Tall poppies, crabs and success

There for the lopping

There for the lopping

Since success and the ways of losing as well as gaining it are one half of the manuscript I’m currently re-writing, I found myself pondering the famous Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I always assumed that all English-speaking people used the term, which refers to the quasi-socialistic perversion–or egalitarian instinct, depending on how you look at it–of cutting down anybody who stands out for merit, success and achievement. But apparently it’s mainly a UK, Aussie and Kiwi thing. Nick Faldo, for instance, has been tall-poppied.

Americans instead have the crab mentality. I like that metaphor because it’s vivid: Crabs really do pull other crabs back down if one of them tries to claw himself out of a bucket.

Scandinavians apparently have the Jante Law, after a fictional town called Jante in which the rules were:

  1. Don’t think that you are special.
  2. Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don’t think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don’t think that you know more than us.
  6. Don’t think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don’t think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think that anyone of us cares about you.
  10. Don’t think that you can teach us anything.

So why the metaphor tall poppy?

Surprisingly, it turns out that two of “my guys,” Aristotle and Livy, were involved.

Aristotle (Politics, V.10) has the following passage:

Periander [a tyrant of Corinth] advised Thrasybulus [a tyrant of Miletus and his friend] by cutting the tops of the tallest ears of corn, meaning that he must always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest.

This is probably where Livy got the idea for his passage in Book I, 54 about the Roman tyrant Tarquin, who was asked by his son for advice on how to rule:

The king [Tarquin senior] went into the palace-garden, deep in thought, his son’s messenger following him. As he walked along in silence it is said that he struck off the tallest poppy-heads with his stick. Tired of asking and waiting for an answer … the messenger returned to [the land the son was now ruling] and reported what he had said and seen, adding that the king, whether through temper or personal aversion or the arrogance which was natural to him, had not uttered a single word. When it had become clear to Sextus what his father meant him to understand by his mysterious silent action, he proceeded to get rid of the foremost men of the State by traducing some of them to the people, whilst others fell victims to their own unpopularity. Many were publicly executed, some against whom no plausible charges could be brought were secretly assassinated.

A purge, in other words.

So the meaning has evolved. Whereas it used to refer to the powerful cutting down potential rivals, it now refers to the envious cutting down those whom they consider uppity. Quite a big shift. Disgusting all the way through. Worth contemplating.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

Can a storyteller make stuff up?

Truman Capote making stuff up

Truman Capote making stuff up

The book manuscript that I’ve just sent off to my editor at Riverhead happens to fall into the genre of “creative non-fiction.” It is a story built on actual lives–ancient ones and modern ones–that illustrate various themes around the great mystery of success and failure in life, including yours and mine.

The job of creative non-fiction, as Ira Glass would agree, is to make true stories riveting and small stories grand. It is, in short, simply good story-telling.

Still, you would have to lack all sense of irony not to smirk at that phrase. Creative non-fiction. Say what?

Creative means making stuff up. Non-fiction means not making stuff up. The very notion would seem to be an oxymoron. Or perhaps not?

Herodotus and Thucydides walk into a bar….

This particular question happens to be the oldest controversy in non-fiction writing. Recall that Herodotus believed in embellishing history to make it more palatable and (ironically) realistic, whereas Thucydides took him to task for telling lies and promised to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But even Thucydides then found that he had to “make stuff up” to get at the actual truth, because if he had used only, for instance, dialogue that he himself had actually overheard (while taking notes), he would have painted the wrong picture of the Peloponnesian War altogether.

By the time, we get to the era in which my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived, Polybius is the one who tries to stick to just the facts (but again doesn’t quite manage), whereas Livy is the one who says ‘Oh Heck’ and just tells a good yarn. By the time we get to Plutarch, we essentially throw out the rule book and just enjoy–even as we, paradoxically, come away with the impression that we have finally gotten closer to the truth of the characters involved. And so the controversy bubbles on, down the ages.

… and Truman Capote serves them a drink

Jean Ku, a friend of ours, just passed on a fascinating essay on the topic by her writing teacher, David Schweidel, the author of two books. Schweidel begins his history of creative non-fiction more recently. One strand, which Schweidel calls reportage, started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued with Tom Wolfe and The New Journalism. The other is memoir.

