Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Meeting Hannibal

I met the protagonist of Pride of Carthage while I was still a boy in elementary school. I'm not sure just who it was that brought tales of Hannibal Barca into my house, but whoever that forgotten relative or family friend was I owe them thanks. He or she filled my head with images of armies riding elephants over snow covered mountains, of great battles and triumphant heroes. I was fascinated by the exoticness of Hannibal's war, by the bravery and barbarity of ancient battle, by the notion of a titanic clash of the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time. It's the first instance I can remember of being enthralled by a distant historical event and by the persons who featured prominently in it. I never forgot this initial enthusiasm.

It was with considerable excitement, then, that I began to write the story of the Second Punic War several years ago. Beginning the novel I was aware that the same things that attracted me to it where the things that might do me in. How would I capture the polyglot diversity of Carthage's army? How would it write of an event like at Cannae, when seventy thousand Romans were cut, stabbed, trampled and suffocated to death in the dusty heat of summer afternoon? How could I convey the largeness and complexity of the political turmoil of the time while still maintaining a narrative drive? And from where would I find the wisdom to breathe credible, multi-faceted characters like Hannibal Barca and Publius Scipio (the man who eventually defeated him) back into life?

The answer is strangely simple and potentially anticlimactic... I just dug in and did it. For about two and a half years I got up every morning, turned on the computer, paced from one side of my tiny cottage to the other, looked out at the changing Scottish landscape (I lived in Dunkeld, Scotland, while writing this), and then I sat down and imagined myself into a different time and place. I had the pleasure of a taking several extended trips to the Mediterranean. I drove and walked as much of the territory of the novel as I reasonably could. I also read everything I could find about Hannibal, the Punic Wars and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

In terms of other fiction, I was influenced by Mary Renault's work, like The Persian Boy and The Bull From the Sea, by some of Gore Vidal's historical epics, like Creation, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Spartacus, by Gustav Flaubert's Salammbo, as well as by novels considered more commercial in objective, like Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. Those are all set specifically in the ancient world, but there were other novels that I looked to for inspiration in a more general sense of historical fiction. Beloved by Toni Morrison, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Madison Smartt Bell's novels on the Haitian Revolution: all of these are epic works of literary fiction that served as models for what was possible from a historical novel.

At the heart of it all, of course, is Hannibal Barca himself. I believe you'll find the Hannibal of this novel to be a complex character composed from a variety of known facts and imagined possibilities, a person more interesting than either the villain or the hero that some camps wish to reduce him to. Most of the serious works on Hannibal make it clear that he was a military genius, a well educated man, a multi-lingual, talented orator, loved by his troops, feared by his enemies, respected by military figures ever since. I've written Hannibal as living by a code that he would've thought of as innately fair and honest - even though he's also a cunning killer who used any and all means at his disposal to achieve his goals. Some believe that Hannibal was driven by simple, unbridled hatred of Rome. But his actions throughout the campaign suggest that his ultimate goal was primarily to see Rome reduced in power – to see them remain a city-state just like any of the other city-states in Italy. He and his father recognized that Rome was gearing itself up to build an empire, and he knew Carthage could not remain as prosperous as it was if Rome had its way. His offensive can be seen, I believe, as a preemptive strike. Hannibal believed Rome was going to attack Carthage eventually, so he decided to do it on his time frame instead of waiting for theirs.

But Pride of Carthage is supposed to be about more than one man. Instead of writing it as a limited first person account I chose a cinematic third person voice, one that tells the stories of a myriad collection of characters. Thus the novel follows the Carthaginian foot soldier, Imco Vaca, and also tells of a Numidian horseman, Tusselo, and of a Greek scribe, Silenus, and of the camp follower, Aradna, and it recounts the tale of Masinissa, a young man who enters the story a prince, looses his throne part way through, and yet perseveres to become one of the classical world's most prosperous kings. The women of Carthage are also important players. Sapanibal, Hannibal's older sister, is a strong-willed women who would have made a fine soldier. With her husband dead and with no children, she finds herself exerting influence behind the scenes, both within her own family and in dealings with Carthage's aristocracy. Hannibal's mother, Didobal, is a wise older woman who knows a great deal about the trials of war and fate of nations. Imilce, Hannibal's wife, is a foreigner sent to live in Carthage. She’s dropped into an alien society of women that she has difficulty navigating. And in Hannibal’s youngest sister, Sophonisba, I found the story of one of antiquities greatest, most tragic love affairs.

