Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Not the Cannibal

History of Hannibal (Makers of History Series)History of Hannibal by Jacob Abbott

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, this was actually quite disappointing. I probably went into this book with the wrong expectations, but I think I was justified in those expectations, and they were not even approached.

Hannibal Barca, son of Hamilcar Barca, was a Carthaginian general of such brilliance that he is comparable to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus of Epirus and Scipio Africanus (who became great studying Hannibal, and finally defeated him). Virtually every family in Rome lost a family member due to Hannibal in the fifteen years he spent occupying Italy like the Black Death, and had the Carthaginians supplied him with siege weapons (as he repeatedly requested), it is entirely possible (dare I say probable?) that he would have taken Rome itself. After all, he never lost a battle to the Romans in fifteen years of fighting them, and he was outnumbered in (almost?) every one of their conflicts.

I was hoping for rundowns of his battles, his military strategy, his greatest victories and how they were achieved, armor and battle array, especially of Cannae: where Barca was outnumbered something like two to one, and yet it was the greatest defeat ever suffered by the Romans, who lost over 25% of their governing body in a matter of hours, and Cannae to this day is one of the bloodiest battles in human history. And I wanted to know exactly how the great Hannibal Barca, with all his elephants and heavy cavalry, was finally brought to bay by Scipio Africanus, and I didn't get a bit of it. Well, a bit. But it was preachy. "War is bad." Yeah, I know, but this guy was really good at it. That's what I was interested in.

To give a quick example: the fifteen years that he spent in Italy ravaging the countryside and decimating every single military force that the Romans could raise against him? It's mentioned in a phrase: it doesn't even earn a full sentence, just a phrase. We get a bit of depth in a couple of battles, but no detail of strategy: we are told that people hacked each other to pieces for hours, and then this side won. We are told that Hannibal was cunning, and we're given a couple of political strategies that he employed to great effect. Political strategies? The man successfully won battles (rather incessantly) for fifteen years, and to demonstrate his cunning, Abbott resorts to his politics? We're told that he was ruthless, and we're given no examples. Not a one. We are given multiple (often accidental) examples of his generosity, and we are assured that it must have served a political purpose; see the aforementioned (still undemonstrated) ruthlessness. Superstitions of the time are mocked, and a modern materialistic view of the world is superimposed upon the ancients, and even some of the more probable events of the time are questioned as being highly suspect.

Basically, I felt like Abbott had some deep-seated personal grudge against Hannibal, and wrote this biography as a chance to lambast him. "Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography." Well, Hannibal Barca was not recent, but this seems to apply quite aptly. So, I've got to say that this was an extremely poor biography of Hannibal if you're looking for any military strategy at all. But it was fully accurate (from a modern's point of view) on all it touched.

One conversation that was related, which was for me the high point of the book (and by the time it was related I would have put money down that it wouldn't have been) was between Hannibal and Scipio, long after their battle against each other (where Hannibal was destroyed by the great Scipio Africanus). In the conversation, military strategy naturally came up, and Scipio asked Hannibal who he considered to be the greatest military genius (clearly angling for a compliment, possibly for a well-deserved compliment). Hannibal responded that Alexander the Great was. Not pleased, but probably not surprised, Scipio asked who the second was. Hannibal responded with Pyrrhus of Epirus, due to his ability to make his soldiers and the inhabitants of conquered lands love him. Scipio then asked who was third, and Hannibal said something along the lines of, "well, that would be me." Deeply offended, Scipio sarcastically asked how Hannibal would have ranked himself if he had managed to defeat the lowly Scipio Africanus. Hannibal then responded, rather surprised, with one of my favorite answers of all time: that had he beat Scipio, he would have had no choice, but would have been by honesty compelled to place himself above even Alexander the Great of Macedon as the greatest military genius of all time.

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