Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life Hardcover – Illustrated, March 31, 2015
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About the Author
- Item Weight : 1.64 pounds
- Hardcover : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0300152043
- ISBN-13 : 978-0300152043
- Dimensions : 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
- Publisher : Yale University Press; Illustrated edition (March 31, 2015)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,079,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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As for crossing the Alps (chapter 5), MacDonald heaps the usual praise on Hannibal’s “brilliance” for “chang[ing] the paradigm of the war before it had begun” (85). The more interesting aspect of her analysis is on Hannibal’s “myth management” or propaganda (88), as he adopted the image of the Phoenician god Melqart whose Greek counterpart—Heracles—trekked a similar path. MacDonald presents another prism utilized throughout the book—Hannibal’s relationship with his troops. In addition to maintaining a divine, heroic image, Hannibal and other successful Hellenistic commanders engendered “direct and immediate loyalty” (89). MacDonald drives this point home throughout the book, especially to explain how Hannibal’s army did not disintegrate at its lowest points before vacating Italy.
MacDonald covers the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, and Trasimene in a single chapter (chapter 6), which is indicative of the lack of battle analysis throughout the book. There are no battle maps whatsoever. The descriptions are high-level with no thought given to the logistics of cleaning up tens of thousands of bodies on a field. There is no “face of battle” from MacDonald, as the only horror of war comes straight from the pages of Polybius and Livy. Instead, MacDonald focuses on leadership structures and reinforcements. This is where MacDonald excels, as she states and then clearly demonstrates the “war for Italy would be won by the allies” (104). Here and throughout the rest of the book, MacDonald describes how Hannibal was lenient on all of Rome’s allies after a battle while trying to woo their cities to his cause.
After Hannibal’s crushing success at Cannae (chapter 7), MacDonald tackles the age-old question of why the victorious general did not march on Rome. It was 400 kilometers away for one thing, a lengthy march for even a fresh army. In addition, the tradition of the Hellenistic world was to end a war after a battlefield victory, which explains why Hannibal “believed the Romans would sue for peace” (134). Finally, MacDonald argues Hannibal’s previous siege experiences had soured him on attacking any well-fortified city (76).
If anyone wants to understand why Hannibal did not conquer Italy after so many crushing battle victories, then chapters 8 and 9 are worth the price of the book. MacDonald meticulously analyzes the city-states throughout Italy, as the “battle for the hearts and minds of the Italian allies of the south was thus won or lost one city at a time” (141). Each city had its own ruling elite, typically a family, while there was a lesser family vying to gain power. Hannibal had to convince each city that he would win the war and provide a type of freedom the people actually desired. Most stayed with the Romans while some of the cities Hannibal brought into this alliance (e.g., Capua) deterred other would-be allies.
After Cannae, the Romans adopted Fabius Maximus’s strategy (with a few exceptions), shadowing and harassing Hannibal, but never confronting. Hannibal still expanded his powerbase to the city of Tarentum, but it was 300 kilometers from Capua. The distance was a factor and “so much of the war relied on his personal command that [Hannibal] found himself stretched across the south of Italy” (166). MacDonald describes how the Romans learned to use their superior manpower to slowly strip away Hannibal’s cities (161) while also engaging in “myth management” of their own to build up their own heroic general, Scipio (176). Here, MacDonald’s narrative moves past Italy, focusing heavily on the events in Spain and Syracuse where the Carthaginians and their allies suffered significant setbacks.
Rome’s methodical Fabian strategy had already severely diminished Hannibal’s threat by 207 BC (188). With the destruction of the only reinforcements to arrive in Italy (chapter 10), MacDonald believes the Carthaginian threat was over in Italy (192). Hannibal possibly stayed in Italy with no chance of success as a potential strategy by Carthage to keep Rome out of Africa (183), but more likely because of Hannibal’s commitment to his army and allies (196). This is all pure conjecture as the ancient sources are vague on any such strategy, but MacDonald presents her theories clearly.
