Hannibal & Me: The excerpt in Salon.com

What a very, very strange experience it is to see an excerpt of my own book on a famous website.

Salon.com has just posted exactly that.

Thank you, Salon!

They can’t stop writing about Hannibal

It has been 2,200 years, and yet we can’t stop thinking about, and writing about, that man.

My book — about our own lives as seen through Hannibal’s — is essentially ready (but still awaiting a publication date from Riverhead, which is killing me). Meanwhile, others are coming out with their books.

The latest is historian Robert L. O’Connell, whose new book is called The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic.

Here he is on NPR, talking about it.

Separately, geomorphologists (people who study the features of the earth) and archeologists are still debating which route Hannibal took with his army and elephants over the snowy Alps in October 218BC.

(Thank you to Peter Practice for the link!)

William Mahaney, a Canadian researcher, and his team now think that the likeliest pass is the Col de la Traversette in France. They believe they have located geographical features — such as a gorge where Hannibal was attacked by Gauls, or a rock fall that blocked his way — that either Polybius or Livy described.

Their main “rival” is Patrick Hunt at Stanford, who thinks that the Col de Clapier is the likeliest route.

What all these boffins of course hope to find is … evidence. Coins, swords, poop, bones, sandals, elephant tusks, … anything. Whoever finds any dropping of the Punic army is sure to become our era’s Heinrich Schliemann.

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Hair in politics

Credit: Bloomberg

Here is a little relief on the light side, reblogged from my post on The Economist’s Democracy in America:

NO SOONER had Carly Fiorina won the Republican nomination to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer for her Senate seat than the race became hair-raising. Probably unaware that a microphone was on, Ms Fiorina relayed “what everyone says” about Ms Boxer, which is, of course: “God, what is that hair. So yesterday.”

Hair has factored in politics at least since the Roman Republic. The enemies in the Senate of an up-and-coming young general, Publius Cornelius Scipio, tried to derail his rise by implying that he grew his hair un-Romanly long, in the Greek style that seemed soft and suspicious; Scipio went on to defeat Hannibal anyway and, balding, became Rome’s saviour. Julius Caesar was famously touchy about his receding hairline. And Julian the Apostate, Rome’s last pagan emperor, grew a shaggy beard to make an anti-Christian statement which became so controversial that Julian wrote a satire called Misopogon, “The Beard Hater”, in his own defence.

Hair remained political for the Holy Roman Emperors, from Charles the Bald to Frederick I Barbarossa (“red beard”). In the modern era, Kaiser Wilhelm II twirled his mustache just so. China’s top Communists have always amazed with hair that is ink-black at any age. Ronald Reagan’s was impressive, though he is now arguably outdone by Mitt Romney, who during the 2008 campaign warned fellow Republican Mike Huckabee “Don’t touch the hair.”

Women have it harder. Their hair, above all Hillary Clinton’s, is more analysed and yet they are not supposed to bring it up, lest they seem petty or catty. This was the charge against Ms Fiorina last week. Please. “My hair’s been talked about by a million people,” responded Ms Fiorina defiantly. Of late, that’s because she lost all of it while fighting and beating breast cancer. Her hair is now growing back. It is a short, strong statement.

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Hannibal, Fabius & Scipio in Missouri

Don Antonio Soulard, the Spanish surveyor general of what much later became Missouri, seems to be my kind of man.

I would never have heard of him but for Jim Markovitch, a reader of The Hannibal Blog who gets this week’s fist bump for some ad hoc investigative work while driving around Missouri.

As Jim discovered here and here, Don Antonio journeyed up the Mississippi some time around 1800 and, like so many classically educated types in those days, admired the people who also happen to be the main characters in my book:

Hannibal (above left),
Fabius (above right) and
Scipio (left).

So Don Antonio named bodies of water after his heroes:

– the Hannibal Creek (now called Bear Creek), site of the eponymous future hometown of Mark Twain;

– the Scipio River (Bay de Charles); and

– the Fabius River (still named that).

And there is of course Carthage, MO, reachable in 5 hours, 34 minutes from Hannibal, according to Jim’s iPhone screen directions. Had Hannibal only had an iPhone when he crossed the Alps!

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It was all Greek to them. No, literally.


I left off in my thread on the general historical backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book with a nod to Hellenism. That is because my main characters, Hannibal (Carthage) and Scipio (Rome), clashed, with consequences for us today, during the third century BCE, the height of the so-called Hellenistic era.

This may sound weird. Hellenism is named after Hellas, Greece, but what we know about this epic clash is that it happened between the two superpowers of the day, Rome and Carthage. What does Greece have to do with this?

This is what I want to explain, briefly and simply, in this post.

“Greece” was never, in antiquity, a country. Even Homer, writing about the Trojan War that was the mythological foundation for all Greeks, never once used the word Greeks! (Instead, he called the Greeks Argives, Achaeans, Aetolians, and so on.) During the Classical era, the Greeks had independent city states (Athens, Sparta, Thebes etc) that constantly fought against, or allied with, one another.

