Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2008
Published: 2008

The reconstructed portrait of Hannibal


The government of Phoenician Carthage (Qart Hadasht = ‘New City’, currently Qartaj in Tunisia) had for long been controlling much of the Northern African coastline, most of the islands in the western Mediterranean, and parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Its interests, however, increasingly conflicted with expanding Roman claims and a first war with Rome had already been fought. Due to that Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica had been lost to the Romans. Hannibal (*247–†182 bce, Hani Ba'al = ‘Favourite of the Lord’ in his own language, nicknamed Barqa = ‘Lightning’, after his father) was appointed commander of the Phoenician army in 221 bce. His military actions on the Iberian Peninsula ultimately lured the Romans into a second war. Instead of waging another war at sea, Hannibal surprised his enemies by attacking them at the rear: with a daring march along the Pyrenees, through Gaul, across the Alps, and into the Italian Peninsula. Hannibal turned out to be a great strategist. He and his army stayed on the Italian Peninsula for more than a decade, never loosing a single battle. The Phoenicians nevertheless lost the war, because the Romans crossed over to Africa themselves and Hannibal lost the decisive battle near Carthage. After the peace had been concluded, Hannibal became a statesman. First he was elected suffet (= ‘judge’) at Carthage; later — as the Romans kept asking for his extradition — he went into exile and became a military advisor of several kings in Syria and Anatolia. Hannibal finally took his own life for fear of being captured after all. Although elephants were common instruments of warfare at the time, Hannibal is particularly remembered for marching these animals with his army across the Alps. The Romans would scare eachother with the story of Hannibal for centuries to come. To this day the phrase “Hannibal ad portas!” can be heard when disaster is near.

How should we picture the appearance of Hannibal? The written — Roman and Greek — sources can't answer this question. Being a contemporary author, Quintus Fabius Pictor could have known what Hannibal looked like, but he didn't write about it, or his account has now been lost like the greater part of his work. Polybios also mentions nothing in regard to the appearance of Hannibal in the preserved part of his works. Titus Livius wrote about Hannibal more than a century later and he had still access to all writings of both authors and possibly those of eyewitnesses, but he hadn't read any information on Hannibal's looks, or maybe he didn't care about the subject. Hannibal most certainly didn't look like the Roman bust that is said to represent him. This bust has a very Roman appearance and was probably sculpted many centuries too late. Even the Phoenician coins that were struck during his life don't provide any information about Hannibal's features. They most likely don't bear his image, but rather that of gods. It's obvious though that Hannibal's looks corresponded to his office. Several Assyrian reliefs contain images of comparable high dignitaries and give a notion of the possible dress of Hannibal. The Phoenician and Assyrian cultures were very much alike — the former originated from current Lebanon at a time when the latter dominated a greater neighbouring region — and since there's no knowledge of depictions of Phoenician dignitaries, these reliefs may be considered the closest thing. These dignitaries typically wore an ankle-length garment with a fringed border and short, tight sleeves. Additionally, they wore sandals, ornaments at the upper arms and wrists, and a long sheet, which was draped from round the waist to one of the shoulders and which consisted of threads from a decorated, narrow band. Underneath this sheet somehow a sword was tucked. The heads often show a moustache, a beard with corkscrew curls, curled hair down to the neck, a headband, and fancy ear jewels. True Phoenician head-shaped pendants agree with this last description, except for the headband.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Hannibal? Image culture along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean had been greatly influenced by the style characteristics of ancient Egyptian art. Phoenician image culture was no exception. This ‘Egyptian style’ is to be recognized in paintings by the absence of depth or perspective and the schematic, formal way in which the human body was depicted: the head, waist, legs, and feet in side view; the eye and shoulders in front view. Details and proportions, however, were mostly reproduced realistically. The paintings are often very colourful and they consist of clear, thin lines and solid colour areas without shades — sometimes stylized, sometimes sketchy. There's an abundant volume of these ‘Egyptian style’ paintings, but a page from the so-called Book of the Dead of Hunefer is a great example thereof.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Hannibal is represented consistent with the afore-mentioned ‘Egyptian style’, dressed like the dignitaries on the Assyrian reliefs. As these reliefs lack any colour themselves, the inspiration for the colours of his dress had to be found elsewhere. An Egyptian tile representing an Assyrian captive, whose outfit is white with purple, proved to be very suitable for this purpose. The use of purple is in fact very appropriate, since the Phoenicians were famous for the production and distribution of purple dye. The head of Hannibal was mainly modelled on the Phoenician head-shaped pendants. The elephants symbolize his army and his strength. They resemble the war elephant that can be found on one of the Phoenician coins.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated.


  • Quintus Fabius Pictor was a historian and a Roman senator during the Second Punic War, which he described. Only fragments of his work have been preserved.
  • Polybios (a.k.a.Polybius’), Historiai (2nd century bce). Books I–IV of this major work of Polybios deal with the Second Punic War.
  • Titus Livius (a.k.a. ‘Livy’), Ab Urbe Condita (1st century bce). The story of Hannibal in this history of Rome is covered from book XXI onwards. Titus Livius describes that Hannibal looked like his father: “(…) eundem vigorem in voltu vimque in oculis, habitum oris lineamentaque intueri.” He also tells us that his dress wasn't better than that of his equals: “Vestitus nihil inter aequales excellens.” Both facts aren't very helpful.
  • Roman bust that is said to represent Hannibal, Italia: Napoli: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. The bust shows a bearded man with a Roman helmet and a paludamentum — the Roman war cloak worn by commanders.
  • An example of the Phoenician coins that were struck during the life of Hannibal, Great Britain: London: The British Museum, cm 1911-7-2-1 (España ca. 230 bce). The obverse of this silver coin shows a depiction of Melqart, one of the gods of the Phoenicians, with a club. The reverse shows a war elephant and its rider.
  • Assyrian reliefs containing images of high dignitaries, all excavated in the mid-19th century ce from a palace at Dur-Sharrukin, present-day Khorsabad, Iraq:
    • Assyrian King Sargon II and a high dignitary, France: Paris: Musée du Louvre, ao 19873 & 19874 (Al-Iraq 8th century bce).
    • High dignitary, France: Paris: Musée du Louvre, ao 19875 (Al-Iraq 8th century bce).
    • Two dignitaries, France: Paris: Musée du Louvre, ao 19876 (Al-Iraq 8th century bce).
  • Phoenician head-shaped pendants:
    • Glass paste pendant, shaped like a bearded man, Tunis: Qartaj: Musée National de Carthage (Tunis 4th–3rd century bce). The pendant was found at a Phoenician cemetery near Carthage. It represents a bearded head with white skin, blue hairs, blue eyes, orange lips, and orange ear jewels.
    • Glass paste pendant, shaped like a bearded man, France: Paris: Musée du Louvre, ao 3783 (Tunis 4th–3rd century bce). This pendant is similar to the one that is kept at Carthage, but has less strong colours.
  • Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, Great Britain: London: The British Museum, ea 9901/3 (Misr 1275 bce).
  • Egyptian tile representing an Assyrian captive, Misr: Al-Qahirah: Egyptian Museum, je 36457 D (Misr 1170 bce). The tile consists of polychrome glazed earthenware. It was excavated from the palace of Ramses III at Thebes.

Alternatives for ‘Hannibal’: Hani Ba'al / Aníbal / Aníbal / AnnibaleBarqa / Barca / Barka / Barkas.

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