Hannibal’s retreat

There is no reliable evidence that Rome demanded Hannibal’s surrender in 201 BC; this would come later. Returned to civilian life, Hannibal now had the opportunity to employ his great powers of statesmanship, no longer masked by his prestigious soldierly skills. There was plenty of scope for it, in his politically bankrupt and physically exhausted country.

One of his first tasks, after his appointment as one of the two sufetes, was to have an investigation made of the resources left to Carthage. The situation in fact was far better than could be expected. The city was on the road to recovery with regards to its commercial prosperity, but before long a scandal broke out. The first instalment of the war indemnity due to Rome under the terms of the peace treaty was paid in 199 BC, but the silver was found to be of such poor quality that Carthage had to make up the deficiency by borrowing money in Rome. In looking into the scandal, Hannibal soon found himself up against ‘the hundred’. He obtained a major revision of the constitution, and ‘the hundred’ was subject to annual elections with the proviso that no man should hold office for two consecutive years. By eradicating administrative corruption and functionary embezzlement, and collecting arrears of unpaid taxes, Hannibal showed how the heavy war indemnity could be paid without an increase in public taxation. Government putrescence and peculation were of course scarcely novel in Carthage, but his far-reaching reforms, which also embraced commerce and agriculture, were so successful that by 191 BC Carthage could offer to pay off the whole of the outstanding debt, forty years’ instalments, in a lump sum (viz. 8,000 talents), while also supplying the Roman army currently at war in the eastern Mediterranean with large quantities of grain. The offer, either for reasons of spite or arrogance, was disdainfully declined.

Hannibal had another, and trickier, situation with which to deal. When his brother’s army left Liguria, a Carthaginian officer with the name of Hamilcar stayed behind and placed himself at the head of a number of malcontent Ligurian and Gaulish tribes. The Latin colonies of Placentia and Cremona were attacked. Rome naturally complained to Carthage, demanding a recall and surrender of this freebooter, whose activities were a clear breach of the peace treaty. Suspicion, naturally, was laid on Hannibal of having taken some dastard part in these guerrilla operations in Gallia Cisalpina, but the senate in Carthage replied that it had no power to do anything beyond exiling this Hamilcar and confiscating his property.

Meantime, in the aftermath of Hannibal’s defeat, the Romans had turned their attention towards the east. Ostensibly in response to appeals from tiny but independent powers of Pergamon and Rhodes, Rome decided to intervene in Greece before Philip V of Macedon (r. 221-179 BC) and Antiochos III of Syria (r. 223-187 BC) had a chance to upset the balance of power in the east. This is an example of Rome’s increasing propensity to regard other people’s business as its own, viewing events in regions bordering on its sphere of influence as events upon which it was entitled, at the very least, to voice an opinion. The possession of irresistible power tends to lead to such arrogance. Of course, Rome had never forgiven Philip for his alliance with Hannibal, but Antiochos was a very different kettle of fish.

One of the greatest Hellenistic monarchs who, in conscious imitation of Alexander, bore the epithet ‘the Great’, Antiochos earned this title attempting to reconstitute the kingdom by bringing back into the fold the former outlying possessions. He thus managed to reassert the power of the Seleukid dynasty briefly in the upper satrapies and Anatolia (Asia Minor to the Romans), which effectively made him ruler of the eastern world from the Indus to the Aegean, but then inadvisably challenged Rome for control of Greece in 194 BC. Concerned first and foremost with maintaining in their entirety the territorial possessions he had inherited from his forefathers, having just retrieved them, what Antiochos wanted was for Rome to mind its own business and leave him free to do as he wished on his side of the Hellespont. It was not to be. Towards the end of 190 BC Rome, backed by Pergamon and Rhodes, won the final battle over Antiochos on the level plain of Magnesia-by-Sipylos in Lydia, driving that magnificent and ambitious king back across the Taurus Mountains and out of Anatolia.

It was suspected in Rome that Hannibal had been in touch with Antiochos. This would of course have been another breach of the peace treaty by which Carthage was bound not to partake in any hostilities without Rome’s acquiescence, especially not when they appeared to be directed against Rome itself. Rome had another reason to be furious with Hannibal, for his skill in reorganizing the finances of Carthage had made the Roman plans miscarry; they had hoped that the war indemnity would cripple Carthage, and they were disappointed. Despite the reasonable objections of Scipio Africanus, who had been censor in 199 BC and princeps senatus in 198 BC, a commission was sent to Carthage in 195 BC, the very year Marcus Porcius Cato, the elder Cato as he is known to history, was consul, alleging that Hannibal was aiding an enemy of Rome. In the senatorial debate, where Scipio Africanus brought his full weight to bear against those he saw lending a favourable ear to what he viewed as a baseless accusation, ‘considering that it consorted ill with the dignity of the Roman people to associate themselves with the animosities of Hannibal’s accusers, to add the support of official backing to the factions at Carthage’.5 Noble words, forsooth, which fell on deaf ears.

