Saturday, January 22, 2005

Misunderstanding Hannibal

A quick search for information on Hannibal on the internet provides an array of perspectives on his character and legacy, many of them negative. It never takes long to come across the declaration that Hannibal was driven only by hatred, or that he sacrificed children, or that he wanted to destroy Rome completely. He was a brute, a barbarian, an ogre that we should be thankful Rome saved civilization from. Quite often I've heard his accomplishments belittled by those who wish to point beyond all his successes to highlight his ultimate defeat and promote his victor, Publius Scipio, as his superior.

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.

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Friday, January 14, 2005

My review from Kirkus Reviews

For Pride of Carthage. Okay, so they didn't give me a star this time, but I can't complain when they say things like this...

The Second Punic War of the third century b.c., which pitted the republic of Rome against the African empire of Carthage, is the rich subject of Durham's latest. As in its predecessors, Gabriel's Story (2001) and Walk Through Darkness (2002), racial contrast and conflict bulk large-particularly in the heart and mind of Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who follows the example of his late father, Hamilcar, by waging ongoing war against a foe that has swallowed up innumerable lesser nations and tribes ("It is Rome's actions I hate. It is the way Rome seeks to make slaves of all the world"). Durham's sweeping narrative re-creates several years' worth of crucial exploits, including Hannibal's legendary passage through the Alps employing elephants as transport, major victories on a blood-soaked riverbank and at the pivotal battle of Cannae, strategic advances toward Rome through the territories of friendly (or conquered) peoples, and the climactic Roman triumph at Zama, conceived and led by young Roman general Publius Scipio, and followed by Hannibal's return, emaciated and defeated, to an enfeebled Carthage. Durham has reimagined this vanished world in stunningly precise detail, and his lucid explanations of the give-and-take of military decision-making help the reader through some dauntingly complicated material. Nor is this novel merely a pageant: the author vividly portrays both Hannibal's driven resolve and Scipio's ruthless efficiency, as well as the conflicted emotions that rule several powerfully realized secondary figures. Among them are: Hannibal's brothers and comrades-in-arms Hanno, Hasdrubal, and Mago; his gentle, stoical wife Imilce and stern, demanding older sister Sapanibal;Massyli (i.e., Numidian) prince Masinissa, impelled by his hopeless love for an unattainable woman to a perilous conflict of loyalties; and boyish Carthaginian soldier Imco Vaca, who finds his manhood on the battlefield, while losing the woman who (perhaps hopelessly) awaits his return, as the long story ends. One of the best of the current crop of historical novels, and a career-making march forward for Durham.

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Saturday, January 08, 2005

My Publishers Weekly Review... Starred!

I love Publishers Weekly. This is the third starred review they've given me!

Pride of Carthage - Starred Review. Known for his novels of African-American life in 19th-century America (Gabriel's Story; Walk Through Darkness), Durham leaps continents and centuries to tell the epic story of Hannibal and his march on Rome in this heady, richly textured novel. After Hannibal assumes command of the Carthaginian army in Spain and conquers the Roman city of Saguntum, Carthage refuses to accept Rome's demand that it abandon the city, precipitating the Second Punic War. In 218 B.C., Hannibal begins his daring march toward Rome, leading an army of upward of 100,000 - complete with elephants and cavalry - over the Pyrenees, across the Rhône and through the snowcapped Alps. Ill prepared for the frigid weather, pummeled by avalanches and harassed by Celtic tribes, the army arrives in Italy reduced to perhaps 30,000. Against all odds, Hannibal brings his soldiers through the tortuous marshes of the Arno, and traps and massacres a large Roman force at Lake Trasimene and again at Cannae. The novel's grand sweep is balanced by intimate portraits of Hannibal, his family, his allies and his enemies, as well as by the stories of two humble characters: Imco Vaca, a soldier, and Aradna, a camp follower, who meet and fall in love as the saga moves inexorably toward an account of the beheading of Hannibal's brother and Hannibal's eventual defeat at the gates of Rome. Durham weaves abundant psychological, military and political detail into this vivid account of one of the most romanticized periods of history.

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