Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Seventy-Three

The Wars of the Sons

Between 285 and 202 BC, Alexander’s successors pass their kingdoms on, and Hannibal takes his elephants across the Alps

OLD PTOLEMY, ALEXANDER’S ONE-TIME GENERAL and now king of Egypt, finally decided to retire at the age of eighty-two. In 285, he abdicated and handed his throne over to his younger son, Ptolemy II.201 He spent his last years peacefully writing a history of Alexander’s campaigns which put Ptolemy himself in the best possible light.202

The aftershocks were considerable. His older son, Ptolemy Ceraunus, promptly left the Egyptian court in a fit of pique. Later in that same year, he showed up in Thrace to visit his sister Arsinoe, who had been married off to Lysimachus.1

This particular match had been Lysimachus’s insurance. He wanted to hang onto Thrace and Macedonia and his Asia Minor territories, despite Seleucus’s increasingly huge presence over to his east, and making a marriage alliance with Ptolemy down south was a good way to assure that Seleucus would think twice about attacking him. The marriage was his second (Arsinoe was at least thirty years younger than her father’s old army buddy), and his oldest son from his previous marriage, Agathocles, was his heir.

Ptolemy Ceraunus’s troublemaking presence inspired Arsinoe, who wanted her own sons to inherit the kingdom instead. Together, the two of them accused Agathocles of plotting with Seleucus to assassinate Lysimachus and take the Thracian-Macedonian throne away from him.

Lysimachus, elderly and paranoid, was an easy target. The year after Ptolemy Ceraunus arrived, he succumbed to his suspicions and tried to poison his son. When the poisoning failed, Lysimachus threw Agathocles into prison, where—in the dark, out of sight—he died.

Later historians believed that Ptolemy Ceraunus murdered him. Certainly the troublemaker was still active; he showed up not much later in Seleucus’s court, asking Seleucus to join with him against the evil son-poisoning Lysimachus.2 Seleucus, who by this time was turning eighty to Lysimachus’s seventy-one, rounded up his forces and marched towards Lysimachus’s domains.

Lysimachus came out to meet him and crossed the Hellespont to fight on Asia Minor’s ground. In the battle, the two old men—who had known each other for forty years, ever since their days together in Alexander’s officer corps—met hand-to-hand. Seleucus struck the final blow; Lysimachus died on the battlefield, and his body lay there for some days before his younger son arrived to take the battered corpse back home.

Seleucus got ready to march across the Hellespont and claim Macedonia. But before he could get very far, Ptolemy Ceraunus, still in his camp, still pretending alliance, turned on him and assassinated him. He had personally wiped out two-thirds of the remaining successors of Alexander.

Ptolemy Ceraunus promptly claimed the Macedonian-Thracian throne for himself and married his sister Arsinoe. This was an Egyptian custom, not a Greek one, and did not make him terribly popular in his new country. Neither did his next action, which was to kill two of Arsinoe’s sons as threats to his rule. She left him and went down to Egypt to her other brother, Ptolemy II—and married him too. This earned him the Greek nickname “Ptolemy Philadelphus,” or “Brotherly Love,” which was not a compliment.

Meanwhile, old Ptolemy had died peacefully in his bed, almost the only successor of Alexander to do so.

Ptolemy Ceraunus kept his bloody throne for two years. In 279, the Celtic movement that had troubled the Italian peninsula reached Asia Minor. Gauls flooded down into Macedonia; Ptolmey Ceraunus went out to fight them and died in battle, ending his career as the most underappreciated villain of ancient times.203 His throne ended up in the hands of Antigonus the One-Eyed’s grandson, Antigonus II.3

Seleucus’s son Antiochus I took control of his father’s kingdom. Antiochus was half Persian (as a young man in Alexander’s camp, Seleucus had been married to a Persian noblewoman in that mass wedding ceremony), and the empire he now headed had borrowed its basic structures from the Persians. Provinces were governed by satraps, and the empire was run from several royal capitals, each positioned to overlook a different part of the empire. The Persians had used Susa, Ecbatana, Sardis, and Babylon; Seleucus had kept the use of Sardis and Babylon, but had built himself two new cities to serve as adjunct headquarters. The city of Antioch lay on the Orontes river, in land which the Ptolemaic kings had once claimed. His largest and most favored city, though, was Seleucia, which he built on the western bank of the Tigris and linked with the Euphrates by a canal.


