Maybe Hannibal wasn't so horrible

Hannibal swarmed over the Alps with elephants, assembled a rainbow coalition of enemies against Rome, and almost overwhelmed the world's only superpower.

The brief prologue to David Durham's new novel inspires all the faith needed to march through the next 500 pages. We meet a reluctant young warrior whose division is laying siege to the city of Arbocala (now Tordesillas, Spain) in the 3rd century BC When the wall finally collapses, he mounts the rubble in time to take an arrow through his palm and get trampled by the soldiers following behind, but he survives. That evening, a humbly dressed officer enters the soldier's tent and commends his bravery with a lavish tribute. For one of ancient history's forgotten millions, it's a moment filled with awe. For us, it's an introduction to the benevolent side of the world's most formidable warrior: Hannibal.

Of course, the scene is pure speculation. What we do know about Hannibal is that he was born in Carthage, a vast power in northern Africa that challenged Rome's supremacy. Tradition has it that at 9, Hannibal swore to throw off Rome's oppression. At 26, he took control of the Carthaginian army and tried to fulfill that promise with a series of brilliant and brutal attacks that almost succeeded.

The risks were formidable - for the general and the novelist. The logistics of both enterprises are staggering. Elephants resist crossing snowcapped mountains; readers balk at wading through ancient history. But Hannibal and Durham are masters of persuasion and imagination. For the young commander, it was a matter of assembling a rainbow coalition of enemies against Rome. For the novelist, success rests on his ability to move from epic battles to private moments that capture the doubts and joys of individuals caught in this earth-changing clash.

Durham's Hannibal is a temperate man of strict self-denial. He sleeps on the ground with his troops and has no taste for the carnal excesses of the men he leads. Having come of age during his father's defeat, he's motivated by twin desires for justice and revenge.

Durham shows a commander who knows how to motivate his "African furies," how to enlist potential allies by sympathizing with their grievances, and how to demoralize enemies with tactical creativity that's as dazzling as it is deadly. Marching through Northern Africa, Iberia, and myriad Roman colonies, he collects strange, disparate armies by highlighting the contrast between his honor and Rome's perfidy. Again and again, he countermands orders of more expedient generals who would win over opposing cities by skewering all their children. Oh, he's not above murdering recalcitrant populations, but he understands that the battle against Rome must also be a battle for the hearts of her oppressed subjects. (Something for Americans to keep in mind.)

But how deadly he is! "Pride of Carthage" is soaked with blood - "a choreographed sacrifice of massive proportions." In one spectacular scene after another, Durham throws together tens of thousands of men churning the ground in mile-wide swaths as they kill one another in a sickening variety of ways. Hannibal's attacks on Roman forces twice the size of his own army are awesome and desperate, full of cries and fire; armor and limbs; elephants, horses, and dogs - oh my!

But Durham is also remarkably attentive to individual lives and moments between heaves of battle. Hannibal, "the child of a thunderbolt," is worn by doubts and melancholy, desperate for the company of his wife and baby. He constantly feels the horrible burden of destiny. "At moments," he says, "I look down and realize that I'm seated on a monster fouler than anything I could have conceived."

His brothers adore him, but they labor under a sense of inadequacy that saps their initiative and leads to fatal errors. His wife, mother, and older sister present fascinating pictures of the complicated, compromised position of smart women in an ancient, patriarchal culture.

On the other side, we catch glimpses of Roman leaders who vacillate between arrogance and panic, unable to fathom this barbarian's next move. And at the other end of the social spectrum, we see the beggars, slaves, and prostitutes who follow behind these giant armies, supplying and reaping what they can without a care for who wins or loses.

Durham warns in his acknowledgments that "this book is a work of fiction and should only be read as a novel," but the historical records that survive are hardly models of modern academic objectivity. The Romans never managed to kill Hannibal, but they did write the only surviving history of his life. There are no extant Carthaginian sources.

In fact, there's almost nothing left from Carthage. At the conclusion of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Rome carried out what may have been the largest systematic execution of noncombatants before World War II, killing all but 50,000 of its 700,000 inhabitants and burning the entire city to the ground. Cato's much-repeated demand, "Carthage must be destroyed," was finally carried out.

Much that was lost is revived here in all its glory and gore, but ultimately what's more stunning is Durham's imagination, his sensitivity to the cost and exhaustion of war. It's a brilliant exploration of the tension between private destiny and historical force, as full of the sweep of geopolitics as the quiet intimacies of a marriage. He so clearly creates the hopes and fears of these people removed from us by time and culture that we can recognize our tragic, common heritage.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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