Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.65

Dexter Hoyos, Hannibal's Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 B.C. Paperback edition.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.  Pp. vii, 304.  ISBN 0-415-35958-9.  $33.95.  

Reviewed by Paul Burton, University of Tasmania (
Word count: 1888 words

The book currently under review is the paperback edition of the 2003 follow-up to Dexter Hoyos' Unplanned Wars, a crucial and in-depth study of the causes of the first two wars between Rome and Carthage in the third century B.C.1 With these two books (plus numerous related articles) to his credit, it is fair to say that Hoyos (hereafter H.) has made his own the study of the Punic wars and the Carthaginian Barcid family in the present generation of scholars of middle-Republican Roman history.

Hannibal's Dynasty argues that the best-known Barcid, Hannibal, was by no means the only -- or even the most -- extraordinary personality in that remarkable family, but was literally surrounded by brilliant men from his childhood. Hannibal's father, Hamilcar Barca, was undefeated by Rome when he was forced to withdraw from Sicily at the end of the first Punic War, and set about building a new empire, in Spain, from which to continue the struggle. Hasdrubal, Hamilcar's son-in-law, carried on Hamilcar's work in Spain, and negotiated the important (if contentious) "Ebro Treaty" with Rome. Then there were the brothers of Hannibal, Mago and Hasdrubal, minor (at least in Roman accounts) but crucial players in the Carthaginian war effort during the Second Punic War. H. aims to explore how Barcid supremacy was established and maintained from the mid-third to the early second centuries B.C., what the individual members of the family accomplished, and how the Barcids fell from the pinnacle of power at Carthage. One of the most fascinating things about the family, H. notes, is that throughout the period of their supremacy, they remained elected magistrates, not military dictators (pp. 1-2).

After a brief introduction (pp. 1-6) summarizing the Barcid achievement and discussing the source problems for the period (not least of which is the fact that not a single Carthaginian source survives: it is up to Roman sources to tell us about Rome's most despised enemy), H. begins his analysis with a chapter (pp. 7-20) on Hamilcar Barca's entry onto the world stage in 2472 with the capture of the fort of Heircte near Panormus on Sicily and subsequent seizure of the town of Eryx (Polyb. 1.56-58). Along the way, H. fills in some of the background details of Rome's relationship with Carthage up to the outbreak of the first war, and provides a sketch of the causes of that war (more fully [and expertly] laid out in H.'s Unplanned Wars, pp. 47-99) and its various vicissitudes down to the 240s, including the humiliating final defeat at the Aegates Islands and Hamilcar's negotiation of the equally humiliating peace of 241.

Chapter 2 (pp. 21-33), "Carthage," provides details (insofar as they can be known) of Hamilcar Barca's family as well as some prosopographical analysis of the Carthaginian ruling class and its various factions. The chapter also includes a very useful and succinct account of Carthaginian geography, history, religion, society, politics and culture. H.'s discussion here of the archaeological work done at the site of Carthage is particularly illuminating.

H. returns to the narrative in Chapter 3, on the mercenary revolts that broke out in Africa and Sardinia in the wake of the Carthaginian loss of 241 (pp. 34-53). It was his successful quelling of these revolts that earned Hamilcar Barca the well-deserved title of "saviour of his country." The title of Chapter 4 ("Barca Supreme": pp. 47-54) reflects this new status: by the time he set off for Spain in 237, Hamilcar "was unmistakably the political leader of Carthage" (p. 47). This chapter also includes a brief discussion of Rome's seizure of Sardinia and Corsica in 237 (discussed at greater length in H.'s Unplanned Wars, ch. 9), and the famous story of Hannibal's oath to his father to "never have good will towards the Romans" (Polyb. 3.11.7).3 Chapters 5-7 (pp. 55-97) constitute a comprehensive re-telling of the commands of Hamilcar, Hasdrubal, and finally Hannibal in Spain, and the rebuilding of Carthaginian fortunes and empire there. Chapter 7 includes an account of the controversy over and siege of the Spanish city of Saguntum, which precipitated the Second Punic War.

