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Carthaginian Empire in Spain: the Barcid Chessboard

This article will analyze the tragic Barca family and the accomplishments, flaws, defeats, and aspirations of this powerful Carthaginian clan. After Carthage was defeated by the Romans in the First Punic War, Carthaginian noble Hamilcar Barca conquered the Numidians and moved north into Spain in 237 BCE. He hoped to conquer new lands, subjugate the Celtiberian natives, and excavate the rich mines of the mountainous peninsula. All of these efforts were fueled by the empire’s recent defeat, with the newly-empowered Phoenician city-state requiring new territories and income to offset the costs of war.

In eight years, Hamilcar extensively claimed Hispania, but his death in 228 BCE left the task unfinished. After Hamilcar’s death, his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair succeeded him in the command and extended the newly acquired empire. He consolidated it with the foundation of Carthago Nova, establishing it as the capital of the new province. By signing a treaty with Rome, he fixed the Ebro River as the boundary between the two nations, his largest move of power until he was assassinated. Thus set the stage for one of the world’s greatest generals, Hamilcar’s eldest son Hannibal. Supposedly sworn by oath as a child to despise the Romans, Hannibal was raised in an environment of extreme Roman hatred. The Roman historian Livy placed Hannibal on a pedestal, making it more rewarding for the Romans to defeat him, and throughout his plight to conquer Spain and later Italy during the Second Punic War, it seems that Hannibal was comparable to a great Roman, the only flaw being that he was from the Punic Empire. In 201 BCE, his defeat at the Battle of Zama marks the end of the Carthaginian Empire and the loss of their territories in Spain to the Romans. Earlier in their conflicts with the Romans, Hasdrubal and Mago, the two other sons of Hamilcar, were killed, causing full responsibility to rest on Hannibal to complete the legacy of his family and nation.

Starting with Hamilcar, this article will follow the Barca family to Hasdrubal the Fair, then Hannibal, then to the actions of Hasdrubal and Mago, following them in age, not necessarily linearly. To set the stage, however, we must have a brief overview of the effects of the First Punic War. Perhaps the most immediate political result of the First Punic War was the downfall of Carthage’s naval power. Conditions signed in the peace treaty were intended to compromise Carthage’s economic situation and prevent the city’s recovery. The indemnity demanded by the Romans caused strain on the city’s finances and forced Carthage to look to other areas of influence for the money to pay Rome. Carthage was also seeking to make up for their recent territorial losses and to find a plentiful source of silver to pay the large indemnity owed to Rome. She turned her attention to Hispania, and in 237 BCE the Carthaginians, led by Hamilcar Barca, began a series of campaigns to expand their control over the peninsula. Thus sets the stage for the Barcid colonization in modern-day Spain.

The Barca family was a notable clan in the ancient city of Carthage, and, naturally, many of its members were fierce enemies of the Roman Republic. During the 3rd century BCE, the Barcids were one of the leading families in the ruling oligarchy of Carthage. They seem to have realized that the expansion of the Roman Republic into the Mediterranean Sea threatened the mercantile power of Carthage. Accordingly, they fought in the First Punic War and prepared themselves for the Second Punic War. The Barcids were the founders of several Carthaginian cities in the Iberian peninsula, some of which still exist today. The most famous example of this was Carthago Nova, which bears the modern name Cartagena, and also Barcelona.

The known members of this family were as follows: the patriarch, Hamilcar Barca (275-228 BCE), a Carthaginian general in the First Punic War. After the Roman victory, he expanded the colonial possessions in Hispania, where he drowned crossing a river during a battle. His wife’s name is unknown. They had six children, three daughters, and three sons of which became famous military leaders in their own right. Their three daughters married Barcid family allies. His second-eldest daughter was married to Hasdrubal the Fair. Hasdrubal the Fair (270-221 BCE), Hamilcar’s son-in-law, followed the latter in his campaign against the governing aristocracy at Carthage at the close of the First Punic War, and in his subsequent career of conquest in Hispania. After Hamilcar’s death, Hasdrubal succeeded him in the command and extended the newly acquired empire in the west by skillful diplomacy. He was supposedly killed by a Celtic assassin. Hannibal (247-182 BCE) was the oldest son of Hamilcar Barca, one of the best and most famous generals of classical antiquity, and arguably the greatest enemy of the Roman Republic. He won the famous Battle of Cannae but at the end lost the Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War. Hannibal was famous for his crossing of the Alps with 60,000 soldiers and 38 elephants, an unimaginable feat to the people of the ancient world, as will be looked at later in this article.

