History of Europe

Hannibal is at the gates!

Something will have this genius of strategy, perhaps the greatest military talent of all antiquity and the enemy par excellence of Rome, that just the mention of his name horrified generations of Romans and that to scare their children, as today would be the " bogeyman,” they would say:“Hannibal ad portas! ” (Hannibal is at the gates!). This is the story of the well-known Aníbal Barca, whose name meant "who enjoys the favor of Baal", also inheriting the name of his father, "the lightning" ( Brq ), something unusual in that civilization.

Born in Carthage in 247 BC. and, presumably from an Iberian mother, he was educated by a Spartan tutor named Sosilos, who introduced him to Greek culture, the deeds of Alexander and the arts of war, standing out from a young age in the métis , a discipline that taught the fusion of intelligence and cunning. After the legendary oath that, according to Tito Livio, he made as a child in the presence of his father, perhaps in the temple of Melkart ("I swear that I will persecute the Romans by land, by sea, by blood and fire. And there will be no gods, neither pacts, nor steep mountains that prevent me from fulfilling my purposes «), Hannibal accompanied his family to his possessions in Spania, where a vast and flourishing Carthaginian empire was brewing. Taking the old Phoenician squares as support points, from their main base in Gadir (Cádiz) the Punics expanded throughout the southeast of Iberia, obtaining the human and material resources they needed to revive their metropolis.

When his father Hamilcar Barca died fortuitously in 229 BC, the supreme command of the army fell to his brother-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair , who appointed him commander of his cavalry. Perhaps at that time, Asdrúbal trying to strengthen the always fragile alliances with the indigenous régulos of the mining areas, was when Aníbal took as his wife the daughter of one of the oligarchs of Kastulo (Linares), named Himilce , although there is no consensus on whether this link is history or just legend. Hasdrubal, before death overtook him in 221 B.C. at the hands of a Gallic slave, he gave him time to found Qart Hadasht (“new city”, today Cartagena), focusing on that new and impregnable bastion with the best natural harbor in the Hispanic East, the center of Punic power in Iberia, and, the most dangerous, to sign a treaty with Rome in which it was established the course of the Ebro river as the limit of influence in Iberia between the two republics. For some historians, Hasdrubal tried more to create a Hellenistic-style kingdom in Spania with its capital in the robust Qart Hadasht than to remain faithful and subservient to the Suffetes as a mere colony of the metropolis, but his early and treacherous death makes all this in hypothesis.

Qart Hadasht

His brother-in-law died, Aníbal, who despite his youth had already earned the respect of the militia by distinguishing himself in campaign with his father and brother-in-law, was unanimously appointed by the army as the new commander in chief in Spania . On the other hand, in the metropolis there was not so much unanimity, because that rich and cunning aristocrat named Hannón was unhappy to continue promoting the economic and military power that the Barcas were accumulating. This Hanno had already been his father's rival and would be his bitterest lifelong adversary, perhaps more dangerous than his many Roman enemies. Hannibal took two years to consolidate his Iberian alliances, appease the unrest within the territory and prepare for the feat he had in mind since he made that solemn oath to his father. The ideal pretext came from the Hispanic Levante. The indigenous and pro-Roman city of Arse (today Sagunto) signed a treaty of friendship with Rome after the one signed by Hasdrubal. According to Hannibal, that pact violated the agreement of non-interference beyond the Ebro signed by his brother-in-law with the Roman Senate. In addition, it is probable that some Carthaginian allied Carthaginian or Contestan tribes saw favorably to lower the smoke to the Edetan city, port and strategic acropolis that controlled the trade of the entire Iberian coast between the Ebro and Dianium (Denia) Everything was to favour; Hannibal had hostages in Qart Hadasht from Edecon, the oligarch of Edeta, so there would be no interference on his part even though Arse was in his territory. Hannibal did not think twice, he took his troops out of him and surrounded the Edetan city. The blood and fire takeover of Arse after eight painful months of siege and fierce resistance lit the spark that would lead to a terrifying fire:the Second Punic War . In reality, Hannibal did nothing in Saguntum that Rome had not done in Corsica and Sardinia years before. In my humble opinion, the first serious error of the Senate was to underestimate the young Barca and not send troops to Hispania in response to the anguished demand of the Saguntines, since history would have been different if Hannibal had never crossed the Ebro. Perhaps the plan of Rome was another, ignoring the Saguntine pleas and not intervening in order to have a pretext with which to lawfully declare war on the secular enemy.

