Hannibal’s Famous Vow

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.”

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6 Responses to Hannibal’s Famous Vow

  1. Anonymous says:

    if he felt this way why was there numidans on both sides at zama….

  2. 100swallows says:

    Michael: Do you mean Plutarch mentioned the altar and the pillars? It couldn’t have been Herodotus because he lived in the fifth century BC and Hannibal lived in the late third and beginning of the second.
    Of course Carthage was a Phoenician colony and Melkart was its god, just as he was Tyre’s, in the mother country. No image of him was allowed. (See my post on Caesar at Cadiz.) Those two pillars were his emblems. I can’t say if the Phoenician/Carthaginian temples were the only ones without an image of the god. Of course the Ten Commandments forbade “graven images”, as you know. Solomon’s temple had only those two cherubs guarding the Ark of the Covenant. Alexander stopped in at many shrines and places of worship, toying with the idea that he was himself a god.

  3. michael higgins 3rd (hippy) says:

    I have a question, “when hannibal begins at age 19 or 20
    before crossing the alps, herodtous says he prayed in a temple
    that contained 2 pillars and an alter, no statues,
    is it coinsidence that alexander the great , at 20 makes it a point to do the same in tyer , where he spends months,
    just to worship in a temple with 2 pillars and an alter.
    (melquart/herculese/Samson),

    are these the only temple in acient times, that held no statues?

  4. Pingback: A lot about fathers « The Hannibal Blog

  5. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, andreaskluth. I wrote the post a while ago and I don’t remember why I supposed the victim was a sheep. Probably someone I read besides Polybius called it a sheep and that sounded good enough. I had never heard that it could have been a slave, let alone Hannibal’s brother. I thought the Carthaginians had ended their human sacrifices by then.
    Good luck on that book.

  6. andreaskluth says:

    Hi, 100falcons. Great post. I’m curious where you found out that the sacrificial victim was a sheep. In my translation of Polybius, it just says “victim”. There’s a Stanford Professor, Patrick Hunt, who thinks it might have been a (human) slave. There’s even a more gruesome theory that it was Hannibal’s older brother (thereby lost to history). I personally agree with you that a sheep is most likely. But I’m wondering if there is some new evidence?
    Wonderful blog. I’ll link to it on http://www.hannibalblog.com

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