Leaving Spain in 218 BC, Carthaginian general Hannibal led a formidable army over the Alps during the treacherous winter in order to invade Italy from the north in what historian Michael Grant calls, “the most terrible of all Rome’s struggles.” This was the start of the Second Punic War and a 15-year invasion of Italy by Carthage’s most celebrated general. In the end, as Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio took the war to the gates of Carthage after brilliantly winning Spain for Rome, Hannibal was forced to return and defend the city, losing the battle of Zama thus ending over 500 years of Carthaginian dominance of the western Mediterranean.
Hannibal Invades Italy
Although losing many of his men crossing the Alps, Hannibal swooped down on Northern Italy with 26,000 soldiers that included Spanish infantry, the superbly trained Numidian cavalry, and war elephants (most had perished before arriving in Italy). Hannibal believed he could augment his army with anti-Roman Gauls as well as city-states willing to trade allegiances.
Rome sent several armies against Hannibal. All efforts, however, resulted in Roman defeat. At both Trebia and Lake Trasimene, Hannibal displayed his genius, employing envelopment tactics that virtually obliterated the legions. Hannibal was also a master of the ambush and able to evade Roman “hit and run” tactics that wore down the enemy but avoided direct contact.
The battle of Cannae, fought in Southern Italy, represented the greatest Roman defeat in its history. The Senate had unwisely given joint command to two inexperienced consuls. Hannibal out-flanked the Romans who were caught in a pincer movement. Although Rome remained resistant, resources and men were slowly taking a toll.
Hasdrubal and Scipio Africanus
In 210 BC an untried but energetic 25-year old Publius Cornelius Scipio, a scion of the powerful Scipio family, convinced the Roman Assembly to permit him to invade Spain and destroy the Carthaginians in their most prosperous province. Scipio had mastered Hannibal’s battle tactics and would employ them against Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s younger brother.
The 206 BC battle of Ilipa resulted in the defeat of Hasdrubal who took the remnants of his army by land to Northern Italy, intending to join Hannibal. Scipio continued his conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, ultimately joining it to Rome. Additionally, former Carthaginian allies joined Rome. In this manner, Scipio’s army would face Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC with the asset of the Numidian Cavalry.
Hasdrubal was never able to join forces with Hannibal. The Roman consul Claudius Nero, using Hannibal’s own tactics of ambush, left the bulk of his army to contain Hannibal while dispatching 1600 infantry and cavalry to reinforce consul Livius who was charged with stopping Hasdrubal. The battle of Metaurus was won through a flank attack ordered by Nero; Hasdrubal died during the battle.
Military historian Lynn Montross suggests that “improved Roman generalship became a genuinely decisive factor eight years after Cannae…” Men like Claudius Nero and Scipio Africanus had learned well Hannibal’s tactics and used them to achieve victory.
End of the Second Punic War
For the most part, Rome’s allies remained loyal. Minor defections, such as Capua, were quickly defeated.
Additionally, Hannibal lacked siege equipment necessary to breach Rome’s walls at a time when no legions stood between him and the city.
Forced to return to North Africa to defend Carthage, Hannibal convinced the leaders of the city to end peace negotiations and fight. This was a mistake. Hannibal lost the battle of Zama, in large part due to the change in alliance that saw the Numidians fighting for Rome. Carthage had lost much territory and was reduced to an insignificant city-state. The Third and final Punic War would fully destroy the city years later.
- Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J. A. Talbert, The Romans From Village to Empire: A History of Ancient Rome from Earliest Times to Constantine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)
- Michael Grant, History of Rome (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978)
- Lynn Montross, War Through the Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1960)