After the capture of Arse, an embassy led by Quinto Fabio Máximo stood in front of the Council of Carthage demanding an explanation for the aggression they had made to an allied city. Only Hannon advocated a friendly solution to this serious international incident. Maximus returned to Rome with a declaration of war. In the spring of 218 BC, Hannibal left Qart Hadasht at the head of his mighty army. Tito Livio left us exact figures of the composition of the troops that crossed the Ebro:ninety thousand infantry, twelve thousand horsemen and only thirty-seven war elephants . Boldly, Hannibal did not head for Italy along the well-defended coast, but instead climbed the Rhône for days until he forded it in a display of military engineering, then disappeared into the Alps late in the fall, appearing some time later in the Padana Plain and surprising the Roman forces commanded by the consul Publio Cornelio Escipión, father of who would be his alter ego in the Roman ranks.

I will not go into minute detail about the tactical battles of Ticino and Trebia, two comfortable victories over the Roman troops that showed that having underestimated the Punic had been a tremendous mistake. The Carthaginian was at the head of an army depleted by cold and hunger after having crossed the Alps, but he was not defeated for that. Hannibal surprised locals and strangers alike with his peculiar strategic vision. Willing to predispose the Italic peoples against Rome, he entered Etruria by fording the Arno River, a place where none of his adversaries would have ventured that he could pass, again surprising his enemies and inflicting a new and humiliating defeat on them at Lake Trasimeno. . In that audacious milestone he lost the only elephant that had survived the passage of the Alps and, probably, a mosquito bite infected his eye and he was left blind. The imprisonment of Trasimeno that fatal June 21, 217 a.C. it cost Rome fifteen thousand men and the very life of the consul Caius Flaminius Nepos . When the Punic army headed south, avoiding the impregnable walls of Rome, many were those who asked their commander the reason for that decision, and it is said that Hannibal answered them:

I have not come to fight the Italians, but to fight Rome in the name of the Italians

It was true that Hannibal had not brought with him battering rams, towers and ladders from Iberia, so I suppose that mounting a new siege of doubtful success on such a large city seemed as useless to him as the long Saguntine siege had been, where instead of gold and slaves only earned death and destruction. As an extraordinary emergency measure, the Roman Senate chose to appoint Fabio Máximo as dictator. , also known since then as Cunctator (“the one that delays”) and nicknamed the “Shield of Rome” for its extreme defensive tactics, harassing and blocking the enemy and avoiding new and uncertain pitched battles. That controversial strategy paid off until the patience of his impulsive magister equitum , Marcus Minucius Rufus , exhausted himself, obtained powers from the Senate to act on his own, confronted Hannibal at Geronium (near present-day Molise, in Apulia) and was defeated by a new trick of the Carthaginian, saving himself from total extermination only by the rapid intervention by Fabio Maximo. After that fateful day, Rufo resigned from his position and placed his four legions under the dictator's command.

The following year, without Máximo as dictator, two new consuls were elected to avert the permanent threat of Hannibal, the prudent Lucio Emilio Paulo and the impulsive Caius Terence Varro . How huge the army would be that they both received for Polibio to write:

The Senate determined to take eight legions to the battlefield, something that Rome had not done before, each legion consisting of five thousand men plus the allies. (…) Most of their wars are decided by a consul and two legions, with their share of allies; and they rarely use all four at the same time in a single service. But on this occasion, so great was the alarm and terror of what might happen, that they decided to send not four but eight legions to the battlefield

Indeed, the amount of the Roman army and its allies would be around ninety thousand troops, of which about six thousand would be equestrians, an unprecedented figure until then. Hannibal, very well informed by his wide network of spies and confidants of what was being plotted in Rome, and most importantly, of the temperament of those who would lead that army, was the one who provoked one of the most important battles in history and only because of it. herself worthy of hundreds of essays and debates. In late spring, Hannibal left Tarentum and took by surprise one of the most important supply depots in southern Italy located in the city of Cannae. That coup forced the two new consuls to move their troops south to make amends. What Varro and Paulus did not know is that Hannibal measured time with great accuracy, because he knew that, by the laws of Rome, the command of the army changed daily between the two consuls and his wicked plans depended on Varro holding the supreme command when both armies had to come to blows . On August 1, Hannibal presented battle to Paulo near Cannae, producing a skirmish when the Carthaginian cavalry prevented the Romans from supplying water. With an army of ninety thousand soldiers plus all the slaves and followers who supported him, having no water was equivalent to being defeated without throwing a javelin. On August 2, 216 B.C. it was Gaius Terence Varro who brought out the colossal Roman army and formed it up with the Punics a mile in front and the cavalry to his left. Gone were only a few reserve forces from the legions of the cautious Paulo to guard the camp and protect the supply route. Facing him was Hannibal's multi-ethnic army, with the fierce Gauls and Iberians in the front line, the Carthaginian heavy infantry in the rear, and the Numidian and Celtiberian cavalry on his right wing, directly opposite the enemy. The ratio was almost two to one in favor of the Romans.

