In many ways, the history of Rome is demarcated by the individuals who helped define it. Names like Romulus, Augustus, and Caesar are eternal in the collective memory of western civilization. By and large, the long and winding narrative of Rome is characterized by the stories of its own sons. Many of the cities most famous conflicts were in fact civil wars, be it between Marius and Sulla, Augustus and Antony, or Caesar and Pompey. As Rome grew in power, fewer and fewer of its enemies presented real threats, and thus for the most part, the foreign leaders Rome contended with, kings and generals alike, are far less significant in Rome’s history than their nigh-legendary Roman counterparts. All save one.
The tale of Hannibal Barca is an extraordinary one. Were he born a Roman, his accomplishments and brilliance would have placed him amongst the paragon of its leaders. With the massive and practiced Roman armies under his command, who knows what a general of Hannibal’s capacity would have been able to achieve. Instead, as fate would have it, he born on the side of Carthage. And while Carthage would ultimately lose the Punic Wars, and through its destruction involuntarily set the stage for Rome to reach unprecedented heights of power in the Mediterranean, it has retained its legacy as the single greatest rival Rome ever faced. And that legacy, is, in large part, due to the incredible tactical brilliance of Hannibal. With a poorly supplied army consisting largely of foreign mercenaries at his disposal, Hannibal would terrorize Rome for over a decade, pillaging the Italian peninsula, and crushing the gargantuan armies the Romans tried to put in his way. He presented a threat like none the Republic had ever faced; a general with such extreme tactical acuity that ultimately Rome was forced to resort to a war of attrition, dragged out over many long years, to finally vanquish him.
Nevertheless, for centuries after his defeat at Zama, Hannibal’s name would echo throughout Rome. ‘Hannibal ad Portas’ or ‘Hannibal at the Gates!’ would become a commonplace expression, used by Romans whenever catastrophe struck. His standing as Rome’s greatest nemesis means we only gain insight into the man’s personality, leadership, and tactics through the eyes of the foes he routinely trounced with a patchwork battalion composed largely of mercenaries. Yet even before Hannibal laid waste to Rome’s vast armies with his inferior force, he had already achieved the impossible.
While military historians rightly examine Hannibal’s battlefield tactics as masterworks, even before his troops came into Italy and clashed with the forces of Rome, the Carthaginian general had already done the unthinkable. Circumnavigating the route all Romans thought he was to take, through the Roman city of Massilia, where a Roman army was waiting for him, Hannibal instead led his army north, and with his force of mercenaries, cavalry, and elephants, he proceeded to cross the supposedly impassable Alps in 16 days. He stunningly materialized with his force in the Po Valley, and in achieving this bewildering feat, brought the Second Punic War to the heart of Italy itself, where it would remain for over a decade.
Hannibal’s incredible crossing of the Alps is a deed which has taken on near mythological status in the eyes of scholars, who routinely underscore the miraculous and arduous nature of the task. It was a move so unprecedented and so staggering in its enormity that it left Rome reeling, and the psychological impact of it alone must have given Hannibal an advantage throughout the war that was to come. Given the ill-fated nature of his campaign, in many ways Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps is considered the great general’s crowning achievement. However, merely studying such a herculean task is a very different thing from experiencing it.
This summer, I have been given the opportunity to travel to the Mediterranean, and, to the best of my ability, with help from a variety of sources both ancient and modern, try and follow in the footsteps of this legendary figure, through Spain, France, and over the Alps into Italy. On this blog, I will be documenting the journey, and do my utmost to contemplate the history of the Hannibalic War and contextualize it with the locations I will be visiting. I want to try and transcribe the the essence of these locations beyond tactical significance or basic structure, so that the reader might have a greater understanding of what it would have been like millenia ago, during what was perhaps the most definitive war of Roman history. Visiting these locations, and seeing how they have transformed over those many centuries, I believe will enable me to reconcile Hannibal’s momentous achievements with an entirely new perspective and understanding, and I hope to translate that onto this blog. Of course, Spain, France, and Italy are all regions rich in history and culture beyond classical antiquity, which I intend to take full advantage of. Cities like Barcelona, Lyon and Rome herself all lie along this grand route, and I will spend due time exploring all of them. If you’re interested, feel free to follow the journey! Thanks for reading!