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Hannibal: The Tunisian Thunderbolt

posted on: May 10, 2021

Our Phoenician ancestors never left anything they undertook unfinished. Consider what they accomplished in their days, and the degree of culture they attained.” Ameen Rihani

By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer

The ancient world was always known for some of the well-known generals of that time period. Many names that were inscribed in a historical context-focused more on the conquest of the Romans and their seemingly endless expansion over the centuries. However, there is little mention of those who managed to pose a threat to the growing empire. One of these was Hannibal of Carthage, known as modern-day Tunisia. It is a small glimpse into his achievements as a historical figure for ancient Arab history.


Carthago delenda est “Carthage must be destroyed” Cato the Censor

One of the oldest cities in history and acknowledged as a historical site by the United Nations. The city of Carthage held a strategic location on the Mediterranean peninsula. As a result, many flocked to the city for trade and even sciences. Carthage’s growing economic prominence coincided with a nascent national identity. Although Carthaginians remained staunchly Phoenician in their customs and faith, by at least the seventh century BC, they had developed a distinct Punic culture infused with local influences. These trends most likely precipitated the colony’s emergence as an independent polity. Though the specific date and circumstances are unknown, Carthage most likely became independent around 650 BC, when it embarked on its colonization efforts across the western Mediterranean. It nonetheless maintained amicable cultural, political, and commercial ties with its founding city and the Phoenician homeland.

By the beginning of the fifth century BC, Carthage had become the commercial center of the western Mediterranean and would remain so for roughly the next three centuries. Although they retained the traditional Phoenician affinity for maritime trade and commerce, the Carthaginians departed significantly in their imperial and military ambitions: whereas the Phoenician city-states rarely engaged in territorial conquest, Carthage became an expansionist power to access new sources of wealth and trade. It took control of all nearby Phoenician colonies. Carthage’s empire was largely informal and multifaceted, consisting of varying levels of control exercised in equally variable ways. It established new colonies, repopulated and reinforced older ones, formed defensive pacts with other Phoenician city-states, and acquired territories directly by conquest. The establishment of a commercial maritime state attracted the attention of the many prying eyes of their neighbors.

First Punic War

“I will either find a way or make one.” Hannibal Barca

The First Punic War was the first of three wars fought between Carthage and Rome, the two main powers of the western Mediterranean in the early 3rd century BC. For 23 years, in the longest continuous conflict and greatest naval war of antiquity, the two powers struggled for supremacy, primarily on the Mediterranean island of Sicily and its surrounding waters, and also in North Africa. After immense material and human losses on both sides, the Carthaginians were defeated. This marked the first sign of decline within the Phoenician powers across the Mediterranean.

The war began with the Romans landing on Sicily in 264 BC. Despite the Carthaginian naval advantage, the Roman crossing of the Strait of Messina was ineffectively opposed. Two legions commanded by Caudex marched to Messana, where the Mamertines had expelled the Carthaginian garrison commanded by Hanno and were besieged by both the Carthaginians and the Syracusans. The sources are unclear as to why, but first the Syracusans, and then the Carthaginians withdrew from the siege. The Romans marched south and in turn besieged Syracuse, but they had neither a strong enough force nor the secure supply lines to prosecute a successful siege, and soon withdrew. Nonetheless, the war eventually marked the first great defeat for Carthage


He was a Carthaginian general and statesman who commanded Carthage’s main forces against the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. He is widely considered one of the greatest military commanders in world history. Hannibal lived during a period of great tension in the western Mediterranean Basin, triggered by the emergence of the Roman Republic as a great power after it had established its supremacy over Italy. The Second Punic War broke out in 218 BC after Hannibal’s attack on Saguntum, an ally of Rome in Hispania. His military exploits rallied many of his people with him and resulted in massive support for his campaign in Italy. It was then that he demonstrated his infamous move of crossing the Alps with his army consisting of elephants.

Hannibal was still only 46 after the Second Punic War in 201 BC and soon showed that he could be a statesman as well as a soldier. Following the conclusion of a peace that left Carthage saddled with an indemnity of ten thousand talents, he was elected chief magistrate of the Carthaginian state. After an audit confirmed Carthage had the resources to pay the indemnity without increasing taxation, Hannibal initiated a reorganization of state finances aimed at eliminating corruption and recovering embezzled funds. To reduce the power of the oligarchs, Hannibal passed a law stipulating the Hundred and Four be chosen by direct election rather than co-option. He also used citizen support to change the term of office in the Hundred and Four from life to a year, with none permitted to hold office for two consecutive years.

His efforts to bring Carthage from the brink of destruction is his most admirable achievement. Although we lack the ingenious military tact our ancient forefathers had in their time, we aspire to implement a small portion of the civic changes he applied to his state for the sake of the betterment of his society and culture. Although Hannibal may not have been directly Arab, his ancestry is what shaped the heritage of modern-day Tunisia. It is only our aspiration to learn from our history and apply it to our time in hopes of improving the world for future generations.


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