73.1 The World of the Seleucids

The year after Ptolemy Ceraunus’s death, the Gauls crossed the Hellespont and threatened to breach the border of the Seleucid empire. Antiochus I fought them off, earning himself the nickname “Antiochus the Savior.” The Gauls, retreating, settled in Asia Minor, where they eventually became known as “Galatians.”

A DECADE LATER, Roman soldiers pushed off from the shores of the Italian peninsula, headed for Sicily. This was a historical moment, Polybius tells us. It was “the first occasion on which the Romans crossed the sea from Italy,” and Sicily was “the first country beyond the shores of Italy on which they set foot.”4 Rome had entered into the next phase of its history; the Romans were getting ready to embark on their first overseas conquest.204

Like most fledgling empire-builders, the Romans had an excuse for this invasion. Sicily was still divided between the control of Syracuse and Carthage, and the Sicilian harbor city of Messina, originally a Greek colony, had fallen under Syracuse’s power. But a band of renegade Italian mercenaries from Campania had sailed to Sicily and taken control of the city. The Messinians sent to both Carthage and Rome, asking for help in driving out the invaders.

Since Rome and Carthage were technically at peace, this was not all that unreasonable. But it lit the match under a long-building bonfire. The Carthaginians got there first and discovered that the tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero II (Agathocles had died some twenty years earlier), was already on the job; he had not appreciated Messina’s turning to other powers for help, when the city was supposed to be his. Rather than start a three-way war, the Carthaginians joined with Hiero II and occupied Messina, driving out the previous invaders.

The Romans, arriving second, refused to give up the project of besieging Messina and simply attacked the Carthaginian occupying forces instead. Afterwards, the Roman invaders spread out across the island, claiming Carthaginian-controlled land and laying siege to Syracuse as well.5

The Carthaginians reacted by crucifying (literally) the commander who had been in charge of the Messina garrison and settling in for a fight. They could see quite clearly that this overseas venture was Rome’s first tentative prod at the land outside Italy’s borders. For the next twenty-three years, the two powers would slog on through the First Punic War (264–241).

“Because they saw that the war was dragging on,” Polybius writes, “[the Romans] first applied themselves to building ships…. They faced great difficulties because their shipwrights were completely inexperienced.”6 This was the second first of the First Punic War. To get over to Sicily, the Roman consuls had borrowed ships from Rome’s allies and subject cities (a force called the socii navales).7 But it soon became clear that Rome could not simply rely on the navies of other cities. When a Carthaginian warship ran aground on Roman shores, the shipbuilders took it apart and modelled their own ships on it; meanwhile, crews were practicing rowing on dry land. And with the ships finished, the new Roman fleet put to sea and was promptly captured by a Carthaginian commander.8

The Romans rebuilt and refitted and set to sea again. Two years later, Polybius says, the two navies were “equally matched.” The Romans gleaned the best part of their strategy, their law, their government, and even their mythology from other cultures, but they were fast learners.

By 247, after seventeen years of almost constant fighting, the Romans had gained a little bit of advantage. Roman troops had landed in North Africa and established camps, although to attack Carthage itself was far beyond their capabilities; and Sicily was almost entirely in Roman hands. The leaders of Carthage removed their commanding general for incompetence and gave control of the army to a new officer, a man in his mid-twenties named Hamilcar Barca.

Hamilcar had under his command a mixed force of Carthaginians and mercenaries, about ten thousand in all, as well as seventy elephants. He captured himself a base in Sicily from which he harassed the Italian coast, and won himself several hard-fought victories; enough so that he was able to rescue the Carthaginians “from the state of absolute despair into which they had fallen.”9

But by 242, the war—by now in its twenty-second year—had driven both nations to a state of exasperation. “They were worn out with the strain of an unbroken succession of hard-fought campaigns,” Polybius says, “their resources…drained by taxes and military expenses which continued year after year.”10 Hamilcar’s band of mercenaries and Carthaginians on Sicily had been fighting for over three years without losing—but without taking the island either. The Romans were unable to make any headway against the Carthaginian land forces, but the Roman navy made it harder and harder for Carthaginian supply ships to reach Hamilcar’s soldiers on Sicily.

