Ancient History & Civilisation


Knowing that the Roman embassy would now again journey on to Carthage, Hannibal sent messengers with a letter addressed to the heads of the Barcid party there, warning them and requesting that they prevent his opponents in the Council of Elders from making any concessions to Rome.48Hannibal’s action here suggests that, despite the strength of the pro-Barcid faction in Carthage, he feared that some members of the Council of Elders might have been swayed by what the Roman envoys had to say.49 When one looks at the debased coinage still being minted in the North African metropolis in this period (against the magnificent silver issues being produced in Spain), it could be argued that the beneficial effects of the Barcid economic miracle had not yet reached Carthage.50

There were also signs that the alternative policy of developing Carthage’s African territory–the strategy that had been pushed by Hanno and his supporters–was beginning to pay dividends. Indeed, archaeological survey of Carthage’s African hinterland has revealed an increase in its occupation and agricultural production levels, with considerable amounts of produce being exported from the city to western Sicily.51 Tyrrhenian trade was also booming, with large quantities of Campanian black-glaze pottery, which was mostly used as common tableware, being found in Carthage during this period.52 Certainly some of the more perceptive members of the Roman Senate appear to have been aware of the tensions between the Barcids and some in the Carthaginian Council of Elders, and to have actively sought to exploit those differences.53 Hannibal was thus perhaps mindful of the importance of bringing Barcid Spain completely back into the Carthaginian fold, to remove any danger of being disowned as a renegade. Most importantly of all, however, he would have wished for the diplomatic agreements that his father and brother-in-law had entered into to be accepted and given the official authority of the Carthaginian state.54

In Carthage, the Roman ambassadors at last found somebody who took their complaints and threats seriously. The great Barcid opponent Hanno stood up in front of the Council of Elders and launched a blistering attack on Hannibal. In the speech that is attributed to him by Livy, the focus of his assault is not Hannibal’s hatred of Rome, but rather his all-consuming ambition:

‘I urged you’, he [Hanno] said, ‘and warned you not to send Hamilcar’s son to the army. That man’s spirit, that man’s offspring cannot rest. As long as any single representative of the blood and name of Barca survives, our treaty with Rome will never remain unimperilled. You have sent to the army, as though supplying fuel to fire, a young man who is consumed with a passion for sovereign power, and who recognizes that the only way to it lies in passing his life surrounded by armed legions and perpetually stirring up fresh wars. It is you, therefore, who have fed this fire which is now scorching you . . . It is against Carthage that Hannibal is now bringing up his penthouses and towers, it is Carthage whose walls he is shaking with his battering rams. The ruins of Saguntum–would that I might prove a false prophet–will fall on our heads, and the war which has begun with Saguntum will have to be carried on with Rome.’55

Hanno finished with an exhortation that the siege of Saguntum should be lifted immediately, and Hannibal be handed over to the Romans. But on this occasion his words had little impact, and even his own supporters sat in silence.56 However, we should be wary of taking this as a ringing endorsement of Barcid unilateralism. Even those councillors who were no friends of the Barcids were still political realists, and if the Carthaginian Council of Elders attempted to relieve Hannibal of his command, that decision would have to be ratified by the Popular Assembly, still very much a Barcid political stronghold.

It also remained to be seen how a man who commanded such a huge standing army and controlled the resources of an area greater than Carthage’s African territories could be dismissed and detained. Such a move might momentarily appease Rome, but the Spanish territories in which so much of Carthage’s hopes were invested would surely be lost for ever. The native tribes swore their allegiance to the Barcids, not to Carthage. They would certainly not meekly accept a replacement overlord from the ranks of the Carthaginian Council. Confronted by their own impotence, the anti-Barcid faction pragmatically elected to keep their counsel.57 Hannibal’s relationship with some members of the Carthaginian elite clearly remained a marriage of convenience. As the Roman historian Cassius Dio would so astutely point out, ‘He was not sent forth in the beginning by the magistrates at home, nor later did he obtain any great assistance from them. For although they were to enjoy no slight glory and benefit from his efforts, they wished rather not to appear to be leaving him in the lurch than to cooperate effectively in any enterprise.’58

In regards to Saguntum, however, it appeared that Hannibal’s calculation had paid off. Despite the later efforts of Rome’s historians to conceal the procrastination, the Roman Senate debated what should be done about Saguntum until it was too late.59 As the siege entered its eighth month, there was still no sign of a Roman relief force. The starving people of Saguntum eventually gave up hope and committed mass suicide by incinerating their town. Hannibal split the spoils of war three ways. The captives were handed over to the soldiers to be sold as slaves or ransomed, and the proceeds from the sale of all the looted property were sent back to Carthage. As for the gold and silver, Hannibal set that aside for what lay ahead.60

