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.
This is an adequate, brief and basic overview of the Roman occupation of Britain. The book serves as an uninspiring introductory text to the subject. The narrative follows events in a chronological order, with additional chapters dedicated to army life, town life, the countryside, religion and belief, food and diet, industry and society.
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.
The first volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers the first 26 chapters of the author’s epic historical work. Beginning with the death of Domitian and ending with Theodosius I’s treaty with the Goths and early reign, Gibbon’s spans nearly 300 years of political, social, and religious history on how the great empire of antiquity slowly began to fade from the its greatest heights.
The history of the decline of Rome actually begins by showing the nearly century long period of rule of the “Five Good Emperors” as Gibbon shows the growth of absolute power of the Principate was governed by able and intelligent men. With succession of Commodus Gibbon illustrated what the power of the Principate would do for an individual who was a corrupt and tyrannical ruler. Gibbon’s then examines the political and military fallout of the death of Commodus with the declaration of five emperors in less than a year and rise of the Severan dynasty by conquest. Gibbon reveals underlining causes of era of the ‘Barracks Emperors’ and what historians call, “the Crisis of the Third Century”.
With the ascension of Diocletian and through him the rise of the House of Constantine, Gibbon explores the political and bureaucratic reforms began and developed that would eventually divide the empire in his view. After Constantine’s rise to sole emperor, Gibbon then delves into the early history of Christianity before its adoption by the founder of Constantinople. Beginning with Constantine, the last half of this particular volume as the history and theological developments of Christianity as a central narrative as one of the contributing factors of the decline of the Roman Empire.
Although the description above might make one pause at starting the heavy work, Gibbon’s style and prose make history come alive with every word and gives the reader a sense of the grand scale of historical forces while not overwhelming them. While every reader will have their own verdict on if Gibbon’s arguments and interruptions of history are correct, each avid history lover will find this opening volume of Gibbon’s magnum opus an engaging beginning in examining how one of the foundation stones of Western Civilization came to its political end while passing on its laws and culture to Europe.