The Carthaginians were the first to call a halt. In 241, the home city sent Hamilcar a message: they did not want to abandon him, but it was now impossible to continue sending food and weapons. He had the power to handle the situation however he pleased. This powerless authority left Hamilcar with no option but surrender. He came down with his troops from their base, halfway up Mount Eryx, in “grief and rage,”11 and under protest submitted to a treaty which required Carthage to give up all of Sicily, to release all prisoners, and to pay a sizable fine over the next ten years.12

The war was over. The Senate ordered the doors to the Temple of Janus shut, to symbolize peace everywhere in the lands that belonged to Rome. Sicily was now one of those lands; it had become Rome’s first foreign province.

This peace had in it the seeds of a more terrible conflict.

BACK TO THE EAST, other battles dragged on. Ptolemy II of Egypt (now married to his sister) and Antiochus I (son of Seleucus) bickered about the Syrian border between their territories, and handed their quarrels on to their sons, but apart from this, the succession passed to the next generation without much change. Ptolemy II died in 246 and was succeeded by his son Ptolemy III; Antiochus I (following old Persian tradition) put his oldest son to death for treachery and left his throne to his second son, Antiochus II, instead.205 Over in Macedonia, Antigonus II, grandson of the One-Eyed, died in his eighties after almost fifty years as king and was followed by his own son as well.

Down in Egypt, Ptolemy III had a prosperous twenty-two-year rule. Antiochus II did not fare nearly as well. Six years after he took over the Seleucid empire, he lost the satrapy of Bactria; it rebelled, under its Greek governor Diodotus, and declared itself to be an independent kingdom with Diodotus as king. Bactria was distant from any of Antiochus II’s capital cities, over rough country, and the king was unable to reconquer it. Not long afterwards, a native Parthian nobleman named Arsaces declared his own homeland of Parthia free as well. Antiochus II was preoccupied with his western border; he was fighting a war with Egypt over control of those old Western Semitic lands, including the old Phoenician, Israelite, and Judean territories, and he could not hold onto two borders of his huge empire at the same time.206

He finally managed to make a temporary peace with Ptolemy III, and the two kings sealed the bargain with a royal marriage; Ptolemy III’s daughter went north and married Antiochus II as his second wife. The bargain didn’t get Parthia and Bactria back, though, and Antiochus II’s indignant first wife poisoned him, so the peace was a failure all around.

He was succeeded by his son (by his first wife) Seleucus II, who failed to retake the two rebellious satrapies and then died from falling off his horse. Seleucus II’s oldest son only managed to rule for three years before his own commanders assassinated him; the throne then went to the younger son, Antiochus III.

He was only fifteen when he became king of the Seleucids in 223. With a boy on the throne, both Media and the old Persian heartland joined Bactria and Parthia in rebellion. But Antiochus III was made of stronger stuff than the three kings before him. He went on campaign and ticked off conquests one by one: the edges of his domain in Asia Minor which had started to flake away; Media and Persia, both forced to surrender to Antiochus when he personally led his army against them at the age of eighteen; eventually, Bactria and Parthia as well. These last two territories he did not try to reabsorb. He made a peace with both the Bactrian and the Parthian kings, which secured his eastern border and allowed him to pay a little more attention to the west.207

This was a good plan, as Egypt’s hold on its own border was loosening. In 222, Ptolemy III had been succeeded by his son Ptolemy IV, who was universally disliked by all of his biographers. “He was a loose, voluptuous, and effeminate prince,” Plutarch remarks, “…besotted with his women and his wine.”13 “He conducted his reign as if it were a perpetual festival,” Polybius says with disapproval, “neglected the business of state, made himself difficult to approach, and treated with contempt or indifference those who handled his country’s interests abroad.”14 As soon as his father died, he poisoned his mother so that she wouldn’t plot against him, and followed this up by having his younger brother Magus scalded to death, since Magus was alarmingly popular with the army.15

Ptolemy IV’s affairs were mostly run by his mistress, her brother Agathocles (“that pimp,” Plutarch calls him), and one of his advisors, a Greek named Sosibius who seems to have made the decisions for him while he gave his attention to “senseless and continuous drinking.”16Ptolemy IV died in 204 (probably of liver failure), leaving his throne to his five-year-old son Ptolemy V. Sosibius and “that pimp” apparently then forged documents making them regents for the child.