In Rome, the Senate was split between those who wanted to declare immediate war on Carthage and those who wished to send another embassy. Although Rome would be able to muster a formidable army –and, more importantly, control the seas–the senators knew that by taking on Hannibal they were now subjecting the city to considerable risk against a large and well-trained force led by an energetic and talented leader. After a debate, it was decided to send a mixed delegation of hawkish and dovish senators to Carthage. Their mission was simple: the Carthaginian councillors were to be asked whether Hannibal had acted on his own initiative or whether the attack on Saguntum had been officially sanctioned. If their answer was the former, then a request would be made that Hannibal be handed over for retribution. The latter would be treated as a declaration of war. When the Roman ambassadors were led into the Carthaginian Council, they met a united body.

The Carthaginian councillors had nominated their most talented orator (whose name is not recorded) to act as their spokesman. He contrived to give a subtle answer to the rather blunt question posed by the Roman delegation. Livy presents the speaker cleverly turning the Council’s powerlessness into a virtue. He argued that the treaty that Rome had struck with Hasdrubal, in which the Carthaginian general had agreed not to cross the Hiberus, was invalid, because the Council had not been consulted.61 On the question of Carthaginian perfidy, the tables were then neatly turned on the Romans, who had of course broken the terms of the treaty that had ended the First Punic War by annexing Sardinia. The Carthaginian spokesman followed this up with the argument that Hannibal had not broken the terms of this treaty, because Saguntum had not been a Roman ally when the treaty had been signed. To prove the point, the relevant sections of the treaty were read out aloud. This rhetorical tour de force was finished off with a searching question for the Roman envoys when he demanded that they tell the assembled Carthaginian councillors quite what Rome’s intentions were.

But the Roman envoys were not interested in entering into dialogue. Fabius, their chief negotiator, stood up and pinched the cloth of his toga between two fingers so that he created a fold as a symbol of the stark choice that the Carthaginians faced, saying, ‘We offer you here war or peace: choose which you please.’ The Carthaginians would not be drawn, and they replied that it was for Rome to choose the course. Fabius then smoothed out the fold of his toga, and retorted that it would be war, thereby beginning perhaps the most famous conflict of the ancient world.62

Few scholars now accept the Polybian line that Hannibal’s combative stance was the realization of his father Hamilcar’s plan to marshal the resources of Spain and then renew the war with Rome.63 It is nevertheless true that the Barcids were the main driving force in the growing tensions between Rome and Carthage. It is doubtful whether the Carthaginian Council had the political authority or military capability to force Hannibal from his confrontation with Rome, and in any case the Barcid intervention in Spain had been an economic necessity driven by the need to pay off Carthage’s war indemnities and to compensate in the long term for the loss of Sicily and Sardinia. Economic stability was nevertheless as much about security as prosperity, and opposition to Rome must have been a further motivation for resistance.

At the same time, the Spanish command presented an opportunity to the Barcids not only for defence against Rome but also to attack it, and thus to restore Carthaginian military prestige, with which the Barcid self-image had been so intertwined since Hamilcar and the First Punic War. That a potential confrontation with Rome was central to Barcid thinking may be gleaned from the actual organization of the Spanish command, which revolved around little more than war and conquest, and thus military training and the acquisition of booty. Indeed, the restoration of Carthage’s old central-Mediterranean empire appears to have been an important strategic aim once war was declared.64

The Romans, for their part, had shattered any hope of a sustained status quo with the annexation of Sardinia, and their aggressive, expansionist policy must have been well recognized in Carthage. Whether the Romans actually cared about Saguntum is debatable, judging from the protracted period that it took them to come to its defence. Renewed Roman interest in southern Spain in 220 BC probably had less to do with the protection of small allies than with concern at the growing Barcid influence in the region.65 The capture of Saguntum gave the hawks within the Roman Senate the opportunity to press for a war which they were highly confident of winning. Even those senators who opposed the move appear to have been less concerned with the prevention of war than with Rome’s potential image as an unprovoked aggressor.66 Indeed, the last Roman embassy sent to Carthage had so presented its terms that the Carthaginian Council could not possibly have complied with them.67 War between the two powers was now unavoidable.68

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