So what makes reportage creative non-fiction? Schweidel thinks that

Creative nonfiction, I’d say, attempts to convey the feeling as well as the facts. Clearly, Truman Capote does a lot of work to convey feeling.

It does this by using the techniques of fiction, which are

  • dramatized action
  • dialogue
  • the point of view of a participant
  • the presentation of specific details, … such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, ….

And what makes memoirs creative non-fiction? Well, the fact that they

are works of memory. Memory is selective, self-serving, often mistaken. People lie to make themselves look better. Sometimes people lie to make themselves look worse… Or simply misremember. Most readers understand that story-tellers, especially when they’re telling stories about themselves, take such liberties. In the words of Grace Paley: “Any story told twice is fiction.”

And so, concludes Schweidel,

In theory, creative nonfiction has to be an oxymoron. Creative means made up, and nonfiction means not made up. Hence, oxymoron. In practice, though, creative nonfiction is a redundancy. Why? Because virtually every work of nonfiction is creative.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share


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.

Bookmark and Share

About Hannibal’s elephants

(Note to readers: I have corrected and updated this post here.)

So the other day I get a text message from our dear friends, the Rammings, with an urgent plea to intervene in one of their heated controversies around the dinner table of their rustic farm house in hip and rural North Carolina. James Ramming, aged eleven and studying Latin (and contemplating adding Greek), was contesting whether Hannibal’s famous elephants were …. Indian or African. It’s the obvious first question to ask about his elephants, which must be why the adult experts never ask it.

I pick up the phone and report for duty. And as I talk I discover …. that I have no idea what the answer is. So I extricate myself from the conversation with James and go back to our trusted old friends, Polybius and Livy. Those two, it turns out, didn’t even know enough to ask the question. (How many elephants would a Greek and a Roman historian in those days have seen?)

The fact that Hannibal took war elephants with him in his attack on Rome–and crossed with them over the snowy Alps–is usually the first and only thing that people know about Hannibal. It’s entered our collective lore. Above, a snivelly-nosed Hannibal on a (vaguely Indian-looking?) elephant who seems to be going shopping. Below, a more dramatic rendition of the Alpine crossing, with (vaguely African-looking?) elephants tumbling into the gorges as the mountain Gauls attack from the heights. (Actually, Polybius says that all the elephants survived.)

Well, which is it? One line in the middle of this Wikipedia entry claims that

he probably used a now-extinct third African (sub)species, the North African (Forest) elephant, smaller than its two southern cousins, and presumably easier to domesticate.

Makes sense. After all, Carthage was in Africa. Except that I don’t think so. I’ve already written about the trouble we get into when we confuse Carthage’s geography with modern notions of human race, what we might call the “Denzel trope”. I think the same applies to elephant race.

This Wikipedia article talks about the origins of war elephants in India. It is these that Alexander the Great would have encountered. Then he died and his generals, notably Seleucus and Ptolemy, carved up his empire to start their own kingdoms. They also seem to have taken over the tradition of fighting with war elephants. Carthage’s mother city, Tyre in modern Lebanon, was in the Seleucid empire, which included Syria. I think that Carthage, a naval empire oriented toward its mother city in the East more than toward the lands south across the Sahara, would have got its elephants from there. Hence, they would have been Indian.

That might explain why Hannibal’s favorite elephant–the one he was riding through the swamp when he caught the infection that blinded one of his eyes–was named Surus, “the Syrian”.

In any case, those beasts scared the bejeezus out of the Romans. War elephants were the tanks of antiquity. If things went according to plan (a big if), they plowed into the enemy ranks and broke up the formation. All the time, the archers and javelin-throwers were firing from their little fortress mounted on the elephant. Check out this fearsome rendition of the battle of Zama:

I’d rather be one of the guys on top in that one. Except……

Except that this was one of those many cases where things went wrong for the side with the elephants. Modern tanks go kaputt but not berserk. Ancient tanks went berserk. If they panicked, they were as likely to turn around and plow into their own ranks (the elephants didn’t care, after all). That happened here at Zama. For that reason, the elephants usually had mahouts with lances (you can see them in the picture), whose job was to kill the elephant as soon as he or she (both males and females were used) threatened the home side.

Long story short. Probably a sub-species of Indian. And soooo much fun to imagine. More, much more, in future posts.

Bookmark and Share