But although they never thought of themselves as a country, they always thought of themselves as a civilization. The definition of Greekness was simple: if you were allowed to send competitors to the Olmpic Games, you were Greek. And who was allowed? Broadly, those who spoke Greek. All other languages sounded to the Greeks like “bar bar bar bar”, hence barbarian.

Then, in the fourth century BCE, something big happened: While the Greek cities kept fighting each other about rather petty things, as usual, a new power rose to the north. This was Macedonia. Whether the Macedonians were Greek was at first controversial, but might made right, and Philip, then his son Alexander, became not only Macedonian but also Greek.

Alexander, completing the dream his father had dreamt when he was murdered, then swept ferociously across the Hellespont to the east, reversing the direction of the earlier Persian invasions, and conquering most of the known world. In the process he brought Greek language, culture, philsophy, theater, art and architecture to the entire “Middle East”. His name lives on in many garbled city names, such as Kandahar.

Then Alexander died, prematurely. His generals carved up his huge empire and for the next couple of centuries, huge and powerful kingdoms with Greek aristocracies ruled the area. The two biggest were the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empires. The last Greco-Macedonian queen was, of course, Cleopatra (who happens to be another of the characters in my book.)

What did this mean? It meant that in the whole Mediterranean and “Middle East”, there was one cosmopolitan, urban culture, which was Greek–ie, Hellenistic. There were lots and lots of other peoples–Phoenicians, Romans, Gauls, Numidians, Illyrians etc–who abutted on this Greek pond from all sides, and they each had their own culture and language. But the haute couture, the lingua franca, the aesthetic style, the entire outlook and sensibility of the era–all this was Greek.

There are no perfect parallels in history for this astonishing cultural dominance. The reach of Han Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty and “Anglo-Saxon” culture today (from English-as-a-second-language to Hollywood films) are the two that seem to come closest.

So there. Hannibal spoke Punic, Scipio spoke Latin, but both of course also spoke Greek. Scipio, in fact, loved Greek culture so much that his political enemy, Cato the Elder, a sort of Roman Joe McCarthy, even tried to spin a scandal out of it.

It was a culturally refined and complex era. A fascinating era.

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A tale of two cities’ disappearing

What is the following description about?

… they threw timbers from one [house] to another over the narrow passageways, and crossed as on bridges. While war was raging in this way on the roofs, another fight was going on among those who met each other in the streets below. All places were filled with groans, shrieks, shouts, and every kind of agony. Some were stabbed, others were hurled alive from the roofs to the pavement … No one dared to set fire to the houses on account of those who were still on the roofs, until [the commander showed up]. Then he set fire to the three streets all together, and gave orders to keep the passageways clear of burning material so that the army might move back and forth freely.

Then came new scenes of horror. As the fire spread and carried everything down, the soldiers did not wait to destroy the buildings little by little, but all in a heap. So the crashing grew louder, and many corpses fell with the stones into the midst. Others were seen still living, especially old men, women, and young children who had hidden in the inmost nooks of the houses, some of them wounded, some more or less burned, and uttering piteous cries. Still others, thrust out and falling from such a height with the stones, timbers, and fire, were torn asunder in all shapes of horror, crushed and mangled.

Nor was this the end of their miseries, for the street cleaners, who were removing the rubbish with axes, mattocks, and forks, and making the roads passable, tossed with these instruments the dead and the living together into holes in the ground, dragging them along like sticks and stones and turning them over with their iron tools. Trenches were filled with men. Some who were thrown in head foremost, with their legs sticking out of the ground, writhed a long time. Others fell with their feet downward and their heads above ground. [Army transports] ran over them, crushing their faces and skulls, not purposely on the part of the riders, but in their headlong haste. …

The Americans taking Fallujah in 2003? Street fighting in World War II? Nope. It’s the Romans wiping Carthage off the map, as described by Appian here.

The year was 146 BCE, and in that same year the Romans also destroyed Corinth in Greece. One city gone in the west, one in the east. A very Roman gesture.

In the previous post in this thread, I talked about Alexander looking west from his deathbed in 323 BCE and seeing a mighty city, Carthage, but not seeing a city called Rome, because there was nothing much to see yet. In this scene, 177 years later, that nation of which Alexander had not heard, Rome, was laying waste and subjugating the two great Mediterranean civilizations that Alexander had known, the Carthaginian-Punic and his own, the Greek.

Clearly, a lot had happened in those intervening years. Events that we today see all around us–by what we see, speak and think, and by what we do not see, speak and think. I will explain that in the next post.

And just as a reminder: The story of what happened between those dates–Alexander’s death and Rome’s domination of west and east–has, of course, everything to do with the main characters in my book: Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio.

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Traveling again, but thinking of Hannibal ….

And I’m on the road again. But I’ll try to keep posting. In particular, I’m trying to think of ways to get back on message, the main “message” being the book that I’ve just delivered to my editor at Riverhead.

