He was waiting for them. His spies in Rome had told him of the great army’s formation, and over the last few days the interrogation of prisoners and deserters had kept him up-to-date as to its plans and progress.1 Despite having captured the Romans’ grain stores, he had supplies to feed his army for only about ten days. It didn’t matter; he was ready to make a stand. He meant to destroy them here at Cannae; afterward his men could forage unmolested. Hannibal was that kind of leader. Always cagey, but when the odds were with him, he never turned his back on a fight.
His every instinct told him this was the moment and the place. He had been over the ground repeatedly, to the point of understanding that if he deployed with his back to the wind Vulturnus, the dust might blind them. (Livy 22.46.9) He knew the Romans, could read them like a book. He understood how they would line up and that their aim was to break through at the center. He would let them try, taking them on at the point of attack, distracting them so they would not realize he was deployed in depth on both flanks. When they had been lured far enough forward, he would spring the trap, clamping them in, like the jaws of a vise. It was the most audacious of battle plans. If the timing went awry and the Romans broke through prematurely, disaster would inevitably follow. Success, on the other hand, demanded not just a masterful general, but a veritable “band of brothers” as subordinates to carry out not just the substance of his plan but its intent. The final piece was an army so schooled and experienced in Hannibal’s way of fighting that it almost instinctively reacted to circumstance and opportunity.
All of this was most un-Carthaginian. Hannibal had not set foot in the city since he was nine years old, and would not return for another fourteen years. He had grown up instead with the army, a force carefully crafted over a space of nearly twenty years in Spain, not Carthage. Arguably, the general, his forces, and his war in Italy were aberrations, products of his family’s desire for revenge against Rome, and a generalized image of the Alexandrian military hero, more than they were products of Carthage itself.
Carthage was a different kind of place, one that initially stumbled (the First Punic War) and then was dragged (the Second Punic War) into a disastrous confrontation with a society built to fight and conquer. If Rome marched to the drumbeat of the god Mars, Carthage was beguiled by mammon. If Rome fed on blood and iron, Carthage took sustenance at the table of commerce. If Rome made war, Carthage made money. It was that simple and that elusive.
What is there to say of a people whose legacy was recorded by enemies? A victim of the most thoroughgoing sort of genocide, Carthage is barely mourned even today. Consider these words, quoted with apparent approval by one of the modern world’s leading ancient historians: “Bearded Orientals in loose robes, covered with gaudy trinkets, often with great rings of gold hanging from their nostrils, dripping with perfumes, cringing and salaaming, the Carthaginians inspired disgust as much by their personal appearance as by their sensual appetites, their treacherous cruelty, their bloodstained religion. To the end they remained hucksters, intent on personal gain, careless or incapable of winning the good will of their subjects.”2 Granted, the source is a historian of Rome, but even those devoted to understanding their lives conclude: “On the whole Plutarch was probably right to describe the Carthaginians as a stern people, hostile to pleasures and amusements…. The melancholy and barbaric temperament which made the Carthaginians so odious in the eyes of other nations was the result not of avarice alone, but of another feeling which appears to have dominated their entire being, namely, superstition.”3 Rest assured that whatever they were in actuality, posterity knows them from the perspective of a chronically bad press.
As such, much is made of what they were not. They were not very artistic. Their aesthetic, such as it was, remained steadfastly derivative, first of the Egyptians and then of their longtime enemies, the Greeks. They have left almost nothing in the way of literature. With the exception of one brilliant text by Mago on agronomy that the Romans thought to translate, the rest was burned or lost. Besides, their written language remained a consonantal skeleton devoid of vowels and really best at recording transactions, not thoughts. In the ways that we value, they do not appear to have been very spontaneous or interesting. Theater and sports were missing from their lives, their products were poorly designed and cheaply made, and their inscriptions were repetitive and ritualistic. They were hardly stylish, especially the men, inevitably clad in long straight woolen robes lampooned by the Roman dramatist Plautus. “Hey, you without a belt!” Their very names lacked variety. No binomial nomenclature for Carthaginians, just a single appellation, and many so tongue twisting to Latin speakers that for Livy, everyone was reduced to Hanno or Hannibal, Hamilcar or Mago.4
One thing they were was religious—obsessively and, as it turned out, murderously so. Possibly more than any other society in the Mediterranean world at the time, Carthaginians were enthralled and bound together by a pantheon of somber, rapacious, and ultimately bloodthirsty gods. Practically everything we have left of them, including their very names (“Hannibal,” “he who enjoys Baal’s favor;” “Hasdrubal,” “Baal is my help,” etc.) reeks of their devotion, one and all, rich and poor. Theirs was a cosmology, it seems, forever threatening to implode, presided over by gods demanding propitiation in the face of misfortune. In both myth and history the story of Carthage is one punctuated with flaming self-immolations, beginning on the pyre of the founder, Elissa, and ending on the city’s final day in 146 B.C. with the fiery suicide of the wife of its last ruler, Hasdrubal.5 But there was another more ominous legacy, one apparently missed by Polybius and Livy, though not by the more flamboyant and less reliable Diodorus, and that was infanticide. This was verified in 1921, when the excavation of some of the first truly Carthaginian sites unearthed urn after urn containing the charred bones of newborn children. Not only has further investigation revealed that the practice continued until the city’s destruction, but the substitution of other animals for children apparently decreased over time.6 While there are likely to have been underlying causes having to do with population control, in the minds of the participants, bad times and angry gods demanded the most extreme sort of sacrifice. One thing is certain: this grisly backdrop has not encouraged the rehabilitation of Carthage and its inhabitants in the modern historical consciousness.
So the image propagated by their enemies the Greeks and Romans persists, and that image for the most part views Hannibal as an agent of Carthage. Certainly there are undertones of discord, particularly in Livy’s portrayal of the Barcid’s political rival Hanno “the Great,” but in the main the ancients saw the Second Punic War as a conflict between Carthage and Rome and not between Hannibal and Rome. Arguably this is because Carthage remained not simply alien and mysterious to them, but virtually unfathomable. History in the ancients’ eyes was fundamentally heroic, but Carthage was not heroic. Had the ancients understood this, they might have grasped why the motives of Hannibal, a figure virtually carved out of the epic tradition, were so profoundly incompatible with those of his homeland. But this requires further explanation.
