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The Blood Oath of Hannibal Barca

Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

February 21, 2021

Hannibal, the Carthaginian general had a quest and inner fire so powerful, he was widely considered to be one of the greatest military commanders in history.  He was a great strategist, a cunning man, who did not succumb to the pacts and traitor of the "Fides Exercituum" the rules that governed fighting and society throughout the regions.

Hannibal was born in 247 BC. in Carthage, a city in present-day Tunisia, to an aristocratic family.  Barca, the family name, is of Semitic origin meaning "blessing" that emphasizes a link with the deity Melqart, which Amilcare his father, was a priest of. Before leaving for Spain, Amilcare took his nine-year-old son Hannibal to the temple of Melqart  where he took a terrible oath:

By land and sea, when age permits, with iron and fire I will pursue the Romans and fulfill the destinies [...]. Nothing will stand in my way, neither the media nor the treaties prohibiting war, nor the Alps excelled or the Tarpea cliff. This drawing swears to our god, Mars, and your Mani, queen.

(Silio Italico, Punica, I 114-119)

A Spartan military man, Sosilo, was in charge of perfecting the boy’s physical and military training; and Alexander the Great became the ideal model to emulate. The men of the Barca dynasty were military and political commanders. Amilcare, after the First Punic War (264-241 BC) fought in Sicily, having an assignment in the Iberian Peninsula.  He left with an army bringing his nine-year-old son Hannibal and his son-in-law Hasdrubal (237 BC), to the South and East of Spain, which at the time was Carthian territory. Amilcare's great military skills allowed him to conquer gold and silver mines in the "Sierra Morena", and to found the city of Barcelona.  However, he died in battle against Iberian tribes. Hasdrubal takes his place and managed to build with the same prowess as Alexander the Great, a Carthaginian territorial state. His achievements were remarkable; he founded a capital, becoming immortalized on coins, builds a royal palace, and implements a policy of merging the Carthaginian and submissive Iberian populations by increasing personal power.
In 221 BC. Hasdrubal died and Hannibal assumed command of Carthaginous troops in Spain. In time Hannibal matures under the guidance of these monumental military figures, only to make an unprecedented decision: to attack Rome and claim its territory Livio recounts (XXI 4: 2-9) that Hannibal gathered the whole army: and the veterans had the impression that Amilcare had returned as a young man. Like his faher Hannibals’s nature was to command and he had great courage in facing dangers, and great prudence in the midst of the dangers themselves. He never lost his energy and was never demoralized. Although a fearless leader, he did not distinguish himself from the comrades in the army, and he was the first of the knights among the men. These were the virtues of man, so great, to which also corresponded great vices: an inhuman cruelty, a great perfidia, no respect for the contents of religion, for the sacred, no fear of the gods, no regard for oaths, and no religious scrupulousness.
Hannibal did not have a large military fleet, and there was only one possibility left in order to achieve his dream of conquering Rome: to cross the Alps.  In 218 BC he faced blizzard conditions, and extremely perilous paths for soldiers and animals to cross, but with immense ingenuity he finds the incredible solution of breaking rocks with the fire, vinegar and iron so they could cross safely. He had a gift to inspire his soldiers to keep going under stressful conditions, and when they were demoralized he excited them with he idea that past the Alps was the magnificent city of Rome.

His ultimate plan, though crude and ferocious, with his small fleet of soldiers at his feet, was to induce the Gauls of the Po Valley and other Italian populations, to ally with him against Rome. Hannibal took great care in the psychological study of the opponent and leveraged the character of the enemy, to obtain the advantage on the battlefield.
Creating an ambush in the battle of Lake Trasimeno (217 BC): Hannibal provoked the Romans to pursue him after ravaging Etruscan territory. He then made his way along the shore of Lake Trasimeno and passes it, while his light, Gallic infantry unfold through hidden streets along the ridge. When Roman consul Flaminius, resumed the pursuit he realized that the Spaniards and Africans blocked his passage, he tried to overcome the enemies in battle, but it was perfectly useless because the unexpected attack on the flank had already decreed its defeat. The Romans were forced to flee into the waters of the lake, where they all drowned due to heavy armor. Hannibal’s, strategies based on cunning were inconceivable to the Romans. Hannibal had broken the divine oath of "Fides", the mutual fidelity to which the Romans, before the deities, engaged.  An ideal that was valid in every area of life from private to public.
The Romans, accustomed to battling in the field with armies to prove their worth, did not understand the psychological way of action of the Carthoginian army. Because of this ignorance,  they were also defeated at Reeds (216 BC), one of the worst defeats in Roman history. Hannibal knew how to systematically use cunning and deception to reach victory, a vision of combat that was conveyed to him by his father and especially by Sosilo, his Spartan trainer.
Hannibal, having an army composed of mercenary groups, had his men fight divided by ethnicity and each ethnic group entrusted a role in which he could express his specificity, and his true strength. Hannibal perfected Macedonian encirclement tactics by modifying it based on the characteristics of the army at his disposal. In his mind the battle is a whole: of course, the clash on the ground will be divided into different moments and actions, but in reality it is only one movement made by the army as a whole. But the Romans, at this point, began to learn directly from him. Adopting a foreign policy aimed at attracting Carthage's allies to Rome, in particular the Numids famous for their powerful cavalry. Publius Cornelius Scipio prepared for the battle in Africa, at Zama against Hannibal.  No one better than Scipio realized that Hannibal had opened an unexplored horizon in the art of war based on a development of Macedonian tactics combining weapons, inventing a new type of battle. He was so well versed in these mechanisms of war that he became its best intepretor . After a series of tactics, the battle turned into a head-on fight, in the hands of luck and determination. 

The Romans implementing the same techniques that Hannibal used himself, won the battle due to the astuteness of the Numidic cavalry that blinds the deployment. After a return to Carthage and exile, the end of the great commander takes place in Bithyniana when, finally found by the Romans who surrounded his house, Hannibal, unable to escape, poisons himself in 183 BC.


The Blood Oath of Hannibal Barca

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