Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Meet your Hero?

Hannibal Barca

Have you ever been asked the question: "If you could meet one person from history who would that be?"  Perhaps a little idle musings with your friends, at school, over break. Mayhap it was an assignment given by a teacher. Regardless, it is an idea, that inevitably arises in thoughtful folk at some time in their life. Here is my hero.  

Hannibal Barca b247 BC.

Now you may ask? Flaxen, true Englishman as you are, and given your rich cultural history, replete with a litany of fine heroes to worship, why do you choose an ancient foreigner? Tis inexplicable and requires further enunciation. That is a valid response and one that I will try to answer, as follows.  

Hannibal continues to fascinate and inflame my soul and hopefully, I'm able to put forth a few reasons why this man requires/demands adulation. Hannibal's life, wars and schemes are well known and we have several separate accounts of his campaigns and exploits. That said, what we have is a little one-sided and comes exclusively from his bitter enemies, the Romans/Greeks. Consider the calamity/calumny if we only had accounts of Napolean written by the British. Thus, the account of Hannibal's life is vastly biased in favour of the ultimate victors. All history is presented this way to a greater or lesser degree. As well as a general Hannibal was highly educated and versed in several languages, including Greek. According to Cornelius Nepos, Hannibal is said to have written books in Greek, including: 'Addressed to the Rhodians on the deeds of Cnaeus Manilius Vulso'. Sounds like a right riveting read. In addition, he was accompanied on his campaigns by a Greek secretary, Sosilos. Sosilos is said to have written an account of Hannibal's attainments during the great adventure of the Second Punic War. Alas, any writings by the great man himself and the works of Sosilos have been lost. What a treasure they would have provided for modern historians.

I mentioned Napolean previously. Though Napolean was ultimately defeated his genius in war can not be denied, even by an Englishman. Similarly, Hannibal has deserved a similar accolade. If there had been a colourful female component to the 'story' surely Shakespeare would have produced a play in his honour. Perhaps he should have fleshed out the ephemeral figure of Imilce; a flurry of embellishment to mete/meat out his narrative. The shade of Dido would emerge from the wings, stage right. And what about the poor doomed Sophonisba. A pawn in the affairs of man and tossed aside for expedience's sake; a barbarian's passions thwarted. Surely a tragic tale worthy of exposition. It is not as if Shakespeare was unaware of Hannibal due to some unfathomable gap in his education, for posterity we have this from his pen: ''A witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal, Drives back our troops, Arse''. Although the narratives have not kind been to Hannibal, they cannot hide a grudging admiration for the man, and importantly, they cannot leave out his deeds. And it is in his deeds that we observe and acknowledge the pure unadorned greatness of the man (stop waxing lyrical Flaxen). And those deeds are prodigious, indeed. For Hannibal managed to maintain a campaign on hostile lands, with meagre support from his homeland, for sixteen years. During this time he was harried by enemy forces constantly. Often these forces greatly exceeded Hannibal's beleaguered army, in men and arms. If we are to reckon true genius it does not always come with the furious flurry of battle. Look to events where Hannibal's cunning and mobility left the Romans chasing their tales. What a man reveals in prolonged adversity proves true greatness. But let us not forget his glory. In the initial flurry of his campaign, he inflicted three catastrophic defeats on the Romans driving them to their knees. Although I praise Hannibal, a degree of exaltation must surely be reserved for his opponents. Tis a testament to the stoic, iron-hard toughness and the fanatical political steadfastness of the Romans in that they did not buckle or waver in their ultimate war aims. What other nation, of the time, could have prevailed under such severe adversity?

Hannibal was a Phoenician by descent, and his ancestors hailed from the coast of Canaan (the city of Tyre). Thus the Carthaginians were Semites related to their staunch foes the Israelites, although, by the time of the Punic wars the Carthaginians had already been ensconced in their north African homeland for 600 years. Hannibal hailed from the aristocratic Barcid family and by the time of the Punic wars this noble house had been thoroughly interbred with Greek stock; hybrid vigour. The Barcid family were rich and connected, and at this time, had emerged as the premier family involved in Carthaginian political affairs and military matters. Hannibal's father, Hamilcar, had been a highly respected general in the First Punic War against Rome (264-241 BC). Getting back to the man- Hannibal is the Roman rendition of the Punic, Chenu Bechala (Grace of Baal).  

As for the character and personality of the man, again, we enter the land of the 'shifting sands' of history. The Romans of the time hated Hannibal with a white-hot passion, and no doubt, they had a right to do so. Throughout his 16-year /campaign/reign on Italian soil, he conducted himself with elaborate skill and cunning. Hannibal was undoubtedly a tactical genius and it has been estimated that of the 750,000 soldiers the Romans raised and placed in the field during the war, no less than 300,000 fell to the sword. The Romans recognised Hannibal's bravery in the field and the devotion his troops had for the man. As for an insight into Hannibal's personality, I will defer to the writings of a Greek scholar, Polybius. Polybius was a close contemporary of Hannibal's, and a friend of Rome, and although he had never met Hannibal, he had interviewed men who did know him. The main conclusion drawn by Polybius is that Hannibal was excessively cruel and had a fondness for riches. The criticism of cruelty was analysed by Polybius and he admits that on occasion, as mediated by military expediency, and circumstance, acts of cruelty appear justified. Though I'm not condoning cruelty, it has to be said that the act of war, and the fortunes of war, is by necessity pitiless. This concept applies equally to the ancients and moderns alike. And certainly, the Romans, themselves, were particularly noted for their cruelty, especially during the sack of a city.        

