Hannibal v Rome, the game

One of you (Thank you!) has pointed me to Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, a game for connoisseurs of this sort of thing (available on Amazon, too). You can replay Hannibal’s strategy … and tactics, apparently. Cannae could go to the Romans, Zama to Carthage. (And we today might all have Carthaginian, instead of Roman, government buildings.)

Aside from all that, just savor the rather different visual interpretation of the general, vis-a-vis the one Riverhead expressed on the jacket cover of my book. ūüėČ Now that’s what I call a Carthaginian!

And for the history geeks: You notice the Hannibal above has both of his eyes. And the Alps are behind him. When he came out of the Alps, he did indeed have them both. He lost one of them to conjunctivitis seven months later, while wading through a fetid Etruscan (= Tuscan) swamp.

My Elephantine mistake

Copyright: Shoshani and Tassy 2004

I’ve been telling you something very wrong about Hannibal’s elephants all this time. Not deliberately, mind you.

Almost three years ago, when I wrote my post “about Hannibal’s elephants“, I was really just kidding around, as I was in the early stages of research for my book. The levity, I thought, was abundantly obvious from my treatment of the subject. I did not mean to imply that I had any idea of what I was talking about (although I sort of do now).

I was, you see, a blogger! (Ie, I was more interested in thinking out loud, and getting readers to correct me, than in pontificating authoritatively.)

To my surprise, that particular blog post keeps getting a lot of traffic. In fact, its traffic is increasing. I have no idea why, so I must guess that the Google gods are sending people its way (which should cast aspersions on Google’s algorithms, not on my post). Those of you who blog may have made the same discovery: those posts you think are most valuable are not at all the ones that attract the eyeballs, and vice versa.

So I will set the record straight in this post. But first, I’m delighted what the earlier post has already done:¬†It has brought me many of my readers (mostly the silent, non-commenting type). One of you has even (hush, hush) hinted that you might write a children’s book about Hannibal’s elephants — and I have voluteered my own kids and me as the first readers.

Now: The first question is how many elephants Hannibal brought with him when he left Iberia to cross the Alps and attack Rome. I’ve read the number 37, but Serge Lancel, the late French historian who seems to know best, says 27 (on page 63 of his book). So I’m going with that. Personally, I don’t really care about the real number. It changes nothing in the story and the drama.

The second question — and the one I answered wrong — is: which kind of elephant?

The correct answer is the African Forest Elephant, or Loxodonta cyclotis:

Click for attribution

As it happens, we very recently (last year) discovered that these elephants were an entirely different species (as opposed to just a sub-species) of elephant. So you should imagine the (older) genealogical tree at the top with another twig on the third branch from the right, as this blog post explains.

The discovery comes via DNA analysis from Nadine Rohland, David Reich, Swapan Mallick, Matthias Meyer, Richard Green, et al., who summarize their findings here:

Our data establish that the Asian elephant is the closest living relative of the extinct mammoth… We also find that savanna and forest elephants, which some have argued are the same species, are as or more divergent in the nuclear genome as mammoths and Asian elephants, which are considered to be distinct genera… The divergence of African savanna and forest elephants‚ÄĒwhich some have argued to be two populations of the same species‚ÄĒis about as ancient as the divergence of Asian elephants and mammoths…

So it is those forest elephants that Hannibal brought with him. They were quite a bit smaller than the savanna elephants of Africa. So artists have, for millennia, exaggerated their size.

Or have they? Generations of boys reading about Hannibal must have imagined them just as the young Roman legionaries perceived them, which is roughly thus:

John and Hannibal, respective favorites

There on the left you see John. He baptized people.

And on the right you see Hannibal. He vanquished Romans.

John is not in my book, whereas Hannibal is its main character, but that’s neither here nor there.

I just figured out a rather exciting linguistic connection between their names. (“Exciting”, that is, if you’re a language geek.)


