The scene is priceless and worthy of any American movie. It was 229 BC in the Iberian Peninsula when Amilcar Barca, the Carthaginian general father of the mythical Hannibal, appeared before the walls of Helix with a great army. His stamp was that of an emperor; an unbeatable military man with thousands of men at his command. It seemed impossible that nothing would end his legacy and his conquests. However, all that greatness vanished with a blow from the Iberian sword. Or so some classic historians say, since the only thing that is known about his death is that it occurred after an ambush in the Hispanic city. The question is clear: how did the military man who plundered the riches of that still-to-be-born Spain leave this world?
The mess of sources is guaranteed when it comes to the death of this character. Enrique Gonzalbes Cravioto This is how he emphasizes it in ‘
Helix and the death of Hamilcar Barca‘, a very documented dossier in which the conclusion is that there are no conclusions. For every classical historian who makes reference to the event in his writings, there is a different version; dozens in total in which some aspects change or others are exaggerated according to the relationship that Rome had at that time with Carthage. In ‘Phoenicians and Punics in North Africa and the western Mediterranean‘, the professor Carlos Gonzalez Wagner is of the same opinion: “It is only certain that, in the winter of 229-228 BC, Hamilcar died in circumstances not yet clarified.” The enigma survives two thousand years later.
But first things first. The historian tells Jose Maria Blázquez in an article on Amílcar Barca prepared for the
Royal Academy of History that our protagonist was born in 290 BC in Carthage. His family was that of the Bárquidas, a powerful lineage that supported its wealth in the immeasurable extensions of land that it treasured. He spent his youth in conquered Sicily, the same one that entered the fray in the First Punic War. And from there, to his homeland again, where he was forced to stand up to the call ‘Mercenary war‘. His relationship with the peninsula started shortly before 237 BC, when he saw in unruly Hispania a storehouse of riches with which to rebuild his old empire with the blow of saber and rapine.
Blázquez makes it clear: «The plan that Amílcar projected on Hispania was carefully prepared. Carthage was well acquainted with the fabulous wealth of Hispania in minerals, fisheries and agriculture. He could provide all the mercenaries he needed, and with the mining wealth he could pay the soldiers. ‘ The general landed with his sons, Hannibal Y Hasdrubal, in Cádiz the same year 237 BC. From there, an expansion began across the peninsula that was characterized by a maxim: that of silver or the sword. The tribes had to accept his conditions or be crushed by the might of his army. Still, and that’s undeniable, he earned a certain respect by sparing the lives of inmates in exchange for them fighting for him. That of the two birds and the stone.
And do not believe that the expert is based on hearsay. Appiano de Alejandría, born in the 1st century BC, emphasizes in his work dedicated to the affairs of the Iberian Peninsula that Hamilcar dedicated himself to devastate the Spanish territory to support his army. In this sense, he followed the maxims of Alexander the Great, whom he emulated when founding the city of Acra Leuca, located today in Tossal de Manises. From there, he set out to dominate the peninsula and destroy his enemies, among whom Hélice was soon counted. He laid siege to that quasi mystical city – its exact location is still unknown – in the 1930s, and at the edge of its walls he found death by surprise.
One of the few chroniclers who recorded what happened there was Diodorus Siculus, born in the 1st century BC: «Hamilcar, who had established himself next to the city of Hélice, laying siege to it, remained there with the rest of his troops, after sending most of his army and elephants to the Accra barracks Leuca ». In his words, after the departure of the bulk of his troops, “the king of the Orissos, who had arrived at the same time to the aid of the besieged after having made a feigned pact of friendship” with the Carthaginians, arrived in the area. The result was as expected: the African general was pushed into “a mighty river” with his men. There he died, although it is not known if by drowning, by the edge of a sword or by drowning.
Around with the sources
Behold, the enigma is born; one that perfectly analyzes Gonzalbes. The most widespread version of his death is that offered by Apiano, although it is also the most fantastic. According to his writings, the Iberians launched dozens of carts drawn by oxen against the Carthaginian general. And boy did it go well. “They brought carts loaded with logs to which they yoked oxen and followed them armed with weapons. The Africans when they saw them laughed, but when they were very close, the Iberians set fire to the chariots and drove them against the enemy. The fire, spread everywhere, caused confusion. When the formation was broken, the Iberians charged and killed Hamilcar ”, reveals the classic author. It does not explain, yes, how the military man left his life or who killed him. All intrigues.
This picturesque theory was collected centuries later by the historian Juan Zonaras back in the twelfth century. There is no doubt that it is the most popular for highlighting the traditional Hispanic wit, but it is also true that it has been one of the most criticized by experts. One of its main detractors has been the archaeologist Adolf Schulten, who called it a “crazy story” originating from a “particularly obnoxious analyst.” Gonsalbes is the one who sharpens the pen against the stratagem. The expert confirms in his dossier that, while chroniclers such as Livio The Polybius They recorded similar tricks in later years –one of them, used by Hannibal in the Falerno gorge–, they did not put this one on target when referring to the death of Hamilcar between 229 and 228 BC.
Another of the most popular versions of his death is the one offered by the aforementioned Diodoro. The Sicilian historian is in favor of the fact that, after putting the Carthaginian army to flight, the king of the Orissos pursued the Carthaginian general without rest. He longed for his head, to put an end to the pressure that his men exerted on the Hispanic tribes. However, our protagonist preferred to die rather than fall into its clutches. “Hamilcar sought the salvation of his children and friends, turning aside by another path, and thus, pursued by the king, he threw himself with his horse into a mighty river, and under his mount perished because of the current. But the group in which his sons Aníbal and Asdrúbal went was led to Acra Leuca », adds the classic author. The translations of this fragment are counted by dozens, each one with its variations; the essence is the same.
The third possibility also praises the warrior ardor of the Iberians. According to the Roman historian Marco Juniano Justino, illuminated in the second century AD, Hamilcar Barca fell into the error of believing himself a god. His fortune, his strength, and the vast number of men in his army supported him, but the pointed end of a spear did not make him invulnerable before. In the words of this author, that feeling of immortality made him fight to the end against enemy soldiers: “After carrying out great undertakings, while being thoughtlessly carried away by fortune, he is pushed into an ambush and is killed.” The poet Silo Italico is of the same opinion, although he hardly limits himself to pointing out that he died in combat. Appian of Alexandria is also of the same opinion.
The latest version is wielded by the 12th century Byzantine scholar Johannes Tzetzes and Gonsalbes collects it in his dossier. According to it, the Iberians betrayed the Carthaginians and charged them against Helix. Hamilcar then ordered a massive retreat, but decided to stay in the rear with a small contingent to delay the enemy advance. The Hispanics recognized the military man and threw themselves face down against him. The African’s plan went halfway well. His sons, Hannibal and Hasdrubal, escaped, but he was forced to fight to the end. «The source says that, totally surrounded, he fell with his horse into the turbulent waters of the river Iber. There he was hit by a javelin and drowned. His body could not be found by the natives since he was swept away by the current, ”reveals the Spaniard.