A few final remarks: There is little doubt that Hannibal was a military genius (a necessary overused word in this essay). However, twas his sad and anointed fate to be pitied against the Romans. It is my considered and studied opinion, that Rome, of the time, was unbeatable and Hannibal by ridiculous poor fortune and happenstance/happenchance had been thrown against this most implacable and indomitable of nations. I don't have the space to elaborate on this bold assertion, however, my unsupported claim demands a future post-watch this space (?space-cadet).  

Hannibal ultimately failed in his quest to vanquish the Romans; a tragic fallen hero. But do we extol the military virtues, or even remember Hannibal's nemesis? Few can recall the victor at the battle of Zama in 202 BC. Poor Scipio Africanus is lauded by no one. Hannibal's deeds have resounded/resonated down the centuries and if nothing else, folk remember his trek across the Alps, with elephants. Even today, military tacticians study the battles that made Hannibal immortal.    

I have prattled on enough and will finish with the avowed final words of the man himself. As an old man, Hannibal decided to take poison rather than fall prisoner to the hated Romans:

 "Let us now remove the Romans of their fears by the death of a feeble old man".




  1. Paragraph 4: ...left the Romans chasing their tales. Funny, whether intended or not!
    Fascinating and informative - a rewarding read - thanks

  2. Intended Sir. Thankyou, you are an attentive reader.

  3. Great information about Hannibal, the Phoenicians, Punics, Carthagians, lots very new to me. Therefore pretty thanks to you, dear Flaxon. Well done. But as much as I understand history, the germanic tribes (my ancestors in some way) and the galic ones too was more a kind of stone age hunters and collectors before the Romans came to shake them off from the trees. I already printed in the link to the life of brian´s sequence "what did the Romans ever do for us..?". Sure its a joke but true too same way. The Romans, as the direct followers of the marvelous ancient Greek culture, exported a lot of precious civilisation to north/west/centre of europe. So don´t blame them too hard. If monotheistic religions had not turned this wheel back into midage darkness, Europeans would have had GPS in their cars in the days of Charlesmain (well, only without a Charlesmain of course). So Baal may pardon me but I empty a large horn of mead to the Romans.
    Cheers man, have fun
    p.s.: Rome is still such a superb city - very worth to got there for a pizza or two.

  4. Forgot to mention, that the guy in history I´d like to meet best is definitely Plato (while teaching Aristotle - two birds with one stone)

    1. And let us not forget that Aristotle taught Alexander the Great.

  5. I think your take on Rome is spot on. Hannibal crushed Rome utterly, three times, and by the rules of ancient warfare, after defeat it was, I believe, the convention that the loser would seek terms with the victor. Perhaps a loss of territory, prisoners being sold as slaves, a paying of tribute and on from there. Round two perhaps a generation on.

    Rome was a new sort of enemy and one can imagine the uncomfortable thoughts that must have appeared in Carthaginian minds, "why won’t they give up!?" Rome had to be destroyed, utterly and beyond any hope of recovery, but how? Rome was unbeatable because it wasn’t just about destroying the field armies, although perhaps the rulers of Carthage never fully grasped this.

    It finally sank in to the somewhat dense Roman upper tiers that a change of tactics was required. Don’t fight Hannibal then, let him wear himself out wandering the countryside. Rome did win, and their final victory several generations on, was perhaps the greatest single atrocity in human history after which they pretty well eradicated all memories of Carthage and darkened their reputation for ever.

    Rome, who hasn’t heard of Rome, or at least has some vision of it – largely wrong and based too much on Hollywood perhaps, but say “Carthage” to anybody?

    Looking back on the Punic wars, it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible not to see it reflected through some modern mirror, imagining it in essentially modern terms (even for those who have no experience whatsoever of the military). I’ve not been to Italy myself, but one could probably go from Cannae to Lake Trasimene to Trebia in a day, in air conditioned comfort on smooth tarmac, stopping for some pleasant Italian fare as and when suits.

    But think of the Italy of the time, rich and sophisticated in its own terms but actually sparsely populated with little in the way of infrastructure really for roaming bands to live off. And how immense it must have appeared. Journeys which today are hours would have been days. Communication and reconnaissance – knowing what is over the next hill, the assumed basis of all real world military operations – subjective and patchy.

    Maybe this is why a big battle to decide things was the convention, because if one side said no, then wars became a grinding and terrible existential duel which ended with the utter destruction of the loser.

    This was the Punic wars really, and when Rome’s allies and client states saw that Rome was not going to surrender, no matter how many battle Hannibal won, perhaps they started thinking "what will they do to us if we change sides and they win?"

    Emphasis is always given to the formidable Roman military machine, but how much of the subsequent success was down to "we’d better not mess with these motherfuckers, look what happened to Carthage"

    (inverted commas: sorry, couldn't italicize in my browser)

  6. The Romans didn't cave when all logic dictated it should. Hannibal came to realise that Rome with its network of allies had access to almost unlimited manpower. His aim was to break up the confederacy and thus deprive Rome of soldiers. After Cannae Capua went over to Hannibal together with other Greek cities. Unfortunately for Hannibal, Rome's Latin allies stood firm. Hannibal's army was a wasting asset, and Carthage deprived him, for the most part, of troops. Carthage was distracted by events in Spain and sent their armies there. They should have realised that events in Italy were of prime importance. When they finally came to see the strategic importance of Italy and sent a further army, commanded by Hasdrubal, Hannibal's brother, it was too late. Vae Victus.