Saturday 16 April 2022

Hannibal’s Oath

It is a well know story, of course: Hannibal Barca, leader of Carthage, stormed across the Alps and into Italy, sweeping all before him with a series of stunning victories and bringing the fledgling Roman state to its knees. The slow recovery of the Romans and their eventual victory over Hannibal is, perhaps, one of the greatest comeback stories of the ancient world, possibly of all history.

As you might imagine, I have been reading again:

Prevas, J. (2017). Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy. Da Capo.

This is not an academic text, but really a history of Hannibal’s adventures from the beginning as the son of Hamilcar Barca, who thought that with a bit more support he might have won, or at least drawn, the First Punic War, to Hannibal’s suicide just before being taken by the Romans in Bithynia.

While at the more popular level, the book is not devoid of analysis. I think that books aimed at the more popular level are, in general, improving a bit in their ability both to reference the source material and provide a bit of ‘well, this is what the sources say but they might be wrong, biased or simply making things up to be a good story.’ This sort of issue is particularly acute with sources from the ancient world, of course.

That is not to underplay Hannibal’s achievements, of course. He did lead an army over the Alps and run rampant in Italy for a few years. If things had turned out slightly differently – if reinforcements had got through to him (and they nearly did) – then Rome might well have been reduced from nascent superpower to another city state in the middle of Italy. World history might have looked a little different.

While to book focusses on Hannibal, of course, the sources are Roman and so a fair bit of Roman reaction enters the sources. The early commanders against Hannibal in Italy mostly come across as overconfident and incompetent. It was only when the Roman strategy shifted from avoiding direct contact with Hannibal and his army, and undermining his strategy elsewhere that things began to turn.

For example, Hannibal’s hope was to get Italian and Italian-Greek cities onto his side. This sort of worked, but of course they needed protection and for Hannibal to continue to be seen as a winner. However, he did not have the resources to lay siege to anywhere, really, and certainly not Rome. Whether he could have successfully moved on Rome in the panic after Cannae is a moot question, of course. It is possible that given reasonable terms the Romans, or at least some of them, would have favoured surrender. Whether such terms would have been offered, and whether a faction of the Senate would have held out anyway, reasoning that Hannibal could not besiege the city, we will never know.

The ensuing long war in Italy was rather devoid of battles – the Romans learnt to avoid them and to shadow Hannibal while preventing their own allies from defecting. The rest of the war was fought out in Spain, where eventually the Carthaginians were defeated. This left North Africa vulnerable, of course, and so Hannibal and the remnants of his army were summoned to Carthage to defend the city.

The result, as any wargamer will know, was Zama and the clash between Scipio Africanus and Hannibal himself. As Prevas notes, however, Hannibal’s army was not the one he crossed the Alps with, while Scipio’s was much more experienced and had come from a string of victories in Spain. No wonder Hannibal negotiated before accepting battle.

One of the interesting things, which I did not know (I have not read much about the (Punic Wars) was that Hannibal’s third line included a Macedonian phalanx. I am not sure I was aware of that before. Sabin, in Lost Battles refers to ‘Livy’s propagandist tale’ of their being Macedonians present, and that it is almost universally disbelieved. It does go to show the risks of believing the sources too much, although I am not exactly sure why Livy should have included Macedonians for propaganda, although it would have justified the next Roman war against the Greeks.

With the defeat at Zama, Hannibal eventually fled east and tried his hand at being a military advisor with various potentates against Rome. These did not work out too well, as the Romans had the organisation and manpower to overcome pretty well any foe of the time. Eventually, Roman threats (thinly disguised as diplomacy) tracked Hannibal down.

An interesting book about a period about which I know relatively little. I do recall Terry Wise’s Introduction to Battle Gaming (I think it was) had a refight of Zama in its pages, part of the interest of which was spotting the Airfix figures used in the photographs – I recall the North American Indian mounted chief being one of them, as a Numidian light cavalryman.

I confess, I do not feel too attracted to the Punic Wars as a period, and I am not all that sure why. The battles in which Hannibal participated are not without interest, although they did tend to be a bit one-sided. The battles in Spain are probably the more interesting, while Zama, as noted, was probably a victory for quality. I am sure there are decent wargames to be had, but they do not feel ‘right’ for me.

It is odd how the choice of period works, or maybe it is just that I do not want to paint another load of Romans and various random bits which constituted Carthage’s armies of the time. Mind you, I do already have armies of Moors and Numidians and Spanish, so that might not be too bad. The Romans would be a bit more of a challenge.

Overall a decent book, then, especially if read with care. Prevas does not entirely subscribe to the ‘Hannibal was a genius’ school, and that, in my view, is a jolly good thing.

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