John comes, via Indo-European Greek and Latin, from either the (Semitic) Hebrew Yochanan or the (equally Semitic) Aramaic Youhanna. That origin is clearer in some other European languages, such as German Johann/Johannes.

And Hannibal is our transliteration of HNB’L, a Punic word. Punic was a Roman mispronunciation of Phoenician. It was the language of Carthage and of Phoenicia, and thus also Semitic.

I’ve already posted about the close family connections between Punic, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and other Semitic languages, by using Hannibal’s family name, Barca, as the example. The relationship is as close as that between, say, Dutch, German and Danish, or between Spanish, Italian and Rumanian.

Favor and the gods

Now to the meaning of the two names:

According to Luke 1, 13, the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah and told him that his old and infertile wife would bear him a son and that “you shall name him John” (ie, Youhanna).

The footnote in my bible says:

The name means “Yahweh has shown favor,” an indication of John’s role in salvation history.



YOU¬†‚Č° Yahweh


HANNA¬†‚Č° Favor

As in: Yahweh’s favor.

In Hannibal’s case,

HANN(I)¬†‚Č° Favor


BAL¬†‚Č° Baal

That’s Baal (or Ba’al) as in the god that Yahweh is so jealous of in the Old Testament, because he’s one of those Semitic deities so popular in Canaan, where both Phoenicians and Jews lived.

So John was favored by one, Hannibal by the other. Name is destiny. ūüėČ

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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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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My 12-minute “book teaser”

If you’re taking a 12-minute cappuccino break, watch me give this “teaser” about my book at our (The Economist‘s) recent innovation conference in Berkeley.

(You’ll also find most of the other sessions on video now, including those with Arianna Huffington, Jared Diamond, Matt Mullenweg, et cetera.)

I’m not good at “teasers” or “elevator pitches”, especially since I tried to tell a story in my book that would keep you reading for 100,000 words. But I’m constantly being told that I now have to practice condensing that story into two seconds for some occasions (cocktail parties, elevators), two minutes for other occasions, 10 minutes for yet others, and so on.

So, er, I’m practicing. (Even while determined not to give too much away yet.)

Your feedback would be welcome. Do I snare your interest or do you say ‘so what’? Are there howling non sequiturs, or does it make sense? And so forth.

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Dido conjures Hannibal: Avenge me!

Aeneas and Dido

What role did¬†Carthage and Hannibal play in the history of Rome as Virgil saw it — ie, in the entire millennium between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus?

Last time in this mini-thread on the Aeneid, I tried to sketch the big historical picture of that great poem, the overarching tale of how a band of Trojan survivors arrived in Italy and merged with the Latin race to found what would become, fifteen generations hence, the Roman nation.

But I promised in that post to pay a bit more attention to Hannibal and Carthage. For Aeneas the Trojan, the three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage would not start for another thousand years. For Virgil and Augustus, the worst memories of those Punic Wars (ie, the years when Hannibal was in Italy) already lay two centuries in the past. Did Carthage need to be in this story at all?

And how.

It is clear that Virgil and the Romans in the time of Augustus still considered Hannibal their worst enemy ever, the man who brought them closest to extinction. And so Virgil almost stuctures the entire poem around Carthage, albeit in very subtle and psychologically surprising ways. Here goes:

Juno (Hera) again….

Hera, whom the Romans called Juno, has already come up repeatedly as an almost generic source of trouble in antiquity, as when she drove Hercules mad in her jealousy. Well, the Aeneid takes place just after the Trojan War, and Virgil has Juno still seething with rage at the indignity that caused that war, which was Paris’ choice of Aphrodite (Venus) over Hera as “the most beautiful.” Venus, of course, not only went on to fight for the Trojans but was also the mother of Aeneas.

