. In south Italy, defection to Carthage had been most evident, but Rome took a very fierce revenge. Hannibal’s long presence in the south had already burdened the local harvests and led to much devastation. In reply, Rome confiscated considerable territory as public land. The local peasantry suffered huge losses in many areas, or fled to the towns. Rich Romans would then farm this new public land with slaves, their fruits of military conquest. In parts of the south, Hannibal’s legacy probably did amount to a long-term change in farming and land-use; the use of flocks and herds increased over the planting of arable crops, and these herds were tended by slaves, not free peasants.

On Carthage’s side, defeat required her to hand over her war elephants and to promise never to train any more: they disappear from her army, while the survivors went up to Rome to grace young Scipio’s spectacular triumph. The loss of the war did not lead to Carthage’s total urban decline, but obliged her to make much bigger payments to the victor. Rome’s final terms for Carthage did not enforce Hannibal’s personal surrender; the Carthaginian political system continued and Hannibal held office as a reforming magistrate. Not until six years later was he driven out of Carthage, this time by his Carthaginian enemies.

Third-century Roman vase of a type possibly inspired by Hannibal’s imported elephants. (HIP)
Third-century Roman vase of a type possibly inspired by Hannibal’s imported elephants. (HIP)

He headed east to Asia Minor. After a detour to Syria, he ended up, first in Armenia, then in Bithynia (north-west Turkey), two places where he was credited with designing and helping to found new towns. Eventually, aged 67, he was poisoned at the Bithynian court because of its courtiers’ fears of reprisals from a Roman embassy. He was found to have built himself a fort with seven underground tunnels, a real bunker for Rome’s ablest opponent. He had not taken plunder and riches for himself. Similarly, when his conqueror Scipio died his house was found to be a simple, turreted fort with a set of old-fashioned baths. The two of them had been worthy opponents, and Hannibal’s memory continued to haunt Rome. Years later, in the 90s AD, a Roman senator was said to be hoarding maps of the world and the speeches of great kings and generals, and maintaining two household slaves whom he had named Hannibal and Mago. It was enough for the suspicious Roman emperor to have him executed.

Background: the Punic Wars

The Carthaginians’ epic advance over the Alps as Hannibal moved on Rome was the culmination of long-standing rivalry between the two empires

In the middle of the third century BC, Rome was a burgeoning city-state, which had recently extended its control over the other communities of southern Italy. When Rome moved on to invade Sicily in 264 BC, it gained a new enemy, Carthage, a city on the North African seaboard that already had a presence in Sicily. The First Punic War developed from Rome’s illegal entry into Sicily and lasted from 264 to 241 BC. Carthage lost and was obliged to evacuate Sicily. When the Romans seized the valuable Carthaginian dependency of Sardinia in the 230s, members of one prominent Carthaginian family, the Barcids, set off for Spain, where Carthage had a longstanding presence, with troops and war elephants to recover some of her lost prestige. On leaving, the father is said to have made his nine-year-old son, Hannibal, take an oath at an altar “never to be a friend to the Romans”.

A c 230 BC silver coin showing the Punic (that is, Carthaginian) god Melqart, one of a series issued by the Barcid family in Spain. (Ullstein/AKG)
A c 230 BC silver coin showing the Punic (that is, Carthaginian) god Melqart, one of a series issued by the Barcid family in Spain. (Ullstein/AKG)

For nearly 20 years (from 237 to 219 BC) this Carthaginian force engaged in conquests in southern Spain. In 226 BC, however, a Roman delegation arrived and told the Carthaginian commander not to cross the river Ebro which lay on the route north-eastwards from Spain to the Pyrenees and ultimately, therefore, in the direction of Italy. The Romans followed this threat up by accepting an appeal from the far “Carthaginian” side of the Ebro. Here, a turbulent faction in the city of Saguntum called on their “good faith” against pro-Carthaginian enemies. From Hannibal’s perspective, Rome’s behaviour was an unlicensed interference in territory which was his. It was made in order to support a group who had harassed good friends of Carthage inside a city which was not rightfully Rome’s at all. So he set about besieging Saguntum. In response, Roman ambassadors were sent to Carthage, with an offer of peace or war. It was to be war again.

