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 great exploit in the opinion of the historian Polybius, and Napoleon concurred in vigorous language. To be sure, the Carthaginian general ran into unforeseen difficulties on the pass and during the descent: from miscalculation or delays he arrived two or three weeks too late.
The problem presented by Hannibal’s route has evoked an enormous amount of writing. It appeals to the military expert, the local patriot, the tourist, and the publicist. It is therefore expedient to define sharply the nature and value of the whole question. After Hannibal descended to the plains of Italy his first action was to capture a town of the Taurini (perhaps on the site of Turin itself). By which pass did he come down? And by which route had he reached it after crossing the Rhone? Identification is of some interest—less perhaps for Hannibal than for the history of transport and communications in antiquity.
As has long been evident, the problem in its essence is not one of topography but of source criticism. That procedure is sometimes given its native term “Quellenkritik” by those who wish to depreciate it. In this instance there is no mystery or dispute. Indeed, a test case of validity. Polybius reproduces the report of an eyewitness, with the reckoning, sometimes by distances, sometimes by days of march. But his sober account is not without difficulties.
Livy furnishes a vivid and copious narration. But Livy has operated in a careless and clumsy fashion. With an account going back to the original record (as used by Polybius) Livy conflates a totally discordant version of Hannibal’s march from the Rhone to the pass. It derives from a source which (it is clear) assumed that Hannibal took the route followed by the later Roman road to the pass of the Mont Genèvre. By the time that Livy wrote the problem had already been in debate, as he indicates in the most valuable part of his testimony. Not in the narrative, but in a subsequent note. He refutes those who assumed the Great St. Bernard or the Little St. Bernard. Those passes, he says, would not have brought Hannibal into the territory of the Taurini.
What then is to be done? Sound method (or common sense) discards Livy. Along with the eloquence, the corroborative names and details deriving from the second source must go. Instead, the primary account, as preserved by Polybius without intrusions, must be analyzed and used, though it does not carry the names which a modern inquirer would desiderate (Polybius of set practice eschewed such details). Only then is it legitimate to look for items of topography that concord with his narration.
To put the matter in extreme brevity. After crossing the Rhone Hannibal proceeded in four days to the place called the “Island” (generally assumed to be the confluence of the Rhone and the Isère, a little above Valence). Then, after ten days’ march along the river (“the river” to be interpreted as the Isère), he began “the ascent of the Alps” (as he calls it) and nine days brought him to the pass.
In recent years a consensus seems to have been forming among historians: Hannibal from the Isère went up the valley of the Arc (in the Maurienne) and crossed the Alps in the vicinity of the Mont Cenis. The Col du Clapier is a strong favorite. It was advocated long ago by a professor of military history, Spenser Wilkinson.
Sir Gavin, however, goes his own way. He fixes the “Island” at the confluence of the Rhone and the Ayges (a little northwest of Orange), and he takes Hannibal up the Drôme and then by Die and Gap to the upper waters of the Durance. That is, in the direction of the Mont Genèvre. But he chooses for the pass the Col de la Traversette, some twenty miles (in a straight line) to the southeast of the Mont Genèvre.
Sir Gavin fails to use discrimination in the question of the sources. He employs Livy for the route subsequent to the “Island.” Yet this route was an alternative to the Polybian account and derived from a writer who wished to take Hannibal to the Mont Genèvre.
It is not possible in this place to do justice to the theory, which was argued by the author in two previous books, Alps and Elephants (1955) and Hannibal’s March (1967). It must suffice to point out that in the matter of the “Island,” where the texts of both Polybius and Livy are involved, he runs into trouble from the experts. To name them is enough: Walbank and McDonald. They are also historians. They expressed strong dissent in separate papers published a dozen years ago. Reference might likewise be made to the sagacity of Ernst Meyer who firmly commends the Col du Clapier (Museum Helveticum, 1958, p. 227ff.).
Why therefore insist? Weighty criticisms show the theory (route as well as pass) untenable. But the theory enjoys wide publicity, and it has already bequeathed a name to “Route 93” in France. A question of historical method is in cause. Further, the public ought to have due warning.
So far a brief and inadequate excursion into an intricate controversy. Sir Gavin’s book, it should be added, has many attractive features. He is careful, for example, not to speak of a “treaty” between Rome and Saguntum. Nor will he accept Livy’s account of Hannibal’s march from Capua to the vicinity of Rome in 211. It is equipped with the “corroborative detail” of place names on and beside the Via Latina—and it was accepted in Volume Seven of the Cambridge Ancient History.
