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Review: Philip Freeman’s “Hannibal”

(J.M.W. Turner’s “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps” (1812).)

“Freeman’s book, as the author acknowledges, is written as something of a eulogy to this great man of antiquity, who has captured imaginations for two millennia.”

It is like a perfect scene from a biopic of Golden Age Hollywood: “The young African boy and his father walked up the cold stone steps of the temple in the hour just before dawn. The light rising from behind the distant mountains to the east beyond the wide bay was just beginning to spread across the city. He was only nine years old, but the boy had lived here all his short life and knew every street and back alley.” This young African boy was Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general who climbed the Alps with his war elephants to wreak havoc on Rome before eventually being defeated decades later by Publius Cornelius Scipio, who then became known as Scipio Africanus for his victory over Hannibal.

Hannibal: Rome’s Greatest Enemy by Philip Freeman, which was published earlier this year, tells the story of Hannibal and his “ultimate underdog” fight against the Roman Republic. And this fight would determine the fate of the western Mediterranean and, indeed, Western Europe and Western civilization, by extension. It is a romantic tale with which we are all familiar. Freeman’s book, as the author acknowledges, is written as something of a eulogy to this great man of antiquity, who has captured imaginations for two millennia. 

The story of Hannibal is also, in part, the story of the city of Carthage. Founded by Dido, or Elisa, the Phoenician city-state established in what is today Tunisia became a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis that attracted the attention and envy of the entire civilized world in the Mediterranean. Its wealth and trade allowed it to fund seafaring adventures that were rumored to stretch as far north as the British Isles and as far south as rounding the coast of South Africa and supposedly completing a circumnavigation of the entire African continent. Aristotle lauded the Carthaginian constitution and its mixed body politic as the finest in the world. Would-be conquerors and tyrants from the Greek city-states during the Hellenistic Golden Age sought to conquer Carthage and its wealth but failed. 

Hannibal’s rise comes in the aftermath of the First Punic War where the Romans expelled the Carthaginians from Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. Suffering from a large and unjust—even by the language of Polybius—indemnity, Carthage had to look elsewhere to repay its war debt to Rome. Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, assembled a large and powerful army and sailed to Spain where he carved out a de facto new empire in Iberia. The Barca family became so powerful that the Romans, newly concerned about the rise of Carthage in Spain, sent envoys to the Barca family in New Carthage rather than to the Carthaginian Senate in Africa. A new treaty was crafted which recognized Carthaginian influence over much of the Iberian Peninsula but also kept Carthage from spreading beyond the Ebro River.

Eventually, the continued rise of the Barca family put pressure on the pro-peace senators in Carthage and the weary eye of the Romans who noticed Carthage’s continued consolidation of power against the Celto-Iberians. Hannibal inherited his father’s political and military success and power; by age 25, he had become a seasoned general and great strategist. With the winds of victory behind him, he decided to attack the city of Saguntum, which was divided between pro-Carthaginian and pro-Roman political leaders. When the Roman side won inside the city, the Carthaginians embarked on conquest. The seizure of Saguntum led to Roman intervention; when Hannibal rebuffed them, they left “shocked” and appealed to the Carthaginian Senate who also rebuffed the Romans. War was officially declared. 

The beginning of the Second Punic War, which won Hannibal renown, started far differently than the Romans anticipated. “The Romans believed [the war] would be a conflict fought in Spain and in Africa,” Freeman writes. Little did the Romans know, Hannibal was already prepared to take the fight to Italy. Thus began the great campaign of Hannibal’s fame and fortune: his march of his army and elephants across dangerous Celtic territory, over the Alps, and down into the heart of Italy to face the mighty republican armies of Rome.

Freeman writes beautifully and with picturesque vision when chronicling Hannibal’s most famous feat. As the war was in its early stages and the Carthaginians surprised everyone by taking the fight to Rome, “The Carthaginians could see the snow-capped Alps before them looming taller every day…Hannibal addressed them as well and assured them that victory against Rome lay over the mountains.” Seeing the Alpine peaks, the sparkling snow-capped tops, and the tall trees and rocks protruding from the mountains must have been a sublime sight to see.

While men, merchants, and animals had long been traversing the Alpine passes between Gaul and northern Italy, what made Hannibal’s feat the stuff of legend was the scale of the operation. To maneuver successfully an army of over 50,000 men and tens of thousands of animals was never before heard. On top of the logistical problems, Hannibal’s army was harassed and attacked by Celts and Gallic tribesmen who were not keen on Hannibal’s trespassing on their territory. Freeman rightly states, “It was such an extraordinary achievement because he led so many men, tens of thousands, along with his elephants, across the unfamiliar Alps through the snow and ice of early winter while overcoming large armies of fierce and well-armed mountain warriors.” It would not be until Napoleon Bonaparte, two millennia later, that such a feat of moving men and material over the Alps would again be accomplished at such scale.