Hannibal’s invasion climaxed with a supreme victory at Cannae in 216 but in spite of other victories in the south he failed to engage Rome and by 202 was defeated by the Romans at Zama in Africa.
Hannibal’s invasion climaxed with a supreme victory at Cannae in 216 but in spite of other victories in the south he failed to engage Rome and by 202 was defeated by the Romans at Zama in Africa.

Timeline: the Punic Wars

Eight century BC Both Carthaginians and Greeks begin to settle in Sicily

706 BC (supposedly) The Greek city of Sparta founds an overseas settlement at Tarentum (now modern Tarento) in southern Italy

360s–280s BC Rome becomes the dominant power in the Italian peninsula, and imposes long-lasting settlements amongst the neighbouring Latins

280 BC King Pyrrhus of Epirus invades Italy to come to the support of Tarentum, which is under siege from Rome

275 BC Pyrrhus leaves Italy, having failed to bring liberty from Rome to the Greek cities there

264 BC Rome invades Sicily, ostensibly to assist some Mamertime soldiers in the city of Messina against Carthage. This act initiates the First Punic War

242/1 BC The First Punic War ends, with Carthage defeated after a major Roman naval victory

237 BC The Carthaginian Barcid family, including Hannibal’s father, lead troops into southern Spain to conquer and settle there

226 BC Rome warns Carthage not to cross the river Ebro from its Spanish settlements to the south 

218 BC The Second Punic War begins as Rome and Carthage clash over the siege of Saguntum in Spain. Hannibal crosses the Ebro with his army in June 

217 BC Hannibal beats the Roman army at the battle of Lake Trasimene in Etruria

216 BC Hannibal’s most resounding victory over the Romans occurs at Cannae in August

212/1 BC The war in Italy turns Rome’s way as Hannibal struggles without reinforcements from Carthage

202 BC The Romans inflict the final victory of the war, as Hannibal is beaten back in Africa at Zama

Hannibal’s pyrrhic predecessor

Hannibal’s invasion of Roman Italy was not without precedent. In Spring 280, King Pyrrhus of Epirus in north-western Greece brought troops, and war elephants, in aid of the Greek city of Tarentum, which was under attack from Rome. Pyrrhus won several victories, but he suffered heavy troop losses. After one casualty-laden battle, Pyrrhus is said to have remarked “another such victory, and we shall be lost”, thus our saying, a “Pyrrhic victory”. Pyrrhus promised freedom from the Romans to the Greek cities of southern Italy and his military successes enabled him to advance almost to Rome. However, he failed to press home his advantage and eventually was forced to withdraw to Greece. Hannibal knew about Pyrrhus; he could read and speak Greek and Greek historians accompanied him. Nonetheless, did he simply repeat Pyrrhus’s mistakes?

Pyrrhus also failed to take Rome. (Granger)
Pyrrhus also failed to take Rome. (Granger)

Pyrrhus had been called a brilliant dice-thrower who could not exploit the results. Hannibal, too, was said to know how to win, but not how to use a victory. However, Hannibal had more going for him that his predecessor. His victories were not Pyrrhic: they were crushingly one-sided triumphs. Neither Pyrrhus nor Hannibal made decisive use of their elephants, but Hannibal was a cavalry-king. Whereas Pyrrhus was a Homeric Achilles in combat, Hannibal was a consummate trickster, more of an Odysseus. He was a master of ambushes, of cunning battle-plans and false letters. He even tied blazing sticks to the horns of two thousand oxen and herded them away from his army by night so as to mislead his enemy about the lights’ and line of his troops on the move. Like Pyrrhus, he came within a few miles of Rome (in 211 BC, on a diversionary march northwards) but ultimately, like Pyrrhus, his liberation failed.


Robin Lane Fox is a fellow of New College, Oxford. This is an edited extract from his book The Classical World: an Epic History from Homer to Hadrian (Allen Lane, 2005). (Robin Lane Fox, 2005. All rights reserved.)


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