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The Oath of Hannibal Barca

Updated on February 16, 2011

Hamilcar Barca bids his nine year-old son Hannibal never to be a friend of Rome!

Below: a statue of Hannibal in the Louvre, the work of Sébastien Slodtz, a Dutch-born sculptor who settled in Paris around 1687.

At the onset of the first decade of the 2nd century BCE amid the history of the ancient Mediterranean, plenty of intrigue was still rife amid the indefatigable career of Hannibal Barca, one of ancient history's most attractive figures of action, not to mention Rome's most feared enemy ever of any generation of her history. Following the final defeat of Hannibal and subsequent dismantling of Carthage's entire realm of power beyond the city-state herself, the great Carthaginian still displayed remarkable poise after of his near single-handed attempt to enervate the power of the Roman Federation, which was one of audacious grandeur to ensure the commercial prosperity of Carthage in the Mediterranean, came up short after nearly two decades of warfare fought on an unprecedented scope.

The Carthaginians represented the apogee of their Phoenician forefathers - the great middlemen of the ancient Mediterranean world. We read little of Carthage from the Greco-Roman literature simply because their ways of life revolved around mass production and frugality, not elegance and artistic merit. The practice of trade may be a boring topic to cover in detail, but it has a remained a paramount sinew to daily life. Much of what does come up in connection to the Carthaginians, moreover, is indeed quite positive. The naturalist Pliny the Elder alluded to the Carthaginians as great merchandisers, and Aristotle and Cicero, of all figures, opined that in some respects the Carthaginian constitution was superior to that of the Greeks, and that their mixed policies reflected an enduring balance.

The post-war condition of Carthage afforded a precious opportunity for venality among many corrupt bureaucrats. As a result, the People were burdened with economic despair (the war indemnity to Rome was paid with embezzled funds and extra taxes), hence Hannibal was called out of an 'active' retirement in 196 BCE to manage the state of affairs in Carthage as one of the two suffetes (shoftim, plural for shofet; Phoenician sptm = 'to pass judgment'), the highest magistrates in the Carthaginian body-politic who served for annual terms. His statesmanship was so thorough and effective that the entire war indemnity to Rome was offered in full within a few years; the Romans, perplexed yet, surely, at the same time impressed, refused the offer of full payment, preferring that Carthage stick to a drawn-out payment plan, in part to keep alive a vivid reminder of her obligation following the decisive defeat in war by Rome. Hannibal pursued and punished governmental corruption to its source, and carried reforms with the support of the Popular Party (viz. the 'People', basically); his governmental changes mirrors the basis of many modern elections and assemblies, and it can be argued that Carthage's constitution was at times more balanced and durable than any other of the western ancient world, just as it can be claimed that a modern notion of 'democracy' and 'republicanism' have earlier roots in the Indian Gangetic Plain than those in Greece (eg., the famous Licchavis). One striking feature Hannibal was responsible for was that no high-ranking official could be eligible to serve consecutive terms, hence no figure could gain enough power to substantially embezzle anything to boot. But this doesn't mean the establishment of Carthage's Judges would or could be replaced, just there would be more of them revolving and having to run for re-election; such an admirable qualification forced aristocrats to be more accountable with their work, which would mitigate bureaucratic self-interests being sought at the expense of the People. In improving the state's operational revenue, Hannibal achieved a level of security to prevent too many avaricious hands dipping into the treasury between point A and B - collection and deposit. Much of this was all almost certainly more theoretical than actual, and one drawback may be that newer officials would disrupt the integrity of experience, but, on the flip-side, this was a system which popular assemblies were actively involved in the state. Albeit history has shown that it would not have worked smoothly if tested with more time (they never do!), Carthage was distinctive with her constitution with a further separation of judicial and military power, etc., thus there occurred much less in Carthage than in other ancient states potential or real dangerous civil hostilities. The likes of Aristotle, Isocrates, and Cicero identified this constitutional balance and endurance; but oligarchy, timocracy, and plutocracy (plutarchy) were and even are the realized practices of 'democracy', etc. (not to toot the horns of political and constitutional science theorists). Hannibal's oligarchic enemies appealed to Roman concerns over him (alluding, at the very least, that Hannibal's work involved using his new office to start another war with Rome), and when Rome forcefully convened (against the wishes of none other than Scipio Africanus), he was compelled into self-imposed exile before he was arrested. He soon found a palatable refuge at the court of the ambitious and energetic Seleucid king, Antiochus III, at Ephesus (one of the king's courts, presumably Damascus housing another. Ephesus was located just west of modern Selçuk, in the province of İzmir,Turkey).

