How Did the Carthaginian General Hannibal Die?

Hannibal Barca died by his own hand.

Hannibal dies by ingesting poison Image ID: 1623984 Hannibal's death. (c1882)
Hannibal dies by ingesting poison Image ID: 1623984 Hannibal's death. (c1882). NYPL Digital Gallery

Hannibal Barca (247-183 BCE) was one of the great generals of ancient times. After his father led Carthage in the First Punic War, Hannibal himself took over the leadership of Carthaginian forces against Rome. He fought a series of successful battles until he reached (but did not destroy) the city of Rome. Later, he returned to Carthage where he led his forces less successfully.

How Hannibal's Successes Turned to Failure

Hannibal was, by all accounts, an extraordinary military leader, He led many successful campaigns, and came within a hair's breadth of taking Rome. Once the Second Punic War ended with his return to Carthage, however, Hannibal became a wanted man. Sought for arrest by the Roman Senate, he lived the rest of his life one step ahead of the Empire.

In Rome Scipio, the Emperor was accused by the Senate of sympathizing with Hannibal; he was able to defend Hannibal's reputation for a time, but it became clear that the Senate would demand Hannibal's arrest. Hannibal, hearing of this, fled Carthage for Tyre in 195 BCE. Later he moved on to become a counselor to Antiochus II, king of Ephesus. Antiochus, fearing Hannibal's reputation, put him in charge of a naval war against Rhodes. After losing a battle and seeing defeat in his future, Hannibal feared that he would be turned over to the Romans and fled to Bithynia, as described by Juvenal in his 183 BCE Satires:

"A conquered man, he flees headlong into exile, and there he sits, a mighty and marvellous suppliant, in the King's antechamber, until it please His Bithynian Majesty to awake!"

Hannibal's Death by Suicide

When Hannibal was in Bithynia (in modern-day Turkey), he helped Rome's enemies try to bring the city down, serving the Bithynian King Prusias as a naval commander.  At one point, Romans visiting Bithynia demanded Hannibal's extradition in 183 B.C. To avoid that, Hannibal first tried to escape, according to Livy

"When Hannibal was informed that the king's soldiers were in the vestibule, he tried to escape through a postern gate which afforded the most secret means of exit.  He found that this too was closely watched and that guards were posted all round the place."

He said, according to Plutarch, "Let us put an end to this life, which has caused so much dread to the Romans" and then drank poison. He was then 65 years old. As Livy described it:

"Then, invoking curses on Prusias and his realm and appealing to the gods who guard the rights of hospitality to punish his broken faith, he drained the cup. Such was the close of Hannibal's life."

Hannibal was buried in Libyssa, in Bithynia, according to Eutropius, the De Viris Illustribus (which mentions that Hannibal had kept his poison hidden under a gem on a ring), and Pliny. This was at Hannibal's own request; he specifically asked that he not be buried in Rome because of the way in which his supporter, Scipio, was treated by the Roman Senate.