Two of the greatest commanders of antiquity died in 183 BCE, 2200 years ago. Their names are Hannibal Barca and Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus – but Hannibal and Scipio will do to refer to them. Their lives have many parallels – long absences from home, an adult life dominated by war in the first and politics in the second part, and finally the experience of being an individual too big to fit into one’s small community. We’ll look at their youth and their fortunes in the war when they were in Carthage’s favor in this article. A second part will cover the second part of the war when Rome struck back and Hannibal’s and Scipio’s years after the war that defined both their lives.
There are many board games which deal with the dramatic events of the second war been Rome and Carthage which I will discuss here. The most prominent one (and the one I will draw upon the most) is Mark Simonitch’s Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (Valley Games). I took the pictures of the new edition Hannibal & Hamilcar (Mark Simonitch/Jaro Andruszkiewiecz, Phalanx Games).
Hannibal was born in 247 BCE as the son of Hamilcar, Carthage’s most successful general of the First Punic War against Rome. Hamilcar was not good at moving on after the defeat in this war and let this influence his parenting: According to a popular story, he took the nine-year old Hannibal and Hannibal’s little brothers Hasdrubal and Mago to a temple and had them swear never to be friends of Rome. Then he left the city to expand Carthage’s imperial possessions in Spain, taking his eldest son with him. Nine years later, he died in battle against an Iberian tribe. His son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair (married to Hannibal’s oldest sister and not to be confused with Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother) took command. Hamilcar and Hasdrubal the Fair gained possession of the largest part of southern and eastern Spain with all its riches in iron and silver. When Hasdrubal the Fair died in 221 BCE, Hannibal was the new supreme leader of the Carthaginian empire in Spain.
Scipio was eleven years younger than Hannibal. He came from one of the most distinguished Roman noble families and was brought up in the traditional style of Roman aristocracy and prepared for political and military duties. Therefore, he joined the military when he was 17 or 18 – just as war had broken out with Carthage.
Hannibal’s successes in Spain had aroused Roman suspicion. Rome demanded Hannibal stop his advance at the river Ebro. Hannibal, however, disregarded this unilateral meddling in his affairs and proceeded to attack the city Saguntum just beyond the Ebro which sent an embassy to Rome for help. Despite their big words, the Romans left Saguntum in the lurch – a hint of the mixed opinions in the Roman senate. Nonetheless, they demanded that Hannibal leave Saguntum be. Hannibal was unimpressed.
He conquered Saguntum unmolestedly and then took his forces, including 37 war elephants, to Gaul and then further towards Italy. A Roman army – led by Scipio’s uncle Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio – marched to Gaul as well, but Hannibal avoided battle and let Gnaeus make his way to Spain in an attempt to catch Italy underdefended. Although it was already October, he proceeded to cross the snow-covered alps – the most famous, and, at the same time, most overrated of Hannibal’s deeds. Sure, it was a daring feat, but nowhere as ground-breaking as people would make it seem – of course Rome knew that armies could pass the Alps. And yes, it was more difficult since it was already fall, but that was Hannibal’s own fault for waiting in Gaul until the consular army had passed him. Most importantly, while elephants in the snow must be a grand sight to behold, the crossing took great losses on the men, when Hannibal could hardly afford losses for a campaign where he’d have trouble getting reinforcements from home or recruiting on site.
Nonetheless, the crossing of the alps was the beginning of Hannibal’s glory days. He defeated the Romans under Scipio’s father Publius Cornelius Scipio at the Ticinus (Scipio earned his first respect in this battle saving his surrounded father with a daring solitary charge at the assailants). He killed half of the Roman force in the battle at the Trebia with a skilled attack on both flanks. Finally, he ambushed a Roman force that had neglected its reconnaissance at Lake Trasimene, annihilating it and killing its general, consul Gaius Flaminius.
After these crushing defeats within the span of a year Rome changed for a defensive strategy implemented by Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, called Cunctator (“the delayer”). Fabius avoided direct engagement in favor of constant skirmishes to wear the invading force down while Rome built up her forces (the “Fabian strategy”). This went against all Roman traditions, and many proud Romans viewed it as downright un-Roman. After one year, the Senate gave Fabius the boot and opted for a more assertive strategy against Hannibal once more. The new consuls went straight for Hannibal with a superior force of 80,000 men against the Carthaginian’s 50,000. One young officer in this Roman army was Scipio. The two armies met at Cannae in southern Italy, and Hannibal did what he had always done – just on a bigger scale this time: The Carthaginian center gave way to lure the Roman infantry forward. At the same time, both the Carthaginian left and right won their engagements and outflanked the Romans. They managed to completely encircle the Roman army, and then it was nothing but a massacre. 70,000 Roman soldiers died. Scipio was one of the few survivors.
