Hannibal and the Punic Wars

The Punic Wars and the Development of Rome

Matthew Raphael Johnson

Senior Researcher

The Barnes Review



The Punic Wars were a clash of two growing societies and their aspirations for supremacy of Mediterranean. The two polities was the growing Roman republic and the African commercial city of Carthage. The Punic Wars were not just a battle of two significant powers, but two very different civilizations. Carthage was a seafaring, commercial city, while Rome was slowly consolidating into a land empire based on slavery (Bagnal, 1990).

These great wars delivered two of the most famous generals in history. Rome’s Publius Cornelius Scipio “Africanus” and Carthage’s Hannibal Barca, both regarded as significant innovators in battlefield tactics. The Carthaginian loss, however, has little to do with Hannibal, who was an equal to Scipio, but to the relative position of the powers in regard to resources and political alliances.

Both used battlefield tactics that were somewhat unprecedented for the time in order to snatch victory from their enemies. Both men came from military families, which was not uncommon for the time. When they met in the Punic Wars, their own tactics turned out to be not so significant for the outcome. A genera is only as good as his men and his supplies, but just as important, a general is tied to the political fortunes of the society to which he is loyal. For Hannibal, this turned out to be a liability.


The Roman army was disciplined, but, at this early date, was far from the war-making machine it became. The strategy of Carthage was to live without hampering supply lines. In other words, his mercenary force was to live off the land where they were stationed. This turned out to be a large error, and one that could not be rectified once the famed Carthaginian navy was defeated, surprisingly, by the more land-oriented Roman force. The defeat of the Carthaginian navy was the single most significant element in the victory of Rome. Hannibal’s battlefield genius was incapable of responding to such a significant and extreme event.

Hannibal’s main achievement was his ability to keep his conscript and mercenary force together for approximately 14 years during his occupation of Southern Italy. Hannibal was constantly able to overcome the hurdles of long term battle, limited resources, aging soldiers, and the ups and downs of victory and failures in war. Scipio’s use of constant training for battlefield maneuvering via his well disciplined army is what eventually lead to his success.

This is not the end of the story. One reason why Hannibal was so successful in maintaining some modicum of discipline was the anti-Roman character of the Celts. Rome realized it needed to Po Valley, one of the most productive agricultural areas of southern Europe. At the time, it was the realm of the Celts. This was Hannibal’s main advantages. Yet the rule of Carthage was hardly better than that of Rome. While the Latin tribes of Central Italy to a great extent threw in their lot with Carthage, the Celts of the Po wavered. Carthage was a city dedicated top commercial profit. This did not create an administrative elite that maintained loyalty. The land-oriented mentality of Rome did much better in this regard. Therefore, the Celtic alliance did not last (Field, 2007).

At the same time, Rome was engaged in dealing with the African Nubians who continually harassed Carthage from the South. Thus, whatever advantage Hannibal took from his Celts was quickly diminished by the African attacks on Carthage proper. Carthage had more cash on hand than Rome, but the use of elephants by Hannibal rapidly diminished this amount of money. Roman defeats weer embarrassing, but the victories of the Roman navy as well as the distances that Hannibal had to traverse led to his eventual defeat. Hannibal might be argued to be the better commander, but his geographical disadvantages eliminated any advantage in that regard. The naval battle was the most significant, since this a) gave control over the Mediterranean and b) permitted an easier supply route.


Hannibal was the first of the two generals to prove his brilliance on the battlefield. As a response to Rome’s push into Carthage’s territory, Hannibal laid siege to the newly captured Roman city of Saguntum. While emerging victorious, it was here that he realized he would have difficulty warring with Rome, and needed to attack the heart of Rome itself, robbing them of their advantages of resources and military support Hannibal became the first army to cross the Alps. Exposure, desertion, accidents, and local tribal resistance reduced his army nearly in half. (Yocherer 2006). The lack of sea power destroyed Hannibal’s efforts. Celtic hostility to Rome diminished, leading to an uncertain alliance with Carthage, interested largely in trade routes and profitable exchange (Prevas, 1990).

