New Series Reveals Rise of Military Genius Hannibal

carthaginian military commander renowned for 2,000 years

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who nearly conquered Rome. He is respected as one of history’s best military commanders. What led to Hannibal’s campaign against the Roman Republic?

Engraving of the Battle of Zama by Cornelis Cort, 1567. Note that Asian elephants are illustrated rather than the very small North African elephants used by Carthage.
In this engraving of the Battle of Zama by Cornelis Cort, 1567, Asian elephants are illustrated instead of the very small North African elephants used by Carthage. Engraving by Cornelis Cort (1533–1578) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The most historically well-known Hannibal—even more so than the ex-psychiatrist and cannibal from Silence of the Lambs—was a Carthaginian military commander who fought against Rome in the Second Punic War. Often regarded as one of the finest military commanders of all time, he led his army into no fewer than 20 battles and occupied southern Italy for more than 15 years.

Carthage and Rome were once at least amicable before going to war, so what happened? In her video series Hannibal: The Military Genius Who Almost Conquered Rome, Dr. Eve MacDonald, Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University, plots the path that led to the Punic Wars.

What Caused the First Punic War?

Fifty years before Hannibal’s birth, a general named Pyrrhus became president of the Greek state of Epirus. He aided the city-states of Magna Graecia in southern Italy to prevent them from falling under control of the Roman empire.

“Pyrrhus was one of the greatest generals of the era,” Dr. MacDonald said. “He rarely was defeated in the field, and for a time he wrested control over southern Italy from the Romans. He then turned his sights on Sicily, following entreaties from another Greek city-state, Syracuse, to come and help them drive the Carthaginians and their allies from the west of the island.”

Carthage and Rome found a common enemy and decided to face Pyrrhus together. Years of war and attrition wore down on him, and eventually, in 275 BCE, he retreated to Epirus. Rather than celebrate their victory, Rome and Carthage started to see each other as rivals for Sicily’s control. Pyrrhus even believed the two would go to war.

“As the great general predicted, war would indeed flare up between Rome and Carthage just nine years after his departure,” Dr. MacDonald said. “The conflict that broke out is known today as the First Punic War, and it endured for 23 years.”

How Did the First Punic War End?

In order to understand the world Hannibal was born into, and what drove him to fight so hard against the Romans, it’s important to see how the First Punic War resulted. In general, the Romans pummeled the Carthaginians for most of the war’s duration.

“Facing total annihilation, the Carthaginians turned to a Spartan named Xanthippus to reform and defend their capital against the Romans,” Dr. MacDonald said. “The Carthaginian army that we think about when we think about Hannibal begins now. Xanthippus reorganized the army and sought to better deploy the biggest advantages the Carthaginians had against the Romans.”

These included elephants, which the Carthaginian army had just begun to train and utilize in combat. Xanthippus deployed them at the Battle of Tunis in 255 BCE. The Romans had no defense against or response to the elephants stampeding through their ranks. It was an uncommon but vital victory for the Carthaginians. The Romans decide that instead of capturing Carthage, they should refocus on taking Sicily.

“The defense of the west of Sicily, in 247 BCE, would fall to a young commander and scion of one of Carthage’s military elite families whose name was Hamilcar Barca,” Dr. MacDonald said. “He is sent to take command in Sicily with just a handful of ships and troops, with the goal of holding the Romans off at all costs.

“In that very same year, with the fate of Carthage on a knife’s edge, Hamilcar’s son, Hannibal Barca, is born in Carthage.”

Hannibal: The Military Genius Who Almost Conquered Rome is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily