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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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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Wu wei: doing by non-doing

Lao Tzu

One of the subtlest notions in my book is the Taoist idea of wu wei, or non-doing. It doesn’t come up often, but in one or two chapters, for two of the main characters and several of the minor ones, it is crucial. What is it?

The idea ultimately comes to us from Laozi, pictured riding away on his water buffalo above. (I’m using the modern Pinyin. You may know him as Lao Tse or Lao Tzu). He was the subtlest of all the philosophers of the Axial Age. He talked the least and said the most. That’s because the Tao is not understood by words.

Fine, but words are what a blogger has. So what is wu wei?

It is not: staying in bed and doing nothing.

It is (my definition): exerting the minimal effort in any situation in order:

  • not to interfere with the natural flow of things but instead
  • to go with the flow, as though “letting” things happen and harmonizing yourself with them.

There’s no need to get too philosophical about this. In my experience, sailors grasp the concept intuitively. How utterly foolish would you look trying to act against the wind! Instead, you tack through it in order to let it blow (suck, technically) you to where you want to go. You don’t interfere, you harmonize.

The same principle applies in all sorts of situations, small and large. Just think about your own life.

Thus wu wei becomes a vital ingredient for winning and success, its violation for failure and disaster. And so you have the relevance for my book thesis.

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:


Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton

Earlier this month, I told you how frustrating it is when, in the course of the research for my book, I follow a trail into a dead end. Back then I had been reading about Casanova until I had to admit to myself that he didn’t fit into the chapter that I was re-writing. I swallowed and moved on.

Greg Balco

Greg Balco

Well, the opposite can happen too. Almost a year ago, my friend Greg Balco (who has since proposed that I rename this blog An Inconvenient Kluth) suggested that I look into the life of Ernest Shackleton as one of my subsidiary stories. Shackleton took a ship named Endurance to explore the Antarctic, but got stuck in the ice, lost the ship and found himself and his crew, truly, facing a Disaster. What happened next was all about character!

Anyway, I read the book that Greg recommended and loved it–in part because there is a lot of Greg in it. He is a geochronologist and his idea of fun is to camp in the Antarctic ice and drill for snow, or perhaps rocks; or perhaps they just go sledding. He would know exactly what Shackleton and his men endured when they subsisted on blubber on floes of ice for a year, with no light in the winter and no darkness in the summer.

But as my own storyline was evolving Shackleton didn’t seem to fit. Now, a year later, I am reopening the middle chapters to make them perfect. Suddenly one of them has a gaping hole that cries out for a life, a character to fill it.

This is the chapter about the least known of my three main characters: Fabius, the old Roman Senator who fought Hannibal by not fighting him, until the young and dashing Scipio came onto the scene. That doesn’t tell you about the context of the chapter, or about the hole in it that needs filling. Suffice it to say that Shackleton, suddenly, seems to be a perfect fit. Endurance hereby re-enters my bibliography.

Strolling through Rome’s Forum with Scipio

A follow-up to my post earlier today:

Technically, the rendering shows the city as it was in 390AD, during the reign of Constantine. The main characters in my book–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived 600 years earlier. But who cares. Just wallow in your imagination and picture Fabius and Scipio arguing here, Scipio Triumphing here, …..

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Visit ANCIENT Rome!

This qualifies as breaking news, if you’re writing my kind of book. Watch:

It arose out of this great project.

This where Fabius and Scipio walked. This is where the Romans bewailed their dead after Hannibal’s victories at the Trebia, at Trasimene and at Cannae. This is where Scipio celebrated his Triumph after defeating Hannibal at Zama…..

So, you know where I’ll be hanging out–Google Earth. Oh wait. There weren’t enough hours in the day to do the things I’m supposed to do before this came out. Should I take it out of sleep hours? Dangerous. Perhaps necessary, though.

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The father of biography



Let’s get back to the bibliography for my book.

Right now–while we’re still dealing with the ancient sources–I’m going through the texts in chronological order. And after Polybius and Livy, that brings me to Plutarch.

