Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician
A fresh wind is blowing through the dry leaves, so they tell us. Classical studies are being reinvigorated, and it is high time. However, not much novelty is discovered in the subjects of books designed for the “general reader” of the better sort. The lives and exploits of heroes are still high in favor. Notably Hannibal and Caesar, to judge by productions from more countries than one in recent years. Along with Alexander and Napoleon, Hannibal and Caesar keep their fame and rank for generalship through the ages; and Scipio belongs with them, whom Liddell Hart described as “greater than Napoleon.” Hence suitable characters to be matched for comparison in the manner of Plutarch, or to figure in some Dialogues of the Dead.
Biography is of plain service for conveying historical instruction painlessly. It is not to be despised, for it furnishes a framework and a chronological sequence. But biography is also the enemy of history. It is prone to fable and legend, it exalts the individual unduly, at the expense of social history, the long trends, and the facts of power in the world. Hannibal, Scipio, and Caesar may be described as monarchic aristocrats. They were at the same time citizens of imperial republics. Their environment must be kept in mind and the political systems which they obeyed or defied.
As for Hannibal, given the dearth of contemporary or personal memorials, no true biography can be written. Apart from the record of campaigns and battles, little can be known. Further, basic questions of a historical nature subsist, intricate and not easy to set forth in a clear and simple fashion. The tradition puts heavy emphasis on the motive of revenge, the boy Hannibal swearing eternal enmity to Rome on his father’s injunction; and by attacking Saguntum Hannibal both risks a quarrel with Rome and forces the hand of the home government.
So it might appear. Yet it is far from certain that Hannibal was intent on war (at least as early as the year 219), or was acting in total independence of Carthage. Moreover, there is the question of “war guilt,” which was artfully obfuscated by Roman annalists in the sequel, for Rome (it was axiomatic) waged only “just wars.” Carthage, so it appears, had a sound legal case, based upon the treaty made at the conclusion of the First Punic War. But again, it may be contended, in contests between great powers the juridical aspect is subordinate.
If these problems are waived or eluded, there is something else to entice the reader, and highly seductive: Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. By space and emphasis that is the central theme in the latest book on Hannibal from Sir Gavin de Beer, who combines a scientific training with the enthusiasm of a veteran Alpinist and much ingeniousness.
In his Preface Sir Gavin speaks of “the astounding feat of moving an army from Spain to Italy by land over the Alps.” Yet the passage of the Alps was no …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.