Hasdrubal Barca (c. 244-207 BCE) was the younger brother of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (247-183 BCE) and commanded the forces of Carthage against Rome in Spain during the Second Punic War (218-202 BCE). They were both, along with another brother named Mago, sons of the general Hamilcar Barca (c. 285 - c. 228 BCE) who led the Carthaginian armies during the First Punic War (264-241 BCE). Rome won the first war with Carthage and imposed heavy terms on the city which eventually resulted in Hannibal initiating the Second Punic War.
Although Hasdrubal’s efforts are routinely overshadowed by his brother’s brilliant military tactics, the younger brother was an adept leader and strategist in his own right who achieved a number of significant victories against Rome and rallied allies to the Carthaginian cause. He maintained Carthaginian strength in Spain while Hannibal took the fight to the Romans in Italy through his famous march over the Alps, returned to Africa to fend off an attack by Syphax of the Numidian Masaesyli tribe (an ally of Rome at the time), and was responsible for the military victory over the Scipio brothers of Rome at the Battle of the Upper Baetis in 211 BCE, the only land victory for Carthage in the entire war not led by Hannibal.
At the same time, however, his reputation is marked by significant oversights and errors. He allowed Scipio Africanus to take New Carthage in Spain by poorly fortifying the city, probably in the belief that it was impregnable, spent too much time in Italy laying siege to the city of Placentia, and – most notably – let information on his plans, position, and his army’s strength fall into Roman hands on his march to join forces with his brother in Italy. This last error in judgment would lead to his defeat and death at the Battle of the Metaurus in 207 BCE.
Early Life & the Second Punic War
Hasdrubal grew up in the family palace at Carthage, son of a general with an illustrious reputation for his leadership during the First Punic War. Even though Carthage was defeated, no hint of shame attached itself to Hamilcar Barca, who was recalled to action to put down the Mercenary Revolt of 241 BCE and was given command of the Carthaginian expedition to Spain in 237 BCE.
Hannibal was only nine years old when his father asked him to come on this expedition and, according to the ancient historian Livy, made him swear on the altar that he would always remain an enemy of Rome. Hamilcar then took his oldest son with him on campaign, as well as his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair (c. 270-221 BCE), and left his wife and younger children in Carthage. At some point, Hamilcar must have sent for his younger son to join him because Hasdrubal Barca is recorded as being present, along with Hannibal, at the Battle of Helice in 228 BCE when Hamilcar was killed.
Command of the Iberian forces then passed to Hasdrubal the Fair by order of the Senate of Carthage who considered Hannibal too young. Hasdrubal the Fair negotiated the boundaries of Spain with the Romans, placing the border between the territories at the Ebro River. Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated in 221 BCE, and Hannibal then took control of military operations. Hannibal gave Hasdrubal his own command, and it is at this point that Hasdrubal enters history.
The Second Punic War was known by Roman historians as “Hannibal’s War” because he both started it and defined it. The treaty which ended the First Punic War stipulated that Carthage could keep their territories in Spain but they were encouraged to use them to raise the tribute they were required to pay Rome. Hamilcar’s expedition to Spain, in fact, was (officially, at least) sent expressly for this purpose.
The people of the city of Saguntum in Spain feared the growing Carthaginian presence and sent messengers to Rome asking for their protection. When a Roman delegation presented itself to Hannibal, requesting he leave Saguntum alone, he answered that the Romans could not be trusted to deal fairly with the people of the city and refused the request. He then marched on the city and took it, overthrowing the government the Romans had installed there, and so started the Second Punic War.
Hasdrubal’s Spanish Campaigns
Hannibal organized his forces with those closest to him in positions of command. Scholar Richard Miles notes how, at the apex of the army, “was an inner circle of key advisors mainly drawn from the Barcid clan, including Hannibal’s two brothers Mago and Hasdrubal and his nephew Hanno” (237). Hannibal recognized that the best way to win the war was to take the fight to the Romans in Italy and so prepared to bring his army over the Alps.