The Romans called them “Poeni,” and with reason. Carthaginians were at heart Phoenicians. We might even call them Phoenicians on steroids—not in the muscular sense but in terms of their effectiveness. Traditionally thought to have been settled in 814 B.C. by Tyre, Carthage (or Kart-Hadasht, Phoenician for “new city”) differed from entrepôts established by Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean by having an elaborate foundation myth featuring Elissa escaping from her evil husband-slaying brother, King Pygmalion of Tyre, with a group of fellow citizens, recruiting more settlers in Cyprus, and then landing on the North African coast on a promontory on the eastern side of Lake Tunis. Upon arrival she supposedly bought from the reluctant natives a plot of land that could be covered by the hide of a bull, and then promptly cut it into strips so fine that it encompassed a neck of land about two and a half miles in circumference. Besides earning them a reputation for driving a hard bargain, this myth also implied something very un-Tyrian, a hunger for land.
Carthage’s initial development was what might be expected from Phoenicians, a reliance on seaborne trade and a resort to value added, so that the archaeology of the eighth and seventh century B.C. time horizons clearly reflects the presence of industrial and artisanal quarters.7 Meanwhile, Carthaginians looked beyond their own confines for food and for an outlet for their surplus population, setting up for business on the wheat-growing Syrtic coast near Tripoli in Libya and sending out the first colony to Ibiza in 654 B.C.8 Others would follow.
A century later Carthage was plainly thriving. Colonies and emporiums had been established along much of the coast of North Africa, southeastern Spain, Sardinia, and in western Sicily. The mother city, Tyre, had fallen on hard times at the hands of the Assyrians; so whatever control it might have exerted was no longer a factor. Also, Carthage had broken out of its original confines and now occupied the hinterlands of modern Cape Bon, an area of around twenty thousand square miles.9 This was highly significant, because it set up the beginnings of a rural economy based on great estates and intensive cultivation.
All the while, Carthage’s expansion was observed by its enemies from essentially an agrarian-imperial perspective. Hence it was remembered in almost exclusively military terms. At the core of Carthaginian power, according to this view, was its navy, and this perspective is accurate enough as far as it goes. In 535 B.C., Carthage in alliance with the Etruscans won an apparently decisive fleet action over the Phocaeans off Alalia in Sardinia, thereby establishing the reputation of maintaining a thalassocracy dominant in the western Mediterranean. Granted, the Carthaginians did build a substantial navy with excellent ships and crews renowned for their seamanship. But its purpose was primarily to protect Carthage’s merchant marine from piracy, for which the Phocaeans were notorious. In fact, with the exception of a few references by Diodorus (13.54.1; 80) to actions off Sicily, and the defeat of Pyrrhus in 276 B.C., Alalia was the only fleet engagement the Carthaginians are known to have fought prior to the First Punic War. Naval vessels of the period were oar-propelled rams, requiring large crews and retaining relatively little space for food or water—more like racing shells than battleships. Their strategic range was very limited, in part because they normally had to be beached each night, and also because they were unable to ride out a heavy sea. At best this was a fragile asset, vulnerable to land attack and even more susceptible to getting swamped in a sudden storm. Carthage’s navy served the city well in scaring off marauders—far less well as a tool of war. But to Carthage’s enemies the force was intimidating, at least until the Romans built a fleet.
Then there was the memory of Carthage as a terrestrial aggressor, mostly defined by a two-hundred-year-long back-and-forth struggle for control of Sicily. By Greek accounting this was a hegemonic soap opera featuring the Carthaginian barbarian repeatedly at the gates, endless Punic perfidy, and sudden dramatic reverses, all epitomized by the Battle of Himera in 480, when the generalissimo Hamilcar, seeing the rout of his army of three hundred thousand (an absurdly inflated figure), cast himself onto the proverbial sacrificial fire. For an adversary supposedly bent on steamrolling the Sicilian Greeks, Carthaginian behavior has impressed some modern historians as suspiciously quixotic.10 At the moment of imminent victory they seem to have stepped back. Rather than the Greek explanations—cowardice, plagues, and Pyrrhic fecklessness—it has been suggested that the Carthaginians marched to the beat of a different drummer, and at least initially fought in league with other Phoenician entities simply to maintain themselves and their commercial presence. Later, when they do seem more aggressive and anxious to formalize power relationships, it appears to be largely in reaction to the rise of Syracuse and its obvious ambition to consolidate the island under its own rule. In all cases, the basic instruments of Carthaginian assertiveness were mercenary armies, which appeared and disappeared with startling rapidity. Disposable force-structures-for-hire were emblematic of Carthaginian land power, at least until Hannibal and his father created something entirely more permanent and professional.
The best explanation for the paradox of Carthaginian power is economics. Unlike in Rome, where military power and glory lay at the root of everything, it was money that mattered in Carthage. This is understandable in the modern context; it was lost on the ancients. So they persisted in misjudging the Carthaginians, and the Carthaginians reciprocated—a fatal error, as it turned out. For they all lived in a world where war trumped commerce, a time when, if things got bad enough, you could not strike a deal. But if that was their fate, they made remarkable progress right up until the end.
Carthage was famously rich, but the nature and degree of that wealth remains obscure. In part this is because in a traditional business environment, concepts such as diminishing returns are buried beneath personal and political relationships. But this does not mean that they cease to operate, or that through a gradual accumulation of empirically derived information they can be implicitly understood and used to advantage. As far as we know, there was no abstract understanding of economics among the ancients, but they knew what worked and what didn’t—especially the Carthaginians.
It is generally acknowledged that Carthaginians excelled as traders, and also in manufacturing and selling things made from simpler materials … value added. But here the historical analysis frequently stops or is short-circuited by what appear to be some fundamental misunderstandings.
The first misunderstanding has to do with the nature and consequences of Carthage’s expansion into the North African interior. Traditionally, this has been interpreted in a political context, landed nobility seen as an antipode to the aristocracy of trade, or in terms of those favoring internal as opposed to overseas expansion.11 Recently, however, there has been a growing understanding of just how integrated Carthaginian agriculture was into the larger sphere of business enterprise.12 By 300 B.C. the lands around the city had been turned into a vast food factory, an inner zone devoted to grapes, figs, olives, almonds and pomegranates, along with an outer band generating huge quantities of wheat—Punic latifundia worked by slaves and restive Libyan peasants and providing a massive component of total exports. This was why the Romans thought to preserve Mago’s text on agronomy; it constituted the state of the art in turning plants into money. Still, the fecundity of Carthage amazed and even frightened the Romans. Livy (31.19.2) tells us that in 200, just a year after the Carthaginians were defeated in the Second Punic War, they nevertheless managed to send four hundred thousand bushels of wheat to Rome and to her troops in Macedonia. Ten years later, much more, including five hundred thousand bushels of barley for the Roman army, was offered as a gift by the obliging Carthaginians, but the Roman senate, plainly put off by such ostentation on the part of the vanquished, insisted on paying.