Hasdrubal (245-207 BCE) was the second son of Hamilcar Barca. He defended the Carthaginian cities in Hispania as Hannibal departed to Italy in 218 BCE. Leading reinforcements for his brother Hannibal in 207 BCE, he was defeated and killed in the decisive Battle of the Metaurus.

Mago (243 - 203 BCE) was the third son of Hamilcar Barca, and was present at most of the battles of his famous brother and played a key role in many of them, often commanding the forces that made the “decisive push.”

Hamilcar commanded the Carthaginian expedition to Spain in 237 BCE, and for eight years expanded the territory of Carthage in Spain. Hasdrubal was present when the Iberians ambushed the Carthaginian forces at Akra Leuka, modern Alicante. He, along with his brother Hannibal, escaped, as Hamilcar led the Iberians in the opposite direction and drowned in the River Jucar in 228 BCE. While he began the establishments in Hispania, it would ultimately be Hasdrubal that would truly set Carthaginian presence in Iberia in motion. Hamilcar is important in the grand portrait of Carthaginian action in Hispania because he was the aristocrat who first moved out to the west and established the roots of their new empire after the First Punic War. He also fostered the anti-Roman attitude to his sons, who later all became some of the most fearsome enemies Rome ever faced, and the collectively formed the most serious threat to Rome’s existence prior to its conquest outside of Italy.

Hamilcar’s son-in-law was Hasdrubal the Fair (270 BCE – 221 BCE), who was married to the second eldest daughter of the former. Hasdrubal followed Hamilcar in his campaign against the governing aristocracy at Carthage at the close of the First Punic War, and in his subsequent career of conquest in Hispania. Aside from establishing Carthago Nova, he was best known for establishing the Ebro River as the border between Roman and Punic lands in Hispania. This boundary would later be questioned and incite war between the two nations during the Siege of Saguntum. He was then supposedly killed by a Celtic assassin, as mentioned previously.

Hannibal (247 – 183 BCE), son of Hamilcar Barca, was a Punic Carthaginian military commander, and is generally considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. Hannibal lived during a period of great tension in the Mediterranean, when the Roman Republic established its supremacy over other great powers such as Carthage, the Hellenistic kingdoms of Macedon, Syracuse, and the Seleucid empire. One of his most famous achievements was at the outbreak of the Second Punic War, when he marched an army, which included war elephants, from Iberia over the Pyrenees and the Alps into northern Italy. In his first few years in Italy, he won three dramatic victories—Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae, in which he distinguished himself for his ability to determine his and his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and to play the battle to his strengths and the enemy’s weaknesses—and won over many allies of Rome. Hannibal occupied much of Italy for 15 years, but a Roman counter-invasion of North Africa forced him to return to Carthage, where he was decisively defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama.

Upon the assassination of Hasdrubal in 221 BCE, Hannibal was proclaimed commander-in-chief by the army and confirmed in his appointment by the Carthaginian government. After he assumed command, Hannibal spent two years consolidating his holdings and completing the conquest of Hispania, south of the Ebro River. However, Rome, fearing the growing strength of Hannibal in Iberia, made an alliance with the city of Saguntum, which lay a considerable distance south of the River Ebro and claimed the city as its protectorate. Hannibal perceived this as a breach of the treaty signed with Hasdrubal and so he laid siege to the city, which fell after eight months. Rome reacted to this apparent violation of the treaty and demanded justice from Carthage. In view of Hannibal’s great popularity, the Carthaginian government did not repudiate Hannibal’s actions, and the war he sought was declared at the end of the year. Hannibal was now determined to carry the war into the heart of Italy by a rapid march through Hispania and southern Gaul.

