The Numidian headbutt


Slight change of pace from our philosophical discussions in recent posts: I just checked my impressively detailed stats in WordPress, and made an intriguing discovery: My all-time top post by far is the one about Numidians looking like…. Zidane.

I won’t even link to it, for fear of perpetuating the cycle, but I find this funny. That rather silly post came about when I was researching my book and trying to visualize what Numidians probably looked like.

Numidians were the ancient inhabitants of northern African, to the west of Carthage. (Click on map above to enlarge.) They supplied Hannibal with his cavalry, which was the best in the ancient world. The Numidians rode without stirrups and bridles, came out of nowhere and disappeared again just as fast. They were deadly.

In any case, it turned out that they were the ancestors of today’s Kabyle Berbers, so I looked around for pictures and chanced upon one particularly good specimen. Ever since, according to my stats, I have been getting a steady stream of visits, though Google perhaps, from Algeria and France in particular and the soccer world in general. (Sorry: football world.) I hazard the guess that you guys are surprised when you arrive here.

And now to business: Using the same Numidian specimen, we shall examine the tactic they used against the Romans when they dismounted:

“East” vs “West”: Where it started

Every now and then I amuse myself by taking some notion that seems so familiar that we take it for granted, and tracing it to its origin. Where did it start?

So, in today’s episode, let’s look at the notion of East versus West.

This gives me a great excuse for a  map. I love playing with maps, in case you haven’t noticed. So let’s look at today’s answer (click to enlarge):


This is a map of the Persian invasions of Greece, ending with the Persians’ utter defeat and expulsion in 479 BC. And this is when it started. Long, long before Kublai Khan and Marco Polo and all that.

Until 500 BC, nobody, as far as I am aware, made any cultural or civilizational distinction between East and West. There had been Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia and so forth. But those thought of themselves as in the middle (as did, independently, China, the “middle kingdom”).

The first “Greek” civilization in Crete was mostly a Middle-Eastern culture. Then, when the Greeks came out of their weird and unexplained dark ages between about 1150 BC and 800 BC (Trojan war to the rise of city states), they did not yet think of themselves as “a West”.

But then the Persians started coming. They were mighty, despotic, decadent, effete and rich. We were ascetic, virile, democratic and free. And we kicked their proverbial.

At least that’s how the Greeks saw the matter. Herodotus, the world’s first historian, kicked the tradition off, Aeschylus ingrained it on the stage, and off we ran with it. The idea was born. Now it would develop.

The “West”, over the coming centuries moved further west, then north. To the Romans, the Franks, the Saxons and Normans, the Americans and then the Texans (just kidding). It became a complex mixture of all its ancestors.

The “East” kept moving further east, to Huns, Tartars, Mongols and Chinese.

And thus a “Middle East” opened up.

But the place where the “East” starts is still the same as it was in 479 BCE: the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles.

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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A map of the impostor Success

Above is perhaps the most famous map and chart of all time (via the Wikimedia Commons). It is too small in my post, so please click through to the image. Its French caption begins:

Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812-1813. Drawn up by M. Minard, Inspector General of Bridges and Roads in retirement. Paris, November 20, 1869.

The numbers of men present are represented by the widths of the colored zones at a rate of one millimeter for every ten-thousand men; they are further written across the zones. The red [now brown] designates the men who enter into Russia, the black those who leave it. …

What’s the big deal? 1) It is perhaps the first time in history that somebody thought about visualizing data. 2) Just look at the scale of this Impostor and Disaster!

You see the thick trunk of Napoleon’s Grande Armée as it invades Russia in 1812. Next you see Napoleon sweeping through Russia in apparent victory. His army is decreasing (the brown line is getting thinner), in part to casualties and in part because he has to leave troops behind to guard supply lines. But he is winning. And thus he takes Moscow.

Now the impostor drops his veil! Russia does not surrender. Napoleon does not win the war. Instead, he has to retreat. In the Russian winter. While the Cossacks attack. As Russian peasants pull away French stragglers and spear them with their pitchforks. The French starve, freeze and bleed to death. The black line shrinks.

And then, perhaps the most chilling pixels (you have to click through to see it well): As the French cross the freezing river Berezina, they discover that hell has indeed frozen over. You see a thick-ish black line on the eastern bank, a thin trickle on the western bank. The river became a mass grave. That’s why the French still today have a phrase to describe disaster: C’est la Berezina!

And if you’re new to this blog and wondering why I keep mentioning the word Impostor, here is why.
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Pyrrhic victories

Heard about my victory?

Heard about my victory?

You’ve heard of Pyrrhic Victories, which are defeats disguised as triumphs–in other words, Kipling-esque impostors of the sort that I will be describing in my book. But do you know why they are called that?

It’s thanks to Pyrrhus, who is well worth five minutes of your time.

Pyrrhus was the ancient world’s equivalent of a dumb jock whom all the girls loved, who bashed the equivalent of Budweiser cans on his forehead and beat up the enemy football team but never quite figured it all out.

Put differently, he was the King of Epirus in northern Greece, and wanted to be like Alexander the Great, who died a couple of generations before him. (Pyrrhus in turn died a generation before Hannibal was born.) He wanted to be a hero and to conquer. Basically, that’s all there was to it. And he was great at it–brave, courageous, strong. Plutarch says that once, when he was thought dead on the battlefield, he just got up and cleft an enemy soldier in two pieces with one blow of his sword.

One day, an opportunity came up: Tarentum, a Greek city in southern Italy that was fighting the Romans, invited Pyrrhus to come over and fight Rome on their behalf. Pyrrhus was thrilled. As he was preparing to leave for Italy with his army and his war elephants (sounds a lot like Hannibal, doesn’t it?), he had a conversation with the wise Cineas. This is one of my favorite exchanges in antiquity. Here is Plutarch’s version:

Cineas: If we beat the Romans, what should we do next?

Pyrrhus: Why, then we’ll be masters of all Italy.

Cineas: “And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?”

Pyrrhus: “Sicily.”

Cineas: “But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?”

Pyrrhus: “We will use that as the forerunners of greater things” such as Libya and Carthage. Would anybody resist us after that?

Cineas: “None,” for then we can take Macedon and even all of Greece. “And when all these are in our power what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus: “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

Cineas: “And what hinders us now, sir,” from doing exactly that?

At this Pyrrhus was nonplussed. But left for Italy anyway!

Next, he had his Pyrrhic victories. He beat the Romans, but each time he lost so many men and gained so little that once, when congratulated on yet another victory, he sighed: “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”

Eventually, as he was wont, he got distracted. There was another opportunity for glory in Sicily, so he sailed around a bit there and bashed a few heads. You can see on that map what that trip (dare I say his life?) looked like.

Courtesy PIOM, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy PIOM, via Wikimedia Commons

In any event, Sicily also failed to make him happy, so eventually he made his way back to Greece.

Once home, he kept fighting wars here and there. I mean, it’s a hard habit to kick! His end came as it had to come (irony alert): He was in the middle of some vicious street fighting in a Greek city, when an old woman on a rooftop dropped a tile, which landed on his heroic pate and knocked him dead. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

Have you ever been a Pyrrhus in your life? Do you know any Pyrrhuses?
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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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