But there was more to Carthage as an economic powerhouse than simply a green thumb. Archaeological finds have led commentators to make note of the apparently high volume of imports to Carthage. This is usually viewed as a weakness—Carthaginian artisans are seen as lacking the skill and artistry to satisfy anyone other than the “unsophisticated western barbarians.”13 The fact that Carthaginians preferred Rhodian wine to African, that they favored Campanian ware and persisted in bringing in whole boatloads of Greek art and vases de luxe, is seen as an economic drain, a surrender to style over self-sufficiency. It was probably a sign of neither, but instead a sign of something much more sophisticated. Through a process of trial and error Carthaginians seem to have stumbled upon the principle of comparative advantage—the idea that even if a place could produce everything it needed more efficiently at home, it was still better off concentrating on what it did best and trading with others for the rest. This is not to say there existed a Punic David Ricardo14 or that Carthaginians had a firm grasp of exactly what was going on, only that they tried it and it worked. And it kept on working until they grew incomprehensively wealthy.
The Carthaginians were good at business and bad at war. Paradoxically, their beatings at the hands of the Romans had the net effect of making them richer—less bellicose and more businesslike. This became most evident after the Second Punic War, when Carthage accepted near total subordination to Rome—literally outsourced warfare—and quickly reached new heights of prosperity, offering to pay off its huge war indemnity (nearly six hundred thousand pounds of silver) after only ten rather than fifty years.15 This sort of thing infuriated the Romans, and because military power was their bottom line, it also frightened them. It was no accident that Cato the Elder, the man who ended every speech with “delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage must be destroyed”), held up as evidence of Rome’s vulnerability a fresh fig reputedly picked in the Punic capital just three days earlier, saying, “Ah yes, we have an enemy this close to our walls!”16 To Roman eyes a Carthaginian fig could never be just a fig; money would inevitably be turned to the ends of Mars. So the city’s doom was sealed.
The Carthaginians should have known better, that their wealth could not protect them in a world ruled by war. Their cash machine was by its nature vincible. The city itself was protected by massive defenses, perhaps the most elaborate in the ancient world,17 but the manicured countryside practically invited an invader to set up camp and live off the fat of the land. As far back as 310 B.C., Agathocles of Syracuse, besieged at home by Carthage, turned the tables on the Carthaginians and landed in Africa, bringing the city to the verge of ruin before he was forced to withdraw. Not only did he defeat the defenders in the open field near Tunis, thereby isolating the city from its inland empire, but the native Libyans greeted him as their liberator.18 This was critical; the Libyans had already rebelled twice in the preceding century, and would do so again and again subsequently.19
Carthaginian expansion had been driven by the logic of economics, and as long as these ties were based on trade and merchandising, they appear to have been loose and not very onerous. Penetration into Africa, however, brought with it the usual mechanisms of territorial control—governors, provincial organization, taxes—and in general the grip of Carthage tightened with time.20 While the population controlled by the middle of the third century was likely as large as, or perhaps even larger than, the Italian confederation’s, Carthage was characteristically more interested in tribute than soldiers.21 Unlike with Rome, there was no compensatory attempt to enlist the loyalty of the subject populations, much less to grant citizenship. This was an empire by and for Carthaginians; everybody else was just an economic input. It’s no wonder Hannibal assumed Rome’s allies would desert; loyalty among subordinates was not something Carthaginians cultivated or much understood.
Among themselves, though, they did stick together. While it is difficult to call a place that periodically relegated large numbers of its offspring to a fiery death a healthy society, it did at least give the appearance of being cohesive and well governed. Carthage was a place of merchant princes and presumably vast economic inequalities, but compared to the vicious internal strife evident in contemporary Greek cities, class conflict here remained muted if not exactly nonexistent. Twice during the fourth century would-be strongmen had tried and failed to stage putsches, and had received little support from the urban proletariat or even the city’s slaves.
As it happens, a good deal is known of Carthage’s governmental structure, Aristotle having had a good opinion of the scheme, which combined, he said, the best features of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy (Politics 2.11). He also appears to have understood that it was an evolving system and had changed considerably since the beginning of the fourth century. The center of gravity when he wrote lay with the oligarchic element—a council of elders of several hundred long-term members, perhaps controlled by a body of 104 judges, or by another group of 30 key councilors. The exact relationship among the three is subject to some uncertainty, but with nobody denying they collectively embodied the city’s wealthy.22 The state’s senior executives by the third century were two annually elected suffetes, whom Aristotle doesn’t specifically mention but who were derived from an original monarchy with strongly religious overtones. They too were creatures of the plutocracy, holding supreme religious and civil authority but no command role over the military. Should the suffetes and the elders agree on a proposal, they could implement it without further consultation. But if they did not agree, they had to refer it to the assembly of the people, where any citizen could speak and even make a counterproposal—the democratic component.
Carthaginian politics are hard to track with any precision; we have only fragmentary references from the various Greek and Roman sources. But clearly there were factions and basic disagreements over policy, especially during the crisis period that began with the end of the First Punic War in 241 B.C. Some historians have attempted to characterize this time as part of a “democratic revolution,”23 which seems overstated; but it does appear that power was shifting in the face of oligarchic failure, and what went on in the assembly of the people took on added significance. For one thing, it is apparent that during the first of the wars with Rome the assembly was electing Carthage’s military commanders.24 But this simply ratified what had always been true: in Carthage, unlike in Rome, politicians and soldiers had very different career paths, and the former basically saw the latter as employees.
The number of male citizens in Carthage was always small (probably never exceeding 120,000),25 and consequently the city stopped relying on its own soldiers early in its history. Only in dire emergencies were its citizens called to arms, and even then the forces were limited (during the Mercenary War, 241–238 B.C., a desperate conflict, only ten thousand troops could be raised to fight with Hamilcar26) and not very capable, taking the field as a phalanx, the best formation for amateurs. But until Agathocles retaliated by invading Carthage, the city remained secure in its isolation in North Africa, and could afford to dispense with a standing indigenous ground force. Overseas, it made entirely more sense to rent rather than own, to hire and fire mercenaries as circumstance dictated.
Consequently, the number of Carthaginians who specialized in soldiering remained very small, limited to those who officered the hirelings, a cadre probably derived from a narrow group of noble families.27 Since there didn’t seem to be any specific time limit on a military commander’s service and he was normally left to his own devices on campaign so long as he avoided defeat, it might seem that accumulated experience would add up to a high degree of professionalism. This was not necessarily so; for one thing, generals seem to have owed their positions as much to wealth and social standing as to competence.28 And if they were given considerable autonomy, this could amount to enough rope to hang—or, more properly, crucify—themselves.
