Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life

Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life
Eve MacDonald
Yale University Press  332pp  £25

John Ruskin anathematised the painter J.M.W. Turner as having ‘lived in imagination in ancient Carthage, lived practically in modern Margate … acknowledging it all the while to be ugly and wrong’. A long western tradition of historical and moral commentary generally agreed with both the Romans and Ruskin that the Carthaginians were a bad lot. As Prescott later stigmatised the Spanish Conquistadors, so the Romans developed their own leyenda negra of Punic iniquities. Hannibal may have been a great general, but - like Rommel long after him - he was batting for the Rotters’ First XI. Eve MacDonald tries to find a way around this demonisation by rejecting Roman and Greek anti-Punic bias, while still relying on ‘victors’ history’, particularly those of Polybius and Livy. 

This study attempts to be even-handed and unprejudiced. For every act of bad faith, craftiness or cruelty by Hannibal, MacDonald can usually point to the same or worse committed by the Romans. In an attempt to normalise him, she proposes Hannibal as a typical ruler of the Hellenistic age, a man, say, like Agathocles, Tyrant of Syracuse. There is so much we do not know about Hannibal, MacDonald reminds us; what were his relations with the Senate in Carthage? What was the exact status of his family, the powerful Barcas, in Iberia, largely conquered by his father Hamilcar? Hannibal was not a prince defending a homeland, rather, MacDonald concludes, a Carthaginian warlord, constantly on the move in Iberia and Italy. Would he have ever returned to Carthage had he totally defeated Rome, or remained as a Carthaginian Caesar? Carthage had a habit of crucifying its returning generals when they had failed to please. 

Arguably, MacDonald bends over backwards too far in her attempt at fairness. Unless you knew the Carthaginians were of Semitic origin, speaking a Semitic language, worshipping a Semitic pantheon of gods, whose ancestors came from Mesopotamia and further East, you would be no wiser after reading the main text of this book. The words ‘Semite’, Asiatic’, ‘Oriental’ and ‘Eastern’ are all avoided so as not to appear prejudiced; multiculturalism and, arguably, multifaith multi-ethnicity, are instead stressed overmuch. Buried in a small-print footnote at the back, MacDonald repudiates the clash of cultures, arguing that the Romans were not western, nor the Carthaginians eastern or Semitic, ‘these values having been dismissed for their colonialist and anti-Semitic overtones’, she states. Perhaps this important authorial point of view might have been highlighted early on in the main text, so the vexed racial and ethnic dimension could be fully discussed? 

MacDonald is surely correct in thinking Hannibal saw himself as a hero under the protection of the god Melqart-Herakles. She does not ask if his journey was really necessary. Hannibal’s nemesis, Scipio, built a fleet with which he captured Punic Cartagena in Iberia while Hannibal was away in Italy. Hannibal might have done the same in reverse and avoided losing half his army in the Alpine crossing had he invaded Italy by sea and gone straight for the jugular in besieging Rome directly. It was lack of manpower that always prevented him doing this, hence the endless and ultimately futile marching up and down Italy, always defeating Roman legions but never able to actually assault Rome directly. 

Arthur Miller called Al Capone ‘The greatest Carthaginian of them all‘, MacDonald tells us. Also, that Muammar Gadaffi called a son Hannibal and that Ataturk put up statues of him in Asia Minor, where Hannibal finally killed himself to avoid capture by the Romans. Napoleon was an admirer, as was Sir Walter Ralegh. The afterglow
of Hannibal sometimes makes him seem less a Punic imperial adventurer and proto-Caesar and more like the Che Guevara of antiquity.

Ironically, Hannibal’s greatest legacy was to Rome. He taught the Romans military tactics and strategy, deception, ruse, deployment, the effective use of cavalry and auxiliaries. Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Britain read as if he had the great Carthaginian at his elbow advising him. Hannibal also has achieved modern sartorial apotheosis, MacDonald informs us, viz: ‘My Dad crossed the Alps with Hannibal - and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’.

Robert Carver’s Paradise with Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay was shortlisted for the the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize.

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