The Second Punic War
The Roman attack was three-prong: A first army would invade Africa immediately with the goal of disorganising the Carthaginians, a second army would be sent to the north of the Ebro to preclude any plans of Hannibal to meddle beyond the Carthaginian frontier, and a third would reinforce the Roman territories in Gaul between the Apennines and the Po river, where Hannibal was known to have influence. However, there was indeed a Gallic revolt, which crucially delayed the second army’s arrival on the Roman side of the Ebro. Hannibal swept past the Ebro frontier, and could not be stopped, even at the Rhone River. This, in turn, was Hannibal’s strategy – to go past Rome’s allies between the Ebro and the Alps, and create enemy opposition in the very core of the Roman territories. If his plan worked, the first army would be stranded and strangled at the core of Carthaginian power, in Africa.
The first Roman army did not meet this fate, however, as it changed course and stationed itself on the Po River. Hence, when Hannibal finally crossed the Alps (with his great elephants and great difficulty), he discovered a waiting Roman army. Meanwhile, the second Roman army (which had been delayed and thus unable to prevent Hannibal from crossing the Ebro) made its way to Spain in order to strike Hannibal’s forces at their very source.
Hannibal was not outmatched though, for he cracked Roman defences at Trebia and Lake Trasimene, in his very first campaign in Italy. In Etruria, he annihilated an entire Roman army. At the Battle of Cannae 216 B.C., Hannibal’s forces marched rather heavily over yet another Roman army, and much of his victory was attributed to his cavalry and his elephant corps that wreaked havoc among the Roman troops. However, his goal of Rome remained elusive, for his forces were consistently too far south of Rome. Hannibal’s cavalry was crucial to his army, and the only areas that could sustain the horses required were in the south of Italy, and quite distant from Rome. The only path open to Hannibal, if he was to take Rome, was to patiently wait for reinforcements, either from Carthage or Spain. In this respect, Hannibal’s initial strategy had not been successful although he had not failed completely either, for he had managed to plant himself firmly in Campania, southern Italy. Meanwhile, he had little support from Carthage, which had from the beginning had taken only a half-hearted interest in his father’s and his own Spanish campaigns.
While Hannibal faced the frustration of stagnation, certain developments in Syracuse were giving the Romans trouble as well. When Hiero of Syracuse died in 216 B.C., elements that supported Syracusan independence soon came to the fore. This call for a revolt, of course, was beneficial to Hannibal and the Carthaginians, and they accordingly promoted it. Rome’s response to this development of Syracusan national spirit was to send Claudius Marcellus to take Syracuse by siege. An interesting twist to the story is that Archimedes (of ‘Eureka!’ fame) lived in Syracuse, and had designed various pieces of ingenious machinery to aid Syracuse in war, which left the Romans with only the exhausting and drawn-out option of blockading Syracuse into defeat. In fact, the Romans were only able to take the city in 211 B.C., and then only through the betrayal of someone behind the city gates. It then took another year to completely repel the Hannibal’s forces from the island.
The Romans had also incurred the ire of Philip V of Macedon through their efforts in Illyria earlier to establish themselves in the Greek islands as a contrary power to Macedonia. Philip V’s wrath took the form of aid to Hannibal against the Romans over the Adriatic Sea. The Romans had to quell this source of reinforcement by posting war ships in the Adriatic. Philip V’s attentions towards Hannibal were also diverted by the Roman instigation of a group of Greek islands to rebel against Macedonian power and influence over them.
As Hannibal waited in vain in southern Italy, unable to advance upon Rome, things gradually fell apart for the Carthaginian forces. The Romans were reclaiming cities that Hannibal had won over, but that Carthage had repeatedly failed in using to send reinforcements. The Romans had also refined their tactics in opposing Hannibal’s army, and the Carthaginians found difficulty in repeating their earlier victories (such as those at the Battle of Cannae and earlier). The Romans took their strategy from the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, who had started to employ a waiting game tactic (with success) after the initial disastrous Roman defeats. Fabius earned the moniker “Cuncator” (literally “delayer”) for his innovation against the Punic style of battle.
Furthermore, the reinforcements Hannibal had prepared in Spain before his departure could no longer reach him. Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, had remained in Carthaginian Spain with another army that he would lead in the footsteps of Hannibal. However, Publius Cornelius Scipio, of the great Roman family who figured prominently in the Punic Wars against Carthage, had taken over Tarraco (a city by the source of the Ebro River), and hindered Hasdrubal’s plans greatly. Scipio the Elder (as he came to be called) had taken Tarraco with the goal of offsetting the influence of the Carthaginian city Carthago Nova. He was successful, for he managed to persuade some of the indigenous population out of their Carthaginian loyalties, and thus established Roman influence in the region. Finally, in 209 B.C., Scipio managed to take Carthago Nova in a surprise attack.
The fall of Carthago Nova was not the final blow that outdid Hasdrubal, however, as he circumvented Scipio’s army, and appeared in Italy two years later. The Roman who finally defeated Hasdrubal was Claudius Nero. Nero left only a meagre framework of his army in the south to face Hannibal, while he led the rest of his forces north to combine forces with another general, and together they defeated Hasdrubal. Hasdrubal’s army was trounced, and Hasdrubal himself was killed at the battle of the Metaurus before Nero raced back to the south to face Hannibal. Nero had effectively deceived the two brother-in-laws by allowing them to think that he had been only been in the south, while in fact he had been in the north, and his southern forces had merely been a fragile shell of the genuine article.
In Spain, Scipio the Elder had both exterminated Carthaginian forces in the land, and reversed the loyalties of some of their Spanish allies – most significantly that of a Numidian chieftain called Masinissa. His new alliances in Spain played a crucial role in interfering with any source of cavalry (on which Hannibal’s army depended heavily) from Spain, effectively rendering Hannibal helpless. Carthage itself was in danger now, as Scipio returned to Rome and set his sights on Africa.
Hannibal made his last stand for Carthage at home in Zama, in the summer of 202 B.C., and was defeated. The second Punic War had come to end in Roman victory and the crippling of Carthage. All Carthaginian territory outside of Africa was surrendered, along with Carthage’s naval fleet and elephant corps. Rome also dictated crushing reparations to be paid by Carthage over the next half century, firmly driving Carthage into the ground.