The Death of Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca

Hannibal dies by ingesting poison

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Hannibal Barca was one of the great generals of ancient times. After his father led Carthage in the First Punic War, Hannibal 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, Emperor Scipio was accused by the Senate of sympathizing with Hannibal. He defended Hannibal's reputation for a time, but it became clear that the Senate would demand Hannibal's arrest. Hearing of this, Hannibal fled Carthage for Tyre in B.C.E. 195. 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:

"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!"
(Juvenal, "Satires")

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 his extradition in B.C.E. 183. To avoid that, he first tried to escape:

"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.
(Livy, "History of Rome")

Hannibal said, "Let us ease the Romans of their continual dread and care, who think it long and tedious to await the death of a hated old man," and then drank poison, which he may have kept hidden under a gem on a ring. He was then 65 years old.

"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.
(Livy, "History of Rome")

At his own request, Hannibal was buried in Libyssa in Bithynia. He specifically asked not to be buried in Rome because of how his supporter, Scipio, was treated by the Roman Senate.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Eutropius, Flavius. Abridgement of Roman History. Translated by John Shelby Watson, Bohn, 1853.
  • Hoyos, Dexter. Hannibal's Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 BC. Routledge, 2005.
  • Juvenal and Roger Pearse. “Satire 10.” Juvenal and Persius, edited by Thomas Ethelbert Page et al., translated by George Gilbert Ramsay, by Juvenal and Aulus Persius Flaccus, Heinemann, 1918, Tertullian Project.
  • Livius, Titus Patavinus and Bruce J. Butterfield. “Book 39: The Bacchanalia in Rome and Italy.” Ab Urbe Condita Libri, edited by Ernest Rhys, translated by William Masfen Roberts, Dent, 1905, Livy's History of Rome.
  • Pliny. “Book V, Chapter 43: Bithynia.” Natural History, edited by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley, Taylor and Francis, 1855, Perseus Project.
  • Plutarch. Parallel Lives. Edited by John Dryden and Arthur Hugh Clough, Little, Brown, and Company, 1860, Project Gutenberg.
  • Victor, Sextus Aurelius. De Viris Illustribus Urbis Romae (1872). Edited by Emil Keil, Kessinger, 2009.