Perhaps no one so important in history that we know so little about personally. His military and tactical gifts are well known but he was also well educated – he kept literary men around him (Silenus and Sosylus). He probably conversed in Greek or Latin during the famous meeting with Scipio before the battle of Zama. There is no evidence for the Roman accusations of his perfidy – Rome was much better at this type of deception – at Messana, the seizing of Sardinia, the disarming Carthage immediately before the 3rd Punic War. As for his supposed cruelty he does nothing out of the ordinary for ancient warfare – in fact he seemed reasonably humane and showed great respect towards fallen enemies – the burial of Flaminius, Amelius Paullus, Sempronius Gracchus and Marcus Marcellus – contrast this with the barbarity with which Claudius Nero treated Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal. He is also accused of avarice (greed) but again he only seems to act in this way to supply his army or to deprive the enemy of resources.
So a genius on the battlefield but perhaps not so great a genius when it came to grand strategy. After his early great victories he was unable to finish off the Romans – a testament to their resilience but perhaps also to Hannibal’s inability to rethink his approach after his early successes. The Carthaginian forces were always dispersed and a coherent strategy is difficult to discern – it seems in fact to be a rather conventional policy of attrition which was one which the Carthaginians could least afford.
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus
Hannibal’s nemesis but not as well remembered even though perhaps he was a better military commander – he never lost a battle. Unfortunately his memoirs are lost as is his life by Plutarch so again we rely on Polybius and Livy for most of our information about him. He seems to have been a unique character – different to the run of the mill aristocratic Roman with his long hair. A fierce patriot and supremely confident diplomat and general. Everyone he met seems to have been influenced by his charisma. He was most certainly one of the main reasons Rome won the 2nd Punic War. Later in his career he suffered some financial scandals and went into self-imposed exile where he died around the same time as his greatest foe, Hannibal.
The father and the force behind the Barca boys – perhaps even the mastermind of the land invasion of Italy. A gifted and resourceful general – the best of the 1st Punic War according to Polybius. Didn’t lose to the Romans, quelled rebellion at home, extended the Carthaginian empire in Africa and Spain. A very able and bold leader and a role model to his sons.
Although not present for it, Hamilcar is perhaps the major cause of the Second Punic War. His bitterness in defeat passed onto his sons – increased by the unprincipled Roman seizure of Sardinia and then his brilliant expansion into Spain heightened Roman fears of a Carthaginian revival.
Seemingly a competent general and governor of Spain but not as brilliant as his older brother. Equally committed to the Carthaginian cause as evidenced by his constant campaigning and brave death at the Metarus river. You get the feeling that as the senior general he could have done more to unite the disparate Carthaginian armies in Spain after their success against the elder Scipio brothers. This could have allowed him to go to Hannibal’s aid earlier than the bold but fateful march in 207 B.C. and perhaps changed the outcome of the war.
Another gifted general and one of Hannibal’s trusted battlefield officers. He played important roles at the battle of Trebbia and Cannae and was sent home to lobby the Council of 100 after that victory. He was diverted to Spain with reinforcements and eventually led a doomed invasion of northern Italy where he was mortally wounded. Like his brothers, the evidence shows he was a good soldier and diplomat, much more than that it is impossible to know.
Hannibal’s cavalry general. Most famous for the quote attributed by Livy to him after the Battle of Cannae “You know how to win victory, Hannibal; you do not how to use it”.
Fabius Maximus ‘The Delayer’
Made dictator of Rome after the Battle of Trasimene. The people of Rome gave him the nickname ‘The Delayer’ (Cunctator) due to his tactics of shadowing the enemy army and refusing to fight in an open battle, slowly wearing Hannibal down. The policy was unpopular but historians credit Fabius with saving Rome from destruction. One of his other middle names was ‘Verrucosus’ or ‘warty’, referring to a wart above his upper lip.