Corporate Carthage expected positive results from its military managers, and defeat was more than frowned upon. Unsuccessful generals were subject to a strict accounting before the executive board of 104 judges, and the results of a negative performance review could find the recipient mounted on a cross. Crucifixion, it seems, brought an end to more than a few budding military careers, four commanders having met their fate in this manner during the First Punic War alone.29 This sort of negative incentivizing seems emblematic of the segregation of civilian and military expertise in Carthage. The Roman senate, filled with former soldiers thoroughly familiar with the friction and fog of war, proved much more forgiving of unsuccessful commanders, even of Terentius Varro, Cannae’s biggest loser. Lacking any equivalent corporate understanding of land warfare, Carthage instead applied the stick, or rather the cross.
This brand of military disconnect also helps explain another characteristic Punic military delusion, a reliance on war elephants. Like the Romans, the Carthaginians got their first dose of panzer pachyderms from Pyrrhus, military history’s favorite Epirote, when they fought him in Sicily during his short sojourn there in 278. Unlike the Romans, who simply learned to deal with the elephants, the Carthaginians had their own by 262 and soon became addicted.
This proved to be a bad habit. Elephants can be panicked easily, not a good quality during warfare.30 When this happened, they tended to treat friend and foe alike, flailing wildly and stepping on anyone in the way, which was often the Carthaginians themselves. Granted, the elephants were terrifying to uninitiated enemy troops, and could disrupt cavalry, since horses found their scent repulsive. But there were simply too many ways they could be thwarted, and their net effect was to add another uncontrolled variable to the battlefield. They do appear to have played some role in defeating the Roman general Regulus when he invaded Africa in 256, but it is hard to find another comparable Carthaginian success with pachyderms. And this must be weighed against the elephantine expense of capturing, training, and transporting them, a negative cost-benefit result by any realistic accounting.
But Carthage was plainly struck by their jumbo size and power—an ancient ultimate weapon—a mirage the possession of which might render all other military shortcomings irrelevant, a particularly beguiling notion to an acquisitive people not much used to fighting on the ground. Also, elephants were available. Carthaginians, after all, lived in Africa, and so-called forest elephants (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) were likely to be found north of the Sahara. Although they were smaller than the Indian models ridden by the Hellenistic Greeks, they were still plenty impressive, standing nearly eight feet tall at the shoulder.31 Even Hannibal was fooled, making a heroic effort to herd some over the Alps, only to have them die well before he ever reached Cannae. Still, he remained interested, and his disastrous last stand at Zama in 201 featured eighty of the giant beasts. But war is not a circus, and they panicked as usual, marking Hannibal as the last and greatest of the Punic pachyderm true believers.
Militarily, Carthage was on firmer ground at sea. Shipborne trade was the city’s lifeblood, and the necessary skills and experience were likely to have been widely shared by a whole class of mariners. Undoubtedly many crewed in commercial transports. It also appears probable, though not certain, that Carthage’s navy was largely, if not exclusively Carthaginian manned.32 Since Hellenic navies were rowed by their own nationals, Polybius, a Greek, likely would have mentioned it had it not been the case with Carthage. It has also been suggested that naval service helps explain the political stability of the city, since it would have given the poorest elements steady employment.33
This was no minor proposition. By 256 B.C. the basic Carthaginian warship, a quinquereme (named after the arrangement of its oars), required a crew of around three hundred to row.34 Archaeological excavation of the famed circular military harbor at Carthage indicates berthing space for around 180 first-line warships. Together this amounts to a requirement of fifty-four thousand oarsmen, a substantial percentage of the total male population. All signs point to Carthaginians taking great pride in their fleet, and this in turn points to wide participation. (Livy reports that when Scipio Africanus burned the Carthaginian fleet at the end of the Second Punic War, the sight caused grief as deep as if the city itself had been aflame.35)
Arguably this pride and this participation were at the heart of Carthage’s tragic fate. The fleet, as noted above, was a fragile asset, and its military power was hard to apply, but that would not have been apparent, either to Carthaginian or to other eyes. During the first portion of the third century B.C., the force’s squadrons swept around the waters of the western Mediterranean, showing the flag and looking very formidable. In 276, Plutarch tells us, the Carthaginians caught Pyrrhus in the Strait of Messana (modern Messina) and destroyed most of what was probably a convoy of merchant vessels carrying his soldiers.36 When Carthage later went to war with the Romans, the admiral Hanno boasted that he would not even let Romans wash their hands in the sea. Given the circumstances, it sounded realistic, but instead the Romans would turn the waters around Sicily red with Carthaginian blood. For they would fight as if they were on land, and Carthage would find itself locked in a struggle that would consume huge quantities of its wealth. This is generally conceded, but there is something entirely more demoralizing that has been largely overlooked: quite probably large numbers of the citizens who manned the oars of Carthage’s war galleys were killed.
Carthage and Rome had a long and not necessarily unfriendly relationship, with Polybius (3.22 ff) citing three treaties between the two states going back as far as 508–7 B.C. There is a lot of scholarly debate over the contents of the first two pacts, yet most agree they were largely about carving out spheres of influence for trade. The Carthaginians were interested in keeping the Romans clear of Libya and Sardinia, but they yielded primacy in Latium and granted the Romans commercial rights in Sicily—fair enough, considering the status and motivation of the parties. The final agreement in 279–8 was specifically concerned with mutual support against Pyrrhus, though nothing much came of it, except perhaps bad feelings. There is a confusing story that had a Carthaginian fleet descending on Pyrrhus’s erstwhile ally, the city of Tarentum, in 272, just as the Romans were besieging it by land. The Carthaginians were offering their help, but this left the Romans suspicious, since no aid had been requested. At any rate, relations continued downhill.
A group of Campanian mercenaries, who had earlier worked for Agathocles, seized the city of Messana in Sicily sometime during the 280s.37 Calling themselves Mamertines, after the war god Mars, the Campanians took advantage of the confusion engendered by Pyrrhus’s short stay to plunder the surrounding area and generally make a nuisance of themselves for upward of fifteen years. Then, hard-pressed by the new and vigorous ruler of Syracuse, Hiero, the Mamertines appealed to both Carthage and Rome for help. Both responded, which put them in a competitive position and eventually on a collision course. Many contemporary historians agree with Polybius that the Roman decision to take up the sword in 264 was basically opportunistic, driven by Rome’s fundamental motivators—the potential for military reputation and plunder—Romans acting like Romans.38 Still, it is interesting to note that in the years just prior to the first clash with Carthage, families of Campanian origin were on the political ascendancy in Rome (the Atilii, who held the consulship seven times between 267 and 245, were from Campania), and products from this district—pottery and wine—were in direct competition with Punic wares.39
The Carthaginians, for their part, had been wrangling over chunks of Sicily for three centuries; in that regard this was nothing new, a continuation of business by other means. But Carthage very likely had no idea what to expect or, in Livy’s words (31.34.6) “what men they had to fight.” After all, Sicily was an island, and Carthage was a sea power.
