An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Hannibal

As an aid to students, teachers and parents, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. We’ve shared bite size introductions to historical figures, events and periods – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. H is for Hannibal.



E. H. Gombrich: Hannibal was a truly extraordinary young man. Reared among soldiers, he knew everything there was to know about warfare. Hunger and cold, heat and thirst, forced marches day and night, he had seen them all. He was fearless, unbelievably tenacious and a born leader. He could outwit the enemy with his cunning and sum up a situation in an instant, and he has a cool head. He was that rare thing: a man who made war like a chess-player, carefully considering each move before he made it.

‘He left Spain immediately for Italy, equipped with war elephants and a large army – a truly formidable force.’

But above all he was a good Carthaginian. He already hated the Romans for trying to subdue his native city, and their meddling in Spain was the last straw. He left Spain immediately for Italy, equipped with war elephants and a large army – a truly formidable force. To reach Italy he had to take his army and all his elephants across the whole of southern France, across rivers and over mountains and right up over the Alps. He may have taken the pass that goes over the shoulder of Mount Cenis, as it is known today. I’ve been there myself, following a wide, winding road. But how they found their way over those wild mountains in those days, with no roads to follow, is impossible to imagine. Surrounded by deep ravines, sheer precipices and slippery grass ledges – I wouldn’t want to be up there with one elephant, let alone forty, and by then it was already September and there was snow on the mountain tops.

But Hannibal found a way through for his army and they finally reached Italy. There he was confronted by the Romans, but he defeated them in a bloody battle. Later a second Roman army surprised his camp under cover of darkness. But Hannibal, having been forewarned, saved himself with a cunning trick. He tied flaming torches to the horns of a herd of cattle and drove them down the mountainside where his camp was billeted. In the darkness the Roman soldiers mistook them for Hannibal’s soldiers and rushed off in hot pursuit. How I would love to have seen their faces when they finally caught up with them and found they were cows!

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about Hannibal

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use:

BBC History
Hannibal, Carthaginian general and political leader – Dr Peter Heather

BBC In Our Time

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Khan Academy
Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (video)

The Yale Blog
Hannibal: No Ordinary Enemy – Eve MacDonald

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.

A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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