Hamilcar Barca

Hamilcar Barca

[huh-mil-kahr bahr-kuh, ham-uhl-kahr]
Hamilcar Barca, d. 229 or 228 B.C., Carthaginian general. He was assigned the command in Sicily in 247 in the First Punic War (see Punic Wars). From mountain bases near Palermo he made repeated raids on the Romans and relieved the Punic garrison in Lilybaeum. However, the Carthaginians were defeated, and Hamilcar Barca negotiated the terms of the peace that led to Carthage's withdrawal from Sicily. The Carthaginian mercenaries shortly afterward revolted and besieged Carthage, but Hamilcar defeated them in 238. After that his popularity made him virtual dictator. He then set out (237) to conquer Spain as a new base against Rome and had won considerable territory when he died. Hamilcar was probably the ablest general and statesman that Carthage had before his son Hannibal.
Hamilcar Barca or Barcas (ca. 275 – 228 BC) was a Carthaginian general and statesman, leader of the Barcid family, and father of Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago. He was also father-in-law to Hasdrubal the Fair. The name Hamilcar (Punic-Phoenician ḥmlqrt, "brother of Melqart") was a common name for Carthaginian men. Baraq means "lightning" or ‘’Swordflash’’in the Punic language.

Hamilcar commanded the Carthaginian land forces in Sicily during 247 -241 BC during the latter stages of the First Punic War. He kept his army intact and led a successful guerrilla war against the Romans in Sicily. After the defeat of Carthage in 241 BC Hamilcar retired to Africa after the peace treaty. When the Mercenary War burst out in 239 BC, Hamilcar was recalled to command and was instrumental in concluding that conflict successfully. Hamilcar commanded Carthaginian expedition to Spain in 237 BC, and for 8 years expanded the territory of Carthage in Spain before dying in battle in 228 BC.


Little is known about the Barcid family. The names of Hamilcars’ parents are unknown, and it is hypothesized that the family may have come from Cyrene and was part of the landed aristocracy of Carthage. He was young (33 years old) when he received the Sicilian command. By this time he had 3 daughters, and his son Hannibal was born in 247 BC.

Hamilcar in Sicily

The Carthaginians had gained command of the sea after their victory in the Battle of Drepanum in 249 BC, but they only held two cities in Sicily: Lilybaeum and Drepanum by the time Hamilcar took up command in Sicily. Carthage at this time was feeling the strain of the prolonged conflict (In addition to maintaining a fleet and soldiers in Sicily they were also fighting the Libyans and Numidians in Africa), and as a result Hamilcar was given a fairly small army and the Carthaginian fleet was gradually withdrawn so that by 244 BC Carthage had no ships to speak of in Sicily. Hamilcar was in command of a mercenary army composed of multiple nationalities and his ability to successfully lead this force demonstrates his ability as field commander. He employed combined arms tactics, like Alexander or Pyhrrus, and his strategy was similar to the ones employed by Quintus Fabius Maximus in the Second Punic War, ironically against the eldest son of Hamilcar. The difference is that Fabius commanded a numerically superior army than his opponent and had no supply problems, and had room to maneuver, while Hamilcar was static and had a far smaller army than his opponent.

Hamilcar, upon taking command, punished the rebellious mercenaries (unruly because of overdue payment) by murdering some of them at night and drowning the rest at sea, and dismissing many to Africa. With a reduced army and fleet, Hamilcar commenced his operations. Hamilcar raided Locri and Brindisi in 247 BC, and upon his return he seized a strong position on Mount Ercte (Monte Pellegrino, near Palermo or Mt. Castellacio 7 miles NW of Palermo) , and not only maintained himself against all attacks, but carried on with his raids from Catana in Sicily to far as Cumae in central Italy. He also set about improving the spirit of the army, and succeeded in creating a highly disciplined, versatile force. While Hamilcar won no large scale battle or recaptured cities lost to the Romans, Carthaginians waged a relentless campaign against the Roman land forces, and their efforts caused a constant drain on Roman resources.

In 244 BC he transferred his army at night by sea to a similar position on the slopes of Mt. Eryx (Monte San Giuliano), from which he was able to lend support to the besieged garrison in the neighboring town of Drepanum (Trapani). Hamilcar had sized a position between Roman forces stationed in the summit and their camp at the base, but continued his activities unhindered. He managed to foil a plan by his Celtic mercenaries to betray his position to the Romans. During one of the raids, when troops under a subordinate commander named “Boaster” engaged in plunder against the orders of Hamilcar and were suffered severe casualties when the Romans caught them, Hamilcar requested a truce to bury his dead. The Roman consul arrogantly replied that Hamilcar should request a truce to save his living and denied the request. Hamilcar managed to inflict severe casualties on the Romans soon after, and when the Roman consul requested a truce to bury his dead, Hamilcar replied that his quarrel was with the living only and the dead had already settled their dues, and granted the truce. The actions of Hamilcar, and his immunity to defeat, plus the stalemate at the siege of Lilybaeum may have caused the Romans to start building a fleet in 243 BC. The Roman Republic was broke and nearly exhausted and had to borrow money from wealthy citizens to fund the construction. In 242 BC, this fleet blockaded the Carthaginian positions and defeated a hastily raised undermanned Carthaginian fleet off Aegates islands in 241 BC. Hamilcar was authorized by Carthage to negotiate for peace, but the actual parley was conducted by Gisco, the Carthaginian commander of Lilybaeum. By a provision of the peace of 241 BC Hamilcar's unbeaten force was allowed to depart from Sicily without any token of submission – a rare gesture granted by the Romans to a defeated enemy.

The Truce less War

Upon returning to Carthage, his troops, which had been kept together only by his personal authority and by the promise of good pay, broke out into open mutiny when their rewards were withheld by Hamilcar's opponents among the governing aristocracy, starting the conflict later named the Mercenary War. The serious danger into which Carthage was brought by the failure of the aristocratic generals was averted by Hamilcar, whom the government in this crisis could not but reinstate. By the power of his personal influence among the mercenaries and the surrounding African peoples, and by superior strategy, he speedily crushed the revolt (237 BC). Rome, which had dealt with Carthage with all due honor and courtesy during the crisis, going as far as to release all Punic prisoners without ransom and refuse to accept the offer from Utica and Sardinia to incorporate these territories into the Roman domain, seized Sardinia and Corsica and forced Carthage to pay 1200 talents for her initial refusal to renounce her claim over the islands. This is one of the causes of the Second Punic War and held as the motivation of the subsequent activities of Hamilcar.

Operations in Africa

After this success Hamilcar enjoyed such influence among the popular and patriotic party that his opponents could not prevent him being raised to a virtual dictatorship. Hamilcar allied with Hasdrubal the Fair, his future son in law, to restrict the power of the aristocracy led by Hanno the Great. Hamilcar obtained permission from the Carthaginian Senate for recruiting and training a new army, with the immediate goal of securing the African domain of Carthage. Training for the army was obtained in some Numidian forays, then Hamilcar marched the army West to the straits of Gibralter. Hasdrubal the Fair commanded the fleet carrying supplies and elephants along the coast, keeping pace with the army. Hamilcar on his own responsibility ferried the army across to Gades to start an expedition into Hispania (236 BC), where he hoped to gain a new empire to compensate Carthage for the loss of Sicily and Sardinia, and to serve as a base for any future conflicts against the Romans.

Barcid Spain

In eight years by force of arms and diplomacy Hamilcar secured an extensive territory in Hispania, but his premature death in battle (228 BC) prevented him from completing the conquest. Hamilcar stood out far above the Carthaginians of his age in military and diplomatic skill and in strength of patriotism; in these qualities he was surpassed only by his son Hannibal, whom he had imbued with his own deep suspicion of Rome and trained to be his successor in the conflict.


Hamilcar had at least three daughters and at least three sons. His first daughter was married to Bomilca, who was a suffet of Carthage and may have commanded the Punic fleet in the Second Punic war. His son Hanno was an important commander in the army of Hannibal. The third daughter married Naravas, a Numidian chieftain whose defection had saved Hamilcar and his army during the mercenary war. The second daughter was married to Hasdrubal the Fair. Hamilcar had sired 3 sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago, all to have distinguished carriers in service of their country. A fourth unnamed son is often mentioned but details are lacking.

Hamilcar is sometimes confused with Hamilcar, another Carthaginian general.


Further Reading

  • Warry, John (1993). Warfare in The Classical World. Salamander Books Ltd.. ISBN 1-56619-463-6.
  • Lancel, Serge (1997). Carthage A History. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 1-57718-103-4.


He allegedly founded the city of Barcino (currently named Barcelona) while he was on Hispania.

Hamilcar in Literature

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