Actually, Carthage was at the precipice—the immovable object faced with Rome, the irresistible force. The first struggle would last twenty-three years, the longest continuous war in ancient history. Less than a century later there would be nothing left of Carthage, save smoldering ruins.
The First Punic War began inconclusively. The Carthaginian fleet proved unable to keep the Romans off the island, but the Romans had trouble making progress once they got there, since the rough topography did not favor massed land battles. (There would be only four in the entire conflict, two of them in Africa.) Also, most of the population lived behind walls, which made it hard for the Romans to get at and control the civilians. After the arduous though successful siege of Agrigentum, the Romans realized that the only way to win was to exclude the Carthaginians from the entire island, and that meant building a fleet.40
It was an audacious proposition. Romans did not take to the sea naturally, and apparently no one in Italy had experience with quinqueremes. Polybius (1.20.10) tells us that to fill the gap they used a Carthaginian warship that had run aground early in the war, and duplicated it one hundred times in sixty days—ancient reverse engineering. Meanwhile, oarsmen were trained on stages, sitting in the order they would assume at sea. Even if, as is likely, these rowers were joined by socii navales, naval allies, from Italian coastal towns with seafaring traditions, the Roman armada—its men and its timber—were bound to be green in comparison to Carthage’s. They proved it on their first mission when the crews of a seventeen-ship squadron panicked and were captured, earning for their commander, an ancestor of Scipio Africanus, the nickname Asina (“she-ass”). This initial loss was deceptive, however. Almost immediately the Carthaginians ran into the main Roman fleet and lost a number of ships, and this was only their first unpleasant surprise.
The Romans had a secret weapon. Realizing their quinqueremes were outclassed, someone had suggested turning them into delivery systems for marines by mounting pivoting boarding bridges, which Polybius calls “crows,” on their bows. As a Carthaginian vessel approached to ram, the crow from the Roman ship would slam down, embedding itself with an iron beak, whereupon a file of gladius-wielding Romans would storm aboard to wreak havoc on the helpless oarsmen. In the war’s first massive fleet action off Myle on the north coast of Sicily, the Carthaginians were puzzled by the strange devices but sailed confidently ahead, and were thus impaled, losing around forty-five ships and ten thousand men, many of whom were killed.41 If the crow was sort of the reductio ad absurdum of naval warfare, allowing the Romans to turn seaborne encounters into infantry battles, the Carthaginians were plainly slow to react, suffering a string of defeats off Sulci and Tyndaris, and then a huge one at Cape Economus. The latter, which involved almost three hundred thousand participants—more than had fought in a naval battle before or since—has been compared to Cannae in the way the Punic center collapsed inward; but certainly with different results. According to Polybius (1.28.10–14), the Carthaginians had over thirty ships sunk, and sixty-four captured by the Romans and their crows.
Rome now went for the knockout.42 Refitting their fleet, they headed to Africa in the late summer of 256, disembarked near Cape Bon, and ravaged the rich agricultural district, just as Agathocles had done. At this point messengers from Italy ordered most of the fleet back with the spoils, leaving the consul Regulus with forty ships and two legions. He almost immediately met and defeated the Carthaginians at a place called Adys, plundering their camp and leaving them despondent and faced with the threat of a native revolt. But Regulus overplayed his hand. He offered peace terms so harsh that his opponents decided they had little to lose by continuing.
With their backs quite literally to their city’s wall, the Carthaginians were open to suggestions. A Greek mercenary named Xanthippus, who was familiar with Spartan training methods, took command and drilled a scratch force of civilians into an effective phalanx. In the spring of 255 he led them onto a chosen field, accompanied by a strong cavalry element and approximately a hundred elephants. Rather than wait for reinforcements, Regulus, whose horse were heavily outnumbered, engaged and soon found himself engulfed and then captured, with only about two thousand Romans managing to escape to their original camp near Cape Bon. This disaster would cast a long shadow over Scipio Africanus’s plan to take the Second Punic War to Africa a half-century later.
The Carthaginians, who had suffered negligible losses, were undoubtedly elated, but only temporarily. The Romans had readied a fleet to blockade Carthage at sea while Regulus invested it by land. Events having overtaken that plan, the fleet was now sent to rescue the remnants of the Roman invasion force. The Carthaginians intercepted the armada off Cape Bon,43 only to lose 114 ships, many of them driven ashore and captured by the Roman grappling tactics—their fifth naval defeat of the war.
Carthage had not done well; nearly a decade of fighting had brought little but futility. The city was no longer under threat, but the fleet was shattered and it would be five years before we would hear of renewed operations at sea.44 Carthaginian warships and seamanship were plainly superior, but in the massed engagements close to shore that had been typical of this conflict, there was little opportunity to apply these advantages. Instead the Carthaginians found themselves boarded and their vessels captured, and in such circumstances it can be presumed that the Roman marines were not gentle. This along with drowning must have led to many thousands of casualties. All aboard were probably not citizens, but the toll on the city’s male population must have been heavy. It was fortunate for Carthage that, unlike during much of the war with Hannibal, prisoners of this conflict were frequently ransomed; therefore, many men were probably able to return to their homes. Still, the city’s demographics must have been significantly affected. Carthage remained enormously wealthy, and could afford to reinforce and rebuild its mercenary land forces in Sicily at least five times during the war.45 Yet the naval fleet was a precious asset, and if it were decimated, Carthage could not win this type of conflict.
Meanwhile the Romans were also being swamped by fate, discovering that while at sea, seamanship did matter. After picking up the remnants of Regulus’s Afrika Korps, they ran into a sudden storm off Camarina on the south coast of Sicily. Probably already riding low in the bow from the weight of their crows, the war galleys didn’t stand a chance against the heavy seas and rocky shores. Of 364 ships, Polybius (1.37.2) says, only 80 survived, and he calls it the greatest naval catastrophe in history. His words still stand; there is simply no modern equivalent. More than one hundred thousand Romans and Italians likely drowned—twice the number of dead at Cannae. That number may have amounted to 15 percent of all the military manpower in Italy.46
But if the Romans were discouraged, they didn’t show it. Instead, they voted the two consuls in charge triumphs for the victory at Cape Bon, and set about rebuilding the fleet. By the spring of 254, they may have had as many as three hundred ships and were looking for trouble.47
They found it. After establishing superiority in Sicilian waters, they were back in Africa raiding the coast. While the Carthaginians failed to challenge them, the tides did, beaching the fleet until they managed to break free by jettisoning everything heavy, including presumably their spoils. Disconcerted, the Romans left in a hurry, and the commander Sempronius Blaesus compounded his problems by attempting an open sea return to Italy, during which he ran into another storm off Cape Palinurus in Lucania that cost him more than 150 ships. He too was voted a triumph, but for the next few years Romans cut back their operations and regrouped.
