Hannibal: Rome's Greatest Enemy

Image of Hannibal: Rome's Greatest Enemy
Release Date: 
February 1, 2022
Pegasus Books
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“a more complete accounting of the life of Rome’s greatest nemesis . . .”

Ancient Roman historiography has seen a number of new volumes that take a fresh look at the rise of the Roman Republic through the point of view of their enemies. None of these opponents was more threatening to Rome than Carthage. And of course, the greatest Carthaginian was Hannibal, whose life could be summed up with the charge from his father to have “Implacable hatred toward Rome.” Although Hannibal Barca is one history’s greatest generals and his military victories have been studied for centuries, he is not well understood as a person.

In this new biography, author Philip Freeman, gives a more complete accounting of the life of Rome’s greatest nemesis, using the available ancient sources, most of them very pro-Roman, to show a more complex individual that experienced both great triumphs and missed opportunities. Hannibal was raised as a soldier and general, learning not only the practical aspects of tactics and drill, but the more difficult to master skills of leadership and motivation from his father, who conquered Spain for Carthage. Hannibal’s entire life was directed toward defeating Rome, and the author lays out how he learned hard lessons watching his father wage war and ultimately die at the hands of the tribes in Spain.

Freeman leads the reader through a brisk and action-packed narrative, following Hannibal from his earliest victories in Spain through his legendary march over the Alps into northern Italy to challenge the very heart of Rome. When Hannibal marches into the northern Italian plains, the author emphasizes that Hannibal was not only a brilliant and imaginative general, but a gifted politician and diplomat who was able to exploit lingering animosity from many of the Italian people toward Rome.

The battle narratives are well done and show how Hannibal was able to use his keen eye for terrain, his ability to wage psychological war on his opponent to manipulate them into making hasty or emotional decisions, and his decisiveness at crucial times of the battle to overcome superior numbers of Roman troops, leading to his greatest victory at Cannae, when his army completely destroyed a vastly larger army and left Rome vulnerable to conquest.

His greatest triumph was at this moment, and when he stood on the cusp of a decisive victory for Carthage Hannibal hesitated and let his judgement overrule his imagination. As the author notes, Hannibal expected Rome to sue for peace as any other beaten foe of the ancient world would have done, but he underestimated the stamina and willingness of Rome to fight to the very end no matter how many casualties they endured.

The author then leads us through the end of the Second Punic War when Scipio rose to challenge Hannibal’s martial skills and finally defeat him at the Battle of Zama. The politics Hannibal faced within Carthage are also noted by the author, with the ingratitude of the people for all that Hannibal did a tragic ending to his career. As Hannibal finally is forced to move around the Mediterranean basin in exile, he becomes both a legendary and a tragic figure, still a boogeyman to Rome which finally leads to his taking his own life rather turned over to the Romans and be put on display in Rome.

It’s interesting to note that in the later years of the Roman Empire, 400 years after the Punic Wars, Hannibal became a more admired figure among the Romans, who considered him their greatest foe and a worthy adversary, even as their great historians, Livy and Polybus, often cast Hannibal and Carthage in general in very unflattering lights.

This was a very quick and fascinating read, which would have been greatly improved by the addition of some maps to show just how remarkable Hannibal’s campaigns were, in particular his march across the Alps and his continual ability to defeat larger Roman armies through superior planning, better understanding of his enemy, and his imagination to solve tactical problems.