The battle was fought in two phases. Varro's first line advanced towards the thin Punic line, which gradually curved and yielded to Roman pressure. That success spurred Varro's desire for victory even more, licking his lips thinking about his victory and launching all the infantry towards the enemy center trying to break that supposedly weak line. That was when the expert Celtiberian and Numidian cavalry commanded by Asdrúbal and Hannón put the Roman to flight, leaving the rear guard of Varrón and Paulo at the mercy of the Punics. Once the maneuver was completed, Hannibal gave way to his extermination plan:the cavalry charged against the legions from their rear while the Gauls and Iberians were assisted on their flanks by the superb Carthaginian heavy infantry, tightening the ends of the lethal U that Hannibal had designed. The Iberians, artfully wielding their falcatas and short swords, slashed, jabbed and pushed under cover of their large oval shields, killing relentlessly, aided by the Punic antlers of the heavy infantry and the spears of the Numidian cavalry. Modern recreations consider the rate of extermination to be six hundred dead legionnaires per minute. Hannibal gave orders to the front line to mutilate first to kill more calmly later, so his Gauls and Iberians slashed sinews and advanced past the wounded Romans, leaving the pissing to the comrade behind. It was sunset that marked the end of the slaughter. Over fourteen thousand Romans were able to escape the fate of the rest of their fellow ranks. It is estimated that Rome lost in a single day about seventy thousand men, dozens of tribunes, eighty senators, the two outgoing consuls and Paul himself...85% of his army! Hannibal, despite his numerical inferiority, only lost six thousand men, less than 10% than his enemies . Cannae has the dubious honor of being one of the ten bloodiest and deadliest battles in history; In addition, Aníbal's tactical display was so masterful that he continues to be studied as a model of success in prestigious military academies. The phrase “Cannas again!” It continued to be used by the military of all times until the First World War in the face of the evidence of falling into an enveloping trap.

But that resounding victory did not seduce him enough to take his army in front of Rome and besiege it, since he still lacked adequate polyorcetic material with which to undertake such a risky action. Instigated by his friend Maharbal, one of his most faithful lieutenants, to give the defenseless Rome the coup de grâce, Hannibal chose to maintain his position and wait for the long-awaited reinforcements that the Council of Carthage, influenced by Hanno, still did not send him. . It is said that it was then that his cavalry commander told him:

Truly, the gods have not wanted to give all the virtues to the same person. You certainly know, Hannibal, how to win, but you don't know how to make use of your victory

Perhaps the Numidian was right. Shortly after, Tarentum and Capua revoked their alliance with Rome as soon as the news of Cannae spread through Italy, as well as all the city-states of Magna Graecia and the subject peoples of the south, although the wait for the Barca would be in vain; reinforcements never arrived from Carthage in sufficient measure to make up for the severe casualties suffered at Ticino, Trebia, Trasimeno, and Cannae. Not even the two hundred gold rings of Roman aristocrats fallen in battle that Hannibal sent to the Council of Hundred as a gift could overcome the steadfast refusal of Hanno and his more conservative supporters to spend Carthage's resources on the Barca's ego. . War has never been a good travel companion for commerce and those men were not warriors, they were rich merchants... Little by little, month by month, propelled by his own success, Hannibal defeated the Romans again and again overwhelmingly but without success. ensure that none of his denigrating victories managed to make the Senate implore peace (a word that came to be prohibited). Rome had lost a fifth of its male population over the age of seventeen in three years, but not one iota of her honor and stubbornness. One of Hannibal's most talkative officers named Cartalón traveled to Rome to negotiate with the Senate, but his speech was directly refused.

