10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans

Patrick Lynch - October 27, 2017

Hannibal Barca was one of the greatest generals of the ancient world and came close to destroying Rome long before it became an empire. He was born in Carthage in 247 BC and his father, Hamilcar, was one of the leading generals in the First Punic War. It was during the Second Punic War where Hannibal made his name. Incredible victories at the Trebbia, Trasimene, and Cannae meant that Rome was on the verge of defeat.

Although he couldn’t finish the job, he continued to display his remarkable leadership throughout the war and thereafter. In this article, I look at ten interesting facts about the legendary Hannibal Barca.

1 – ‘Barca’ Means Lightning Flash

Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, was also an outstanding military commander and became known for his lightning-fast raids on enemy territory. He fought against Rome during the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC) and led the Carthaginian land forces in Sicily during the last six years of the conflict. Early in the war, the Carthaginians had been surprised by the ferocity of the Roman legions and decided to change tactics.

Rather than fighting open battles, they elected to utilize guerrilla warfare tactics which involved harassing isolated Roman garrisons and cutting off supply lines. While Hamilcar didn’t come up with the tactic, he absolutely mastered it, and the Romans feared him because of his ability to conduct quick-fire raids in and around Sicily. The speed of these attacks earned him the nickname Baraq (Barca) and the new surname was passed on to Hannibal.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Hamilcar Barca. Fine Art America

‘Baraq’ translates into either ‘lightning flash’ or ‘sword flash’ and Hannibal was certainly deserving of the name throughout his military career. His speed of thought and action was very apparent during the Second Punic War. In Epitome of the Histories, second century AD Roman historian, Annaeus Florus, compared Hannibal and his men to a lightning bolt. The Romans were probably shocked that he was able to cross the Alps let alone do it so quickly.

It was certainly a remarkable undertaking and one that Hannibal knew would strike fear into his enemies. There was also a strategic side to his daring decision. He realized that Carthage was no match for Rome in naval warfare and knew that his only chance of victory was to take the Romans on in land battles. Hannibal probably planned the march for years and used spies and scouts to find the best route. Ultimately, his goal was not just to cross the Alps as fast as possible, but also to have a fit and healthy army ready to take on the might of Rome.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Hannibal on Surus. History.com

2 – He Rode an Elephant That Was Missing a Tusk

Much is written about Hannibal’s war elephants as they crossed the Alps and the Carthaginian commander had his own beast that was called Surus (the Syrian). Although most of the elephants were African, Surus was supposedly a large Asian elephant that was missing a tusk. While a Carthaginian coin struck during the 3rd Century BC depicts Surus as an African elephant, historians believe it was an Indian elephant descended from those that had been seized by the Ptolemies of Egypt.

According to the Roman playwright, Plautus, Surus wore a red cloth and possibly had a red shield. It is also likely that there was a construction (known as a Howdah) on the elephant’s back. It makes sense that Hannibal would have a platform when riding Surus since he had problems watching the battlefield due to the loss of his eye.

It is also possible that he used the gigantic elephant as a status symbol. The Carthaginians had called upon the Gauls as allies, but they knew that their new comrades had a reputation for being fickle when it came to alliances. By riding on the enormous elephant, Hannibal believed the fearsome spectacle would ‘persuade’ the Gauls to remain loyal. He rode the elephant through the Alps and over the swamps that ultimately claimed his eye.

The decision to stay on Surus’ platform during battles worked out extremely well as he was supposedly on the elephant during the Battle of Cannae. He was directly behind the center of his troops and was able to issue orders with precision timing. The fate of Surus is unknown. Some historians believe it died before Cannae while others suggest the elephant went back to Africa with Hannibal over a decade after arriving in Italy. The latter theory seems unlikely.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Hannibal crossing the Alps. Ancient Origins

3 – He Used Innovative Ways to Break the Rocks He Encountered in the Alps

His legendary march through the Alps would have broken a lesser commander. The Carthaginians faced a torrid ordeal that could have ended his plan to attack Rome before it even began. As well as trekking through difficult terrain, there was the small matter of ambushes by mountain tribes. During the course of the march, the Carthaginians lost a significant number of men because of skirmishes and falls.

During the journey, Hannibal was routinely blocked by giant boulders, so he had to think of ingenious ways to get rid of them. On one occasion, the march was halted in a particularly dangerous area by giant rocks. As the men were in no condition to move the rocks through sheer force, Hannibal had to think of a cunning plan to clear the path.

He apparently ordered his men to build fires to heat up the boulders until they became incredibly hot. The next step was to throw vats of wine/vinegar on the stones. The rapid transition from hot to cold caused the boulders to crack. The larger the cracks became, the easier it was to pour more liquid in which caused the cracks to expand even further. Eventually, the rocks were weak enough that Hannibal’s men were able to remove the boulders.

As always, it is worth looking at the likelihood of such a deed. The main issue is: Where did the Carthaginians get such a large supply of wine or vinegar and how they did carry it with them? Polybius doesn’t mention the incident at all although Pliny does write about the vinegar. Regardless of how he achieved it, the passage through the Alps was a remarkable achievement and gave Hannibal the platform to get to the heart of Italy.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Hannibal Barca. Realm of History

4 – He Lost His Eye Early in his Invasion of Italy

Despite his brilliance early in his invasion of Italy, Hannibal didn’t always make the best possible decision. After the victory at the Battle of the Trebbia in 218 BC, Hannibal had two choices. One, he could march down Italy’s east coast and travel quickly along with the dry and flat land. The problem with this tactic was that he would probably meet well-armed Roman armies.

The second option, the one he chose, was to cross a massive swamp as a means of surprising the Romans. Although he ultimately succeeded in surprising the Romans with his arrival, it came at a considerable personal cost as well as resulting in numerous deaths amongst his army. One of the big problems with the swamp was that the water was extremely well distributed, so there was nowhere from the Carthaginian army to sleep.

Eventually, Hannibal suffered from an eye infection, many of his men died, and they apparently lost what remained of their war elephants (although it is possible that Surus survived). The Carthaginians did not encounter dry land for several days, and by that time, the infection was so bad that Hannibal lost his eye. He supposedly removed it entirely yet there are still some statues supposedly depicting him after Cannae which don’t show a missing eye or his famous eye patch.

Likewise, any images or statues relating to his crossing of the Alps which include Hannibal with one eye or an eye patch are misleading. As painful as losing the eye was, Hannibal did achieve his initial goal which was to meet the Romans in open battle in Italy. Massive victories at Lake Trasimene and Cannae ensured Rome was on its knees. The eye patch also served as a reminder to his men that their leader was prepared to suffer like them, and his character helped keep the army’s spirits up in tough times.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
How Hannibal looks in Total War Rome II Hannibal at the Gates. YouTube

5 – His Personality Won Over His Troops

As well as possessing outstanding military skill, Hannibal was the very definition of ‘leader.’ Not only did he manage to control his army, which was comprised of a large proportion of mercenaries, but he was also able to keep everyone together during the many difficult periods the army encountered. The losses endured during the crossing of the Alps and the swamp in Italy could have led to a mutiny under a less capable leader.

Just before the Battle of Cannae, it was clear that the Carthaginians were outnumbered by their foe. Several officers were clearly anxious about the upcoming battle and a man by the name of Gisgo spoke out about his fears to Hannibal. Again, a less capable leader would have punished the officer and caused morale to plummet further. However, Hannibal reportedly said that not one of the Romans soldiers was named Gisgo (to show that the Carthaginian army was superior) and his men began to laugh and cheer. The result of the battle was an incredible victory.

According to literary evidence of the age, Hannibal was known for his charisma and elected to sleep among his soldiers during the harsh conditions they encountered. When supplies began to run out, he refused special treatment and went hungry with his men. During tough times, Hannibal’s men knew they could rely on him, and he repaid their faith with a series of magnificent victories.