Hannibal's tenure as a statesman in Carthage took place from 196-194 BCE (perhaps a year sooner), and amid the year thereafter at Ephesus is when and where the famous 'Oath of Hannibal' (or the 'Wrath of Hannibal', the Roman annalistic tradition would prefer) sprouted, at least for its literary lore. Antiochus had been very energetic as of late, and his control over much of the Aegean littoral of Asia Minor was due to his recent successes over the Ptolemies of Egypt. In a perfect world devoid of unforeseen contingencies of unusually bad luck, Antiochus the conqueror with Hannibal his primary subaltern and adviser would have theoretically been overtly indomitable, given their capabilities and the resources of the king's realm during this period. But that's mere pedantry, however entertaining to hypothesize. More important for our purpose here, was the Oath of Hannibal true, or merely another tantalizing, mythical story which percolated down the ages? It certainly conforms to historiographical traditions of such vivid yet apocryphal tales, which can often fuel later propaganda. The sowing of salt into Carthage's ruins, following its horrific destruction in 146 BCE by the Romans, is a good example (which came up in a recent thread on Carthage); that the land on former Carthage was consecrated, and that subsequently a religious 'taboo' loomed over the ground is reflected in our sources (Plutarch and Appian, primarily, of those which survived). But the act of plowing the ground and sowing salt into the furrows reverberates from past Biblical traditions and Assyrian inscriptions, etc., and any entailed evidence is lacking for such a big issue, not to mention the fact that the event was highly accounted for by a variety of scholars and historians, all of it sans any query, let alone mention, of the ritualistic act of sewn salt being being carried out following the momentous yet sanguinary destruction.. But the plow was used on the site of former Carthage after its destruction, assuming the excerpt from a famous Roman jurist of the 3rd century CE, one Herennius Modestinus, which is enumerated in Justinian's codified Corpus Jurus Civilis (Digesta, liber 7.4.21), can be sustained as factual. But it doesn't matter, from a certain viewpoint: salt or no salt, corrosive or antiseptic (that salt could inexorably 'poison' consecrated soil may itself be a myth), the site was cursed (declared only for 'sheep-grazing' by Scipio Aemilianus), a symbolic pronouncement the salt was supposed to add power to, and the plow came through. Thus a veritable Roman anathema for Carthage was very evident regardless. Anyway, the situation which seems to be behind the initial transmission of the famous oath anecdote, in my opinion, bears no solid grounds to be discarded as a myth.

The earliest appearance in the ancient record of the oath comes from our primary and prosaically truth-seeking source of these times, the eminent historian Polybius; even if he wasn't always 'seemingly' fair; presumably, Polybius had to toe a certain line while living and working under the patronage of the influential Scipionic Circle in Rome. Polybius learned and took notice of the story no later than the late 150s BCE, probably noting it for his future enterprise (an official 'publication' was realized a couple decades or so later), as this point witnessed the release of the surviving Greek internees, mostly Achaeans (300 had survived by 151 BCE, out of an initial total of 1,000 Greek interns transported to Italy) who had been brought to Rome as of seventeen years earlier as high-ranking political hostages following the fall of Macedon to Roman hegemony as of 168 BCE, and it was through a few of them, one in particular, he likely learned of the 'Oath of Hannibal'. Moreover, as the most extant in time to this backdrop of the surviving sources which have come down to us, Polybius presented the oath story in a specific and substantial context - the story came from Hannibal himself, who shared it with Antiochus; relations between the Seleucid monarch with the rising western Republic were becoming increasingly contentious. Hannibal, now an exile (as mentioned earlier), was also a special guest of the Seleucid king's, and Antiochus surely kept in the back of his mind the notion that this acclaimed military genius - the man who had run roughshod over the Romans for many years - could serve as a valuable trump-card with war looming dangerously on practically every quarter, particularly that this part of the world could, for all in all, field more superior horsemen than what could be marshaled in the West, and cavalry tactics were a marked forte of Hannibal's. But the king had become skeptical of Hannibal's conduct recently: in an astute attempt to convince Antiochus of his hostility towards Rome after the Seleucid monarch appeared quite stubborn, Hannibal felt compelled to 'resort to the following' story after 'being at a loss for further arguments', Polybius tells us. As it was, Hannibal was able to maintain Antiochus' ear, although the special guest/adviser would not be utilized for his imminent clash on the field against Rome and her allies (we are left in the dark as to the circumstances), which resulted in his decisive defeat in late 190 BCE. Hannibal's role as an active subordinate, in any manner, on the field could be nothing but positive, unless the king had misgivings not related to anything other than pride and power, but the Romans were now advanced beyond the tough but rigid legions who fell constantly before Hannibal's finesse in Italy. Food for thought, but a delving into alternate history.

What triggered Antiochus' feelings of skepticism amid all this was that the Roman delegate Publius Villius Tuppulus had successfully engaged in talks with Hannibal at Ephesus (193 BCE) before continuing on with the rest of his embassy to meet with Antiochus, who was now campaigning to the south-east in the region of Pisidia (modern Turkey, on its southern Mediterranean shore); this deliberate courting of Hannibal, described by Polybius as having 'a view of bringing him into suspicion with the king', in which 'they entirely succeeded' (The Histories , Book 3.11.3), caused some apprehension with Antiochus. The Romans can be justified in acting on a serious concern - here they are, now embroiled in the East, and there he is as well, a potential military adviser for their probable enemies! Thus this Roman act of artfully-dressed diplomacy effectively compromised Antiochus' already degree of trust, a situation not yet entirely solid due to Hannibal's position as a foreign exile. By this time the powerful and able Seleucid king had been campaigning and restoring his realm unwaveringly for the previous three decades. He was getting testy, had recently established a footing in Thrace, and poised to encroach Greece in force - something Hannibal advised against, pressing that Italy should be the prime focus; the results would show that the adviser knew more acutely of Rome's capacity far more than his host. Roman delegates effecting talks with his new distinctive guest, amid growing tensions with the Republic of the West, stimulated and augmented his mistrust. But Hannibal was no less canny than any Roman delegate, and with the oath story (possibly conjured up ben-trovato ), he, at the very least, tempered the Seleucid king's wavering feelings of him. But as it turned out, it may have been merely a personal reconciliation; Hannibal was not subsequently exploited for his value, and the great Battle of Magnesia, fought in December of 190 BCE (near modern Manisa, Turkey) between Antiochus and the forces of Rome (both commanded armies rife with various and specialized allies), did not witness the presence of a former general deemed by many as the greatest general of ancient times (even of all time!), and his behavior amid this energetic backdrop reflects no drop in sagacity whatsoever. Antiochus earlier placed Hannibal in charge of a squadron in the extemporized Seleucid fleet, which was outclassed by the Rhodians in a naval battle the previous summer. Following Livy's account of this battle, Hannibal was defeating the Rhodian admiral Eudamus on one side, but Hannibal's co-commander Apollonius was defeated and scattered quickly enough for the victorious Rhodians to sail over to aid Eudamus, resulting in Hannibal's retirement (Ab Urbe Condita , Book 37.23-24). Thus, following Hannibal's opposition to Antiochus' martial policy, now coupled with a failure in his military charge, rendered his departure for Crete before the winter of 190 BCE .

