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Hannibal and His Elephants.

In 300 BC both Carthage and Rome were competing for the title of cultural center of the universe.   Carthage was on the Northern coast of Africa, and Rome was pretty much in the same place as it is today. Even by ancient standards, these two cities were neighbors, but they still managed to co-exist for centuries without having a serious fight. Naturally, it was just a matter of time before a good one broke out.

In those days, Romans were homebodies who left town only when they wanted to slaughter one of their Italian neighbors. This made being a Sabine, or an Etruscan very unpleasant. Building The Roman Empire was still a few hundred years in the future, so these excursions were limited to raping and pillaging. Territorial expansion would involve making a commitment to exploit Southern Italy, and this seemed like too much effort.

Even though it was very embarrassing for the Romans to admit it; what they needed was money. Carthage,  the most active trader in the Mediterranean, was loaded with it. They had spent years hoarding money, and having a good time. Carthage was the first society to give up on barter, and dream up a more lucrative system. With so many different goods available from so many different places, the Carthaginians figured out a scam to get these goods for the smallest amount of effort. They invented money.

Money was a big success. It caught on very fast. In fact,  money was so successful, people wondered why they hadn't thought of it before.

Since she got in on the ground floor, Carthage was a major player. She had so much money, Rome didn't think she'd mind sharing some of the wealth. In 265 BC, Rome started the Punic Wars which was a straightforward plan to help Carthage divide up her fortune.

The First Punic War lasted twenty-four years and when you considering how short life expectancy was in those days, the Veterans' Administration was probably just two guys, and a tent.

When the dust settled, Rome was the proud new owner of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. She also received four million Carthaginian dollars as compensation. Everybody was just grateful the ruckus was over, and settled back to enjoy the next twenty-two years of peace and quiet.

Everybody except Hamilcar. Hamilcar was a Carthaginian General who distinguished himself by getting his army marooned on top of a Sicilian mountain. After being stuck up there for a few years, Hamilcar's friends managed to liberate him.


Hamilcar felt the Romans had made him look silly, so he made his son Hannibal swear eternal hatred for the Romans. This was an oath Hannibal took seriously, and he maintained it until the day he died.

Hamilcar's favorite strategy involved using plenty of elephants to scare his enemies. While instructing his son in military science, he always emphasized the need for a great herd. Hamilcar even boasted he would have won the First Punic War if he had been given more of these mighty beasts.

Since the decisive battle of the Punic War was a naval engagement, his boast conjures up a rather grotesque image. Ironically, Hamilcar drowned in 228BC on the back of an elephant.

After his father's death, Hannibal jumped into action. At the helm of a well-trained army, and with his father's great herd, he set out for Rome to seek revenge. The plan was to sneak the elephants over the Alps, and surprise the Romans.

Sneaking an army and thirty-seven elephants over a mountain range turned out to be trickier than Hannibal thought. The grueling fifteen day march cost him half his army, and ended up being a little less than a surprise.

The Romans heard the grunting and cursing in the foothills, and quickly moved into strategic position. Now the second Punic War was under way.  The battles raged up and down the Italian coast for the next fifteen years.

Hannibal complained that he could make quick work of the Romans if Carthage would send him just "a few good elephants". Getting his home town to send fresh elephants wasn't easy. They always asked vexing questions about the condition of the elephants they sent last year, and they even expected an accurate accounting for every last elephant.

Hannibal always managed to wangle a few elephants somehow, so he didn't totally run out of them until the battle of Trasimene.

Without an elephant to his name, Hannibal languished. Oddly, his luck on the battlefield was better without the elephants, but Hannibal had lost his spirit. He won several decisive victories, but couldn't bring himself to move on Rome itself.

Elephants were rushed to him from both Spain and Carthage, but shipping problems, and a mini elephant revolt on one of the docks, prevented a successful delivery. Dejected, but not defeated, Hannibal returned to Carthage.

Once Hannibal was out of Italy, the Romans were able to pull themselves together. They decided the Second Punic War needed a happy ending, so they set sail for Carthage.

Bright and early one 203 BC morning a bristling Roman army showed up in Zama, which was a bedroom suburb of Carthage.

Suddenly Hannibal was very popular with his neighbors. They lined up at his front door, and pledged all their elephants if he would only take up the cause. Within days, Hannibal was at the head of an eighty elephant herd. He was also given command of a very large army of soldiers.

Relying on his favorite strategy, Hannibal headed the charge with his elephants. His troops marched in rows behind the bellowing herd. The elephants took one look at the Roman legions, and decided to return to the stable as quickly as possible.

Carthaginian casualties from the elephant retreat were enormous. The Roman legions quickly wiped out the few bewildered soldiers the elephants had missed.

At the age of forty-five, Hannibal was offered early retirement. He fussed and muttered for a few years, trying to get his countrymen to start a Third Punic War, but the Carthaginians just weren't in the mood.

Eventually, the Romans demanded Hannibal be handed over to them for safe keeping. Rather than settle in Rome, Hannibal decided he would like to do some of that traveling he'd put off for so long.

He wandered around Asia for a few years, and finally moved in with an old friend, the King of Bithynia. Apparently, Hannibal overstayed his welcome, because shortly after his sixty-fourth birthday, the King asked the Romans to "come and get him".

 Being rejected by the Bithynian monarch must have hurt Hannibal's feelings. There are no accurate records of Hannibal's emotional state, but he did decide to poison himself before the Romans had the chance to swing by, and pick him up.

Some forty years after Hannibal's death Carthage was starting to prosper again. Somehow the Mediterranean just didn't seem big enough for both of them, so Rome lay siege to Carthage in 149 BC.

After just three short years of starvation, Carthage gave in. The Romans massacred the inhabitants, and plundered the city. The Romans boasted that "not one stone lay on top of another". Because there was little evidence Carthage had ever existed, people soon lost interest in going there.

Even today, when booking package tours, Carthage never shows up in any of the brochures.

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The author is Arnold Hanna