Sosibius died months later, leaving Agathocles, his sister, and their mother at the top of the Egyptian power heap. Not for long; the trio had made themselves so unpopular that a mob, led by the army, stormed the palace, dragged them out into the street, stripped them naked, and tore them to pieces in a frenzy: “Some [of the mob] began to tear them with their teeth,” Polybius says, “others to stab them, others to gouge out their eyes. As soon as any of them fell, the body was torn limb from limb until they had dismembered them all, for the savagery of the Egyptians is truly appalling when their passions have been roused.”17

Young Ptolemy V was enthroned in Memphis with a proper Egyptian council of advisors, but when he was twelve, Antiochus III marched against the northern Egyptian border. Josephus records that Antiochus, whom he calls king “of all Asia,” “seized on Judea.”18 The invasion ended in 198 at the Battle of Panium, when the Seleucid and Egyptian armies clashed near the head of the Jordan river. When the fighting was over, Egypt had lost hold of its Western Semitic territories for the last time. It would never again reach into those northern lands. Ptolemy IV’s reign is described by almost every ancient historian as the end of Egypt’s greatness. The ancient country’s renaissance under its Greek rulers was over.

FARTHER WEST, Hamilcar Barca was still smarting under the Roman-imposed terms of peace. Carthage’s greatness had been blocked; the Carthaginians had lost the Mediterranean islands which had formed their empire, and the Romans were planted firmly on them instead.

Hamilcar decided to make up for the loss by moving the Carthaginian empire a little farther west. He would take a force of soldiers and settlers to Iberia—modern Spain—and plant another Carthaginian colony to replace the losses at Sicily. This Iberian colony would be a new center of Carthaginian might—and it would also serve as an excellent base from which to launch retaliatory strikes against Rome. His humiliation at Sicily had turned into a loathing which he did his best to pass on to his young son Hannibal, as Polybius records:

At the time when his father was about to set off with his army on his expedition to Spain, Hannibal, who was then about nine years old, was standing by the altar where his father was sacrificing…. Then [Hamilcar] called Hannibal to him and asked him affectionately whether he wished to accompany the expedition. Hannibal was overjoyed to accept and, like a boy, begged to be allowed to go. His father then took him by the hand, led him up to the altar and commanded him to lay his hand upon the [animal] victim and swear that he would never become a friend to the Romans.19

The oath of eternal hatred sworn, Hamilcar, with son and settlers, set sail.

The Carthaginian expedition reached the Iberian peninsula in 236 and set about conquering itself a new little kingdom. From his center of operations, Gadir (modern Cadiz), Hamilcar succeeded in setting up his new colony. It was here that Hannibal grew up, watching his father wheedle and browbeat the surrounding peoples into submission: “[Hamilcar] spent nearly nine years in the country,” Polybius tells us, “during which time he brought many tribes under Carthaginian sway, some by force of arms and some by diplomacy.”20 He also sent spies across the Alps into the north of the Italian peninsula, to scout out a possible invasion route.21 Hannibal grew to adulthood without ever setting foot in his home city of Carthage.

Meanwhile, the Romans sailed for the first time to Greece, where they had been invited to protect the island of Corcyra from the double threat of invasion by other hostile Greeks and the ongoing attacks of the northern Gauls. When the intervention was over, a Roman garrison remained, theoretically as a peacekeeping force; Rome was not yet ready to attack its Greek neighbors.

In that same year, 229, Hamilcar Barca died in battle while besieging a Celtic stronghold. Hannibal, now eighteen, was not considered quite old enough to take command. The governance of the Iberian colony went instead to his older brother-in-law, who does not seem to have shared the family loathing for Rome; he spent the next eight years governing the Iberian colony (and founding a city called, grandly, New Carthage) and ignoring the Romans to his east. Perhaps he might have built a new and lasting kingdom in the Iberian peninsula, but one of his slaves killed him in 221, and leadership of the Spanish forces fell to the twenty-six-year-old Hannibal.

Hannibal turned his back on New Carthage and immediately began to prepare for an overland invasion of Roman territory. He started to fight his way along the coast in order to clear a safe passage towards the Alps. When he drew near to Massalia, the city (which had been on good terms with Rome ever since helping the Romans buy off those invading Gauls) appealed to Rome for help.