Perhaps Hannibal was simply too good for his own good. It's not uncommon throughout history that a great individual falls prey to the concoctions of envious and, basically, lesser men, in terms of capacities for leadership. One superb modern biographer of Hannibal's, as well a leading expert on Carthage overall, Serge Lancel, concluded in his final chapter of his book, titled Hannibal , that Carthage's greatest figure characterized an international cultivation which was complimented by a ceaseless duty of pietas ('he never lost sense of') to his home state. Perhaps not until Hadrian did Rome produce such a man, Lancel proposed. If indeed Hannibal was fibbing about the story of his childhood oath to Antiochus, it was to achieve a paramount purpose under exigent circumstances; he needed Antiochus' trust, now compromised (something resultant of Hannibal's high stature by this time) as he began meditating his own plans through his friend and agent Ariston, in communicating with Carthage. This was probably to rouse a common and fresh hostility to Rome once again, but only should mobilizing 'friends' in Greece and Asia Minor afford such an opportunity. It's credible that we have enough surviving words from the likes of Fabius Pictor, Lucius Alimentus, and Cato the Elder to rule them out as propagators of the oath story, albeit certainty can never be evinced. Along with the prose of Fabius Pictor, the epic histories of Gnaeus Naevius and Quintus Ennius constitute the self-conscious products of nascent Roman historiography - 'that remarkable effort to create for Rome an intellectual culture comparable to that of the Greeks - which was itself an indirect result of the Hannibalic War.' (cf. Tim Cornell, in his contributory piece to The Second Punic War: A Reappraisal, p. 97). Actually, Ennius in his Annales covers the discrepant ideas for strategy between Hannibal and Antiochus, with no mention of the oath.

We cannot assess this tantalizing subject without asking if the oath legend sprung out of at least one of two very important figures in Hannibal's life in the field - the Greek writers who accompanied him on many of his journeys, the Lacedaemonian historian Sosylos (from Elis, specifically, according to a fragment of Diodorus Siculus, where we are also apprised that Sosylos wrote a Hannibalica in seven books, which Polybius, presumably, had full access of; so Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica , Book 26.fr4) and one Silenus, a Sicilian by birth. Sosyos was both Hannibal's tutor in Greek and his official biographer. Unfortunately, his works didn't survive other than a famous fragmented account of a naval battle (the Sosylos Papyrus is the prize among the valuable collections housed at the University of Würzburg, Germany) pitting Carthaginians against Massiliotes and Romans off Spain, (the Massiliotes 'were the first to join battle and were wholly responsible for the success of the Romans', wrote Sosylos; Massilia, modern Marseille, was always on friendly terms with Rome, and her diplomatic acts were extremely effective on much of the international activity which shaped the political structure of the western Mediterranean during this age). It was discovered in the early 20th century, and the text seemingly reflects a discerning and intelligent writer, perhaps belying Polybius' very harsh criticism of him. Nothing in the accounts we have which make reference to Sosylos and Silenus, filtered mainly through Polybius, reveal any notions regarding the oath. But the curtain of obscurity, it must be understood, of ancient historiography will always render our assessments ones of extrapolation, and much of what has been integrated with history and legend is simply indissoluble. But by asking the right questions and drawing on historical data availed to us, we can at least create a clearer picture to infer from; what can be used for a basis of revolvable judgment is that the oath story waited for more than a quarter of a century until it entered the literary record after Hannibal's career began as the strategos of Carthage, and from that point, it seems both Sosylos and Silenus were split from Hannibal by the time peace terms were being imposed on Carthage by Rome in 201 BCE, as Hannibal no longer had a camp, hence no such entourage after the war. Moreover, the anecdote could only have entered the literary record from an historian (cf. Alfred Klotz, Appians Darstellung des Zweiten Punischen Krieges, p. 19; 1936).