According to Livy, he assigned Hasdrubal an army of 11,850 native infantry, 450 cavalry, 21 elephants, 1,800 Numidian and Moorish infantry, and 57 warships. Hannibal marched his army toward the Alps in April of 218 BCE, and Hasdrubal instantly set to work building defenses throughout Iberia, which included high watchtowers and a system of signals to warn of approaching attack.
Hasdrubal’s early-warning system worked well but could not alert him to every contingency. In the fall of 218 BCE, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio (265-211 BCE) defeated the outnumbered troops of Hanno at the Battle of Cissa and established a strong base of operations for Roman forces in the region. Hasdrubal arrived at the battle too late to help turn the tide but harried the Roman forces as well as he could in the aftermath and attacked their fleet, reducing it by almost half.
In 217 BCE Hasdrubal launched a naval attack on Scipio’s forces on the Ebro in an attempt to cut Roman lines of communication and cripple their fleet. Although the engagement initially looked promising, the Roman allies from Marseille knew Carthaginian naval tactics and used these against them. The Carthaginians had long won naval battles by driving their ships against an opponent as if to attack but then sailing past them to turn around and ram the enemy ship. The Massilians knew this and arranged their warships in formation with those in front acting as a screen for other ships behind them. When the Carthaginian ships sailed in between the Massilian vessels, these reserve ships were able to attack them before they could make their traditional move. Hasdrubal lost most of the Carthaginian fleet in this battle and retreated without engaging further on land.
The Romans, following this victory, sent the general Publius Cornelius Scipio (died 211 BCE) to join his brother Gnaeus in Spain, and these two increased the pressure on Hasdrubal. They took Saguntum and released a number of important hostages held there by the Carthaginians, which helped win support for Rome from Iberian tribes. In 216 BCE, some of these tribes rebelled against Carthaginian rule and Hasdrubal had to turn his attention from the Romans to deal with these uprisings.
While Hasdrubal had been defending Carthaginian Spain, Hannibal had been conquering Italian cities. In August of 216 BCE he won his great victory at Cannae, but he had been defeating Roman forces and attracting allies since his arrival in the country in 218 BCE. Hannibal needed more soldiers to succeed, however, and in 215 BCE Hasdrubal was ordered by the Carthaginian senate to take his army into Italy to reinforce his brother’s initiative. Hasdrubal objected to this on the grounds that Carthaginian hold on Spain was tenuous at the moment and would require a strong and experienced leader to hold. The senate sent an officer named Himilco (not the famous navigator, as is often claimed) to take command, and Hasdrubal marched for Italy.
He was checked by the Romans under the Scipios at the Battle of Dertosa in spring of 215 BCE, however, and was badly defeated. The Scipios had not only prevented reinforcements from reaching Hannibal but had also severely weakened the Carthaginian land force in Spain. Following this defeat, the Carthaginian senate sent Mago Barca (243-203 BCE) and Hasdrubal Gisco (died 202 BCE) to Spain with reinforcements for Hasdrubal.
Along with his brother and Hasdrubal Gisco, Hasdrubal held Spain against the Scipios and prevented them from aiding the Roman troops in Italy. Even so, every engagement was a victory for the Roman brothers. In 213 BCE Hasdrubal was withdrawn from Spain to put down the offensive of the Numidian king Syphax in Africa. Allegedly, the Scipio brothers were behind Syphax’s attack, hoping for just such a reaction from the Carthaginian senate. With Hasdrubal gone, the Scipios faced only Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco but, for some reason, do not seem to have taken any advantage of the opportunity.
When Hasdrubal returned to Spain in 211 BCE, he came with fresh reinforcements and supplies and mobilized the Carthaginian forces along with Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco. The Scipios, perhaps unaware of how large an army was assembled, divided their forces; Publius directed his army toward the lines of Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco while Gnaeus went to meet those of Hasdrubal Barca in another area. Hasdrubal greatly improved his odds by offering the Celtiberian mercenaries of Gnaeus’ army a large bribe to just go home. They promptly accepted the money and left; thus reducing Gnaeus’ army even further. The Scipios were both defeated and killed in the ensuing Battle of the Upper Baetis, and the Roman forces were driven from the field.