Now the way to Rome was open – but Hannibal did not march on the city, producing one of the big what-ifs of military history. His decision was as controversial then as it is now – Hannibal’s cavalry officer Maharbal fumed “You know how to win, Hannibal, but not how to use a victory!” when he heard of it. In the end, Hannibal may have made the right call – Rome would have been difficult to besiege, and with the momentum of his great victory, Hannibal could bring many cities in southern Italy to his side which had been discontented about their alliance with Rome. The issue remains in contention until today, and board games certainly are no exception: Hannibal – Rome vs. Carthage employs a siege system that indicates that Hannibal would not have had an easy time scaling the walls of Rome, whereas it’s pretty easy for an army to flip cities to your side when there is no enemy to contest it. Hannibal vs. Rome (Rome Package, Reiner Knizia, GMT Games), on the other side of the spectrum, ends when one side moves an army onto the enemy capital – even if there is an enemy army.
The catastrophe of Cannae brought the Fabian strategy back into fashion and Fabius himself back into command. And Hannibal despaired over the Roman resources of manpower. While the Romans couldn’t beat Hannibal, he couldn’t break them, either. And so he kept marching through Italy, trying to convince as many cities as possible to join him. There were never enough. The Romans contented themselves with not losing against his main army and keeping tabs on him. Increasingly, they waged the war as if Hannibal wasn’t even there – Fabius as the “shield of Rome” made sure Hannibal was in check without seeking battle, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the “sword of Rome” re-conquered cities elsewhere, most famously Syracuse on Sicily.
In Spain, the Carthaginians had been more successful. The Roman army under Scipio’s uncle (later reinforced by Scipio’s father) which had bypassed Hannibal in Gaul was defeated repeatedly in Spain. In 211, Carthaginian forces under Scipio’s brother Hasdrubal annihilated the Roman army in Spain. Both Scipio’s father and his uncle Gnaeus were slain. When the Roman Senate decided to send another army, they chose Scipio as the commander. The young Scipio – still only 25 – became the first Roman to hold a pro-consular command (that is, a command for someone who had been consul, the highest office of the Republic) without ever having been as much as a praetor (the second-highest office). Scipio’s talent – and the Senate’s wish to make this a war of revenge – trumped the venerated rules of the Republic.
Of course this is not the end! But we’ll go on with the tale of Hannibal and Scipio another time. Then we’ll also get to the reason for Scipio’s special nickname. Watch this space!
Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (Mark Simonitch, Valley Games)
Hannibal & Hamilcar (Mark Simonitch/Jaro Andruszkiewiecz, Phalanx Games)
Commands & Colors: Ancients (Richard Borg, GMT Games)
Hannibal vs. Rome (Rome Package, Reiner Knizia, GMT Games)
For an engaging account of not only Hannibal’s life, but also the larger Barcid family history and their political and military machinations, see Hoyos, Dexter: Hannibal’s Dynasty. Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247—183 BC, Routledge, Abingdon-on-Thames 2003.
The best Scipio biography is still Scullard, H.H.: Scipio Africanus. Soldier and Politician, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY 1970.
1. Carthaginian males have a given name that is generally selected from only a handful of names. To avoid confusion between all the dozens of Hannos or Hasdrubals, they are given a nickname which may become hereditary – Hannibal’s nickname Barca (which means “the lightning”) came from his father Hamilcar Barca’s blitzkrieg exploits in the war against Rome, and it became some kind of family name for them.
Roman naming conventions changed over time. During Scipio’s life, the most famous system of the tria nomina (three names) rose to dominance. Male Roman aristocrats would usually have three names in this system. A praenomen (given name) was selected from a list of only about 20 names – in Scipio’s case, Publius. The family name (nomen gentile) Cornelius was legally the most important, since belonging to a Roman family gave the bearer full citizenship rights. Lastly, the often-hereditary nickname (cognomen) was more and more used as the main name referring to a person – which is why we call Scipio Scipio (and not Publius or Cornelius). He had inherited this nickname from a distant ancestor who must have held public office since scipio refers to the staff that would have been the symbol for office. What about Scipio’s last name Africanus? Well, that’s another nickname. This one, however, Scipio acquired for himself. We’ll get to that in due time.
2. You see how our perspective is Roman here – we call the wars between Rome and Carthage “Punic” wars after the Punic Carthaginians as Rome’s enemies. The Carthaginians might have called these wars the “Roman” wars (just like the Vietnamese call what is known in the western World as the “Vietnam War” the “American War”).
3. Rome never had a codified, written constitution, but there were conventions on how to conduct politics. One of these rules was that all offices had to be taken in the right sequence starting with the lowest. These rules were evolving. Granting Scipio the command started a massive trend to shape the rules to fit ambitious individuals.