The following seven chapters summarize the events of that war, including Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and invasion of Italy (Chapter 8, pp. 98-113); his amazing trifecta at the battles of Trebia (218), Trasimene (217) and Cannae (216) (Chapter 9, pp. 114-121); his creation of a new Carthaginian empire in southern Italy following those victories (Chapter 10, pp. 122-33); the subsequent stalemate and defeat of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal (Chapters 11-12, pp. 134-51); and finally, P. Cornelius Scipio's invasion of Africa, Hannibal's recall, and the disastrous Zama campaign, which lost the war for Carthage (Chapters 13-14, pp. 152-78). H. supplements what amounts to a narrative re-telling of the Second Punic War with important digressions on various topics: the possible reasons for Rome's delayed reaction to the siege of Saguntum (pp. 98-99), for Hannibal's several months' delay before setting out for Italy in late summer 218 (pp. 102-105), and why Hannibal did not march on Rome immediately after Trasimene (pp. 116-17) or Cannae (pp. 119-21); the rising influence of Hasdrubal son of Gisco at Carthage in the latter half of the war (pp. 142-43); and the level of the Carthaginian government's commitment to Hannibal and his war (pp. 156-58).

The following chapters tell the sad, sorry tale of Hannibal's declining years: Chapter 15 (pp. 179-89) details the events surrounding the negotiation of the final peace with Rome in 201, the early lean years of the Carthaginian recovery, and the political changes that took place at Carthage down to Hannibal's sufeteship in 196 (including the rise of the mysterious 104-member ordo iudicum, mentioned at Livy 33.46.1-7, at Barcid expense: pp. 183-86). The following chapter (pp. 190-202) deals with the reforms Hannibal introduced as sufete, including his de-clawing of the ordo iudicum by making it an annually elective office rather than a lifetime seat by selection, and his reform of the taxation and revenue system at Carthage. The chapter also includes the Roman senate's anti-Barcid embassy to Carthage in 195, which drove Hannibal into self-imposed exile. Chapter 17 (pp. 202-211) recounts Hannibal's last years as a shadowy, impotent figure haunting the royal courts of the east, including Antiochus III's Syria, Artaxias' Armenia and Prusias' Bithynia, where the former empire-builder and scourge of Rome was reduced to founding a few minor towns and occasionally commanding small naval detachments. Hannibal committed suicide in winter 183/2, just as Roman envoys persuaded Prusias to hand him over to their custody.

H.'s study ends, rather oddly, with a conspectus of the primary sources for Barcid history (Chapter 18: pp. 212-22). The book thus ends on a strange note, with a thud, rather than with the extremely moving -- even elegiac -- sections III and IV of Chapter 17, summarizing the achievements, historical impact, and rise and fall of the Barcids -- surely a more fitting finale.

H.'s final chapter, however, does point to a major concern of his throughout the book: Quellenkritik. So, for example, on pp. 35 and 47 he resets the date of Hamilcar's trial for misconduct during his Sicilian command from Appian's 237 to 241 (App. Iber. 4.16 and Hann. 2.3). On pp. 75-78 he questions Fabius Pictor's story (in Polyb. 3.8.2-4) of Hasdrubal's coup attempt at Carthage in the early 220s. On p. 85 he challenges Livy's far-fetched tale of Hasdrubal's homosexual designs on his brother-in-law Hannibal (Livy 21.3.2-4.1; cf. Diod. 25.12 and Nepos Hamil. 3.2). Elsewhere, H. shows the timing of the Roman embassy to Hannibal concerning Saguntum is wrong in the Roman annalistic tradition (Livy 21.6.3-8 and 9.3-11.2; Cicero Phil. 5.10.2; compare Polyb. 3.15.1); he redates Livy's placement of the Carthaginian campaign in southern Spain from 214 to 212 (p. 140 on Livy 24.42.9-10); he questions Livy's notion of a Roman treaty with Syphax in 206 (p. 269 n. 2 on Livy 28.18.12); he sorts out the mass confusion in the primary sources over the Roman senate's ratification of preliminary peace terms with Carthage in 203 (pp. 167-70; H. rightly sides with Polyb. 15.1.2 and 8.8 against the perhaps pro-Punic traditions found in Livy, Dio and Appian); he dismisses Appian's romantic fantasy of hand-to-hand combat between Hannibal and Scipio at Zama (p. 178 on App. Lib. 45.188-89); and details the errors in Nepos' execrable biography of Hannibal on the general's post-war activities (pp. 181-2 [with n. 5] and 204 [with n. 4]).