In fact, many people believe it was his war elephants the proved to be advantageous for his successes in Italy, however most of his elephants perished during the hard transit from Spain to Italy. They cost a small fortune to maintain. Largely due to his Celtic alliances, he was able to rebuild his original military strengths to approximately 40,000. After crossing the Alps, Hannibal routed large Roman legions at both Lake Trasimene and Trebia. As a response to these embarrassing losses, Rome fielded one of the largest armies known in Roman history to both avenge the losses, and smash the foreign military now residing in Roman territory. Due to the sheer size of the force, Rome used a rotating two consuls system consisting of Caius Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paulus to command its armies.

Through intelligence sources, Hannibal realized that Varro was the preferred enemy he chose to face in battle. He used his knowledge of Varro’s hasty decision making process and seized a granary at the town of Cannae. Hannibal’s effective reconnaissance of the terrain placed his forces at a great advantage. Varro, overly aggressive, and overly confident due to large advantages in size of military forces chose to attack with what appeared to be limited planning. Varro’s plan was to force penetration into the center of Hannibal’s formation.

Hannibal’s army, consisting of approximately 25, 000 mixed Celtic, African, Libyan-Phoenician infantry, and approximately 7,000 mixed Spanish, Celtic and Numidian Calvary were positioned on a sloping terrain in a convex formation with the center protruding towards the oncoming Romans. Hannibal brilliantly positioned his troops in a way that layered his strengths to tire the Romans, and overpower their flanks. Knowing Varro would push to penetrate the center of his force Hannibal planned his strategy. He allowed penetration, buying time for his superior numbers in Cavalry to annihilate the Roman right flank. His plan was nearly flawless. Varro fled the field of battle; Aemilius Paulus killed defending the left flank, and the Roman army found itself fighting an uphill battle, against the wind and suddenly enveloped on all sides by the heavy infantry anchoring Hannibal’s wings.

Moreover, Hannibal’s cavalry returned to the field of battle and was able to attack the Roman rear. The Romans, with their formations suffocated, and attacked from all sides pressed on with the failed plan, only to make the situation worse. Eventually the Romans would lose approximately 83% of its force. Historical estimates are as high as 71,500 of the original 86,000 died as a result of the Battle of Cannae.

This did not ultimately help the cause of Carthage. The efforts of the city state to become an empire were highly problematic. The bureaucratic structure of the city was dedicated to commercial expansion, not direct rule. Second, supplies hampered Hannibal’s moves in Europe. Third, Hannibal’s use of massacre turned many of his former supporters against him. As a means of instilling fear in roman cities, massacring civilians destroyed much of the Celtic and northern Italian loyalty to Carthage.


Hannibal was an individual, not an institution. Carthage had yet to do what Rome had already done: build an administration. Carthage, even with other factors equal, was far less able to maintain a war of attrition. Hannibal’s problem was to draw Rome out, since a pitched battle with elephants was his best chance. Since Rome was sighting in a defensive posture in Italy, attrition was very easy for the Roman forces with a bureaucracy that was capable of continuing the war effort even if talented commanders were to disappear. Attrition takes fairly little skill. The finesse Hannibal needed to expend in the diminishing amount of time he had left was too much of an obstacle.

Following the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal’s generals insistently urged him to march on Rome and seize the opportunity to win the war. Hannibal feared he could not maintain a long term seize of the capital city and decided to fortify himself in the Southern Peninsula. Hannibal, in other words, decided to dig in. Rome’s attrition strategy was too well developed for Carthage. This decision eventually cost him the war. B.D. Hoyos writes,

Obvious and inevitable as the invasion of Italy may appear to us – since he did carry it out – it was in fact extremely risky. Carthage had been preeminently a sea power, though often operating with large land armies as well, notably in Sicily; but Hannibal was proposing to fight a land war, and to open it with a land advance through independent and not necessarily friendly country on a route over a thousand miles long from his capital New Carthage in southern Spain, without reinforcements or provisioning by Punic ships along the way, and with two formidable mountain-ranges to overcome (Pyrenees and Alps). In Italy, Rome’s network of alliances had been tested and found true both in the First Punic War and again when a great Gallic invasion took place in 225. The only rebellious area Hannibal could be sure of winning over was the newly subdued northern Italy, inhabited by Gauls. If things went wrong he could be held up or cut off with the main army of Carthage, while the Romans massed overwhelming forces to invade both Spain and North Africa (171-172).