Sosylos, it seems, was working in Alexandria by the time of Hannibal's revelation of the oath to Antiochus, surely spending much time at the famed Royal Library of Alexandria (fully constructed and operational by now), of which its Mouseion (the 'Shrine of the Muses' - the scholars who formed the library's practices and policies) lived by an aggressive mandate to collect the world's knowledge by not only the conventional method by commercial trips to the main book markets in Rhodes and Athens, but by even 'pulling the books off every ship that came into port, scrutinizing them for their qualitative purposes, then keeping any original texts which would be of value before sending back to their owners with copies they made (perhaps stretching any actuality, but a reflection of the Great Library's stature and weight to procure valuable material it wished for) of the 'appropriated' works. The accounts written by the man who traveled with Hannibal on the recent plight of the famous Carthaginian (Rome asked Egypt twice for grain, in c . 215 and 211 BCE, clearly due to the strain on her resources Hannibal's operational strategy was inflicting) would be a welcomed treasure-trove to the collections. Egypt was the leading producer of papyri at the time, and the Sosylos Papyrus was indeed found in Egypt in the early 1900s. Too much obscurity hangs over Silenus to even form 'serious' guesstimates, but what we do know of his style, the oath may fit; but it didn't appear! Most of all, it seems unlikely that neither of the top candidates, upon an inclination when thinking of the berth, who spring-boarded the oath story wrote of it because Hannibal told it (it may have been a fib) after their tenures with him (they 'were with him in the camp, and lived with him as long as fortune allowed', Cornelius Nepos ambiguously tells us; Lives of Eminent Commanders , Book 23.13), and only in resorting to it as a secondary polemical measure to gain the appeasement of his powerful and monarchical host; if it carried more substance, than we would expect Hannibal to have relayed it to earlier writers who traveled with him (he still may have, but if so, what we have from Polybius indicates such hearsay was unimportant before it was told to Antiochus). Hence the story could not have taken shape earlier unless something contrary existed at one time amid the lost accounts, including those of Polybius which covered the late 190s BCE (Book 19 of The Histories , which as it is now contains merely a lone fragment, referenced to Polybius by Plutarch, in relation to an event in Spain), which presumably carried more detail than what he tells us in Book 3 about it, when tying the story into the issues of causation and war-guilt over the Second Punic War. Moreover, if the story is true from the nature of Polybius' account, it hardly suggests a pathological hatred burning in Hannibal since boyhood; he was an effective figure who shared the characteristics of a harsh time, but an anecdotal story from his childhood does not figure as a singularly powerful sinew behind his behavior in carrying out his ambitious goals. He was supremely determined, and showed no scruples when seizing supplies for his men or when other strategic ends needed to be fulfilled. But he was not a megalomaniac, not even remotely close.

The appending 'wrath' to the oath story is almost surely a later Roman tradition imputed to the original interpretation of it to besmirch their unjust seizure of Sardinia in 238 BCE when Carthage was in no position to object beyond merely voicing their displeasure, and perhaps even when they realized generations later that they were wrong about certain geographic aspects of Spain which refuted their claims of territorial bounds pressed at the time, claims which indeed revolved around 'war-guilt', etc. This was the reputed seed of Hamilcar Barca's anger, and he, too, has been symbolized as harboring a degree of unusually high and propelled condemnation and resolve to destroy Roman culture. The oath story also signifies his 'wrath', in that he brought to bear upon his young son such an ideological responsibility to carry out beyond his lifetime, if need be. Basically, however, the anecdote was understandably played upon as it caught on with a strong ripple-effect, percolating over a few generations into a fibble-fabled yet convenient tool for 'moral proof' regarding the guilt of Hannibal, the enemy who would threaten Rome's very existence; the one who was wholly responsible for the titanic struggle of 218-201 BCE.

Polybius made use of both Sosylos and Silenus, almost surely more than he acknowledged them by name (again, his one direct reference is one of censure). Polybius clearly found faith in the veracity of the oath story, and because he explicitly wrote of Sosylos as a writer who ranks 'in authority, it seems...not with history, but with the common gossip of a barber's shop' (The Histories , Book 3.20.5), he almost certainly did not become aware of the anecdote through the works of Sosylos, the main contemporary source for Hannibal's momentous career before departing Italy for Africa in 203 BCE. What is very interesting is the nature of the famous papyrus find regarding Sosylos: the fragmented account had nothing to do with the campaigns which he personally witnessed as part of Hannibal's entourage, but rather a naval battle off the NE Iberian coast which resulted in a Carthaginian defeat. Silenus, moreover, ascribed gods and heroes into Hannibal's dreams to carry him through safely to Italy, the sort of 'nonsense' Polybius was contemptuous of throughout his didactic style of critical history. But so much of ancient historiography will invariably keep us at bay, if we seek critical detail. But we have enough to infer tenably, from my view, that the source of Polybius' reportage seems to have a different berth than the writers who spent time with Hannibal during his great trek, if only that because if he believed the story himself, he would have displayed more faith in them (he actually never even mentions Silenus, but rather one Chareas, of whom nothing is known other than being bracketed with Sosylos in the same disparaging context, in Book 3.20.5 of The Histories ). Thus, to reiterate, the oath story was almost surely not borne out of the writers who were most closely associated with Hannibal; it still came from him, but simply not until it served a purpose in his later life. However, there are other names we come across through the amalgamated works of philologists (eg. the eminent Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, or Fragments of the Greek Historians, commonly abbreviated as FGrHist or FGrH , a mammoth collection of isolated fragments admirably compiled by the classicist/philologist Felix Jacoby). History-writing was well established as an avid genre in Rome by the dawn of the Empire, and from what has survived from the likes of Eumachus of Neapolis, one Xenophon, Coelius Antipitar, Claudius Quadrigarius, and Valerias Antias, all of whom wrote of the events of these times, any mention on their part of the oath would have derived from Polybius, who preceded all of them. Nepos does state that of 'all the wars which he conducted many have given the history', but continues with 'two of them were persons that were with him in the camp'. For all in all, therefore, the oath story began with Hannibal himself in 193 BCE, and with Polybius on record about fifty or so years later (his knowledge of it came about thirty years after it was told). So, the million dollar question becomes - who is the paramount 'middleman', so to speak, we now seek? The link between Hannibal's words and Polybius' ear and pen?

