We learn from History that we never learn anything from history. — G. W. F. Hegel

Thirty More Famous Stories Retold - James Baldwin




Hannibal, the Hero of Carthage


I. THE VOW


It is a great day in Carthage. The shops and warehouses are all closed. The streets are full of people as on a holiday. The principal houses, as well as the ships in the harbor, are gay with bright-colored banners. The quays by the waterside are crowded with soldiers waiting their turn to embark on the war vessels which lie moored along the dock. Everywhere there are hurrying feet and busy hands and anxious, hopeful faces. For to-day Hamilcar, the greatest general of Carthage, is to sail with his army for Spain, and the whole city is celebrating the event.

The temples are crowded with worshipers. Officers and tradesmen are there to implore gods to bless the voyage of Hamilcar. Women and children are there to pray for the protection of their husbands or fathers who are going out to fight for the glory of Carthage. All bring gifts for the stern god, and the altars are smoking with burnt offerings.

It is noon. A grand procession passes down the street and enters the chief temple of Baal. Hamilcar himself is there, and with him are the officers of state and the most famous men of the city. They have come, according to the custom of the time, to make their due offerings to the gods. It is thus that they pray for the success of their army in Spain.

By the side of the general is his little son Hannibal, now nine years of age. Young though he is, he is already a man in thought and ambition. It is his wish to be a great warrior like his father. Every day he has begged to be allowed to go with the army to Spain.

"I am not a child, father; for I reach almost up to your shoulder. I will be strong and brave. I will fight in the front ranks. No one shall call me weak or cowardly. I will serve you well if I may go."

But the father firmly refuses.

"Wait yet a few years, my son. The time is coming when we shall have a much greater war; for soon Carthage must destroy Rome or be destroyed by her. Be patient, Hannibal. Stay at home yet a while; nurse your hatred of the Romans; study the art of war. You shall at length lead our armies to greater victories than mine shall be in Spain."

And now father and son walk side by side down the long dim aisle of the temple of Baal. Through the smoke and the dark shadows of the overhanging arches, the grim-faced idols look down upon the pair. The priests stand in their places. Drums are beaten. Discordant music fills the air.

"Place your hand on the altar, Hannibal."

The boy obeys.

The father pours out costly incense as an offering to Baal.

"Now make your vow, my son."

And Hannibal, nothing daunted, repeats before Baal and the long-robed priests the vow he has been taught to make. He vows that he will cherish undying hatred for the Romans, that day and night he will study to do them harm, and that he will never pause nor give up until their proud city has been laid in ashes.

The priests chant their approval. The smoke of the incense rises. The bugles sound, the drums are beaten, the cymbals clash. The grand procession moves slowly out of the temple; it makes its way through crowds of shouting people to the busy quay. There the farewells are spoken. The general and his officers embark in the vessel that has been waiting for them. There is much shouting; there is a great waving of banners. The long oars are dipped into the water, and the ship begins its voyage.

The boy Hannibal returns to his father's house to nurse his hatred of Rome.


II. CROSSING THE ALPS


Five, ten, fifteen years passed by, and then the words of Hamilcar came true. A great war was begun between Rome and Carthage. It was the second time that these mighty nations had engaged in a fierce struggle for the mastery.

Hamilcar was dead; and Hannibal, twenty-four years old, had taken his place as leader of the armies of Carthage. "The day that I have been waiting for has come at last," he said.

He was ready for the war. Before the Romans could collect an army he was on the march. With many thousands of fighting men and a great number of horses and elephants, he moved northward through Spain. He marched into southern France which was then called Gaul. The Romans hastily sent an army against him, but they could do nothing to hinder his progress. He crossed the great river Rhone. The Alps mountains, lofty and rugged, stood like an impassable wall before him.

In Italy, far beyond these mountains, was the city he had set out to conquer and destroy. But how should he lead his army thither? There were but two ways by which to go, and both these seemed impossible.

The shorter way was by sea. But where were the ships to carry so great a host with wagons and baggage and the necessaries of war? Plainly they were not to be had.

The other way was over the Alps. But how could an army with horses and elephants and provisions climb those rugged heights? No one but Hannibal would have thought it possible.

"Beyond these snow-capped mountains lies Rome!" he cried, and gave the word to press forward.

There is a narrow pass through the Alps, steep and dangerous even for the mountaineers who live there. Along this pass Hannibal led his army, for other way there was none.

Hannibal in Alps
Hannibal crossing the Alps


Rough and narrow was the road. In places it wound around the foot of some towering rock; in places it skirted the edge of some bottomless chasm; in places there seemed to be scarcely; room for a man to pass, and yet with great labor and pains a way was made for the horses and elephants.

From the cliffs above the pathway, the people who lived among the mountains hurled great stones upon the heads of the soldiers.

Hundreds of men and animals perished, some by falling into chasms, some by being struck with the stones, and some from weariness and cold. And yet Hannibal pressed onward.

At last the fearful upward march was ended. The army had passed the summit of the mighty mountain wall. Looking down from the heights, the weary men could see the green forests and fields of Italy spread out like a map below them.

"It is there that Rome lies!" cried Hannibal.

But the Roman armies were waiting for him below. Many a hard battle did he fight, vainly trying to reach the city which he had set out to destroy. In the end his army was beaten, and he was forced to escape from Italy as best he could, taking only a small remnant of his men with him.

Rome and not Carthage was to be the mistress of the world.