Hannibal, (247–183 B.C.), a Carthaginian general. He was one of the greatest military geniuses of ancient times. A master of deception, ambush, and surprise attack, he devised maneuvers that have been copied ever since. In the Second Punic War, Hannibal made a remarkable march across the Alps to invade Italy, where he wiped out three Roman armies. Rome eventually won the war, but Hannibal's skill made the victory costly.

Hannibal was the son of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca. In 237 Hamilcar transported an army from Africa to Spain and started a campaign of conquest. Nine-year-old Hannibal accompanied his father.

In 221 B.C. Hannibal succeeded to the command of Hamilcar's well-trained army and took over control of the conquered territory. Distinctive features of the army were its cavalry units, and the war elephants from whose backs javelin-throwers made their attacks. Hannibal made further conquests in 220, and in 219 took Saguntum (Sagunto), a city of eastern Spain allied with Rome. A Roman protest to Carthage was ignored, and in 218 Rome declared war.

The Second Punic War, 218–201 B.C.

In May of 218 B.C. Hannibal started north from New Carthage (Cartagena) with about 40,000 men and a corps of 37 elephants. Crossing the Pyrenees Mountains, he began to meet opposition from the Gauls. Forcing his way along the Mediterranean coast, he reached the Rhōne River and moved up its valley without meeting the Roman army that had been sent to intercept him. In early autumn Hannibal took his army—including the elephants—across the Alps. Besides attacks from the Gauls, there were landslides and early snowfalls to increase the hazards of the march. Hannibal reached the Po River in late September with only 26,000 men and a few elephants.

Hannibal's Great Victories

The first encounter with the Romans came almost at once, at the Ticinus River. In a battle involving mainly cavalry, the Carthaginians won a quick victory. The bulk of the Roman army was still intact, however, and Rome sent a second army north to join it. In early December Hannibal lured the combined force into a trap on the Trebia River near Placentia (Piacenza) and destroyed it.

Over the winter Hannibal made alliances among the Gauls, and in the spring marched south. Near Lake Trasimeno he ambushed and destroyed a Roman army. The Carthaginian army continued south and the Romans prepared to defend Rome against assault, but Hannibal had no wish to besiege a walled city. In August, 216 B.C., he met the Romans at Cannae. Greatly outnumbered, Hannibal used an enveloping movement to surround the Roman forces and cut them to pieces.

Fabian Tactics and A Stalemate

After Cannae, many Italian cities joined Hannibal's cause. The Romans, under Fabius Verrucosus, avoided further direct conflict with Hannibal's forces. Their tactics of cautious harassment and delay resulted in 10 years of indecisive maneuvering. (Such a policy of caution and delay has come to be called “Fabian,” after Fabius.) Gradually Rome won back the disloyal Italian cities. Hasdrubal, Hannibal's brother, had meanwhile left Spain with an army, marched across the Alps, and entered Italy to come to Hannibal's aid. The Romans learned of Hasdrubal's plans through captured messages and met him in battle at the Metaurus River (207) where he was defeated and killed. His head was tossed into Hannibal's camp.

Defeat of Carthage

In 204 B.C. Publius Scipio (later called Scipio Africanus the Elder) launched a campaign in Africa against Carthage itself. Hannibal was called home, and landed in Africa in 202. At the Battle of Zama Hannibal's comparatively untrained troops were routed. Carthage accepted Rome's peace terms. Hannibal was named by the Carthaginians to govern the country, but Rome soon became alarmed and accused him of conspiring against the peace. Hannibal escaped to Asia Minor.

Life As A Fugitive

In 195 B.C. Hannibal found refuge with the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, at Ephesus. Antiochus was persuaded by Hannibal to make an attack on Roman-held Greece. The campaign was disastrous. Hannibal, in charge of the fleet, was defeated, and Antiochus lost battles at Thermopylae (191) and Magnesia (190 or 189). Hannibal escaped to Bithynia and fought in a war between Bithynia and Pergamum. When Rome intervened, and Roman agents arrived in Bithynia to seize Hannibal, there was no place left to flee. Hannibal committed suicide by taking poison.