Polybius was about seventeen or eighteen years of age when Hannibal died. The two were actually separated by perhaps 400 miles, not in totally different parts of the Hellenistic World. But the former's career as an historian was long in the future (imagine Polybius' enthusiastic feeling in having the opportunity to query the aging Hannibal himself!). It is very likely that the source for the oath story, as well as much of the history going on in Greece and the Near East at the dawn of the 2nd century BCE, was among those who crossed diplomatic paths with Hannibal and Antiochus in the late 190s BCE, at the latter's court - and among whom were also with Polybius as the internments sent to Italy as political hostages; these men then relayed this and other important historical information to Polybius some thirty years later in Italy after Hannibal's initial revelation of it to Antiochus at Ephesus.

All our main ancient sources who concerned themselves with these topics, along with some famed poets, touch on the 'oath' story, the majority of them with, naturally, literary stilts of elegant hyperbole. It would be valuable to know how and when the story reached Polybius, who placed it on record around fifty years after it germinated (he knew of it the past twenty years). One conceivable possibility is that the famed story received its wide circulation via oral traditions from members of the Roman embassy to Antiochus in 193 BCE, particularly those who came across Hannibal. But he told it later after they stirred up the trouble that instigated its telling, but that doesn't eliminate their hearing of it not too long afterward. But if so, we may expect that it would be more in harmony to how the eminent Roman annalist Titus Livius (Livy) relayed the oath (Ab Urbe Condita , Book 21.1) than Polybius' less bellicose description. Speciously, when repeating the oath story within its historical setting (viz. when it was revealed by the 54 year-old Hannibal), Livy sticks to the Polybian version (Ab Urbe Condita , Book 35.19).

Rome had returned to Greece in force after being severely 'distracted' (putting it mildly) by the war against Hannibal; their prior involvement in Illyria had been growing throughout the immediate years leading up to the eruption of the Second Punic War (cf. Polybius, The Histories, Book 2.2-12; Appian, Roman History, The Foreign Wars, Book 10, Ch. 7-8). From their point of view, it was time for unfinished business! The oath story, more likely, could very well have entered the literary record of Polybius with one or more of the Aetolian or Achaean exiles who came with him as of 167 BCE, most of whom had been summoned to Italy along with Polybius following the final defeat of Macedon by Roman arms the previous year at the battle of Pydna (this act was conforming to the ancient custom of political hostage-taking, to ensure a state's good behavior while her sons where being held 'politely' within her hegemon's lands; our main source for this is Pausanias, Description of Greece , Book 7.10.11-12). Polybius hailed from Megalopolis, located in the central Peloponesse, and as fate would have it, he become a close friend of Scipio Aemilianus when many of these high society Greeks were brought to Italy as political hostages (Scipio was the future destroyer of Carthage, which culminated in 146 BCE). Hence Polybius became well-situated in Roman society to work as a true and high-profile historian.

There now comes to the fore in this discussion one Nicander of Trichonium, one of 'those' esteemed political prisoners summoned to Rome in about 167 BCE. Nicander was an important figure at this time as the strategos of the Aetolians during their intense activities in the late 190s BCE, which saw them go from ally of to advocate against Rome; they had been allied (no formal alliance) with the Romans against Philip V of Macedon, helping the consul Titus Flamininus to victory in the decisive battle of Cynoscephalae (197 BCE). But they were very unhappy with the mild truce established following the battle (they were practically ignored by the victorious Romans, let alone even appeased), hence they looked to Antiochus III after negotiations with Rome broke down. The Seleucid king had his own objectives concerning 'Europe': he was poised to claim his 'hereditary possessions', which carried roots going back some three and four generations to Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Nicander was engaged in talks with Antiochus at the same time Hannibal was a guest of the king's, which renders entirely conceivable a scenario that he, and perhaps others amid his entourage, is the direct source for Polybius' accounts of the events in Greece and Asia Minor concerning Rome's involvement there. Polybius mentions Nicander often, even devoting a chapter to him (Book 20.11 of The Histories), in which he apprises us that Nicander was summoned to Rome 'in the subsequent period of the war with Perseus', which means roughly the same time the Achaeans were sent there, and that he died there. However, where Nicander would come up much more would be in Book 19 of The Histories , which is practically lost in full, as well as the Aetolians' deliberations for peace in 191 B.C., which Livy tells us about in detail (Ab urbe condita, Book 36.29, surely drawing on Polybius, who was availed for him). But this must remain speculative, as we unfortunately lose Polybius' works, other than one fragment, which cover this backdrop (which would, again, have been part of Book 19 of The Histories ). But perhaps he didn't explicitly say so anyway in Book 19, hardly an unusual historiographical pattern of these earlier times; from what has survived for us to this day, Polybius doesn't tell us how and from whom he acquired the oath story (cf. professor Frank W. Walbank's monumental Historical Commentaries on Polybius, Vol. 1, pp. 314-315, where he elucidates on this political background, the best it can be, along with some valuable supplementation in his terrific biographical work, Philip V of Macedon, specifically on p. 279). If Nicander is Polybius' source for the Hannibalic Oath, it was probably Hannibal himself, and/or perhaps Antiochus, who shared it with him, making him the best type of source Polybius always endorsed - the veritable 'eyewitness account'. Nicander arrived in Ephesus in c. 191 BCE to plea for Antiochus' share in a coalition hostile to Rome, about two years after Hannibal had mollified Antiochus with his cajoling story. Hannibal was still in Antiochus' surroundings, as he departed for Crete in the late summer or fall 190 BCE, following the decisive defeat of Antiochus by the Romans and their allies (which included the excellent cavalry of Eumenes II of Pergamum) near Magnesia ad Sipylum (located about 50 miles NE of Ephesus, fought in December of 190 BCE). Hannibal made sure he wasn't around for any predictable repercussions, hence he soon established himself in the Cretan city of Gortyna. Hannibal and Nicander, as well as one Thoas, the other major Aetolian leader at Ephesus deliberating with Antiochus, almost surely met and congregated while at Antiochus' court as allies and counselors. But the Romans also came out positively: as Polybius stated, the Roman delegates succeeded 'entirely' on rousing Antiochus' cynicism, and although Hannibal did counter them by preventing a major problem with the relations of he and the Seleucid king, Hannibal did not hold a command against the Roman forces which triumphed at Magnesia ad Sipylum. Neither did the nominal legatus Scipio Africanus, who was too ill for any direct involvement.

