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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, for one, respect both military leaders Scipio and Hannibal as great generals. However I must slightly tilt my favor towards Scipio. The following reasons outline why.

1) manouvering- I find Hannibal crossing from Spain, and quickly through Gaul trying to avoid hostile tribes, crossing the Alps quite heroic, outstanding in feat but poor in planning. Scipio on the other hand knew the situation in Spain, he had intelligence tell him that the Carthaginians were spread out, and he knew the importance of the city of Carthage Nova for supplies.

2)strategy- Hannibal's strategy at Cannae looks impressive, and is impressive but the risk he took in relying on this was high, a better general could have simply extended the battle lines to counter his tactic. The general who bunched the Roman infantry so tightly and sending thme to attack blindly in the centre had done the worst possible thing, and had worked the best way for Hannibal. This is also mentioning the Roman commanders against Hannibals were mostly inexperianced buffoons, those who weren't eg the Cuncator, or Marcellus, did quite well against him, Marcellus in particular, battled Hannibal in results that was a draw. If you study Scipio's tactic at Illipi, you will find that it was almost an unblockable tactic, and he was facing experianced generals.

But this does not mean to say Hannibal was a bad commander. His ability to keep his troops together in Italy for so long, and his ability to maintain his victories is an outstanding feat, but people should give Scipio more credit.

9:30 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


I think Scipio is a major figure in Ancient Rome's history also. He's treated as such in the book, and I'm happy to see he has his fans. There's certainly merit to the points the previous person makes, but I guess for me it comes back to the notion that we can't know what Scipio would have been without Hannibal as a foe. Scipio learned from Hannibal, witnessed Roman defeat after Roman defeat, and then emerged as the one general who could think outside the box (to use a modern phrase) enough to defeat Hannibal. But would we know of Scipio of Hannibal hadn't invaded Italy and killed off an entire generation of Roman leaders? Who knows?

My point is just that while Scipio deserves acknowledgement as a great general his accomplishments stem directly from having had a great foe. As for his ultimate defeat of Hannibal at Zama... Well, as I detail in the book, Hannibal was weakened in a great many ways leading up to that battle. He wasn't at his best; Scipio, however, was riding high. Such is Fortune - fickle and shifting and with nothing like sympathy in evidence.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before I had even read the book I had read some of the previous reviews of your book, pride of Carthage. I thought it was bad, without even having read it, based entirely on reviews and nothing else simply because I hated how biased everyone was to the roman point of view. shameful as that act was, I actually decided to buy a copy and read it, after all, despite my furiosity at having Scipio so excluded (Again saying before I even picked up the book) I decided to read it. After all my own reasons of hating it doesn't mean its a good novel in its own right, having had so many good reviews.

I have now come to praise how evenhandedness the book it. I found myself enjoying the journey of all the individual character, and although there is certainly many historical alterations in the book, I credit this book with just how it sucks you in, and I can probably reread it and enjoy it. Some review said that the book quickened in pace toward the end. I wouldn't quite agree, I would say you did a convincing job of keeping the same pace all through the book, all the way to Zama and the end. and although it is unrealistic in historical accuracy, it certainly portrays the realism of hardship in campaigns and battles, and I often felt pity for the soldiers of Hannibal, who I do not doubt at all faced such suffering.

I am also the person who posted the three reasons why Scipio was superior to Hannibal. Having posted it quite a while back, I realize now the circumstances and why Hannibal did what he had done. I guess I'm a little wiser on this whole issue, and can cross out the maneuvering part of my complaint, that was utter nonsense it was a foolish statement. But still, whether he learned form Hannibal or not, no one can doubt Scipio's tactic at Illipi (although it was in a different situation at cannae) was brilliant. And although that upcoming film on Hannibal in 2008 may draw even more supporters to Hannibal, I stick true to my favorite, Scipio Africanus.

thank you for your time.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What views of Hannibals character and military leadership are given by Polybius and Livy? How reliable are their accounts? Fascintating Dave after reading all about the negative aspects of Hannibal.

11:39 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


How reliable are Polybius and Livy? Yikes. Impossible to answer that. It would be great if we had a ton of other accounts and hard facts to compare theirs with, but there's just so little else to go on. I tend to assume considerable bias involved, but I don't really fret it too much. They are the main sources. They're what we have to go on and so they're what I do rely on.

Thing is, one can at times see inconsistencies within their own accounts. That can be informative. Livy, for example, gives quite a glowing discription of Hannibal's good traits. He says no toil could exhaust his body or overcome his spirit, his consumption of food and drink was based on natural want and not by pleasure, he dressed much the same as his soldiers and would throw down his coat and sleep amongst them, he was the first into battle and last to leave, etc, etc. (That's a loose paraphrasing, by the way.)

If you stopped there you'd think he loved Hannibal. But then he gets around to the bad traits. Hannibal was inhumanely cruel, with no sanctity for the gods or reverence for an oath or regard for truth, etc, etc.

Thing is, there's lots of examples of those good traits in the tale he tells after that introduction. There's not so much there to back up a lot of those bad traits. And it's not just me that thinks so. Ernle Bradford, on page 37 of HANNIBAL, writes...

"It is as if the historian, having acknowledge Hannibal's known virtues, suddenly became afraid of his own temerity and had to neutralize them with a recital of evil traits that would account for Rome's justifiable hatred of him... "

Anyway, that's just one example of the way I think he must both look to Livy and Polybius while also acknowledging that all my not be exactly as they say.

Bradford's book is quite good, by the way. It's lean, but strangely thorough. If you're interested I'd recommend giving it a look.



8:17 PM  
Anonymous The Great Africanus said...

Interesting article. However, I must disagree with on a couple of points. Hannibal has an excellent reputation nowadays and is in no way "underrated". In fact, along with Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, Hannibal is probably one of the two or three most popular figures in all of antiquity. If annyone gets short-shrift, it's Scipio.

While I will always prefer Scipio, both men were superb generals, charismatic, personally brave aswell as being true patriots who sacrificed everything for their respective nations.

If you haven't already, I recommend you check out "The Fall of Carthage" by Adrian Goldsworthy. It's an excellent book and gives an unbiased account of the Punic Wars.

6:24 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hello. Thanks for commenting on this old blog post! It's been awhile, but just glancing over the post again I don't think we particularly disagree. I was mostly talking about the bias of the original sources - which are undeniably there. You seem to suggest that I said Hannibal was "underrated". I didn't use that word in my post or in the comments. I wasn't talking so much about his military stature - sure, that's huge - as a bias in the cultural context of how Carthage is viewed.

That said, there were plenty of occasions when I found surprising contemporary anti-Hannibal bias. I was once interviewed for a British documentary about him. I was giving my reasoned argument that he wasn't a bloodthirsty nut but had lots of legitimate (in context) reasons for his war with Rome and much of what he did makes sense in a larger context. But that's not what the producer wanted to hear. He kept pushing me to say that Hannibal was a nutter, driven by hatred. I obviously didn't give him what he wanted. No worries, though, he cut me and interviewed other people that did!

Experiences like that are part of the backdrop of why I wrote a post like this.

I'm a Scipio fan, too. It was great fun writing about him. And I agree that he doesn't have nearly the same place in the popular imagination as Caesar or Alexander... or Hannibal.

I didn't read that particular Goldsworthy book, but I read several earlier ones. His book on Cannae is one of the titles I highlight in my acknowledgements in Pride of Carthage. I still have it!

10:25 AM  

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