Was Hannibal, Enemy of Ancient Rome, Black?

The Question Is Hard to Answer

Bust of Hannibal Barca on shelf.

Jll294 / CC BY 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian general who was considered to be one of the great military leaders in history. Hannibal was born in 183 BCE and lived during a time of great political and military strife. Carthage was a large and important Phoenician city-state in northern Africa, which was often at odds with the Greek and Roman empires. Because Hannibal came from Africa, the question is sometimes asked, "was Hannibal Black?"

What Is Meant by the Terms "Black" and "Africa?"

The term Black in modern usage in the U.S. means something different from what the common Latin adjective for 'black' (niger) would mean. Frank M. Snowden explains this in his article "Misconceptions about African Blacks in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Specialists and Afrocentrists." Compared with a Mediterranean person, someone from Scythia or Ireland was noticeably white and someone from Africa was noticeably black.

In Egypt, as in other areas of northern Africa, there were other colors that could be used to describe complexions. There was also a good deal of intermarriage between the lighter-skinned people in northern Africa and the darker-skinned people called Ethiopians or Nubians. Hannibal may have been darker-skinned than a Roman, but he would not have been described as Ethiopian.

Hannibal came from an area referred to as northern Africa, from a Carthaginian family. The Carthaginians were Phoenicians, which means that they would conventionally be described as a Semitic people. The term Semitic refers to a variety of people from the ancient Near East (e.g., Assyrians, Arabs, and Hebrews), which included parts of northern Africa.

Why We Don't Know What Hannibal Looked Like

Hannibal's personal appearance is not described or shown in any indisputable form, so it is difficult to simply point to any direct evidence. Coins minted during the period of his leadership could depict Hannibal, but could also depict his father or other relatives. In addition, according to an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica based on the work of historian Patrick Hunt, while it is possible that Hannibal had ancestors from the interior of Africa, we have no clear evidence for or against:

Regarding his DNA, as far as we know, we have no skeleton, fragmentary bones, or physical traces of him, so establishing his ethnicity would be mostly speculative. From what we think we know about his family ancestry, however, his Barcid family (if that’s even the right name) has been generally understood as descending from Phoenician aristocracy. ...[so] his original ancestry would be located in what is modern Lebanon today. As far as we know, little to no Africanization—if that is an acceptable term—happened there in that region before or during his era. On the other hand, since the Phoenicians arrived and then later settled in what is now Tunisia... almost 1,000 years before Hannibal, it is very possible his family had intermixed in DNA with peoples then living in North Africa....we shouldn’t deny any possible Africanization of the region of Carthage.


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Gill, N.S. "Was Hannibal, Enemy of Ancient Rome, Black?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/was-hannibal-black-118902. Gill, N.S. (2020, December 27). Was Hannibal, Enemy of Ancient Rome, Black? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/was-hannibal-black-118902 Gill, N.S. "Was Hannibal, Enemy of Ancient Rome, Black?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/was-hannibal-black-118902 (accessed June 5, 2023).