Such vigilance is welcome, of course, and still a necessary part of what we as ancient historians do. H., however, may sometimes go too far. So, for example, I am not inclined, as H. is (pp. 60-61), to dismiss Dio's evdence (frg. 48) for Roman political interest in Spain as early as the 230s. H.'s view here is, in fact, part of a larger pattern of argument (originally stated in his Unplanned Wars, ch. 10) that denies Roman political interest of any kind in Spain before 225, including Saguntum. H. puts Rome's friendship with Saguntum "hardly earlier than 225" (p. 84; cf. Unplanned Wars, pp. 182-85 and 190-92), and Rome's intervention in Saguntine civil strife "probably just a few weeks earlier" (p. 93) than the arrival of Roman envoys at New Carthage in late 220 to speak with Hannibal. A case can be made for all of these dates being far too late.4

The Saguntine affair is crucial for understanding the outbreak of the Second Punic War. So too the "wrath of the Barcids" -- Polybius' thesis that Hamilcar's anger and desire for revenge on Rome from as early as 241 drove his conquests in Spain (Polyb. 2.36.4; 3.9-15), and ultimately led to Hannibal starting the Second Punic War some 13 years later. H. is having none of this either (pp. 61-63; cf. 95). Admittedly it is difficult to credit Barcid anger and resentment over these issues being sustained for that long, and being passed down from one generation to the next. On the other hand, the story of the young Hannibal's oath, taken in 237 at the instigation of the still-angry Hamilcar -- a story that H. does not question (it has "no blatantly false features": p. 53) -- would seem to indicate that there is at least some foundation for what Polybius argues. Moreover, H. also refers to Hannibal's angry reaction to the Roman envoys at New Carthage in late 220 as "an unforseen vein of resentment" (p. 96) that the envoys tapped into.

On such notoriously controversial issues, however, the reviewer can agree to disagree with H.: they do not fundamentally affect the scholarly value of his book. The book is extremely well put together, with useful maps and interesting images placed at the front, and at the back a handy timeline -- a user-friendly service not often performed even by general textbooks anymore. H. keeps the pace of his narrative brisk through judicious use of summary footnotes (no more than a few per page)5 and by confining longer discussions of more technical matters to a series of 15 extended notes in the Appendix.6

Overall, Hannibal's Dynasty is a welcome attempt to tell the story of an important era -- and an important family -- in Carthaginian history from a Carthaginian perspective. Perhaps we should no longer call the clashes of 264-241 and 218-201 "Punic" Wars (reflecting a distinctly Roman perspective), but Romano-Carthaginian wars.


1.   D. Hoyos, Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars, 247-183 B.C. (Berlin and New York, 1998).
2.   All dates are B.C. unless otherwise noted.
3.   H. reminds us that the usual renderings -- "never to be friends with Rome," "to always be an enemy of Rome" -- are tendentious re-phrasings by later Roman sources.
4.   Cf. A.M. Eckstein, "Rome, Saguntum and the Ebro Treaty," Emerita 52 (1984), 52-57, who dates Rome's friendship with Saguntum to between 237 and 228. H.'s date for the Ebro Treaty (225) is also unorthodox: ca. 226 is the generally accepted date.
5.   It must be said that H.'s footnoting technique has sometimes resulted in confusion and what I can only assume are glosses that have inadvertently crept into the text from other contexts. So, for example, in Chapter 3 n. 5 on p. 242, H. includes a citation for Punic naval strength in 241-0, which would have better belonged in the next footnote, since the paragraph that follows in the text discusses Punic naval strength. Chapter 6 n. 7 on p. 251 mysteriously mentions "Flaminius' bill of 232," which is not discussed anywhere in H.'s book, much less in Chapter 6.
6.   Although for what the jacket blurb describes as a book that is "accessible" (to the general public, one assumes), H. includes many densely argued pages in the main text on topics that are ultimately of interest only to specialists, such as the exact location of the Carthaginian foundation Acra Leuce in Spain (pp. 63-65) and that of Helice, where Hamilcar Barca was killed (pp. 68-69). Surely such matters could have been treated separately in technical notes in the Appendix.

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