Imagine the United States building a statue of Ho Chi Minh in the middle of New York City. Or one of Nikita Khrushchev in Washington D.C. As unlikely as its sounds for a mighty empire to build such a monument to a once-great, potentially vanquished foe, that's how Ancient Rome used to roll. No matter what your high school history teacher told you, the Romans were not always the preeminent ancient group of indefatigable soldiers history gives them credit for.
Mighty Carthage would field its greatest commander, Hannibal Barca, against Rome. He would turn out to be a leader so great even the Romans would build statues in his honor.
Don't get it twisted, Rome in its heyday did conquer plenty of foreign tribes from Londinium to Mesopotamia and is worthy of its reputation. But before any of that, the young Roman Empire wasn't even as big as modern-day Italy. In the Punic Wars, they chose the wrong empire to square off against. Carthage was much more powerful than tiny Rome, and its leadership was much better at fielding armies. One of those was the military leader known to history simply as Hannibal.
Hannibal was involved in the fight against Rome from the start of the very first Punic War, but it was the Second Punic War where Hannibal's strategic ability was really unleashed. After crushing Roman allies in modern-day Spain, he left on his now-famous crossing of the Alps to hit Rome from behind, a move no one expected—least of all Rome. It was a move that shocked the ancient world and allowed Hannibal to plunder parts of northern Italy for almost a year. The following spring, he crushed a Roman army at Cannae, killing or capturing some 70,000 men.
For almost a decade, Hannibal and his army slogged around the Italian Peninsula, defeating the Romans and killing thousands in battles at Tarentum, Capua, Silarus, Herndonia, and Petelia. Tens of thousands of Romans died at the hands of Hannibal and his army, but time was not on his side. The Romans would not give in, and Carthage was losing ground elsewhere. Rome gained new allies and fresh troops, while Hannibal couldn't take a Roman harbor. It ultimately doomed him. He would be recalled to Africa where he was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Zama, his invincibility finally shattered.
Rome would never get its hands on its greatest enemy. Hannibal died after escaping from Roman soldiers, circumstances unknown. To this day, no one is sure where he escaped to or where his final resting place was. What they know is that for decades, Romans lived in fear that he might mount an army and return to exact revenge. When Rome was in its full glory days, and the threat of Hannibal's return was diminished by time, the Romans built statues of the man in the streets, an advertisement that they were able to beat such their most worthy adversary.
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This article originally appeared on We Are The Mighty.
Featured photo of Hannibal trekking across the Alps during the Second Punic War: Wikimedia Commons