It is astonishing that the Carthaginian army managed to remain together for so long given the adverse conditions they faced and the fact it was laden with mercenaries who needed little excuse to flee. Eventually, many of them did, but those who remained were in no doubt as to where their loyalties lay. It was Hannibal’s penchant for staying amongst his men that probably cost him his eye. Instead of rushing to get treatment, he stayed with his army in the terrible swamp conditions.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Hannibal victorious at Cannae. Realm of History

6 – He Deliberately Chose Cannae to Lure the Romans into a Fight

The Battle of Cannae in 216 BC is still believed to be the biggest loss of human life during a single day in battle in history. Estimates regarding Roman casualties vary; Polybius wrote that over 85,000 Romans died while Livy said it was over 67,000 compared to up to 5,700 Carthaginian casualties. When you bear in mind that the estimated adult male population in Rome at that time was around 400,000, the Roman losses become even more crippling.

The fact that the battle happened at Cannae was no accident. The Romans had used the ruined citadel as a food magazine for various crucial items such as grain oil. Hannibal knew the importance of Cannae and began marching towards it from his camp at Geronium which was around 75 miles away. Even Hannibal’s soldiers didn’t know the real reason why he wanted to fight there.

Hannibal was aware that Rome was still dependant on grain grown in Italy, especially at Apulia which is where Cannae was located. After the defeats at the Trebbia and Lake Trasimene, the Romans adopted a more cautious approach, better known as the Fabian strategy. It was named after Quintus Fabius Maximus who was appointed dictator after Trasimene, and he elected to avoid open battle whenever possible.

However, Hannibal’s arrival at Cannae changed things. Once the Romans arrived on the scene, Hannibal sent his cavalry to stop the enemy from getting water from the only river in the area. To be fair, his cause was helped by the irritation felt by many Romans when they had to adopt the Fabian strategy. They believed Rome should always fight and didn’t like to stay in the shadows while the Carthaginians ravaged the countryside. After three days, Varro elected to confront Hannibal’s forces, and the Battle of Cannae began. The rest is history.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Bust of Hannibal Barca. PuttyandPaint

7 – His Greatest Victory Ultimately Led to his Defeat

Perhaps ironically, Hannibal’s victory at Cannae, his greatest ever win, led to his downfall as it began a sequence of events that resulted in his recall to Carthage. After the catastrophe of Cannae, the Romans finally realized that fighting Hannibal in open battle would lead to certain defeat. If we are critical of Hannibal, we could say that he didn’t take the opportunity to attack Rome when he had the chance. He pondered the feasibility and gave the enemy time to regroup.

While a few southern Italian cities attached themselves to Hannibal’s banner, he never again had the chance to take Rome. By then, however, Rome had wisely reverted to the Fabian strategy, and over the course of the next few years, it had enough men to outnumber Hannibal at various junctures. By 213 BC, Fabius had taken Arpi, a Carthaginian ally.

The main issue was that the manner of the defeat at Cannae forced the Romans into a complete rethink of their battle strategies. The hit and run tactics of the Fabian strategy did a fine job disrupting Carthaginian supply lines and weakening their army. Matters were made worse for Hannibal when he had to provide men for the cities that had defected in southern Italy.

Although he had been successful against the Romans to date, the battles were taking their toll on his forces and having to send men to the defectors weakened him further. Another big problem was that his army consisted of a large portion of mercenaries who were unsuited to siege warfare and elected to desert rather than get ground down in a war of attrition.

The arrival of Scipio Africanus was a disaster for Hannibal as the Roman commander was as clever as he was plus Scipio could call on a much stronger force. By 203 BC, after suffering several defeats, Hannibal wasn’t even able to get reinforcements as his brothers had been defeated. Eventually, he was forced to answer the call of the Barcids and set sail for Carthage; that was the end of his adventure in Europe.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Statue of Fabius Maximus. Wikipedia

8 – He Used Oxen to Create a Fake Army

After the catastrophe at Cannae in 216 BC, the Romans knew they had no choice but to return to the cautious Fabian strategy. Fabius Maximus was a shrewd and calculating commander, and he was clever enough to realize that meeting Hannibal in open battle was akin to signing his death warrant. By keeping Hannibal at bay, Fabius was able to give Rome time to boost its army and armaments.