The death of the Scipios threw the Roman Senate into a panic. Hasdrubal now held Spain and Hannibal seemed unstoppable in Italy. No general wanted the job which had killed two of the greatest Roman generals of their generation. A younger Scipio volunteered for the job, however: Scipio Africanus (236-183 BCE), the son of Publius and nephew of Gnaeus. Scipio had been at the Battle of the Upper Baetis as well as at Cannae and knew both Hannibal’s and Hasdrubal’s tactics and formations. He was sent to Spain to take command of the forces left there.
At this same time, the Senate replaced the Scipios' command with the proconsul Gaius Claudius Nero (c. 237 - c. 199 BCE) who had recently contributed to Hannibal’s defeat at the siege of Capua in Italy. Claudius Nero had earlier been involved in the Third Battle of Nola (214 BCE) which was also a Carthaginian defeat and so was thought the best man to replace the Scipio brothers should the young Scipio fail to live up to the family name. Scipio Africanus announced himself in Spain by taking New Carthage and styling himself – just as Hannibal had done – as a liberator, not a conqueror. He quickly proved himself an able military leader and adept administrator.
Claudius Nero consolidated the forces left leaderless after the Scipios’ defeat and led them against Hasdrubal, trapping him at the Black Stones Pass. Hasdrubal, according to Livy, outsmarted Nero here by asking for negotiations to allow his army safe passage after surrender. Nero agreed, and every day Hasdrubal would appear at the Roman camp to talk while every night he sent more and more of his army secretly away under cover of darkness. On the last day of negotiations, a thick fog covered the area in the morning and Hasdrubal sent word to Nero that he could not come to the talks because of religious reasons. Once he received word that Nero had excused him, he packed up the rest of his army and slipped away. Only once the fog had lifted was Nero made aware that the entire Carthaginian army had escaped.
Nero was then recalled to Italy to deal with Hannibal while Scipio continued the war in Spain. In 208 BCE, Hasdrubal positioned his army in a strong defensive position below the town of Baecula and invited Scipio to join in battle. In order to attack Hasdrubal, Scipio would have to cross a small river and then charge up a slope against a fortified position. Understanding the severity of the losses this would entail, Scipio refused to play by Hasdrubal’s rules and devised his own.
He noticed that there were dried gulleys on either side of the plateau Hasdrubal had fortified and so, once across the river, he sent a lightly-armed force straight ahead and up the slope but divided his main force toward the two gulleys. The Carthaginians moved to meet the center and were crushed by the two wings moving in from the gulleys; precisely the same tactic Hannibal had used to defeat the Romans at Cannae in 216 BCE.
Hasdrubal fled Baecula with the troops he could save and evaded Scipio as he made his way out of Spain. Although it has been claimed that Hasdrubal was ordered to Italy by the Carthaginian senate, it seems more likely it was his own idea to join his brother in a concentrated effort against the city of Rome itself.
The Italy Campaign & Metaurus
Hasdrubal crossed the Alps in the spring of 207 BCE and, upon reaching Italy, began his march south to find Hannibal. He has been routinely criticized for stopping to lay siege to the Roman colony of Placentia as this move was unnecessary considering the importance of joining Hasdrubal’s forces with Hannibal’s and was also a failure which accomplished nothing but wasting valuable time. Even so, some historians note that Hasdrubal could not leave a fortified Roman position in his rear and also needed to wait at some well-defined location for the Gallic troops he had recruited to catch up to him.
While Hasdrubal was at Placentia, Hannibal was trying to make his way north to meet him; having no idea at all where he was. The Romans had secure and reliable systems of communication in place but the Carthaginians had none. Scholar Ernle Bradford comments:
Hannibal knew no more than that Hasdrubal should by now be across the Alps and Hasdrubal, who was already in Italy, knew no more than that Hannibal was somewhere in the south. The Romans, on the other hand, working from their interior lines of communication and supply systems, were in an admirable position to keep their two enemies apart and to tackle them one at a time with their superior forces. (171)
Hannibal’s march north was checked near Bruttium by Claudius Nero and was forced into a number of running engagements between Bruttium and Lucania. He could not shake Nero loose but neither could Nero keep Hannibal in place. At some point, Hannibal sent messengers north to try to locate Hasdrubal and direct him to his location. The messages were received and Hasdrubal wrote back, sending four Gallic horsemen and two Numidians to deliver his response as quickly as possible.
