The Second Punic War (218-201 BC): Hannibal Marches Against Rome

The thin, alpine air rushes between the two towering mountains dominating the horizon; whipping past you, biting your skin and icing your bones. 

When you’re not freezing where you stand, you’re hearing and seeing ghosts; worried that a band of barbarous, war mongering Gauls — eager to plunge their swords into any chest that wanders onto their lands — will appear from the rocks and force you into battle. 

Battle has been your reality many times on your journey from Spain to Italy.

Each step forward is a monumental feat, and to push on, you must constantly remind yourself why you’re marching through such deadly, frozen misery. 

Duty. Honor. Glory. Steady pay. 

Carthage is your home, yet it’s been years since you walked its streets, or smelt the aromas of its markets, or felt the burn of the Northern Africa sun on your skin. 

You’ve spent the past decade in Spain, fighting first under the great Hamilcar Barca. And now under his son, Hannibal — a man seeking to build upon his father’s legacy and restore glory to Carthage — you follow across the Alps, towards Italy and Rome; towards eternal glory for both you and your native land.

The war elephants Hannibal brought with him from Africa march ahead of you. They strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, but they are a nightmare to herd forward along the path, untrainable and easily distracted by any sight that shifts in their strangely human eyes.

But all this hardship, all this struggle, is worth it. Your beloved Carthage had spent the previous thirty years with its tail between its legs. Humiliating defeats from the hands of the Roman army during the First Punic War had left your fearless leaders with no choice but to lay in wait in Spain, honoring the terms dictated by Rome.

Carthage is now a shadow of its former great self; a mere vassal to the rising power of the Roman army in the Mediterranean.

But this was all set to change. Hannibal’s army had defied the Romans in Spain, crossing the Ebro River and making it clear that Carthage bows to no one. Now, as you march together with 90,000 men — most from Carthage, others recruited along the way — and Italy nearly in your sights, you can almost feel the tides of history turning in your favor. 

Soon the immense mountains of Gaul will give way to the valleys of Northern Italy, and thus the roads to Rome. Victory will bring you immortality, a pride one can only attain on the battlefield. 

It will bring the chance to put Carthage in its rightful place — atop the world, leader of all men. The Second Punic war is about to start.

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What Was the Second Punic War?

The Second Punic War (also called the Second Carthaginian War) was the second of three conflicts, known collectively as “The Punic Wars,” fought between the ancient powers of Rome and Carthage — a powerful city and imperial entity located across the Mediterranean from Southern Italy in modern-day Tunisia. It lasted seventeen years, from 218 BC. to 201 BC., and resulted in Roman victory. 

The two sides would face off again from 149–146 BC. in the Third Punic War. With the Roman army also winning this conflict, it helped to solidify their position as the region’s hegemon, which contributed to the rise of the Roman Empire — a society that dominated Europe, parts of Northern Africa, and Western Asia for centuries; leaving a profound impact on the world in which we live today.

What Caused the Second Punic War?

The immediate cause of the Second Punic War was the decision by Hannibal — the main Carthaginian general at the time, and one of history’s most revered military commanders — to ignore the treaty between Carthage and Rome that “forbade” Carthage from expanding in Spain beyond the Ebro River. Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War meant the loss of Carthaginian Sicily to the Romans under the terms of the Roman-dictated 241 BC Treaty of Lutatius.

The larger cause of the war was the presence of an ongoing fight between Rome and Carthage for control in the Mediterranean. Carthage, originally an ancient Phoenician settlement, was the region’s authority, and it dominated largely due to the strength of its navy. 

It needed to control such a large territory so as to reap the wealth of the silver mines in Spain as well as the benefits of commerce and trade that came with having a large overseas empire. However, starting in the 3rd century B.C., Rome was beginning to challenge its power. 

It conquered the Italian Peninsula and brought many of the Greek city-states in the region under its control. Threatened by this, Carthage sought to assert its power, which led to the First Punic War taking place between 264 and 241 B.C.  

Rome won the First Punic War, and this left Carthage in a difficult position. It began focusing more on Spain, but when Hannibal took control of Carthaginian armies there, his ambition and brutality provoked Rome and brought the two great forces back to war with one another.

Another reason for the outbreak of the Second Punic War was the inability of Carthage to hold back Hannibal, who had become too dominant. If the Carthaginian Senate had been able to control the Barcid (A highly influential family in Carthage who had a deep loathing for the Romans), a war between Hannibal and Rome could have been forestalled. All in all, the intimidating attitude of Carthage compared with the more defensive attitude of Rome shows that the true root of the Second Punic War was Carthage.

What Happened in the Second Punic War?

In short, the two sides fought a long series of on-land battles — mostly in what is now Spain and Italy — with the Roman army once again besting the Carthaginian army who were led by the world-famous general, Hannibal Barca.

But the story is much more complicated than that.

The Peace Ends

Angered by how they were treated by the Romans after the First Punic War — who evicted thousands of Carthaginians from their colony on Sicily in southern Italy and charged them a heavy fine — and reduced to a secondary power in the Mediterranean, Carthage turned its conquering eye towards the Iberian Peninsula; the westernmost patch of land in Europe that is home to the modern-day nations of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra.

The purpose was not only to expand the area of land under Carthaginian control, which was centered on its capital in Iberia, Cartago Nova (modern day Cartagena, Spain), but also to secure control of the vast silver mines found in the hills of the peninsula — a major source of Carthaginian power and wealth. 

History repeats itself, and, once again, shiny metals created ambitious men who set the stage for war.

The Carthaginian army in Iberia was led by a general named Hasdrubal, and — so as to not provoke more war with the increasingly powerful and hostile Rome — he agreed not to cross the Ebro River, which runs through Northeast Spain. 

However, in 229 B.C., Hasdrubal went and got himself drowned, and the Carthaginian leaders instead sent a man named Hannibal Barca — the son of Hamilcar Barca and a prominent statesman in his own right— to take his place. (Hamilcar Barca was the leader of Carthage’s armies in the first confrontation between Rome and Carthage). Hamilcar Barca rebuilt Carthage after the first Punic War. Lacking the means to rebuild the Carthaginian fleet he built an army in Spain.

And in 219 B.C., after securing large swaths of the Iberian Peninsula for Carthage, Hannibal decided he didn’t much care for honoring the treaty made by a man who was now ten years dead. So, he gathered his troops and defiantly marched across the Ebro River, traveling into Saguntum.

