1902 Encyclopedia > Hamilcar Barca

Hamilcar Barca
Carthaginian general and statesman
(ca. 275 BC – 228 BC)




HAMILCAR BARCA, the most illustrious of all the Carthaginian generals and statesmen, next to his son, the great Hannibal. The surname Barca is the same as the Hebrew Barak, and signifies " lightning." It was in the eighteenth year of the First Punic War, 247 B.C., that Hamilcar first greatly distinguished himself. He had been known before as a young officer of promise who had made raids on the southern coasts of Italy in the neighbourhood of Locri and Cumae. Suddenly he appeared with a squadron off the north-west of Sicily, and seized a strong position on Mount Ercte, now known as Mount Pellegrino, near Palermo. He had but a small force of mercenaries, which his military genius soon made into a well-disciplined body of troops. For three years he maintained himself on Mount Ercte, during which time the Romans were in possession of the whole of Sicily with the exception of the two strongholds of Drepanum and Lilybaeum, and these they were blockading. They tried their utmost to drive Hamilcar from his position, but in vain. At last he quitted his stronghold, and in 244 B.C. landed at Mount Eryx, on the western coast, now Mount S. Giuliano, 2 miles from the shore and about 6 from Drepanum. A famous temple of Venus crowned the summit, and half-way up the slope was the city, which itself had the name of Eryx. This Hamilcar seized and occupied. His object was to compel the Romans to give up the blockade of Drepanum and Lilybaeum. They could not drive him out of the town, and for two more years he held his position, keeping open his communications by sea with the Carthaginian garrison of Drepanum. Hamilcar's chief difficulty was with his mercenaries, who were little better than savages and with-out an idea of loyalty or good faith. Yet he continued to hold them well in hand. It was a harassing and mono-tonous warfare, so much so that Polybius, here our chief authority, compares it to a boxing match between two skilful pugilists, the blows in which are delivered in such rapid succession that a spectator could hardly see, much less describe them. The Romans, feeling it necessary to make a supreme effort, in 242 B.C. equipped a fleet, under the command of the consul Lutatius Catulus, and des-patched it to the western shores of Sicily. The battle off the ^Egates followed, and the Roman victory decided the First Punic War in 241 B.C. Peace had now to be concluded. The cession of Sicily to the Romans was a matter of course. But though Hamilcar had to surrender the island, he refused to comply with the Roman demand that his army should pass under the yoke. The demand was not persisted in, and Hamilcar and his men were allowed to embark from Lilybaeum for Africa.

No sooner had peace been concluded than there broke out the so-called African or Libyan War. It was a most formidable mutiny or insurrection. Hamilcar's mercenaries on their return looked for the pay which he had promised them, but had not been able to furnish while he was cooped in within his lines on Mount Eryx. The stupidity of the home Government soon caused trouble. The peace party at Carthage, headed by Hanno, who hated Hamilcar, was foolish enough to raise a dispute about the pay of the troops. The result was a furious mutiny, which Hanno, who was sent to quiet them, could not appease. The men to the number of 20,000 began to march on Carthage itself, and encamped near Tunis. The mutineers were led by Spendius, a fugitive slave from Campania, and by Matho, an African who had served with distinction under Hamilcar in Sicily. These two men incited all the neighbouring tribes to rise against the dominion of Carthage. Carthage itself was soon cut off from all communication with the interior. Hanno was called to take the command, but it was only to meet with defeat and disaster. The rebels surprised and captured his camp. The Government was now thoroughly frightened, and begged Hamilcar to save them from the consequences of their own folly. With a force of only 10,000 men he had to face what must now have grown into a very formidable host. It would seem that his personal influence led many of the rebels to return to his standard, and he was also skilful enough to secure the friendship and aid of the Numidian sheiks. One especially, Naravas, helped him very materially; and with his assistance he was able to achieve a decisive victory over the mutineers. At last he so effectually hemmed in Spendius within his camp near Tunis that the rebel leader was obliged to throw himself on his mercy. With nine of his brother leaders he sought an interview with Hamilcar. Hamilcar's demand was the surrender of ten of the rebels, whom he was to name himself. This being agreed, he seized Spendius and his nine companions, a proceeding which the mutineers furiously resented. But they were soon surrounded and cut off to a man, to the number, it is said, of 40,000. The war, which had lasted three years and four months, was now over in the year 238 B.C.





One would have supposed that Hamilcar would be at once recognized as the right man to direct the future policy of the state. But it was not so. Hanno's party, the peace party, was as shortsighted as ever, and actually dared to say that Hamilcar had been the cause of the late war by having made promises which he was not able to fulfil. But by this folly they injured and weakened themselves. The patriotic party, the " Barcine faction," as it was called by its opponents, prevailed so far as to raise their leader to a position answering as nearly as possible to a dictatorship among the Romans. Hamilcar was made commander-in- chief of the Carthaginian army in Africa, and invested with a power which could be taken from him only by the popular assembly. He was still a young man, under thirty years of age. For a short time he employed himself in overawing the Numidian tribes bordering on Carthaginian territory, but his main object was to form the nucleus of an efficient army out of his Libyan mercenaries. Mean- while he was maturing a great plan which soon afterwards on his own responsibility he carried into execution. Spain was a country the coasts of which at least were well known to the Carthaginians. Spaniards too had served among Hamilcar's troops. To Spain he decided to go ; there, he felt sure, he could find material for an army and abundant means of providing pay. He had now three sons, the " lion's brood," as he called them, Hannibal, Hasdrubal^ Mago. Wishing with all his heart that they should be like minded with himself, he made the eldest, Hannibal, then a little boy of nine, swear on the altar of the supreme Carthaginian deity eternal hatred and enmity to Rome. This was just before he left Carthage, probably in the spring of 236 B.C. Suddenly there came tidings to the home Government that their commander-in-chief was, with- out their orders, carrying on war in Spain. He had, how- ever, done his work so thoroughly in Africa that the trouble- some Numidian tribes were now submissive to Carthage,, and for the most part paid tribute. He never returned. The last eight years of his life he devoted to the great work of reducing Spain to a Carthaginian province. He pene- trated into the interior of the country, subduing some of the tribes by force of arms and drawing others into friendly relations by negotiation. It was not to mere conquest that he aspired ; he did his best to win the good-will of the Spaniards and to attach them to Carthage. Spain was to be a compensation to Carthage for the loss of Sicily and Sardinia. But, above all, its possession was to be subordi- nate to Hamilcar's great design of some day renewing the war with Bome. For this he would have felt himself pre- pared when, in addition to his Numidian cavalry, he had organized a force of Spanish infantry. Had his life been prolonged, he would doubtless, as Livy says (xxi. 2), have invaded Italy at the head of a Carthaginian army. What he accomplished in Spain so much impressed the elder Cato^ who less than half a century afterwards saw the traces of his work, that he declared that there was no king like Hamilcar Barca. In the prime of his years he fell in battle in 228 B.C., fighting, it would seem, somewhere between the Tagus and the Douro. Spain was now left in the hands of his son-in-law Hasdrubal. (w. J. B.)







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