The beginning of Hannibal’s long march to Italy can be traced to Cartagena. The city on Spain’s southern coast has endured for over two millenia, undergoing periods of Carthaginian, Roman, and Moorish control before being reclaimed by Spain during its famed ‘Reconquista’ in 1245. Cartagena, often times a port city of major importance over the course of the centuries, is today a place that is steeped in the history of its many rulers. In Hannibal’s time, it was the most important Carthaginian city in all of Spain, and was appropriately dubbed Carthago Nova or ‘New Carthage.’ In the Winter of 219 BC, after the fateful siege of Saguntum, the conflict which ignited the Second Punic War (to be discussed in a later post), Hannibal wintered here. He would let his army disband, and return to their diverse homes including Spain, Libya, and Africa. It was here, too, where his army would rally again the following spring, to make ready for the war which would test Rome’s mettle like none before. Additionally, during the war, Spain was a major battleground, and it was New Carthage that served as the Carthaginian base of operations. All of these factors make it a worthy origin for our journey on Hannibal’s trail.
As we wandered Cartagena’s streets, we quickly came to realize how in tune the city was with its ties to antiquity. Posters advertising its Roman and Carthaginian past are present throughout the city, including several depicting Hannibal, saying “My treasure is my memory.” Archaeological sites, many only recently unearthed, can be found throughout the city. Remarkably, these locations are usually en situ, and are actually under the streets of modern Cartagena, giving unique perspective on how new civilizations routinely build atop the ruins and foundations of their predecessors. A temple to the deified Augustus can be found underneath a pharmacy, an ancient Roman house under a church. A large part of the local forum stands mostly intact, providing an incredible window into imperial Rome’s provincial influence. Looking out over Cartagena’s excellent natural harbor, with the undeveloped hillsides encircling it, one can almost envision the bustle of ancient ships making their way to and from this ancient port of note.
The citizens of Cartagena are deeply aware, and proud, of their resplendent past. Indeed, there is, perhaps, no modern city so deeply attuned to its Hannibalic legacy as Cartagena. Statues of the legendary Carthaginian seem to be omnipresent throughout the city, and everyone you ask is at the very least familiar with the ancient figure and his connection to their city’s heritage. However, there is perhaps no greater tribute to the city’s Carthaginian past than the 10 day festival held annually by its citizens, known as “Carthagineses y Romanos”. During the celebrations, the citizens put on massive re-enactments of major events from the Second Punic War in incredible detail, with many investing in their own complete sets of replica Roman and Carthaginian equipment. Many of Hannibal’s greatest battles, such as Cannae, Trebia, and Zama, have been performed in years prior. These festivities are emblematic of Cartagena as a whole- a modern city deeply entrenched in its past, and proud of its legacy.