An Examination of Titus Livius and Nepos' Portrayal of Hannibal Barca


This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my CLASSICS 20 course, which earned a grade of A+.

Within the sparse collection of enduring Roman historical annals, few figures command as much fascination as Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general who arguably came the closest to bringing Rome to her knees. However, given our overwhelming reliance on Roman accounts as primary sources, it is crucial to recognize that the lens through which we view Hannibal is colored by Roman narratives. Factors such as the intended audience, the desired impact and the literature genre could significantly shape the portrayal of a character or an event. In this essay, we will venture into the heart of two prominent narratives: Livy’s From the Foundation of the City (Ab Urbe Condita) and Cornelius Nepos’ Life of Hannibal. While both Livy and Nepos acknowledge the magnitude of Hannibal's military prowess, they paint vastly different portraits of his moral character. I will argue that Livy, penning his account for a Roman audience, chalks up Hannibal’s military success to his extraordinary physical abilities while highlighting his vices, thereby creating a distinct antagonist for the Romans. Nepos, however, adopts a more measured approach, presenting a balanced character study of Hannibal that cites his unwavering dedication and deep-seated hatred of Rome as the driving forces behind his campaign’s triumphs.

Before we examine the first literary passage, it is pivotal that we establish some historical context about Hannibal, which will serve as the foundation for our literary analysis. Hannibal hailed from the prestigious Barca family of Carthage, and was the son of Hamilcar, a prominent Carthaginian general. In fact, the family name “Barca”, which translates to “Thunderbolt”, is a testament to Hamilcar’s aggressive guerilla campaign in Sicily and his audacious raids against the Italian coast. After Hamilcar led Carthage in its effort to quell the vicious rebellion of its mercenary soldiers during the Truceless War, he also forged a new empire for Carthage in Hispania. These successive leadership roles not only consolidated his influence within the Carthaginian government, but also earned him widespread support amongst his people (Mulligan 37). Livy leverages Hamilcar’s larger-than-life reputation to set the stage for Hannibal’s initial encounter with the Carthaginian army. Upon meeting Hannibal for the first time, the entire army was captivated by the striking similarities between Hannibal and his father (Livy 4). In particular, he inherited the “dynamism in his expression” and “forcefulness in his eyes” from Hamilcar – qualities that are highly valued in a military leader. Livy proceeds to illustrate how naturally Hannibal fit into the military scene, potentially due to his upbringing in a military household: “There was no one Hasdrubal…confidence and courage”. Towards the end of the passage, Livy mentioned that Hannibal served under Hasdrubal, “overlooking nothing that needed to be done or seen by a man destined to be a great leader”. He further states that since Hannibal took command, it was “as if Italy has been decreed his province” (Livy 4). These seemingly distinct textual evidences work together to subtly craft a narrative that Hannibal’s lineage and the characteristics he inherited heralded his destiny as a formidable Carthaginian commander. Since the Romans staunchly believed in auspices, Livy's portrayal of Hannibal as a destined leader would have resonated strongly with his Roman audience. This narrative not only underscores Hannibal's leadership qualities, but also allows his readers to draw parallels from Livy's own account of Romulus and Remus’ attempt to interpret divine will by observing vultures in the sky during the founding of Rome, as mentioned in lecture and discussion.

Furthermore, Livy employs several literary devices when describing Hannibal as an individual. In particular, when Livy claims that Hannibal is “able to withstand heat and cold alike”,  “by no hardship could he be physically exhausted or mentally cowed” and “first to enter battle, … last to leave…”, he is adopting the usage of hyperbole (Livy 4). By making these exaggerated claims, Livy helps the reader to appreciate the level of dedication and resiliency that Hannibal embodies. Livy also makes use of imagery when he vividly describes Hannibal’s austere military lifestyle of only eating for sustenance and sleeping on the ground with a soldier’s cloak (Livy 4). Combining these mental images in the readers’ minds with the previous hyperbole, Livy reinforces the portrayal of Hannibal as having superhuman qualities that were bestowed upon him by the divine. In the final section, Livy juxtaposed “great virtues”' and “enormous vices'” to effectively depict Hannibal as a complex character with graces and grievances in equal measure (Livy 4). In fact, one could argue that with this juxtaposition, Livy essentially leverages his lengthy preceding descriptions about Hannibal’s virtues to portray Hannibal’s vileness, without needing to provide any historical evidence. Livy further builds upon this notion when he employs parallelism to list Hannibal’s vices: “no regard for truth and no integrity, no fear of the gods or respect for an oath” (Livy 4). This rhythmic repetition of the word “no” and the similar sentence structure serves to illustrate the extent of his moral corruption, albeit using broad and vague terms. It is worth noting that without providing any concrete anecdotes, Livy’s effective usage of literary devices sketches a distinct image of Hannibal, allowing readers to appreciate the depth of both the Carthaginian’s virtues and vices.

