Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Mary Macgregor

The Boy Hannibal

The Carthaginians, as you know, had been turned out of Sicily at the end of the first Punic war. They had, too, lost more than Sicily, and were eager to atone for their losses by gaining territory in other lands.

Their thoughts turned to Spain, where already they had a few colonies.

So while the Romans were busy fighting against the Gauls, and too engrossed with the barbarians to trouble about the ambitions of the Carthaginians, they sent their general Hamilcar Barca to Spain, to add to the power and dominion of Carthage.

This was in time to prove the cause of the second Punic war.

Before setting out for Spain, Hamilcar went to the temple to offer a sacrifice to the supreme god of his people, at the same time beseeching him to grant success to his adventure.

As he turned away from the altar he caught sight of his little son Hannibal, then a boy of nine years old, who was watching his father with eager, awe-struck eyes.

Bidding those who stood near to withdraw, Hamilcar called the boy to him, and asked if he would like to go with him to Spain.

To go with his gallant father! To be a soldier like him!

There was no need for the child to answer, his eager face told his father all he wished to know.

So then the great general solemnly led his little son to the altar and bade him lay his hands upon it, as he swore never to be the friend of the Romans.

Hannibal took the oath as his father bade him, and never, in all the years to come, did he forget it. His hatred of the Romans grew with his strength, and when he became a man, his chief aim was to thwart their plans and overthrow their power. So it happened that when Hamilcar set out for Spain, Hannibal went with him.

In the camp the boy soon learned to love the hardships as well as the joys of a soldier's life.

His father himself saw that he was trained as a good soldier should be. In the end he gave his life to save his son from danger on the battlefield. After his father's death, Hannibal served under his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, for eight years.

While he was still young, he was given a command in the army, and none was ever loved by his men as was he.

In battle, the young leader was always to be found at the point of danger, and every hardship, in the camp as on the field, he shared with his men. Nothing seemed able to daunt his spirit. In disaster as in success he remained cheerful and confident. And he complained of no trouble when it could help his cause.

Until he was twenty, Hannibal lived his hard and happy soldier life. Then young as he was, a great responsibility was laid upon him.

Hasdrubal was killed in his tent by a slave whose master he had murdered, and the army shouted with one voice, that no one but Hannibal should become their commander.

And at length, the government of Carthage reluctantly agreed that the young soldier should be appointed. Until now this important post had been filled by men of greater age and wider experience than Hannibal.

But the new general soon showed the stuff of which he was made. He was young and energetic, and in two years he had taken many towns and added to the power and possessions of Carthage in Spain.

But Saguntum, a town on the east coast of Spain, defied Hannibal's efforts and remained unconquered. As the inhabitants watched the growing power of the young Carthaginian leader, they grew afraid, lest they in the end should be forced to yield. So they appealed to Rome for help.

In the winter of 220 b.c. a Roman embassy was therefore sent to Spain, bearing a message from the Senate for Hannibal.

The young leader received it with no goodwill. Did it not come from the country he had sworn to hate, and had not his hatred grown, until now it had become the burning passion of his life ?

But although the Roman ambassadors found Hannibal in no pleasant mood, they did not attempt to pacify him. Haughtily they gave their message that he should not attack Saguntum, or dare to cross the river Ebro, beyond which the Carthaginians had not yet advanced.

Hannibal listened with undisguised disdain to the demands of the Senate, and dismissed the ambassadors from his camp without an answer.

In the spring of 219 b.c. , it was plain that he went to defy Rome, for he laid siege to Saguntum.

For eight months the city held out. When their provisions failed, and starvation stared them in the face, they still refused to surrender, believing that Rome would send help.

But at length all hope of relief faded. Then the Spanish chiefs determined to die rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. So they ordered a fire to be kindled in the market-place, and into it they flung all the treasures which were left in the city. After the treasures were consumed, they themselves leaped into the flames and were burned to death.

When tidings of the fall of Saguntum reached Rome, she sent an embassy to Carthage, at the head of which was a noble named Fabius.

Fabius demanded that Hannibal and his officers should be given up, otherwise Rome would declare war against Carthage.

While the Carthaginians hesitated, Fabius rose, and gathering up the folds of his toga, as though in them he held the fate of the city, he cried, "I carry here peace and war. Choose, men of Carthage, which ye will."


"I carry here peace and war, choose men of Carthage, which ye will."

"Give us whatever ye wish," answered the Senate.

Then shaking out the folds of his toga Fabius answered, "Then here I give ye war," and without another word he left the Senate-house.

"With that spirit with which ye give it, shall we wage it," cried the Carthaginians, while the ambassador strode away.

As the shout of the Assembly followed him, Fabius knew that the men of Carthage did not dread his gift.