Ancient History & Civilisation


In his comparison of the Carthaginian and Roman forces at this time, Polybius had been eager to point out what he saw as the key differences between the armies: ‘Carthaginians entirely neglect their infantry, although they do pay some slight attention to their cavalry. The reason for this is that the troops they employ are foreign and mercenary, whereas those of the Romans are native of the soil and citizens.’14 We have already seen how Polybius distinguished the Roman and Carthaginian forces–the former as composed largely of solid citizen soldiers, the latter of naturally weaker mercenaries–and how inappropriate his characterization was in respect of the Carthaginian army. For the Roman forces too his neat assessment does not stand up to scrutiny. While Polybius’ description of the composition of Roman forces may well have been accurate for his own period, it did not reliably represent the situation in 218.15 The inner core of the army indeed consisted of Roman citizens, but around half the strength of each legion was provided by various allied troops, and in a number of military engagements allied troops outnumbered their citizen counterparts.16 These allies were divided into two broad groups: the Latins and the Italians. The former had long-standing and close associations with Rome, for many of them were descendants of Roman settlers who had forsaken their citizenship for the opportunity of a more prosperous future. Indeed, the Latin states shared much with Rome, including language, religion and political institutions, and their people enjoyed certain rights under Roman law.17 The Italians, however, were a different matter. Many had relatively recently been compelled into becoming ‘allies’ of Rome, and their loyalty could not be guaranteed.

The support of the Celtic tribes in Cisalpine Gaul was therefore extremely important, particularly as the Carthaginian army would be passing through their territory.18 These peoples were not directly ruled by Rome, and Polybius reports that, when Roman envoys attempted to gain their support after war had been declared against Carthage, the response was hardly favourable, with frequent interruptions and derisive laughter. One of the reasons that the Gauls gave for their unwillingness to come Rome’s aid was that ‘they heard that men of their race were being expelled from Italy, and made to pay tribute to Rome, and subjected to every other indignity.’19

Another potential ally was Rome’s eastern neighbour, Macedon. The king, Philip V, was a young man who had ascended to the throne in 221 BC. He had quickly proved that he possessed all the qualities required of anyone who was to make a success of ruling that restless and violent land. A ruthless political operator and shrewd military tactician, Philip had quickly become embroiled in a vicious war against the Aetolians, a powerful political confederation in central Greece. A succession of military victories soon followed, which brought him great plaudits within Greece, including the flattering title of ‘darling of Hellas’. However, Philip’s plans also involved securing a permanent outlet on to the Adriatic Sea. It was this particular ambition that brought him into direct contact with Rome, and to the attention of Hannibal. At the same time that Hannibal was besieging Saguntum, Rome had made its first intervention into territory which traditionally fell within the Macedonian sphere of influence. The Romans had previously attempted to maintain influence in the key area of Illyria (modern day Slovenia and Croatia) by supporting a local warlord, Demetrius of Phalerum. By 219, however, the Romans had terminally fallen out with their erstwhile ally, who had set himself up as the pirate prince of the Dalmatian coast and begun to menace Italian shipping. Rome sent a fleet to Illyria and Demetrius fled, seeking refuge with his other protector, Philip of Macedon.20

At the point when Hannibal was starting out upon his great expedition, therefore, several of Rome’s key strategic alliances appeared insecure. Hannibal, however, needed equally to guarantee the support of the Punic world, whose enthusiasm for his venture was far from assured. Punic communities on Sicily and Sardinia would need the confidence to rebel against their new Roman masters, especially considering the inevitable high price of defeat. In Carthage, too, the continued support of the Council of Elders was a vital precondition of military success, for Hannibal required not only troops and money from North Africa, but also authority. His ability to attract the support of others required that he be seen as the representative of the Carthaginian state, not just another rootless military adventurer. Indeed, the growing influence of the Carthaginian Council of Elders on the campaign was reflected by the presence of their representatives in Hannibal’s camp. Their officials–referred to in Greek as synedroi–accompanied the Carthaginian army in Spain and Italy, and were co-signatories to the treaty that Hannibal eventually struck with Philip in 215 BC.21

Faced with the necessity of continued appeal both at home and abroad, therefore, Hannibal could not rely solely upon new battlefield tactics to sustain the Carthaginian war effort. The term ‘propaganda’, with its apparent emphasis on the production and dissemination of a strictly controlled message, often appears out of place in the context of the ancient world, where distance and the lack of effective transport and communication systems worked against such techniques’ effective deployment.22 Nevertheless, despite such limitations, later, retrospective, accounts demonstrate a remarkable consistency in their presentation of the general, and all were based in part upon stories already in circulation at the time of the Second Punic War.23 During that period, a body of stories developed around Hannibal which had been produced by individuals who were broadly sympathetic to his cause, or who at least saw him as a viable or necessary bulwark against the growing power of Rome. Although there was no central ‘Ministry of Information’ directly overseeing this artistic output, the uniformity which one finds in the way that Hannibal and his campaign against Rome were represented by his supporters suggests a studied Carthaginian interest in image and opinion.

