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, Aikido and Casanova

Bear with me, please. I’m trying, right now, to analyze Hannibal’s phenomenal skill at winning battles. And I’m trying to find parallels in other areas of life.

It occurs to me that Hannibal had some things in common with this Aikido Black Belt:

It further occurs to me that Hannibal had his way with the Romans rather as Casanova had his way with about 120 women.

You use the force of the opponent, rather than your own, to win. That seems to be the trick. This may or may not be obvious when looking at battle diagrams of Hannibal’s great victories, such as this one at Cannae:

I’m desperately looking for other examples or refinements of this idea. Any hints will be gratefully received. If you think I’ve gone bananas, please suggest remedies.

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The map of Hannibal’s march and life

Join me for a moment in having fun with this map below.

It comes to us, via the Wikimedia Commons, from Frank Martini, a cartographer in the Department of History at the United States Military Academy.

There are two ways of looking at this map–one obvious and one surprising and cheeky–and I will avail myself of both. Bear with me. First the map, and the obvious:

What we see here, obviously, is the western Mediterranean at the time of the Second Punic War (the “Hannibalic War”). Notice Carthage at the tip of northern Africa (in today’s Tunisia); Cartagena or “Little Carthage” in Spain, which I mentioned in an earlier post; Gades, which is today’s Cadiz; Saguntum (Sagunto), which was ethnically Greek; Massilia (today’s Marseilles), also ethnically Greek; Turin (Torino) which was not yet party of “Italy” but part of Gaul; and Ariminum (Rimini), the Roman colony at the edge of their frontier with the Gauls.

Now look at Hannibal’s march itself. In 218 BCE he crossed the Pyrenees and into Gaul. The line casually crosses the Rhone, even though this involved one of the most colorful operations in history (of which more in a later post–think elephants on rafts), and then, equally casually, crosses the Alps (of which much, much more in later posts).

You then see where Hannibal won his famous victories, at the Ticinus (more of a skirmish), at the Trebia, at Lake Trasimene and at Cannae. And then you see the line of his path getting…. confusing!

Now the less obvious way of looking at this map: Squint! As you squint, look only at the line of the march. It is a fitting life trajectory for Hannibal himself. It rises early and steeply, peaks, then declines and loses itself completely in a confused and erratic hairball.

How would you draw the map if it were proportionate to time, rather than distance? The entire stretch from Cartagena to Cannae, his greatest victory, took a little over two years. All the twists and turns after Cannae (there were actually far too many to draw on a map) took…. fourteen years!

After those fourteen years, Hannibal lived another nineteen years until he committed suicide, but most of that took place on a different map, in the eastern Mediterranean.

And yet, if you read the existing histories, you would think that 90% of Hannibal’s life took place in those initial two years.

Those years are the impostor years. The next thirty-three are the story of how and why he realized that his triumphs had been impostors. And this, in my book, is where his life becomes universal and directly relevant for our own lives today.

Now, let’s have even more fun and turn the map around:

Now you have, more or less, the life trajectory of the Romans, in particular Fabius and Scipio, my two other main characters.

Kipling’s impostors, you see, visited with them in mirror image.

Why and how did all this happen over all those decades? In exactly the same way as it happens to most of us in our much smaller(-seeming) lives, it turns out. That’s why I’m writing a book about it.

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