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The Second Punic War: Hannibal vs Rome

Updated on January 16, 2020
Sudhir Devapalan profile image

I am a front-end developer by profession, but I enjoy writing articles about WW2 and ancient battles.

Statue of Hannibal Barca
Statue of Hannibal Barca

What Were the Punic Wars?

The Punic Wars were a series of wars fought between Rome and Carthage between 264BC-146BC. There were a total of three Punic wars fought in this period, and Rome came out as the victor. The Roman and Carthaginian empires were the two most dominant powerhouses during that time. These two empires were fighting for world domination.

The First Punic War:

Rome wanted to expand its borders via Sicily, which was partly under Carthaginian control. This conflict of interest led to the start of the First Punic War. Carthage was the most dominant power in the Mediterranean, with a large and powerful navy. The Roman army was undefeated on land, and the mighty Carthaginian navy had complete naval superiority.

Carthage avoided land battles and concentrated on naval engagements during the early stages of the war. However, Rome started building up its navy. With the invention of the Corvus, an assault bridge, created for boarding ships, the Romans slowly gained the upper hand. Finally, in 241BC, Carthage signed a peace treaty in which they gave up Sicily and had to pay a war indemnity to Rome.

Hamilcar Barca
Hamilcar Barca

Hamilcar Barca:

Hamilcar Barca was a Carthaginian general and father of Hannibal. He was one of the generals who fought against Rome during the First Punic War and had a deep hatred for Rome. It was Hamilcar that made Hannibal take an oath of vengeance against Rome. Some source report that Hannibal said to his father, "I swear so soon as age will permit...I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome."

I swear so soon as age will permit...I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome

Hannibal's famous vow
Hannibal's famous vow

Hannibal the Enemy of Rome:

After the First Punic War, Hamilcar led an expedition into Spain to secure its silver mines and gain ground lost to Rome in the First Punic War. He died during battle on 228BC. After his father's death, Hannibal took over as a strategus of Iberia. He would keep his oath and never be a friend of Rome.

With the help of the silver mines in Spain, Hannibal raised an army and began expanding north. Rome was wary of Hannibal and wanted to stop him in his tracks. But according to the treaty signed after the First Punic War, Carthage could expand till south of the river Iberus and Hannibal had yet to cross it.

Map during the second punic war
Map during the second punic war

The Second Punic War:

The city of Saguntum was under the protection of the Romans but south of the river Iberus. However, the Saguntines provoked Hannibal by attacking neighboring Carthaginian cities and massacring the population. In 219BC, Hannibal attacked Saguntum in retaliation. Rome responded by demanding that Carthage hand over Hannibal.

The Roman delegation asked the Carthaginian senate to choose between war or peace. The Carthaginians asked the Romans to decide, and the Romans chose war. This event marked the beginning of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage.

Hannibal crossing the alps
Hannibal crossing the alps

Crossing the Alps:

Hannibal was a military genius. A mastermind who calculated the moves of his enemy and was always two steps ahead of them. He knew that a head-on invasion would fail miserably. Carthage had also lost most of its navy in the First Punic War and was in no shape for a naval battle.

So, he decided to do the one thing that the Romans would least expect. Invade Rome by land, by crossing over the Alps. The Romans considered the Alps to be impassable. So they did not have an army deployed to prevent such an invasion. The invasion began with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalries, and 37 elephants.

The journey was challenging for both men and animals alike. Hannibal had already lost half of his army to the cold and hostile tribes. What remained were 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalries. All but one of his elephants died. However, his biggest ordeal was over. Hannibal and his exhausted army were across the Alps and ready to strike.

Taking the Fight to Rome:

Hannibal then started recruiting the local tribes to join his army. Many had a grudge against Rome and willingly joined him. The Romans were utterly surprised to see Hannibal in their doorstep. They had not expected to fight a battle in northern Italy. They hastily gathered an army and prepared to face Hannibal.

Battle of Trebia
Battle of Trebia

The Battle of the Trebia:

The Battle of the Trebia was the first major battle in the Second Punic War. The Carthaginians had around 40,000 men commanded by Hannibal. The Romans had 42,000 men under Tiberius Sempronius Longus. The battle took place in the December of 218BC near the banks of the Trebia river.