The year 249 found them blockading Lilybaeum, one of the last Carthaginian bases in Sicily, but none too successfully, since elements of the renascent Punic fleet stationed nearby at Drepana had repeatedly relieved it. The new consul, Publius Claudius Pulcher, rashly intent on eliminating this nuisance, sailed north at midnight aiming to surprise the Carthaginian commander Adherbal. The Punic fleet barely cleared the harbor, but once in open waters was at last able to effectively apply its superior crews and equipment against the Romans, who appear to have given up their crows and who ended up losing 93 out of 123 of their ships. And that was just the beginning. The other consul, L. Iunius Pullus, was leading a convoy of eight hundred transports and 120 warships to resupply the troops at Lilybaeum, when he was intercepted by a smaller Carthaginian squadron under Carthalo. Without ever actually engaging, the Carthaginian admiral forced the Roman fleet’s two detachments close to the rugged shore, and then, anticipating a storm, he ducked behind Cape Pachynon, leaving the Romans facing the full fury of the squall. Before the storm was over the Roman navy had virtually ceased to exist.
Carthage had found an ally in Mother Nature, and she proved by far the more effective killer, probably accounting for in excess of two hundred thousand Roman and allied drowned in the three great storms off Camarina, Cape Palinurus, and now Cape Pachynon. Too exhausted to reconstitute the fleet, the Romans were still not about to quit. Instead they appointed a dictator, resumed ground force operations in Sicily, and bided their time. Their adversaries, on the other hand, seemed to have reached a strategic fork in the road.
Back home, beginning around 248, the Carthaginians appear to have dealt directly with native unrest, waging war against the Numidians and Libyans until the Carthaginians controlled a band 160 miles deep—an Africa-first policy that came to be associated with the general and politician Hanno “the Great.”48 Just what this said about Carthage’s willingness to continue the war with Rome is hard to specify, but the effort is bound to have drawn resources away from it. Meanwhile, Hanno would remain in the eyes of the ancient sources the focal point of those who believed that Carthage’s best future was in its agricultural heartland. As such, Hanno became the great antagonist of Hannibal’s family and the skeptic of their subsequent overseas adventures.
Both were taking shape toward the end of 248, with Hannibal’s own birth and his father’s arrival in Sicily.49 Sometime earlier Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, had picked up the nickname Barca (“Thunderbolt”); it certainly suited him and the rest of his clan. Unpredictable and lethal, that is the way they would be remembered by history, as Barcids, carrying a last name in a society without them.50 Hamilcar’s aggressiveness made him a most un-Carthaginian general. He was sent to relieve the more cautious Carthalo, and his first operation was a raid on Italy, ravaging the coast around Locri. This was the first installment in what would become a family saga of bringing war to the enemy’s doorstep.51 Back in Sicily, he established himself at Hercte, a high promontory above the sea, and began waging a guerilla campaign, striking like summer lightning the northwest coast of Sicily, and Italy as far up as Cumae. After three years he suddenly shifted thirty-five miles farther west to Eryx, where he held out for two more years between two Roman forces, resisting their every attempt to get rid of him. Polybius considered him the best commander on either side, but Hamilcar was plainly just holding on, starved for resources, hoping the Romans would give up first.
That was not about to happen. In late 243 the Romans decided to break the stalemate by building another fleet. But since the state lacked the cash, the endeavor had to be financed by leading private citizens—one, two, or three to a ship—asking to be reimbursed only if things went according to plan. This was an impetuous but characteristic act of faith and determination, especially considering the fate of previous Roman armadas.52 All two hundred of the new quinqueremes were modeled on a particularly fast captured Carthaginian galley, and the Roman crews were exercised relentlessly in Sicily during the year 242 by the consul in charge, C. Lutatius Catulus. They had plenty of time to train, since the Carthaginians were slow to send out a fleet against them, a laggard nine-month response that points to trouble in raising the oarsmen necessary to crew their fleet of 250 warships.
At last the Carthaginians sailed in early March 241, intent on joining up with Hamilcar, who had been cut off from resupply by the Roman fleet. Instead Catulus intercepted them in heavy seas off the aptly named Aegates (Goat) Islands. Their ships weighed down with provisions and rowed by inexperienced crews, the Carthaginians were swamped, quite literally. Polybius (1.61.6–8) puts their losses at 120 ships, with 50 sunk, but refers to only ten thousand actual prisoners. (Diodorus 24.11.1–2 puts the figure still lower, at six thousand.) Given the weather conditions, this implies that at least fifteen thousand drowned, and possibly a great many more. It is also conceivable that their fleet was simply undermanned. In either case, it is apparent that the Carthaginians had reached the end of the line in terms of human resources.
Almost immediately the authorities at home gave the now hopelessly marooned Hamilcar full authority to negotiate a peace with the Romans. It was a mistake. Anxious to distance himself from any admission of defeat, Hamilcar worked through his subordinate Gesgo, who then bargained with Catulus to avoid having Hamilcar’s army disarmed, which was another mistake.53 Catulus, anxious to end the war on his watch, not only agreed to these terms, but imposed rather light conditions in other respects. Basically, Carthage had to evacuate Sicily; give up all Roman prisoners, while ransoming their own; and pay an indemnity of around 112,000 pounds of silver during the next twenty years. (This indemnity was later raised to 163,000 pounds over ten years, with 51,000 payable immediately.) The deal having been struck, Hamilcar marched his forces to Lilybaeum, abandoned his command, and promptly sailed for home, leaving the hapless Gesgo with the unenviable task of demobilizing twenty thousand mercenaries long without pay. This was the biggest mistake of all. For Carthage the war may have been over, but the fighting was far from finished.
The First Punic War had been an epic struggle. As was the case with World War I, at the outbreak of hostilities neither side had had any idea what they were getting into. Both wars were also contests characterized by immense tactical futility and huge losses. The Roman death toll is remembered as proverbially huge by historians, but less attention is paid to the price Carthage paid, in large part because its fleets avoided the kinds of storms that probably killed almost everyone involved.54 Still, Polybius (1.63.6) estimates that Carthage lost five hundred quinqueremes during the conflict. Even if most of these ships were captured and their crews were not entirely made up of its citizens, Roman marines were swordsmen trained to kill, and many of the survivors may have been sold into slavery rather than ransomed. Altogether, it adds up to a lot of potentially missing Carthaginians.