Hannibal indeed has received the romantic glamor of the fallen, but not without supreme merit. He personified a powerful and convenient specter, or 'bogeyman', if you will, by the time of the likes of Virgil and Livy in the late 1st century B.C. Essentially, the mainstream of Roman historiography began with the Second Punic War. For the literary enjoyment of aristocratic readers under the aegis of Rome, the 'stigma of Hannibal' served well as both a catalyst for scaremongering and a source of Roman heroic pride winning over a severe test of adversity; it had become quite popular during these times amid Roman circles of life to draw on the virtues of the 'ancient Republic', especially the patriotic acts of those who overcame this reviled bogeyman. 'Hannibal against Rome', as coined by some modern analysts, was a triumph of corporate genius over individual genius. The former included the likes of Gnaeus and Publius Cornelius Scipio (the Elder, with regards the latter), Fabius Maximus, Marcus Marcellus, Gaius Claudius Nero, and most of all, Publius Cornelius Scipio the Younger, who would be graced with the cognomen of Scipio Africanus after he defeated Hannibal in October of 202 BCE, at the battle of Zama, to end the long struggle. Rome, masters of applied science, finally produced a 'Wellington' to carry them through. However, for the sake of trivia, and as many of Hannibal's apologists relay, and, it seems, some Roman ones tersely find unacceptable, Scipio's victory was still a semblance of that very corporate advantage, as the paramount element of superb cavalrymen, mainly the vaunted Numidians, were now on the side of Rome, and although Hannibal's fielded army lost nothing in quantity, compared to the armies he led throughout the pinnacle of his successes, he now lacked seasoned quality he had enjoyed before in Italy (other than his veterans). Nevertheless, his plan was sound and plausible; his counterpart in Scipio, however, was a man who just about matched him in generalship and with 'advantages' attested by Polybius (The Histories , Book 15.16.1). The intense clash was touch-and-go, with Hannibal seemingly carrying an edge, until the Roman and Numidian cavalry returned 'providentially', as Polybius phrased the verdict of the battle, thus the war. Indeed, through thick and thin Rome finally produced her 'Wellington'.

The theme of Hannibal's 'ghost' echoed demonstrably amid the words of one of the greatest epic poems ever written (rivaling anything Homer ever conceived) - the Aeneid. The momentous invasion of Italy by Hannibal in 218 B.C. was storied into a prophecy of resolute yet ultimately failed vengeance against the Fatherland, imputed by Virgil into his epical narrative by connecting it to his legendary fountainhead of the Roman Empire, which, in the historicity, was by realized only nominally within the last few decades before the coming of the Christ. Regardless, Rome at this time was the conduit and cornerstone of western culture. The great city of Troy, much of whose story is not exclusive to legend, was destroyed by the Greeks in Homer's famed works, but the integrity of the Republic collapsed from within in the mid 1st century BCE. The first Roman emperor Augustus established the Pax Romana, which Virgil lived long enough to see evolve (he died in 19 BCE). Virgil's histrionic depiction of the Carthaginian queen Dido's curse upon Aeneas, the heroic survivor of Troy who sought a safe haven for his people, was the powerful emblem of the future enmity between the two great city-states of Rome and Carthage. Aeneas is basically Virgil's personification of Roman morality; he grudgingly relinquished his love of Dido for that very land of the Latians to fulfill his destiny, with nothing less than a melting heart.

One famous statement, verbatim and indicative of the Roman polemical tradition hostile to Hannibal, comes from the epic poem Punica, the work of Silius Italicus (c. CE 26-102); the Second Punic War was the central theme of his famed work, in which he made the Roman battle catastrophe at Cannae the temporal centerpiece of the seventeen-year war. The battle of Cannae, of course, was Hannibal's iconic battle triumph over a much larger Roman army; Cannae would resonate beyond its own age, becoming an ideal of the tactical art to later generations of generals and militarists, etc., a generic adjective, if you will, for the perfectly pitched battle.

