Thursday, May 7, 2015

Eve MacDonald's "Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life"

Eve MacDonald is an archaeologist, lecturer, and travel guide who has participated in excavations around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, including the site of ancient Carthage. She has taught at several universities in the UK and Canada and is currently sessional lecturer, Department of Classics, University of Reading.

MacDonald applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life, and reported the following:
‘Will anyone believe that he owed his career and so many great deeds to the fickleness of chance and the favours of fortune?’, asked Napoleon Bonaparte of Hannibal.

It is remarkable how much page 99 of my book passes the page 99 Test. For it falls at the end of the chapter called Legend that describes Hannibal’s most famous deed: the crossing of the Alps with his army and elephants in 218BC. The final page of the chapter looks at Napoleon’s assessment of it all. If there is one modern-ish leader that I believe we can compare Hannibal to it is Napoleon and Napoleon even compared himself to Hannibal. This is history repeating itself in circles.

Here we have ‘Napoleon the strategist reflecting on the Carthaginian military genius and in the same passage pondering the degree that luck or pure bloody-mindedness must have played in Hannibal’s career’. Napoleon’s insights on Hannibal are fascinating. He claims that Hannibal ‘conceived what is scarcely conceivable, and executed what must have been looked upon as impossible’. Both were men of astounding military genius and both took armies across the Alps. When Napoleon did it, two thousand years after Hannibal, his contemporaries were blown away by his success. So imagine what Hannibal’s contemporaries must have thought? Hannibal and Napoleon were men who experienced great successes but whose lives ultimately ended in failure. The thoughts recorded by Napoleon were written down at the end of his life while in exile on St. Helena. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have Hannibal’s thoughts on the same topic? What, in his own estimation, did he do right and what did he do wrong? It is easy to imagine that Hannibal might have regretted the incredible sacrifice in sheer numbers of men that the Alps crossing cost him. If we believe our sources Hannibal had 40 – 50,000 men with him when he left Spain and it was a shadow of that army that arrived in Italy four months later, perhaps half that many. Hostile locals and the treacherous conditions of the late autumn meant that for many it must have been a death climb. Yet Hannibal’s surviving soldiers remained loyal to their commander, he must have been leader of great charisma to maintain this kind of support and trust from him men.

The Alps remain the most memorable of all Hannibal’s deeds and were instrumental in creating the legend that still rests with us today. For
the impact of the Alps throughout the ages has placed Hannibal’s crossing in the realm of myth …. This most heroic deed played a key role in the psychological impact Hannibal had on the Romans and the people of Italy once he arrived. By taking his army across the Alps and into Italy Hannibal reinforced his reputation for divinely inspired leadership. The Alps were high, mighty, freezing and dangerous. Crossing them was an epic feat of heroes.
Hannibal’s arrival in Italy changed the paradigm of the war and put the Romans on the back foot. He came very close to defeating Rome and although he did not succeed, in the trying Hannibal became a legend. He would go on to be remembered as one of the greatest of all soldiers from antiquity.
Learn more about Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue