Stuff from Way Back #5: Hannibal: The Sunset Years

"Die, Roman scum!"

Most everyone has heard of Hannibal Barca and his
exploits against the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).  Undefeated in Italy, he fought his last engagement in 202 at Zama in
North Africa, where P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus gained the distinction
of being the only man to defeat him in battle.
Not quite.  There was also Eudamus
the Rhodian.

By the terms of the peace treaty that was signed in 201 Carthage was stripped of her possessions and reduced to being a
Roman client, her independence and political importance at an end.  Her commercial activities certainly did not
cease and she was able to pay her annual war
indemnity to Rome, but a corrupt and oppressive oligarchic government
began to exploit the people, who at last turned to Hannibal.  In 196 he was
chosen suffete, one of the two annually elected chief magistrates of the
Carthaginian republic.  Under his
leadership the popular assembly broke the back of oligarchic power, and Hannibal attended to the finances of the state, so improving matters
that in 191 Carthage offered to pay off the remaining forty years of
reparation payments in one lump sum.

Loved by the people, Hannibal nevertheless had in the dispossessed oligarchs a block
of powerful enemies, who in turn had influential friends in Rome.  Prominent among
these friends was M. Porcius Cato, a rival of Scipio and a man soon to be consumed
with an almost hysterical fear and loathing of Carthage.  Acting on
behalf of the anti-Barcid oligarchs, Cato claimed that Hannibal was conspiring with the Seleucid king Antiochus  III, with whom Rome was gradually sliding towards war.  In 195 a commission was sent to Carthage to complain, and Hannibal, suspecting what the outcome would be, fled east to Tyre, the mother city of Carthage.  He then moved on
to Antioch, the Seleucid capital, and thence to Ephesus, where he found the king.  A frightened Carthaginian government
meanwhile formally exiled him.

The arrival of Rome’s worst nightmare at the Seleucid court only worsened
the deteriorating situation in the east, and in 192 the Aetolians captured the
key port of Demetrias and convinced Antiochus to strike now by sending an
army to the Balkan peninsula.  Hannibal is said to have urged the king to give him ten thousand
infantry and one thousand cavalry, with which he would stir up Carthage and then invade Italy.  But it is difficult
to believe that Hannibal could possibly imagine assaulting Italy with such a meager force, and more likely he suggested
simply that an attempt be made to arouse Carthage, a plan that would fit better with Antiochus’ apparent more
limited goal of asserting his equality as a Mediterranean power by rebuffing Rome in the Balkans.
These limited war aims, potential jealousy and discontent among the his
generals and the reluctance of Greek troops to serve under a “barbarian”
probably explain why Antiochus made such little use of the great captain.  In fact, Hannibal’s sole command in the war was a naval squadron.

When Antiochus was booted out of Greece in 191, the naval war heated up, and later in the year
the king sent Hannibal to Phoenicia to collect reinforcements for the main Seleucid fleet
at Ephesus.  It is hard to
avoid the impression that Hannibal
was sent simply to give him something to do, and the king probably did not
expect that Hannibal would actually be fighting a naval engagement on his
own.  But in the summer of the following
year as he was bringing his ships north, he ran into a Rhodian squadron sent to
block him off Side on the Anatolian shore.
Hannibal formed a line perpendicular to the shore and awaited the
Rhodian attack.

The Rhodian force was inferior in numbers, but the skill
of Rhodian sailors was legendary, while the Phoenician crews were unused to the
heavier warships Antiochus had ordered built after his taste of Roman boarding
tactics the previous year.  Actually, as
the battle opened, the Rhodian admiral, Eudamus, hardly displayed great
skill.   Because of a poor deployment and resulting
confusion, he found  himself engaging the
enemy left, commanded by Hannibal,
with only five ships.  But the Rhodians
quickly sorted themselves out, and superior seamanship began to tell as Rhodian
ramming tactics punched hole after hole in the Seleucid line.  Hannibal’s right and center were soon in serious trouble, and
ships from the victorious Rhodian left were able to speed to the rescue of
Eudamus.  With the battle now clearly
lost, Hannibal began to retire and was followed by the rest of his
fleet, more than half his ships having
been disabled.

Hannibal had been defeated in a serious engagement for only the
second time in his life. The battle of Side was a relatively small-scale affair,
but it did prevent the linkup of the two Seleucid fleets, and control of the
sea was decisively lost a month later at the battle of Myonnesus.  The war ended in early 189 with
Antiochus’  defeat at Magnesia in Asia Minor, at which battle Hannibal
does not seem to have been present, probably for the reasons mentioned earlier
and perhaps because Antiochus was overconfident.  The peace settlement included a demand for
the surrender of the Carthaginian, but the Romans, probably influenced by
Scipio Africanus, who was with the Roman delegation, took no real action.  Hannibal escaped first to Gortyn on Crete
and then on to King Artaxias I of Armenia.

The last stage of Hannibal’s military career took place under King Prusias I of Bithynia on the Black
Sea coast.  Sometime around 186 Prusias began a war with
his major Anatolian rival and loyal client of Rome, Eumenes II of Pergamum, but all that survives of this war is a naval
anecdote.  Pressed by a numerically
superior Pergamene fleet, Hannibal
defeated them by hurling aboard the enemy ships pots filled with poisonous
snakes, causing panic among the crews. The war became a stalemate, and both
kings appealed to Rome, which in 183 sent T. Quinctius Flamininus to settle
the war.

Whether on instructions from the Senate or his own
initiative, Flamininus demanded from Prusias the surrender of Hannibal.  Seeking to
avoid violating at least the letter of the law of hospitality, Prusias left it
to the Romans to capture the Carthaginian themselves, and they surrounded his
house with troops.  Discovering that
every exit was guarded, Hannibal
committed suicide by taking poison.  At
the end, according to Livy and Plutarch, he proclaimed “Let us relieve the
Roman people of their long anxiety, since they find it tedious to wait for the
death of an old man.”

One of the greatest captains in history was dead,
needlessly, at the age of sixty-three. Ironically, his old rival Scipio
Africanus died in the same year, himself an exile from his mother city.  And thirty-seven years later Carthage would follow its most famous son into extinction, also
at the hands of Rome.

2 comments on “Stuff from Way Back #5: Hannibal: The Sunset Years

  1. Centurian says:

    I love history on the edge where it could have gone either way. My faviourate part of the narative is when Rome refuses to surrender. Despite the destruction of the Army at Canne. That is when the Romans truely showed what they were made out of.

    • qqduckus says:

      Yes, the Roman charcter played a major role in defeating Carthage, but even more important was the Italian alliance system, which gave Rome huge numbers of troops to draw upon. Any other power in the Med would have been forced to negotiate after suffering just one of the three defeats that opened the war – Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae. And Hannibal, arriving as a “liberator,” failed to crack the core of the alliance in central Italy; they remained loyal even during the darkest days of 216-215.

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