Alright, cards on the table. According to our historical sources, there is no indication that Hannibal ever went to Madrid, got near Madrid, or thought about Madrid- in large part because the land would not be settled (initially becoming the sight of a Muslim fort) until about a millennium after his fateful campaign. However, to arrive in Spain through Madrid, and spend no time in this vibrant European capital would have been an affront that we are quite sure would have caused even the stoic Hannibal to frown.
Madrid is a city that both embraces its past and thrives in its present. The city’s center is crowned equally with historic plazas and car-laden streets, illustrious art galleries and lively bars, magnificent palaces and boisterous nightclubs. It proudly recognizes and displays its rich imperial accomplishments from its famed golden age and teems with a life and vibrancy that few cities in the world can match.
During our time in Madrid, perhaps the single thing that was impressed on us again and again is the effort made by this highly modern capital to preserve the grandeur of its ‘Siglo del Oro.’ While it may have no Colosseum or Pyramids, no single, wondrous monument to its bygone glory, we came to realize exploring the streets of Madrid, that the very city itself is a love letter to Spain’s imperial past. Building after building, no matter how recent or shiny the construction, are designed in an architectural style that evokes the majesty of such an era: rooftops are studded with statues of bronze and marble, sweeping, columned terraces look out over the streets, and mighty staircases lead up to grand stone archways. Even though each structure may be quite distinctive from its neighbors in coloration, or the intricacies of its design, it is rare to see a departure from lavish and detailed ornamentation. There is virtually no trace of the modern forms that have become common place in the rest of Spain, and throughout the city one finds buildings often ostentatiously studded, standing as blatant reminders to those who view them that this is mighty Spain, and our glory days are far from over.
Though the city of Madrid would not be founded for more than a millenia after Hannibal’s death, his influence on the country of Spain can still be felt in its capital. In the Museo del Prado, Spain’s most prestigious art gallery, a number of works by some of Spain’s greatest masters focus on the events of the Second Punic War- such as a painting by the legendary Goya. These works are indicative of a fascination with Hannibal and his conquests that endured in the country for centuries, one which owes its roots, in large part, to Spain’s period under Carthaginian control.
In the third century BC, Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, an eminent Carthaginian general, set out for Spain. Infuriated at the Carthaginian loss of the First Punic War (also fought against Rome), Hamilcar intended to build Carthaginian power to once again be capable of challenging Rome, via the consolidation of Carthage’s power in the southern part of the Iberian peninsula, and the professionalization of the Carthaginian army–a diverse force of mercenaries. Hannibal, only 9 at the time, pleaded to go with his father, and in one of the most famous stories from the histories of Livy, Hamilcar had his son swear on an altar before the gods that he would never be a friend to Rome.
As the world would remember, Hannibal would live up to this oath. But the fact remains that Hannibal could never have achieved what he did were it not for his father. Hamilcar provided him with first hand war experience from an early age, secured Carthage’s dominance over many of Spain’s southern tribes, and left his son with an army that was prepared and ready to follow his orders. And though Carthage’s grip over Spain would not endure more than a century, the significance of the peninsula as a centerpiece in Hannibal’s war can still be observed today in its largest city.