The Romans sent a message to Carthage, warning that if Hannibal progressed past the town of Saguntum, they would consider this an act of war. Hannibal promptly besieged and sacked the town, upon which Roman ambassadors travelled to Carthage itself to present the final ultimatum to the Carthaginian senate: Surrender Hannibal, or face a second Punic War.22 The Carthaginians objected that Saguntum, which was a Celtic settlement, wasn’t an ally of Rome; the ambassadors countered that Saguntum had once appealed to Rome for help, many years before, so Rome could now claim that the town was under Roman protection.


73.2 The World of the Punic Wars

The bottom line was that both cities were determined to go to war. “On the Roman side there was rage at the unprovoked attack by a previously beaten enemy,” Livy says, “[and] on the Carthaginian, bitter resentment at what was felt to be the grasping and tyrannical attitude of their conquerors.”23 When the senior Roman ambassador shouted that he carried both peace and war in the folds of his garment, and would let war fall from it if they weren’t careful, the Carthaginian senators shouted back, “We accept it!”24

And so Hannibal headed for the Alps in 218. He left his brother Hanno in charge of the Iberian colony, and took with him an army that ultimately numbered over a hundred thousand foot soldiers, perhaps twenty thousand cavalry, and thirty-seven elephants.208

In response the Romans dispatched two fleets, one heading for the North African coast and the other, under the command of the consul Publius Cornelius Scipio, bound for the Iberian peninsula. Cornelius Scipio anchored at the mouth of the Rhône, intending to intercept Hannibal and his army before they could cross it, but Hannibal’s army had moved so much faster than expected that Cornelius Scipio arrived at their crossing place three days too late. Hannibal was on his way towards the mountains.25

His men were a bigger problem than the Roman pursuit. They were mostly African-raised, and the Spanish coast was the coldest land they had known; they were terrified by the thought of ascending the steep unknown slopes, and their first sight of the Alps was no help. “The towering peaks,” Livy says, “the snow-clad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the rude huts clinging to the rocks, beasts and cattle shrivelled and parched with cold, the people with their wild and ragged hair, all nature, animate and inanimate, stiff with frost: all this, and other sights the horror of which words cannot express, gave a fresh edge to their apprehension.”26 And they were constantly threatened by wild local tribes; in the first such attack, the Carthaginian horses panicked on a narrow mountain trail, and both soldiers and horses slipped and were thrown over the trail’s edge, to break on the rocks thousands of feet below. As they marched higher, glassy ice beneath a layer of snow sent more men and animals sliding to their death.

The crossing, Livy tells us, took fifteen days, and Hannibal himself reckoned that he lost a staggering thirty-six thousand men, as well as thirty-four of the elephants. He came down on the plain near the Po river with a demoralized and shrunken army, to face Cornelius Scipio, who had sailed as quickly as possible back to Italy with part of his own force in order to face him. News of the successful crossing soon reached Rome as well, and the Senate immediately recalled the invasion force in North Africa in order to strengthen the defense of the homeland.

Cornelius Scipio and Hannibal met at the Ticinus river in November of 218. Weary as they were, the Carthaginian cavalry broke through the Roman line almost at once. The Romans scattered; Scipio himself was badly wounded. “This showed,” Livy says, “that…the Carthaginians had the advantage.”27

Cornelius Scipio’s forces retreated in order to meet up with the troops from North Africa, which had arrived back in Rome to great and dangerous acclaim; Rome was suffering from a perilous disconnect between public perception and reality. “The people’s confidence in the ultimate success of Roman arms remained unaffected,” Polybius writes. “Thus, when Longus [the commander of the North African contingent] and his legions reached Rome and marched through the city, the people still believed that these troops had only to appear on the field to decide the battle.”28 This was far from the truth. When the armies met again, a month later, at the Trebbia river, a full third of the Roman troops fell.

