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Facts About Ancient Military Genius Hannibal Barca, Rome's Greatest Adversary

Updated May 21, 2021 15.6k views13 items

If you've heard of General Hannibal (247-183 BCE), you're probably thinking of the guy who rode several elephants into Italy, and that would be correct. In reality, though, there's more to Hannibal Barca's life story than his fabled crossing of the Alps with war elephants. This general made it a habit of outright embarrassing the Roman Army, defeating them by a landslide 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 team was nearly unstoppable, unparalleled in the ancient world. He was the General of all the teams 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 strong willed, 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.

  • Photo: Charles Morris / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    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 team 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 ordered a detachment to cross the river elsewhere and take the Volcae by surprise. Over the course of three days, Hannibal and his engineers led his elephants onto carefully-constructed rafts to cross the river. 

    Hannibal's team again met resistance in the alps from the powerful Allobroges Celts. During the first battle, Hannibal noticed 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. 

  • The Celts Of Northern Italy Joined Up With Hannibal

    When Hannibal arrived in Northern Italy with a massive army and battle-ready elephants, he looked the part of a leader. So the Gallic tribes of the area, namely the Boii and Insubres, decided they would join up with the Carthaginian army. They hated Rome anyway, so this looked like a good opportunity to get out from under the Roman jackboot.

    The Gauls 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.

  • Publius Cornelius Scipio Was Defeated By Hannibal

    The father of the man who would ultimately defeat Hannibal was grossly defeated at the Battle of Ticinius. Publius Cornelius Scipio, was consul of the Roman Army at the time, and he allegedly wanted to 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.

  • Photo: William Neuheisel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    He Lost An Eye Due To An Infection, But He 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 defeat the Roman opposition at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, even without the aid of proper depth perception.