The Magazine

Hannibal’s Home

What was lost when Carthage was destroyed.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By RICHARD TADA
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What if Hannibal had won? What if Carthage rather than Rome had become the dominant power in the Mediterranean?

A Statue of Hannibal looking angry

Hannibal as seen by the Romans

Dexter Hoyos believes that Carthage was capable of the same civilization-building function that Rome played, and in this skillful overview of an obscure ancient culture says that if Carthage had won the Second Punic War, “the civilization that resulted would have spoken Punic and Greek rather than Latin and Greek, but would certainly have made an equally momentous contribution to history.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Hannibal’s war started with a brilliant stroke in 218 b.c., when he left Carthaginian-held southern Spain and crossed the Alps into Italy. Once there, he defeated the Romans in three great battles. The last of these—Cannae (216 b.c.)—was one of the greatest military triumphs of all time, and one which generals throughout the ages have striven to replicate. Hannibal expected the Romans to negotiate for terms, as any reasonable state would do after suffering such horrendous defeats. But the Romans kept fighting, not only in Italy, but even carrying the war to the Carthaginian base in Spain. In the face of this perverse reaction, Hannibal appears to have run out of ideas: He received only minor reinforcements from Carthage—just 4,000 men and 40 elephants in 215. Instead, the bulk of Carthaginian strength was sent elsewhere—to Spain, Sicily, even to strategically unimportant Sardinia—rather than being committed to the decisive Italian theater.

After his defeat, Hannibal claimed that he had been let down by the authorities back home. Some modern historians accept this view, but Hoyos, a professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Sydney and author of several earlier books on the Punic Wars, holds that Hannibal’s supporters dominated the political scene at Carthage. Hannibal himself, as overall commander of the Carthaginian war effort, is likely to have signed off on the decisions which led to Punic power being scattered over the western Mediterranean. So Hoyos’s view sharply diminishes Hannibal’s stature, making him the embodiment of an unfortunate combination: brilliant tactician, mediocre strategist.

Carthage is particularly fascinating because most traces of it were obliterated. Fifty years after Hannibal’s defeat, Rome launched a vindictive and cruel war of extermination, burning Carthage in 146 and slaughtering or enslaving the inhabitants. Over a century later, the Romans built their own city on the desolate site and removed the top of the hill of Byrsa, the former Punic citadel, eradicating all traces of the great temple of Eschmoun and the stairway leading up to it.

Roman ruthlessness explains why very few Punic sources remain. To follow Carthage’s history, we have to rely primarily on Greek and Latin literary sources, which are generally hostile. (Although not exclusively so: In his account of the First Punic War, the Greek historian Polybius drew some information from a lost pro-Carthaginian writer.) Carthage was a Phoenician colony planted in North Africa in the ninth or early eighth century b.c., and after a period of conflict, the colonists achieved a measure of symbiosis with the native Libyans (the ancestors of today’s Berbers). Greek and Latin writers noted the presence of a mixed population of “Libyphoenicians.” Carthage became a great mercantile city, maintaining trade links with the Phoenician homeland, as well as with Egypt and the Greek world.

The greatest strength of Hoyos’s account is the extensive use he makes of the archaeological evidence. Punic inscriptions are the most tantalizing, because they allow Carthaginian voices to speak for themselves. One inscription gives a brief account of a military operation fought against the Greek cities of Sicily. Two generals, Adnibaal (Hannibal) and Himilco, are reported to have sacked Acragas (on the southern coast of Sicily) in 406—an event corroborated by a Greek source. Inscriptions have also revealed the Punic title for general (borne by Hannibal himself) which was probably pronounced rab mahanet. And the Punic language and culture did not die with Carthage in 146, as demonstrated by the discovery of many “neo-Punic” inscriptions from the Roman period.

Archaeologists have also excavated a neighborhood of Punic Carthage, on the southern slopes of Byrsa, preserved under rubble when the Romans removed the top of the hill. The “Hannibal quarter” (so-called because it dates from the late second century, when Hannibal served as a government official after his defeat) was a mixed commercial/residential district with standardized building sizes. Each building was subdivided into smaller units serving as dwellings or shops. (The remains of a jeweler’s shop have been identified.) Pieces of an Ionic column found in the area provide material confirmation that Carthage was receptive to Greek culture.