history Facts About Ancient Military Genius Hannibal Barca You Didn't Learn In School  

Christopher Myers
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If you've heard of General Hannibal (247-181 BCE), you're probably thinking of the guy who rode a bunch of elephants into Italy, and you'd be correct in envisioning this. In reality, though, there's so much more to Hannibal Barca's life story than his fabled crossing of the Alps with war elephants. This guy made it a habit of outright embarrassing the Roman Army, wiping the floor with them on multiple occasions. It wasn't until Rome drew upon the skills of another name from the list of notable generals—Scipio Aemilianus Africanus (AKA Scipio Africanus the Younger)—that they were finally able to defeat Hannibal.

Hannibal Barca's army was nearly unstoppable, unparalleled in the ancient world. He was the General of all the armies of the ancient Punic Empire, the capital of which, Carthage, rivaled Rome in strength and influence. The Carthaginian Army was augmented by barbarian tribes that Hannibal had enlisted to help in his fight against Rome.

Hannibal himself was the definition of toughness, and these lesser-known Hannibal Barca facts prove it. The timeline of Hannibal's life, from his early days to his ultimate defeat, tells the story of a man with a single purpose: to destroy the Roman Empire. None would ever come so close to achieving that goal as Hannibal—that is, until the breakup of Rome hundreds of years later.

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Hannibal's Dad Was Undefeated In Battle

As a General during the first Punic War, Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal's father who was also known as "Barcas," fought on the side of Carthage against Rome in the 240s BCE. Though he never lost a land battle himself, ultimately, Carthage lost the war over Sicily. Hamilcar was understandably in poor spirits when he returned home to six-year-old Hannibal.

Hamilcar saw in young Hannibal what every loving father sees in his son: an opportunity to get revenge on his enemies. He raised Hannibal to be both a great general and the sworn enemy of Rome.

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As A Child, Hannibal Moved To Spain

After the First Punic War (264-241 BCE), Hamilcar Barca wasn't about to give up just because Carthage surrendered. The crux of his plan was to take his troops over to Spain where Carthage had well-established colonies. Once there, he would draw upon Spanish manpower to build a new army capable of destroying Rome.

Hanibal was nine years old at the time, and the cute, little fellow begged his dad to go to work with him. Hamilcar obliged, and little Hannibal was off to war – but allegedly not before he swore over an altar in the temple of Baal that he would always be the enemy of Rome. Spending his remaining childhood in Spain, Hannibal became as Spanish as he was Carthaginian, if not more so.

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Hannibal Was Appointed General By His Soldiers

At the age of 25, five years after his father Hamilcar died in battle and shortly after the assassination of General Hasdrubal (his brother-in-law), Hannibal was named Supreme Military Commander of Carthage by the army. The appointment was quickly ratified by the civilian authorities in Carthage.

In Hannibal, the soldiers saw the image of a young Hamilcar. He was a soldier's soldier, one who had trained and fought with them for years. Throughout his time as General, Hannibal never put on airs and lived in the same conditions as his troops. He was known to be the first into battle and the last to leave it.

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Balearic Slingers Were Preferred Over Archers In Hannibal's Army

The sling is the weapon that David used to slay Goliath. It is basically a rope that was used to hurl a rock at enemies. The most skilled ancient slingers were more accurate and had greater range than their archer counterparts, making them an important part of any ancient army. Hannibal, in particular, used them to great effect in his battles against the Romans.

The most skilled slingers in the ancient world were from the Balearic Islands in the western Mediterranean. Trained from childhood, Balearic slingers wore a spare sling as a headband, carried a pouch of missiles on their side, and utilized three different sizes of slings for different ranges.

When Hannibal marched on Italy, he brought 1,000 of these Balearic slingers with him. They were used at the outset of battle as skirmishers. Having greater range than their Roman archer counterparts, they proved more effective at harassing the enemy in the opening salvos of battle.

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Hannibal Had To Fight More Than The Elements On His Trip Over The Alps

Getting from Spain to Italy involved traveling through the territory of the Gauls, Celtic tribes that were not always friendly. Before he began his march, Hannibal had sent envoys to the tribes to try and win them over, with some success that included a potential alliance with the Boii and Insubres of the Po River valley in Northern Italy.

In Western Gaul (modern Southern France), however, the presence of such a massive army was not welcomed by the local tribes. Hannibal assembled the chieftains and won them over with gifts, allowing his army mostly safe passage to the Rhône River. It was there that he encountered his first resistance. The Volcae tribe had assembled to meet him on the eastern banks, but Hannibal was able to use superior tactics to route them.

Hannibal's army again met resistance in the alps from the powerful Allobroges Celts. During the first battle, Hannibal noticed that the Allobroges only occupied their outposts during the day and returned to their villages at night. He sent his troops under cover of darkness to occupy the outposts and ambushed the Celts when they arrived in the morning.

The Allobroges would later set their own ambush using guides from a neighboring tribe that pretended to ally with Hannibal. Suspicious of the guides, Hannibal put his cavalry and baggage at the front of the column, which largely managed to slip past the ambush. Hannibal's infantry was engaged in some heavy fighting, with boulders being hurled down on them from above, but they too managed to get through. After that, Hannibal's main enemy would be the Alps themselves until he reached Italian soil.

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The Celts Of Northern Italy Joined Up With Hannibal

When Hannibal arrived in Northern Italy with a massive army and several war elephants, he looked amazing (just picture it). So the Gallic tribes of the area, namely the Boii and Insubres, decided they would join up with the Carthaginian army. They hated Rome super hard anyway, so this looked like a good opportunity to get out from under the Roman jackboot.

The Gauls used double-edged long swords, and they had a reputation as fearsome warriors. They had been defeated by the Romans just a few years earlier. The more Hannibal won, the more Gallic tribes joined him.

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Publius Cornelius Scipio Was Defeated By Hannibal

The father of the man who would ultimately defeat Hannibal got absolutely owned at the Battle of Ticinius. Publius Cornelius Scipio, was consul of the Roman Army at the time, and he really, really wanted to just beat Hannibal and get the war over with. So he charged into battle with his cavalry, a move that turned out to be full of stupidity.

During the battle, Scipio was gravely wounded. He only escaped alive because his son, also named Scipio, rushed out with a few other cavalrymen to save him. This was the first of three crushing Roman defeats that the son, Scipio Africanus, was believed to have participated in as a soldier.

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He Lost An Eye To Infection... And Kept Fighting

During the invasion of Rome, Hannibal lost sight in one eye. While the army was crossing the Arno River marshes – basically a big swamp – he developed an infection. But that wasn't about to slow him down. Shortly thereafter, he maneuvered his army to crush the Roman opposition at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, even without the aid of proper depth perception.