Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Hannibal: One Man Against Rome, by Harold Lamb

The 'Mad Carthaginian' won nearly every battle but lost the war, and history as we know it is the result.

Hannibal: One Man Against Rome

Doubleday, 1958, 310 pages

This is the breathtaking adventure of the great Carthaginian general who shook the foundations of Rome. When conflict between Rome and Carthage resumed in 219 B.C., after a brief hiatus from the first Punic War, the Romans decided to invade Spain. Eluding several Roman legions sent out to intercept him in Spain and France, Hannibal Barca astoundingly led his small army of mercenaries over the Alps and thundered down into the Po Valley. The Carthaginian swept all resistance from his path and, as one victory led to another, drove a wedge between Rome and its allies. Hannibal marched up and down the Italian peninsula for 18 years, appearing well nigh invincible to a Rome which began to doubt itself for the first time in its history.

According to Livy, "His cruelty was inhuman, his perfidy worse than Punic," but Hannibal is a definite case of the winners writing the history books.

Most people know the story of Hannibal, at least vaguely, even if all they remember is that it had something to do with elephants crossing the Alps. (In fact, only a handful of elephants survived and they never had much impact on the battle, but the image of Carthaginians riding war-elephants against Roman legions is one that endures.)

The Roman Republic was a powerful nation state in the 2nd century B.C., but it didn't yet rule all of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. The causes of the Punic Wars were essentially economic: Carthage was a trading empire with the greatest navy in the ancient world. They ruled the seas and controlled trade routes (and had long guarded the secret of the Atlantic). As the Roman Republic expanded, their interests conflicted with those of the Carthaginians.

The Second and Third Punic Wars can really be compared to the First and Second World Wars; their impact on the Western Mediterranean was equivalent and nearly every country in the region was eventually dragged into it. It was the first "global" conflict, and it altered history possibly to an even greater degree than the World Wars did. What I found most interesting in reading this book was just how many events during this time period were what you might call "decision points" where the course of human history hinged on the outcome of one battle, and sometimes on the actions of one individual. Alternate history novels in which the Germans won WWII or the U.S. never bombed Japan result in a world very different but still recognizably ours; if you imagine an alt-history in which Carthage won the Second Punic War -- which came very close to happening several times -- Western Civilization today would be so different as to be unrecognizable.

Hannibal Barca is considered to be one of the greatest military leaders in history. He led an invasion into Italy and stayed there for nearly eighteen years of campaigning against Rome. After the Battle of Cannae, it's believed he probably could have taken Rome itself, but for reasons historians still argue over, he didn't. Eventually, he was worn down by attrition and Rome's superior supply lines, and defeated back in Carthage itself at the Battle of Zama.

Hannibal played a brilliant military, political, and economic game; he wasn't just a battlefield genius. Opposite him was Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal after studying his tactics for years. Although it's always hard to make inferences about ancient personalities -- and particularly hard in Hannibal's case, since the only words of his we have left are those recorded by the Romans -- this book leaves one with the impression that these two great generals, in the end, probably respected one another more than they did their countrymen. Hannibal eventually died in exile, taking poison rather than being turned over to vengeful Romans. Publius Cornelius Scipio, once an extremely ambitious man, died in self-imposed exile of his own at about the same time.

Besides Hannibal and Scipio, Harold Lamb's book details some of the other major personalities of the war, on both sides. It's half military history, half biography, but a lot of the biographical details are thin. We don't know exactly when or how Scipio Africanus died, for example, there were some key meetings between Hannibal and his generals, and with various city-state leaders, about which historians can only speculate as to the outcome, and there are gaps of years during which we don't know what happened, only that at one point Hannibal's army was in Iberia, and when the historical record picks up again, he's in Italy. We do have rather detailed descriptions of many of the battles, however. And we have the records of the Roman Senate, and the words with which Cato the Elder (a political enemy of Scipio) ended every session after the end of the Second Punic War: "Carthago delenda est."

Hannibal: One Man Against Rome is your basic layman's history of the Hannibalic wars. It gives a brief background of the Mediterranean world of the time and the conflicts that had occurred before Hannibal's adulthood, then covers Hannibal's life and campaigns in great detail, and in the last couple of chapters, describes the aftermath, including Hannibal's flight to Syria and then Bithynia, and finally, the Third Punic War, in which Carthage was razed to the ground.

This book was written in 1958, so there are newer, possibly more comprehensive books out there, and there aren't much in the way of facts that you can't get by browsing Wikipedia for a while. Harold Lamb mostly sticks to what is known, though his sympathies are clearly with Hannibal and the Carthaginians.

Verdict: A good primer on Hannibal and the Punic Wars if you'd like to learn more than just which battles were fought and who won. I found it interesting and written to be readable; it's not a history textbook. There are some interesting historical personalities who did things we still can't quite understand, and while we all know about the elephants, the galleys, the legions, the battles, and the final destruction of Carthage, there is a lot more to the story in terms of internal and external politics, alliances, and economics. If you find that interesting, this book is worth reading.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, history, non-fiction, reviews

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