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Biography of Hamilcar Barca

Name: Hamilcar Barca
Bith Date: c. 285 B.C.
Death Date: c. 229 B.C.
Place of Birth:
Nationality: Carthaginian
Gender: Male
Occupations: statesman, general
Hamilcar Barca

Hamilcar Barca (ca. 285-ca. 229 BC) was a great Carthaginian general and statesman in the First Punic War who firmly established Carthaginian rule in Spain.

Hamilcar Barca was a daring, intelligent young man. He was appointed commander in chief in Sicily in 247 B.C., when, after 18 years of fighting, the Carthaginian forces were at their lowest. Entrusted with naval operations, he immediately set out to attack and ravage the coastline of Lucania and Bruttium. He then landed on the north coast of Sicily, seizing Mt. Hercte west of Panormus. From this vantage point he hoped to strike at the rear of the armies besieging Lily-baeum and Drepanum and possibly draw off their forces to the defense of Panormus. Meanwhile, he fortified the site, built a harbor for his fleet, and continued the raids on the Italian coast as far north as Cumae.

When, after 3 years of harassing the Romans and holding them at bay, Hamilcar was finally dislodged from Mt. Hercte, he captured the city of Eryx, thus driving a wedge between the Romans who occupied the Temple of Venus on top of Mt. Eryx and the army that besieged Drepanum. From this new strategic point Hamilcar sallied out with his fleet and continued to devastate the Sicilian and Italian shores.

Hamilcar's position became untenable, however, when the Roman victory over the Carthaginian fleet at the Aegates islands in 241 cut him off from the sea. His home government gave him full power to negotiate the best possible terms of peace with the Roman victor, Gaius Lutatius Catulus. Acting as a good and prudent leader, Hamilcar drew up a treaty with Lutatius, which, even though not fully accepted by the Roman people, put an end to the First Punic War. Hamilcar received free retreat for his troops, transferred them from Mt. Eryx to Lilybaeum, and laid down his command.

Revolt of the Mercenaries

Upon returning to Africa, Hamilcar's mercenary troops revolted because the Carthaginians were unable to pay them their arrears. When Hanno, the commander in chief in Africa, failed to suppress the revolt, Hamilcar replaced him. Hamilcar surrounded the mercenaries' position at the river Bagrades (Medjerda), defeated their leader Spendius, and relieved the siege of Utica. Trapped in turn by Spendius, Hamilcar extricated himself with the help of the young Numidian chief Naravas. In this battle 10,000 mercenaries were killed and 4,000 taken captive; Hamilcar either dismissed the captives or enrolled them in his own army. But he changed his policy of clemency when the rebel leaders inveigled the mercenaries to mutilate cruelly their Carthaginian prisoners.

An open quarrel between Hamilcar and Hanno resulted in the latter's recall and replacement. When the mercenaries laid siege to the city of Carthage, Hamilcar drove them into a defile and annihilated them. Having achieved a reconciliation with Hanno under pressure from the Carthaginian Senate, Hamilcar turned against the last contingent of rebellious mercenaries, who were laying siege to Tunis. He defeated their leader Matho in a decisive battle and finally reduced Utica in 238.

Conquest of Spain

Emerging as the most popular leader at the end of the war against the mercenaries, Hamilcar easily won the people's support for a new war intended to make up for the loss of Sicily and Sardinia. He was sent to Spain in the spring of 237, accompanied by his 9-year-old son Hannibal, whom he made swear eternal hatred against Rome. With the Phoenician colony of Gades as his base, Hamilcar fought successfully against Tartessians, Celts, and Iberians in southern and western Spain. Then he transferred his line of operations to the east, reduced the Iberians north of Cape Palos, pushed forward the Carthaginian frontier as far north as Cape Nao, and built a fortress at Akra Leuke on the rocky hill of Alicante to dominate the newly conquered territory. He thus overstepped the boundary line between Massilia and Carthage. Upon protestations from Rome, Massilia's ally, Hamilcar replied that his conquest was needed to pay his country's war indemnity to Rome.

Hamilcar died in the winter of 229/228, after 9 years of warfare in Spain, while besieging the town of Helice southwest of Alicante. As he was about to withdraw from the siege in order to meet an Iberian king in battle, he drowned in the river Alebos (Vinalapò).

It is difficult to give a fair estimate of Hamilcar's generalship in the First Punic War, since he arrived too late on the scene to change the tide. The historian Polybius--although conceding the Romans' superiority in individual courage--gave the palm of leadership to Hamilcar. The anti-Barcid tradition, found in Roman historians, blamed Hamilcar's personal ambition for his wars in Spain and denied that he was backed by his home government. Although this tradition is untrue, there can be no question that Hamilcar's conquests and the rising power of Carthage in Spain ultimately led to the great conflict with Rome in the Second Punic War.

Further Reading

  • The major ancient source for the life of Hamilcar is Polybius. For the historical background of Hamilcar's life and the Punic Wars see B. H. Warmington, Carthage (1960; rev. ed. 1969), and Gilbert Charles Picard and Colette Picard, The Life and Death of Carthage, translated by Dominique Collon (1969). Hamilcar received extensive treatment in Gavin de Beer, Hannibal: Challenging Rome's Supremacy (1969).

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