Today’s tale is set in the Asiatic town of Libyssa, in Bithynia – on the periphery of what is now Turkey. The date, some time around 182 BCE. Hannibal Barca, perhaps one of the all time great generals in world history is pacing the room like a caged Barbary Lion. His life, from the age of nine had lead to this point – ever since his father made him take an oath he would “Never be a friend of Rome.” At the time Rome was a republic with it’s greatest days ahead of it. The tough, militaristic state had yet to really flex – to show what they were capable of. Carthage, was already a superpower, but one on the decline. The two powers had come to blows over the Carthaginian island of Sicily, now part of modern Italy. For 23 years the two superpowers butted heads. They fought on land and sea – and finally the young lion, the Roman republic, got the better of Carthage.
Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, had been present at the Peace of Lutatius; where Carthage was ordered out of Sicily for good, to be peaceful to Syracuse and her allies, to pay 56 tons of silver over 20 years as reparations, and to hand over their weapons. A leading general in the war against Rome, Hamilcar agreed to all terms bar one – he and his men refused to disarm under any circumstances. Peace had been a relative term for Carthage, As soon as the first Punic war ended, Hamilcar was sent out to quash several rebellions from their own people. The unsightliness of it left him with a lifelong hatred of the Romans – which he passed on to his young son.
Pacing in that Bithynian compound, one wonders; did Hannibal cast his mind back to his youth. As a young general, he marched an army of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and of course 38 elephants over the Alps, hitting the Romans where they never saw an attack coming. To cross the alps with an army, and war elephants was madness, utterly suicidal – yet he did it. On the other side, Hannibal’s army wreaked havoc. Though half his army died on the Alps crossing, his remaining force made short work of the Roman’s, time and time again. Ticinus, Trebia, Lake Trasimene. Nothing stood in the way of him sacking Rome itself – other than the fact he left his siege engines in the Pyrenees; and the oligarchs back home refused him the financial backing to build new ones. The war in Italy would eventually wind down to a stalemate.
If, one’s life flashes before your eyes when facing your demise, the battle of Cannae would loom disproportionately large. A masterclass in completely obliterating a much bigger army, military strategists with much greater understanding of such things than myself, still rate Cannae as one of the all-time greatest battles of history. The Romans outnumbered Hannibal and his allies by almost 2 to 1. They were slaughtered at a rate of more than 11 to 1 in the battle. Hannibal’s cavalry encircled the Romans from the outside. Within Roman ranks, a band of 500 ‘deserters’ revealed hidden short swords and cut them to ribbons. Death came from all directions. Pliny would write of 67,000 dead Romans, Polybius of 5,700 dead Carthaginians. In the aftermath, many Roman allies jumped ship. The Romans turned to guerrilla warfare, never again fielding a large army against Hannibal on Roman soil.
The Romans refused all peace treaties, enlisted all their men into military service, and carried on. Carthage’s oligarchs responded indifferently to Hannibal’s requests for the siege engines needed to topple Rome itself. In 202 BC Rome eventually landed a king hit, at Zama, modern day Tunisia. The Roman Scipio Africanus succeeded where Hannibal failed, and the oligarchs declared peace.
Hannibal must have cast his mind back to his middle age, as an avenging, populist politician. He limited the term an oligarch could rule from life, to two one year terms. He taxed them so they would pay their fair share. Just as his reforms were bearing fruit however, the accusation came from Rome that he was colluding with Antiochus III of Syria to overthrow the Roman empire. He would find himself exiled, forced to spend his remaining years on the lam, a soldier of fortune for whoever a. could afford him and b. would be willing to harbor him, knowing Rome could arrive at any time. Antiochus took him in for a while, then Artaxias I of Armenia. For a while he hid out in the pirates’ den which was Crete, before finding employ with Prusias I of Bithynia.
Bithynia would eventually succumb to the Roman yoke, and Prusias would betray Hannibal anywhere between 183 and 181 BC, though they were told to find him themselves. Roman soldiers would track him to his house and demand his surrender. One tale has it, in a ‘live by the sword’ moment, that Hannibal had recently injured his hand by his own sword, and the wound was sceptic. Another tells, in his final moments he downed a vial of poison. Whatever the case, the Romans entered the premises, cautiously, to a deathly silence. The old lion had passed, a note on the table read
“Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.”