Fabius had also been the commander before Cannae, and he came close to capturing the great general in 217 BC. Hannibal walked into a trap because of faulty directions from his guide. By the time he reached a low field called Ager Falernus, he could see that the Romans were in the hills and had completely trapped his army. It seemed as if he only had two choices; surrender or risk a massacre. However, Hannibal had a very different idea, one that completely outfoxed Fabius.

At night, Hannibal ordered his men to gather 2,000 oxen. Then he told them to tie bundles of wood to the oxen’s horns and set the wood on fire. The Romans, believing that it was a Carthaginian attempt to escape, were utterly confused when they heard further sounds which happened to be the actual Carthaginian army escaping through the weakest held route. As always, Fabius was cautious and elected to hold his position without realizing he had let Hannibal get away.

Soon afterward, Fabius’s Master of the Horse, Minucius, grew restless at his commander’s cautiousness and attacked Hannibal when Fabius was not around. The fight at Geronium was a setback for Rome as Hannibal got the upper hand once again. Only the swift arrival or Fabius prevented total annihilation. Although Hannibal had made fools of the Romans, he regarded Fabius’ rescue as a defeat for his army.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Depiction of the snakes Hannibal threw on the enemy ships. Twitter

9 – Venomous Snakes as a Weapon

Ancient commanders routinely came up with unusual strategies to defeat enemies, and given how savvy Hannibal was, it’s no surprise to learn that he had a few tricks up his sleeve. One of his strangest was the use of venomous snakes as weapons. During the war between Pergamon and Bithynia (190 – 184 BC), Hannibal fought for King Prusias of Bithynia.

During a battle at sea, Hannibal was outnumbered by the enemy, so he resorted to an unheard-of tactic; he created an ingenious scheme that preyed on the Pergamonian fear of poison and pain. First of all, Hannibal told some of his men to go ashore and capture as many venomous snakes as possible. Then they would pack the snakes into clay vessels and bring them back on board the ship.

As clever as the plan was, there was no finesse shown in the delivery of the unusual arsenal. The Bithynian force threw the clay pots filled with snakes onto the ships of the enemy when they got close enough. When the clay pots smashed on the decks of the Pergamonian ships, their initial reaction was to laugh at the perceived futility of the assault. It didn’t take long for them to change their tune.

As soon as they witnessed the slithering snakes crawl along their decks, the Pergamonian sailors went into full panic mode and were unable to fight. They ultimately surrendered despite having a significant advantage regarding ships and sailors. It was one of Hannibal’s last victories, but it showed his ability to think on his feet and find a win by any means necessary.

10 Fascinating Facts About the General who Nearly Took Down the Romans
Carthaginian Army. Realm of History

10 – He was an Excellent Statesman & Administrator

While Hannibal is rightly known for his military brilliance, he was also a skilled diplomat and administrator. His father, Hamilcar, was overseas on campaigns during Hannibal’s formative years but it didn’t hinder his education. In fact, it was probably the reason why Hannibal was so well-read. Back in Carthage, he benefited from the tutelage of some of the best scholars Greece had to offer, and he used his extensive education to great effect later in his career.

Defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC was the final conflict of the Second Punic War. Oddly enough, Scipio did not ask for Hannibal’s captivity as a condition of surrender. Perhaps he had too much respect for his fallen foe, or maybe he realized he needed a strong and charismatic presence in Carthage to ensure the conditions of the treaty were fulfilled. Whatever the reason, Hannibal was elected as one of Carthage’s two suffetes in 201, and he spent the next few years trying to rebuild the economy.

He was exceedingly successful in doing so to the point where Carthage was able to prosper and pay the steep Roman reparations. Hannibal also managed to limit the power of the council with annual elections. Previously, council members were able to remain in power for several years in a row and could almost do whatever they liked.

By 196, he had made many enemies in the council, and some members denounced him to Rome as a conspirator with Antiochus III, the Seleucid ruler, despite Scipio trying to help out his old enemy. Instead of hanging around and waiting for the inevitable, Hannibal decided to flee, and he met with Antiochus at Ephesus in 195. The economic revival he sparked ensured Carthage was so wealthy that it could pay its entire war indemnity to Rome all at once by 191. However, Rome declined the offer.