Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.48

Robert Garland, Hannibal. Ancients in Action.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2010.  Pp. 168.  ISBN 9781853997259.  $24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Fred K. Drogula, Providence College (

Robert Garland has produced a concise, useful, and highly readable book that provides an excellent introduction to a difficult subject. The stated mission of the ‘Ancients in Action’ series is to introduce “major figures of the ancient world to the modern general reader, including the essentials of each subject’s life, works, and significance for later western civilisation” (back cover), although Garland further attempts “as much as possible to examine and evaluate Hannibal’s success and failure from his own perspective, in the belief that it is the business of a historian not only to present facts but also to imagine possibilities” (11). This is a daunting task, since (as Garland readily acknowledges [17, 30]) we have very little information about Hannibal’s character and personality, and what we do have mainly comes from later, pro-Roman sources. Nevertheless, Garland assembles the surviving information into a thoughtful and engaging narrative of Hannibal’s career that raises questions and provides insights into the life of Rome’s most famous enemy.

Garland divides his study into twelve chapters that are well chosen to illustrate major episodes in Hannibal’s career. Of these, the first three chapters together provide the foundation for examining this enigmatic figure. Chapter One provides a biographical overview of Hannibal’s life to unlock hints about his character, although the lack of reliable evidence makes these conclusions somewhat speculative. Chapter Two discusses the historical sources and the difficulties they pose because of their pro-Roman bias, while Chapter Three lays out a description of the Carthaginian state including its government, resources, and a brief history of its rise, fall, and later reestablishment as a Roman colony. These chapters provide the necessary background that helps the reader to understand Hannibal and his world, but they also make clear the problems and pitfalls involved in the study of ancient Carthage and its general.

The next six chapters deal with the most important and best documented period in Hannibal’s career: his role as Carthage’s commander-in-chief in Spain and Italy. Chapter Four briefly presents Carthaginian expansion into Spain, although most of the chapter focuses upon the two best documented events of this period: the Ebro Treaty and the siege of Saguntum. Chapter Five describes Hannibal’s march to Italy and his famous crossing of the Alps, Chapter Six covers the first year of his invasion of Italy, including the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, and Lake Trasimene, and his first encounter with Fabius Maximus, while Chapter Seven is dedicated to the critical Battle of Cannae. These four chapters encompass Hannibal’s greatest and most famous successes, which tend to dominate any discussion of the man and his career, but Garland does not allow these events to take over his narrative. Instead of indulging in lengthy analyses of the crossing of the Alps and the famous and much-discussed battles, Garland provides short summaries of Hannibal’s victories, and then goes on to describe his subsequent actions and Rome’s reaction to its losses. Garland pauses to consider why Hannibal did not march on Rome following his victories at Trasimene and Cannae, and suggests that his goals may not have included the total conquest of Rome. In Chapter Eight, Garland discusses the remaining thirteen years (215-202 BC) of the Second Punic War, jumping between Italy, Sicily, Macedon, Spain, and eventually Africa. Although he emphasizes Hannibal’s activities in Italy when possible, there is often little to say, since Hannibal increasingly became a sideshow in the war as the Romans managed to neutralize his military effectiveness and contain his army in southern Italy. Garland considers the important question of what plan (if any) Hannibal had during those years, and suggests that he may have simply lacked an ‘exit strategy’ (108). Chapter Nine covers the remainder of Hannibal’s life, including his defeat at the Battle of Zama and his role in Carthage’s surrender to Rome, his subsequent political career as a suffes (a Carthaginian civilian official), and his final years as an exile from Carthage when he traveled through the East. The sources on this period of Hannibal’s life are especially poor, but Garland does a fine job of weaving together the evidence and presenting a coherent image of Hannibal’s life after 202 BC.

The final three chapters present different analyses of Hannibal’s career and his impact on the western world. In Chapter Ten, Garland considers the immediate influence of Hannibal on Rome and Europe, pointing out that he not only forced the Romans to adapt their military thinking and left them as the sole great power in the Mediterranean, but also brought them more firmly into the cultural world of the Greeks. In Chapter Eleven, Garland presents an original and detailed discussion of Hannibal’s ‘afterlife’ in the arts, literature, and history by examining how he was remembered or imagined in later periods, and how he has remained a potent figure to this day. Garland surveys western culture for references to Hannibal, beginning with ancient times but quickly moving on to the Renaissance and Modern periods and incorporating a huge body of material into this consideration, including literature, drama, painting, military theorists, psychologists, cinema, and modern fiction. Even the professional ancient historian will find much that is interesting and surprising in this chapter. In his closing chapter (Chapter Twelve), Garland gives a verdict on Hannibal’s career that emphasizes his errors and his failings. While praising his undeniable tactical abilities, his daring, and his ability to survive, Garland observes that “the rest was indeed failure, albeit failure on a magnificent scale” (158). A section on further reading and an index close the book.

