Ancient History & Civilisation

THE LAST AGE OF HEROES

The final sad years of Hannibal’s life might be viewed as a parable of Roman vengefulness, but in fact his fate had been largely decided by his own countrymen. Tired of his egotistical manoeuvrings to undermine the Carthaginian political system at a time of distinct instability, the majority of the Council of Elders had been desperate to be rid of him. Hannibal’s political failures and misjudgements become more understandable, however, when one considers that, beyond the network of loyalties and relationships that were part of his Barcid inheritance, he was a stranger to the Carthaginian elite, in a way that Hamilcar and Hasdrubal Barca, who had spent their formative years in the city, had not been. With his restless energy and inability to tolerate dissent, Hannibal therefore took his place among that long line of military heroes who would prove themselves singularly illsuited for political office.

In Rome, the news of Hannibal’s death received a mixed reaction. According to Plutarch, some approved of Flaminius’ action, because they ‘thought that Hannibal, as long as he lived, was a consuming fire which needed only to be fanned; for when he was not in his prime, they said, it was not his body nor his arm that had been formidable against the Romans, but his ability and experience coupled with his deep bitterness and hostility’.42 Others, however, ‘thought that the conduct of Titus [Flaminius] was cruel: for it had killed Hannibal when he was like a bird allowed to live a tame and harmless life because he was too old to fly and without tail feathers’.43 Leading the latter party was Scipio Africanus–a fact which some have seen as a reflection of the Roman’s high regard for his erstwhile opponent.44 Scipio was, however, far too much of a pragmatist to allow such sentimentality to cloud his judgement. The Roman hero, who knew the political situation in Carthage better than most, knew that Hannibal now had no chance of rousing a rebellion against the might of Rome.

It could nevertheless be argued that both sides were right. Although Hannibal was certainly no longer a threat in Carthaginian terms, at the royal courts of the Hellenistic kings his name must surely have still conjured up the seductive image of resistance to Rome. Hannibal himself had been quick to realize this, and had soon produced at least one anti-Roman tract–written in the early 180s, and in the form of a speech addressed to the people of Rhodes–in which he outlined the barbarous outrages committed in Asia Minor by the Roman general Gnaeus Manlius Vulso, with the clear intention of turning his audience against Roman power.45 Others too were anxious to appropriate the influence still attached to Hannibal’s name. In the same period a fake letter, supposedly written by the Carthaginian general after Cannae, was in circulation. In it ‘Hannibal’ announced his famous victory and foretold that a rebellion among the Greeks would bring an end to Roman domination of the eastern Mediterranean.46 For many at Rome, therefore, the mere existence of Hannibal, not just at the court of the enemy, but simply as a symbol of resistance, may well have demanded his death.

The reasons for Rome’s pursuit of Hannibal, however, extended well beyond any threat that he himself might still represent, for the divisive feelings which he inspired within the Roman Senate made his pursuit a matter of internal politics also. The persecution of Hannibal was therefore also the persecution of his nemesis turned protector Scipio Africanus. The fate of the two men had always been intimately intertwined, and in the wake of his victories in North Africa the Roman hero had found himself similarly isolated by the political establishment at home. In Rome itself, although a number of his supporters had won elections to high political office, Scipio had achieved very little of worth during his own second consulship, of 194, and he found his ambitions increasingly frustrated by a growing band of opponents in the Senate. Indeed, Scipio’s inability to transfer the success that he had enjoyed on the battlefield to the political sphere appeared closely to mirror the disappointments that Hannibal had suffered in Carthage.

For Scipio, decline had begun when he and his brother Lucius were recalled to Rome from their victorious military campaign against Antiochus. Their political enemies, led by Marcus Porcius Cato, had persuaded the Senate to pass a bill whereby consuls should hold commands for only a single year, and had then attempted to prosecute several of their friends and supporters. The Scipios then found themselves under attack when they were called to account for 500 talents of silver given to them by Antiochus as a term of the armistice. Scipio Africanus did not help himself by haughtily tearing up the campaign account books in full view of the Senate. Sensing weakness, Cato and his supporters continued to press the Scipios, and the more the latter refused to account for the money, the more suspicions grew. Finally, in 184, Scipio Africanus suffered the indignity of being prosecuted in the courts on the charge of taking bribes from Antiochus. Realizing that his enemies were in the ascendant, Scipio now opted to leave Rome for his estates at Liternum in Campania, and Cato, his political aims achieved, let the prosecution drop.47 Within a year, however, the great hero of Zama died a broken man.

That the downfalls of these two great men should follow such similar trajectories is perhaps unsurprising when one considers not only the congruities in their respective political strategies, but also the political systems within which they operated. Scipio, the great hero and a powerful symbol of Roman triumph over Carthage, soon became a dangerous, destabilizing force within a system that centred on the elaborate fiction that all members of its Senate were equal.48 Hannibal’s presence within the political scene at Carthage had proved similarly problematic. His populist reforms, and the concomitant contempt which he showed for fellow members of the Council, presented him to others as a potential autocrat. Confronted with a living hero in their very midst–a hero whose very stature threatened to dwarf those institutions he had been charged to protect–both the Carthaginian Council and the Roman Senate had acted decisively to isolate their former champions. The last age of heroes had come to an emphatic close.

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