Hasdrubal wrote these letters in his native language – not in any kind of code – perhaps because he was in haste. This would not have been a problem if they had reached their destination, but they did not. The messengers got lost and were captured near Tarentum, tortured, and gave up the letters, which provided the Romans with Hasdrubal’s location and troop strength. This intelligence was delivered to Nero who quickly put a plan into action.
In between the time Hasdrubal sent his letters and when the messengers were captured, a Roman army under the command of Marcus Livius Salinator (254-204 BCE) and L. Porcius Licinius (c. 207 BCE) had located him and held his army near the Metaurus River in northern Italy. This information reached Nero just prior to Hasdrubal’s messages. Nero left his army to hold Hannibal in place and slipped away with 6,000 legionaries and 1,000 cavalry during the night. He made sure to screen his departure so Hannibal would be unaware of the decreased strength of his forces.
Arriving at the Metaurus, Nero again waited until night to join the other two generals, billeting his men among those already encamped so there would be no new tents for the enemy to observe and alert them to reinforcements. The Carthaginian camp was no more than a half mile away from the Romans, and Hasdrubal had kept a careful watch so that he knew the strength of the army and what to expect in battle.
On the morning after Nero arrived, Hasdrubal noticed leaner horses in the camp and different shields on display and ordered his men to reconnoiter. They reported back that all was as it had been and there was no evidence of new troops but they had observed something strange: when the morning orders were given by trumpet, one was sounded in the praetor’s camp but two were sounded in the consul’s camp. Hasdrubal recognized that this meant there were now two consuls present and, if two consuls, a greater force than before.
Hasdrubal had been moving his army into formation to give battle but now he paused. He seems to have concluded that Hannibal must have been defeated and could only be dead because the newly-arrived consul would undoubtedly have been engaged with him and would never have been free to join these forces otherwise. He gave orders to stand down from the attack and, that night, quietly retreated toward the Metaurus River, probably intending to cross the next morning. His army got lost in the darkness, however, and when morning came the troops were strung out in a long and disordered line along the south bank of the river.
Nero again acted decisively ordering an attack against the counsel of the other two generals. Hasdrubal drew up his army in formation as best he could and held the lines until Nero moved his troops back behind the advancing Roman line and threw them against Hasdrubal’s right wing, breaking it. The Roman advance at first caused the Carthaginians to fall back, but then the retreat turned into a rout, and the rout a massacre. Hasdrubal, realizing he was defeated and his brother probably dead, rode into the Roman lines swinging his sword and was killed.
Having neutralized Hasdrubal’s threat, Nero marched his men back south and rejoined his army. There is no evidence that Hannibal ever knew he had gone anywhere. Hannibal was still waiting for word from his brother when Roman cavalry rode up to his camp and hurled a dark, round object toward the sentries; it was Hasdrubal’s head. When it was delivered to Hannibal he is alleged to have said, “I see there the fate of Carthage” (Bradford, 177). The hopes Hannibal had of uniting with his brother for a concentrated attack on Rome were dashed and, lacking reinforcements, Hannibal recognized that he could only continue on playing the same kind of cat-and-mouse maneuvers with the Romans as he had been doing.
Scipio Africanus, having won Spain for the Romans, had other plans for Hannibal, however. He believed that if he threatened Carthage itself that Hannibal would be recalled from Italy to defend it and Scipio could defeat him in Africa. Scipio’s plan worked exactly as he imagined: Hannibal was recalled with his troops and Scipio defeated him at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. The Second Punic War was over, and Rome was the victor.
Hannibal survived the battle and eventually left Carthage to avoid being handed over to his enemies. Continually pursued by the Romans, he finally committed suicide by poison at the court of the king of Bithynia in 183 BCE at the age of 65. His exploits in the war became legendary in his own time, but Hasdrubal was given considerably less notice. Even so, Hasdrubal Barca was an impressive and inspiring leader who was finally only defeated by generals using his brother’s own kind of tactics against him.