Hannibal was exposed to the cruelty and the barbarity of ancient warfare from an early age, such as the Carthaginian practice of crucifying failed generals in the public square. In one battle in Spain Hamilcar surrounded the army of tribal warriors and slaughtered thousands on the spot and captured thousands more. He then proceeded to make an example of the rebel leader by blinding and mutilating him, having his hands, feet and private parts cut off and then crucifying him. Hamilcar then released ten thousand rebel prisoners so that they could return home and tell the tale. By this action, he sent out a warning to other tribal leaders that if they defied him, they would suffer a worse fate than their people would. It is strange that having been exposed to such cruelty from a young age, Hannibal did not resort to such practices during his campaigns.
The Roman accusations of Hannibal’s cruel practices in dealing with prisoners and civilians were mostly false. Hannibal was 18 when his father was killed in battle. Carthage was a republic where military commands were awarded by the senate. Hence, Hannibal had no dynastic claim to succession of his father’s command. Instead, Hasdrubal was unanimously appointed general by both the military and the senate.
The Romans made every effort to malign Hannibal’s character and brought all manner of charges against him ranging from cruelty and avarice to sexual indulgence. Most of these accusations were probably untrue. The Romans had no moral standing to accuse Hannibal of cruelty because their own cruel practices in warfare were legendary. Livy’s claim that Hannibal killed all men of military age after the capture of Saguntum is probably true.
However, Livy also wrote that the slaughter commenced only after Hannibal offered the inhabitants an opportunity to surrender, take their belongings and resettle in another place he would select, perhaps a place not across his vital line of communication from Spain to Italy.
The men of the city vowed to fight to the bitter end, killed all their families and even threw their belongings in the fire to deny them to the Carthaginians. Hannibal had no choice but to slaughter the remaining males, all of whom probably died fighting in any case. Livy accused Hannibal of burning alive the wife and children of one Darius Altinius of Arpi. However, Livy also wrote that Darius was twice a deserter, a low and despicable enemy who was attempting to betray the town to the Romans. It is believable that Hannibal ordered the man and his family to be publicly burned alive. Having witnessed the public crucifixion of failed Carthaginian generals as an impressionable young boy, Hannibal might not have thought Altinius’s fate all that terrible.
Anyhow, any reasonable reading of accounts suggests that the Romans’ record of atrocities was much worse. After the taking of Capua, the Romans executed all the leading aristocrats, enslaved the citizenry and plundered the town mercilessly. At Locri, the slaughter and the mistreatment of citizens scandalised even the Roman senate.
On the taking of new Carthage by Scipio’s army, Polybius notes that it was the common Roman practice to exterminate every form of life they encountered, sparing none. This practice is adopted to inspire terror, and so when cities are taken by the Romans you may often see not only the corpses of human beings but dogs cut in half and also the dismembered limbs of other animals. On this occasion the carnage was especially frightful because of the large size of the population.
It is difficult not to conclude that Hannibal was less cruel than others of his time and was more humane than his adversaries, the Roman generals, among whom cruelty was mostly habitual. Hannibal’s behaviour towards the Roman generals he defeated reveals a degree of chivalry and respect which was notoriously absent in Roman commanders.
He accorded full military honours and burials to Roman generals he killed in battle. In some cases, he searched for the bodies of his slain adversaries to award them the same treatment but could not find them.
Hannibal: The military biography of Rome’s Greatest Enemy by Richard A Gabriel