A coastal city-state in Eastern Spain originally settled by the expanding Greeks, Saguntum had been a long-time diplomatic ally with Rome, and it played an important role in Rome’s long-term strategy to conquer Iberia. Again, so they could get their hands on all those shiny metals.

As a result, when word reached Rome of Hannibal’s siege and eventual conquest of Saguntum, the senators’ nostrils flared, and steam could probably be seen billowing from their ears. 

In a last ditch effort to prevent all-out war, they sent an envoy to Carthage demanding they be allowed to punish Hannibal for this treachery or else face the consequences. But Carthage told them to take a hike, and just like that, the Second Punic War had begun, ushering in the second of what would become three wars between them and Rome — wars that helped define the ancient age.

Hannibal Marches to Italy

The Second Punic War was often known as Hannibal’s War in Rome. With the war officially underway, the Romans sent a force to Sicily in southern Italy to defend against what they perceived as an inevitable invasion — remember, the Carthaginians had lost Sicily in the First Punic War — and they sent another army to Spain to confront, defeat, and capture Hannibal. But when they got there, all they found were whispers. 

Hannibal was nowhere to be found.

This was because, instead of waiting for the Roman armies — and also to prevent the Roman army from bringing the war to Northern Africa, which would have threatened Carthaginian agriculture and its political elite — he had decided to take the fight to Italy itself. 

Upon finding Spain without Hannibal, the Romans began to sweat. Where could he be? They knew an attack was imminent, but not from where. And not knowing bred fear.

Had the Romans known what Hannibal’s army was up to, though, they would have been even more afraid. While they were roaming around Spain searching for him, he was on the move, marching into Northern Italy over an inland route across the Alps in Gaul (modern-day France) so as to avoid the Roman allies located along the Mediterranean Coast. All while leading a force of around 60,000 men, 12,000 cavalry, and some 37 war elephants. Hannibal had received supplies that were required for the expedition across the Alps from a Gallic Chieftain called Brancus. In addition, he received Brancus’ diplomatic protection. Up until he got to the Alps proper, he did not have to fend off any tribes.

To win the war, Hannibal in Italy sought to build up a united front of the northern Italian Gallic tribes and south Italian city states to encircle Rome and confine it to Central Italy, where it would pose a lesser threat to Carthage’s power.

These Carthaginian war elephants — which were the tanks of ancient warfare; responsible for carrying equipment, supplies, and using their immensity to storm over enemies, crushing them in their tracks — helped make Hannibal the famous figure he is today.

Debates still rage over where these elephants came from, and although nearly all of them died by the end of the Second Punic War, Hannibal’s image is still closely linked to them.

However, even with the elephants helping to carry supplies and men, the trip across the Alps was still excruciatingly difficult for the Carthaginians. Harsh conditions of deep snow, relentless winds, and freezing temperatures — combined with attacks from Gauls living in the area that Hannibal hadn’t been aware existed but that were not happy to see him — cost him nearly half his army

The elephants, though, all survived. And despite the huge reduction of his force, Hannibal’s army still loomed large. It descended from the Alps, and the thunder of 30,000 footsteps, accompanied by the ancient tanks, echoed down the Italian Peninsula towards the city of Rome. The collective knees of the great city were trembling with fear.

However, its important to mention that in the Second Punic War, Rome had an advantage over Carthage geographically, even though the war was fought on Roman soil, and they had control of the sea around Italy, preventing Carthaginian supplies from arriving. This is because Carthage had lost sovereignty in the Mediterranean.

The Battle of the Ticinus (November, 218 BC.)

The Romans naturally panicked to hear of a Carthaginian army in their territory, and they sent orders to recall their troops from Sicily so that they could come to the defense of Rome. 

Roman General, Cornelius Publius Scipio, upon realizing that Hannibal’s army was threatening northern Italy, sent his own army on to Spain, and then returned to Italy and assumed command of Roman troops preparing to stop Hannibal. The other consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus, was in Sicily preparing to invade Africa. When word of the Carthaginian army’s arrival in northern Italy reached him, he rushed northward.

They first met Hannibal’s army at the Ticino River, near the town of Ticinium, in Northern Italy. Here, Hannibal took advantage of a mistake by Publius Cornelius Scipio, to put his cavalry in the center of his line. Any general worth his salt knows that mounted units are best used on the flanks, where they can use their mobility to their advantage. Placing them in the center blocked them in with other soldiers, turning them into regular infantry and significantly reducing their effectiveness. 

The Carthaginian cavalry advanced much more effectively by storming the Roman line head on. In doing so, they negated the Roman javelin throwers and quickly encircled their opponent, leaving the Roman army helpless and resoundingly defeated. 

Publius Cornelius Scipio was amongst those surrounded, but his son, a man history knows simply by “Scipio,” or Scipio Africanus, famously rode through the Carthaginian line to rescue him. This act of bravery foreshadowed even more heroism, as Scipio the younger would later play an important role in what would become a Roman victory.

The Battle of Ticinus was an important moment in the Second Punic War as it wasn’t only the first time Rome and Carthage went head to head — it demonstrated the capabilities of Hannibal and his armies in striking fear into the hearts of the Romans, who now saw a full-on Carthaginian invasion as a real possibility. 

In addition, this victory allowed Hannibal to win the support of the war-loving, ever-raiding Celtic tribes living in Northern Italy, which grew his force considerably and gave the Carthaginians even more hope for victory. 

The Battle of Trebia (December, 218 BC.)

Despite Hannibal’s victory at the Ticinus, most historians consider the battle to be a minor engagement, largely because it was fought with mostly cavalry. Their next confrontation — the Battle of Trebia — further stoked Roman fears and established Hannibal as a highly-skilled commander who just might have had what it took to conquer Rome.

So called for the Trebbia River — a small tributary stream that supplied the mighty Po River to stretch across Northern Italy near the modern-day city of Milan — this was the first major battle fought between the two sides in the Second Punic War.

Historical sources don’t make it clear exactly where the armies were positioned, but the general consensus was that the Carthaginians were on the western bank of the river and the Roman army was on the eastern. 