I don't know how it will be received, but Pride of Carthage is my first offering of the style of novel I want to build my career on. When the reader turns that last page I want them to feel saddened that the book is over. I want them to have been so involved with these character's fates, so familiar with them and their struggles that they feel a loss at not being able to spend more time with them. In my own life a few books have given me that feeling - although not in a while. It's mostly the books that I read as an adolescent that did that for me, fantasy-adventure books like The Lord of the Rings or The Mists of Avalon or Dune. I'm not writing fantasy here, but the story is on such a scale that rarely can fact-based material be so grandly plotted. I wanted to regain some of that lost enchantment with the majesty of a complex story unfolding in epic form. From page one of this book I'm writing about human beings caught up in the swirl of one of history's greatest conflicts. The things these characters witness are triumphs and calamities beyond what any of us are likely to experience in our lives. There are love stories of Shakespearian complexity within these pages, twists of fortune, tales of retribution, personal tragedies, and lessons on the virtues and follies of war. I feel fortunate to have been able to put this episode of human history into words. The material was all I could have asked for and more. I feel it's improbable that I’ll ever find another story so grand.

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

You wrote in your blog, "I was fortunate to have been able to put this episode of human history into words. The material was all I could have asked for and more."

Well, I feel fortunate to have been able to read your account of Hannibal's deads. Your material was all I could have asked for and more. Any chance you'll be doing Hamilcar's story sometime? You have at least one copy sold if you did.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am writer/producer who had written a screenplay about Hannibal long before acquiring your novel and was therefore pretty familiar with him and his epic story. So when I received your novel as a gift it was with guarded anticipation that I turned to the first page. Fortunately for me, from the moment Hannibal scoffs at Rome's emissaries with his lips I was taken with your interpretation of the man and I thoroughly enjoyed your version of this great tale. I think you have delivered a masterpiece on the subject, and I heartily recommend it to all my friends and to anyone out there who is a lover of great fiction. I was, as you were hoping to find, a reader who was sad to set the novel down.

Best regards

Jack Davidson

10:47 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hello Jack Davidson,

Thanks for your kind comments. They're a pleasure to hear - especially from someone else who was fascinated enough with Hannibal to spend time writing about him.

Congrats on the screenplay, by the way. I looked you up and notice that it got some award attention. That's great. Any hopes of seeing it on the big screen? I had my own hopes in that regard myself, but, as I'm sure you know, the ancient war epic is not an easy type of film to get made.

Still, I'd like to see it done by somebody, if for no other reason than to bring more attention to Hannibal - and a little to those as fascinated by him as we are.

Best,

David.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Jack Davidson said...

David,

Prospects for a film about Hannibal are alive and well in Hollywood. At one time, four projects were in active development -- one with Denzel Washington attached; another with Vin Diesel; still another from Doug Wick, producer of Gladiator. All four were either put in turnaround or abandoned -- with just Vin Diesel's project still on track now as an animated feature.

Currently, I am involved as executive producer/writer with Film Factory New Zealand on a horror project of ours called Taboo, but I am still on the lookout for avenues for Hannibal. Your response to my blog got me thinking -- I have an open door for material at one of the major studios and also contacts at other production companies and some agencies, and I wonder if you'd like to hear some ideas I have about developing a Hannibal project that would involve you. You can reach me at Jackffnz@aol.com

Best regards,

Jack

11:12 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Jack,

Sure, I'd be happy to hear what you have in mind. I'll drop you an email shortly.

David.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

I just put "The Pride Of Carthage Down" It was truely a new type of adventure for me. loved every page. It would have been cool to have a sort of running soldier count. I got a little lost on the actual size of Hannibals force as he moved through Italy. But, I loved the characters and the flow of the story. I can not wait to get your next novel.

Rob Porter
Phoenix, Arizona

5:33 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Anonymous (the most recent one, that is),

Hey! Thanks for writing. I haven't gotten a Hannibal-related comment in ages!

Very glad you liked it, and you're not alone in getting lost in the numbers. I did too. Honestly, over the years he lost so many for so many different reasons - while on the other hand picking up allies here and there for so many different reasons, and allies of such varying loyalty... It was quite a confusion.

But it's great that it worked for you as a whole. I'd love it if you'd check out ACACIA. It's similar to PRIDE OF CARTHAGE in many ways. It's a fantasy instead of a historical, but it's written with an toward many of the same issues.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Mario Bassista said...

Sir,
As an historian I am amazed at your irresponsibility in portraying this subject that you bill as a "European and African struggle". Firstly, it was a clash between two of the greatest powers of antiquity, driven by the usual motive, greed! Secondly, Hannibal was not black; he was a Carthaginian, therefore a Phoenician, therefore a Semite. There is ample documentation available that attests to this, up to and including DNA evidence that clearly links the Carthaginians to the modern inhabitants of present day Lebanon.

I for one do not doubt that Hannibal very likely had African troops in his army, but all historical accounts that I can personally think of are quite clear in describing his army as polyglot and largely mercenary in nature; it is a testament to Hannibal's genius as a military leader that he was able to turn so many different nationalities into an effective fighting force. It is in this respect that your depiction is largely off the mark.

Nonetheless, my biggest problem with your book is that you insist in portraying the Punic Wars as a racial struggle, and for that you should be ashamed of yourself. Whatever foibles the ancient Romans may have had, race based bigotry was not one of them. One of the biggest reasons why they were as successful as they were was because, generally speaking, when they did conquer a territory, they respected local customs and placed the locals in charge.

If your objective is to re-write history to further your own political agenda, I will personally thank you to avoid historical subject in the future.

1:20 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Mario,

Thanks for writing. I'm inclined to believe that your response here is based more on what you might think I've written in the book than what is actually in the book. I say that because you seem to think that I've asserted things in the book that I haven't. You seem to think that I disagree with you on things that I don't. Perhaps, also, some of the terminology I use troubles you. Let me clarify a few things.

When I say European and African I don't necessarily define African as black. I use the term more broadly, simply referring to the fact that Carthage was based in North Africa and had considerable support from other North African powers. I surely know that Carthage had Phoenician roots (and that's mentioned plenty in the book), but there is also a clear history of intermarriage (often political) with North African tribes. None of this converts Carthage to black African, but I do believe it mixed into their culture elements that complicated Carthage. After all, when Scipio conquered Carthage his honorific title was Africanus, conquerer of Africa. The ancients were okay with using this terminology. So am I.

You also seem to think that I make some strong case for Hannibal being black. I don't, though. I make a case, as mentioned above, that there was an Africanness in Carthagian culture, but I don't seek for that to replace the Phoenician or Semitic influences. I include them all. My Hannibal is brown skinned, but so are many, many people still living in the region. "Brown" is a wide category.

My book is all about how Hannibal managed his polyglot international and multi-ethnic army. It's about the issues he had dealing with his North African troops, and even more about the difficulties he had securing allies (and mercenaries) among the Iberians, Celts, Gauls and Latins once he's in Italy. I give a lot of detail to all of this. So I'm in complete agreement with your comment that it is "a testament to Hannibal's genius as a military leader that he was able to turn so many different nationalities into an effective fighting force". Absolutely. That's what my novel is about. When you follow it with "It is in this respect that your depiction is largely off the mark" I start to suspect that you haven't read my book at all. If you had you simply would not say that.

I continue to wonder when you write "my biggest problem with your book is that you insist in portraying the Punic Wars as a racial struggle, and for that you should be ashamed of yourself. If I HAD done that I'd be ashamed of myself." I'd also be a bit confused, because all of my work (all of my work, sir!) is about looking at the complexities beyond our simplification of racial struggles.

