What an issue!
There are two decidedly staunch camps that I've become very familiar with as I worked on and then publicized Pride of Carthage
. One camp says that Hannibal was black, an African, and should therefore be considered an African hero. He was based in Africa; therefore he is of Africa. These folks would say that it's our continuing racist society that either wants to 1) deny that Hannibal was African or 2) choose to accept it, but then go on to demonize him because of it.
The other camp says that Hannibal wasn't black. They argue that he and his people were Phoenicians. They might've had a colony based in North Africa, but that doesn't mean they mixed with the locals. And even if they did mix with the locals the North Africans weren't really "black", so African-Americans have no reason to claim him as their own. Folks from this camp are inclined to 1) be real Hannibal fans or 2) still choose to demonize Hannibal, because even if he was Phoenician he was still not European, more a threat to Western Civilization than a participant in its growth.
My book does not enter this debate with hard and fast agenda. At least, that's the way I see it. I'm not sure that all the interest in this really has much to do with who Hannibal truly was. It's about the myriad ways we're still hung up on race in the Twenty-First Century. I mention these two "camps", but I should also point out that I'm not talking about scholars and academics here. These vocal proponents on either side are mostly just folks from the general public. This is, in many regards, a popular debate, not an academic one. If I have an agenda it's to render on the page the true racial complexity of the Second Punic Wars, including - but not limited to - highlighting Carthage's African characteristics.
In most regards I take the original sources at face value. It's these old dead guys that I base my story on because they're the best sources we have and because their version is filled with racial/ethnic complexity. Carthage did have a Phoenician element, sure. This can be seen in their earlier naval and trading prowess, and in their religious pantheon. But Carthaginians also intermarried with North Africans, and had been doing so for hundreds of years. The ancients, like Livy and Polybius, point out many marriages at the highest level of Carthaginian society. These were often arrangements meant to strengthen ties with Numidian and Libyan allies. If the Carthaginian aristocracy was doing it why would anybody claim the lower classes weren't mixing and mingling freely? And, significantly, the Romans themselves called the Carthaginians by a name from which we derive the term Punic. It's a word coined to name the particular combination of Phoenician and African cultures that Carthage was. It doesn't mean Carthage was completely either. But it certainly names it as indelibly both. Remember also that when Publius Scipio triumphed over Hannibal he was given an honorific name that essentially meant "Conqueror of Africa". So, in many ways, the Romans themselves had no qualms about acknowledging Carthage's African identity.
So what do I think personally? I think that Carthage (and Hannibal) was a child of two nations. There is an undeniable Phoenician influence. But there is also a foundation in African soil, blood and customs that is at least equally important, maybe more. I say maybe more because throughout the Second Punic War many African tribes joined Hannibal in his fight. I don't recall any mention of other Phoenician states having much of anything to do with it. So my answer is one based in the complexity of the situation. I'm content with embracing the uncertainty inherent in that, and I think it's more than a bit unfortunate that more people in our society can't do the same. Black and white. Conservative and Liberal. Good and evil... It seems we're trained to think only in absolutes. The world, however, never works in absolute terms; that's part of why we're always handicapped in trying to make sense of it from within our ideological boxes.
But the question people really have and often ask me is more mundane... They want to know whether I'd prefer a Vin Diesel or Denzel Washington a Hannibal movie? I'm not sure that Vin Diesel could pull it off because of the complexity inherent in bringing such a dynamic figure to the screen. Maybe he could, though. And Denzel, although he certainly has the gravitas, is too old to play the twenty and thirty-something general Hannibal was through the war. Both these things come to mind for me before we even get to the race question.
Usually this answer doesn't satisfy people. It's not really what they were asking. What they really want to know is do I support a black or white Hannibal? The answer is "No". No, I don't support a "black or white" Hannibal. I don't see Wesley Snipes as Hannibal in the same way I don't see Brad Pitt. (I don't think Brad Pitt should be playing a Greek hero either. Believe me, my indignation at racial misrepresentation is multi-faceted.) Either extreme is misguided. As with so much around Hannibal the truth is somewhere in between. It's gray. It's brown. It could even be tan, but the truth isn't black or white. The person who could best bring Hannibal to the screen must first have the charisma, the strength, the intelligence, the skills to embody his arrogance and his brilliance and portray with empathy a man blessed and cursed by his own destiny. Such an actor isn't easy to find, and shouldn't be searched for only after passing a complexion test.
On the issue of a complexion test... I do believe that people who want to deny Hannibal blackness are being unfairly selective in their use of this racial terminology. No matter what Hannibal was he was a man with brown skin. The ancients make it entirely clear how strange and barbaric white-skinned, blond haired people were considered. The Celts and Gauls from Northern Italy northward were spoken of disparagingly by Romans and Greeks in part because of their unnatural whiteness. White, blond, tall: these were the characteristics of barbarians. So Hannibal, being south of Rome and from African soil, was at the very least a brown-skinned man, much more familiar and respected in the ancient world.
Now, I am also a brown skinned man. (I'm actually sadly pale right now, it being a New England winter and all that. But still, you can tell.) I'm of mixed blood, black and white and with other indeterminate influences thrown in. But few people would call me anything but black if they saw me walking down an American street. As has often been stated, a drop of African - a drop of black - makes you all black. I do think it's too precious, then, for people to call a person of any and all shades of brown a Black Person here in America, but then to deny other brown, African people a claim to blackness when it suits them.
I'm quite sure that if Hannibal dropped down on to the streets of any American city, put on modern clothes and walked the sidewalk... He might well look like somebody that our culture would most readily define as a black man. I think that because we'd see a brown-skinned man with curly hair, burnished by the Mediterranean sun. Remember, we tend to have a very wide spectrum in terms of what we call black in America. It doesn't matter where along that spectrum he ultimately sits. If he's on it at all that man walking down the street would be defined by one or two words, labeled, identified, preliminary judged. That, unfortunately, is what all the debate is about. It's not about the Hannibal of more than two thousand years ago. It's about us, right here and right now.
Labels: Hannibal, Pride of Carthage, Random Ruminations