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Reading About a Childhood Hero

HannibalI took advantage of this past holiday weekend by catching up on some reading: in particular, I finished a book by Richard A. Gabriel on a childhood hero of mine: Hannibal – The Military Biography of Rome’s Greatest Enemy (also available on Google Books)

Quick primer for those of you not in the know/not as enthusiastic about Hannibal as I am :-): the Carthaginian general Hannibal fought in the Second Punic War – the second of three major wars between the two great Mediterranean powers of their day: Rome and Carthage. These wars were among the first true “world wars” that the world saw – in terms of bringing great powers to war and in terms of sheer devastation of life and property– and set the stage for Rome to eventually take over the entire Mediterranean.

So, why is Hannibal a childhood hero of mine? Well:

  • He is the son of one of the greatest Carthaginian generals from the First Punic War – Hamilcar Barca — who, legend has it, made a young Hannibal swear to “never be a friend of Rome” (holy comic book origins, Batman!)
  • He was a superb commander of men: whereas the Roman armies were made primarily of Roman citizens, Hannibal’s army consisted of people who spoke many different languages and had vastly different fighting styles: Carthaginian, Spanish, North African, Gallic tribesmen, Italian, Greek, etc.
  • His army had elephants! I know that’s not too unique, but seriously – ELEPHANTS!
  • He executed one of the boldest and most daring moves in antiquity, marching a massive multicultural army from Spain across the Alps and the Pyrenees into Italy.
  • Then, for 15 years, he fought legion after legion in enemy territory, only once receiving very limited supplies and reinforcements from Carthage.
  • One of those battles he fought was the famed Battle of Cannae – one of the greatest military victories ever achieved. There, Hannibal’s army of ~50,000 faced a Roman force of ~80-90,000. Despite being outnumbered, Hannibal crushed his Roman adversaries with a brilliant enveloping maneuver – losing some 5-8,000 soldiers (10-20% of Hannibal’s forces) while killing some 40-60,000 (50% of Rome’s forces) and capturing another 5-10,000! Among those killed included one of Rome’s two consuls (the equivalent to a Prime Minister or President), a previous consul, and a number of Roman Senators! In the course of three quick battles ending at Cannae, Hannibal’s forces had killed an estimated 100,000 Romans – believed to be 20% of Rome’s military age population.

I’ll admit, its not the most kid-friendly hero to have 🙂 but when it came down to it, I was amazed by his life. It takes uncanny ability, stamina, and boldness to be able to operate within enemy territory for 15 years and still win victory after victory.

GP Route of Hannibals invasion of Italy

Its with that enthusiasm that I picked up Gabriel’s book. While I think it’s a wonderful book for anyone who is deeply interested in Hannibal and military history (like your humble blogger), this is not really a biography intended for popular consumption. The book should really be thought of as an academic close read of the works of Livy and Polybius, the two Romans who wrote the most detailed account of the Second Punic War – pointing out where Livy/Polybius’s nationalism or their lack of attentiveness to detail probably led to inaccurate or revisionist accounts of what happened. Its in those moments that the author is simultaneously the most compelling (as Gabriel clearly shows off his amazing knowledge of military history and of the ancient world) and also the most frustrating (as it interferes with the narrative of Hannibal’s life in the name of the academic purpose).

With that said, ancient/military history buffs will appreciate the attentiveness to detail from the author (and his dismantling of many commonly held beliefs about Hannibal’s failure such as the lack of naval control/siege equipment), and Hannibal devotees (which may just be me :-)) will appreciate the author’s almost stream of consciousness way of describing what must have been going through Hannibal’s head as he made decision after decision.

In particular, Gabriel’s dissection of why Hannibal was doomed to failure was very compelling. To Gabriel, Hannibal made a number of key mistakes. First, he did not understand that Rome did not view war the way that the Greeks did – where a large defeat or two on the battlefield would lead to one side capitulating – Rome viewed war as a life or death situation – there was no room for negotiation unless they were winning and there was no room for capitulating. Period. Secondly, he did not understand that he was just one front of a grander geopolitical chess game between Carthage and Rome: Carthage was not especially interested in Italy (it would never realistically be able to hold its territory there even if it gained it), it was interested in preserving its holdings in Spain and in the islands of the Mediterranean. It was those two errors which doomed Hannibal to failure especially once Rome realized it could not keep throwing legion after legion at Hannibal and waged a war of attrition.

So, ultimate verdict: this is great if you’re a military history buff or really want to get into the details of Hannibal’s exploits, but there are likely much more accessible reads if you just want to learn a bit more about Hannibal’s life/Punic Wars.

(Image credit – Summa Gallicana)

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