Hannibal was in his late twenties when he led his army out from his base at New Carthage to begin the Italian expedition in the spring of 218 BC. He was already an experienced soldier, having accompanied the army on campaign under his father and brother-in-law, serving in a variety of increasingly senior roles as soon as he was old enough. Since his elevation to the command in Spain in 221, he had already begun to display the speed of action, tactical genius and inspirational leadership which were subsequently to dazzle his Roman opponents. Our sources tell us a good deal about what Hannibal actually did. allowing us to appreciate his extraordinary talent, but provide little reliable information about his character. No source has survived written from the Carthaginian perspective, although we know that at least two Greek scholars, one of them Hannibal's tutor the Spartan Sosylus, accompanied his army and recorded its campaigns. Hannibal had some knowledge of Greek culture and history, but it is unclear how important a part this played in his life or to what extent he remained firmly the product of his own Semitic culture.4
The Roman and Greek authors, who wrote in a world dominated by Rome, were sure that a deep hatred of Rome was fundamental to Hannibal's character throughout his life. Polybius tells us that in the 190s BC, whilst an exile at the court of the Seleucid King Antiochus III, Hannibal told the monarch how his father had taken him to sacrifice at the temple of Ba'al Shamin before leaving for Spain in 237. Hamilcar asked the 9 year-old boy whether he wished to come with him to Spain, and then, when the lad had eagerly begged for the chance to go, led him to the altar and made him swear a solemn oath 'never to be a friend to the Romans’. The story reaches us at best third hand, and was told by the Carthaginian to reassure Antiochus that he was not secretly meeting with Roman agents. As a result it is now impossible to know whether or not it is true, but the Romans certainly believed that the main cause of the Second Punic War was the enmity of Hamilcar and his sons. Only Hamilcar's death prevented him from completing the revival of Carthage's military power and launching an invasion of Italy from Spain, but the project continued to be the main ambition of his family and reached fulfilment under his eldest son.5
Debate continues to rage over the real causes of the Second Punic War, but need not concern us here. What is clear is that, whether or not the war was premeditated, Hannibal had developed a definite plan for how to fight Rome and had spent years preparing for this. In the spring of 218 BC he was able to lead out an enormous army, allegedly consisting of 12,000 cavalry, 90,000 infantry and 37 elephants, to begin a march which would take him across the River Ebro, over the Pyrenees, through Gaul and finally across the Alps into Italy. The First Punic War had been fought largely in Sicily and, although they had raided the Italian coast, the Carthaginians had never struck at the enemy’s heartland as the Romans had done when they invaded Africa in 256 BC. Throughout the conflict the Carthaginians had remained remarkably passive, reacting to Roman moves but seldom initiating a major offensive. Their strategy was based on enduring the Roman onslaughts, persevering in their resistance in the hope that the enemy would become tired and then either withdraw or be vulnerable to attack. This approach had worked in the past, wearing down successive tyrants and mercenary leaders hired by the Greeks of Sicily. It failed against the Romans, who consistently returned to the offensive even after serious defeats, and who were both able and willing to devote massive resources to the war.6
Hannibal intended to fight the new war with Rome in a far bolder fashion than the First Punic War. Preparations were made to defend his Spanish base and Carthage’s North African heartland against attack, but the main effort would be an offensive striking directly at the centre of Roman power in Italy itself. This time the Carthaginians would not attempt simply to endure enemy attacks, but would escalate the conflict and press for a decisive result. Carthage still had a substantial navy, although it may not have been as well trained as it had been before 265, but it had lost its bases in Sicily, Sardinia and the lesser islands of the Mediterranean as a result of the earlier defeat. Oared warships carried an exceptionally large crew in proportion to their size and had little space for provisions. As a result their operational range was small and without the island bases it was impractical for Hannibal to launch and support an invasion of Italy by sea. In addition Rome possessed a powerful navy which may have prevented a landing in the first place. Hannibal therefore adopted the logical alternative of reaching Italy by marching overland from his base in Spain. It was an exceptionally imaginative and highly bold plan. It required the army to force its way over great distances, past considerable geographical obstacles, and perhaps overcome the resistance of hostile peoples, before it was even in a position to strike at the real enemy. Only then could Hannibal begin the task of smashing Rome's armies, capturing her towns and cities, ravaging her fields, and subverting her allies. The Roman Republic had managed to endure huge losses during the First Punic War and still continue fighting, but then the disasters had always occurred at a distance. Now Hannibal planned to inflict as great, if not heavier, defeats in Italy itself.
The Second Punic War was provoked by Hannibal's capture of the city of Saguntum after an eight- month siege. Saguntum (modern Sagunto in Spain) was subsequently rebuilt and flourished during the Roman period when this monumental theatre was constructed. The theatre and other parts of the Ancient buildings were later incorporated into the town's medieval defences.
Hannibal's plan was bold and more characteristic of Roman than Carthaginian military doctrine. Even the most pro-Roman of our sources recognized his ability as a general, but also tended to depict him as devious and treacherous, traits they considered to be characteristically Punic. Others, including Polybius, repeated the accusations that Hannibal was excessively avaricious and inhumanly cruel. The first charge may in part have reflected his never-ending need for money to fund his campaign and pay his soldiers. Polybius also suggested that some of the more brutal acts attributed to the general were in fact the work of his namesake, Hannibal Monomachus (the duellist), a vicious individual who was supposed to have suggested accustoming the soldiers to eat human flesh to ease the problems of supplying the army. The character of Hannibal remains surrounded by so much propaganda and myth that it is impossible to separate fact from fiction and say much about the real man.7