(Washington: Regnery Publishing Inc, 1996) by Ross Leckie
Reviewed by MAJ James Tan Ming Chong
"I am old now, and the time of my people is past. No more will the lineage of Barca fight the Romans whom we hate. The Paradise of Mithra holds all those that I have loved, souls whom the River of Ordeal could not scald. Soon I shall join them.
The ravens and the vultures gather over Carthage. I see its doom. Our ships have long been sunk or captured. Their oars of the oaks of Bashan and the Ashurites are broken, sound no more. My army is dispersed. I am far away.
I sit now, naked from the heat in a borrowed room in a foreign land, alone. They sent for me. I would not go. Soon they will come. They have thought it too hard, too hazardous a task to wait for the death of an old man.
My body stiffens. My wounds throb. I am as an old and wizened oak tree in a field, against which cattle have rubbed too long. Yet shall I tell my story, and be done. I see my body and its many, many scars. All are in front. The Romans shall not have me."1
With this prologue, the epic tale of Hannibal is launched. It is the tragic tale of a 18-year old man-child who assumed command of the Carthaginaian army. Driven by hate and defiance towards the Romans throughout his adult life, he achieved great military brilliance and impossible odds, but arrived at the end of his life with an understanding that man is but a shadow of a dream. Yet, he strove hard to determine his own destiny, even in death.
By the late third century BC, the age-old conflict between the two great powers of the Mediterranean had come to a head. The power of Rome was waxing, while Carthage was still reeling from its defeat in the First Punic War.
Born into one of the great Carthaginian families, Hannibal learnt very early in life that his environment was harsh and brutish, that mercy was a luxury that few could afford, and most importantly, that Rome was the great enemy that must be crushed.
Most of us associate Hannibal with his impossible trek across the snow-capped Alps to manoeuvre his army against the Romans, or his brilliant victory over them at Cannae in Italy. However, few are truly acquainted with Hannibal the man.
Drawing from a variety of classical sources dating to Roman times, Ross Leckie constructs for us a clearer picture of the man - his thoughts, experiences and reminiscences. For example, Leckie introduces to the reader the love Hannibal shared with his wife Similce, and the trauma following the death of their infant son while making the epic crossing of the Alps. The reader comes away with an understanding of the inner struggles and determination of one man against his obsession - the destruction of mighty Rome.
A number of themes are explored by Leckie throughout the account. The most prominent theme is probably that of Hannibal's hatred towards the Romans. Bred by his father, this hatred was carefully nurtured over the years, until it became the key driving force for his campaigns against Rome. The fire of his hatred was fanned by several key events: the death and mutilation of his father, the death of Hannibal's infant son, and the rape and torture of his beloved Similce by the Romans. The defeat of Rome became his all-consuming passion, such that he thought of nothing else. In one insightful passage, Hannibal disclosed to the reader that "I did not just plan how to kill Romans, but where."2 Throughout the years of training and campaigning, his eyes were always fixed upon the direction of Rome.
As we follow the story's unfolding through Hannibal's eyes, we are likely to experience two states of emotion. One the one hand, we applaud Hannibal's sense of mission, and we urge him on. At the same time, we are filled with a sense of tragedy, because we are keenly aware that Hannibal's hatred has compelled him to travel on the inevitable road of loss and death. Indeed, the reader can only watch helplessly as Hannibal experiences personal anguish in the pursuit of his destiny.
Another prominent theme developed by Leckie is that of violence. The soldiers of that era indulged in customs and rituals against their enemies which, in our day, would be considered unacceptably barbaric and brutal. Hannibal's account is filled with poignant images of crucifixion, massacre, beheading, torture, and disembowelment.
Violence served as a common language understood by all in the Southern European region of the third century BC. It was accepted as a natural mode of interaction in conquest, pacification and delivering retribution upon one's enemy. To ensure success, it was common for the victor to completely wipe out the subdued enemy, and violent death was the accepted consequence for the vanquished. Hannibal's portrayal allows us to recognise the realities and necessities of these brutal measures and customs in his time. In the end, we are subtly reminded not to view these acts through our modern-day glasses, and we are not to judge but to understand.
