The Labors of Hannibal

During the Second Punic War, 218 -201 BCE, Hannibal Barca, Carthage’s greatest general, took great strides to paint himself as the living image of Hercules. Across the Western Mediterranean, Hercules was known, through myth, to the native peoples and Greek colonies. Even Rome, had its own Hercules myth. The Cattle of Geryon, the tenth of Hercules’ twelve labors, is an epic bovine drive, began in Africa and ended in Italy, connecting the entire theater of war. The rivalry between the Greek and the Roman worlds would come to a climax encompassed in this myth. Both Hannibal and Scipio, his Roman rival, would compare themselves, throughout the conflict, with the mightiest man of all, Hercules.

Forces Collide

Two tall marble pillars stood at either side as Hannibal Barca stepped through the doorway into the Temple of Melqart in Gedes, Spain. Just having completed a long and bloody siege at Saguntum, a city mythically founded by Hercules, the young commander of the Carthaginian armies of Spain had sent his native troops home to rest for winter before they embarked on the arduous journey looming ahead. Standing just miles from the Pillars of Hercules, he sought the same god, in his own Semitic way. Melqart and Hercules were synonymous to a Hellenized Phoenician, such as Hannibal. Just as any true Hellene would, he was offering sacrifice to his favored deity before making war with his sworn enemy, Rome. His father, Hamilcar, had fought Rome across Sicily and was forced to surrender in humiliating defeat, ending the First Punic War.

There is no doubt that Hannibal, raised in military camps, would have been taught a deep abiding hate for this most personal of foes. Whether his attack on the Roman ally Saguntum was intended to provoke war with the only other “super-power” of the Western Mediterranean, or simply the next step in the Barcid’s Iberian Kingdom’s growth, has been a fact of historical contention. Hannibal’s intent after the Second Punic War began is clear though; Rome must be destroyed. His methods of completing this paternal-goal range greatly, from scaling the Alpine mountain tops to supreme tactics on the battlefield, from swaying crowds to his side in the forums of the poleis of Magna Graecia to synthesizing himself with one of the few deities worshipped by almost all the allies of Rome. Hannibal sought through a myriad of ingenious ways to become a modern-day-Hercules to the peoples of Magna Graecia, wrenching their loyalty away from their master, Rome.

Mythos behind the Men

Herculean folktales and myth are present all over the Western Mediterranean. The son of Zeus left a trail of super-human feats as he finished his twelve labors. The tenth labor, the Cattle of Geryon, sent him with an enormous herd of cattle from Northern Africa, near Carthage, over the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Pillars of Hercules rest, to Italy, to the founding site of Rome. This obvious parallel cannot be overlooked when considering Hannibal’s thoughts at the beginning of his campaign. Though he had not been to his motherland in Africa in years, he had begun, as a child, the same journey Hercules took centuries before. He now intended to follow his heroic protector’s path, across the Pyrenees and the Alps and into the heartland of the Roman Republic. Livy puts the perfect words in the elder Scipio’s mouth, having him challenge, “I want to know if this man Hannibal can substantiate his claim to be the rival of Hercules,” just before he is defeated in battle by Hannibal and killed.

No organized army had ever attempted to cross the insanely high Alpine passes, much less in the month of October. Enormous armies of raiding Germans and Celts had surged down into the Po Valley in years not too far past, but these were not the same kind of military power that approached. Bringing with him twenty-seven elephants from the Moroccan forests, thousands of both African and Spanish horses, and wagons laden with supplies to feed this mighty force for weeks, Hannibal marched his army of over forty thousand warriors by sheer force of will over one of nature’s greatest obstacles. If the oppressed allies of Rome sought a savior, perhaps this was him? Had Alexander of Macedon not freed the Greeks of the Ionia from Persian rule under this same guise of Hercules? Hannibal sought to make his potential allies see this connection. By successfully navigating the treacherous Alpine mountains, he would take the first steps to proving to his audience of Hellenes that he was a new embodiment of the deity, Hercules. Throughout his campaign, Hannibal would show a great understanding of the Hellenistic mind, however his lack of understanding the Italian mind may have led to his eventual defeat.

