The later years of the First Punic War had brought to the front a man of extraordinary genius, Hamilcar, surnamed Barca. As his son Hannibal was born in the year of his selection for a command, we may put his age at twenty-five. Hamilcar kept the Romans in check, first at Ercté, a stronghold in Sicily, and afterwards at Eryx in the same island, for five years, and might have even changed the course of the war if he could have been adequately supported from home. So greatly did his military ability impress the Romans that when negotiations for peace were commenced, he was permitted to march out of Eryx with all the honours of war. During the next four years he rendered the greatest service to his country which had been brought to the very verge of ruin by the revolt of the mercenaries. It was Hamilcar, in fact, who saved Carthage from destruction. This done, he devoted the remainder of his life to the working out of a great scheme which was to restore his country to the commanding position from which she had been deposed by the disasters of the First Punic War. Sicily had been lost; another province, far larger, and possibly more valuable might be found in Spain. Carthage had had, for several generations a large trade with Spain, and probably possessed some trading ports or fortified factories on the southern coast. Hannibal crossed over into Spain with a general commission to do what he could for the interests of Carthage in that country. We know next to nothing about the details of his action, but it is clear that he was eminently successful. He practically conquered a considerable part of Spain, and did it without any charge on the home revenues, which, indeed, were largely augmented by the sums which he sent home. After a prosperous career of nearly nine years he fell in battle. This was 229 b.c. , when he was little more than forty years of age. His work was taken up by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal. Hasdrubal was, by all accounts, more of a politician than a soldier. The interests of Carthage, however, were furthered rather than hindered by this difference of character. Hamilcar had impressed the Spanish tribes by his military genius and resources. Hasdrubal conciliated them. His wife was the daughter of a Spanish chief. Altogether he did much to consolidate the Carthaginian power in the Peninsula. Not the least of his services was his foundation of New Carthage, a place admirably chosen for strength of position and convenience of access. After eight years of rule he was assassinated by a slave whose master he had put to death.
The successor of Hasdrubal was the son of Hamilcar, a son who possessed a military genius even greater than that of his father. Hannibal is ranked by common consent among the greatest generals of the world. If Rome could have been overthrown by any enemy, it would have been by him, so brilliant was his strategy, so great his capacity for leadership—nothing is more remarkable in his career than his power of giving unity to the varied components of a mercenary army—and so resolute his hostility to Rome. He himself narrated towards the close of his life the incident which seems to have made this feeling the dominant motive of his life. He was then in exile, and the guest of Antiochus the Great, King of Syria. Some jealous courtiers had suggested to Antiochus that Hannibal was not indisposed to come to terms with Rome. He then told his story.
"When my father was about to go on his expedition to Spain, I was nine years old. I was standing near the altar when he made the usual sacrifice to Zeus. This successfully performed, he bade all the other worshippers stand back, and calling me to him, asked me whether I wished to go with him. I gave an eager assent, and begged him most earnestly to take me. On this he took me by the right hand, led me up to the altar, and bade me lay my hand upon the victim, and swear eternal enmity to Rome."
No vow was ever more faithfully performed.
Of Hannibal's early years we know but little. He was present at the battle in which his father was killed being then in his nineteenth year.
During the period of his brother-in-law's command he was continuously employed on active service. Hasdrubal's ability, as has been already said, was political rather than military, and the operations in the field were largely conducted by the younger man, and conducted with conspicuous success. His habit of victory and his great personal qualities made him the favourite of the army. Livy gives us a vivid picture of the man as he was in his youth.
"Bold in the extreme in incurring peril, he was perfectly cool in its presence. No toil could weary his body or conquer his spirit. Heat and cold he bore with equal patience. The cravings of nature, not the pleasure of the palate, determined the measure of his food and drink. His waking and sleeping hours had no relation to day and night. Such time as business left him, he gave to repose, but it was not on a soft couch or in stillness that he sought it. Many saw him, wrapped in his military cloak, lying on the ground amidst the sentries and pickets. His dress was not one whit superior to that of his comrades, but his accoutrements and his horses were conspicuously splendid. Of all the cavalry and the infantry, he was by far the first soldier, earliest to join the battle and last to leave it."
The quarrel with Rome, undoubtedly provoked of set purpose by Hannibal, began with his attack on Saguntum (now Murviedro, i.e., Muri Veteres, "The Old Walls," in Valencia). This town was in alliance with the Romans, who sent envoys to Hannibal bidding him desist from the attack, and to Carthage, complaining of their general's action. Hannibal refused to receive the embassy; at Carthage the answer given was practically a refusal to interfere. Meanwhile Saguntum was left without help. When it fell, after a siege of several months, the Romans felt that war was inevitable, and made preparations for carrying it on with vigour. They probably underestimated the strength of the enemy. The army voted, largely made up, it must be remembered, of recruits enrolled for the purpose, amounted to about 70,000; and the fleet was to number about 250 ships. Everything, however, was to be done in due form. Another embassy was sent to Carthage, with instructions to put the direct question, whether the government accepted the responsibility for the destruction of Saguntum. There was, it is true, a peace-party in Carthage, but it had been reduced to helplessness. The envoys could obtain no satisfaction. Their spokesman, one of the great Fabian House, on receiving a reply which could have no meaning but war, gathered up his robe into a fold and cried, "We bring you peace and war; take which you please." He was met with a fierce cry, "Give us which you will." Fabius shook out the fold with the words, "I give you war," and the answer was, "We accept it."
I shall pass as quickly as possible over the early operations of the war. Early in the spring of 218 b.c. Hannibal left his winter quarters at New Carthage, crossed the Ebro, and fought his way from that river to the foot of the Pyrenees. The Pyrenean range itself presented no great difficulties. At the Rhone he encountered formidable opposition, but effected a crossing with great skill. In his march from the Rhone to the Alps, and in his passage of the Alps themselves he suffered little from hostile attacks. But the natural difficulties of the route were great, and he was late. He appears to have left New Carthage at the beginning of May. We may be sure that the start was made at the earliest practicable moment, but the delay was to cost much. Could he have moved a month earlier it would have been well. As it was he did not reach the Alps till the beginning of October, when the snows have already begun to fall on the higher ranges. The crossing was effected in fifteen days, but the cost in men and beasts of burden was tremendous. Hannibal had started from New Carthage with 90,000 foot and 16,000 horse; he descended into the Lombard plains with 20,000 infantry and 6,000 horse. He had very little more than one-fourth of his original numbers. He had not indeed lost the other three-fourths by battle or by disease. Many had deserted, many had been sent home, and the troops that remained were thoroughly trustworthy. But the fact remains that an army of 26,000 was even ludicrously small to be confronted with such an enemy as Rome. (It may be noted that the infantry was made up of Africans and Spaniards. The higher posts in the army were filled by Carthaginians, and some probably served in the cavalry, but in the main the army consisted of mercenaries.)
It would be a pity to omit so picturesque an incident as Hannibal's dream. Livy thus relates it: "He saw—so the story goes—a youth of godlike shape, who said that he had been sent by Jupiter to conduct the army of Hannibal into Italy; that he was therefore to follow, without ever turning away his eyes. At first Hannibal followed, trembling, looking neither round him nor behind; after a while, with the curiosity natural to the human mind, as he thought what that on which he was forbidden to look back might be, he could no longer restrain his eyes. What he saw was a serpent of portentous size moving onward with fearful destruction of bushes and trees; close behind the creature followed a storm-cloud with crashing thunder. He asked what this portent meant, and was told, 'It means the devastation of Italy,' He must go straight on, and leave the fates in darkness."