The Romans crossed the freezing cold water, and when they emerged on the other side, they were met with the full force of the Carthaginians. Shortly thereafter, Hannibal sent in his cavalry — 1,000 of which he had instructed to hide off to the side of the battlefield — to swoop in and attack the Roman rear. 

This tactic worked wonderfully — if you were Carthaginian — and quickly turned into a massacre. The Romans on the western side of the bank turned and saw what was happening and knew they were running out of time. 

Surrounded, the remaining Romans fought their way through the Carthaginian line by forming a hollow square, which is exactly what it sounds like — the soldiers lined up back to back, shields up, spears out, and moved in unison, repelling the Carthaginians just enough to make it to safety. 

When they emerged on the other side of the enemy line after inflicting heavy losses, the scene they left behind was a bloody one, with the Carthaginians slaughtering all who remained. 

In total, the Roman army lost somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 soldiers, a crippling defeat for an army that would one day be known as the world’s finest.

The Roman commander — Tiberius — although likely tempted to turn around and support his men, knew that doing so would be a lost cause. And so he took what was left of his army and escaped to the nearby town of Placenza. 

But the highly-trained soldiers he had been commanding (who would have had to have been very experienced to pull off a maneuver as difficult as the hollow square) inflicted heavy damages on Hannibal’s troops — whose army suffered only around 5,000 casualties — and, throughout the course of the battle, managed to kill the majority of his war elephants. 

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This, plus the cold snowy weather gracing the battlefield that day, prevented Hannibal from chasing the Roman army and beating them while they were down, a move that would have dealt a nearly-fatal blow. 

Tiberius was able to escape, but news soon reached Rome of the battle’s outcome. Nightmares of Carthiginian troops marching into their city and slaughtering; enslaving; raping; pillaging their way to conquest plagued the consuls and citizens.  

The Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 B.C.)

The panicked Roman Senate quickly raised two new armies under their new consuls — the annually elected leaders of Rome who often also served as generals in war. 

Their task was this: to stop Hannibal and his armies from advancing into Central Italy. To stop Hannibal from burning Rome into a pile of ash and into a mere afterthought in world history. 

A simple enough objective. But, as is usually the case, achieving it would be much easier said than done. 

Hannibal, on the other hand, after recovering from Trebia, kept moving south towards Rome. He crossed some more mountains — the Apennines this time — and marched into Etruria, a region of central Italy that includes parts of modern day Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria. 

It was during this journey that his forces came across a large marsh that drastically slowed them down, making every inch forward seem like an impossible task.  

It also quickly became clear that the journey was going to be just as hazardous for the Carthaginian war elephants — the ones that had survived the arduous mountain crossings and battles were lost to the swamps. This was a great loss, but in truth, marching with the elephants was a logistical nightmare. Without them, the army was lighter and better able to adapt to the changing and difficult terrain. 

He was being pursued by his enemy, but Hannibal, always the trickster, changed his route and got between the Roman army and its home city, potentially giving him a free pass to Rome if he could only move quickly enough.  

The treacherous terrain made this difficult, though, and the Roman army caught Hannibal and his army near Lake Trasimene. Here, Hannibal made yet another brilliant move — he set up a fake camp on a hill that his enemy could clearly see. Then, he placed his heavy infantry below the camp, and he hid his cavalry in the woods. 

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The Romans, now led by one of the new consuls, Flaminius, fell for Hannibal’s trickery and started to advance on the Carthaginian camp. 

When it came into their view, Hannibal ordered his hidden troops to rush the Roman army, and they were ambushed so quickly that they were quickly divided into three parts. In a matter of a few hours, one part had been pushed into the lake, another had been destroyed, and the last was stopped and defeated as it tried to retreat.  

Only a small group of Roman cavalry managed to escape, turning this battle into one of the biggest ambushes in all of history and further entrenching Hannibal as a true military genius.In the battle of Lake Trasimene Hannibal destroyed most of the Roman army and killed Flaminius with little loss to his own army. 6,000 Romans had been able to escape, but were caught and forced to surrender by Maharbal’s Numidian cavalry. Maharbal was a Numidian army commander in charge of the cavalry under Hannibal and his second-in-command during the Second Punic War.

The Numidian cavalry’s horses, ancestors of the Berber horse, were small compared to other horses of the era, and were well adapted for faster movement over long distances.Numidian horsemen rode without saddles or bridles, controlling their mounts with a simple rope around their horse’s neck and a small riding stick. They had no form of bodily protection except for a round leather shield or a leopard skin, and their main weapon were javelins in addition to a short sword

Of the 30,000 Roman soldiers that had been sent into battle, about 10,000 made it back to Rome. All while Hannibal only lost around 1,500 men, and, according to sources, after taking around just four hours to inflict such carnage. 

A New Roman Strategy

Panic gripped the Roman Senate and they turned to yet another consul — Quintus Fabius Maximus — to try and save the day. 

He decided to implement his new strategy: avoid fighting Hannibal. 

It had become clear that Roman commanders were no match for the man’s military prowess. So they simply decided enough was enough, and instead chose to keep skirmishes small by staying on the run and by not turning to face Hannibal and his army in a traditional pitched battle. 

This soon became known as the “Fabian Strategy” or attrition warfare and was widely unpopular with the Roman troops who wanted to fight Hannibal to defend their homeland. Ironically, Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca is said to have used near similar tactics in Sicily against the Romans. The difference was that Fabius commanded an exponentially superior army to his opponent, had no supply problems, and had room to manoeuvre, while Hamilcar Barca was mostly stationary, had a far smaller army than the Romans and was dependent on seaborne supplies from Carthage.

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To show their displeasure, Roman troops gave Fabius the nickname “Cunctator” — meaning Delayer. In ancient Rome, where social status and prestige was closely linked to success on the battlefield, a label like that would have been a (real burn) true insult. Roman armies slowly recaptured most of the cities that had joined Carthage and defeated a Carthaginian attempt to reinforce Hannibal at Metaurus in 207. Southern Italy was devastated by the combatants, with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed or enslaved.

However, although unpopular, it was an effective strategy in that it stopped the Romans’ unceasing bleeding brought on by the repeated routs, and although Hannibal worked hard to goad Fabius into battle by burning all of Aquila — a small town in Central Italy northeast of Rome — he managed to resist the urge to engage. 

Hannibal then marched around Rome and through Samnium and Campania, wealthy and fertile provinces of Southern Italy, thinking this would finally lure the Romans into battle.

