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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The view west from Alexander’s death bed

You're next, Carthage

You're next, Carthage

One month before his 33rd birthday, on June 11th, 323 BCE, Alexander died in a sumptuous palace in Babylon, in today’s Iraq. He had been drinking with his friends and might have been poisoned. Or he might have had malaria, or typhoid fever, or any number of other ailments.

In twelve short years–during his twenties (what were you doing in your twenties?)–this young man had completely changed the world. Indeed, you might say that he had unified the world for possibly the first and only time. (I’m talking about the world known to him). Recall that the Greeks had had, for at least a century and a half, a keen sense of East (alien, soft, depraved) and West (Greek, civilized), with assorted barbarians living on the periphery. Alexander brought East and West and its major civilizations together into one realm, with a remarkably cosmopolitan vision of governing by including rather than oppressing the non-Greeks.

But that is not the subject of today’s post. Instead, I want to choose June 11th, 323 BCE as the date with which to begin a new thread on The Hannibal Blog: In the next series of posts I want to “set the scene”, the historical context, for the main plot and main characters in my forthcoming book.

What did Alexander not see to his west when he died?

This is the question of today’s post. The answer should be surprising. If it is not, I will help you to be surprised in the coming posts.

First, a map of what we think he should have seen (click to enlarge):


What Alexander saw was Carthage. This man, who was said to have cried once when he thought he had run out of countries to conquer, was apparently planning to conquer the entire western Mediterranean when death intervened, and the western Mediterranean, as far as Alexander knew, was a pond with two main cultures: 1) His own (Hellenistic) and 2) the Carthaginian-Punic one. So he was planning to take on Carthage, that mighty and wealthy port on the tip of northern Africa, settled by Phoenicians whose mother country (in today’s Lebanon) already belonged to Alexander’s empire. Once he had Carthage, Alexander would truly be able to say that ruled the whole world.

And here is what he did not see: Rome! Alexander had apparently never even heard of the place. Rome may have been among a few Italian towns that sent representatives to his court, but he personally seems never to have taken note of the place. And why should he have? It was a sleepy town in the middle of Italy. Clearly not of any consequence. More in the next post.

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Lavinia and Aeneas

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula LeGuin

You’ve heard of Dido and Aeneas (and Purcell, Virgil and all that). Well, a well-known author named Ursula LeGuin decided to pick one of the most obscure but potentially interesting characters of the whole Aeneid and give you Lavinia and Aeneas. The novel is called Lavinia, and I just finished it.

The book came to my attention through my wife. Her book club, having heard that NPR considers the book one of last year’s best, decided to read it. So my wife read it. “You would get more out of this,” she kept saying to me, since there was all this, you know, ancient and Roman stuff in it. I was intrigued.

But when she finished it she and her book club weren’t so convinced. My wife’s verdict: “Sloooow start, but she made the Aeneid accessible to me.”

So I picked it up. And this came to mind:


Always avoid cliché.

So I remember Alfred Hitchcock saying in some interview I once saw. The Hannibal Blog has of late been exploring what makes good storytelling good. But I haven’t said much about the enemies of good stories. I think cliché is the most dangerous of them.

And this is the dilemma of Lavinia: Fantastic conceit for a novel! Really. Exactly the sort of idea that I have time for; indeed not that far away conceptually from the book idea that I myself had. But what a shame about the corny bits.

Here is the genius of the conceit: Aeneas survives the sack of Troy and escapes with his father and son (but not his wife, who perishes in Troy) to wander the Mediterranean. He has a torrid affair with Dido, the wily queen of Carthage, but leaves her and she burns herself (presaging, I might add, what Scipio’s–and Aeneas’–heir will one day do to all of Carthage). Aeneas ends up in Italy, Latium, where his destiny is to found a people, later to become Rome. But it’s not easy. He has to make alliances and fight local wars first. Enter Lavinia. She becomes his second wife (after Creusa in Troy), with whom he will sire the Roman race.

Virgil only mentions her in a line or two. So does Livy. And yet she seems to be so important. A Rutulian king named Turnus had the hots for her and felt upstaged when Aeneas swooped in, and that–ie, she–is what set off the bloody wars. (Shades of Helen?) Oh, and Lavinia is implicitly the mother of the Roman race.

So LeGuin bravely sets out to make Lavinia come alive. And she succeeds in part, but only after page 100 or so. For the first 100 pages LeGuin colors in this woman about whom we know nothing by making her the eternal damsel in distress, slightly hippie, slightly dreamy, chaste but yearning, right out of a B movie. Everything about this Lavinia is a cliché.

Once Aeneas arrives on the scene and we finally have some mythological material to work with (Virgil’s), it gets good. But what gets good is, in effect, the last part of the old Aeneid.

More accessible, yes, as my wife said. In fact, she recommends the book, and so do I, by a hair.

Still, the last word that wants to roll of the tongue of the reviewer is the one that is so devilishly hard for the storyteller to avoid, the one that no storyteller wants to hear said: cliché.

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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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Hannibal: The limerick version

When I said "poetry" I mean epic, not Limerick!

When I said "poetry" I meant epic, not Limerick!

Loyal readers of the Hannibal Blog will by now be familiar with the wit of one Mr Crotchety, who visits regularly. He has, in this comment, expressed the epic life of the main character of my book–why yes, he has indeed–in the following limerick.

There once was a General named Hannibal,
‘til the Romans found his army untenable.
His tactics were dodgy and favored by chance:
like his father, he walked behind elephants and never wore pants.

Subsequently, Mr Crotchety discovered that the correct rhyme scheme of a limerick is apparently AABBA, and the syllable count 9-9-6-6-9.