After Scipio conquered Spain and invaded Africa (chapter 11), Hannibal was contained in Italy while Scipio racked up victories over Carthage (209). When the two generals finally met at Zama, victory for Hannibal “had never been very likely for he had fought with a vastly inferior army” (216). MacDonald emphasizes the Roman perspective, as Scipio and later historians perfected their “myth management.” As such, “for Scipio Africanus to be considered a military genius it required that Hannibal be a worthy adversary, a foe equal to the conqueror” (230). Thus, Zama was a great victory. MacDonald provides a cursory historiography in her epilogue, which is just enough for the reader to appreciate that “it was the reputation and celebrity of Hannibal, even more than those of his Roman foes, that flourished in the Roman world and beyond” (230).
For a book by an archaeologist, there is surprising little archaeology, or at least mention of it. MacDonald briefly covers the newly discovered Baecula battlefield in Spain (184), as well as hordes of Hannibalic coins in Bruttium (196), but the author could have greatly enriched her work with her archaeological expertise.
As far as books about Hannibal, MacDonald has produced a work in a completely new class. The emphasis on the Hellenistic tradition of rulers is by no means unique, but the chapters on Hannibal’s efforts to woo allies provide a real explanation as to why battlefield victories alone could not win the war in Italy. MacDonald even recognizes the lack of drum and trumpets in her battle descriptions, recommending other works with battle maps (e.g.,Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War). Instead, MacDonald has focused heavily on leadership structures, Italian allies, religion, propaganda, and the bias of the sources. More importantly, she provides overwhelming context for the conflicts between Carthage and Rome, and the beginning of the Punic Wars.
Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life is a must-read for anyone interested in Hannibal and the Punic Wars.
With all of that being said, I have found a new favorite book. Eve MacDonald does a (in my mind) brilliant job of constructing the life of Hannibal within the confines of the Punic Wars. It doesn't get caught up in the minutia, instead it concerns itself with creating this picture of the greatest general in history (my opinion) in a complete way. It focuses on his childhood and the influence of his father Hamilcar, his brilliance in the midst of battle, his relationship (mostly respect and loyalty) with his soldiers, his fierce hatred for Rome, his sometimes fractured relationship with Carthaginian elites, and his sense of duty to the Italians he conquered. These are just highlights.
It is both inspiring, as well as sad. I found myself not wanting to get to the end of the book because I knew how it ended. I didn't want to read about Hannibal's defeat at the hands of Scipio's army at Zama or the eventual fall of Carthage.
I am writing this review mostly with the hope that Eve MacDonald reads it. I have been looking for "this" book for a long time. There are others about Hannibal, but this is now the standard. You did for Hannibal what Dexter Hoyos did for Carthage in the literary world.
Thank you for writing this book. Your effort was definitely well spent. You made my summer much more enjoyable.
For everyone else; if you love Hannibal (Carthage too) or if you just love good history this is a must have.
Top reviews from other countries
After the disasters for Rome at Lake Trasimene and Cannae the author explains the astonishing Roman cool headedness and how the Senate, in concert with capable Roman generals, patiently yet brilliantly rendered a military genius and legend into almost a hapless figure, trapped with his too-small army in the toe of Italy, while the Romans swept away other Carthaginian armies in Spain and Italy and took city after city including New Carthage, Syracuse, Capua and Tarentum.
The dominating, decisive impact of the Roman navy in the war is outlined clearly, as is the colossal cost in human life of this conflict to both sides, including the defeat and deaths of Hannibal's two younger brothers.
Indeed the Roman victory virtually invokes a sense of manifest destiny in that the survival and ultimate victory of Greco-Roman culture over 'Middle Eastern' oriented Carthage became a catalyst during so many future centuries for the ultimate rise of the West. Today there is the firm footprint of classical values and culture today across Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australasia, sub Saharan Africa and many places beyond.
It is surely not an exaggeration to infer that Hannibal's ultimate failure helped to safeguard the artistic, scientific and rational values which have continued to underpin so many good aspects of Western civilisation to this day. While the hubris to nemesis story of Hannibal and Carthage is redolent in human tragedy, the ultimate victory of Rome is perhaps something that a modern citizen of the world might reflect upon with more than a little relief. While the likes of Hannibal were to some degree connected to Greek culture, surely Ms MacDonald's 'multicultural' Carthage taken as a whole was a good deal less 'Hellenistic' and a lot more more 'Levantine' than the Greek or Roman polities that it so bitterly opposed for over 300 years?