Unfortunately, by doing so, he was led straight into a trap. 

Winter was coming, Hannibal had destroyed all the food around him, and Fabius had cleverly blocked all the viable passes out of the mountain region. 

Hannibal Maneuvers Again

But Hannibal had one more trick up his sleeve. He selected a corps of around 2,000 men and sent them off with a similar number of oxen, ordering them to tie wood to their horns — wood that was to be lit on fire when they were close to the Romans. 

The animals, of course terrified by the fire raging atop their heads, fled for their lives. From afar, it looked as though thousands of torches were moving on the mountainside. 

This attracted the attention of Fabius and his army, and he ordered his men to stand down. But the force guarding the mountain pass abandoned their position to protect the army’s flank, opening a path for Hannibal and his troops to safely escape.

The force sent with the oxen waited and when the Romans showed up, they ambushed them, inflicting heavy damages in a skirmish known as the Battle of Ager Falernus.

Hope For the Romans

After escaping, Hannibal marched north towards Geronium — an area in the region of Molise, halfway between Rome and Naples in Southern Italy — to make camp for the winter, followed closely by the battle-shy Fabius. 

Soon, though, Fabius — whose tactic of delaying was becoming increasingly unpopular in Rome — was forced to leave the battlefield to defend his strategy in the Roman Senate. 

While he was gone, his second in command, Marcus Minucius Rufus, decided to break from the Fabian “fight but don’t fight” approach. He engaged the Carthaginians, hoping that attacking them while they were retreating towards their winter camp would finally draw Hannibal into a battle fought on Roman terms.

However, Hannibal once again proved to be too smart for this. He withdrew his troops, and allowed Marcus Minucius Rufus and his army to capture the Carthaginian camp, taking loads of supplies they needed to wage war.

Pleased with this and considering it a victory, the Roman Senate decided to promote Marcus Minucius Rufus, giving him and Fabius joint command of the army. This flew in the face of almost every Roman military tradition, which valued order and authority above all; it speaks to just how unpopular Fabius’ unwillingness to engage Hannibal in a direct battle was becoming. 

Minucius Rufus, although defeated, likely won favor in the Roman court due to his proactive strategy and aggressiveness.

The Senate divided the command, but they did not give the generals orders on how to do it, and the two men — both likely upset over not being granted autonomous control, and likely motivated by those pesky macho egos characteristic of ambitious war generals — chose to split the army in two. 

With each man commanding one part instead of keeping the army intact and alternating command, the Roman army was substantially weakened. And Hannibal, sensing this as an opportunity, decided to try and entice Minucius Rufus into battle before Fabius could march to his rescue. 

He attacked the man’s forces, and although his army managed to regroup with Fabius, it was too late; Hannibal had once again inflicted heavy damages to the Roman army. 

But with a weak and weary army — one that had been fighting and marching near non-stop for almost 2 years — Hannibal decided not to pursue any further, retreating once again and quieting the war for the cold winter months. 

During this brief reprieve, the Roman Senate, tired of Fabius’ inability to bring the war to a close, elected two new consuls — Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus — both of whom promised to pursue a more aggressive strategy. 

Hannibal, who had been having success largely thanks to excessive Roman aggression, licked his chops at this change in command and positioned his army for another attack, focusing on the city of Cannae on the Apulian Plain in Southern Italy. 

Hannibal and the Carthaginians could almost taste victory. In contrast, the Roman army was backed into a corner; they needed something to turn the tables to prevent their enemies from charging down the rest of the Italian Peninsula and sacking the city of Rome itself — circumstances that would set the stage for the most epic battle of the Second Punic War.

The Battle of Cannae (216 B.C.)

Seeing that Hannibal was once again preparing for an attack, Rome gathered the largest force it had ever raised. The normal size of a Roman army at this time was around 40,000 men, but for this attack, more than double that — around 86,000 soldiers — were summoned to fight on behalf of the consuls and the Roman Republic

Read More: The Battle of Cannae

Knowing they had a numerical advantage, they decided to attack Hannibal with their overwhelming force. They marched to confront him, hoping to replicate the one success they’d had from the Battle of Trebia — the moment when they were able to break the Carthaginian center and advance through their lines. This success ultimately hadn’t led to victory, but it provided the Romans with what they thought was a roadmap for defeating Hannibal and his army. 

Fighting began on the flanks, where the Carthaginian cavalry — made up of Hispanics (troops drawn from the Iberian Peninsula) on the left, and Numidian cavalry (troops gathered from the kingdoms surrounding the Carthaginian territory in Northern Africa) on the right — put a beating on their Roman counterparts, who fought desperately to keep their enemy at bay.

Their defense worked for some time, but eventually the Hispanic cavalry, which had become a more highly-skilled group due to the experience gained campaigning in Italy, managed to break past the Romans. 

Their next move was a stroke of true genius. 

Instead of chasing the Romans off the field — a move that would have also rendered them ineffective for the rest of the fight — they turned and charged the rear of the Roman right flank, providing a boost to the Numidian cavalry and all but destroying the Roman cavalry.

At this point, though, the Romans weren’t worried. They had loaded most of their troops in the center of their line, hoping to break through the Carthaginian defense. But, Hannibal, who seemed to almost always be a step ahead of his Roman enemies, had predicted this; he’d left his center weak. 

Hannibal began to recall some of his troops, making it easy for the Romans to advance, and giving  the impression the Carthaginians were planning to flee.

But this success was an illusion. This time, it was the Romans that had walked into the trap.

Hannibal began organizing his troops into a crescent shape, which prevented the Romans from being able to advance through the center. With his African troops — which had been left off to the side of the battle — attacking the remainder of the Roman cavalry, they drove them far from the battlefield and thus left their enemy’s flanks hopelessly exposed. 

Then, in one swift motion, Hannibal ordered his troops to perform a pincer movement — the troops on the flanks rushed around the Roman line, encircling and trapping it in its tracks. 

With that, the battle was over. The massacre began. 

The casualties at Cannae are difficult to estimate, but modern historians believe the Romans lost roughly 45,000 men during the battle, and to a force just half their size. 

It turns out the largest army ever formed in Rome up until this point in history was still no match for Hannibal’s genius tactics.

