13

The Bird Without a Tail

CANNAE APPEARED TO BE THE END OF THE ROAD for Rome, but although nobody knew it at the time and many years would pass before peace came, the war was already won. This was because Hannibal depended for victory on two factors, and both failed him. These were the expected defection of Rome’s Italian allies and the arrival of reinforcements from Spain.

First, the Republic’s fair-minded concordat with the peoples it had conquered in central Italy more or less held good. The Republic could still draw on its large supply of men of fighting age to serve in its armies. Second, for seven years the former consul Scipio and his brother Gnaeus campaigned tirelessly in Spain, dismantling Hamilcar Barca’s hard-won empire and preventing Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal from sending any troops to Italy. The Punic reservoir was drained.

But perhaps the most important factor of all was the Republic’s sheer bloody-mindedness. After his brilliant sequence of victories, Hannibal (like Pyrrhus before him) expected the Romans to do the sensible thing and negotiate a peace. He did not understand that they were at their most obstinate in defeat. When knocked down, they would not lie down. The Carthaginian general offered to ransom the prisoners of Cannae, but the Senate refused to discuss anything whatever with the enemy, even though this meant consigning many Roman and allied citizens to slavery or execution.

By 211, much of the lost ground had been recovered. Fabius Maximus came into fashion again and set-piece battles were avoided. A new cognomen, Cunctator, or Delayer, was a badge of pride, as was recognized by the second-century epic poet Ennius. He famously wrote of Fabius that one man’s procrastination saved the state:

Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem.

New legions were recruited, but they were divided into small forces rather than large armies, encircling the enemy like dogs and biting as opportunity offered. In an (unsuccessful) attempt to make the Romans break off their siege to regain Capua, Hannibal marched on Rome itself. He encamped three miles from the city and then rode up to the Colline Gate with a cavalry escort. He threw a spear over the wall; as he knew very well, the gesture was symbolic of wish rather than fulfillment. There were a number of temples near the gate, one of them dedicated to Fortuna. The Carthaginian left that undependable goddess to herself, but he paid his respects at a shrine to Hercules, whose metaphorical reincarnation he remained. This was evidently felt to be something of a propaganda coup, for a couple of years later the temple was removed to the safety of the Capitol. With its massive walls, Rome was in no danger of capture, but the visit was a terrifying event.

Cities that resisted Rome’s military might were treated with merciless ferocity. Capua fell. Most of its citizens were dispersed without hope of return, its wealth was confiscated, and its leaders were beaten with rods and beheaded. What had been a rich and famous city was reduced to a dim agricultural market town, directly administered by a Roman official.

After a siege, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, an able if hotheaded commander, took Syracuse. Apparently, on the eve of its fall he looked down on the city from a hill and (not unlike Lewis Carroll’s Walrus and Carpenter, we may think) wept at the havoc he intended to wreak. In the event, he looted so many paintings and statues that he boasted that he had taught the ignorant Romans to appreciate Greek art. During the sack, Marcellus was embarrassed by the unintended death of a brilliant but absentminded scientist and mathematician, Archimedes. He was absorbed by a diagram he had drawn in the sand and was oblivious of the rape and pillage going on around him. A passing soldier killed him.

In 209 Tarentum, betrayed to Hannibal, was betrayed again to Fabius. The city was sacked and a vast amount of war booty captured. Fabius showed less interest than Marcellus in art. When asked what he wanted done with some statues of the city’s divine guardians, he replied, “The Tarentines can keep their gods, who are obviously angry with them.”

Tellingly, Hannibal now spent his winters after the campaigning season in Italy’s southern toe, a silent acknowledgment that he was no longer free to roam where he wished.

But then Carthaginian prospects in Spain took a sharp turn for the better. Within a few days of each other, the Scipio brothers were defeated and killed in two successive battles. Everything they had gained south of the river Hiberus was lost. Had the Punic generals the slightest aptitude for cooperating with one another, the Romans would very probably have been driven out of the peninsula altogether.