The news that the combined forces of two consuls had been defeated made its way back to Rome and caused a panic: “People fancied that at any moment Hannibal would be at the city gates,” Livy writes.29 Rome went on full alert, staffing the islands with garrisons, calling on the allies for reinforcements, outfitting a new fleet of ships. By 217, Hannibal was moving steadily south, devastating the countryside, marching through Etruria towards Rome itself. The consul Gaius Flaminus and a reinforced Roman army met the Carthaginians at Lake Trasimene, in an absolutely catastrophic engagement fought in thick fog. Fifteen thousand Romans died, and Flaminus himself was crushed in the press; his body was never found. Once again, news of the disaster swept down to Rome. “People thronged into the forum,” Livy says, “women roamed the streets asking whom they met the meaning of the dreadful tidings which had so suddenly come…. Noone knew what to hope for or what to dread. During the next few days the crowd at the city gates was composed of more women than men, waiting and hoping for the sight of some loved face, or at least for news.”30

There was no good news. Hannibal’s army seemed unstoppable. He continued to push south, temporarily bypassing Rome itself only in order to bring the lands below the city onto his side. “All the while the Romans followed the Carthaginian rearguard,” Polybius writes, “keeping one or two days’ march behind them but taking care never to approach any closer and engage the enemy.”31

The following year, the two newly elected consuls Paullus and Varro joined together in an attempt to face Hannibal down. The Romans managed to field an army of over a hundred thousand, to meet a Carthaginian force of less than fifty thousand. On August 2, 216, the armies met at Cannae, on the southeastern coast.

Thanks to their huge numbers, the Romans seem to have counted on sheer weight to crush the invaders, arranging themselves in a solid mass of men that would storm forwards with unstoppable force. In response to this, Hannibal arranged a thin front line to meet the Roman attack, one that seemed entirely unequal to the task of holding them back. But on his far left and right, back behind him, he placed his strongest and fiercest men, hired mercenaries from Africa, in two groups. He himself took his place in the front line. Unless he put himself in the same danger as those troops, he could not expect them to carry out the difficult task he had in mind.

When the Romans advanced, the thin front line fought ferociously but retreated, slowly, as the Romans stormed forwards, drawing the Roman troops with them into a V. And then the mercenary troops on either side charged up either side of the V and attacked. The Roman force was neither prepared nor disciplined to fight on three sides at once. In the chaos that followed, fifty thousand Romans fell. Out of six thousand cavalry, seventy escaped and fled to the city of Venusia, led by Varro, who was disgraced both by the defeat and the flight.

When reports of the Battle of Cannae came back to Rome, almost every family in Rome found that they had lost a brother, or father, or son. “After this defeat,” says Polybius, “the Romans gave up all hope of maintaining their supremacy over the Italians, and began to fear for their native soil, and indeed for their very existence.”32

The situation only got worse when Carthaginian ships sailed for Greece and offered the king of Macedonia, now Philip V (great-great-grandson of Antigonus the One-Eyed), support to drive out the Roman “peacekeepers” on the Greek peninsula. Philip V accepted, and the Macedonians and Carthaginians together fought against the Roman occupiers and their Greek allies, which included both Sparta and the cities of the “Aetolian League” (an alliance of cities in the center of the peninsula, south of Macedonia and north of the Gulf of Corinth). Now this First Macedonian War overlapped with the Second Punic War, and the Romans were dealing with a two-front disaster.

As in the First Punic War, fighting in the Second dragged on and on.209 In 211, the Romans managed to recapture part of Sicily by triumphing over Syracuse after a two-year siege; the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who was inside, died in the sack of the city. They were less successful in the Iberian peninsula. Roman forces led by two members of the Scipio family, the brothers Publius and Gnaeus, invaded and met Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal, who was still holding the fort for Hannibal back at home. Both Scipios died in the fighting that followed, although Hasdrubal was unable to push the Roman invaders entirely off his land.

This gave one Roman officer—Publius’s son, known to later generations simply as Scipio—the personal hatred for Carthage which Hannibal had long felt for Rome. In 209, Scipio marched to New Carthage to avenge his father. His siege of the city was successful; Hasdrubal fled and followed his brother’s route over to the Alps and across them.

This was not entirely a bad thing for the Carthaginians, since Hasdrubal brought with him not only his own forces, but eight thousand conscripted Celts, and had picked up yet more men on his journey from New Carthage to the Alps. He sent a letter to Hannibal, arranging to meet him and combine forces in Umbria.