This crushing defeat left the Romans more vulnerable than ever, and left open the very real and previously unimaginable possibility that Hannibal and his armies would be able to march into Rome, taking the city and subjecting it to the wills and whims of a victorious Carthage — a reality so harsh that most Romans would have preferred death. 

The Romans Reject Peace

After Cannae, Rome was humiliated and immediately in a panic. Having lost thousands of men in multiple devastating defeats, their armies were desolate. And since the political and military strands of Roman life were so intrinsically entwined, the defeats also had a crushing blow on the nobility of Rome. Those who weren’t thrown out of office were either killed or humiliated so deeply that they were never heard from again. Furthermore, almost 40% of Rome’s Italian allies defected to Carthage, giving Carthage control over most of southern Italy.

Seeing his position, Hannibal offered peace terms, but — despite its panic — the Roman Senate refused to give up. They sacrificed men to the gods (one of the last recorded times of human sacrifice in Rome, excluding the execution of fallen enemies) and declared a national day of mourning. 

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And just as the Carthaginians had done to the Romans after Hannibal’s attack on Saguntum in Spain — the event that started the war — the Romans told him to take a hike.

This was either an amazing show of confidence or completely foolish. The biggest army ever formed in Roman history had been completely destroyed by a force remarkably smaller than its own, and most of its allies in Italy had defected over to the Carthaginian side, leaving them weak and isolated.  

To put this in context, Rome had lost one fifth (around 150,000 men) of its entire male population over the age of 17 within just twenty months; within just 2 years. Anyone in their right mind would have been on their knees, begging for mercy and peace. 

But not the Romans. For them, victory or death were the only two options. 

And their defiance was well-timed, though there’s no way the Romans could have known this. 

Hannibal, despite his successes, had also seen his force depleted, and the Carthaginian political elites refused to send him reinforcements. 

Opposition was growing within Carthage to Hannibal, and there were other territories under threat that needed to be secured. Since Hannibal was deep inside Roman territory, there were also very few routes the Carthaginians could travel to reinforce his army. 

The only truly viable way for Hannibal to get help was from his brother Hasdrubal, who was in Spain at the time. But even this would have been a challenge, as it meant sending large armies over the Pirenees, through Gaul (France), over the Alps, and down through Northern Italy — essentially repeating the same grueling march Hannibal had been making over the previous two years, and a feat unlikely to be executed with success another time.

This reality was not hidden from the Romans, and it was likely why they chose to reject peace. They had suffered multiple crushing defeats, but they knew they still held the proverbial higher ground and that they had managed to inflict enough damage on Hannibal’s forces to leave him vulnerable. 

Desperate and in fear for their lives, the Romans rallied during this time of chaos and near-defeat, finding the strength to attack their unwanted invaders. 

They abandoned the Fabian strategy at a moment when it might have made the most sense to stick with it, a decision that would radically change the course of the Second Punic War.

Hannibal Waits For Help  

Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal, was left behind in Spain — charged with keeping the Romans at bay — when his brother, Hannibal, marched across the Alps and into Northern Italy. Hannibal knew full well that his own success, as well as that of Carthage, depended on Hasdrubal’s ability to maintain Carthaginian control in Spain. 

However, unlike in Italy against Hannibal, the Romans were far more successful against his brother, winning the smaller but still significant conflicts of the Battle of Cissa in 218 BC. and the Battle of the Ebro River in 217 B.C., thus limiting Carthaginian power in Spain. 

But Hasdrubal, knowing how crucial this territory was, did not give up. And when he received word in 216/215 B.C. that his brother needed him in Italy to follow up his victory at Cannae and crush Rome, he launched another expedition. 

Shortly after mobilizing his army in 215 B.C., Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal, found the Romans and engaged them at the Battle of Dertosa, which was fought on the banks of the Ebro River in modern-day Catalonia — a region in Northwest Spain, home to Barcelona.

During the same year, Philip V of Macedon entered into a treaty with Hannibal. Their treaty defined spheres of operation and interest, but achieved little of substance or value for either side. Philip V became heavily involved in assisting and protecting his allies from attacks from the Spartans, the Romans and their allies. Philip V was the ‘Basileus’ or King of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia from 221 to 179 BC. Philip’s reign was principally marked by an unsuccessful spar with the emerging power of the Roman Republic. Philip V would lead Macedon against Rome in the First and Second Macedonian Wars, losing the latter but allying with Rome in the Roman-Seleucid War towards the end of his reign.

During the battle, Hasdrubal followed what Hannibal’s strategy at Cannae had been by leaving his center weak and by using cavalry to attack the flanks, hoping this would allow him to surround the Roman forces and crush them. But, unfortunately for him, he left his center a little too weak and this allowed the Romans to break through, destroying the crescent shape he needed his line to keep for the strategy to work.

With his army crushed, the defeat had two immediate effects. 

First, it gave Rome a distinct edge in Spain. Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal had now been defeated three times, and his army was left weak. This did not bode well for Carthage, which needed a strong presence in Spain to maintain its power. 

But, more importantly, this meant that Hasdrubal would be unable to cross into Italy and support his brother, leaving Hannibal with no choice but to try and complete the impossible — defeat the Romans on their own soil without a full-strength army.    

Rome Changes Strategy

After their success in Spain, Rome’s chances for victory began to improve. But to win, they needed to drive Hannibal completely out of the Italian Peninsula. 

To do this, the Romans decided to return to the Fabian strategy (just a year after labeling it cowardice and abandoning it in favor of the foolish aggressiveness that led to the tragedy of Cannae). 

They didn’t want to fight Hannibal, as record had shown that this almost always ended poorly, but they also knew he didn’t have the force he needed to conquer and hold Roman territory.

So, instead of engaging him directly, they danced around Hannibal, making sure to keep the high ground and avoid being drawn into a pitched battle. While they did so, they also picked fights with the allies the Carthaginians had made in Roman territory, expanding the war into North Africa and further into Spain.

To accomplish this in the former, the Romans provided advisors to King Syphax — a powerful Numidian leader in North Africa — and gave him the knowledge he needed to improve the quality of his heavy infantry. With it, he waged war on Carthaginian allies nearby, something the Numidians were always seeking ways to do so as to carve into Carthaginian power and gain influence in the region. This move worked well for the Romans, as it forced Carthage to divert valuable resources to the new front, depleting their strength elsewhere. 

