The most memorable war in history

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After Cartagena, Saguntum is the next significant historical point on our bike ride up the Spanish Mediterranean coast. Today, Saguntum is a vast and very impressive castle ruin that overlooks the modern town of Sagunto. Saguntum was pro Roman and Hannibal felt it necessary to take the town before marching further north. We arrived there after five days of hot, difficult cycling, and climbed through the steep medieval streets to the castle – a pastiche of Moorish, medieval and Roman ruins – which covers the ancient remains of an Iberian stronghold called Arse!

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The climb through the cobbled streets took us past a Roman theatre recently and controversially restored in a modern utilitarian style – by the sounds of things it may soon be re-returned to its ancient ruined state. The Jewish quarter in the shadow of the citadel is a lovely atmospheric labyrinth. Upon entering the gates of the castle we were extremely impressed – the castle stretches across a huge area and dominates the landscape. It is in very good condition and it is easy to imagine a community inside its walls under attack.

Hannibal lay siege to Saguntum for eight months in 219 BC and although the town was under Roman protection, Rome, negligently, never came to its aid. Hannibal was particularly active and was seriously wounded, taking a javelin in the thigh. According to ancient authors like Livy and Augustine, it was a particularly brutal and horrible time for the inhabitants. They were forced by starvation to eat the corpses of their relatives. When they realised all was lost they piled their possessions in the main square, set them alight, threw in their wives and children and then threw themselves into the flames.

Hannibal’s army stormed the city to be confronted by a burning pile of bodies, then put to death all remaining men of military age and enslaved the rest of the population. Vicious, perhaps? But this was not unusual for the time, and in fact the Romans were to take these tactics further. When Scipio took Cartagena – Hannibal’s capital city in Spain – ten years later, Polybius describes how his army not only did the above but even dismembered animals, including cutting dogs in half (Polybius 10. 15).

From Hannibal’s point of view, his victory against Saguntum was a complete success. He had spoils to keep his mercenaries happy and plenty to send home to Carthage to secure political support for his upcoming war with Rome. The proof of that support was the reception the Carthaginian Senate meted out to Roman Ambassadors. After the fall of the town, Rome sent ambassadors to Carthage who dramatically demanded Hannibal be delivered as a war criminal. The Roman diplomat clutched a fold in his toga and said: ‘Here we bring you war and peace. Take whichever you please!’ (Livy 21. 18). The Carthaginians opted for war, kicking off what Livy describes as “the most memorable war in history” (Livy 21. 1). The fall of Saguntum is considered the catalyst for the Second Punic War.

Of course the background to the Second Punic War is more complicated and includes Rome’s harsh treatment of Carthage after winning the First. The terms of the peace treaty took Sicily from Carthage, effectively ending its eastern Mediterranean dominance. And what really angered Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, and also Hannibal, would have been Rome’s arrogant seizure of Sardinia on top of that, which was outside the terms of the treaty, but Carthage was then too weak to do anything about it.

Our cycle journey continues and in the coming days we will cross the Ebro, which separated Carthaginian and Roman spheres of influence in ancient Spain.

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For more on the journey, go to www.woodbrothers.tv

Click here to catch up on last week’s blog on the start of the Wood brothers’ epic expedition. We’ll be receiving regular updates as they follow in Hannibal’s footsteps, so keep an eye on our blog pages.

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