Silius Italicus, Punica, Book 1, verses 100-102, and 113-121, respectively (Loeb Classical Library edition), describing the oath of Hannibal with patriotic and fabricated hostility,

"…to this shrine Hannibal was brought by his father's command; and, when he had entered, Hamilcar examined the boy’s face and bearing...

...With these incentives he spurred on the boy and then dictated a vow not easy to utter: 'When I come to age, I shall pursue the Romans with fire and sword and enact again the doom of Troy. The gods shall not stop my career, nor the treaty that bars the sword, neither the Alps nor the Tarpeian rock. I swear to this purpose by the divinity of our native god of war, and by the shade of Elissa.'…"

Elissa, of course, is none other than Juno; the mission of Jupiter via Mercury for the Trojan fugitive Aeneas (the Aeneid, Book 4, verses 259-278), the concerns of Juno after she learned of the fate of her 'favorite city' and her hatred of the 'Trojan remnant' (Book 1, verses 12-33), and the curse upon Aeneas from Dido, all comprise the wonderfully entertaining and fertile mind of Virgil, whom Silius Italicus, among others (Valerias Maximus is another) followed, and the episode of Roman history which was the ingredient for Roman heroism and survival in the face of Punic 'wrath' and failed retribution, was indeed Hannibal's invasion of Italy; he is the historical personage of the 'avenger' pronounced by Dido, and her 'purpose' for him was revealed in her 'prayer' (the Aeneid , Book 4, verses 621-629) before she unsheathed upon herself the sword Aeneas had left behind.

Following his time in Crete as of 190 BCE, Hannibal's last years were spent further east in the Kingdoms of Armenia and Bithynia. As a guest of the Armenian king Artaxata, he aided in town planning, and subsequently under the hospitality of Prusias I of neighboring Bithynia, Hannibal lived near modern Gebze (Kocaeli Province, northern Turkey), where he did likewise. In 183 BCE, Prusias I benefited handsomely from the martial advisory aid afforded by his special guest when circumstances compelled war. Hannibal's wisdom was welcome after Prusias suffered a severe defeat the previous year by the neighboring Kingdom of Pergamon. The details of this campaign are scant, but what we are availed with some detail is the account of a naval battle in which Hannibal led the Bithynian seamen against the Pergamunians, led by their king Eumenes II, a leader who proved his worth as an ally of Rome's in the defeat of Antiochus III over six years prior. This naval clash, perhaps fought off the middle-to-eastern part of sea along the southern coast of the Sea of Marmara, was decided by an outré tactic characteristic of Hannibal's dexterity: he enticed the Pergamunian forces into close quarters by means of a clever ruse with Eumenes' galley as the initial sole target in a conventional massed attack. Subsequently, upon the swift forays of the other Pergamunian ships closing in to save their king - Hannibal expected and wanted them to - he timed the order to his Bithynians to catapult large earthenware jars onto their enemy ships' decks, which initially caused antic reactions among the Pergamunians. But the jarfuls comprised poisonous snakes, all writhing with an added dose of anger! Consequently, a panic rout ensued, and the battle was won. But because Prusias had been sheltering Hannibal, Rome had become suspiciously wary of him, and now that he was at war with her ally Eumenes, an excellent pretext developed for Roman direct intervention, particularly that their ally was just stymied by Hannibal, of all men. Rome was broadening her horizons to the rich fringes of the Hellenized Orient, and here he was, that old agent of their consternation! Delegates were sent to Prusias and Eumenes, with the Roman consul Titus Quintius Flamininus at the head. A forcibly effected reconciliation between the two monarchs was achieved, and the surrender of Hannibal primarily stipulated. The story of the novel tactic (though surely with similar precedents, especially in China, etc.) was told by writers not appearing after Livy (Marcus Junianius Justinus, more commonly Justin, was, but he was on point relaying for us with brevity the works of Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, a Roman historian of repute, and contemporary of Livy's whose works survive only through Justin's epitomes), who omitted it. But Livy spared no detail to the overall scene in this part of the world at this time. Moreover, Polybius' works which covered this backdrop are also lost. The two well known ancient writers who included the naval clash in their works were the biographer Cornelius Nepos and the epitomizing Justin).

Cornelius Nepos writes of this titillating occurrence in c. 183 B.C., Lives of Eminent Commanders , Book 23.10-11,

"...When the line of each was formed, and before the signal was given for battle, Hannibal, in order to show his men where Eumenes was, dispatched to him a letter-carrier in a boat with a herald's staff; who, when he reached the enemy's line of vessels, held out a letter, and signified that he was looking for the king; he was therefore immediately taken to Eumenes, because nobody doubted that there was something written in the letter relating to peace. The messenger, having thus made the king's ship known to his party, returned to the same place from which he had come. Eumenes, on opening the letter, found nothing in it but what was meant to ridicule him; and though he wondered as to the motive of it, and none could be discovered, yet he did not hesitate to come at once to battle. In the conflict, the Bithynians, according to the direction of Hannibal, fell all at once upon the ship of Eumenes. That prince, as he was unable to withstand their onset, sought safety in flight, but would not have found it, had he not taken refuge behind his guards, which had been posted on the neighboring shore. As the rest of the Pergamunian ships bore hard upon the enemy, the earthen pots, of which we have previously spoken, began suddenly to be hurled into them. These, when thrown, at first excited laughter among the combatants, nor could it be conceived why such a thing was done; but when they saw their ships filled with serpents, and, startled at the strangeness of the occurrence, knew not what to avoid first, they put about their ships, and retreated to their camp upon the coast. Thus Hannibal, by his stratagem, prevailed over the force of the Pergamunians. Nor was this the only occasion; but often, at other times, he defeated the enemy with his troops on land, and with equally skillful management..."

