Assistant Professor of Classics, Brown University
Q/ What do you find most compelling about Hannibal?
His legacy. As a historian, I say that with a nod to Toynbee. As a Punic-War enthusiast, I mean that Hannibal is, perhaps, the greatest loser of all time-- and yet we love him for it. Long after the war had receded into memory, Hannibal became a sort of bogey-man for Roman children; this fact alone speaks to the pervasiveness of Hannibal as more than a historical figure. He was and remains a cultural icon.
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?
Without a doubt. There's that wonderful, and surely apocryphal, anecdote in Plutarch's Life of Titus Flaminius. The defeated Hannibal tells the triumphant Scipio that history's three greatest generals were first Alexander, then Pyrrhus, and finally himself, (Hannibal). Excluded from the canon, Scipio then asks how the Carthaginian would have ranked the generals had the Romans not prevailed under Scipio's leadership. Hannibal's response? Had Hannibal prevailed, he himself would have ranked first. (So much for Scipio).
The showcasing of Hannibal's brilliance and genius was instrumental to the celebration of Roman victory. A triumph is honorable only when a worthy adversary has been crushed. Given the mostly unbridled economic, demographic, and geographic expansion of the Roman empire after the fall of Carthage, we can safely assume that Hannibal's ancient reputation as one of the greatest strategists and tacticians was not simply some rhetorical creation of Greek and Roman authors. Hannibal had earned it.
Q/ Did Hannibal ever have a chance against Rome? Why did he lose?
If Hannibal didn't have a chance against Rome, we wouldn't be discussing him right now. The Wood Brothers would have a much less strenuous autumn ahead of themselves.
As for why Hannibal lost, now that's a complicated problem. A short answer can be no more than suggestive and simplistic at best: manpower, perseverance, strategy, and the flexibility of the Roman army. Let's not forget the strategic brilliance of Fabius Maximus "Cunctator" and Scipio "Africanus." Of course the Romans themselves also claimed that they, unlike the Carthaginians, had the gods on their side-- especially Juno. After she was propitiated in 207, the balance of success favored the Romans.
Q/ What do you think of Wood Brothers aim to ride Hannibal's route on bicycles, from Cartagena to Carthage?
I think it's fantastic, and I'm quite jealous.
Precisely half a century ago, an Oxford engineering student by the name of John Hoyte managed to convince the zookeepers of Torino to lend him an elephant so he could try out some of the passes. Today, riding bicycles seems a bit more realistic-- and readily available-- than riding pachyderms. In many ways the former is a lot more treacherous. The Wood Brothers won't be relying on animal power, but on the strength, endurance, and resilience of their own bodies and spirits. They may, in fact, have to summon the encouragement of Hannibal to help get themselves motivated to climb the Apennines-- but it's one of Livy's greatest indirect speeches, so it'll be well worth the recitation.
Q/ A number of professional historians have retraced Hannibal's route. Is it possible to confidently identify Hannibal's route over the Alps and why?
This is a question for Patrick Hunt.
Q/ What is the main reason why didn't Hannibal attack Rome?
Excellent question, and one that continues to mystify many fans and scholars of the Second Punic War. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Hannibal knew he wouldn't have been able to take Rome without siege machines. Ever the strategist, he therefore attempted to rally Rome's allies for the Carthaginian cause. If he could get important towns like Capua to defect, he would be able to starve the Romans of resources: not just food, but also manpower. What we call the Second Punic War would become an Italian revolution as well, with Rome's former allies now feeding and reinforcing Hannibal and his men against Rome. Securing the allegiance of Rome's allies would be the only way to crush Rome once and for all.
Q/ When most people think of Hannibal they think of elephants? Were they really a major part of his arsenal?
Yes and no. Certainly Hannibal's elephants have been glamorized. One has only to think of the elephants maimed and killed in "Scipione l'Africano", a Fascist propaganda film issued by the Italian government in 1937. Because real elephants --and real soldiers-- were used in that film, you can get a very real sense of their strength, their power, and the sort of fear they inspire; but you also see their inflexibility. Elephants cannot be maneuvered. They charge forward in a straight line. The Romans quickly recognized this limitation and accommodated their formations accordingly-- and they did so long before Hannibal had even been born. This point is important.
Most people think of Hannibal's elephants as a complete novelty. The fact is the Romans had already met a brilliant enemy on elephantback: Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus. Pyrrhus, to a lesser extent than Hannibal, has played an important role in popular memory; he provides us the expression "Pyrrhic victory." It was the unleashing of his elephants that granted the king of Epirus victory over the Romans in the Battle of Heraclea (280 BCE). The Romans and their horses were completely helpless against this terrifying creature. Within a year, however, the Romans had figured out how to rout elephant forces; they were prepared with all sorts of anti-elephant artillery. They next met at the Battle of Asculum (279 BCE). The Greeks prevailed, but their victory was "Pyrrhic"; that is to say, the casualties suffered by the victors far outmeasured their gains. It was more than half a century later that Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants. By then, the Romans knew how to handle war elephants. In fact, at the battle at Zama, that decisive end to the Second Punic War (202 BCE), Scipio's forces were able to render Hannibal's elephants completely ineffective. All the Roman maniples had to do was step aside and let the charging elephant pass them by.
Q/What is an example of an important question/mystery about Hannibal and/or the Carthaginians that is still unanswered?
It's not glitzy, but I'd like to know more about what Hannibal did after the war. Hannibal died by his own hand nearly two decades after the Battle of Zama. I'd like to learn more about his time in the Seleucid court where he served as military advisor to Antiochus III and later, at the court of Prusias I in Bithynia. Unfortunately the current state of the historical record forbids any further reconstruction.
Q/Is there a piece of our historical record missing? I mean, is it fair to say that the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians are a bit of a mystery to us, even though they were an important civilization?
Of course. We're missing the whole Carthaginian side of the story. Hannibal had his own historians and chroniclers, but their texts have completely vanished. Rather than lament the loss, however, we should always keep in mind that it's a miracle that even the Roman side, that is, the side of the winners has managed to survive all the vicissitudes of recovery and transmission for the past 22 centuries. We've lost Valerius Antias and Coelius Antipater, so what hope should we have of retaining a Carthaginian author?
As for the Phoenicians and Carthaginians themselves, it is true that they remain, to a large extent, a mystery. They did, however, leave behind a rich material and archaeological record; continued investigation is quite promising.