Pride of Carthage is very much a novel about greed, pride, about defending your nation, about the toll of war and the damage it does to both sides. It's about ambition and large personalities and the callousness of fate. It is NOT about a racial struggle. No where in my book does Hannibal hate anybody for their race. He hates them for their nationality, you bet, but not because he has some modern conception of our racial biases. Also, no where in my book do any of the European powers look down on North African peoples for their race. This simply was NOT a dynamic in the book.

Mario, I appreciate the opportunity to respond to you. Next time, though, read the book that you're attacking first. I'm happy to say that a lot of people have. Including a lot of Italians. The Italian language edition of the book did very well in hardback, enough so that my publisher negotiated a nice contract to publish a mass-market paperback version as well.

At the moment I'm engaged in other projects, but it's quite possible I will return to historical subjects in the future. It's been rewarding for me so far, with three award-winning historical novels published in eight languages...

As for my "agenda"... I won't encourage you to read my work. Don't worry about. That's fine. If you do read it, though, I believe you'll find it's pretty hard to put your finger on what my agenda is. In fact, I have considerably less of an "agenda" than most people. Strangely, I think that befuddles people with agendas somewhat...

Best,

David.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Mario Bassista said...

David,
I will take the time to read your novel, thoroughly, and I appreciate you taking the time to clear up some points. Having grown up in Italy, and being a product of their school system, albeit an older product, I must confess that I never had much love for Hannibal or Carthage, when I was growing up they were the enemy. Interestingly Italy and Tunisia actually signed a peace treaty formally ending the Punic Wars only about ten years ago as I recall.

I still get the impression however that you are looking at the subject a bit too much from a modern point of view. What the Romans did to Carthage and the Carthaginians may be horrific by our standards, but not terribly unusual in antiquity. The ancient Assyrians were by and far a far more blood thirsty lot than the Romans were, just witness their bas-reliefs depicting impaled prisoners on display in front of cities under siege, not to mention one of Genghis Khan's favorite hobbies was building pyramids with severed heads.

The one comment that I found particularly troubling on your web site was that the Punic Wars were a "struggle between European and African" civilizations; troubling because as you may be aware of from some of the blogs discussing the possible production of a Hannibal movie, a number of extremists from both sides of the color line are rearing their ugly heads.

I frankly have to say that comment leaves a great deal to be desired; a more correct and less inflammatory description of those horrible wars would have called them a gargantuan struggle between the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time, as both countries were along the Mediterranean coast.

With all of that being said, I must apologize to you for letting my hot Sicilian temper get the best of me, and not considering some of my comments a bit more carefully myself; as I was taught by the Ursuline nuns in my childhood, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Best regards,

Mario

6:21 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Mario,

Well, thanks for that. It's great, actually, that with just a little bit of dialog we can get a lot closer to understanding each other. Ideally, I'd hope that people taking me to task for things would do so after having read what they're taking me to task for, but moreover I appreciate the tone of your response and your willingness to give the book a shot. Thank you for that.

As for my looking at the conflict from too modern a perspective... Well, that's hard not to do. I am living now, and I am writing for readers living now, and those readers are sifting through the material from a modern perspective. I surely try to present things in context, but that's only ever going to be an attempt. I'll never get it exactly right. Nobody else will either.

I know the ancient world was a bloody place. My book never suggests otherwise, or gives any one side a higher measure of barbarity. All the salient plot points (at least in terms of the events of the war) I gathered from the ancient sources. Within that, there are plenty of instances of Roman treachery (as in instances when they violated their own conceptions of honor). There are plenty of instances of Carthaginian cruelty as well, and often Hannibal's success springs from his doing things that the Romans simply would not have considered accepted battle tactics. It's all in the book.

I don't imagine you'll love every aspect of it. At times you may disagree wholeheartedly with me. At other times you may just be skeptical. At others you may roll your eyes. But I think most of the time you'll find a good deal of balanced detail in the book. I've no doubt, having read your response to my response, that you will find things of worth in the book.

