Three coins found in Spain depict Hamilcar Barca (above), his son-in-law Hasdrubal
(left below) and son Hannibal Barca.

Hannibal at the gates


At the end of the war the returning mercenaries found that the Carthaginians couldn't pay their accrued wages — the government was short of funds. When anger spilled over into riot the Carthaginian authorities were compelled to recruit a new army – with Rome’s tacit assent. However, the lack of success in quelling the rebellion brought disgraced Hamilcar Barca back to power, who completed the job and won unequivocal command of Carthage in 238 BC. His hatred of Rome was well known. The Roman Senate felt threatened and made a swift about-turn in its lenient policy towards Carthage. In the same year Rome successfully seized Sardinia and tightened her hold on Corsica.

With Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica gone, Carthaginian attention
turned to Spain, already partly settled along the coast by
Carthaginian colonies. In 237, Hamilcar, his son-in-law Hasdrubal
and Hamilcar’s nine-year-old son Hannibal crossed into Spain and
set up headquarters in the Punic colony of Gades (Cadiz). From
here, Hamilcar conquered the disparate Celtiberian tribes in the south and east. This action gave him access to the regions’ wealthy mineral resources – silver and copper soon refilled Carthage’s empty treasury. To a frightened Roman Senate, Hamilcar offered dubious comfort: he was only ensuring that Carthage could meet the indemnity levied after the War. In any case, Rome had its hands full elsewhere (see panel).

In 228, while withdrawing from a siege of Helice (Eleche), Hamilcar was drowned and his troops chose Hasdrubal to succeed him, later ratified by Carthage. Hasdrubal continued the conquest of Iberia but agreed with Rome in 226 not to cross the River Ebro. Five years later, he lay dead at the hands of an aggrieved Celt and Hamilcar’s 25-year-old son Hannibal (247–c.183 BC) took command.

According to Polybius, Hamilcar had made the young boy swear an oath of eternal loathing against Rome, and it was this abiding animosity that both marked and marred his remarkable career. Hannibal continued his father’s conquests to the north of Spain before besieging the city of Saguntum in 220. Although south of the Ebro, it was under Roman protection, and when Hannibal took it in 219, after an eight-month siege, Rome declared war on Carthage.

With its newly gained mastery of the sea, Rome expected to dictate where the Second Punic War would take place: Spain and Africa. Hannibal thought otherwise. He was acquainted with the fragile state of affairs within Rome’s Italian confederacy and decided her power could only be smashed by destroying it. He decided to take the fight to Italy. The ambitious plan called for the movement of (according to Polybius) 90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and many elephants north from the Ebro, across the Pyrenees, then a
dash across the Rhône valley to the Alpine
passes into Cisalpine Gaul, where he hoped to
recruit the Celtic tribes inhabiting the Po valley.
The gamble called for crossing the high passes
before winter condemned his troops to a
lingering death in the snow and ice.

At first, his luck held out. Two Roman legions
under the consul Publius Cornelius Scipio
should have headed for Spain and would have
met him at the Rhône, but were delayed by a
Celtic uprising around the new Latin colonies
of Cremona and Placentia. Scipio raised two
more legions and reached the Rhône in August,
only to find he had missed Hannibal by days.
Contemplating Hannibal’s folly in marching into
the Alps, Scipio decided to send the legions
towards Spain under his brother Gnaeus, while
he returned to Italy to gather the other two
legions and await Hannibal south of the Alps.

As the Punic columns continued up remote
paths toward Alpine summits, they were vulnerable to attack from hostile tribes and also severe weather. Countless men and animals died when they lost their footings on icy tracks. One of the routes identified as that likely to have been taken by Hannibal and his men reaches as high as 2,740 m (9,000 ft) above sea level.

Despite the number of casualties and the extreme conditions, Hannibal reached the Italian peninsula in just 15 days, but with only 26,000 men. Despite the perils of the crossing, there was no insurgency among the motley troops, a telling tribute to Hannibal’s charisma and leadership skills. However, his enemy had been equally swift. When he stormed the chief town of the Taurini (Turin), he discovered that the legions in northern Italy were commanded by Scipio, who had travelled nearly 1,610 km (1,000 miles) in a month.

For Hannibal the arduous business of war was just beginning. Although he was blessed with military acumen, his army was far from home and would be perpetually outnumbered. Nevertheless, Hannibal was to carve a route around the Italian peninsula that would remain etched on the Roman psyche for centuries.

Carthage's Spanish territories between 237 BC and the start of the Second Punic War in 218.
Click the map for a larger downloadable image.

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