With that intelligence, I crafted my own initial response to this impertinence, which was this:

There once was a lad named Hannibal
and I don’t mean that one, the cannibal,
The Alps this one crossed,
then Romans he tossed,
As though he were staging a carnival.

Since that entirely omits the central thesis of my book, I then decided to have another crack at it:

From Carthage he came, the Alps he crossed,
Romans he routed in Trebia’s frost,
he seemed to have won,
at Cannae again,
until it was clear he had instead lost

Goldsworthy on The Punic Wars

And back again to the bibliography for my book.

We’re still in the “history” section, as opposed to the “biography” section, but we’ve mostly dealth with the ancient sources (Polybius, Livy and Plutarch). So now I’ll move into the modern writers.

Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy

If I had to choose just one book to give you a fun but thorough overview of Hannibal, it would be Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars.

It’s actually a good idea to read the story of all three Punic Wars in one, because you can’t understand Hannibal’s war (the Second Punic War) without the other two. It would be as though a history student two-thousand years from now were trying to understand World War II without knowing anything about World War I or the Cold War.

Goldsworthy does a good job of minimizing the clutter (footnotes, parenthetical interruptions aimed at other academics and such) that usually makes academic books unreadable. He gives you great context. For instance, it’s probably not immediately obvious why sieges almost never worked in the ancient world (which is important, since Hannibal, at the crucial moment, decided not to lay siege to Rome). So Goldsworthy describes what it was like to attack and defend a city–all the tunneling and ramming and laddering and sulphur-smeared-javelin-hurling and so forth.

Being British, Goldsworthy also lets his sense of irony peek through on occasion, which brings relief. (Asked what his philosophy of life is, he tells his interlocutor here that “I’m English, so obviously do not have a philosophy.” That’s the sort of thing I mean.)

His more recent book is a biography of Julius Caesar, which I’ve also read and loved. But I’m forcing myself to leave Caesar out of my book because, as my wife has informed me, there are enough ancient dudes in it as it is.

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Hannibal’s Y chromosome

Click on this map and read about the latest in this fantastic research effort called the “genographic project“. The dots show the areas of the Mediterranean with the highest frequency of the Phoenician haplotype.

They swabbed the cheeks of men from Syria and Cyprus to Malta and Morocco to have a closer look at the Y chromosome of these guys. (The Y chromosome is passed from father to son, and so a good marker of paternal descent. Mitochondrial DNA, inherited only from the mother, does the same trick for maternal descent.)

The result, as the New York Times article puts it, is that

as many as 1 in 17 men living today on the coasts of North Africa and southern Europe may have a Phoenician direct male-line ancestor…

These men were found to retain identifiable genetic signatures from the nearly 1,000 years the Phoenicians were a dominant seafaring commercial power in the Mediterranean basin, until their conquest by Rome in the 2nd century B.C.

Now, why is this exciting for the Hannibal Blog? Because Hannibal was a Phoenician, as I explained here when arguing that Denzel Washington, as much as I love that man, would not be the most ethnically correct choice of actor for this “African hero”.

Carthage, to remind, began as a Phoenician colony. The Roman word for Phoenician was Punic, hence the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. In Punic itself, the name Phoenicia means “land of purple”, because they loved that color and exported its dye.

Carthage’s mercenaries came from the other peoples of northern Africa at that time, the Numidians and the Libyans. The Numidians, as I said here, were the ancestors of today’s Berbers, and you might as well picture them looking like Zidane. The Libyans, as I said here, were not today’s Libyans, but “white” Mediterraneans. The Arabs, of course, showed up fully 900 years after Hannibal.

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I left off my series on the bibliography for my book with a long post on Polybius. Polybius, as I said, was one of the greatest historians ever, but most of his books were lost. This means that for the history of Hannibal’s war against Rome we have to rely heavily on another ancient source. And that is Titus Livius, or Livy in English.

There are big problems with Livy. He lived a century and a half after Hannibal’s war. Polybius had interviewed eye witnesses and traveled Hannibal’s route, but Livy did not even attempt any such research. Instead, he merrily plagiarized Polybius (and mentions him only once, by my count). At least we can take comfort from knowing that he had all of Polybius available to him, as well as other sources lost to us, such as Roman documents.

The next problem is that Livy had an agenda other than telling the best and purest history. Like his contemporary Virgil, Livy was writing under the reign of the emperor Augustus, who “restored” Rome’s republic after the long civil wars by replacing it with a monarchy in all but name.

Virgil responded by writing an epic poem, the Aeneid, placing Augustus in the context of a noble unfolding of destiny. A literary masterwork, but somewhat close to brown-nosing the great emperor. Livy sort of did the same, only in prose. So he starts his “history” with Aeneas’ flight from Troy, his journey to Italy, Romulus and Remus and so forth.

Aeneas flees burning Troy

Aeneas flees burning Troy

In general, Livy always makes the Romans look good and their enemies look bad. So the Gauls are unreliable and lazy brutes. The Greeks are savvy but slimy know-it-alls. The Carthaginians are either cruel or cunning or miserly or deceitful. Much of Livy is propaganda. Awfully entertaining propaganda, as it happens.

So if Polybius clearly emulated his fellow Greek Thucydides in trying to stay close to facts and analysis, Livy takes Herodotus as his example and embellishes and invents freely for the sake of a cracking good read. At that, he succeeds.

When the Europeans woke up at the end of the Middle Ages and rediscovered the classics, Livy became one of their favorites.

Personally, I couldn’t care less about Livy’s shortcomings. I’m in it for the stories, the characters, the scenes that I need to tell the story that I want to tell, which involves so many other people. More to come soon.

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