IN ROME, PEOPLE went into mourning for the two dead heroes and had no clear idea of the next step to take. They were tired of the war, and some exhausted allied communities said they were unable to send their due contingents to join the legions. The burning question of the hour was who could replace the Scipios. According to Livy, the Senate was unable to make up its mind whom to appoint to the Spanish command, and referred the question to the People. This self-denial was out of character and it is much more likely that public opinion favored a candidate of whom the political class disapproved, and that in some way the Senate was circumvented.

And there was indeed a rogue applicant for the job. This was Publius, the promising young son of the former consul Scipio. At a public election meeting for senior government appointments no name was put forward, and Publius suddenly announced that he wanted the commission. He was famous for his bravery at Trebia and Cannae, but he was only twenty-four years old. According to the rules, he was much too young for the job. But he brushed aside such quibbles, as he had done a few years previously when elected to the post of aedile. Objections were raised because of his youth, but he replied, rather pompously, “If the People want to make me aedile, then I am old enough.”

The young man made a powerful speech to the Assembly. He was the only Scipio left to avenge his father and uncle, he said, and he promised not merely to win back Spain but to conquer North Africa and Carthage, too. This sounded boastful, but it cheered up his listeners and he won the command as a privatus cum imperio (a private citizen with the public authority of a proconsul) by a unanimous vote. Grumblings among senior politicians gave him pause, however, and he saw it could be argued that the People had acted impulsively. So he arranged for another session, at which he agreed to stand down if any older and more experienced candidate put himself forward. This took the wind out of the opposition. As he had anticipated, nobody wanted to risk the fury of the assembled citizenry. Silence fell, and his election was confirmed.

Scipio was a new type of Roman—dashing, attractive, humane, and proud to be a man of culture. Even at this early stage in his career, all could see that he was exceptionally gifted. Having been given a Greek education, he was impatient with Rome’s traditions.He had a pronounced sense of his own destiny and claimed always to consult the gods before making any important decision. Where, for the ordinary Roman, religion was a set of superstitious rules designed to placate volatile deities, he seems to have had, or claimed to have had, a more Hellenic, more mystical sense of the numinous. If he was in Rome on serious business he would go up to the Capitol, where he would sit alone and commune with supernatural powers. The temple dogs, it was said, never barked at him. He liked to convey the impression that there was a touch of the divine about him, and the story was bruited about that a snake slithered over the infant Scipio but did not harm him (echoing a legend about the childhood of Alexander the Great).

The historian Polybius was a friend of the Scipios, but he was a rationalist and believed that Scipio acted with calculation, perhaps even a degree of cynicism. There is something to this, for Scipio placed as much value on imaginative propaganda as did Hannibal. However, the most effective propaganda has a basis in truth. It is likely that this talented and arrogant young patrician believed his own publicity.

He turned out to be a brilliant field commander. When he arrived in Spain, he learned that there were three Carthaginian armies in different parts of the peninsula, and none of them were less than ten days’ march from the Punic capital, Carthago Nova. In a bold move, the new commander led his legions several hundred miles at top speed from the river Hiberus to the city and laid siege to it. He threw up earthworks on its eastern, or landward, side, and launched assaults from that direction.

These were in fact diversions, for he had learned from local fishermen that the lagoon north of the promontory on which the city was built was shallow enough to be forded, especially in the early evening, when water ebbed from it through a channel into the bay south of the city. (This was perhaps the result of a regular breeze blowing up at that time of year.) Scipio ordered a specially picked unit with scaling ladders to wade through the lagoon and take the defenders by surprise. He promised money to the first soldiers to scale the walls and, typically, told them that the sea god Neptune had suggested the plan of attack to him. All went well: the water ebbed as predicted, the men entered the city, opened a gate, and let the legions in.

Scipio showed his lack of conventional Romanitas by not doing to Carthago Nova what had been meted out to the citizens of Capua, Syracuse, and Tarentum. The killing of civilians stopped as soon as the garrison surrendered. The legionaries were given leave to pillage for a short, fixed period, but were then withdrawn. The citizens were not massacred but allowed to return to their homes (albeit probably now empty of valuables). The Roman commander released all the hostages whom the Carthaginians had interned to ensure the Spanish tribes’ good behavior. This intelligent clemency won him high praise, and most of the Iberian tribes lost no time in changing sides.