Elsewhere, however, he cannot resist legend. First, a famous story. At an early stage in the arduous descent from the pass, on the first day, Hannibal found that a landslide had destroyed the track for a stretch of some 300 yards, so a path had to be hewn with great effort along the rock face. Thus Polybius. Livy explains how it was done. Now Livy speaks of a “rupes,” a cliff. Sir Gavin follows Livy, but interprets him in his own fashion. He says “it was necessary to remove a rock which was blocking the passage,” and he continues,
…trees were felled and cut into logs which were piled on to the rock and set alight, making a fire that burned fiercely in the strong wind that was fortunately blowing. The rock was next drenched with vinegar to make it friable [etc]. [p. 171, cf. p. 182]
Livy, it will be observed, does not describe the removal of a rock but the making of a path along the cliff.
To be sure, evidence is adduced to confirm against skeptics the method of softening stone. So far so good. But the author neglects to explain the timber growing on the high Alps (his pass, the Col de la Traversette, is over 9,000 feet above sea level). The innocent Livy speaks of “huge trunks,” whereas comment by Polybius disallows trees large or small in the vicinity of the road-building. If in the face of that objection the vinegar story is to be kept, an apologist need not be dismayed. He can assume that the prudent Carthaginian brought the logs from the other side. The loyal elephants had no doubt performed yeoman service—and an adequate supply of vinegar was on tap.
Second, a scene at Ephesus in 193. Sir Gavin relates without warning or skepticism an interview between Hannibal and Scipio which Livy reports—but does not expressly guarantee. Scipio put to Hannibal a question about great generals. The Carthaginian assigned their rank: Alexander, Pyrrhus, then his own person. Further, “with Punic guile,” he added that if he had defeated Scipio he would have surpassed the other two.
The double bicentenary (1969) of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon may suitably bring up for parallel what Wellington said when asked his opinion of Marlborough. He announced after a pause that Marlborough did not have to face an adversary like Napoleon.
In the end Hannibal was overcome by a Roman general who had learned from him and from warfare in Spain. That is, Scipio Africanus. Professor Scullard now reverts to a theme in which he showed himself a master forty years ago (Scipio Africanus in the Second Punic War, 1930). This book, of a wider scope, furnishes an alert and convincing appraisal of Scipio. Everything is there, clearly set forth, without traps or tricks: the historical sources, the topography, the assessment of the general and the politician. Further, excellent plans and photographs (as and where relevant). His presentation renders a review superfluous. It will stand as a model, and as an admonition.
Scipio was brought to high and anomalous commands through the military emergencies of the imperial Republic. He won glory and incurred envy, and the oligarchy was able to curb any aspirations to primacy at Rome. A long development had to intervene before the epoch of Sulla, Pompeius, and Caesar, whose ambitions and predicaments mobilized the resources of empire against the home government and led to the fall of the Republic.
True and personal biography is baffled by Hannibal and by Scipio. But the approach is attractive for Julius Caesar. We have Suetonius and Plutarch, his own writings about two wars, and the testimony of contemporaries in speeches and letters, notably Cicero. Not without various hazards in the interpretation. Much of the familiar evidence about the early years of Caesar is anecdotal. The young man’s hostility toward the oligarchy which Sulla brought back to power tends to be exaggerated. To make his career and achieve the consulship he had to be bold and resourceful.
For success in a modern and parliamentary system it is no good thing to make enemies or run into debt. At Rome a nobleman’s debts were a means of blackmailing his creditors and securing their support; and to incur feuds and court danger was a title of honor. While the novus homo had to be discreet and conformist, custom allowed a wide license of opportunism to the aristocrat, his radical actions (or rather attitudes) being no bar to subsequent amendment—and perhaps recognition as a pillar of the constitution. When Caesar in the year 60 expected his consulship it was not perhaps too late for him to be taken up, converted, and exploited by the conservative leaders.
It turned out otherwise. Cato was moved by a personal dislike, and, on the other side, Pompeius Magnus needed a strong and ruthless consul. Hence the famous and fatal compact of Pompeius, Crassus, and Caesar, devised by the three dynasts to manage the government and dispense patronage. After that, the history seems to run in a straight line to 44: the command in Gaul, the breach with Pompeius, civil war, and the dictatorship. The biographical approach to the last epoch of the Republic, when we read back the results to a man’s supposed early ambition and make the process coherent, produces an impression of design and inevitability. Thus it is as Mommsen expounded the matter, and more recently Carcopino. From the outset Caesar aspired to autocracy, and he achieved it.
