Hannibal and the Romans

The story of Hannibal Barca

Hannibal (meaning Grace)

Barca (meaning Lightning Bolt)

In its Asian origins, Grace was a boy’s name. Hannibal Barca certainly had some grace. His second name, translated as Lightning Bolt, was really appropriate ~ as the Romans discovered to their great cost.

No relation at all to Hannibal Lecter (let’s get that out of the way), Hannibal Barca was a politician, strategist and military commander who might well have changed the future of Europe, Asia and Africa. He could so easily have become the Julius Caesar of history.

If Hannibal had prevailed, there would have been no Caesars, no Roman Empire and who knows what other consequences throughout the ages. Christianity, without its patronage from Rome, might never have spread across the world. And all that so nearly came to pass.

The reason: Hannibal was an early foreign opponent of Rome. He trounced the Romans in three major battles and scared them so much they forever used the phrase “Hannibal is at the gates” as their equivalent to “the end of the world is nigh”.

So who was this man? And how did he do it? Well, he has an illustrious fan club. Napoleon Bonaparte studied his battle tactics and used them successfully. Right up until World War II, army commanders asked themselves: “What would Hannibal have done?”

The background

Hannibal was a Carthaginian. We don’t hear much today about the city of Carthage, . That’s because they were eventually annihilated by Rome.  But while Rome was still a city state and was yet to show its genius, Carthage was ruling a huge empire.

The story goes back even further. These are the headlines:

1500 to 300 BC

The fertile lands of what is now Lebanon and the southern part of Syria led to the rise of Phoenicia, a civilization whose intelligence invented what was to become the basis of the modern English alphabet. They were clever in another way: their need to trade their produce developed them into expert boat-builders. They probably invented the galley, the first vessel propeled by banks of rowers and good for speed – and warfare. Their influence spread across the Mediterranean.

One of the Phoenician outposts was Carthage, a city located near the modern Tunis in North Africa. The immigrants seem to have inter-bred with the Africans, producing a population with a mix of Asian and African appearance.

In mythology, Carthage was founded by Elissa (or Dido), the first queen of Carthage. She fell in love with Aeneas, who had fled from Troy when it was sacked. But Aeneas went off wandering again and

Elissa - Dido at Carthage

Elissa and the Founding of Carthage

by J. M. W. Turner 1815

a heartbroken Elissa threw herself into the fire. There’s reference to that in my book, The Dust of Cannae.

As it grew increasingly independent of Phoenicia, the city of Carthage’s maritime skills enabled it to establish its own empire, taking in Spain and Portugal and – crucially – Sicily.

Sicily was the catalyst for the wars between the Carthaginians and the Romans. Carthage, by then about 500 years old, was a supreme power. Rome, which had won continual battles with the neighbouring communities, had taken control of most of what is modern Italy. Rome’s knack for architecture and engineering was already well-advanced. The Roman roads, dead straight and of closely-packed stone, helped to maintain its hold over Italy. The Romans also had a standing army, while Carthage’s citizens were mostly engaged in seafaring and trade and therefore depended upon mercenaries for their military.


Here are some excerpts from my book, The Dust of Cannae, giving a snapshot of how the hostilities between Rome and Carthage led to the emergence of Hannibal.

  • “What’s a Punic war?”
  • “It’s a war against Carthage. The name Punic is used because the Carthaginians originated in Phoenicia in Asia. They sailed across two seas and set up the city of Carthage on the African coast. That’s how advanced they are and I suppose they were bound to conflict with us one day. Rome and Carthage were like two wrestlers waiting for the signal to fight.
  • “The First Punic War was mainly about the island of Sicily, which lies smack between Italy and Carthage.”
  • “When we Romans first fought Carthage, we had no experience of naval warfare whatsoever. Then we captured a Carthaginian ship, copied it, improved upon it and built a fleet. With that, we knocked the Carthaginian navy out of the water. A prime example of Roman ingenuity.”

The defeated Carthaginian commander was Hannibal’s father. That, and the harshness of the surrender terms imposed by Rome, sparked a hatred in the six-year-old Hannibal’s chest.  He stood beside his father at an altar and pledged: “I swear that as soon as age will permit, I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.”


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00063]Cover picture from The Dust of Cannae

HANNIBAL’s ancestors were of what we would call Mediterranean appearance but by the time Hannibal was born, the city of Carthage was five hundred years old and there would have been inter-breeding with the local African populations.

There is no hard and fast evidence for Hannibal’s skin tone. The subject engenders a lot of argument about professorial historians. The evidence as I see it is:

The coin (below) which may depict Hannibal appears to show a white man. So do the two known statues of him.

There is no mention by Roman historians of his colouring. I think they would have been likely to comment if Hannibal was of a noticeably different ethnicity than themselves. My best guess is

Melqart (Heracles) on a coin of Hannibal, perhaps with his own features

that he was white, which would mean similar to the complexion of a modern-day native of Lebanon or Syria.