In 208, to stem the flood of defections, the Punic commander-in-chief, Hasdrubal, accepted battle at Baecula (probably present-day Bailén, Jaén). Seeing himself about to be outflanked, he disengaged and led what he could of his troops—not much more than half of the original twenty-five thousand men—on the long march to join his brother in Italy. At last he could bring Hannibal the reinforcements he had sought for so many years, even if this meant leaving affairs in Spain in dangerous disarray. Scipio did not chase after him but turned his attention to the two Carthaginian armies that remained in the field.

After the victory all the tribes hailed Scipio as king, a dangerous title for a Roman to accept. He paid no obvious notice at the time, but summoned their chieftains to a meeting. He told them, “I am happy to be spoken of as kingly, and to act in a kingly manner, but I do not want to be king nor to receive this title from anyone.” In other words, they could treat him as a king even if they could not call him one. A pattern was beginning to emerge of a man who saw himself as rising above the constitutional rules of the game. Scipio had the potential to become a Greek-style turannos. This set a dangerous precedent for less scrupulous men in future years.

A relief force from Africa was quickly disposed of, and in 208 Scipio met the Carthaginians at Ilipa (near today’s Seville). Outnumbered, he planned an encirclement, borrowing from Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae. Several days passed and each morning the opposing armies formed up but did not engage. Every time, Scipio placed his crack legionaries in the center and his weaker Spaniards on his wings facing Punic Spaniards. Then one day he emerged from his camp at first light, but on this occasion his Spaniards were in the center and the Roman infantry on the wings (with cavalry on the far wings). Obviously, he had in mind an outflanking movement with his more disciplined, well-drilled, and experienced troops.

The Punic general (confusingly, yet another Hasdrubal) deployed as usual, and didn’t notice Scipio’s new dispositions until it was too late for him to make any changes. The Roman commander now forced a battle: his cavalry and legions wheeled quickly to the left and right in column of route curving away from and then toward the Carthaginian wings. The cavalry drove off its opponents and the legions maneuvered back from column into line and attacked the Punic Spaniards on their flanks, who broke and fled. They proceeded to cut into the flanks of the Punic center, which also had to fight off a frontal attack by Scipio’s Spanish infantry. What had been an army became a rabble in headlong flight.

Spain now belonged to Rome. His task completed, Scipio set sail for home. His performance at Ilipa showed that he possessed the triple qualities of a great field commander: a daring conception, meticulous preparation, and commitment to intensive training. At last, Rome had produced a match for Hannibal.

HASDRUBAL MADE GOOD progress to Italy, where he arrived in 207. He recruited Gauls in the Po Valley, raising his total numbers to about thirty thousand. He sent six horsemen to ride south with a letter to his brother specifying that their two armies should meet in Umbria. They lost their way and were picked up by a Roman foraging party outside Tarentum. Having read the letter, the consul, who was keeping an eye on Hannibal, detached part of his army without the Carthaginian commander’s noticing. He marched north to join his colleague, who was facing Hasdrubal at the river Metaurus (today’s Metauro, in the Marche). He arrived at night unobserved, but the following day Hasdrubal sensed that something was wrong. According to Livy:

Hasdrubal’s army was already drawn up in front of his camp. Fighting may have begun sooner but for the fact that Hasdrubal, riding forward with a small cavalry escort, noticed some old shields he had not seen before in the enemy’s ranks, and some horses that looked unusually stringy. Their numbers too seemed larger than usual. This led him to suspect the truth, so he hurriedly had the retreat sounded.

Hasdrubal confirmed his fears by checking how many ceremonial consular trumpet calls had sounded that morning in the enemy camp; when he was told that, surprisingly, two had been heard, he realized that both consuls were now present. He presumed, correctly, that one had arrived secretly with his army from the south. He was tortured by the fear that his brother had suffered defeat and might be dead.

