16
Sep
13

Rome’s Most Fascinating Enemy: On Livy’s History of the War Against Hannibal

The War with Hannibal (Books XXI–XXX of The History of Rome from its Foundation)The War with Hannibal by Livy (trans. by Aubrey de Selincourt, edited with an introduction by Betty Radice)

A huge history of the Second Punic War, Penguin’s The War With Hannibal is composed of ten books of Livy’s giant history of Rome and covers one of the wildest periods of ancient history, when in a span of a few years Rome went from near-defeat to it’s biggest victory to date.

Although Rome and Carthage had engaged in war earlier in the third century BC, it’s the Second Punic War that most are familiar with. And for good reason: it has some of the most compelling personalities of the ancient world commanding armies against each other: Roman generals Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus facing off against the Carthaginian general Hannibal. This time, Rome and Carthage clashed for a little over 15 years all over the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece to Northern Africa, with the tide constantly flipping. It’s a period Livy captures well in these books.

It’s less a modern history than something like a historical novel, as Betty Radice writes in the introduction. Livy lived far after these wars – some 200 years, actually – and relied more on books than first-hand evidence. Sometimes, he even names those authors. And like many of the ancient historians, he recreates speeches for the major players here, putting words in their mouths to the effect of what he thought they said (or should’ve, anyway). Asking it to comply to a modern standard is missing the point: Livy was one of the most popular historians in his day and it wasn’t because he was razor-sharp in his facts.

Where he stands out is in the drama and tension he puts into these battles, the colours he dresses up his stories with. He doesn’t tell us that Hannibal crossed the Alps, he tells us about soldiers falling off clips, elephants struggling against the cold and Hannibal’s ragged troops being besieged by mountain tribes. The battle of Cannae didn’t end with the Carthaginian troops picking off survivors, but with a cold-blooded massacre:

“Here and there wounded men, covered with blood, who had been roused to consciousness by the morning cold, were dispatched by a quick blow to the head as they struggled to rise from amongst the corpses.”

His skill makes the main figures of this book come to life: Fabius is cautious and his reluctance to risk everything in battle keeps Rome’s hopes alive after disastrous losses at Cannae and Lake Trasimine; Scipio is young, a little arrogant and more than a little clever. Barely into his 20s, he takes control of an army nobody else wants and rips off successive wins, eventually taking the fight to Carthage in the decisive Battle of Zama.

And there’s Hannibal, always somewhere on the page. He’s a unique mix: a smart general, a well-spoken orator and a hell of a pest. Even as he’s broadly portrayed as an enemy of Rome, he still comes across as the most compelling person here. He just about leaps off the page, able to turn the Roman’s front lines into disarray with his war elephants and catching legons off guard with shrewd manoeuvres. My favourite was when he tied torches to riderless donkeys, tricking the Roman legions into thinking Carthage was abandoning it’s camp, and mopped up Romans who came to loot the camp.

In a sense, the book shows the rise and fall of Hannibal. He comes riding across through Spain, crashes through the Alps and sets his sights on Rome. After routing the Romans, he even encamps at the city’s gates. But he never makes the final move, instead turning to the idea of defeating Rome by splitting it’s Army apart and wearing it into submission. This move never quite works and before long, he’s fighting to reclaim territory he only just won. After years of inconclusive combat, he’s recalled in time for a final showdown against Scipio; the two even had a brief conference before the battle.

But the history doesn’t focus on them: it ranges from long battles in Sicily to Greek allies fighting against the Macedonian forces of Philip V to Roman disasters and victories in Spain. By ancient Roman standards, this was a total war, with the entire known world in conflict.

The translation by Aubrey de Selincourt is pretty fluid and reads well. It’s not often that it it seems stiff or overly formal. He falls back on a few idioms occasionally; I don’t speak Latin, but I’m pretty sure Livy never said an army was “at sixes and sevens.” Meanwhile, Radice’s introduction is decent (if a little short) and her notes help make sense of some of the more obscure/inaccurate parts of Livy. The maps in the back helped out a lot, too, and there’s a helpful index.

Rating: 7/10. Livy, like all the ancient historians, can be a bit dry at times. Still, I think it’s worth the effort: it’s a monumental history and reads much more like an epic than his near contemporary Polybius. Recommended, especially for ancient history buffs.

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