Garland’s book is an excellent introduction to the study of Hannibal because it successfully compresses a great deal of information without losing track of its main subject. This is necessary because Hannibal was only one player in a massive war, and a judicious hand is needed to highlight Hannibal’s role and importance without removing him entirely from the war itself. Garland skillfully treats the entire Second Punic War in such a way that Hannibal’s activities receive the lion’s share of attention, but they are not taken out of their context or divorced entirely from the war. For this reason, the general reader will have no trouble understanding Hannibal’s successes as well as his failures; his critical leadership and influence on the progress of the war are discussed clearly, but the general summary of the war explains why Carthage ultimately lost, and what role Hannibal played in that loss. Naturally, this compression means that much information on the Second Punic War is omitted, but that is Garland’s intent, and he directs interested readers to many good discussions of the war in his section on ‘Further Reading’. In addition, the text is immensely readable and well written. Garland writes in clear and flowing prose, he pauses to explain foreign terms, he draws the reader’s attention to problems in the sources and important questions about Hannibal’s actions, and he provides many maps and images to inform the reader. Readability is also increased by the absence of footnotes, although primary references are frequently inserted into the main text.

Since the goal of the book is to present an introduction to the general reader, the text tends to be more narrative than analytical, which makes it difficult to address some of the important problems about Hannibal’s career. Thus Garland often brings up intriguing questions about things Hannibal did or did not do, but the confines of his narrative do not permit him to answer those questions in detail. For example, why did Hannibal face such deadly opposition crossing the Alps in 218 BC when his brother Hasdrubal crossed apparently without opposition in 207 BC? The apparent ease of Hasdrubal’s trip makes his brother’s earlier crossing seem decidedly less heroic and less tactically brilliant than it is commonly believed to be. Likewise, Garland mentions (75) that Hannibal hoped to win desperately needed Italian support by releasing his non-Roman prisoners in 218 BC, but does not explain (78) why Hannibal reversed his own policy the next year by ordering the killing of all Italians, a counter-productive move that would have driven the Italians deeper into Rome’s arms. A reader may also wish to know more about the reasons why Hannibal was so ineffective after the Battle of Cannae; although Garland gives Chapter Eight to these years, he rarely has the space to analyze the problem beyond noting (probably correctly) that Hannibal’s overall grasp of strategy may have been weak (105). Nevertheless, going into depth on points like these is beyond the scope of Garland’s stated purpose, and he provides excellent descriptions of recent scholarly research (in his ‘Further Reading’ section) for those interested in pursuing specific questions.

The only quibble that I would raise with Garland’s account is his presentation of the relationship between Hannibal and the Carthaginian senate. Garland usually follows the assertion of ancient writers (e.g. Livy 30.20.3-4) that Hannibal had to struggle against a generally uncooperative and even hostile home government (28, 48, 53, 60, 107-8), but this view has been challenged by Dexter Hoyos, who has studied the complexities of the Carthaginian senate and argued that the Barcid family and its allies managed to retain fairly strong support in that body down to the end of the war (D. Hoyos, Hannibal’s Dynasty, [London and New York 2003] 107, 142-3, 130-1, 164-7, 178, 183-4). Since ancient authors tended to present Hannibal in a sympathetic light, they may well have sought to salvage his reputation by blaming his home government for his inability to do better against the Romans. Garland does indeed note (57) that ancient authors can provide contradictory evidence regarding the support Hannibal received from the Carthaginian senate, and he is certainly correct (109) that, even as late as 203 BC, Hannibal “was still the man” in Carthage (emphasis original). Still, while he had his share of rivals and opponents at home, Hannibal must have enjoyed considerable political support to have retained his command so long in spite of his inability to repeat his early victories in the war.

On the whole, Garland has done a superb job of working with the sources to present a clear and nuanced image of an almost legendary figure. Although the first chapter begins with the blunt statement that “we know so little about the man” (17), Garland takes what evidence we do have and weaves it into an engaging, comprehensible, and surprisingly detailed account of Hannibal’s life. The book is as enjoyable as it is informative, and it is an excellent introduction for anyone wishing to learn about this deservedly famous general.

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