In Italy, part of Hannibal’s success had come from his ability to convince city-states on the peninsula that had once been loyal to Rome to support Carthage — something that often wasn’t hard to do given that, for years, the Carthaginians had been ravaging the Roman forces and appeared poised to take control of the entire region. 

However, as the Roman forces started turning the tables, beginning with their success at Dertosa and in North Africa, allegiance towards Carthage in Italy began to waver, and many city-states turned on Hannibal, instead giving their loyalty to Rome. This weakened the Carthaginian forces as it made it even more difficult for them to move around and to get the supplies they needed to support their army and wage war. 

A major event occurred sometime in 212–211 B.C., with Hannibal and the Carthaginians suffering a major blow that really sent things downhill for the invaders — Tarentum, the largest of the many ethnically-Greek city-states scattered around the Mediterranean, defected back to the Romans.

And following Tarentum’s lead, Syracuse, a large and powerful Greek city-state in Sicily that had been a strong Roman ally before defecting to Carthage only a year previous, fell to a Roman siege in the spring of 212 B.C. 

Syracuse provided Carthage with an important sea port between North Africa and Rome, and its fall back into Roman hands limited even more of their ability to wage war in Italy — an effort that was becoming increasingly unsuccessful. 

Sensing Carthage’s waning power, more and more cities defected back to Rome in 210 B.C. — a seesaw of alliances that was very common in the unstable ancient world. 

And, soon, a young Roman general named Scipio Africanus (remember him?) would land in Spain, determined to make a mark. 

The War Turns to Spain

Scipio Africanus arrived in Spain in 209 B.C. with an army that consisted of some 31,000 men and with the aim of exacting revenge — his father had been killed by the Carthaginians in 211 B.C. during fighting that took place near Cartago Nova, Carthage’s capital in Spain. 

Before launching his attack, Scipio Africanus set to work organizing and training his army, a decision that paid off when he launched his first offensive against Cartago Nova.

He had received intelligence that the three Carthaginian generals in Iberia (Hasdrubal Barca, Mago Barca, and Hasdrubal Gisco) were geographically scattered, strategically estranged from each other, and he figured this would limit their ability to come together and defend Carthage’s most important settlement in Spain.

He was right. 

After setting up his army to blockade the only land exit from Cartago Nova and after using his fleet to restrict access to the sea, he was able to break his way into the city that had been left to be defended by only 2,000 militia men — the nearest army that could assist them being a ten-day march away. 

They fought valiantly, but eventually the Roman forces, who significantly outnumbered them, pushed them back and made their way into the city.

Cartago Nova was the home of important Carthaginian leaders, as it was their capital in Spain. Recognizing it as a source of power, Scipio Africanus and his armies, once inside the city walls, showed no mercy. They ransacked the extravagant homes that had been respites from the war, brutally massacring thousands of people. 

The conflict had reached a point where no one was innocent, and both sides were willing to spill the blood of anyone who stood in their way.  

Meanwhile… In Italy

Hannibal was still winning battles, despite having been starved of resources. He destroyed a Roman army at the Battle of Herdonia — killing 13,000 Romans — but he was losing the logistical war as well as also losing allies; largely because he didn’t have the men to protect from Roman attacks.

Nearing the point of being left fully out to dry, Hannibal desperately needed his brother’s aid; the point of no return was rapidly approaching. If help didn’t arrive soon, he was doomed. 

Each victory by Scipio Africanus in Spain made this reunion less and less likely, but, by 207 B.C., Hasdrubal managed to fight his way out of Spain, marching across the Alps to reinforce Hannibal with an army of 30,000 men.

A long awaited family reunion. 

Hasdrubal, had a much easier time moving acros the Alps and Gaul than his brother had, partly due to the construction — such as bridge building and tree felling along the way — that his brother had built a decade earlier, but also because the Gauls — who had fought Hannibal as he crossed the Alps and inflicted heavy losses — had heard of Hannibal’s successes on the battlefield and now feared the Carthaginians, some even willing to join his army. 

As one of the many Celtic tribes spread out across Europe, the Gauls loved war and raiding, and they could always be counted upon to join the side they perceived to be winning. 

Despite this, the Roman commander in Italy, Gaius Claudius Nero, intercepted Carthaginian messengers and learned of the two brothers’ plans to meet in Umbria, a region just to the south of modern-day Florence. He then moved his army in secret to intercept Hasdrubal and engage him before he had the chance to reinforce his brother. In southern Italy, Gaius Claudius Nero waged an inconclusive skirmish against Hannibal at the Battle of Grumentum.

Gaius Claudius Nero had been hoping for a sneak attack, but, unfortunately for him, this hope for stealth was thwarted. Some wise-guy sounded a trumpet when Gaius Claudius Nero arrived — as was tradition in Rome when an important figure arrived on the battlefield — alerting Hasdrubal of a nearby army.

Once again, dogmatic tradition drives men into battle.

Hasdrubal was then forced to fight the Romans, who dramatically outnumbered him. For a time, it appeared that it might not matter, but soon the Roman cavalry broke past the Carthaginian flanks and put their enemies on the run. 

Hasdrubal entered the fray himself, encouraging his soldiers to keep fighting, which they did, but it soon became apparent that there was nothing they could do. Refusing to be taken prisoner or suffer the humiliation of surrender, Hasdrubal charged straight back into the fighting, throwing all caution to the wind and meeting his end as a general should — fighting beside his men until his very last breath. 

This conflict — which is known as the Battle of the Metaurus — decisively turned the tides in Italy in Rome’s favor, as it meant Hannibal would never receive the reinforcements he needed, making victory almost entirely impossible. 

After the battle, Claudius Nero had Hannnibal’s brother Hasdrubal’s head severed from his body, stuffed into a sack, and thrown into the Carthaginian camp. It was a hugely insulting move, and showed the intense animosity that existed between the rivaling great powers. 

The war was now in its final stages, but the violence only continued to increase — Rome could smell victory and it hungered for revenge.   

Scipio Subdues Spain 

Around the same time, in Spain, Scipio was making his mark. He continually held up Carthaginian armies, under Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Gisco — who were trying to reinforce the Italian forces  — and in 206 B.C. won a stunning victory by all but wiping out the Carthaginian armies in Spain; a move that ended Carthaginian dominance in the peninsula. 

