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

Hannibal continues to fascinate. This is suggested by the ever-growing bibliography on the Carthaginian general and the war that he dominated. John Garland’s Hannibal is a new addition to this list. It is part of Duckworth’s Ancients in Action series, which the publisher advertises as “[a] new series of short incisive books [that] introduces major figures of the ancient world to the modern general reader, including the essentials of each subject’s life, works, and significance.” Short it is, indeed: at about 140 pages including illustrations, excluding the front- and back-matter, divided into twelve brief chapters, and written in lively and engaging prose, the reader is transported briskly from Hannibal’s birth to Hollywood buzz that Vin Diesel will star in a film epic Hannibal the Conqueror (a project rumored at least since my graduate school days), and covers lots of ground in between.

The first three chapters are introductory. The first is a mini-biography summarizing what we know about Hannibal and his family (in short, not much); the second surveys the ancient sources for the man and his achievements (few, fragmentary, often late, and typically hostile). Both chapters are sober introductions for the layman to the profound challenges that ancient historians face. The reality is that we often simply do not know very much, even about one of the most famous figures of antiquity. The third chapter briefly summarizes the Carthaginian state and society, such as we can glean from poor literary sources and archaeological evidence. Not surprisingly, given the book’s target audience, Garland spends a fair amount of space (43–44) on the exotic practice of child sacrifice, attested by scandalized Greek and Roman authors and possibly confirmed by excavations of peculiar child burials. One interesting suggestion: Carthaginian generals operated with far less oversight than their Roman counterparts (46). If so, this offers a new way to tackle the old problem of whether Hannibal operated under the authority of or independent from his home government.

Any treatment of Hannibal will necessarily be dominated by the Second Punic War. The next five chapters (the majority of the book) consider the two decades or so from Hannibal’s Spanish command through his recall from Italy. The treatment is generally cautious, and, with respect to the larger canvass of the war, it more or less adheres to scholarly consensus, though Garland does make some insightful and original observations. An expert reader will undoubtedly quibble with specific interpretations here or there, or desire more discussion to flesh out potentially controversial claims. This is because it is impossible to provide detailed technical analysis for every aspect of complex events in a book of this size and sort. I will mention a few points that drew my attention. I question whether the “Romans explored every [End Page 454] diplomatic option” before the outbreak of the war (55–56). This assertion must at least be understood within the context of ancient diplomacy, which often comprised little more than threats and demands for redress. Garland wonders why Hannibal quit Campania in 217 (80), but surely this was forced by the precarious tactical position. That Q. Fabius Maximus’ famous counter-strategy was to “avoid pitched battle at all costs” (79) is an oversimplification. I agree that not marching on Rome immediately after the battle of Trasimene was a greater blunder than failing to do so after Cannae (79, 88). Garland accepts as historical Hannibal’s promise to make Capua the capital of Italy (97), which is found in Livy’s account of his negotiations with the Capuans. I agree, but it should be noted that several scholars reject the reference as a Roman invention. Garland questions why Hannibal did not try to offer terms in 206 (105), though I doubt this was a realistic option at that stage. I am, however, in agreement with Garland’s overall criticism of Hannibal as strategist.

Chapter 9 covers the battle of Zama through Hannibal’s death, as well as his immediate legacy. Garland is perhaps too trusting of Livy’s description...