The letter was intercepted by Roman officers, and was read. At once the nearest Roman forces turned to mount a surprise attack on Hasdrubal before he could get down to Umbria. Hasdrubal’s allies did not acquit themselves well (“Gauls always lack stamina,” Livy remarks).33Over fifty thousand of Hasdrubal’s men fell, and Hasdrubal himself, seeing that he was doomed, galloped straight into the Romans massed ahead of him and died fighting. The Romans cut off his head, carefully preserved it, and took it with them; when they reached Hannibal’s own outposts, they threw the head over into Hannibal’s camp.34

Hannibal had lost both his brother and the Iberian colony, which had become a Roman province. The balance had begun, slowly, to tip towards Rome; and the Romans put a thumb on the scale by closing their second front in Macedonia in order to concentrate on Carthage. In 207, the same year of Hasdrubal’s death, Roman soldiers began to withdraw from the fruitless fighting on the Greek peninsula. Both the Greek cities and Philip V himself were, in Livy’s phrase, “sick of the long and tedious war,” and the Romans themselves could see that their troops were needed closer to home. Scipio had suggested that the new battleground should be North Africa; the Romans should go on the offensive and sail directly for Carthage, a strategy which might well pull Hannibal away from the Italian countryside.

In 205, Philip V signed an agreement with the Greek cities to his south, the Peace of Phoenice. It gave the Romans control of a few smaller cities, turned over other territories to Macedonia, and halted all hostilities between Macedonia and the Aetolian League. With all soldiers now free for a North African attack, Scipio put together an invasion force. In 204, he landed on the North African coast with a combined army of Romans and North African mercenaries.

His invasion had exactly the hoped-for effect: the Carthaginians sent a frantic message for help to Hannibal. And Hannibal came home. He was acting from patriotism, but it was a vague and reluctant patriotism; he had not been in the country of his birth since the age of nine, and he left most of his men in Italy, perhaps hoping to return soon. He had not yet fully carried out his father’s wishes; Rome still stood. “Seldom has any exile left his native land with so heavy a heart as Hannibal’s when he left the country of his enemies,” Livy says. “Again and again he looked back at the shores of Italy…calling down curses on his own head for not having led his armies straight to Rome.”35

Once at Carthage, he recruited himself an army of reluctant Carthaginians and African mercenaries to join the few veterans he had brought back with him. Then, in 202, Hannibal and Scipio met for peace talks at Zama, just south of Fair Promontory. Perhaps the peace talks were genuine, but Scipio had sent for reinforcements, and was waiting for them to arrive. The defeat of Cannae, fourteen years ago, was still fresh in Roman memory; the young sons of the dead were now in their twenties, battle ready and furious.

The Roman reinforcements arrived; the peace talks, inevitably, failed; and the Romans and Carthaginians joined in battle for the final time. Scipio had planned well. On the open country of Italy, always playing the aggressor, Hannibal had been unbeatable. But now the conditions under which he fought best had been reversed. He was fighting a defensive war in unfamiliar rocky land, with an army “composed of men who shared neither language, customs, laws, weapons, dress, appearance, nor even a common reason for serving.”36 They fought mostly for cash, and for a share of the plunder; and when Scipio’s army thundered down on them, far too many of them broke line and retreated out of fear.

The Battle of Zama ended with Scipio in total control of the field; Hannibal had been forced, finally, to seek refuge in Carthage. Here he told the senate that he could not lead them to victory. Peace with Rome was the only option. The Carthaginian senate agreed, and Carthage surrendered itself to Scipio. For his triumph, Scipio earned himself the title Scipio Africanus from his countrymen. Carthage was forced to give up its fleet, bringing an end to its ambitions to spread across the west; five hundred of the ships were towed away from the shore, under Roman orders, and set ablaze, where they all burned to the waterline and then sank.37 The Second Punic War had ended.

Hannibal, who had given up his Roman ambitions to defend a city he barely remembered, remained in Carthage, joining the senate in an attempt to help the Carthaginians rebuild their savaged world. For this, he got very little gratitude. Six years or so after the Battle of Zama, Hannibal got wind of a plot. His own countrymen were planning to turn him over to the Romans as a gesture of goodwill.

At once he took a ship and fled from Carthage. He had been back in his homeland for barely seven years. He would never return to it again.


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