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How Hannibal from Carthage Defeated the Romans in Italy

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Hannibal and his Conquests

Hannibal was a great general of the state of Carthage, in North Africa. He was the son of Hamilcar, another Carthaginian general who, when Hannibal was nine, made him swear undying hatred of the Romans - Rome and Carthage were rivals because both wanted to gain control of the Mediterranean. After this Hamilcar took his son to Spain, where Carthage had conquered much territory, and trained him to be a soldier.

When Hannibal was only 26 he was put in charge of Carthaginian territory in Spain and he also commanded the army there. In 219 B.C. he attacked the city of Saguntum (near Valencia) and this led to a war with Rome, known as the Second Punic War. The next year Hannibal set out to invade Italy with a great army of foot soldiers, horse soldiers and some elephants. He fought his way through northern Spain and across southern France to the River Rhone. He crossed the river and then marched northwards in order to hide his intentions from the Romans. When he was sure that they were uncertain where he was going to attack, he turned round and led his army, including the elephants, through the snow and ice of the Alps into northern Italy. It is thought that on the whole march from Spain to Italy he lost between 5,000 and 10,000 men.

However, he had taken the Romans unawares, and they had to retreat south of the River Po. About December 218 B.C. they attacked him on the banks of the River Trebia. and were cut to pieces, being forced to abandon almost the whole of northern Italy. This was the first of Hannibal's victories in Italy. The second came in ]une 217 B.C. when he again managed to hide his plans from the Romans and, under their very noses, crossed the Apennines into central Italy. The Romans allowed themselves to be caught in a small area between Lake Trasimeno and the mountains. They fought bravely but 15,000 of their men were killed and many others taken prisoner. A year later Hannibal won his third victory, at the Battle of Cannae. Cannae was a Roman fortress on the River Ofanto, near the Adriatic coast of southern Italy. The Romans had an army of 50,000 troops and were determined to defeat Hannibal. However, he had an excellent plan of battle and drew up his army with the best troops on the flanks (sides). He attacked only with the centre of his army, and when the centre was pushed back his army looked like a half moon. At this moment he ordered the flanks to advance and the tips of the 'moon' closed upon the Romans, most of whom were slain or taken prisoner.

Why Hannibal did not attack Rome itself after this battle is not known for certain. It appears to have been due to several reasons. Rome was heavily fortified and could not be starved into surrender because its position on the River Tiber enabled it always to receive supplies of food and other goods. By this time, also, the Romans had started different tactics, avoiding pitched battles but draining the strength of Hannibal's army by constant skirmishes.

Hannibal remained in Italy, fighting most skilfully but gradually losing territory, until 203 B.C. when he was recalled to Carthage to fight against a Roman invasion led by Scipio. Hannibal was defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. but continued to serve Carthage until he had to escape in 196 B.C. when Rome accused him of trying to start another war. He took refuge in Syria and then in Bithynia (Asia Minor), and helped their kings to fight the Romans. When the King of Bithynia was defeated by the Romans, Hannibal avoided capture by taking the poison he had long carried in a ring on his finger.

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