Now heavily outnumbered, the Carthaginian commander had no choice but to extricate himself as best he could. He withdrew after nightfall, having ordered his men to pack their gear in silence. His guides ran off and the army strayed from the correct route. The Romans soon caught up, and in the ensuing battle routed the Carthaginians. Hasdrubal acted with great gallantry and, according to Livy, refused to survive the destruction of his army. He set spurs to his horse and galloped straight into the middle of an enemy cohort. Polybius paid him a generous tribute:

When Fortune had deprived him of all hope for the future and driven him to the last extremity, then, while he used every resource which might bring him victory both in his preparations for the battle and on the field itself, he gave equal thought as to how in the event of total defeat he should face that eventuality and suffer nothing unworthy of his past career.

Hasdrubal’s head was mummified and taken south. It was flung down in front of one of Hannibal’s outposts. Two Punic prisoners of war were released and sent to Hannibal to tell him all that had happened. The story is that he groaned, “Now, at last, I see plainly the fate of Carthage.”

In Hannibal’s final stronghold, in Bruttium, stood a famous shrine to Juno, Rome’s old foe and so, as we have seen, a favorite of the Punic publicity machine. Livy reports that “it had an enclosure surrounded by dense woodland, with lofty firs, and, in the center, rich grassland where cattle of all kinds, sacred to the goddess, grazed without any shepherd to attend them.” Here in 205 the Punic general, assiduous self-promoter that he was, erected an altar on which he inscribed at some length, in Greek as well as Carthaginian, his achievements, his res gestae. Perhaps this was less a brag than an epitaph for lost hopes.

If we can believe Cicero, he nearly committed an act of divine lèse-majesté. Inside the temple there was a golden column. Hannibal was curious to find out if it was merely plate, and bored a hole in it. Finding it to be solid gold, he decided to take it away. The enraged goddess appeared to the Carthaginian commander in a dream and warned him that unless he left her column alone she would make him lose the sight in his good eye. He complied. With the gold shavings from his drilling, he had a little heifer made which he apologetically affixed to the top of the column.

What are we to make of this story? It comes from a pro-Carthaginian original source. In one sense, it redounds to Hannibal’s credit; he behaved well and gave way to Juno’s wishes. But, with the defeat of Carthage looming, the anecdote also reflects a coolness between them.

The Romans knew it was in their interest to be equally energetic champions of Juno. Two years previously, her famous temple on the Aventine Hill was struck by lightning. To propitiate the goddess, an elaborate ceremony was staged: a couple of white cows led a procession in which two ancient statues of Juno were carried through the streets and twenty-seven virgins sang a hymn in her praise. The cows were sacrificed. The goddess accepted the best offer still on the table, and finally set aside her anger with the descendants of Troy. The bad-tempered consequences of the Judgment of Paris and of Aeneas’s betrayal of Queen Dido had finally arrived at a harmonious conclusion.

For, in truth, Hannibal was right to be pessimistic. Continuing attempts to reinforce his army failed. He no longer held the initiative and was condemned to enforced inactivity. The once all-conquering general had played his last card.

At the time, Cannae appeared to mark a turning point in world history, but it is the battle at the Metaurus that deserves the accolade. It was now obvious to all, including the Queen of Heaven, that Carthage was entering a bleak endgame.

THE END OF the saga is swiftly told. Back in Rome, the privatus cum imperio was not allowed a triumph, because he was not and had not been a praetor or a consul. However, it was some recompense that he was easily elected consul for 205. He was assigned Sicily as his provincia, or theater of activity, with permission to invade Africa if he saw fit. The permission was reluctantly given, for the old Delayer, Fabius Maximus, took a dim view of harebrained gambles. Better by far, he argued, to concentrate on removing Hannibal from Italy.

Scipio completely disagreed, for once the Punic army had left, a war-weary people would surely press for a quick peace, leaving Carthage more or less where it had been at the end of the First Punic War—still a substantial and independent power. Scipio envisaged Rome as master of the Western Mediterranean, and that meant demoting Carthage to the status of a permanent dependent. This would be accomplished only by a decisive victory in Africa.

In the spring of 204, Scipio landed an army of thirty-five thousand men in the Punic heartland and laid siege to the important town of Utica. In these early days, his weakness was cavalry, although a new ally, the young Numidian chieftain Masinissa, supplied some horsemen, and little progress was made until the following year. Peace discussions were held, inconclusively, but they had a surprising by-product. Roman officers were able to visit the two enemy camps and learned about their construction (timber and reeds) and layout. One night, in a remarkable commando operation, Roman troops set fire to them and caused heavy casualties. Many victims did not even realize that the conflagration had been arson, rather than misadventure. If Hannibal had engaged in such a stratagem, it would have been denounced as typical underhand Punic treachery.

Later in the year, Scipio won a full-dress battle. Although he had fewer troops, he pushed back the enemy’s wings and encircled the infantry in the center, in fine Hannibalic style. Peace terms were agreed to end the war. Carthage was to surrender all prisoners, evacuate Italy and Gaul, abandon Spain and all islands between Italy and Carthage, hand over its entire navy (bar twenty ships), and pay a large indemnity of five thousand talents. However, the Council of Elders crossed its collective fingers behind its back and sent word to Hannibal, recalling him and his army to Carthage. He angrily obeyed, but blamed the home authorities for not having supported him wholeheartedly in the past. If they had, Carthage would not be in its present state.

Still determined to win the public-relations battle for Juno’s goodwill, the Romans put about a story that some Italian soldiers in the Punic army refused to go to Africa. Hannibal invited them to an assembly in the goddess’s peaceful and hitherto inviolate precinct in Bruttium, where he had them surrounded by other troops and slaughtered. Another black mark in the goddess’s book.

With between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand men safely back in North Africa, the Council of Elders was ready to abandon its peace treaty and renew hostilities. In a deliberate provocation, a convoy of Roman supply ships was attacked. A coldly furious Scipio, who had probably suspected all along that the enemy was playing for time, summoned Masinissa, who was now able to supply a substantial cavalry force, and set about compelling Hannibal to offer battle. This he did, by launching a ruthless campaign of massacre and destruction in the fertile Punic countryside. Towns were taken, laid waste, and their populations sold into slavery.

The policy worked. In late October 202, the Carthaginian and Roman armies met near Zama, a town five days’ march from the sea. Eager to meet his young rival, Hannibal asked for a personal conference à deux with Scipio. Halfway between the opposing lines, each attended by an interpreter, the generals met. Nothing came of this remarkable encounter. The Carthaginian proposed peace, but Scipio was confident of victory and refused.

The following morning, battle was joined. In one sense, the outcome did not much matter. If fate insisted, Rome could afford yet another defeat, and would simply come back with yet another army. Carthage, however, was at its last gasp. Hannibal commanded the larger number of men, but for once he had few cavalry and much of his infantry was untested. His battle plan took account of these weaknesses. He knew that Scipio’s cavalry would scatter his own and gallop away in pursuit; his task was to rout the legions in the Roman center and win the day before the horsemen had time to return and take his infantry in the rear. Eighty war elephants were drawn up in front. Behind them, the Carthaginian commander arranged his foot soldiers in three lines, with the less experienced in the first two and his seasoned veterans from the Italian years at the back.

The course of the battle went more or less as Hannibal guessed it would, but not with a happy outcome for him. The Romans quickly drove his cavalry from the field. Unfortunately, the elephants were a disaster, some hurtling down lanes or gaps in the line that Scipio specially created for them (the beasts were then dealt with at leisure in the rear) and others stampeding back into their own forces. Hannibal’s first two lines of foot soldiers were swept away. Then the Roman legionaries paused methodically to regroup from their loose maniples into a dense phalanx, before engaging with his third line. For a while there was an evenly balanced slogging match, until, crucially, Scipio’s cavalry rode back and, as Hannibal had gloomily foreseen, attacked them from behind. He had done his best under the circumstances, but it had not been good enough. The game was up, and sixteen years of blood and victories had gone for nothing.

Further resistance by Carthage was futile, and risked bringing on the annihilation of the city itself. The fates of Capua, Tarentum, and Syracuse were fresh in the mind. The final peace terms were more severe than those previously negotiated. The indemnity rose to ten thousand talents, payable in fifty annual installments. Carthage was to remain independent but within boundaries, as it was before the war (a territory about the size of modern Tunisia); formerly Numidian lands claimed by Masinissa were to be returned. The city was not allowed to make war outside Africa, and only with Rome’s permission within Africa. The entire fleet was to be burned, except for ten triremes, the maximum now permitted. This was the end of Carthage as a Mediterranean power.