And this was not a society well suited to warfare. During the long course of the conflict it had been the Romans who had taken all the initiatives to actually win—building a fleet and invading Africa. The Carthaginians, it seems, had fought mostly to persevere. With rare exception, they had failed to effectively apply their fleet, and from this point, Punic naval power would remain permanently depleted.55 Wealth had bought endurance in the form of successive mercenary forces, but in the end this beast would turn upon its master in the most disastrous way, not simply biting the hand that fed it but going for the throat.
Forsaken by Hamilcar, who had apparently filled their heads with empty promises, the twenty-thousand-man force he left in Sicily can be presumed to have been in a foul mood, one only temporarily mollified by Gesgo, who at least had the sense to send them back to Africa in small groups on a staggered schedule to be paid off.56 Had this been done promptly, each element might have been repatriated safely. Instead, apparently hoping to strike a better deal, the Carthaginians refused to put up any cash until all the mercenaries had arrived, a blunder of the first order. Having congregated and once again been put off, this time by Hanno “the Great,” all twenty thousand marched on Carthage. Upon realizing just how frightening they were to their former employers, the mercenaries raised the ante repeatedly.
Worse followed, much worse. When the Libyan contingent became enraged and seized the unfortunate Gesgo, who had been trying to pay them, the whole force went into open revolt. This in turn led the Libyan peasantry, whose taxes had grown ever more burdensome during the war with Rome, to join the mercenaries. Many of the Numidian princes, who had been struggling against Punic domination over the previous decade, followed, and very soon Carthage faced an army many times the size of the one that had been led by Regulus. Once again the city revealed its terrible vulnerability on home soil.
This conflict would last more than three years until at least the end of 238 B.C., and in the words of Polybius (1.88.7), this struggle “far excelled all wars we know of in cruelty and defiance of principle.” Beset by a sea of mercenaries, Carthage had trouble hiring more but eventually managed to put together a combination of Punic citizens and loyal local hirelings with no affinity to the veterans from Sicily, though the force was heavily outnumbered and lacking in experience compared to their adversaries. The imbalance was compounded by a leadership struggle at the top. Hanno, who proved to be a good organizer but was less competent in the field, found himself sharing command with Hamilcar Barca, a far better soldier. The two, already likely to have been political antagonists, did not play well together, and eventually Hanno would be forced to resign, but not before operations had been compromised.57
Fortunately for Carthage, the enemy was a body without much of a brain, and Hamilcar, applying his martial skills in ways not evident even in Sicily, consistently flummoxed the larger rebel forces, who responded with senseless acts of cruelty like dismembering Gesgo and his fellow hostages. At times Barca used diplomacy, winning over the Numidian Navaras and his forces, then rewarding him with marriage to his daughter. But for the most part he showed himself every bit the rebels’ equal in atrocity, ordering captive mercenaries stomped to death by his elephants, and crucifying their leaders once their forces collapsed.
Observing from across the Mediterranean, the Romans, who disliked deserters even more than they disliked Carthaginians, were initially scrupulously fair, banning their merchants from trading with the mercenaries, and even returning the remaining Punic POWs free of charge. Then, around 240 B.C., temptation appeared on the Carthage-held island of Sardinia, where a group of Carthage’s foreign hirelings seized the chaotic moment, murdered their officers, and Mamertine-like petitioned Rome for help. The Romans had wanted the island since building a fleet but had played coy until the locals ousted the mercenary mutineers, who fled to Italy and again propositioned the senate.58 This time the Romans cast their scruples aside and voted to send an expedition to Sardinia, and when the Carthaginians protested, declared war on them. In no condition to fight, acquiescence cost Carthage not only Sardinia but an additional sixty-one thousand pounds of silver.
It was a defining act and a defining moment. Rome in effect had kicked Carthage when it was down. Few modern historians disagree with Polybius’s (3.10.4) judgment that this episode did not simply further embitter Carthaginians but was a principle cause of the second war with Rome. The circumstances argue that Hamilcar and the Barcid clan were particularly outraged and held the grudge as long as they could hold a sword.
Conjuring what must have been the tumultuous political atmosphere of Carthage in 237 B.C. is a problematic endeavor, based essentially on scraps. Yet certain elements do emerge from the mists of time looking more like realities than apparitions. There was bound to have been widespread dissatisfaction concerning the events of the recent past, with the fingers of blame pointing in more than one direction. Also, we can make out two distinct factions, one led by Hanno the Great and the other by Hamilcar Barca.
Our own vision of the former has been clouded by Gustave Flaubert’s portrait in the flamboyant historical novel Salammbô. Hanno is portrayed as ulcerous, obese—eating flamingo tongues and drinking viper broth, a repulsive creature whose cowardice is exceeded only by his cruelty. The real Hanno was no caricature. Granted, Livy plainly uses him as a foil to Barcid ambitions, but Hanno does seem to have had a good sense of power realities. His vision of “Africa first” and commercialized agriculture was a plausible future for the state. Still, he plainly represented the oligarchy that had presumably mismanaged the lost war with Rome, and he was personally associated with the policy of heavy taxation that had caused the Libyans to join the mercenaries in rebellion.59At this point, both his reputation and his style of government must have been open to challenge.
Yet skepticism of Hanno did not necessarily translate into approval for Barca. After all, it was Hamilcar’s original abandonment of his forces that had led directly to their disastrous mutiny. Nor were his earlier desire to continue resistance in Sicily and his general intransigence toward Rome necessarily popular with an exhausted and depleted Carthage. Indeed, Appian tells a story of Hamilcar threatened with being brought to trial over his conduct in Sicily.60 Still, of the two, Barca seems to have been the more resourceful and resilient.
It stands to reason that opposition to the oligarchy’s recent record would have been located in the assembly of the people, and here one Hasdrubal the Handsome seems to have held sway—“the lord of the Carthaginian streets,” Diodorus (25.8) calls him. It was this politician with whom Hamilcar forged a tight alliance, making him his son-in-law and possibly his lover.61 Some have seen the stirrings of democracy in this pairing, but this seems like a stretch. More likely, it was motivated by a general dissatisfaction with contemporary events and, in the case of these two, mutual self-interest. Hasdrubal was young and apparently ambitious. Hamilcar had a plan and needed a command. The people elected the generals.