As for that line about the Punic Wars being a "struggle between European and African powers..." You make a good point. When I wrote that I defined both those categories in ways both more liberal and more specific than I imagine most readers will take them. By that I mean that statement doesn't equal the contemporary racial frictions that are part of our more recent history. I think people that read the book understand that, but the statement has to work for people that have not read the book also. With that in mind I think a revision is in order.

How about if I use some of your words and some of mine...

"a titanic clash of the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time".

That sounds good to me. I'll edit the original post.

I do think there are ways that the war and its results were shaped by (and then further shaped) the fates of European and African cultures, but I admit that's a much more subtle and complicated matter than our modern rhetoric acknowledges. It can't be explained in a sentence, that's for sure.

Oh, and I agree that the "debates" around whom should be cast in a Hannibal movie often show people at their worst. Very little of the strident arguments people have are really based on those distant historical times. Most of it is about our contemporary hangups, and it can get pretty ugly to listen to. In most cases, I find arguments on both sides based on limited and selective information - so limited and selective, in fact, that it hardly counts as information.

For my part, I've never offered a casting choice, except to say I'd hope they would find an actor that really had the gravitas to embody such a complicated character. Actually, I've mentioned the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (from The Last Samurai) - not because I think he should be cast, but because he's the TYPE of actor they should be looking for, one that can contain the intelligence and cruelty, vision and perseverance and suffering of a figure like Hannibal. It's an amazing conflict that could merit an amazing film. I doubt we're going to get one, though.

Anyway, Mario, I do appreciate having this back and forth with you. It's easy to hot under the collar and shout at each other. It's a lot more substantive to talk things through a bit. Glad we got to do that.

Best,

David.

ps - Do you still read Italian? There is that Italian version of the book (Annibale), published by Piemme, if you're interested... The paperback version, by the way, went out with a first printing of 45,000. Which, ironically, is the largest first printing I've had anywhere...

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Mario Bassista said...

Davide,
Certamente che so ancora leggere in Italiano, e' la mia lingua nativa dopo tutto. Mi dispiace sinceramente di essere stato talmente un'idiota. In ogni caso, dovro scrivere alla mia Zia in Italia per se e' possibile per lei a mandarmi il tuo. Ho una mezza idea che la lingua Italiana e' capace di dire la storia di Annibale meglio della lingua Inglese.

Amicizia e fortuna Bello!

4:52 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Mario,

I just translated that via Babelfish, so I think I understand what you wrote... Kinda.

And, you know, I bet the book is better in Italian. At least, it's nice to imagine that's the case...

David.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello David,
I haven't had a chance to read your book but it sounds like it's going to be a great read.

I don't want to bring race crap onto this comments page but I think it's amazing how Mario had a problem with a black Hannibal but he's completely silent when you suggest that a Japanese actor might do a good job of playing Hannibal in a movie.

LOL. People like Mario pretend to be neutral parties who are just concerned about historical accuracy. Not true. Racist historians are part of the reason for the confusion that the intellectual deals with today.

Thank you for a book that doesn't take that road.

4:19 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

And thank you, Anonymous, for the kind comments. I hope you find the book worth your time.

It's obviously not everyone's cup of tea, but I'm quite confident that few that actually READ it will conclude I've taken an overt or racially biased stance. Most of the attacks aimed at me come from folks that haven't read the book and that assume (I wonder why?) what's in it.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Springy Jottings said...

Hello David,
I read your book long ago and I'm surprised by such outburst over a "work of fiction" loosely based on actual historical event.

Perhaps some ppl tend to over-analyse things from different point of views ;-)

p/s: I truly admire the way u reply to all those accusations :-)

9:44 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hey Springy!

Yes, people can get rather excited about the strangest things. Oh, well, though, I guess it's good to be passionate about something. (Though I think it's better to be reasonable, thoughtful and informed.) But anyway...

9:56 AM  
Anonymous gutscheine zum ausdrucken said...

sehr guter Kommentar

6:24 AM  

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