The Romans had a numerical advantage, but Hannibal's troops were better fed and prepared. Hannibal's Numidian cavalry taunted Sempronius with personal insults that enraged him. He ordered his troops to pursue the Numidian cavalry across the Trebia river and face the Carthaginians.

By the time the Romans crossed the river, they were wet, hungry, and freezing. They were facing Hannibal's army, which was well-rested and well-fed. As the Romans faced the main Carthaginian army, Hannibal sprung his trap. He had placed 1,100 men and 1,100 cavalries under his brother Mago behind the Roman lines.

When Mago's troops attack the Roman rear, they collapsed and fled. The Romans suffered approximately 26,000 casualties. The Carthaginians, however, lost only 4,000-5,000 men. This major victory by the Carthaginians convinced the local Gauls to join them, further strengthening their army.

The Battle of Lake Trasimene
The Battle of Lake Trasimene

The Battle of Lake Trasimene:

The Battle of Lake Trasimene is the biggest ambush in military history. The battle took place on 21 June 217BC. Hannibal had 55,000 men under his command, whereas the Romans under Gaius Flaminius had 30,000 men. Hannibal had concealed most of his troops in the surrounding hills.

The Romans attacked the Carthaginian forces at the end of the valley. The ambushers then attacked the Romans from the hills. The Romans lost 15,000 dead and 15,000 captured. The Carthaginians had a mere 1,500 casualties.

The Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae

The Battle of Cannae:

Following their defeats in the battle of Trebia and Lake Trasimene, the Romans developed a Fabian strategy. They avoided any pitched battles with Hannibal and concentrated on keeping his army contained. The Fabian strategy worked well, but the Roman public was getting impatient and wanted results.

The Romans under Varro and Paulus gathered an army of 86,400 troops, which was the largest in their history. The battle occurred near Cannae on 2 August 216BC. Hannibal commanded 50,000 troops to face the Romans. This battle is a classic example of double envelopment.

Hannibal arranged his army in the form of an inverted crescent. He had his weakest troops in the center and his veteran troops on his flanks. The Roman and Carthaginian cavalry faced one another. Varro wanted to break through the weak Carthaginian troops deployed in the center.

When the two forces Clashed, the Carthaginian center began to buckle under the weight of the Romans onslaught. The Carthaginians slowly began to give ground but did not break. Hannibal had placed himself with his troops to improve morale. As the Carthaginian center began to buckle, his flanks stood their ground.

Battle of Cannae
Battle of Cannae

The Romans begin to get surrounded on three sides. Now, the Carthaginian cavalry which had chased off the Roman Cavalry returned. They hit the Romans on the rear and closed off their escape. The double envelopment was complete. What followed was a massacre in which the Romans lost 55,000-70,000 men. The Carthaginians lost a mere 5,700.

Rome Stands:

About 20 percent of the Roman fighting men died on the Battle of Cannae. Rome was in disarray and did not know what to do. A national day of mourning was issued, and Rome resorted to human sacrifices to appease the gods. However, Rome did not surrender or sue for peace. The people of Rome were determined to fight on.

Hannibal did not march on Rome directly. He did not have the resources to lay siege to a city, and so he could do nothing. The Romans went back to their Fabian strategy and denied Hannibal another battle. They concentrated on neutralizing the Carthaginians in Spain. The war in Italy became a stalemate.

The Battle of Zama
The Battle of Zama

The Battle of Zama:

In 203BC Hannibal was recalled to Carthage, to defend the city. Hannibal had a force of 40,000 troops, including 80 war elephants. The Romans under Scipio Africanus had a strength of 35,100. Although outnumbered, the Romans were now under the command of Scipio, who had learned about war from Hannibal himself.

The Romans also had superior cavalry to that of the Carthaginians. When the elephants charged, Scipio ordered the cavalry to blow trumpets, which scared the elephants and made them rampage through the Carthaginian lines. The battle ended with the Carthaginians losing 40,000 troops. Hannibal took his own life between 183-181BC.

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