My fifty-eighth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Patrick Hunt about his new biography of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
Hannibal Barca is regarded as one of the great military commanders of the Western world, a status which is a little surprising considering that he never actually defeated his great opponent Rome in a war. Part of this honor is undoubtedly due to his success in battle, as in a succession of victories his outnumbered forces defeated the Roman legions sent out to destroy them. Yet Patrick Hunt's new biography of the Carthaginian general points to another reason why he holds such an exalted status, as his success ironically helped the Romans to become the dominant empire we remember it as today.
This, of course, was not Hannibal's goal when he set out to destroy Rome in 218. The son of a Carthaginian statesman who led his country's forces in the First Punic War, Hannibal made revenge the main focus of his life. His achievements in this regard were nothing short of remarkable, as he led his men on a grueling march through the Alps into often hostile territory, where through brilliant generalship and a shrewd exploitation of Celtic grievances he repeatedly bested the troops sent by Rome to defeat them. Yet rather than surrender, Rome adapted by adjusting their leadership structure and adopting a strategy of attrition, trapping Hannibal in a war he couldn't bring to a resolution, The culmination came in the battle of Zama in 202, when Hannibal found the situation neatly reversed, as his untrained army was defeated by the better-managed legions of Scipio Africanus, who used some of Hannibal's own tactics against him in order to win.
Hunt's book offers a knowledgeable overview of Hannibal's life and times. This is no small achievement considering the paucity of sources and their bias -- the only historical sources on Hannibal are Roman ones, with all of the problems that this entails. Often this has the effect of turning his book into more of a history of the Second Punic War than a biography, but the advantage of this is that it highlights what is Hannibal's greatest contribution to history. For while he may not have succeeded in defeating Rome, he became its greatest teacher of the military arts and helped to make them into the empire that would endure for seven centuries and more. This alone makes Hannibal well worth reading about.
So I finished this yesterday, and I will write up a review shortly. Overall it's not a bad book, but it definitely points to the limitations of writing a biography of Hannibal, which is that most of what we know about him comes from the sources of his greatest enemies. On nearly every page Hunt has a sentence that starts with some version of "Polybius says", or "Livy says", as those two ancients are the twin poles supporting Hunt's biographical tent. It's really an issue common to the study of ancient history, but as I thought about it, it raised an interesting question in my mind.
Is Hannibal overrated as a military commander?
This gets to the heart of why people write books about Hannibal, which is that he is regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in Western history. And there is no gainsaying his achievements: he marched an army across the Alps, won a succession of battles in lopsided fashion, and terrorized Rome for over a decade through a military occupation of southern Italy.
And yet in the end, he lost. Not only did he lose, he failed in spectacular fashion. Instead of defeating his mortal foe, Rome learned from their defeats and became stronger. When Hannibal was finally defeated it was in North Africa, not in Italy, as Rome not only recovered, but invaded his country in retaliation. In the settlement that followed, Carthage was crippled, permanently stripped of their possessions in Spain and prohibited from raising an army or having a fleet of more than ten vessels. Though Carthage itself would not be wiped from existence until the Third Punic War half a century later, Rome was well on its way to becoming the dominant power in the Mediterranean world for the next seven centuries, which was the exact opposite of what Hannibal set out to do.
So again, why is this guy regarded as a great military commander?
It's an interesting question because it gets to the heart of the issue of historical reputation. In Hannibal's case, I suspect that a large part of it has to do with the fact that he defeated Roman legions in three successive battles (Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae), and given that in the case of the latter two battles he was heavily outnumbered those were certainly no small achievements. But as Hunt makes clear in his book, Hannibal sucked when it came to the follow-through -- he could win battles, but couldn't force an end to the war. And while ending on top has never been a necessary criteria of military greatness (if it were, we wouldn't rank Napoleon Bonaparte as highly as we do), in Hannibal's case we certainly give him more credit for greatness than he deserves, probably because it flattered Roman egos to claim that only a military genius could have achieved what he did against their forces. Perhaps the lesson in his case is that just because the victors write the history it doesn't mean that the losers can't come out of it better then they deserve.
So it turned out that the bulk of this book is not so much a biography of Hannibal as it is an overview of the Second Punic War. Perhaps that is just the "biography" of Hannibal that the sources can support (and, to be honest, I've needed to read a history of the war for some time now), but it does feel like calling Hunt's book a biography is overselling it.