You recall that my dilemma is the following: I’m not ready yet to start giving away parts of the book as such. (I don’t have a publication date yet and want to start doing that closer to the time.) But I love the story and topic so much that I started an entire blog with the intention of discussing it, not just ahead of but forever after the book launch.

So maybe I’ll start by setting the scene, in a more cerebral and less narrative way, for the main plot and the main characters. The main plot, you recall, takes place during the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome, and the main characters are Hannibal and Scipio. (For some of the more modern characters that appear inside the individual chapters, browse my tags.)

Since the Punic Wars are not exactly common knowledge nowadays (I was born in the wrong generation, by the way), I might start by setting those in context on The Hannibal Blog. What were they? Why were they? How are they still visible all around us today?

Would that be fun?

PS: One of you has let me know via email that he is working on a graphic book about Hannibal. How cool is that? Whenever you’re ready (I don’t “out” people who contact me via email), please share the excitement here on The Hannibal Blog. I’d be honored and want to be the first to link to you…
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Livy and Polybius

I got an email from Fabrizio Dinatale, who is writing a dissertation at the University of Reading (UK) on Polybius and Livy. He asked my opinion on the “qualities/defects” attributed to each of them.

Fabrizio, I replied to your email but I keep getting error messages. (“550 550 unrouteable address (state 14)”)

Here is what I said:

Hi Fabrizio,

your dissertation sounds fascinating. Send me a link once it’s finished and I might link to it. You will be the expert on the topic. I am, as you may have picked up from the blog, not a historian, just a writer who’s having fun with Hannibal and Scipio as the main characters in a book about, well, you and me.

That said, Livy and Polybius are my main ancient sources, so I do have some impressions, as I said here and here.

Polybius took Thucydides as his model, Livy Herodotus. Which is to say: Polybius believed in thorough research, fact-checking, original reporting, less embellishment. He personally interviewed eye witnesses and traveled the routes that Hannibal took, even over the Alps. He had a personal connection in that he was the tutor and friend of Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio Africanus’ adoptive grandson) and stood next to him when the Romans burnt Carthage to the ground.

Polybius was writing for his fellow Greeks to explain how the most momentous event in history up to that time–Rome’s rise to superpower status–could have happened. And the biggest step in that rise was Rome’s near-death experience but ultimate victory over Hannibal.

Livy was completely different: somewhat lazy (he did not travel), and unconcerned about originality (ie, he plagiarized Polybius freely). He embellished liberally. Above all, he was writing less a history than propaganda, as you said. And for Romans, in Latin. His mission was to narrate the past, mythical and actual, in a coherent way that appeared inexorably to lead to … Augustus! Rome as the chosen people, you might say.

In that sense, he was not unlike Virgil, who went one step further in the Aeneid and implicitly tied Augustus to Aeneas as though everything had all been preordained all along.

Have fun. Again, i’ll be interested in what you end up concluding in your dissertation.

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Beware the Catos in your life

Cato the Elder

This face says it all. It is the misanthropic, miserly, humorless, prurient snout of Marcus Porcius Cato, better known as Cato the Elder.

“Hell is other people,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’m sure he had people such as Cato in mind. Cato showed up in ancient Rome wherever people were having fun to make them feel guilty and sinful. Whenever anybody succeeded and earned fame or wealth or glory, Cato was there to dig up some dirt, spread a rumor, question some expense account (literally), all in order to take that person down a few notches.

If he had been alive in another era, he might have sat on the tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition. Or he might have been Senator Joseph McCarthy, or Kenneth Starr, or anybody who devotes his life to hounding others and destroying reputations.

Cato’s most famous victim was one of my heroes, and one of the main characters in my book, the great Scipio Africanus. Cato envied and hated him. So he filed charge after charge, looking through every receipt in the great Scipio’s accounts, until Scipio was simply fed up and went into exile.

After Scipio died (in the same year as Hannibal), Cato needed a new target for his venom. He chose all of Carthage, which was now a docile and submissive part of the Roman empire. Carthago delenda est! Cato said at the end of every speech he gave, no matter what it was about.

And that is what the Romans eventually did. They ethnically cleansed the entire city of Carthage and razed it to the ground.

The lesson? Many. But one premise of my book is that the same archetypal chracters appear again and again in history and in our own lives. Learn to recognize them, especially the Catos. They might be in the next cubicle, or one row behind you in the auditorium. They might be your boss or your employee, or your ex-spouse or a spurned lover. Somewhere, there is someone who hates to see you happy and successful and will exert all his energy to bring you down.

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Why I chose to write the book I’m writing

Here is David McCullough, author of fantastic biographies and histories including Truman, which is in my bibliography, speaking words that might have come out of my own mouth verbatim.

So, when somebody asks why I chose Hannibal, Fabius, Scipio (and Cleopatra, Ludwig Erhard, Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Jung and the rest of them)–as the characters for a book about success and failure today, I could just play this clip: