'Hannibal' relates the famous general's story with wonderful energy

Archeologist and historian Patrick Hunt distills his survey of literature about the Second Punic War into a brightly dramatic story that covers virtually every anecdote connected with Hannibal.

Hannibal By Patrick N. Hunt Simon & Schuster 384 pp.

If we're going to talk about the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal – as archeologist and historian Patrick Hunt does for 300 pages in his immensely readable new book on the man – we have to start by talking about somebody else first, somebody who lived hundreds of years after Hannibal died. That person is Titus Livius, the Roman historian Livy, who was born in Patavium, modern Padua, around 64 BC, died around AD 17 and spent his entire life writing an epic history of Rome. Livy drew heavily on the much earlier Greek historian Polybius, who wrote about Hannibal at a time when he could actually have interviewed survivors of the Second Punic War. But even so, it's Livy we talk about when we talk about Hannibal, because Polybius is deadly dull reading, whereas Livy has been riveting audiences for 2000 years. 

The reason we need to talk about Livy, and maybe a little about Polybius, before we talk about Hannibal is simple: we have virtually no other evidence. There are some coins and inscriptions, but Polybius wrote up the actual story of Hannibal from just exactly the kinds of primary sources a modern historian would use. And although Livy has often been knocked for his allegedly slipshod handling of his own sources, he's more generally scrupulous than his later critics say (“He had not the experience of military or political affairs that Polybius judged to be so important,” J. F. Lazenby wrote in his 1998 book "Hannibal's War," for instance, “but then no more have most of the historians who presume to take him to task”). And every single one of the hundreds and hundreds of Hannibal books that have appeared even in the last 200 years have been entirely dependent on dear old Livy.

This is important in large part because Livy had an agenda; his Hannibal isn't solely and bloodlessly the amalgam of what Livy found in the archives. That grand, lifelong work was meant as a moral saga, and Hannibal, who led a ragtag invasion force composed of Carthaginians, Gauls, Spaniards, and a host of other miscellaneous mercenaries on an invasion of Italy in 218 BC (famously crossing the Alps to get there), was a moral figure, a testing scourge for disorganized, licentious Rome. No later writer can completely escape the narrative shaping Livy gave to the story, because that narrative shaping is the skeleton of all we have.

Hunt's bibliography runs to 30 pages of ancient and modern books and articles, but the story he tells in "Hannibal" leans as heavily on Livy and Polybius as all the others do. All the major set-piece battles – Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and of course the most famous of them all, Hannibal's great victory at the Battle of Cannae – are related in Hunt's pages with a wonderfully-calibrated dramatic energy, even when the stories themselves are suspect, as they so often are. Take the tale Hunt relates about Scipio, the Roman general who finally defeated Hannibal in 202 BC; Polybius tells us that on the eve of the decisive battle, Scipio toured three captured spies around his camp so they could report back to Hannibal the overwhelming strength of his opposition. “This subtle but daring move on the part of Scipio had the desired effect on Hannibal's army: it was apparent that Scipio was so unafraid in the knowledge of his strength that he seemed already confident of the outcome,” Hunt writes. “It was a page right out of Hannibal's tactics copied by the master's best student: getting inside the minds of the enemy. Hannibal, too, was canny enough to sense the outcome before the battle began.” But it's just as likely that the whole incident was originally adapted for dramatic effect; there's a story exactly like it in Herodotus, who was writing centuries earlier about Xerxes. 

Hunt breaks the chapters of his book into fast-paced shorter segments, and he distills his survey of the ancient and modern literature about the Second Punic War into a brightly dramatic story that covers virtually every anecdote connected with Hannibal, his family (the celebrated vow his father made him swear against Rome, for which there's of course not a scrap of evidence, opens the book), his victories, and his legacy among later military leaders. Those later military leaders tend to worship the Hannibal legend, and Hunt is likewise often too credulous; “Ultimately,” he writes, “Hannibal taught a reluctant Rome how to conduct war.” But even in the melodramatic hurly-burly of Livy's colorful story, it's easy to come to some less charitable conclusions about Hannibal's alleged military genius. 

We'll never be any closer to the actual truth of it than Livy and Polybius let us get, so the approach Patrick Hunt uses in his book – taking each working cog of the Hannibal story in its turn and a shining bright light of inquiry on it, bringing everything together so readers can have it all before them – is probably the wisest. And those readers can then go back to Livy on their own time.

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