Be that as it may, at this very moment Hannibal’s position in Carthage was insecure. For not only had he made implacable enemies of all those functionaries whose peculations and perks he had stopped, but his year of office as sufete had now expired. And so, with his keen sense of appreciation that the Roman commissioners could not fail to demand his surrender, and the probability that the Carthaginian senate would comply, he withdrew from their grasp by a series of characteristic tricks. Pretending to be going for a short ride with two trusted companions (Sosylos and Silenos?), he rode through the night, hell for leather, to his seaside estate near Thapsus, which was more than 150km as the crow flies. His treasure had already been embarked on a fully outfitted and crewed ship, and he sailed for Cercina (Kerkennah), an island just off the coast. There he was recognized by the crews of some Phoenician merchantmen, which was unwelcome to him as the news of his presence there could not fail to reach Carthage. In order to forestall them, Hannibal suggested to the ships’ captains that they should dine with him on shore and bring their sails and yards with them to provide shelter from the midsummer sun, which they did, taking care to leave his own vessel fully rigged. What they did not realize was that by doing so, they had delayed the time of their departure next day.

Naturally, Hannibal showed a clean pair of heels during the night while the revellers slept off their drink. Back in Carthage the Roman commissioners were naturally furious, and Hannibal’s enemies in the Carthaginian senate placated them by formally declaring him to be an outlaw, confiscating his property (such as he had left behind him), and razing his property to the ground. So was Hannibal honoured in his own country.

Hannibal sailed away to Antiochos, who must have been an attractive host to him because he was soon to be engaged in fighting the Romans. By accusing him of plotting war with Antiochos, his enemies in Carthage and, in Rome, the senators determined on his downfall, had propelled him into the king’s arms. Hannibal caught up with the busy king in Ephesos, and there, it is said, explained to him his grandiose plan for opposing Rome. If we are to believe Livy, it involved entrusting to Hannibal an army of 10,000 foot and 1,000 horse and a fleet of 100 warships, with which he would first sail to Africa to win over Carthage, and then on to Italy to raise war there against the Romans. At the same time Antiochos was to lead his main army into Greece, where he would take up a strong position to paralyse Rome’s efforts. It seems the Romans got wind of Hannibal’s war plan, and the combination of artful agents and covetous courtiers scuppered his chances to carry the upcoming war into Rome’s backyard. As we have noted, Antiochos was eventually defeated at Magnesia, and Rome predictably demanded the surrender of their most implacable foe. When Hannibal had resumed the struggle against the Romans, the exile, in their eyes, had become a rebel. Semantics aside, it was too late anyway. For Hannibal had already embarked his treasure on a ship and sailed away again, this time for Crete.

Though Crete had remained aloof from all the fighting in the eastern Mediterranean, Hannibal now ran the danger that the proverbially covetous Cretans knew how great the sum of money was that he had brought with him. He countered this by filling a number of large narrow-necked jars with lead and covering this with a shallow layer of gold and silver pieces at the top. These heavy jars he deposited in a local temple, where the Cretans jealously mounted guard over them, without troubling Hannibal. His real fortune he stuffed inside a pair of humdrum bronze statues, which he left carelessly lying around his garden, so that when he wanted to leave he was able to take his treasure with him without the Cretans suspecting it.

This story, of course, can be taken for what it is worth. Nevertheless, Hannibal lived quite comfortably on the island of Crete, but being one not fain to take life calmly as it comes, he was not likely to want to live there for too long. We next find him offering his services to Prusias I of Bithynia (r. 228-181 BC), who, from about 186 BC to 183 BC, was at war with his neighbour, Eumenes II of Pergamon (r. 197-158 BC), an ally of Rome who had fought at the Battle of Magnesia. This local spat gave Hannibal one last opportunity for showing his military genius. Prusias was defeated on land and transferred hostilities to the sea. Outnumbered in ships, Hannibal advised the king’s marines to gather venomous snakes, stuff them in earthenware pots, and catapult them onto the enemy’s ships. The sailors of Pergamon began by jeering at such ridiculous tactics of fighting with pots instead of swords. But when these pots crashed on board the Pergamene ships, which were soon crawling with snakes, the laugh was on the other side of their faces and, as Trogus Pompeius relates, ‘they yielded the victory’.

There followed yet another demand for the surrender of Hannibal, whom the Romans pursued, as Plutarch says, ‘like a bird that had grown too old to fly and had lost its tail feathers’. He was then 64 years old. Hannibal headed off his captors by taking poison, and in his final agony, or so said Livy, he cried out: ‘Let us free the Roman people from their long-standing anxiety, seeing that they find it tedious to wait for an old man’s death’. Thus perished Hannibal of unhappy memory. The year was 183 BC, and the Romans breathed freely for the first time since that day, some thirty-five years back, when Hannibal crossed the Alps, elephants and all. There was no room for forgiveness in the hearts of the Roman nation; they had been too frightened for that. There are some things which can never be forgiven, let alone forgotten.