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.
The finale volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 49 through 71 of the author’s vast magnum opus. Beginning with the Iconoclast controversy in correlation with rise of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century and ending with a description of the causes and progression of the decay of the city of Roman in the 15th century, Gibbon relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments in both Europe and the Middle East ultimately led to the end of Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the state of the city of Roman at time of the Roman Empire’s complete end.
The majority of the 22 chapters deal with the rise of Islam and the resultant political and martial effects that would ultimately determine the fate of the Byzantine Empire. Although beginning with the Iconoclastic controversy that began the schism of the Christian church as the bishop of Rome rose to power in the West, Gibbon used those developments to launch into how Islam rose in Arabia then spread across not only areas once under Roman control but also their long-time Persian rivals in the aftermath of the reconquests of Heraclius. While detailing the internal struggle within the Caliphate period, Gibbon reveals how Emperors attempted to combat this new faith and military force to increasing little effect has time went on.
The thorough retelling of the numerous political changes throughout Asia that affect the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire shifted the focus away from the ‘Roman’ world to locations as far east as China, but revolutions of people in these areas would play into the fortunes of Constantinople. Also playing into fate of Byzantine was the barbarian Christian West that the Emperors called for aid not only from kings but the Pope as well. Unfortunately the resulting Crusades and mercenary arms that went East would inflict a mortal wound to the Empire in 1204 thus beginning a centuries long death spiral that only lasted as long as it did because of internal revolutions with the growing Ottoman Empire until 1453. This dreary recounting of the end of Byzantium is mirrored by Gibbon in his recounting of the history of the city of Rome itself throughout the Middle Ages until the fall of the New Rome in the East.
This finale volume of Gibbon’s life consuming work revealed the struggle of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium to continue against a succession of Islamic powers and its ultimate demise thus completing the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet in retelling the eventual fall of Constantinople, Gibbon paints a huge picture for the reader about how events both near and far away from the Bosporus affected the fortunes for both good and ill of the New Rome. And in recounting the history of the city of Rome throughout the Middle Ages, a reader sheds a tear with Gibbon about the loss of the monuments of both Republic and Empire due to the necessity or vanity of the people of Rome after for the fall of the Western Empire.
The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus. Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.
The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years. Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers. In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.
The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away. The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness. Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.
This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium. Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.
John Schied's INTRODUCTION TO ROMAN RELIGION is a fantastic short beginner's guide to the complicated beliefs and practices of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. Scheid concentrates on the civic aspects of the religion and how the culture's dependence on rites and omens shaped the society around it. The book takes the reader through the many and often intricate steps that had to be taken in order to honor the gods, and how participation in said activities established a Roman's place in society. The book mainly focuses on practices within Rome itself stretching between the second century B.C. to the rise of Christianity, and pulls from both ancient and modern sources to paint a complete picture for the reader.
What keeps AN INTRODUCTION from being a perfect read is that Scheid's interpretation of Ancient Rome feels extremely atheistic. While he dabbles in the philosophical attitudes expressed by prominent Romans at the end of the book, he never quite establishes what the Romans as a whole believed about their own beliefs. While it's repeatedly stated that was no dogma dictating specific interpretations of the gods, it doesn't excuse the lack of a general summary of the major figures of the Roman Pantheon. An unfamiliar reader may feel lost in consequence.