Left: A Roman sculpture of HannibalExcerpt from The Dust of Cannae:From his looks, Hannibal might have been a philosopher or teacher rather than a man who gave away his life to a consuming psychopathic cause – the destruction of Rome.His face was quite narrow and topped with dark curly hair. The small chin emphasised the long hooked nose that could, ironically, have been that of a Roman. His cheeks were full enough to make grooves at the sides of his mouth. The ears were flat and the beard usually cut back to about one inch.

218 BC to 201 BC – The Second Punic War

Excerpts from The Dust of Cannae

  • “Hannibal grew up obsessed with getting revenge and he took the offensive as soon as he gained control of the army. That was the beginning of the Second Punic War – the one we’re in now.”
  • “The first thing that surprised me was how young Hannibal was. When I joined his army in Spain he was only twenty-six, and I couldn’t imagine a man the same age as me having such responsibility for thousands and thousands of men, especially when many of them were a lot older and were very seasoned warriors.
  • “When we soldiers learned we were to go and attack Italy, we assumed we would take the sea route. After all, the Carthaginians are great sailors. But that is what the Romans also expected and Hannibal fooled them…”
  • “We crossed two big ranges of hills and some wide rivers. We met many hostile tribes along the way and we either beat them easily or Hannibal tricked them. But as we went further, I began to think he must be a madman. He took men, horses and even elephants up the slopes to the top of the world where everything is white and frozen. More than half the army and many of the animals died of the cold or through accidents in the ice and snow.

Hannibal and elephants crossing the Alps. A fresco by Jacopo Ripanda. 1510, in the Capitoline Museum, Rome.

  • “When at last we came down from the mountains I thought we would have to go all the way back again; that we would not be able to fight the Romans because so few of us were left alive and many were sickly and weak. Nearly all the elephants had been lost and those that remained died soon afterwards. We men thought that Hannibal had made a terrible mistake. But whenever we saw Hannibal walking amongst us – and he did that all the time – he was positive and bold, even when he lost his eye after an illness. We would go on and conquer Italy, he told us.
  • “When we first saw Roman armies come against us, we supposed we would form up and fight, as we had done against the savages in the mountains. With our army so depleted we wondered what chance we could possibly have. But Hannibal was too crafty to offer pitched battle. He preferred to tease the Romans by moving position frequently and making them chase after him. It obviously annoyed the Roman generals. In their frustration they would line up anywhere and try to prompt a conventional engagement – and that was Hannibal’s smartest ploy. For he would have drawn the Romans to his chosen spot and that would be where he could encircle them, hem them in and prevent them escaping. In one case, the Romans were caught before a big lake and when they started losing, all they could do to avoid capture and torture was to retreat into the water and drown themselves.”


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00063]

from The Dust of Cannae

  • “The Romans sent two commanders of equal rank to Cannae and, according to the rumours, they argued. One wanted to do battle here; the other said this would be the wrong choice because the level open country suited cavalry and Hannibal had the superior mounted units. It would be better to draw him away to ground more beneficial to the infantry because that would give us the advantage. Our foot soldiers outnumbered Hannibal’s by two to one.
  • “But, as is obvious from that boneyard down there, the battle did take place here. It was four hours of hell. What the Romans didn’t realise in advance was that Hannibal had a secret weapon. As always he had done his homework and knew that the wind gets up at around noon”
  • “The wind is fierce and it comes rolling across the plain picking up all the dust from the open dry land and throwing it forward. Hannibal had ensured that his men would have their backs to the dust-storm and that the battle wouldn’t start until just before midday. So soon after the armies engaged, we Romans were facing into the sirocco. When it hits your face you’re scorched and blinded all in one. Every instinct tells you to cover your eyes and turn your back but you can’t do that when you’ve got thousands of roaring enemies in front of you. You have to fight men you can’t see while you’re being bombarded by red hot grit.”
  • “So you were forced to retreat?”
  • “Not immediately. We fought against both the maelstrom and the enemy and we were driving the Carthaginians back, or at least we thought we were. But Hannibal hadn’t only planned for the weather; he had the better tactics as well and we fell into his trap.
  • “He had placed a wedge-shaped company of foot soldiers at the front of his ranks. It looked to us like a walkover. Our broad line of infantry easily broke up the narrow wedge and sent them running, all too easily in retrospect. We chased until we came to the second Carthaginian unit but that was in line-abreast formation and then Hannibal’s scheme became apparent. While we were in the centre, intent on the men fleeing from the wedge, the outer wings of the second contingent formed a crescent shape and encircled us. We were surrounded and the Carthaginians scythed us down like corn in a field. At the end of it, there were fifty thousand chaffs lying on the ground.”

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00063]

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Author of fiction