So Juno would do everything she could to torment Aeneas:

… the origins of that anger, that suffering, still rankled: deep within her, hidden away, the judgment Paris gave, snubbing her loveliness; the race she hated… (I, 38-41)

And so Virgil starts his poem, on the very first page, with Juno and her new obsession, which is Carthage (“new city” in Punic), which was just then being built, at least in this mythical version:

Tyrian settlers in that ancient time held Carthage, on the far shore of the sea, set against Italy and Tiber’s mouth, a rich new town, warlike and trained for war. And Juno, we are told, cared more for Carthage than for any walled city of the earth… There her armor and chariot were kept, and, fate permitting, Carthage would be the ruler of the world. So she intended, and so nursed that power. But she had heard long since that generations born of Trojan blood would one day overthrow her Tyrian walls, and from that blood a race would come in time with ample kingdoms, arrogant in war, for Libya’s ruin… (I, 20-32)

There, in a nutshell, you already have it all: Juno would nurse Carthage¬†to become the world power, and yet she already knew that destiny intended, after a bloody struggle, for Rome to “overthrow its walls” and be its “ruin.”

(Tyrian refers to Tyre, Carthage’s mother city in Phoenicia, today’s Lebanon. Libya at the time referred to the inhabitants of northern Africa.)

Carthage as eastern temptress

Aeneas and his Trojans, meanwhile, are at sea, trying to reach Italy. Juno tries to kill them, by persuading the god of winds to cause a storm. She almost succeeds. 13 of Aeneas ships sink, and only 7 remain. And where do they land?

At Carthage, as it is being built. Its ruler is the beautiful and good queen Dido. Dido is more than generous to these Trojan refugees. She even offers to share her kingdom:

Would you care to join us in this realm on equal terms? The city I build is yours; haul up your ships; Trojan and Tyrian will be all one to me. (I, 776-779.)

And then she beholds Aeneas, the Trojan leader, and falls for him,

for she who bore him [Venus] breathed upon him beauty of hair and bloom of youth and kindled brilliance in his eyes…. (I, 801-803)

From the start, there is a scintillating and even erotic chemistry between “Carthage” and “Rome”, these two opposites who are yet so attracted to each other.

So Dido asks to hear Aeneas tell of the sack of Troy, that Greek genocide about which all people in the Mediterranean had by then heard. Aeneas describes it, in Book II of the Aeneid, in harrowing detail (in the picture above, Dido is listening to him as Ascanius, Aeneas’ little boy, sits on her lap). Aeneas also tells of his wanderings, his “Odyssey”, that brought him from Troy to Carthage.

Did0 listens and is rapt:

The queen, for her part, all that evening ached with longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound or inward fire eating her away. The manhood of the man, his pride of birth, came home to her time and again; his looks, his words remained with her to haunt her mind, and desire for him gave her no rest. (IV, 1-7)

They get together, in a wild cave on a wild night. It must have been great, for she wants more, infinitely more. In fact, she considers herself married.

Virgil’s Roman audience at this point pictures not only the temptresses that tried to seduce Odysseus but Cleopatra, another queen in northern Africa who had very recently led astray a great Roman (Mark Antony) with her wily and erotic eastern ways. This is titillating stuff to the Romans.

Indeed, Aeneas almost seems inclined to change his plans and stay with Dido. But this is not his duty, and he is “dutiful Aeneas”, pius Aeneas. Jupiter, via Mercury, reminds him unequivocally of his destiny: to go to Italy and sire the Roman race.

Aeneas understands and decides to be on his way. But he doesn’t know how to tell Dido. Indeed he fears her. So he orders the ships to prepare to sail away at night.

Dido finds out and goes into a rage, the mother of all meltdowns. As Cheri has said elsewhere, it is not a testosterone rage as Hercules might have it, defined as violent, intense and short. No, it is an “estrogen rage”: deep, lingering, even eternal and ultimately more destructive.