Justin's words on the same subject read, in his Historiarum Philippicarum libri XLIV , Book 32.4

"...Prusias being subsequently defeated in a battle by land, and transferring the war to the sea, Hannibal, by a new stratagem, was the cause of procuring him a victory; for he ordered serpents of every kind to be enclosed in earthen pots, and to be thrown, in the hottest of the engagement, into the enemy’s ships. This seemed at first ridiculous to the Pergamene soldiers, that the enemy should fight with earthen pots, as if they could not fight with the sword. But when the ships began to be filled with serpents, and they were thus involved in double peril, they yielded the victory to the enemy.

When the news of these transactions was brought to Rome, ambassadors were dispatched by the senate to require the two kings to make peace, and demand the surrender of Hannibal. But Hannibal, learning their object, took poison, and frustrated their embassy by his death...."

The awe-inspiring Pergamon Altar was constructed some two decades later, and among the magnificent frieze sculptures which depict the battle of the Gods against the Giants (the Gigantomachy) there exists a showing of one of the Erinyes (the goddesses of vengeance), specifically Nyx, about to clash with a Giant using a vessel wrapped with snakes as a weapon! Perhaps this is a little sweeping to press (but not to 'float'), as snakes were quite symbolic amid ancient mythology, but Hannibal's wily tactics of biological warfare occurred recently against the Pergamunians themselves, thus in administering this psychologically-damaging tactic of warfare constituting a 'snake-attack', no less, not to mention upon them while under their king's presence; it is tempting to think that he impressed upon their conscious sensations so strongly that an indirect allusion to what he did became manifest on the Gigantomachy Frieze, which forms the base of the magnificent Pergamon Altar. If so, it was his last, and perhaps most lasting, contribution to the history of his age (cf. Jerome Pollit, Art in the Hellenistic Age, in his chapter concerning the Pergamon Altar, pp. 81-82). Rather than grace a triumph in Rome for them upon his imminent capture, Hannibal disallowed them the satisfying public display his person would surely exude. He poisoned himself as the Roman troops closed in on him.

Livy tells us, Ab Urbe Condita , Book 39.51,

"...Prusias had for some time fallen under suspicion in Rome, partly owing to his having sheltered Hannibal after the flight of Antiochus and partly because he had started a war with Eumenes. Titus Q. Flamininus was accordingly sent on a special mission to him. He charged Prusias, amongst other things, with admitting to his court the man who of all men living was the most deadly foe to the People of Rome, who had instigated first his own countrymen and then, when their power was broken, King Antiochus to levy war on Rome. Either owing to the menacing language of Flamininus or because he wished to ingratiate himself with Flamininus and the Romans, he formed the design of either putting Hannibal to death or delivering him up to them. In any case, immediately after his first interview with Flamininus he sent soldiers to guard the house in which Hannibal was living.

Hannibal had always looked forward to such a fate as this; he fully realized the implacable hatred which the Romans felt towards him, and he put no trust whatever in the good faith of monarchs. He had already had experience of Prusias' fickleness of temper and he had dreaded the arrival of Flamininus as certain to prove fatal to himself. In face of the dangers confronting him on all sides he tried to keep open some one avenue of escape. With this view he had constructed seven exits from his house, some of them concealed, so that they might not be blocked by the guard. But the tyranny of kings leaves nothing hidden which they want to explore. The guards surrounded the house so closely that no one could slip out of it. When Hannibal was informed that the king's soldiers were in the vestibule, he tried to escape through a postern gate which afforded the most secret means of exit. He found that this too was closely watched and that guards were posted all round the place. Finally he called for the poison which he had long kept in readiness for such an emergency.

'Let us,' he said, 'relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man's death. The victory which Flamininus will win over a defenseless fugitive will be neither great nor memorable; this day will show how vastly the moral of the Roman People has changed. Their fathers warned Pyrrhus, when he had an army in Italy, to beware of poison, and now they have sent a man of consular rank to persuade Prusias to murder his guest.'

Then, invoking curses on Prusias and his realm and appealing to the gods who guard the rights of hospitality to punish his broken faith, he drained the cup. Such was the close of Hannibal's life..."

Vivid, for sure, but conforming to that very tradition mentioned at the onset of this article. But there is no a priori reason to discard the snake-attack on Eumenes, a story which sheds positive light on Hannibal. How else could Hannibal's presence stimulate such concern, despite Livy's intimation that they knew he was already in Prusias' company, other than as a military asset for a hostile state?

Thanks and enjoy, James

Below: the backdrop of Hannibal's last years in the later 190s BCE

Tour de forces of relevant scholarship:


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Hello.This post was extremely motivating, especially because I was browsing for thoughts on this subject last Thursday. cceekedckdke

    • Anonemuss profile image


      6 years ago from Belmont, Massachusetts

      great job on this hab. Love articles on the punic wars like this!

    • Spartan JKM profile imageAUTHOR

      Spartan JKM 

      7 years ago from Northern California

      Thank you very much, Hxprof. I'm glad you see where and how I extrapolated that fun 'thesis'.

      Thanks again, James :)

    • profile image


      7 years ago from Clearwater, Florida

      Good job with the analysis. You put forth a good case for Nicander as Polybius' source for the story of Hannibal's oath.


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