The new generation of consuls tasked with fighting Hannibal learned that they should not present him with any more open-field battles, at least not while Hannibal's all-encompassing strategy was so superior; that the next commander in chief of the legions did not have to alternate his decisions with anyone (he questioned the duality of command) and, due to the brutal exhaustion of fighting at home, they had the need to take the war to enemy territory, where their people and supplies were those punished for the plundering of both sides -sending more troops to Hispania and landing in Africa-.

Not to expand further, I will highlight that, despite the death of the consul Marcelo years later in a new inconsequential victory for Hannibal's goals in Italy, the young Publio Cornelio Escipión , son of the dead consul in Hispania, ended up giving Hasdrubal a brilliant coup, capturing Qart Hadasht by surprise. , the capital of the Carthaginian emporium in Hispania. After that unexpected success and the subsequent campaign, the Punics were defeated and expelled from Hispania and the new situation invited the Senate to give full powers to that young and arrogant soldier to land his victorious army in Africa and force Hannibal to return to his homeland, as it finally happened in 204 B.C. thanks to the defection of Prince Masinissa of Numidia, an ally of Carthage until he came into conflict with Sifax, another rival Regulus who supported the Punics. Having lost every port in Italy, including Locri, he scrambled aboard his fifteen thousand veterans and headed home.

Scipio, firmly positioned in Africa thanks to his new allies, proposed such unacceptable peace terms to the Council of Carthage that they had no choice but to hand over control of the army to Hannibal, a newcomer, despite Hanno's outright opposition to that the conflict with Rome would last forever on Punic land. The date and place chosen for that decisive battle was October 19, 202 BC. on a plain near present-day Tunisia called Zama . It was in this dusty wasteland that Hannibal suffered his only defeat in the open field. His eighty war elephants charged into the Roman center, but Scipio had rehearsed ad nauseam an evasive maneuver that the Roman front line executed to perfection, leaving corridors through which the pachyderms entered and were shot and neutralized. With the elephants out of the way, Masinissa's horsemen disintegrated the Carthaginian cavalry wings and charged into Hannibal's rear. The disaster was total. The Carthaginians lost forty thousand men compared to the fifteen hundred casualties that Scipio counted.

Battle of Zama

Hannibal himself was in charge of signing the peace treaty with Scipio and accepting what his own comrades on the Council had previously described as unacceptable:Carthage lost all territory outside of Africa, he could not declare war on any nation without the consent of Rome , had to hand over the military fleet, recognize the traitor Masinisa as king of Numidia and accept the borders that he determined between the two states, pay Rome ten thousand talents of silver (260,000 Kg) as war compensation for the next fifty years and deliver one hundred hostages among the best Carthaginian families as guarantors of the treaty. Those conditions were equal to or more humiliating than the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had to sign after her defeat in the “Great War”. Rome had lost half a million men in the twenty harsh years of the "great Mediterranean war" and demanded compensation for the great sacrifice that victory had entailed.

After the catastrophe that turned Rome into the hegemonic power of the Mediterranean, Hannibal remained in Carthage for six more years as a member of the Council and head of the Democratic Party, in strong opposition to the party of the oligarchs that his eternal adversary Hannón presided over. His fall from grace stemmed from his proposal that it be the Sufetes, and not the Carthaginian people, who should pay annually from their own fortunes the astronomical tribute of Rome, since they were the ones who had accepted it. In a new Cainite attempt, it was the Council itself that denounced Hannibal before the Senate, citing as an excuse that his correspondence with King Antiochus of Syria was detrimental to their mutual interests. Hannibal ended up in voluntary exile at the court of the king of Syria that same year where he served as his adviser and strategist. Later he ended up serving as a mercenary chief for the Hellenistic kings of Armenia and Bithynia until he committed suicide in Libyssa (today Gebze, in Turkey) in 183 BC, just before his treacherous host, King Prussias I of Bithynia, took him away. delivered on a platter to the Roman ambassador. As fate would have it, Hannibal died the same year as his noble rival, Publius Cornelius Scipio, who since his victory at Zama was called El Africano and whose political opponents in Rome, led by the ultra-conservative Marco Porcio Cato and other followers of the sour Fabio Máximo, propitiated his ruin. The two tactical geniuses of their day shared equally the admiration of their enemies and the envy of their compatriots.

Collaboration of Gabriel Castelló, author of Archenemies of Rome