Thus Dido (Carthage) ceases being Aeneas’ (Rome’s) lover and becomes instead his enemy, indeed the enemy of his entire race:

Then, O my Tyrians, besiege with hate his progeny and all his race to come: Make this your offering to my dust. No love, no pact must be between our peoples; No, but rise up from my bones, avenging spirit! Harry with fire and sword … Coast with coast in conflict, I implore, and sea with sea, and arms with arms: may they contend in war, themselves and all the children of their children! (IV, 865-875)

Then she stabs herself with a sword and hurls herself on a funeral pyre.

Every Roman of Virgil’s day would have understood whom Dido was summoning as this “avenging spirit”: Hannibal.

Indeed, just in case anybody was still confused, Virgil later, in Book X, has Jupiter himself make it more explicit. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says

the time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome. (X15-19)

You almost get the sense that the entire Aeneid was mere prologue … to this:

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Hannibal in the Alps–today!

When seven young ski climbers from Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and France decide to cross the Alps in only three days, using only their touring skis to climb up and down 13,500 vertical meters for 210 kilometers, what do they call their trip?

But it’s obvious:


(Thanks to Mr Crotchety, a fellow ski enthusiast, for the link.)

It hardly matters that this team, representing Dynafit (a ski maker), made the crossing in the eastern (Austrian) Alps, right around the mountains and valleys where I spent my youth. Hannibal made his crossing, with elephants but without Dynafit skis, in the western (French) Alps, near their highest point. Here is the map of his trip and life (as well as in the masthead above).

We’re not sure exactly where he crossed, so teams from Stanford and other universities are trying to follow in his footsteps to find them (ie, the steps).

But it hardly matters. Daring crossings of the Alps, eastern or western, still evoke, and forever will, the most daring crossing of them all.

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Through the eye of Hannibal

hannibal barca

I’ve mentioned that Hannibal lost one eye to some sort of infection as he crossed an Etruscan (= Tuscan) swamp in 217 BCE. For four days and nights his army waded through the fetid sewage, men and beasts excreting into it as they progressed, unable to sleep for lack of a dry spot to lie on except when the mules died and they could pile the carcasses into a mound and climb on top for a brief nap.

In any case, Hannibal must therefore be pictured one-eyed. Which means that my tagline for this blog has been wrong. Until today it read:

A blog about a book: Thoughts deep and shallow about triumph and disaster in life, through the eyes of Hannibal the Carthaginian

Fortunately, Paul H. pointed out the flaw, an inexcusable one for somebody like me who fancies himself a wordsmith.

Paul H., you get today’s fistbump.

Look up and see the tagline changed. ūüėČ

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Strategic thinking: Coolidge v Cheshire Cat

DisneyCheshireCat225px-Calvin_Coolidge_photo_portrait_head_and_shouldersOne thread on The Hannibal Blog, as regular readers know, is strategy. That’s because strategy (as distinct from tactics, which is also important) is so important in achieving success. Genius tactics in service of the wrong strategy leads to disaster, as it did for the main character in my forthcoming book, Hannibal of Carthage.

Mark Hurst over at Good Experience has an amusing and insightful post on strategy as opposed to tactics. (Mark, by the way, also runs Gel, an ideas conference and a mini-TED, as it were.)

On one hand, Mark quotes Calvin Coolidge, our 30th (as well as 30th-most-impressive) president:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

If I may reflect on my guy, Hannibal: He had remarkable persistence: Leading an army of elephants over the Alps, defeating the Romans, staying undefeated in Italy for 16 years!!

The trouble with the Coolidge take on success is, as Mark points out, that the effectiveness of persistence

depends on having the right direction. Without that one little element, the entire effort is for naught.

So Mark wheels out the Cheshire Cat, a sort of feline Clausewitz. Alice asks which way she should go, and the Cheshire Cat answers:

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

To Mark that means that

you have to stop and take time to find the direction. You can’t run while you’re reading the map.

To me it means that Hannibal was a bit like Alice. Yes, he knew that he wanted to defeat Rome (which was like saying “I want to achieve success”–ie, vague). But he did not know where he wanted to go (ie, how to go about defeating Rome).

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