When the draft treaty was laid before the Council of Elders, a member stood up and began to oppose acceptance. Hannibal forcibly pulled him down from the speakers’ platform. Censured for breeching the conventions of the house, he apologized. According to Polybius, he said:

You must pardon me, for you know I left Carthage when I was only nine and have now only returned when I am past forty-five.… It seems to me amazing and quite beyond my comprehension that anyone who is a citizen of Carthage … should not thank his lucky stars that now we are at [Rome’s] mercy we have obtained such lenient terms.… So now I beg you not even to debate the question, but declare your acceptance of the proposals unanimously.

The council followed Hannibal’s advice and passed a resolution to conclude the treaty on the conditions set out.

TWO ROMAN LEGIONS are on the march, commanded by one of the consuls. It is late afternoon and twilight will soon set in. The long column comes to a halt, and the men break up into an extraordinary daily routine. In a few hours, they build a complete military camp.

The pattern is always the same. First an officer goes forward to find a suitable site. When that is done, the spot where the consul’s tent, or praetorium, is to be erected is decided and, in front of it, a forum or marketplace. Nearby will be the tent of the quaestor, the logistics manager, and those of the tribunes, or staff officers. Every other component falls into a predetermined place. The camp is square, with four gates and a grid of streets laid out with flags planted in the ground. All the distances are regulated and familiar.

The site quickly becomes a busy anthill. Each legionary has a specific task to fulfill. Some dig a ditch and a low rampart, with stakes (every soldier carries one) hammered into it to form a defensive palisade. Others put up tents in orderly rows. Watchwords are set, and sentries posted, and officers prepare to do their rounds. Night falls on what looks like a small city.

The whole process is a fine example of discipline under pressure. When Pyrrhus of Epirus witnessed the Roman legions encamp for the night, he was daunted by the spectacle, realizing for the first time that, when fighting Rome, he might have issued a challenge he could not win. Another Greek, the historian Polybius, has left a detailed and admiring description of the Republic’s military dispositions as it emerged from the struggle with Hannibal, from which this account is taken. He wanted to understand the legions’ remarkable record of success in war after war.

When the need arose for recruiting an army, the consuls announced the day for a levy when all men of military age, between seventeen and forty-six, and with property valued at more than four hundred denarii, were to assemble on the Capitol. The denarius was a small silver coin, the value of which in today’s terms is hard to compute because of widely differing economic conditions, but a legionary in this period received a daily allowance of one-third of a denarius. Each man was allocated the legion with which he would serve and the fighting category—whether he was to join the light-armed velites, the youthful hastati, the mature principes, or the veteran triarii. Meanwhile, messengers went out to the allied communities throughout the peninsula, requiring the provision of a requisite number of troops.

Much of a Roman’s life on and off through his twenties and thirties was spent in the army. The maximum length of service was sixteen years for an infantryman (twenty in a national emergency) and ten for an eques. Normally, he would serve for a continuous period of six years, after which, as an evocatus, he could be called back to the colors as and when required. Conscription was compulsory, and no one could stand for public office before completing a decade of national service.

Punishments were ferocious. A man on nighttime guard duty who was found to be asleep or absent without leave could expect to suffer a fustuarium. A military tribune touched him lightly with a cudgel, whereupon his fellow soldiers fell upon him with clubs and stones and beat him to death. Other capital offenses included theft, perjury, homosexual acts committed by a mature adult on a teenager, and cowardice in the field (for example, throwing away one’s weapons in fear). A “third strike and you’re dead” policy was applied to convictions for noncapital crimes.

If a group of soldiers—for example, a maniple—broke and ran under pressure and deserted their posts, no mercy was shown. The legion was paraded and those found guilty were brought to the front and reprimanded. Then one out of every ten of them was selected by lot and beaten to death. The remainder were put on iron rations and expelled from the camp; they were forced to quarter themselves in a place without any defenses.