Hellenism Morphs

Alexander the Great, a century before had begun the Hellenic movement, spreading Greek culture across the Eastern Mediterranean. Also, using Hercules as his model, he shrouded his parentage in myth, struck coins of himself with a lion headdress, and even, after insisting on worshipping at the original Temple of Melqart in Tyre, named an illegitimate son Heracles. A master of propaganda, the connection between Melqart and Hercules would have been obvious to Alexander, as it was to Hannibal. He would have known of the super-human feats of Alexander and must have thought of himself as a continuation of the human Hercules. As Alexander payed homage to Melqart at Tyre, on the other side of the Mediterranean a little over a hundred years later, Hannibal would sacrifice to Hercules at Gedes. The conquests and glory of the Macedonians would have filled his head with hope as he began his fateful venture.

Marriage into local elites seems to have been a theme for both Alexander and the Barcids. Both Hannibal and his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, married Iberian princesses to better control their growing Hellenistic Iberian kingdom, while Alexander had married Roxanne, an Iranian princess, attempting to pacify the region. With Alexander in the East and Hannibal in the West, Hellenism would become a worldwide phenomenon, however, the Romans, particularly a young general named Scipio, would have a rebuttal to the Carthaginian Hercules.

Roman Sway

Though Rome had by 241 BCE gained political and military control over most of the Italian peninsula, the native Samnites, Latins, Umbrians, Etruscans, and Greek colonists in no way thought of themselves as Romans. Citizenship was a closely guarded privilege for the elites of their societies with were an amalgamation of many kinds of peoples. Both Greeks and Carthaginian traders had long been present across the southern and west coasts of the peninsula. This mixture of religious cults and cultural standards would later upset the Roman stoicism. Shortly after the Second Punic War in 186 BCE the cult of Bacchus, Greek Dionysus, after having gained many adherents, was brutally and swiftly suppressed. Claims of sexual misconduct were flung about and the Senate became convinced of a conspiracy. So soon after Hannibal’s departure from Italian soil, the impact this Carthaginian Hercules left was enormous. He was not alone in using Hercules as his model hero though, Scipio also used Alexandrian and Heraklion images. Throughout time leaders have used comparisons to their predecessors for propaganda purposes, but these men were these methods’ inventors.

The cult of Hercules was long founded in Rome also. Evander and later Virgil would both incorporate the Herculean labor, The Cattle of Geryon, into their Roman mythology, which to a Roman, was almost history. Building a temple to the hero called the Ara Maxima, Evander can be said to have founded the Roman cult of Hercules. The image of the bull went on to become the very symbol the rest of Italy would embrace as their own when they revolted against Rome roughly one hundred years after Hannibal’s retreat, even minting coinage with a bull goring a wolf, the symbol of Romulus and Remus, in 90 BC. Though time had passed, these rebels must have lamented the lost opportunity of freedom from Rome Hannibal offered. But his Hellenistic style of ruling, dependent upon a single ruler, which had spread from the East, found rocky soil in Italy when it attempted to take root.

Punic Truth

The coinage Carthage, during their conflicts with Rome, can also help to shed much light upon their motivations. Hasdrubal preceded Hannibal as strategos autokrator, the Greek title Alexander held, in Carthaginian Spain when Hamilcar fell in battle. These three Barcid rulers all used a very Hellenistic style of coinage. Many coins of this period offer images of elephants, which were to become a symbol of the Barcid family, or Herakles-Melkart with club and lion mane, some with profiles which are impossible to discern whether they were meant to be a young Hannibal or handsome Alexander, a fearsome Hamilcar or a mighty Hercules, a noble Hasdrubal or a beardless Melqart, but all show a distinctly Hellenistic style.

The images of a possible young Hannibal are of great note. If they do portray this rising star, what were the prophesies and portents that surrounded him? He must have been the last great hope of a nation; a child raised on the battlefield by a heroic father to defeat his countries mortal foe. Carthaginians were not alone in copying what had proven to work in the East. Scipio during his Spanish campaign is thought to have minted coinage with an image of either himself or Alexander of Macedon. In either case, this effrontery to the Republic and all it stood for would have been noted, but gained support in Iberian tribal circles, who had long been exposed to Hellenistic style of rule by the Carthaginians.

