AFRICANGLOBE – In 247 B.C., the year Hannibal Barca was born, the Carthage empire was about 500 years old. Known as one of the greatest strategist in military history, the battles of Hannibal would strike a turning point in the history of the continent that would be called Africa.
Carthage had been settled by Phoenicians in North Africa near the current Tunis. In his 1961 work, French Historian Gabriel Audisio comments that he considered “Hannibal to be neither a Phoenician, nor a Carthaginian, nor a Punic, but a North African… The majority of the Punic populace seems to have had African ancestry.”
The Carthaginians, according to Audisio’s research, mixed freely with the native populations of North Africa. The Punic of North Africa seem to have been a mix between the Phoenicians and native North Africans, the Berbers. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people said to have migrated from north of Palestine into Northern Africa, spreading their dominion throughout the Mediterranean regions. They were primarily known as merchant traders with an economy tied to the sea trades.
There is no picture of Hannibal in existence today. The coin above is frequently presented by commentators as a representation of Hannibal and his legacy of tamed elephants. While this writer was not able to find authority that the coins were made contemporaneously during or near the life of Hannibal — which was more than 2,000 years ago — the existence of such coinage during some point during our common age is no surprise in light of Hannibal’s historical legacy.
What we do have are descriptions of Hannibal by commentators of his time. According to the Roman historian Levy of the first century of our era, Hannibal was “fearless, utterly prudent in danger, indefatigable, able to endure heat and cold, controlled in eating habits, unpretentious in dress, willing to sleep wrapped in military cloak, a superb rider and horseman.” He was the son of the Carthage general Hamilcar Barca. There is no knowledge of his mother in the history records, not even her name. He had two brothers: Hasdrubal resided in Spain and Maharbal was captain of Hannibal’s calvary.
Carthage and Rome were at war during the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.). Both empires were seeking supremacy over the Mediterranean. Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, general of the Carthaginian arm, was infuriated about the western Mediterranean losses of Sicily and Sardinia. When Hannibal was 17 years old, however, his father was killed in an ambush in Spain, which was primarily under the rule of the North African empire. Hannibal would son step fully into his military career.
In October 218 B.C., during the Second Punic War, Hannibal had arrived at the Alps. His soldiers are said to have stretched for more than eight miles at the Alps, the foothills of the Roman Empire. Hannibal’s army of 100,000 men would trek and fight 1,500 miles to arrive at the Alps from Spain.
Hannibal armies included Numidians, North Africans from an area roughly where Algeria now draws its boundaries. The Numidians were known as master horsemen who could guide their horses with their knees, leaving their hands free to use swords and throw javelins.They had fought attacks from European tribes like the Gauls.
Hannibal is said to have given this speech to the army of men who had survived and crossed the swift-flowing Rhone river:
“Why are you afraid?… The greater part of our journey is accomplished. We have surmounted the Pyrenees; we have crossed the Rhone, that mighty river, in spite of the opposition of thousands of Gauls and the fury of the river itself. Now we have the Alps in sight. On the other side of those mountains lies Italy…. Does anyone imagine the Alps to be anything but what they are–lofty mountains. No part of the earth reaches the sky, or is insurmountable to mankind. The Alps produce and support living things. If they are passable by a few men, they are passable to armies.”
Hannibal lost half of his army in the first two weeks into the Alps. Landslides were touched off by mountain tribes. Men died during hand battle with tribesmen. Starvation and disease were also companions of the embattled lot. Polybus, a Greek historian and contemporary to Hannibal, described Hannibal’s arrival to the Po Valley with about 26,000 men. At the Po Valley, Hannibal is said to have made this speech:
“Soldiers! You have now surmounted not only the ramparts of Italy, but also Rome. You are entering friendly country inhabited by people who hate the Romans as much as we do. The rest of the journey will be smooth and downhill, and, after one, or at most a second battle, you will have the citadel and capital of Italy in your possession.”
Commentators have speculated on why Hannibal spoke these words because the men were about to face the most difficult part of the journey. Friends did not await in the Po Valley. Here, the Roman army would meet the men in battle. In retrospect, considering how far the men had come, there really was no going back at this point. The Carthaginians believed that Rome was considering an invasion of Africa. Hannibal believed he had to act through an overland attack on Roman to save Carthage. He would spend 15 years in Italy, winning many battles — such as the Battle of Cannae where he lost 6,000 troops to Rome’s 70,000 troops.
We know Hannibal did not succeed, but are astonished by how close he came to success. The second of the Punic Wars was over. When Hannibal eventually retreated with his army to Carthage, his army was defeated by Scipio Africanus in the Battle of Zama. Always sought by the Romans, when Hannibal was about the age of 64 and to be taken prisoner, he took poison and is recorded to have stated:
“Let us now put an end to the great anxiety of the Romans who have thought it too lengthy and too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man.”