You recall that Herodotus was the father of history. Well, Plutarch must be the father of biography. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, he was Greek. But Plutarch lived much later, in the first and second century AD–three centuries after Hannibal and Scipio. So I don’t use Plutarch because I think he has any scoops over Polybius, or more accurate information. Why, then, do I use (and love) Plutarch?

Because he was the first to take an interest in character. That’s what he wanted to capture: the characters of the great Greeks and Romans. For that he used the big events and deeds in their lives and, just as much, the tiniest but telling details. Occasionally, he may have stretched the facts a bit, but, hey, let’s relax about that and just enjoy.

In that respect, of course, Plutarch does exactly what I aspire to do in my book. I too want to capture how characters respond to success and failure, ups and downs.

Plutarch’s main work was his Parallel Lives (which we usually read in the John Dryden translation), in which he paired one great Greek with one great Roman. Alexander the Great, for instance, is paired with Julius Caesar, and so on.

Hannibal was neither Greek nor Roman, so we don’t have a Life with his name as title. But Hannibal, who is my main character, features prominently in several of Plutarch’s Lives: Fabius (who also plays a big role in my book), Marcellus (a Roman consul killed by Hannibal), Cato the Elder, Flamininus (conqueror/liberator of the Greeks and the man who finally hounded Hannibal into suicide).

Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus, which I’ve quoted from, is one of my favorites, by the way.

The tragedy is that many of his lives are lost. And the loss that hurts most is, of course, the Life of Scipio, my other main character.

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Sarah Palin: barracuda borealis

Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd

I’m trying to figure out how I feel about Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times today, half of which she writes … in mock Latin!!! That’s right. The language of Cicero and Caesar–and, of course, of my guys, Fabius and Scipio–to analyze Ioannes McCainus and Sara Palina.

You loyal readers will know that I am all for the classics, for various reasons including this one and this one. Perhaps Dowd’s column helps. Still, how close to a gimmick she comes, from a writer’s point of view. I get it, but I studied Latin for four years.

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The suffering of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten at Wikimedia Commons

Kahlo and Rivera. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons

I popped into the Frida Kahlo exhibition currently at the San Francisco MOMA. Mainly, to see her piercing paintings–and boy, do they pierce–but also, at least in part, as research for my book.

A friend of ours, Erika Lessey Chen, had suggested Kahlo to me a year ago as a possible life-story to look into. I had told Erika that I’m interested in people whose success (triumph) somehow turned into failure (disaster), or whose failure somehow turned into success, à la Kipling’s impostors.

Does Kahlo fit my story-line? Mostly, I’m looking at characters such as Hannibal’s enemy and nemesis Scipio to illustrate how disaster at the right moment in a life can liberate a person–set free his or her imagination and creativity, and thus initiate a much bigger triumph in the future. People such as J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs.

But disaster can have other effects, of course. There is the strength that comes from overcoming it. I’ve mentioned Joe Biden and Demosthenes in that context. Among the main characters in my book, the person who would personify that is Fabius, the old Roman senator who was the only one not to despair after Hannibal’s crushing victories.

And Kahlo? As I walked through the exhibition and looked at her absolutely harrowing self-portraits, I realized that she had done something else again with her own disasters: She had made the disasters themselves the success.

Here she was on a hospital bed in Detroit, her body writhing and bleeding, with a uterus and a fetus torn out of her. She painted it after yet another miscarriage. The people in the exhibition became very quiet in front of that one.

There she was bound in a steel corset with a broken spinal column, her entire body pierced with nails. In this painting, she is all pain and frustrated sexual desire.

Over there she is sitting in a double-self-portrait, after her marriage to Diego Rivera had failed. She is holding hands with herself, and simultaneously tries and fails to stop the bleeding of her heart. (All these paintings seem to be copyrighted, so I don’t want to show them here.)

What were her disasters? The first was polio, which she caught at age six, and which left her right leg atrophied. The second was a bus accident when she was eighteen. She broke her spine, her pelvis, and lots of other bones, and an iron handrail pierced her uterus, leaving her infertile. The third, arguably, was falling in love with Diego Rivera, whom she adored but who was never faithful to her.

In short: pain, infertility, loneliness. And to deal with it, she painted. And the painting made her into the most “successful” Mexican artist ever.

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