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Carthaginians of the 2nd Punic War: Hannibal Barca in Iberia (222 BC to 218 BC)

Military careers were not popular among Carthaginians. Never very numerous, direct descendant Carthaginians preferred positions in government and trade. Those that did find their way into the military would serve in the cavalry as officers unless there was a national crisis and then citizens would volunteer or be conscripted into Punic Phalanxes as in the Mercenary Wars and 3rd Punic War.


An exception was one family who did excel in war. The family of Hamilcar Barca, father to Hannibal and his two brothers; Hasdrubal and Mago. Hamilcar Barca fought in the 1st Punic War, a bitter campaign against Rome to retain control of Sicily which failed. Little wonder then that his three sons were central figures of the 2nd War.


Hannibal Barca was promoted to General Commander-in-Chief of the army occupying the south and southeast of Iberia when he was twenty-six. It may seem a young age by modern comparisons, but in an age when life expectancy was forty and boys of fourteen went to war, it was not unusual and Alexander the Great began his conquest of the Persian Empire when he was twenty-two.


Hannibal had no illusions about the power struggle that was unfolding. Rome’s growing control and influence was a threat to the trade dominance that Carthage had enjoyed for centuries. More than that, Roman culture was a crude hybrid of the preceding Greek and Etruscan cultures that must have seemed barbarous to the Phoenician descendants of Carthage.


What did the Romans think of Hannibal Barca? These words by the Roman historian Titus Livy describe a man obsessed.

“His fearlessness in encountering dangers, and his prudence when in the midst of them, were extreme. His body could not be exhausted, nor his mind subdued, by any toil, he could alike endure either heat or cold.” After raising Hannibal up in this manner, Livy goes on, “Excessive vices counterbalanced these high virtues of the hero; inhuman cruelty, more than Punic perfidy, no truth, no reverence for things sacred, no fear of the gods, no respect for oaths, no sense of religion. With a character thus made up of virtue and vices…”


Hannibal also had his detractors in Carthage. A prominent senator named Hanno the Great, warned against allowing Hannibal to take command of the army in Iberia and feared the son of Hamilcar would ‘kindle a vast conflagration’.


As for the mercenary army of veterans in Iberia; it seems they took to Hannibal at once, seeing in him their beloved general, Hamilcar Barca.


From the outset of his command, Hannibal had his army in the field marching against the Olcades, the Vaccaei and the Carpetani. He besieged and overcame three major settlements in two seasons and defeated a combined army of as many as one-hundred thousand Iberians at the Battle of the Tagus in 220 BC.

With the Iberians subdued and his army rich with plunder, he wintered in Qart Hadast (Cartagena) only to take to the field again in the spring of 219 BC. This time he had loftier ambitions; namely to overcome the city of Sagunt (Saguntum), a key ally of Rome. Unlike the previous Iberian settlements, Sagunt was a castle-like city perched high on a steep-sided hill and manned by a determined force of seventy-thousand warriors.


This siege was bitterly tough. There was no easy way to reach the walls and once at them, no way over. The defenders were experienced and had likely been expecting Hannibal’s assault from the moment he assumed command. Not only did they have the high ground, they had outer and inner city walls and as many hands as needed to man them and shore up damage as fast as Hannibal’s engineers could deliver it.


Hannibal’s army fought at the walls for eight long months; from May to December, taking heavy losses. During one assault, Hannibal was severely wounded by a javelin which struck him in the leg. The Romans sent officials to demand that he withdraw, as per the terms of a treaty signed between Rome and Hasdrubal the Fair some years earlier. Hannibal opted to have the Romans confined to their ship until, frustrated and impatient, they sailed for Carthage.


At the end of 219 BC or the beginning of 218 BC, in the darkest days of winter, Hannibal’s army overcame the last Saguntine defenses and the city surrendered. Hannibal offered the citizens the opportunity to leave with two changes of clothing, but when some tried to burn their wealth, eight months of frustration boiled over and he retaliated by having every adult executed.


Did the difficulty of this siege contribute to Hannibal’s reluctance to besiege Rome after his emphatic victory at Cannae? I have no doubts that upon seeing the walls of Rome, Hannibal had flashbacks to eight months of grueling conditions at the walls of Sagunt, fighting die-hard defenders, hunger and disease.


The net result of Hannibal’s first three years as General Commander-in-Chief was the crushing of any imminent uprising among Iberia's tribes. With his base on the peninsula secure, he could turn his attention on the Italian cities subjugated by Rome, forging ahead with a plan that had been conceived by his father after the loss of Carthaginian naval supremacy in the 1st Punic War.



Source material

Plutarch, Life of Timoleon

Diodorus Siculus, Library xvi. and xx.

Duncan Head, Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars 359 BC to 146 BC

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