King of Numidia, an ancient North African Kingdom. Educated (held hostage) in Carthage as a youth and fought for the Carthaginians in Spain. He switched sides after meeting an impressive and persuasive Scipio and when he felt that Rome was the stronger power and could make him king of his homeland. He was an important ally for Scipio at the battle of Zama and ruled Numidia until he was in his 90s – still leading his army in battle and apparently fathering a child at 86. A charismatic personality – his speedy marriage to Sophonisba and equally speedy poisoning of her is also a testament to his impetuous and impulsive character.
The Carthaginian Cleopatra – a patriotic and beautiful Carthaginian noblewoman who has inspired operas, plays and paintings. Intended for Massinissa as a bride until he allied himself with the Romans, she was then married to Syphax to seal the Carthaginian Numidian alliance. Sophinsba was apparently instrumental in encouraging Syphax to continue fighting after his heavy losses to Scipio in Africa. After Syphax’s defeat she convinced him to marry her, presumably the same day (that) he met her!. To avoid being captured by the Romans She drank poison offered her new husband (to avoid being captured by the Romans) and (famously saying) said “I willingly accept this wedding gift…but I should have died better had I not married at the point of death!”
Hasdrubal ‘the fair’
Son in law of Hamilcar and leader of Carthaginians between 229 BC to 221 BC. Took power after Hamilcar’s death and was succeeded by Hannibal when assassinated by a supposedly aggrieved Celtic mercenary. Founded New Carthage (modern Cartagena) and did much to consolidate Carthaginian power in Spain.
Gaius Terentius Varro
Roman consul defeated at the battle of Cannae. According to Livy, who emphasised his low birth, was responsible for rashly committing to battle against Hannibal. Survived the battle to be proconsul in 215-213BC and 208-207BC.
Lucius Aemilius Paullus
Consul 219 and 216 BC. According to Livy advised Paullus not to take the field against Hannibal at Cannae. Died in the resulted battle.
Syphax did the opposite to Massinissa – originally allied to the Romans he later in the war aligned his kingdom with the Carthaginians. Like Massinissa he was a brave leader of his men and was captured riding alone trying to rally them to greater efforts. He once hosted Scipio and Hasdrubal for dinner perhaps hoping he could single headedly stop hostilities over a few glasses of wine. He wasn’t successful and died in captivity in Italy.
Hannibal’s officer corps
Hannibal’s officer corps must have been a phenomenal group of men – brothers Mago and Hasdrubal, nephew Hanno, cavalry officers Marhabal and Carthalo, his friends Mago the Samnite and Hannibal the Galdiator, a Hasdrubal who was instrumental in the victory at Cannae, Muttinus the half Libyan who was so successful in Sicily…
A long list of loyal and able men that kept the mongrel Carthaginian army together and functioning effectively, manoeuvred it precisely during battle and won more than their fare share of victories.
Our main source for Hannibal’s war against Rome. Only parts of the Greek historian’s Rise of the Roman Empire survive, but lucky for us, we have most sections relevant to the 2nd Punic War. This politician and military leader born in about 200 B.C said his motivation for writing was to explain the rise of Rome, the superpower conquering the known world – including his own people. The work is well respected by modern scholars for its reasoned, evidence based approach to history – unusual for the time. Polybius wrote a generation after Hannibal’s war but interviewed witnesses and visited key locations including the Alps and Carthage. Frustratingly, he seems to have known which Alpine pass Hannibal took into Italy but doesn’t actually mention it by name. He was a close friend of the Scipio family but appears to resist the temptation of bias except perhaps when he deals with the Scipios in the conflict.
This Roman historian is our other main source and a legend in his own lifetime. Born in 59 B.C. in Padua, his monumental History of Rome has survived with a compete account of the war with Hannibal. One of Livy’s fans travelled all the way from Spain just to lay eyes on him! He was a very popular writer during the Renaissance and the 19th century but modern scholars are not so fond of him because of his pro-Roman bias and a tendency to prefer literary style and a good story over substance. Livy’s content is often very similar to Polybius but differs in some key points like crucial phases of Hannibal’s Alpine crossing.