What I’m Reading: Hannibal, Philip Freeman

Author: George Spencer

When asked how he thought history would regard him, Churchill quipped, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Now consider Carthage, the empire Rome annihilated at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C. What do you know about it? Next to nothing, thanks to Rome. It canceled its foe from history.

That’s a pity, because it’s possible the wrong side won the war.

Founded by Phoenician colonists around 814 B.C., Carthage’s eponymous capital (the name means “New City”) stood on the site of modern Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, a thumb-shaped, agriculturally rich north African nation wedged between Algeria and Libya.

I’ve been to Tunis and toured the ruins of Carthage. The rubble, such as it is, overlooks the city and its stunning blue harbor. Nothing to see. No roofless temples. No noseless statues. Nothing. Not one stone standing on another. Legend has it Roman legions sowed the earth with salt like ancient plutonium so nothing would grow there.  

Though Rome extinguished and erased Carthage, it could not delete Hannibal. At age 28, this legendary general led his 100,000-man army — complete with 40 war elephants — into Italy in 218 B.C. by crossing the Alps in winter. His invasion and roving occupation, which lasted 15 years, terrified Romans. Parents told their children that if they were naughty, Hannibal would carry them off in the night.


Hannibal was “the ultimate underdog” and “one of the most brilliant and daring generals in world history,” according to Philip Freeman, the author of Hannibal: Rome’s Greatest Enemy. In this mesmerizing new work, Freeman, a professor of humanities at Pepperdine, does something rare — he relates the story of the bloody, decadeslong Carthaginian-Roman rivalry from the Carthaginian point of view.

If you believe noble Rome, Carthage was demonic. Carthago delenda est! — “Carthage must be destroyed!” — Cato famously cried in the Senate. Its perverse culture deserved to be obliterated. Its people, fiends all of them, had to die. Its god Ba‘al Hammon demanded molk, gifts of infants hurled into blazing temple fires. Of course, according to Freeman, Roman historians like Livy and Polybius conveniently fail to mention that Roman priests did the same thing as late as the time of Caesar in 49 B.C. Roman families also practiced female infanticide.

To hear Freeman tell it, Carthage was an ancient marvel. Aristotle praised its tripartite system of government. It had elected magistrates, an aristocratic senate and a people’s assembly. Fearing a military coup, Carthage composed its army mostly of foreign mercenaries. Enlightened citizens frequented libraries that rivaled those of Alexandria. Thanks to its location, the city thrived as a cosmopolitan, multicultural mecca, a veritable Manhattan on the Mediterranean.

Here’s the realpolitik bottom line for Freeman. Carthage had something the upstart Rome envied: a more advanced mercantile empire. This trading powerhouse sprawled from Spain to Sicily. The hungry warmonger on the Tiber wanted noble Carthage’s riches. Period.

One man stood in Rome’s way — Hannibal. “What kind of person would dare to lead his struggling homeland in a war against the most relentless military power the ancient world would ever know?” asks Freeman, who has written biographies of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.

The simple answer is, someone raised from birth to hate that evil empire. The First Punic War began when Rome, jealous of Carthage’s control of Sicily, conquered it in 265 B.C., 18 years before Hannibal was born, and demanded crippling reparations.

In response, Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, launched a huge expansion of Carthaginian power by invading present-day southern Spain to seize its gold and silver mines from local tribes. With him came 9-year-old Hannibal. “My boys are like lion cubs reared for Rome’s destruction,” Hamilcar declared.

In time, Rome broke its treaty with Carthage regarding the key Spanish city of Saguntum. Its senators naively thought the ensuing Second Punic War would be fought in Africa and Spain. Instead, Hannibal, now in command after his father’s death in battle, stunned them by marching his army over Europe’s snowy peaks. “No one had ever dreamed of such a thing before — and for good reason. The Romans were the mightiest and best-organized army the world had ever seen,” notes Freeman.

During a 15-year campaign in Italy, Hannibal and his pachyderms stomped Rome’s legions in every major battle. At Trebia, “the slaughter was horrific,” Freeman writes. “The Carthaginians surrounded the Roman forces and began to cut them down like wheat.” Later, to outsmart the defenders, Hannibal sent his forces on a do-or-die, four-day march through the marshes of the Arno River. His soldiers slept standing in neck-deep water or atop dead animals or died.

Aside from Hannibal’s strategic and tactical genius, he lived as his men did to win their admiration and loyalty. “He was often seen wrapped in an army blanket asleep on the ground in the middle of the common soldiers on sentry duty. His clothing was in no way different from other young men his age,” wrote Livy.

His greatest asset may have been his cunning. “Whoever is in command of any army must try to discover in an enemy general not the exposed parts of his body but the weaknesses in his mind,” wrote Polybius. Hannibal, the historian wrote, knew his opponent Flaminius had “a burning desire for victory.” So, at the battle of Lake Trasimene, the wily African leader lured the army of his impetuous foe onto a narrow road surrounded by hills. In the morning fog, his own hidden army descended. Slaughter commenced. Among those to fall was Flaminius.

Hannibal’s most fearsome and legendary victory came near the coastal city of Cannae in southeastern Italy. Panic-stricken, the Senate had raised an army of 80,000. When the warring sides met, their ranks spread for a mile across the plain. Hannibal’s center fell back, sucking in the green Roman foot soldiers.

“Young Roman farm boys who had dreamed of glory were slaughtered like spring lambs as they cried out in vain to the gods for help,” writes Freeman. That day Hannibal’s forces killed 60,000 — one-in-five men of fighting age, including 80 senators.

But instead of besieging Rome, Hannibal made a fatal error. He showed mercy. As brutal as ancient warfare was, armies rarely sacked cities. Sieges might take too long and taxed resources.

“If there was any failing that Hannibal had as a general, it was that he didn’t fully realize what kind of an opponent he was dealing with,” concludes Freeman. “The Romans neither accepted mercy from nor granted it to their enemies.”

Hannibal’s occupation ended 13 years later when Scipio Africanus defeated Carthage’s forces in Spain, ending any hope of reinforcements. In the ensuing peace, Hannibal eventually went into exile and is said to have committed suicide when Rome ordered his arrest.

Hannibal could have changed world history,” Freeman argues. Had he razed Rome, it would have been reduced to a minor regional power. European languages would have been based on Punic, not Latin. Western law would have different roots. The empire’s merchant adventurers, reputed to have already circumnavigated Africa, might have ventured to the New World sooner.

Freeman ends on a startling note. “Without Rome, Christianity as we know it might have been quite different. With no Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus, would the new religion have been born?”

George Spencer is a freelance writer living in Hillsborough, North Carolina.