The portrayal of Hannibal in Nepos’ Life of Hannibal traverses many of the same tangents as Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. They both concur that from Hamilcar, Hannibal inherited an indomitable desire to crush Rome, and his military prowess was unparalleled. Nepos specifically stated that “as often as he engaged with that people in Italy, he invariably came off victor” – a tangible evidence to contextualize the extent Hannibal’s military prowess, but one that was deliberately avoided by Livy, who attempts to achieve the same effect by viewing Hannibal’s exaggerated physical abilities in a black box, instead of explicitly narrating Rome’s successive defeats (Nepos 1). More prominently, Nepos sets himself apart from Livy as he does not shy away from citing specific historical and anecdotal evidence in his portrayal of Hannibal. For instance, Nepos states that within three years of assuming the commandership, Hannibal “subdued all the people of Spain” and “stormed Saguntum” (Nepos 1). Nepos also highlights Hannibal’s valiant effort to not only cross the Alps with an army – a rare feat accomplished only by Hercules – but also to use that as a route to come into Italy. He takes a page out of Livy’s playbook and uses imagery when he describes that Hannibal “made it possible for an elephant with its equipment to go over places along which before that a single unarmed man could barely creep”. Finally, Nepos’ description of Hannibal’s military prowess culminates in the mention of the battle of Cannae, during which Hannibal decimated 70,000 Roman troops and allies, constituting "the largest army that Rome would ever field within Italy," in a single afternoon (Nepos 1). By citing multiple military feats and explaining their respective significance, Nepos allows for a much more concrete depiction of Hannibal as a commander, one that is grounded in historical facts instead of rhetorical fluff. As a biographer, this aligns with his primary objective of shedding light on “the lives of illustrious men” through a factual and comprehensive lens.

Moreover, another notable divergence between Nepos and Livy’s approach is the key factor that they attribute to Hannibal’s military success. While Livy presents Hannibal’s inherent nature and exaggerated physical abilities as the main contributing factor to his triumphs, Nepos identifies Hannibal’s loyalty towards Carthage and Hamilcar, which fueled his hatred of the Romans, as the driving force behind his successes. To illustrate this, Nepos narrated an instance when Hannibal’s sentiments towards the Romans were called into question by King Antiochus, who sheltered Hannibal after his defeat in the Battle of Zama (Nepos 4). Upon realizing this, Hannibal cited to the King the “many proofs of his loyalty” and recounted his childhood oath of hatred against Rome. Hannibal then proceeded to express his continued resolve in upholding his pledge by requesting that he be appointed to spearhead the war against Rome (Nepos 4). Even in exile, Hannibal’s unyielding hatred of the Romans sustained his war with Rome, at least in spirit.

One of the most prominent contributing factors towards these differences in the portrayal of Hannibal is the target audience of the two literary works. Livy’s objective, as he notes in the preface of Ab Urbe Condita, is to have his readers ponder on the importance of traditional Roman virtues and moral principles, as well as the potentially drastic effects of moral flaws. He also admits that his work is “rather adorned with poetic legends” that he neither aims to affirm nor refute, which implies that historical accuracy is not his main objective. Both of these disclaimers help us understand that Livy’s primary aim of narrating Hannibal as a powerful yet ruthless adversary is twofold. Firstly, it establishes the image that Rome’s might is not threatened by the common military man, but a Carthaginian whose inherent nature and military nurture aligned for him to fulfill his destiny as a formidable military leader. Secondly, by highlighting Hannibal’s “inhuman cruelty” and depicting him as “a treachery worse than Carthaginian”, Livy aligns his portrayal of Hannibal with Rome’s view of Carthaginians as morally flawed and corrupt (Livy 4). This unique portrayal, which intertwines admiration with revulsion, provides a justification for the honorable Romans to quell the vicious enemy, thereby reinforcing Hannibal’s role as an antagonist that needs to be defeated. On the contrary, we can interpret Nepos’ literature as the work of a history scholar. Evidently, Nepos omits any mytho-historical elements in his writings and consistently cites verifiable historical events to support his claims. This allows his readers to truly understand what drives Hannibal as an individual: his relentless enmity towards Rome as a product of his loyalty to Carthage and his father’s legacy.

In conclusion, while Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita and Nepos’ Life of Hannibal jointly recognize Hannibal’s military prowess, it is important to note the contrasting depictions of Hannibal’s moral character and his factor of success. These important differences in approach and perspective reflect not just the complexities of Hannibal’s character, but also how an author’s target audience and intended takeaway can affect the perspectives they represent. As we continue to explore the past, we must remember that history is not a single, unchanging narrative, but a tapestry of stories, each woven from a unique perspective, thereby necessitating our proper consideration of the intended implication of each story.


Livy, Titus, et al. “4 - 5.1.” Ab Urbe Condita, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge, 2020. 

Mulligan, Bret, and Cornelius Nepos. “3: Historical Context and Hannibal.” Cornelius Nepos, Life of Hannibal: Latin Text, Notes, Maps, Illustrations and Vocabulary, Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 21–41. 

Mulligan, Bret, and Cornelius Nepos. “1 - 4.” Cornelius Nepos, Life of Hannibal: Latin Text, Notes, Maps, Illustrations and Vocabulary, Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge, 2015.