Uprisings kept things tense for the next two years, but by 204 B.C., Scipio had brought Spain fully under Roman control, wiping out a major source of Carthaginian power and firmly painting the writing onto the wall for the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War.

Adventure in Africa

After this victory, Scipio then sought to take the fight to Carthaginian territory — much as Hannibal had done to Italy — seeking a decisive win that would bring the war to an end. 

He had to fight to get permission from the Senate to stage an invasion of Africa, as the heavy losses sustained by Roman forces in Spain and Italy had left Roman leaders reluctant to sanction another attack, but soon he was allowed to do so.

He raised a force of volunteers from the men stationed in southern Italy, Sicily, to be precise, and this he did with ease — given that most of the troops there were survivors from Cannae who weren’t allowed to go home until the war was victorious; exiled as a punishment for fleeing the field and not remaining to the bitter end to defend Rome, thus bringing shame on the Republic. 

So, when given the opportunity for redemption, most leapt at the chance to enter the fray, joining Scipio on his mission into North Africa.

A Hint of Peace

Scipio landed in North Africa in 204 B.C. and immediately moved to take the city of Utica (in what is now modern day Tunisia). When he got there, however, he soon realized he wouldn’t be fighting only the Carthaginians but, rather, he’d be fighting a coalition force between the Carthaginians and the Numidians, who were led by their king, Syphax.

Back in 213 B.C., Syphax had accepted help from the Romans and had appeared to be on their side. But with the Roman invasion of North Africa, Syphax felt less secure about his position, and when Hasdrubal Gisco offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage, the Numidian king switched sides, joining forces with the Carthaginians in the defense of North Africa. 

Read More: Roman Marriage

Recognizing that this alliance put him at a disadvantage, Scipio sought to try and win Syphax back to his side by accepting his overtures for peace; having connections with both sides, the Numidan king thought he was in a unique position to bring the two opponents together. 

He proposed that both sides withdraw their armies from the other’s territory, which Hasdrubal Gisco accepted. Scipio, though, had not been sent to North Africa to settle for this type of peace, and when he realized that he would be unable to sway Syphax to his side, he began preparing for an attack.

Conveniently for him, during the negotiations, Scipio had learned that the Numidian and Carthaginian camps were made up of mostly wood, reed, and other flammable material, and — rather dubiously — he used this knowledge to his advantage. 

He split his army in two and sent half to the Numidian camp, in the middle of the night, to light it on fire and turn them into blazing infernos of carnage. Roman forces then blocked all the exits from the camp, trapping the Numidians inside and leaving them to suffer.

The Carthaginians, who awoke to the terrible sounds of people being burned alive, rushed to their ally’s camp to help, many of them without their weapons. There, they were met by the Romans, who slaughtered them.

Estimates as to how many Carthaginians and Numidians casualties there were range from 90,000 (Polybius) to 30,000 (Livy), but no matter the number, the Carthaginians suffered greatly, versus Roman losses, which were minimal. 

Victory at the Battle of Utica put Rome firmly in control in Africa, and Scipio would continue his advance towards Carthaginian territory. This, plus his ruthless tactics, left Carthage’s heart pounding, much like Rome’s had been as Hannibal paraded around Italy just a decade before.

Scipio’s next victories came at the Battle of the Great Plains in 205 B.C. and then again at the Battle of Cirta. 

Due to these defeats, Syphax was ousted as the Numidian king and replaced by one of his sons, Masinissa — who was an ally of Rome. 

At this point, the Romans reached out to the Carthaginian Senate and offered peace; but the terms they dictated were crippling. They allowed the Numidians to take large swaths of Carthaginian territory and stripped Carthage of all their overseas petitions.

With this happening, the Carthaginian Senate was split. Many advocated accepting these terms in the face of complete annihilation, but those who wanted to continue the war played their final card — they called on Hannibal to return home and defend their city.

The Battle of Zama

Scipio’s success in North Africa had made the Numidians his allies, giving the Romans a powerful cavalry to use in confronting Hannibal.

On the flip side of this, Hannibal’s army — which, in the face of this danger in North Africa, had finally abandoned its campaign in Italy and sailed home to defend its homeland — still consisted mainly of veterans from his Italian campaign. In total, he had around 36,000 infantry which was bolstered by 4,000 cavalry and 80 Carthaginian war elephants. 

Scipio’s ground troops were outnumbered, but he had about 2,000 more cavalry units — something that gave him a distinct advantage.

The engagement began, and Hannibal sent his elephants — the heavy artillery of the time — towards the Romans. But knowing his enemy, Scipio had trained his troops to deal with the fearsome charge, and this preparation paid off in heaps. 

The Roman cavalry blew loud horns to scare the war elephants, and many turned back against the Carthaginian left wing, causing it to fall into disarray. 

This was seized upon by Masinissa, who led the Numidian cavalry against that section of Carthaginian forces and pushed them off the battlefield. At the same time, though, the Roman forces on horseback was chased from the scene by the Carthaginians, leaving the infantry more exposed than was safe. 

But, as they had been trained, the men on the ground opened up lanes amongst their ranks — allowing the remaining war elephants to move harmlessly through them, before reorganizing for march. 

And with the elephants and cavalry out of the way, it was time for a classic pitched battle between the two infrantries. 

The battle was hardfought; each clang of a sword and smash of a shield shifted the balance between the two great powers.

The stakes were monumental — Carthage was fighting for its life and Rome was fighting for victory. Neither infantry was able to outdo the strength and resolve of their enemy. 

Victory, for either side, seemed like a distant dream. 

But just when things were at their most desperate, when nearly all hope was lost, the Roman cavalry — previously driven away from the fight — managed to outrun their opponent and turn around, back towards the battlefield. 

Their glorious return came as they charged into the unsuspecting Carthaginian rear, crushing their line and breaking the stalemate between the two sides. 

At last, the Romans had gotten the best of Hannibal — the man who had haunted them with years of battle and left thousands of their best young men dead. The man who had been on the brink of conquering the city that would soon rule the world. The man who seemed like he could not be defeated.

Good things come to those who wait, and now Hannibal’s army was destroyed; some 20,000 men were dead and 20,000 captured. Hannibal himself had managed to escape, but Carthage stood with no more armies to summon and with no allies left for assistance, meaning the city had no choice but to sue for peace. This conclusively marks the end Second Punic War with a decisive Roman victory, the Battle of Zama must be considered one of the most important battles in ancient history.

