Hannibal - Terror at the Gates

Without question the most dangerous single enemy Rome ever faced was Hannibal. During the Second Punic War, the great Carthaginian general inflicted several major defeats on the Romans, most notably at Cannae in 216 BC, and remained sixteen years in Italy unconquered and moving at will. he was finally defeated in Africa at Zama, near Carthage, in 212 BC by Scipio (who would later be known as 'Africanus' because of his victory). The war ended the following year with Rome victorious.

Much has been made in the ancient sources of Hannibal's hatred for Rome. One of the most popular anecdotes relates to a boyhood oath he made to his father, Hamilcar Barca, the losing Carthaginian in the First Punic War. In the years following his defeat by Rome, Hannibal had taken refuge in the East with Antiochus III, the ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom. When Roman envoys were sent to Antiochus to arouse suspicions about his famous guest, now in his fifties, Hannibal defended his loyalty and his hared for Rome. Cornelius Nepos (first century BC) writes:

"To [Antiochus'] court came envoys from Rome to sound his intentions and try by secret intrigues to arouse his suspicious of Hannibal, alleging that they had bribed him and that he had changed his sentiments. These attempts were not made in vain, and when Hannibal learned it and noticed that he was excluded from the king's more intimate councils, he went to Antiochus, as soon as the opportunity offered, and after calling to mind many proofs of his loyalty and his hatred of the Romans, he added: "My father Hamicar, when I was a small boy not more than nine years old, just as he was setting out from Carthage to Spain as commander in chief, offered up victims to [the god Baal]. While this ceremony was being performed, he asked me if I would like to go with him on the campaign. I eagerly accepted and began to beg him not to hesitate to take me with him. Thereupon he said: "I will do it, provided you will give me the pledge that I ask." With that he led me to the altar on which he had begun his sacrifice, and having dismissed all the others, he bade me lay hold of the altar and swear that I would never be a friend to the Romans. For my part, up to my present time of life, I have kept the oath which I swore to my father so faithfully, that no one ought to doubt that in the future I shall be of the same mind. Therefore, if you have any kindly intentions with regard to the Roman people, you will be wise to hide them from me; but when you prepare war, you will go counter to your own interests if you do not make me the leader in that interprise."

(Hannibal 2.2-6)

We cannot determine whether Nepos version of the episode is correct but the idea that Hannibal was sworn by his father to hate Rome when he was a small boy does not seem unrealistic.

Antiochus did continue to retain Hannibal's services and eventually went to war with Rome. However, probably worried about being overshadowed by the great general, he made the mistake of not utilizing Hannibal's skills to his best advantage and was defeated by the Roman. He made peace with them in 188 BC, forcing Hannibal to flee. Eventually with no where left to run, Hannibal committed suicide in Bythnia in 183 or 182 BCE rather than fall into the hands of the Romans.

Few men in any period were as capable as Hannibal and even the Romans grudgingly were forced to admit this:

"Power to command and readiness to obey are rare associates; but in Hannibal they were perfectly united.....Under his leadership the men invariable showed to the best advantage both dash and confidence. Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability once it was upon him. Indefatigable both physically and mentally, he could endure with equal ease excessive heat or excessive cold, he ate and drank not to flatter his appetites but only so much as would sustain his bodily strength. His time for waking, like his time for sleeping, was never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then, and then only, he rested, without need, moreover of silence or a soft bed to woo sleep to his eyes. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground amongst the common soldiers on sentry or picket duty. His accroutement, like the horses he rode, was always conspicuous, but not his clothes, which were like those of any other office of his rank and standing. Mounted or unmounted he was unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field."

Livy, the historian who composed this admirable description, could not be overly flattering to the man who had almost destroyed his country:

"So much for his virtues-and they were great; but no less great where his faults: inhuman cruelty, a more than Punic perfidy, a total disregard of truth, honor, and religion, of the sanctity of an oath and of all that other men hold sacred."

(History of Rome 21.4.3-10)

Rome's greatest enemy, the man who had crossed the Alps, the victor of Trebbia, Trasimene, Cannae, and countless lesser battles; the man who, for sixteen years, had held together an undefeated army in the midst of a hostile land, died in the palace of a foreign king after taking poison. He was sixty five.

For centuries after his death, whenever the Roman State was threatened, or in a less heroic sphere, when the Roman matrons wished to quiet their rebellious children, the cry would go up:

Hannibal ad portas! - "Hannibal is at the gates!"

The Early History of Rome, Livy as translated by Aubrey De Selincourt, Penguin Classics, 1971

The Oxford History of The Roman World, edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray, Oxford University Press, 1991

Hannibal, Enemy of Rome, Leonard Cottrell, Da Capo Press, 1988

Roman People, Robert B. Kebric, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1993