Hannibal Barca, the son of Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, was born in 247 B.C., during his father’s struggle with Rome in the first Punic War over control of the western Mediterranean Sea. His father instilled in Hannibal a hatred of Rome when he was very young. Joining the military, he became an officer, and first achieved notable success in Spain under the leadership of his brother-in-law Hasdrubal, who succeeded Hamilcar as general.
Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221 B.C., and the army proclaimed Hannibal, then 26 years old, as their leader. The Senate of Carthage agreed, and he set up New Carthage as his headquarters, and set about completing his father’s work of consolidating Carthaginian power in Spain.
The Second Punic War began just a few years later in 218 B.C., when Rome again attempted to crush Carthaginian power, partly in response to Hannibal’s 219 B.C. attack on Saguntum. Knowing he was unable to compete with Rome’s navy on the Mediterranean, Hannibal decided to surprise the Romans with an attack from the north. He began by taking about 40,000 soldiers, with supplies and beasts of transport across the Pyrenees to Gaul.
The army crossed the Rhone River, which is where the Roman consul Publius Cornelius Scipio got wind of these movements and began fomenting his own schemes, but he didn’t really understand what Hannibal was up to. Hannibal’s plan was to cross the Alps in order to breach the Po Valley. The idea of crossing the Alps was so impossible, that the Carthaginian commander knew his invasion would be unexpected. Also unexpected was his choice of animals to transport supplies, for he used elephants.
And so Hannibal and his army and his elephants crossed the Alps, defying snow, landslides, and enemy ambushes. He lost about half his men and a good number of his 38 elephants, but meeting Scipio’s army, he won an indisputable victory at the Ticinus River. Another army from Rome joined them shortly thereafter, but Hannibal defeated both armies, killing about as many Roman soldiers as he had men.
Hannibal’s campaign continued to gain ground, as he drew more recruits and used effective strategies to hand Rome a series of defeats. Finally, in 211 B.C., he camped outside of Rome to await his brother’s arrival with reinforcements. But his brother’s army was destroyed, and his brother killed.
The Carthaginian commander fought on in Italy until recalled to Carthage to defend the city from the army of Publius Cornelius Scipio the Elder, but was eventually defeated. Scipio used Hannibal’s own tactic against him, and only a few men, including Hannibal, escaped. At the commander’s urging, a peace was concluded in 201 B.C.
Hannibal was elected to the office of magistrate in 197 B.C., and worked for reform. Facing accusations of plotting with King Antiochus III of Syria, he fled first to Antiochus’s court, and then — upon Antiochus’s defeat — to Bithynia. Helping his host defeat an ally of Rome brought a senatorial commission to Bithynia to demand his surrender. Rather than be taken into custody, Hannibal took poison. He died in 183 B.C.
While there are two other military leaders from Carthage who share his first name, Hannibal Barca is the most famous of the three. His journey across the Alps with elephants was a bold and picturesque move which is remembered more than his defeat.