Both Mommsen and Carcopino were supreme literary artists, but they failed to take account of the motives that impelled an aristocrat in the game of Roman politics. Competition was fierce and free, he fought for status, honor, and renown, to defeat his rivals but not to destroy them. Still less, be it said, to destroy the field of play. Like Pompeius and others, Caesar had found that the Republic suited him very well.
The fame of Caesar in its variations through the ages furnishes unfailing instruction. Friedrich Gundolf wrote a remarkable book on that theme (by its English title The Mantle of Caesar), but he went only as far as Nietzsche. There remains much to be said about the long and potent spell cast by Mommsen. Some of the verdicts issued under that influence make strange reading. Thus John Buchan in the Preface of his Julius Caesar, a small book published in 1938. Caesar, so he says, “performed the greatest constructive task ever achieved by human hands.” Further, “he gave humanity order and peace, and thereby prepared the ground for many precious seeds.” Representative opinions might no doubt be culled from other countries, though not showing quite that type of Messianism.
Mommsen, having duly installed Caesar as the founder of the imperial system, found in the sequel that he could not go on and deal with Caesar Augustus. That autocrat is the true founder, himself the product of war and revolution, stabilizing the process and masking centralized government under the name of authority delegated by Senate and People.
Caesar by contrast is the last of the aristocrats. Also a kind of magnificent failure. He could see no way out of his predicament save by going to the wars again. Caesar could not abdicate, but he might die (his state of health was poor). Or he might let himself be assassinated. He did not seem to care. Assertions of modesty or disillusionment on the part of autocrats will not always carry conviction, in any age. But Caesar’s words deserve attention: “I have lived long enough, whether my life be reckoned in years or in glory.”
Readers of Shakespeare will recall a meeting of some of the conspirators on the night of March 14. Not so familiar is the dinner party that evening at the house of Lepidus. The talk fell on death, Caesar said that the quickest was the best. The question had been put by Decimus Brutus. This man is a clue to many things. Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius engross the fame of the assassination ever after, notably the former, for various reasons. And his motives are in no way baffling. Decimus, however, had been in Gaul with Caesar for long years, and was an especial favorite: it is to him, not to Marcus, that the Shakespearian “Caesar’s angel” should have been applied. Yet Decimus joined the conspiracy. Like others of the Caesarian marshals, he followed the proconsul of Gaul against Pompeius through personal loyalty in a war that had been forced upon him. Decimus had not intended that it should result in the elevation of Caesar far above the rank of a party leader, to the abolition of the Republic.
This item is here subjoined as a warning against standard history or the persuasions of drama and biography. Lives of Caesar come out almost every year, in one language or another. The shape is given, the facts appear to be known. Michael Grant’s book, however, stands out from the ruck. To an enviable skill and fluency he unites wide interests and a deep understanding of historical processes. In the course of his narration he is able to evoke the social and political background by various devices, rendering it wholly intelligible to readers of elementary pretensions.
His treatment of warfare calls for an especial commendation. He is admirable on many matters not expressly stated in the Commentaries on the Gallic War. For example, supply and transport, Caesar’s relations with his officers, Caesar’s use of propaganda. Napoleonic maxims are suitably introduced. In fact, this is a fine piece of original exposition. The only regret is that the author did not write the larger work which his talents would more than justify. As it is, the present book is in danger of being underestimated or ignored by many who could profit from it.
The two volumes on Hannibal and Caesar are sumptuous in the worst sense of the word; and the price is in keeping. Sir Gavin parades 304 black and white illustrations and sixteen in color. There are some excellent photographs of Alpine and sub-Alpine scenery, but relevance to the text is not elsewhere the dominant note. Further, since the author carries his setting of “the stage and the players” many centuries into the past (pp. 1-78), all manner of adornment is enlisted, such as Phoenician jewelry and Etruscan sculpture. A photograph of Delphi carries a caption asserting that Agamemnon got an oracle from the priestess. There is also one of Santorin, for, to be sure, a volcanic eruption in the fifteenth century B.C. “was the origin of the story of Atlantis.” On this fancy the reader may observe the firm remarks of M. I. Finley in this Review (December 4, 1969).
Nor does Grant fall far behind, though his total is not advertised nor are the particulars indexed (there is only an alphabetical list of acknowledgements). The book exhibits about forty full-page plates in color, including leaves of manuscripts, tapestries, paintings medieval and modern. Sheer delight to the eye, but no instruction. It is valuable to have Frank Brown’s head of Pompeius, but many of the classical items are out of time and place, for example, the “bust of an unknown Roman” (patently of the early second century A.D.). The large format and lavish equipment of these two volumes proclaims the purpose they are designed to serve and bears witness to an idyllic and remunerative collaboration between author and publisher.