Although the long-term consequences of Hannibal’s war are debatable, this war was undeniably Rome’s “finest hour.” Livy gives us the idea that he was extremely cruel. Any bias attributed to Polybius, however, is more troublesome, since he was clearly sympathetic towards Hannibal. Historical events, which led to the defeat of Carthage during the First Punic War when his father commanded the Carthaginian Army, led Hannibal to plan the invasion of Italy by land across the Alps. The task was daunting, to say the least. The alpine invasion of Italy was a military operation that would shake the Mediterranean World of 218 BCE with repercussions for more than two decades. It was a world war in the sense that it involved about three-quarters of the population of the entire Punic-Greco-Roman world and few people living in the Mediterranean were able to escape it. Virtually every family in Rome lost a member or members in the swath of destruction brought down on them by Hannibal and his Carthaginian armies.

He was defeated in 201 BCE at the Battle of Zama, denoting the end of the Carthaginian Empire and the loss of their territories in Hispania to the Romans. All of his opportunities to be such a powerful figure rose because of the actions of the Barca family in Hispania. The empowerment this elite clan received in the peninsula set the threatening war in motion and nearly crushed one of the world’s most iconic ancient civilizations.

Hasdrubal (245-207 BCE) was the second son of Hamilcar Barca, not to be confused with Hasdrubal the Fair. Much like how the Romans only had a handful of common first names for men, Carthaginians similarly pulled from a small list of names. He was one of the younger brothers of the much more famous Hannibal. Left in command of Hispania when Hannibal departed to Italy in 218 BCE, Hasdrubal was destined to fight for six years against the brothers Gnaeus and Publius Cornelius Scipio.

The expedition led by Gnaeus Scipio in 218 BCE had caught the Carthaginians by surprise, and before Hasdrubal could join Hanno, the Carthaginian commander on the North of Ebro River, the Romans had fought and won the Battle of Cissa and established their army at Tarraco and their fleet at Emporiae. In the spring of 217 BCE, Hasdrubal led a joint expedition north to fight the Romans. He commanded the army, while his deputy commanded the fleet. The army and the fleet moved north side by side and encamped on the mouth of the Ebro River. Carelessness of the Carthaginian fleet enabled Gnaeus Scipio to surprise the Carthaginians and crush their naval contingent at the Battle of Ebro River.

Hasdrubal retreated without fighting the Roman army. Hasdrubal was reinforced by 4,000 infantry and 500 cavalry and was ordered by the Carthaginian senate to march to Italy in 216 BCE. He left Himilco the Navigator, a fellow general, in charge at Carthago Nova and marched for the Ebro river, but was heavily defeated in the Battle of Dertosa in the spring of 215 BCE. This defeat prevented reinforcements reaching Hannibal from both Iberia and Africa at a critical moment of the war, when the Carthaginians held the upper hand in Italy. The Carthaginians from now were forced to contest the Romans in the area between the Ebro and Jucor rivers. In late 212 BCE, Hasdrubal, with timely cooperation from Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Gisco, completely routed his opponents at the Battle of the Upper Baetis, destroying the majority of the Roman army in Iberia and killing both the Scipios. Carthaginians gained control of Iberia up to the Ebro as a result of this victory.

However, the lack of cooperation between the Carthginian generals after the battle led the surviving Roman force of 8,000 retiring north of the river Ebro safely. These troops somehow managed to keep the Carthaginian armies from gaining a foothold north of the Ebro River. The Romans reinforced this detachment with 10,000 troops under Cladius Nero in 211 BCE and with another 10,000 soldiers under Scipio Africanus Major in 210 BCE, who spent the year training his army and improving his diplomatic contacts. The Carthaginian armies were subsequently outgeneraled by Scipio Africanus Major, who, taking advantage of the absence of the three Carthaginian armies being away in 209 BCE captured Carthago Nova and gained other advantages. Hasdrubal was defeated by Scipio at the Battle of Baecula, but managed to retreat with two-thirds of his army intact.

Later in 209 BCE, Hasdrubal was summoned to join his brother in Italy. He eluded Scipio by crossing the Pyrenees at their western extremity and safely made his way into Gaul in the winter of 208. Hasdrubal had waited until the spring of 207 to make his way through the Alps and into Northern Italy. He made much faster progress than his brother had, partly due to the constructions left behind by Hannibal’s army when he had passed via the same route a decade earlier, but also due to the removal of the Gallic threat that had plagued Hannibal during said expeditions.

