Alternate history: what if Hannibal had taken Rome?
Professor Greg Woolf talks to Nige Tassell about what might have happened to Rome and the Romans had the Carthaginian military mastermind managed to conquer the city
When he led his men and his elephants through the Alps in 218 BC, Hannibal had Rome firmly in his sights. But after several notable victories – most notably the Roman annihilation at Cannae two years later – and despite remaining on the Italian peninsula for the next 15 years, the Carthaginian general failed to conquer the city, suffering from a depletion in manpower and lacking the necessary equipment to breach Rome’s city walls.
But what if Hannibal had been successful? How would European culture have been different? And would the Roman empire have still risen to dominate the continent for centuries? Greg Woolf – Ronald J Mellor professor of ancient history at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose books include The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Rome: An Empire’s Story (Oxford University Press, 2012) – doesn’t believe the Carthaginian capture of Rome would necessarily have meant the extinction of the Romans.
“The most likely scenario is that the Romans would have been forced into a humiliating peace, maybe had war indemnities imposed on them, and lost their leadership role in Italy. Rome was already a huge city by ancient standards at the time of the Hannibalic War, and it may have struggled to stay so large without its position of power. Most likely, we’d have seen a smaller, weaker city-state, much more like the Italian cities that had been defeated in actuality.”
Culturally, there may have been little difference had Rome fallen. Despite the Carthaginians speaking and writing the Semitic language of Punic, Professor Woolf doesn’t believe this would have been imposed on their new territories. Greek would have remained the most common language across the ancient Mediterranean. Similarly, there would have been no religious upheaval: “Roman and Punic religion was pretty similar. They found it easy to recognise each other’s gods.”
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Then there’s the issue of whether the capture of Rome would have been a springboard for further Carthaginian expansion. “It is a fair bet that they would have dominated the western Mediterranean in the second century BC,” explains Professor Woolf, “and maybe extended their power in Spain and their influence in southern France.”
But something like the Roman invasion of the British Isles seen in AD 43 was unlikely to have been on the cards, although second-guessing the Carthaginians is a difficult pursuit, thanks to one episode in particular. “When Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 BC, it scattered its libraries, translating only one book – a massive guide to agriculture. As a result, we have no access to Carthaginian voices, and so we see them mostly through the eyes of their enemies: the Greeks of Sicily and then the Romans. We do not know what they wanted.”
Did you know?
The last elephant
At the start of his journey across the Alps, Hannibal had 40 war elephants at his disposal. However, the tough conditions meant that only one of the animals (which were mainly used for charging at the enemy and instilling a sense of panic) survived the ordeal.
Subsequent studies of the Carthaginians, limited by the paucity of contemporaneous information about them, have tended to paint them with fairly broad brushstrokes – and largely portrayed them as traders, as opposed to the more violent Romans. Professor Woolf suggests the wholesale adoption of that portrait may be misguided. “There’s no real sign the Carthaginians were very calm. Older textbooks claim they were a merchant people, but there is probably a fair bit of anti-Semitic bias at work there. Ancient testimony makes it clear they were military conquerors, that they exploited conquered lands for grain, silver and manpower – just like the Romans, in fact. The earliest treaties between Rome and Carthage envisaged both cities as being military powers with some trade interests.”
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A Roman recovery?
Despite the expansion of the Carthaginian empire, it remains unlikely that Hannibal had designs on improving his personal power by staking a claim to be made emperor as reward for his military victories. At this point, Carthage was ruled by a pair of suffetes (chief magistrates) elected annually, a situation that most likely would have remained unchanged whether Rome was conquered or not. “Rome itself did not have emperors until two centuries after Hannibal’s death,” explains Professor Woolf. “There were occasional tyrants in Syracuse on Sicily, but the western Mediterranean mostly belonged to city states in this period.”
It remains a moot point as to whether the fall of Rome to Hannibal would have precluded the Roman empire ever rising and expanding to the extent it subsequently did. As Professor Woolf concludes, the permanence of Carthaginian rule would have been far from set in stone.
“It is perfectly possible that Rome might have fallen to Hannibal and then recovered. The Romans themselves believed that they had survived disasters in the past, and that they were strongest when their backs were against the wall. The Gauls sacked Rome in the early 4th century BC but Rome bounced back. Hannibal’s victory at Cannae was remembered both as Rome’s darkest hour and the moment when Roman politics worked better than any time before or since. Hannibal was a scary bugbear for a long time, but he was also remembered as the man who didn’t know how to make the most of his success.”
In context: the Punic Wars
The first of the Punic Wars ended in 241 BC, with Carthage, led by Hamilcar Barca, defeated by the Romans. The Second Punic War broke out 23 years later, when Barca’s son, the military general Hannibal, marched his troops (and a large number of North African war elephants) over the Alps into Italy. Rather than attack Rome outright, Hannibal made gains in central and southern Italy, instead encouraging a civil revolt against the city-state.
This suited the Romans, who were conscious of Hannibal’s tactical prowess and simply picked minor skirmishes rather than a full-throttle battle. These smaller encounters would leave him short-armed and, without the required manpower commitment from Carthage, the general withdrew his men after 15 years in Italy.
Greg Woolf is Ronald J Mellor professor of ancient history at the University of California, specialising in the Roman empire. Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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