Achieving his immortal fame of marching over the Alps, Hannibal then surprised his Roman adversaries who were simultaneously stunned at the accomplishment but also arrogantly overconfident that they would still crush Hannibal and his army in pitched battle. After all, the Romans had every reason to believe so. Earlier battles with the Carthaginians generally proved the superiority of the Roman citizen legion armies. But they had not previously encountered an innovative and daring commander like Hannibal, who had sharpened his skills in the years prior fighting in Spain. So Hannibal’s army came thundering out of the Alps and crushed the Roman armies that stood in its path, revealing Hannibal’s skill as a tactician and strategist.

Hannibal’s invasion of Italy won him further glory as his army pushed south; alarm and fear gripped Rome. With their northern armies defeated, Rome rallied and sent to face Hannibal the largest army it had ever fielded. Hannibal’s worn-out, tired, and battered army—now missing all its infamous elephants—met the newly created Roman army at the fields of Cannae in what would be one of the greatest and most horrific battles of Antiquity.

Cannae was a battle that became so infamous that it is still being studied today. Down through the millennia, military generals and strategists have sought to replicate the stunning victory of Hannibal and his army. Outnumbered and fatigued against a superior adversary, Hannibal drew up his famous battleplan of having a weakened center and strong flanks that would lead to a double enveloping of the enemy as they pushed through the weaker center. Thinking they were victorious, the Romans would soon find themselves surrounded. The apparent victory would turn into a bloody defeat.

The Battle of Cannae went exactly as Hannibal envisioned. His cavalry, the only superior part of his force, routed the Roman cavalry and pursued it from the field. The Roman infantry, however, seemed to be winning the day until it suddenly realized what had happened as it pushed into the center of the Carthaginian line: It had entrapped itself. Surrounded, Roman numerical superiority was lost. Then, Hannibal’s cavalry returned and attacked from the rear. The defeat of the Roman army was near total. It was the worst defeat the Romans had ever suffered. Blood and guts covered the once green and lush fields of Cannae which was now a landscape drenched in crimson red, a newly created sea of blood from merciless slaughter.

Nevertheless, Hannibal was unable to capitalize on this victory. His forces were now too small and too tired to conquer Rome. The Romans redoubled their efforts and rebuilt their forces; it was nearly impossible for the Carthaginians to resupply their brilliant general in Italy. Roman forces in Spain fought a back-and-forth struggle until they finally got the upper hand in the Iberian Peninsula. Additionally, Roman dominance of the sea prevented soldiers and material from Africa from being shipped to Hannibal in Italy. With ever declining numbers and depleted supplies, Hannibal was eventually recalled to Africa when the Romans invaded the Carthaginian homeland.

The story of Hannibal is not complete without the story of Scipio Africanus. While Roman consuls, generals, and prominent families cycled in and out in the fight against Hannibal, the Scipio family was one of the few mainstays from start to finish. Just as the young Hannibal was dedicated to the god Baal Hammon, Scipio Africanus was raised with a hatred of the Carthaginians and a noble identity as a member of one of the Republic’s greatest families, whose illustrious members fought and died against the Carthaginians. The task now fell upon the young Scipio to avenge his father, who died in Spain, and defeat Hannibal once and for all. Scipio had been learning from the years of Hannibal’s victories, and he would use the very tactics Hannibal had employed to strike a mortal blow to Carthage’s greatest general and Rome’s most fearsome adversary. Scipio went on the offensive, achieving victory in Spain. He then invaded Africa, which drew Hannibal back to his homeland, a homeland he had not seen for decades, for one final showdown.

Although Hannibal was defeated at Zama by Scipio, Hannibal’s life did not end there. He was brought up on charges by his native city which sought to punish him for failing to defeat Rome. He was acquitted, thanks to the influence of Scipio. Eventually, however, enemies of Hannibal inside Carthage and Rome forced him into exile; he fled east and offered his services to the Greek kingdoms fighting Rome for control of the eastern Mediterranean. The presence of Hannibal still threatened Rome, and the Romans were haunted by the memories of their stinging defeats. Rome’s salvation was not assured until Hannibal was dead.

Although Hannibal had some success as an admiral in the eastern Mediterranean, his services eventually came to an end when Prusias I of Bithynia was forced by the Romans to surrender the Carthaginian general to them. Although he had helped Prusias achieve various victories, the King of Bithynia agreed out of fear of Roman power. Hannibal, rather than suffer the humiliation of being paraded as a slave through the streets of Rome, decided to commit suicide. Thus ended the life of “Rome’s greatest enemy.”

In reading Freeman’s excellent short biography of Hannibal, we are left wondering when this giant of history will get his proper due on the Hollywood big screen. Hannibal is certainly deserving an epic for the epic life he lived. More than two millennia later, he remains one of the most infamous and illustrious souls of antiquity, and Freeman resurrected him masterfully in Hannibal: Rome’s Greatest Enemy.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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