As I began the research that led to my novel, Pride of Carthage, I didn't have definitive refutations of these claims. Hannibal simply drew me toward his story, and I assumed telling it would require a sometimes uncomfortable partnership with a man of considerable ill-repute. During the course of my readings, however, I found none of these negative claims to have much validity. I found him to be a nobler character than I expected, grander of vision, driven by complex emotions, often exceeding the norm in terms of acts of benevolence. And I was not looking outside the traditional sources on the subject: the ancients Polybius and Livy, and the many contemporary scholars working comfortably within the academy. Why then does the understanding of Hannibal that I reached seem to differ so greatly from much of the popular, censorious rhetoric surrounding him? I think the answer lies firmly on one particular factor: the effective use of propaganda. (I also think that the lingering Western desire to simultaneously fear and denigrate opponents of other, often darker, races and cultures also has something to do with it, but that's a topic for another discussion.)
Almost everything we know about Hannibal and Carthage comes either from Roman historians or from Greeks writing under the sway of Roman authority. These scholars had the unenviable task of explaining why their patrons eventually sieged, overran and sacked Carthage in a door to door killing spree that left only fifty thousand survivors out of an estimated population of seven hundred thousand. They went to great pains to wipe out all trace of Carthage, of the people, the architecture and all the components that make up a culture. Rome did this years after Hannibal's death, when they were under no direct military threat from Carthage, when Carthage was certainly not the aggressor. It's this' act of genocide that the historians had to grapple with, to contextualize and offer to the world. The way they do so is clear. The Carthage they present is a barbaric, child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty-god worshiping culture, one that had to be extinguished for the betterment of the world. Hannibal is the prime symbol of their avarice, duplicity and menace. This is the story the ancients present, and to us they have the hallowed authority of thousands of years of seniority. But did Hannibal and Carthage become monsters before or after their defeat? As the reason for their extermination, or as the excuse proffered to explain it? Is there any real reason we should trust these long departed scholars?
I believe the answer to the last question is twofold, and that its within the duality of the answer that the overarching thematic base of my portrait of Hannibal finds its purchase. No, the Roman and Greek sources were not - by any modern standard - reliable. They certainly weren't fair and balanced. They didn't have cable news networks, NPR, BBC or Al Jazeera to deal with. Yet they are the only source through which the identity of Carthage and its heroes was passed to the world. There's no reason not to believe that they altered the history in ways favorable to themselves. Why wouldn't they?
But after making that point I'd actually offer that _ to their credit - they are often surprisingly even handed with their presentation of the facts. Enough so that I was utterly content to trust and to seek to convey accurately into fiction the details of the war that they provide. It's in their unsubstantiated rhetoric that they cater to their patrons. For example, Livy, the Roman historian who penned an enthusiastic history of the Roman state, when writing about Hannibal's character gets carried away in describing his virtues. Livy paints a picture of a leader loved by his troops, a man who would cast himself down to lie on the hard ground next to them, who was the first to enter battle and the last to leave it. But immediately after this Livy turns to a host of what he claims are Hannibal's negative traits. We learn that he was inhumanly cruel, a liar with no fear of the gods, no reverence for an oath, "no religious scruples". He paints a convincing portrait of a man blessed and cursed in equal measure. The problem with this is that the virtues as described are again and again evidenced in the pages to follow; the vices simply do not appear even within the historical record of events.
The historian Ernle Bradford writes in his Wordsworth Military Library work on Hannibal "...these major charges cannot be substantiated and there is no evidence - even within Livy's own account - of any of them". No evidence of any of them? As improbable as that sounds I do have to concur. I also find it interesting that Bradford writes that "the writers of antiquity... who managed to find some more or less scandalous anecdote about nearly all the great men in their history, found themselves baffled when it came to Hannibal." This is not, actually, an uncommon view. Again and again I found that the contemporary writers of detailed works on Hannibal came to respect him. It's primarily the ill-informed and the partially-informed who hold on to truly negative perceptions of Hannibal.
He was, of course, a man of his times. And a warrior. As such it goes without saying that he orchestrated the deaths of a great many people. In this he's no different than any of the historical figures of the period. But what truly fascinated me - and what informs the novel -was my discovery of a great many virtues in this often demonized man. To name a few of the many details the public may find surprising about Hannibal...
1). Hannibal did not declare war on or preemptively attack Rome. (He tricked Rome into declaring war on him in a manner that betrayed their imperialist aspirations.)
2). Hannibal did not seek to destroy Rome the way Rome eventually destroyed Carthage. (In fact, he didn't even march on Rome until he'd already been on Italian soil several years. His intent was clearly to defeat Rome's troops on the field of battle, to convince the cities allies to abandon her, and then to answer Rome's eventual pleas for peace with harsh measures that would curtail her expansion.)
3). Hannibal's army was not made up solely of mercenaries drawn from North African tribes. (In addition he brought with him Celtic Iberians, Gauls from Southern France and Northern Italy, and he all but completed a treaty that would have brought the Greek kingdom of Macedon into the war on his side. Many Greek city-states declared for Hannibal and tried to throw off Roman authority. In truth, Hannibal convinced vastly different groups from among Africans and Europeans that Rome was a threat to them all.)
4). Hannibal did not sacrifice children. (Most historians agree that if Carthage did practice infanticide - and there's growing debate on whether they even did - they'd stopped doing so before Hannibal's time. On the other hand, Livy is forced to mention that the Romans publicly and officially sacrificed humans as they grew more desperate and confused by their inability to defeat Hannibal.)
5.) Hannibal's eventual loss to Scipio does not in any way detract from the stunning record of victories he had up until then. (Scipio is also one of antiquities greatest generals. It's clear that he learned a great deal from Hannibal himself, and it was an inspired decision to take the battle back to Africa, where he triumphed. But this was the final stroke against a tree that for all intents and purposes was already leaning to fall. Scipio defeated Hannibal when he was weakened in every way possible, in troop numbers and training, in the pitiful support he received from his nation, in that he had no trusted siblings or generals left to aide him. On the other hand Hannibal had defeated the Romans time and again on occasions when they outnumbered him and when they were at their strongest, most confident, most prepared.)
Such are just some of the details I discovered in the process of writing about this remarkable figure. It still surprises me that there have been so few fictional treatments of Hannibal, and that those there are have often reaffirmed old prejudices while selectively ignoring aspects of the historical record that suggests he was so much more. Pride of Carthage is not an attempt to turn/revise Hannibal into a hero. The novel is, however, an effort to bring to life a man who has been both seen and unseen, spoken of and misunderstood for two thousand years. I'm hoping the book will help, in a small way at least, to kindle a debate about this man and the history he influenced, a discussion that any desire for a fair understanding of Western civilization demands that we undertake.