The Gauls now feared and respected the Carthaginians, and not only was Hasdrubal allowed to pass through the Alps unmolested, his ranks were bolstered by many enthusiastic Gauls. Hasdrubal, in the same fashion as his brother, succeeded in bringing his war elephants, raised and trained in Hispania. However, Hasdrubal’s coordinating messengers were captured and he was ultimately met by two Roman armies and was forced to fight, being decisively defeated at the Battle of the Metaurus. Hasdrubal himself died bravely in the fight; he was beheaded, his head packed in a sack and thrown into his brother Hannibal’s camp as a sign of his utter defeat in 207 BCE, in stark contrast of Hannibal’s treatment of the bodies of fallen Roman Consuls.

Mago (243 - 203 BCE) was the third son of Hamilcar Barca and was present at most of the battles of his famous brother and played a key role in many of them. Little is known about his early years, except that, unlike his brothers, he is not mentioned during the ambush in which his father was killed in 228 BCE. Although Hasdrubal nominally commanded all Carthaginian forces in the Hispania, Mago received an independent command, a division which was to have grave consequences later. The two Barca brothers battled the Romans under the command of the Scipio brothers throughout 215–212 BCE. Mago, in a cavalry ambush of Publius Cornelius Scipio, killed 2,000 Romans near modern-day Alicante in 214 BCE, and also aided in keeping the Hispanic tribes loyal to Carthage. On the whole, the Carthaginians managed to maintain the balance of power in Hispania despite the efforts of the Scipios, but failed to send any aid to Hannibal.

Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco guarded the Carthaginian possessions in Iberia without difficulty, despite the Scipios outnumbering their armies during the absence of Hasdrubal. In 208 BCE, after the Battle of Baecula, Hasdrubal left Hispania to invade Italy and bring reinforcements to his brother Hannibal, who was operating in Lucania. Mago moved with his army to the area between Tagus and Douro rivers in a recruiting mission with Hanno, a newly arrived general. Their mission was successful, but they split the army into two camps and relaxed their vigilance. Mago managed to lead a few thousand survivors to Gades after being ambushed, where he joined forces with Hasdrubal Gisco. This strategy frustrated the strategy of Scipio to force a decisive battle that year, eluding the Roman tactics. Mago then led a campaign to invade Italy (this time by sea) with 15,000 men in early summer of 205 BCE. The Romans devoted seven legions to maintain watch over him and guard northern Italy, but no general action was fought.

In 204 BCE Mago was reinforced with 6,000 infantry and some cavalry from Carthage. The Romans refused to give battle and blocked Mago so he couldn’t reach Hannibal. Wounded in a battle in Cisalpine Gaul, Mago was recalled back to Carthage along with Hannibal to aid in its defense. Therefore, Mago and his army sailed from Italy in 202 BCE under the escort of the Punic fleet, and escaped the Roman navy as he made for Africa. Before arriving in Carthage, however, he died at sea. The ability of Mago as a field commander can be glimpsed from his actions at the battles of Trebbia and Cannae, where his failure might have doomed the Carthaginian army. He was a capable cavalry leader, as his repeated ambushes of the Romans in Iberia and Italy demonstrate.

Through this article the Barcid clan has been illustrated in both its positive and negative lights, following their epic genealogical journey through the conquering of Spain. As varied as the peaks and valleys of the peninsula’s geography, the Barca family had its shares of ups and downs during its conquering and subsequent lost of their western territories. Starting with Hamilcar and ultimately ending with Hannibal, this Carthaginian family was increasingly vigilant in their Iberian conquests, directly conflicting with the imperialistic attitude of Rome. Each member of the family represented a different fear or obstacle that Rome had to face before becoming the most powerful nation in the Mediterranean, and this war-hungry clan nearly conquered what we now consider one of the most imperialistic nations the world has ever seen. All of this was due to the rich environment of the Iberian Peninsula, insulating the locals and inciting the foreigners to war for her beauty, strength, and wealth.