Challenges of Command
A third key theme in Hannibal's account concerns the challenges of military command. Hamilcar, his father, was a great warrior, shrewd planner and revered leader of men. He created a deep imprint in Hannibal's mind that he would have very large shoes to fill when his time came to assume command of his father's forces and take on the role as Carthage's protector.
Under the tutelage of Hamilax, Hamilcar's High Steward, and the scholarly Silenus, Hannibal received training in the military arts and science as well as in history, philosophy and languages. Such instruction was to stand Hannibal in good stead when he grew older and assumed military command. In particular, Silenus' teachings impressed upon Hannibal that those ignorant of history's lessons are often condemned to repeat them.
In addition to fighting abilities, Hannibal shows us the value of possessing philosophical knowledge, and oratorical and administrative skills. Hannibal himself was well-versed in the classical works of Homer and Plato, and he utilised the wisdom, concepts and words of these masters to great effect when inspiring his men and in his military administration. Over time, Hannibal learnt the art of inspiring leadership and of motivating reluctant men to fight loyally under difficult circumstances.
Education and an enquiring mind also helped Hannibal to devise tactical innovations and experiments. For example, he was successful in training cavalry to function as infantry, thereby creating his hybrid, multi-purpose and elite Hammer Guard. In modern times, the concept of mechanized infantry fighting mounted and dismounted is no longer new, but Hannibal's concept was certainly innovative in the ancient world of the third century BC. More importantly, such innovations reveal to us a military commander who strove to challenge conventional mental models and concepts, and who sought to improve military efficiency. In Hannibal's own words, "I took the best of the past and added the best of myself. I made an army that was never defeated because, until what I had made was copied, what I made was best."3
Hannibal appreciated that battlefield success depended not merely on able generalship but also on the troops' ability to execute the plan. In particular, he recognized that his "multi-national" force, comprising men of different races and languages, needed to be inter-operable and to function as a coherent fighting machine. Hence, Hannibal placed high value on the training and constant exercising of his troops to change tactical formations and in reacting to different battlefield scenarios.
Finally, the reader will realise that Hannibal was not merely a commander who focused on the "teeth", but a military leader who understood the importance of the "tail", ie logistics and supply. Learning from his father, Hannibal cultivated a habit for meticulous planning. He was a man of detail, paying great attention to calculating supply requirements and the building of resources in preparation for battle. Indeed, there is much to learn from some of his planning considerations.
Ross Leckie manages to tell a moving and vivid tale in 243 pages. Hannibal is carefully constructed, where the pieces of Hannibal's background, his ancient world, and historical events are merged to present a picture of the man and his times. Leckie seeks not to analyse Hannibal but to portray him. In doing so, the novel rises above mere historiography. By adopting a first person narrative, Leckie lets Hannibal share his own story and experiences. The reader is therefore able to experience Hannibal's world of violence, atrocity, joy, pain and honour in a more direct and personal manner. Instead of cold history with echoes of adventure, the reader becomes involved in an adventure with echoes of history.
The abovementioned title is available for borrowing at the SAFTI MI Library. The catalog references are:
Hannibal : The Novel 137
1 Ross Leckie, HANNIBAL, THE NOVEL, (Washington: Regnery Publishing Inc, 1996), p.ix.
2 Leckie, op cit, p.97.
3 Leckie, op cit, p.87
MAJ James Tan Ming Chong is an Armour Officer by training and is currently attending a Branch Head in HQ Armour. He has previously held appointments as Hd, Armour Simulator Centre and an OC in a Singapore Armoured Regiment (SAR). MAJ Tan attended the 33rd Command and Staff Course in 2002. He graduated with a B.A. (Honours) in History from NUS.