The Battle of Zama was Hannibal’s only major loss during the entire war — but it proved to be the decisive battle the Romans needed to bring the Second Punic War (Second Carthaginian War) to a close.

The Second Punic War Ends (202-201 BC)

In 202 BC, after the Battle of Zama, Hannibal met Scipio in a peace conference. Despite the two generals’ mutual admiration, negotiations went south, according to the Romans, due to “Punic faith”, meaning bad faith. This Roman expression referred to the alleged breach of protocols which ended the First Punic War by the Carthaginian attack on Saguntum, Hannibal’s perceived breaches of what the Romans perceived as military etiquette (i.e., Hannibal’s numerous ambushes), as well as the armistice violated by the Carthaginians in the period before Hannibal’s return.

The Battle of Zama left Carthage helpless, and the city accepted Scipio’s peace terms whereby it ceded Spain to Rome, surrendered most of its warships, and began paying a 50-year indemnity to Rome.

The treaty signed between Rome and Carthage imposed a tremendous war indemnity on the latter city, limiting the size of its navy to just ten ships and forbidding it from raising any army without first getting permission from Rome. This crippled Carthaginian power and all but eliminated it as a threat to the Romans in the Mediterranean. Not long before, Hannibal’s success in Italy had given promise to a much more ambitious hope — Carthage, poised to conquer Rome and remove it as a threat. 

In 203 BC Hannibal sailed his remaining army of some 15,000 men back home and the war in Italy was over. The fate of Carthage rested in Hannibal’s defense against Scipio Africanus. In the end, it was Rome’s might that was too great. Carthage struggled to overcome the logistical challenges of fighting a long campaign in enemy territory, and this reversed the advances made by Hannibal and led to the great city’s ultimate defeat. Although the Carthaginians would eventually lose the Second Punic War, for 17 (218 BC – 201 BC) years Hannibal’s army in Italy seemed invincible. His movement across the Alps, which so demoralized the Romans at the start of the war, would also capture the imagination of generations to come.

Hannibal remained a constant source of fear for Rome. Despite the treaty enacted in 201 BC, Hannibal was allowed to remain free in Carthage. By 196 BC he was made a ‘Shophet’, or chief magistrate of the Carthaginian Senate.

How Did the Second Punic War Impact History?

The Second Punic War was the most significant of the three conflicts fought between Rome and Carthage that are collectively known as the Punic Wars. It crippled Carthaginian power in the region, and although Carthage would experience a resurgence fifty years after the Second Punic War, it would never again challenge Rome like it did when Hannibal was parading through Italy, striking fear into hearts far and wide. Hannibal won fame for trekking across the Alps with 37 war elephants. His surprise tactics and ingenious strategies put Rome against the ropes.

This set the stage for Rome to take control of the Mediterranean, which allowed it to build an impressive base of power that it would use to conquer and control most of Europe, North Africa, and West Asia for some four hundred years.

As a result, in the grand scheme of things, the Second Punic War played an important role in creating the world we live in today. The Roman Empire had a dramatic impact on the development of Western Civilization by teaching the world important lessons about how to win and consolidate an empire, while also giving it one of the world’s most influential religions — Christianity. 

Greek Historian Polybius had mentioned that the Roman political machinery was effective at maintaining general law and order, allowing Rome to wage wars with far greater efficiency and aggression, allowing it to eventually overcome the victories that Hannibal had won. It was the Second Punic War that was to put to the test these political institutions of the Roman Republic.

Carthage’s system of government seems to have been far less stable. Carthage’s war effort didn’t prepare it well for either the First or Second Punic War. These long, drawn out conflicts were unsuited to Carthaginian institutions because unlike Rome, Carthage didn’t have a national army with national loyalty. Instead it relied on mostly mercerneries to fight its wars.

Roman culture is still very much alive today. Its language, Latin, is the root of the romance languages — Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian — and its alphabet is one of the most widely-used in the entire world. 

All of this might never have happened if Hannibal had gotten some help from his friends while campaigning in Italy.

But Rome isn’t the only reason the Second Punic War matters. Hannibal is largely considered to be one of the greatest military leaders of all time, and the tactics he used in battles against Rome are still studied today. However, historians have suggested that his father, Hamilcar Barca, may have created the strategy which were used by Hannibal to bring the Roma Republic to the brink of defeat.

2,000 years later, and people are still learning from what Hannibal did. It’s very likely true that his ultimate failure had little to do with his abilities as a commander, but rather the lack of support he received from his “allies” in Carthage.

In addition, while Rome would continually rise in power, the wars it fought with Carthage meant it had created an enemy that had a deep-rooted hatred for Rome that would last for centuries. In fact, Carthage would later play an important role in the fall of Rome, an event that had as much — if not more — impact on human history as its rise to power, its time spent as a global hegemon, and its cultural model.

Scipio Africanus’s European and African campaigns during the Second Punic War serve as timeless lessons for military joint force planners on how to conduct center of gravity (COG) analysis in support of theater and national military planning.

READ MORE: Who Invented Gravity? History Behind the Theory of Gravity

Carthage Rises Again: The Third Punic War

Although the peace terms dictated by Rome were meant to prevent another war with Carthage from ever occurring, one can only keep a defeated people down for so long. 

In 149 B.C., some 50 years after the Second Punic War, Carthage managed to build up another army that it then used so as to try and regain some of the power and influence it had once had in the region, before the rise of Rome. 

This conflict, known as the Third Punic War, was much shorter and ended once again in Carthaginian defeat, finally closing the book on Carthage as a real threat to Roman power in the region. Carthaginian territory was then turned into the province of Africa by the Roman. The Second Punic War brought about the downfall of the established balance of power of the ancient world and Rome rose to become the supreme power in the Mediterranean region for the coming 600 years.

Second Punic War / Second Carthaginian War Timeline (218-201 BC):

218 BC – Hannibal leaves Spain with an army to attack Rome.

216 BC – Hannibal annihilates the Roman army at Cannae.

215 BC –Syracuse breaks alliance with Rome.

215 BC– Philip V of Macedonia allies himself with Hannibal.

214-212 BC – Roman siege of Syracuse, involving Archimedes.

202 BC – Scipio defeats Hannibal at Zama.

201 BC – Carthage surrenders and Second Punic War comes to an end.


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