Who Was Hannibal Barca?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

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.

Hannibal famously took elephants across the alps.
Hannibal famously took elephants across the alps.

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 Romans spotted Hannibal when he crossed the Rhone River, located in modern-day southeastern France.
The Romans spotted Hannibal when he crossed the Rhone River, located in modern-day southeastern France.

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.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@fify-- We are studying about the Punic wars right now and I have always been interested in Roman history thanks to my historian uncle. I really think that Hannibal was the most courageous commander who stood against the Romans during this period. Most historians agree that militarily, Hannibal was extremely successful. He did not lose any major battles against the Romans except for a few minor clashes.

The problem was that he did not have the political and financial support that he needed to take over Rome. Despite having gained wide support of peoples in the region, he was just too far away from Spain. He ran out of supplies and Rome made the right political moves that took Hannibal out of the game all together. (The Romans took over Carthage while Hannibal was waiting outside the walls of Rome for more supplies).

I think that if the political and geographical situation had been more favorable for Hannibal, the Romans wouldn't have declared victory. He was a much better military commander than the Roman commanders of the time.


Carthage was located in Northern Africa, right? I assume that the elephants that Hannibal used for transport were from the African continent. It's a wonder how Hannibal made it through the snowy Alps with elephants used to temperate climates.

Hannibal seems to have all the right characteristics of a good military leader. He was smart, bold and had a strong army. What could he have done differently to beat the Romans?

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