It was Alexander the Great who had first developed this aspect of ancient warfare, as he travelled across the lands of the East not only with his well-trained armies but also with a coterie of special advisers, writers and intellectuals. Although a number of their accounts of his campaigns were written up after his death, many of the stories with which Alexander was associated, particularly in regard to the divine favour shown to him by his heroic ancestors Heracles and Achilles, were circulated while hostilities were still ongoing, as a way of encouraging friends and potential allies and demoralizing enemies.24

For Hannibal, the support of the Greek cities in Magna Graecia was particularly essential if his expedition was to be successful. The long and arduous march to Italy, as well as the fierce resistance that the Romans would undoubtedly put up, meant that reinforcements, supplies and bases would be sorely needed on the peninsula. He thus gathered around himself a small group of trusted confidants, including Sosylus of Sparta, his old teacher, and the Sicilian Greek Silenus of Caleacte, who both ‘lived with him as long as fortune allowed’.25 Polybius, who was generally disparaging towards Hannibal’s historians, nevertheless respected Silenus, whose work he may have used as a source for Hannibal’s campaigns in Spain.26 A number of Roman writers certainly rated Silenus, and used his work extensively. Indeed, the famous Roman writer and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero was moved to comment that Silenus was a ‘thoroughly reliable authority on Hannibal’s life and achievements’.27

That Greeks should be such close associates of Hannibal is unsurprising when one considers the long-standing and close contacts between Carthage and the Greek world, particularly in Sicily. From the end of the fourth century BC considerable numbers of Greek mercenaries had fought in the armies of Carthage,28 and there were close cultural connections. Members of the Carthaginian elite had long been educated in Greek literature, and Hamilcar had ensured that Greek tutors carefully educated Hannibal, to the extent that he had been able to write several books in the language.29Hannibal’s knowledge of Greek was recognized by later historians as one of his great strengths. According to Cassius Dio, ‘He [Hannibal] was able to manage matters . . . because in addition to his natural capacity he was versed in much Punic learning common to his country, and likewise in much Greek learning.’30

Little of Sosylus’ work has survived beyond an account of an unidentified naval defeat which the Massilians and their Roman allies had inflicted on the Carthaginian fleet.31 Yet even this brief fragment appears to show an anti-Roman inclination, for Sosylus gives all the credit for the victory to the Massilians. Moreover, by justifying the defeat in terms of Massilian tactical genius, Sosylus may also have hoped to deflect any criticism of Carthaginian tactics.32 There is therefore a dismissive reaction to Sosylus by Polybius, who describes his work as nothing more than ‘the common gossip of a barber’s shop’. Sosylus and a fellow historian, Chaereas, appear to have stirred Polybius’ indignation by reporting that, after the fall of Saguntum, the Roman Senate had long debated and procrastinated over potential courses of action, even allowing their young sons to attend the session if they swore not to divulge what had taken place there.33 The reported episode once again reveals Sosylus’ pro-Hannibalic stance, for it is clearly designed to demonstrate that some Roman senators were deeply unsure of the rectitude of their position with regard to Saguntum.

We know far more about Silenus, who was very much part of a long Sicilian Greek literary tradition that stretched back past Timaeus to the Syracusan historians of the fourth century BC. In addition to his work on Hannibal, Silenus also wrote a four-volume study of his home island, in which nuggets of topographical and encyclopedic information seem to have been interspersed throughout the text.34 In his account of Hannibal’s great journey to Italy and his subsequent campaigns there, Silenus appears to have used a similar style, with descriptive vignettes of places interspersed with accounts of the events that took place. As in Timaeus’ history, the heroic figure of Heracles also featured prominently in Silenus’ work, a reflection most probably of the importance of the god/hero to the Hannibalic image. In this Hannibal imitated the Molossian king Pyrrhus, whose policies while campaigning in Italy and Sicily proved somewhat prototypical for Hannibal’s own. Pyrrhus, like Hannibal, also wrote several works, and members of his entourage recorded his campaigns as they travelled.35 Like Alexander the Great before him, and Hannibal after, Pyrrhus, through a judicious mix of legend, speeches, pageantry and iconography, had successfully promoted himself as the saviour of western Hellas against Rome.36 Within that ideological programme, the image of Achilles had proved central, for it recast the conflict as a further episode in the Trojan War. On Sicily, however, Pyrrhus had identified himself with Heracles, as one of several heroic figures through whom he had attempted to mobilize the Sicilian Greeks against the Carthaginians.37 Hannibal’s appropriation of the Heraclean image thus had a long history, but within a Carthaginian context that image was rather different, perhaps more potent, for Hannibal could appeal both to the salvific qualities of Heracles, as contained within the Greek tradition, and to his syncretistic qualities and associations with Melqart within the alternative, central-Mediterranean tradition.

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