Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, went to check in with the priests at the temple just before setting out for Spain. His army was waiting for him in their ships at the port of Carthage.
Ruins of the Ancient port of Carthage (public domain photo)
The priests told him the omens were good, so he went ahead and performed the usual ceremonies, which included the sacrifice of a sheep. His nine-year-old son Hannibal stood with him at the altar and watched his dad make the sacrifice and go through the prayers.
When they were finished, Hamilcar asked the priests and other men present to stand back a little from the altar while he spoke to his son. “Would you like to come along with me to Spain?” he asked the boy. He had been given the mission of subjugating Iberia in preparation for the coming war with Rome.
“Oh yes!” Hannibal had been told that he would have to wait to go until he was older. “Please let me go!” he begged. “Please, father!”
“All right,” said Hamilcar. “I’ll show you how to fight. And do you know why? So you will always beat a Roman.”
Hannibal’s Vow. From A pictorial history of the world’s great nations, from the earliest dates to the present time. (New York : Hess, c1882) Yonge, Charlotte Mary (1823-1901), Author. See this and other old engravings about Hannibal here
And then he made the little boy swear.
He led him to the altar and lifted him up to the dead sheep that he had just sacrificed; and he made Hannibal put his little hand on the still-warm body and swear that he would never, ever, become a friend to the Romans.
So deep and so strong was the resentment Hannibal’s father felt after that first lost war with Rome.
A legend? The story came from Hannibal himself. That is and isn’t reason to believe it, since he was a most wily old fox and was known to mislead all his life. But that he hated Rome no one ever doubted and so it might as well be true.
He told it years later to a Greek king. Hannibal had lost his last battle with the Romans and was on the run.
Battle of Zama, Hannibal is defeated by Scipio, 202 B.C. from a painting by Cornelis Cort, 1567 (public domain photo)
In Greece King Antiochus took him in, which was a bit of humanity the Romans didn’t appreciate, of course. Rome was tired of the way Greece had always intrigued against them. Now Rome spread the rumor that Hannibal had become their secret ally. This made the king doubt and he asked Hannibal outright if it was true. That’s when he told the swearing story and added: “Now that you know this, which I’ve never told to anyone, be sure that as long as you are hostile to Rome, you can count on me as your most trustworthy supporter. But if ever you turn around and become an ally of Rome’s, then watch out for me—you won’t need to call and ask me how I lean. There is nothing in this world—nothing—that I won’t do to harm Rome.”