Nevertheless, this author can and should write more brilliant books on other gripping tales of Greece and Rome. .
Reading MacDonald's book, I was astonished to find that the author omitted any mention of Sir Gavin de Beer and Sir Dennis Proctor, authors of major source material on Hannibal and the Second Punic War, quite the faux pas if ever there was one. Sir Gavin de Beer, former Director of the British Museum, a polymath, embryonic biologist, philologist, classicist, amongst other professions wrote four books on the Hannibal invasion of Italia and Carthage itself, his share of interpretations unmentioned by MacDonald. Sir Dennis Proctor, classicist, is also absent from the story and it is he who painstakingly threaded together the main facts behind the invasion crafting the brilliant ‘Hannibal’s March in History’ (Oxford, 1971), which sorts out the relevance of Livy and Polybius as authorities and weighs their interpretations against historians who followed. MacDonald does mention other key players of the Hannibal saga, major classical authors such as Silius Italicus, Plutarch, and Appian, and modern figures such as Serge Lancel and John Lazenby, the latter arguably the major authority on Hannibal and the Punic Wars from the start in 264 until the end, final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. Eve MacDonald’s book is a standard history of Hannibal, a well written work that relies heavily on translations of Polybius and Livy, perhaps relying too heavily on Livy’s interpretations of events than is warranted given that he never left Padua, and his interpretations of events are third hand at best. Writing a biography like this where the protagonist himself is mute, not having left a single word, and as the author notes his life molded by his adversaries—The Romans—is extremely interpretive. Folding Hannibal’s life into Hellenistic culture without reference to de Beer as a major interpreter of the great captain’s Greek and Phoenician roots is a major drawdown in the merit of the book. As with other classicists and their classical studies of Hannibal, the center of gravity here is placed firmly on the work of others who have interpreted events as jostling amongst Carthaginian, Roman, Greek and Gallic forces with only minimal recognition of the environment in which all of these events unfolded, and little to no mention that the environment itself—the Alps—was perhaps more of an enemy than marauding Gauls and Roman legions waiting in the Po valley of northern Italia. The one chapter devoted to passage over the Alps seems to shortchange what is often referred to as the great question of antiquity, the Hannibal route enigma bandied about by so many authors over the last two millennia, with only a few actually visiting the routes and cols from near Suisse to the Mediterranean. The author’s focus on the rockfall that blocked the Punic army’s exfiltration from the Alps is solidly quoted from Livy, the firing of large boulders to open a path through the rubble again perpetuated as a real event when Polybius is mute on the firing subject, and recent scientific research (Sodhi et al., 2006) has solidly shown where the rockfall is located (below the Col de la Traversette) without any trace of carbonized rock. The firing event is presumably a myth concocted by Silenus, Hannibal’s historiographer, but his account perished in the fire at the great library in Alexandria in 300 AD. What is most significant is that not only is the location of the rockfall barrier known, but that it is actually as Polybius described it—a doublet of two deposits--one quite old related to the demise of the last ice age and the other and larger of the two, much younger, presumably having occurred just prior to Hannibal’s appearance in the Alps. I enjoyed revisiting Hannibal and the fast moving events of the Second Punic War as Eve MacDonald has reconstructed them using various interpretations made by historians over the years, but I must admit that failing to see recognition given to de Beer and Proctor is a real short change to readers that hopefully is one of omission. Surely editors at Yale must have been asleep at the switch when this book was copy edited.
Sodhi, R.N.S., et al. (2006) ToF-SIMS applied to historical archaeology in the Alps, Applied Surface Science 252, 7140-7143.
W.C. (Bill) Mahaney, author of Hannibal’s Odyssey: Environmental Background to the Invasion of Italia and The Warmaker: Hannibal’s Invasion of Italia and the Aftermath.