Hannibal was too cautious, though none could blame him. Rome was politically far better off than Carthage. Ultimately, it was not personalities, but institutions that won Rome not only the Punic Wars, but the very long development of an empire and total social consolidation. Carthage was not capable of such a consolidation. Few societies were at the time. Roman institutions permitted a predictable movement of resources that allowed the war of attrition to continue.

Rome won not because of its generals, but because of its political and economic structure. The fact is that whichever side was organized for a long siege would win. While Hannibal outnumbered the roman forces after Cannae, this did not mean that his forces would do well in hand to hand combat with Rome. Hannibal’s numbers ultimately meant nothing, since he could not be certain of Celtic loyalty on the one hand, or the constant opposition of the central Italian Latin tribes on the other (Bagnal, 1990).

Rome was also in the process of bringing the Latin elites into its own bureaucracy. Giving them Roman titles and a clear claim to Italian land did much to cement the Latin tribes—slowly but surely—to Rome. Hannibal , nor the Carthaginian city-state, was capable of matching these diplomatic maneuvers.

The nature of political theory is significant here as well. Carthage desired most of all a commercial empire based on exploitation. Rome sought an expanding land empire based on mutual support. Smaller tribal organizations would be brought into the roman orbit through conquest. Their elites were brought into the Roman system, while their lands had an increasingly large and stable market and network of roads to profit from. Rome’s “landed” status meant that it was building a civilization, not a patchwork of commercial cities based on monetary profit. Rome was building a land empire connected by an impressive infrastructure largely taken from its Greek colonies to the east.

Regardless of Rome’s dependence on slavery, she was capable of bringing a local elite into her administration with a minimum of difficulty. The question of bureaucracy is significant, in that it regularized the movement of resources through the republic.


In concluding this, the main issue to consider is whether or not individuals can win wars, let alone one as complex and significant as the Second Punic. Hannibal may well have been the superior commander. He may well have, at first, had the most loyal forces as Rome alienated many groups in southern Europe. Hannibal did not have a political or administrative structure to follow up any victory. The Roman bureaucracy, albeit in its infancy, was far superior to that of Carthage. The entire Roman approach to politics was dedicated entirely to the variables that led to Hannibal’s defeat. Men, arms and discipline are important, but they are not all important. Roman institutions and the predictable flow of resources were capable of following up on the defeats of the Carthaginian sea power and slowly cooped the elites of central and northern Europe. The lack of institutions from Carthage led to the poor coordination of what was otherwise a coherent military policy. Politics, not arms, win wars. A strong legal and administrative order that can maintain a city on a war footing even in the absence of charismatic leaders was the very future of Europe and Africa, while brash military commanders can only serve as far as their actual presence would allow.




Bagnall , Nigel. The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage, and the Struggle for the Mediterranean. Macmillan, 1990

Field, Nic. The Roman Army of the Punic Wars 264-146 BC. Osprey, 2007

Fournie, Daniel A. “Second Punic War: Battle of Zama.” Historynet.com. September 05, 2006. http://www.historynet.com/second-punic-war-battle-of-zama.htm (accessed Febraury 24, 2012).

Hoyos, Dexter. Hannibal’s dynasty (electronic Resource): Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 BC. London; New York; Routledge, 2003.

_____. Hannibal: What Kind of Genius? Greece & Rome, Second Series, 30 (Oct., 1983). 171-180

Lacey, James. “Rome’s Craftiest General: Scipio Africanus.” Historynet.com. June 08, 2007. http://www.historynet.com/romes-craftiest-general-scipio-africanus.htm (accessed February 25, 2012).

O’Connell, Robert L. The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic. New York: Random House, 2010.

Prevas, John. Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy and the Punic Wars. Capo Press, 1998

Santosuosso, Antonio. Storming the Heavens: Soldiers, Emperors, and Civilians in the Roman Empire. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001.

Yocherer, Greg. Second Punic War: Battle of Cannae. Historynet.com June 12, 2006 http://www.historynet.com/second-punic-war-battle-of-cannae.html (accessed February 24, 2012).

Terrell, Glanville. Hannibal’s Pass over the Alps. The Classical Journal, 17 (Jun., 1922) 503-513

Posted in: TBR Articles and tagged: , , ,