It was a marriage made … if not in heaven, at least in Carthage, and then the happy couple would honeymoon in the south of Spain, the fabled land of silver mines, and make everybody rich—or at least rich enough to pay off the Romans. Compared to this scenario, Hanno and agribusiness must have sounded pretty stodgy, and the scenario’s appeal is testified to by Hamilcar’s apparently having left for Spain almost immediately, bringing his son-in-law with him.62
Before departing, however, Barca did several things that had immense significance for the future. No doubt careful to follow the rituals of a very religious place, Hamilcar performed a customary sacrifice, probably to Ba‘al Shamim, after which he requested a moment of privacy with his nine-year-old son. Hamilcar asked him if he would like to come to Spain. The boy begged to be included, at which point the father took him to the altar, placed his hand on the sacrificed carcass, and made him swear an oath of eternal enmity toward the Romans.63 The son, of course, was Hannibal, and he told the story to Antiochus, the Seleucid emperor, four decades later as evidence of his loyalty and commitment to fighting the Romans. It’s a melodramatic tale, but none of the ancient sources, and few modern historians, doubt its veracity. If there was one thing that bound the Barcids, it was a hatred of Rome.
The recent struggle with the mercenaries also seemed to have encouraged Hamilcar to value fidelity. The army he brought to Spain was no Carthaginian rent-a-force; instead, the timing argues that he never disbanded the elements he’d used to destroy the rebels. More to the point, it appears he marched the army across North Africa, crossing to Iberia at the Pillars of Hercules.64 Possibly Carthage simply lacked the ships to transport the force, but this is unlikely. It was a trek nearly as extended, though probably not as difficult, as Hannibal’s eventual march over the Alps, the kind of long haul that hardens and bonds an army, a training exercise by which—like Hamilcar’s earlier proclivity to directly attack Italy—the father provided a precedent for the son. The march also serves to illustrate what one historian calls the Barcids’ “landlubberly preference for action on terra firma,” strangely at odds with their country’s maritime tradition.65 In a very un-Carthaginian way, the Barcids were all about land power, and this army, tempered on the long march to Spain in 237 B.C., was to remain their personal implement of aggrandizement, a professional rather than a mercenary force, continuously under arms until Scipio Africanus finally shattered it nearly forty years later.
Southeastern Spain had been influenced by Phoenicians since the first millennium B.C., when they had established emporiums on the shores of Andalusia, but subsequent Greek pressure, particularly from the city of Massilia (today’s Marseilles), had narrowed the Phoenicians’ sway. Gades (modern Cádiz) at least remained Punic-friendly, and it was here that Hamilcar landed within easy reach of the gold and silver mines of the Sierra Morena. It appears that among the first things he did was arrange for a steady supply of these precious metals to be sent back to Carthage, a move that must have bolstered his political standing at home.66
The next eight years were occupied with almost continuous campaigning as Hamilcar worked his way east, occupying the coast of southern Spain, and then penetrated up the valley of the Baetis River (modern Guadalquivir River) to seal this band of territory on the inland side. The Massiliotes watched this expansion with increasing distress, and Hamilcar finally drew the attention of their allies the Romans, who sent a delegation in 231, only to be blandly told that he was simply fighting to pay off Roman war indemnities. A clever answer, delivered far from their sphere of control, but the Romans were unlikely to have departed convinced of his goodwill.
Two years later he was dead, ambushed by a Celtiberian tribe, the Oretani. According to one tradition, he sacrificed himself so that Hannibal and his brother might escape. There is an anecdote recounted by Valerius Maximus (9.3.2) of Hamilcar, years earlier, watching his three boys—Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago—engaged in rough play, and noting proudly, “These are the lion cubs I am rearing for the destruction of Rome!” Perhaps, but not yet. Hannibal, the oldest, was not yet twenty, too young to take over the family business; instead Hasdrubal the Handsome was elected by the army to run things in Spain, and then his position was ratified at home.
Exactly what was the nature of this enterprise in Spain—was it Barcid or Carthaginian? It’s impossible to say definitively; the evidence is just too fragmentary. Those who argue that it was planned and directed as a matter of Carthaginian state policy can dismiss as inconclusive any indications of Barcid independence, especially in the face of a larger strategic vision of outflanking Rome and developing a replacement for lost holdings in Sicily and Sardinia.
Yet in detail this story looks unconvincing; what clues remain are covered with Barcid fingerprints. Polybius (3.8.1–4) cites Fabius Pictor as saying that Hasdrubal the Handsome, after Hamilcar’s death, journeyed briefly to Carthage and tried to take over the government, and when this failed, he returned to Iberia and ruled “without paying any attention to the Carthaginian Senate.” The trip may be in doubt, but the management style rings true.
Diodorus (25.12) tells us that the Spanish tribes proclaimed Hasdrubal strategos autokrator, the same title conferred on Alexander by the League of Corinth. This may not simply have been because Diodorus was a Greek and was used to such terminology. There was a very Hellenistic cast to the Barcid operation in Spain; after all, this was the Mediterranean basin’s most successful model of how to move into a hinterland and rule. The Barcids were essentially soldiers and conquerors of a more traditional sort. As such, they represented an order of power different from what had been prevalent in Carthage, and more akin to the Greek despotism of the east. Then there is the matter of the money. We have two double shekel pieces attributed to Barcid Iberian mints of the era, depicting what are possibly Hamilcar and Hasdrubal. Both are represented as Hellenistic monarchs crowned with the royal diadem and laurel leaves.67
Hasdrubal certainly behaved like a contemporary basileus, marrying a local princess (as Alexander had in Asia and as Hannibal would do in the future), and scrupulously playing divide and rule among the local tribal chiefs. He also set up a metropolis, New Carthage (modern Cartagena), a huge palace-cum-fortress complex on a peninsula three hundred miles east of Gades, a site that commanded one of the best harbors in the world and was in the vicinity of rich silver mines. It would become Barca central—an arsenal, a treasure chest, and the nerve center of an operation that by all appearances bought the Barcids independence and assuaged the more timid souls at home through a steady stream of precious metals. All the while charting a course dictated by family priorities.
These priorities led east, for now only toward the river Ebro, with Hasdrubal advancing along the coast from New Carthage. The Romans, worried that he might try to link up with rebellious Ligurians and Gauls and always with a good sense of who was in charge, chose to deal directly with the Barcid rather than with the Carthaginian senate, sending out their ambassadors in 226.68 They struck a deal. Hasdrubal would not cross the Ebro, and he may have been assured that the Romans would not interfere to the south.69 At any rate it was a line in the sand, and apparently Hasdrubal spent the next five years consolidating behind it. Then he was dead, handsome Hasdrubal assassinated by an angry Celt; ironic, since he’d always been more the diplomat than the soldier. This would not be said of his successor.
By acclamation the army chose Hannibal, now twenty-six, as their leader. Livy (21.4.2) tells us “the old soldiers thought that Hamilcar had been restored to them … the same lively expression and piercing eye, the same cast of countenance and features.” And, it might be added, the same agenda.