Annibale Barca from Spain to Italy: a deadly challenge for Rome

(To David Rossi)
04/12/19

The appointment today is with the second interview with Roberto Trizio, founder of the YouTube channel "The Bar of Ancient Rome", the continuation of the our article of 25 last October. This time we talk about the "European" second Punic war, cross and delight of high school students and not only, but also theater for one of the greatest military geniuses of ancient times, at least equal to Julius Caesar. I refer to the Carthaginian Hannibal Boat. On the decisive battle of Zama, a turning point in the history of the Mediterranean and beyond, we will return later ...

Could you describe for the readers the initial picture of the second Punic war?

The initial picture of the second Punic war derives directly from the first. Rome has won a long and heavy war on the sea, and has control of almost the entire Italian peninsula, of Sicily and Sardinia. It is very very important, it is practically master of the Mediterranean, with its naval fleet.

Carthage has been relegated to secondary power, with all the consequences of a lost conflict, but with two elements that constitute the seeds of the second Punic war. The presence of the Barca family that leads the Carthaginian Senate and Hannibal, totally intent on reversing the roles, and the creation of a small kingdom "barcide" (that is of the Barca family) in Spain, which slowly becomes the operational base to launch the new offensive.

Hannibal indeed. Who was he? Where was it formed? Before the battles in Italy had he already shown his genius?

Hannibal was the scion of one of the most influential families of Carthage, with an education of the highest level of the Hellenistic style. What made Hannibal a genius was the ability to adapt combat techniques from the Greek world to Western armies and create their own fighting style out of any ranking.

Before the battles in Italy, Hannibal accomplished, taking the "witness" from his father Amilcare, a series of important conquests in Spain. Surely the most impressive is the battle against 100mila Carpetani, a gigantic army that by the way manages to beat making it cross a river with weapons and baggage before attacking it: the same thing that will happen in the battle of Trebbia.

How does the Second Punic War begin? How are the forces in the field?

As for the Romans, they think that the second Punic war will be a re-edition of the first, or that they will fight on the sea. For this reason they deploy their fleet and the majority of their army in Sicily ready to attack the opponent head-on in North Africa.

For the Carthaginians, on the other hand, it starts with Hannibal's full awareness that a frontal attack would be impractical, and therefore conceives Spain as a starting point and from there an extraordinary journey through continental Europe with an army that, only for the made to go beyond the Alps, it will be portentous.

In the end, however, what is the casus belli?

From a purely "technical" point of view the casus belli is the siege of the city of Sagunto.

The Romans and the Carthaginians had signed a pact, the "Treaty of the Ebro" according to which the Carthaginians would never have conquered cities or moved armies north of the Ebro, as a guarantee of not having bellicose intentions with the Romans.

Hannibal attacks Sagunto, which was a city geographically south of the Ebro but politically "friend" of the Romans, who immediately claim that Hannibal interrupts the siege. Actually Sagunto had become a "friend" after the Ebro treaties, so the Romans do a nice political funambulism in demanding the liberation of the city. Hannibal knows this well. It's all calculated.

While the Roman Senate argues, Sagunto is conquered, and Rome reaches a categorical aut aut. Delivery of Hannibal or declaration of war. In Carthage, even in the wake of Hannibal's victories, the aggressive fringe prevails, Rome is not far behind, and the clash ignites.

Are the Carthaginians just businessmen or even soldiers?

The Carthaginians have a substantially maritime and commercial empire. They use mercenaries in the event they have to face the war: they do not have the culture of the citizen-soldier that distinguishes Rome. And this will be a point of weakness that will condemn Carthage not to support the conflict.

How does the war take place outside Italy?

Outside Italy, Hannibal has two companies. The first is certainly the one already mentioned in Spain where it defeats even more numerous armies with the quality of men and with tactical solutions decidedly avant-garde for its time. The second is not a war in the strict sense but a challenge: the crossing of Europe and the Alps.

Some of his soldiers, on the way, desert, others die, others must be left to guard areas from which Hannibal does not want to suffer sudden attacks. Its contingent is reduced over time and I confirm: the soldiers who emerge from the Alps in Northern Italy are not mere warriors, but combat machines in the hands of a deadly general.

How long does Hannibal take between the Alps and the Trasimeno?

Incredible to say: a year. Hannibal begins crossing the Alps in September of the 218 BC and the battle of the Trasimeno is of June of the 217 BC In this very short period of time Annibale emerges in the north of Italy, wins over the Ticino, on the Trebbia, exceeds the (then) marshy areas of Tuscany and going beyond the Roman block, tends to the Trasimeno one of the most gigantic ambushes of ancient history.

Let's imagine that Hannibal after the Trasimeno attacks Rome frontally ...

I would say it would have been a disaster. Hannibal is a genius, but he still has a small number of soldiers, he is in full enemy territory and with several Italic partners ready to help Rome. That is precisely the point. Hannibal expected to appear as a liberator from the Roman oppressors and to accumulate allies during his journey, strengthening himself during the journey. And instead, even after the Trasimeno, Umbria and Etruria refused to cooperate.

He is forced to proceed south, hoping that the strategic plan to dismantle the Rome alliances will work in the future. We know it didn't work out that way.

Image: Michele Marsan