Totally Spain       

Dexter Hoyos

Retired Associate Professor, Department of Classics and Ancient History Sydney University

Q/What do you find most compelling about Hannibal?

He became the chief general and effective leader of Carthage at 26, made her for ten years the greatest military power between the Atlantic and the Adriatic, after the war reformed and improved her domestic life, and earned the admiration of his old enemies as well as succeeding generations. Twice or maybe thrice he could have taken steps that would probably have won the war: he knew this at the time, and yet he didn’t. Why?

Q/ Hannibal is often lauded as one of the greatest leaders of ancient history. Do you think he deserves this position even though in the end he lost the 2nd Punic War?

He was a great leader; whether one of the greatest depends on what the greatness should be. Certainly he ranks with the other 2 usual suspects for greatest ancient general - Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar. In politics & government, he had a small range of tasks and options (Carthage lost her empire and shrank to a city-state) but performed creditably, more so than AGr and at least as well as JC. But greater leaders, on many criteria, were Darius, Pericles, Augustus, Diocletian & Constantine.

Q/ Did Hannibal ever have a chance against Rome? Why did he lose?

Yes he did. It’s mistaken to see Carthage as a sort of terrier taking on a bulldog, for both sides had fairly equal resources and skills, and H was a much better general than any Roman down to halfway through the war. But he made some strange mistakes or misjudgements. He lost because—
 (i) To lose part of one’s army on a 1,200-or-so-miles’ march is a misfortune, but to lose about two-thirds is carelessness. No one knows why he could cross the Pyrenees with 59,000 troops and yet reach North Italy with only 26,000, and many & various are the suggested solutions. Basically he shouldn’t have. -- (ii) He could have, should have and was probably expected to have marched straight on Rome after Trasimene 217 BC. Instead he went off to Apulia. -- (iii) Same thing after Cannae, except that now he was in Apulia and he took his time doing anything afterwards. -- (iv) As c-in-c/worldwide operations/Carthage, he decided what forces and reinforcements should go where. He sent tens of thousands of troops, with funds and elephants, to Spain, Sardinia, Sicily and still later Liguria, but only a small contingent 215 BC to himself. -- (v) His brother Hasdrubal in Spain was supposed to march to Italy in 216 but would not, could have done so in 211 but did not, and went only in 208–7, to North It., when H was becalmed in S. It. and it was predictably hopeless that they could join forces. -- (vi) H’s brother Mago came to Italy four years later, but again to N. It. 700 miles from H, accomplished nil, and was expelled. -- (vii) Scipio Africanus.

Q/ What do you think of Wood Brothers aim to ride Hannibal's route on bicycles, from Cartagena to Carthage?

A brilliantly engaging idea. This can bring to vivid life the places, problems and opportunities facing the Carthaginians on their epic anabasis (and, in the end, katabasis). Many places haven’t physically changed all that greatly in 2,200 years, so the visual impact will be strong in recreating the episodes in H’s career.
Q/ A number of professional historians have retraced Hannibal's route and you are one of them. Is it possible to confidently identify Hannibal's route over the Alps and why?

Not firmly possible. It turns on how you interpret the written data, and the data are not unerringly clear about the locations, line of march, chronology or descriptions of surroundings. Polybius and Livy, the two detailed sources, don’t identically match in their accounts, besides having all those other flaws.
Q/ What is the main reason why didn't Hannibal attack Rome?

For this we need H’s memoir of his campaigns, inscribed on a temple-column at the shrine of Hera at Capo Colonna (now lost). Livy says that Cannae was too great a victory for him to take it in. Polybius states that he had been expected – but doesn’t say if he (H) himself had expected – to march on Rome after Trasimene. He may have believed that even with their armies wiped out, the Romans would defend the city to the death behind fortifications which would wear out his army; and that instead he could wear them out if he enticed all their allies in Italy to join him. So he gambled.

Q/ When most people think of Hannibal they think of elephants? Were they really a major part of his arsenal?

Elephants in battle fascinate (see Lord of the Rings!). H won a big victory in Spain early on by using elephants and cavalry to smash Spanish warriors as they crossed the river Tagus and fell into disorder. His victory at the river Trebia in 218 was partly due to them too. But although he acquired more elephants from Africa in 215, they played no important part in his remaining battles in Italy. Nor did those in the armies in Spain. At Zama he had more elephants than ever before (80) and they ran wild with damaging effect on his cavalry. On the whole, one could say, he would have done better not to take them to Italy or later.

Q/What is an example of an important question/mystery about Hannibal and/or
the Carthaginians that is still unanswered?

Quite a few, but a fascinating one would be: how Grecised/Hellenised had he and the other Carthaginians become by that time? It seems as though most educated Carthaginians were fluent Greek-speakers, while a fair proportion at every social level seems to have had Greek (as well as Phoenician and Libyan) kinsmen or ancestors.
   Another: if Carthage had won the war and became dominant over Rome, Italy and the whole Western Mediterranean, might she have gone on – like Rome – to become the pre-eminent power also over the east? She would have had Italian allies along with all the others, and who would still have been in his prime to lead the West against the East?

 Q/Is there a piece of our historical record missing? I mean, is it fair tosay that the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians are a bit of a mystery to us, even though they were an important civilization?

Yes, because their own records were not preserved and all we have are scraps in a few quotations, plus religious and funeral inscriptions. In 146 the city was left in burnt ruins (though not sprinkled with salt, a habit which developed only around AD 1930), and 120 years later the entire summit of Byrsa Hill was taken off so that the Romans could build their massive temple of Apollo instead of the wreckage of the old temple of Eshmun. The Roman city spread over and beyond the Punic, so that much of current archaeology is to do with post-Punic Carthage. Ditto the Punicised towns elsewhere in North Africa, like Utica and Dougga. To figure out the Carthaginians is like trying to work out how a jigsaw originally looked, even though you have only maybe 50 out of 500 pieces left.

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About the authors

Danny, Ben and Sam Wood are three brothers who followed in the footsteps of three ancient Carthaginian brothers Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago. They cycled from Cartagena, Spain to Zama, Tunisia - the route that Hannibal and his army took over 2200 years ago. Along the way they filmed a documentary to be aired on the BBC in July 2010.


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