As Hannibal won victory after victory on the battlefield, from Trebia to Trasimene, to culminate in the bloodbath at Cannae, the Romans lost hundreds of thousands of troops. These were the battles of legend, feats inhuman, the labors of Hannibal. At Cannae alone somewhere between forty-seven thousand and seventy thousand Roman soldiers died. Through these disasters, the Romans formed a strategic and tactical plan. Fabius Maximus devised a way to keep Hannibal in check as he ravaged the Italian countryside, without coming in reach of his deadly cavalry. By moving from one fortified position on a hilltop to another, he shadowed their nemesis, keeping him from investing any large towns with siege. As Hannibal drew the cities of Magna Graecia to his cause, the Romans took them back, fielding an army of over two hundred thousand men spread across the Western Mediterranean. The islands of Sardinia and Sicily fell to Roman generals early in the war, and after the deaths of both his father and uncle, the young Scipio took up the generalship in Spain to great effect.

The Art of Warfare

Basing himself out of Bruttium, Hannibal saw that a quick victory was impossible. He intended occupy and defeat as many Roman armies as possible on Italian soil so that his brother and allies could regain their lost territories. Little help was sent from Carthage and he spent over fifteen years on the Italian peninsula, only to be recalled home when the new Hercules, Scipio Africanus, landed with a veteran Roman army of close to four legions in Africa intending to destroy Carthage. Hannibal was then forced to decide, whether to stay in Italy and rule his new Hellenistic kingdom of Magna Graecia in the shadow of Rome, or return to a homeland he had not seen since childhood, one which turned their backs upon him in his greatest hour of need, sending only scant reinforcements to Italy. In true heroic fashion, as Hercules out of myth would have done, he gave up all that he had accomplished to fight a hopeless battle against the Roman monster, the legion.

Hannibal and most Carthaginian generals traditionally fought in the Greek phalangeal line of tightly packed men with long spears or pikes and round shields, conscripted from the polis. With a heavy spicing of Iberian and Gallic mercenaries, Numidian and Spanish horse, they made up a mobile and deadly force; however, the Roman legion was something unseen of in all antiquity. More loosely spaced than their foes, the legionaries practiced fighting with room to swing. Their longer than usual, short-swords, the gladius was fully developed during Scipio’s campaigns in Spain, taking much inspiration from local models. Carrying large rectangular shields, they drilled formations and tactics as smaller more flexible units, two cohorts which made up a mandible, compared to the ungainly phalagical line. Hannibal might have had the edge on the move, but head to head his forces could not withstand the might of the legions, which would go on to conquer the Western world.

These adaptions would have been present in Scipio’s African army, which of whom most the soldiers of had faced Hannibal and lost ten years before. The war raging across the Western Mediterranean for the past fifteen years had been a forge for the Roman army, which now was unstoppable. The Battle of Zama in Africa was a defeat for the Carthaginians, leaving Hannibal to sue for peace against his greatest foe. After securing the safety of the city, he went on to lay the groundwork for one of the greatest engineering feats of ancient times, the Carthaginian Military Harbor, before he was exiled to the East, where he died a city planner in Bithynia, having to commit suicide before his patron handed him over to the Romans. Seen as a savage by history, who was this unique tactical and civic genius whose true history has been erased? He was Hercules.

Legacy Forgotten

Poetry and statue is all that remains Carthage’s greatest general, their Hercules. The Punica is a later Roman poetic telling of the Second Punic War, which directly correlates Hannibal and Hercules in not the most attractive of light. From raping Pyrene to bloody slaughter, it only highlights the faults applicable to this tragic hero. The Farnese Hercules, which was sculpted around the time of Alexander of Macedon, became popular in Italy and Rome not long after the time of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus. There is not the stoic nobility Scipio would have sought after in this Hercules visage though. He is exhausted, having just finished his twelve labors; his face is filled with anguish. Leaning upon his huge club, the massively muscular body is slouched over. This god-hero is near finished, as Hannibal was when he abandoned the cities of Magna Graecia to their Roman fate to protect his motherland. The lengths taken by the Romans to destroy all traces of Hannibal, and Carthage, prove the impact he must have had on the ancient world, leaving a resounding silence in its place.


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