Carrots accompanied sticks. When soldiers distinguished themselves in battle, the commander would summon a general assembly of the troops and call forward those whom he considered to have shown exceptional courage. When a city was stormed, the first man to scale the wall was awarded a crown of gold. Anyone who had shielded or saved a comrade’s life was honored with gifts from the consul—a spear or a cup or horse trappings. A man whose life had been saved was obliged to treat his rescuer as if he were a parent, a paterfamilias, for the rest of his life.

Polybius was much impressed by this system of discipline and decorations: “When we consider this people’s almost obsessive concern with military rewards and punishments, and the immense importance which they attach to both, it is not surprising that they emerge with brilliant success from every war in which they engage.”

The Greek historian has a point, but, as the Punic Wars showed, other factors also need to be taken into account if we are to give a complete explanation of Rome’s talent for making war. The way the state fused civilian politics and military activity meant thatmany members of the ruling class could expect to command an army at some point in their careers. They received long and intensive military training and so were equipped, in principle at least, to get the best from the legions.

The fact that senior politicians usually held office only for a year led to a rapid throughput of distinctly variable talent. Disasters in the field occurred with surprising frequency. It took a generation before a general was identified who was capable of worsting Hannibal. However, this disadvantage was amply compensated by Rome’s access to abundant human capital.

Both Pyrrhus and Hannibal were astounded by the legions’ capacity for self-renewal. An army could be destroyed and within a very short space of time a brand-new fighting force took its place. Being a militarized society with long experience, Roman leaders developed a culture of invincibility, a powerful will to victory, and a bloody-minded refusal to accept defeat. They also had the self-confidence to innovate when their backs were to the wall; there is no more striking example of this than the Senate’s decision to build fleets during the First Punic War despite its almost complete inexperience of naval matters.

HANNIBAL WAS IN early middle age. What was he to do with the rest of his life? He decided to stay on in Carthage and play an active part in the city’s recovery. He seems to have encouraged the further development of agriculture as compensation for the loss of the Punic trading empire and employed the army (what remained of it) to plant a huge number of olive trees.

He also had a score to settle with the ruling oligarchy, for failing to back his Italian campaign. For the first time, he entered domestic politics and emerged as a radical reformer, as energetic in the council chamber as he had been on the battlefield. In 196 he was elected sufet, one of the city’s two chief magistrates, and set in motion a review of public finances. He ordered a treasury official to appear before him, but the man refused, relying on the fact that he was about to join the Hundred and Four—the “supreme court,” which had the right of scrutiny of public administrators, and in which membership was for life.

A furious Hannibal had the official arrested and hauled before the People’s Assembly, where he launched an attack on the committee for its arrogance and its overbearing use of power. He immediately proposed and carried a law whereby committee members could hold office for only one year and never for two years in a row. Having conducted his review, he returned to the Assembly and reported widespread embezzlement of public funds and tax evasion. If property and harbor duties were properly collected, the war indemnity could be paid off, he claimed, without the necessity of levying higher taxes.

The great and the good of Carthage were much put out. They wrote letter after letter to the Senate in Rome, alleging that Hannibal was in secret and seditious communication with Antiochus the Great, who was then engaged in a diplomatic confrontation with the Romans. There appears to have been no good evidence to back this up, and Hannibal’s generous onetime adversary, Scipio, advised his colleagues that it would be undignified to intervene in what was obviously an internal dispute. “We should be satisfied with having defeated him in the field without then taking him to court!” he declared.

The Senate disagreed and sent delegates to Carthage to charge Hannibal with conspiracy before the Council of Elders. In order to avoid arousing his suspicions, they put it about that they were coming to arbitrate in a dispute between Carthage and Masinissa, the Numidian ruler. Hannibal was too wily to be taken in and quietly slipped abroad to avoid arrest. His first stop was Carthage’s mother city, Tyre, but he ended up at Antiochus’s court. Whether or not he had been in contact with the king previously is unknown, but the maladroit Senate had driven Hannibal into his arms, the precise opposite of what it wanted.

The two men did not get on very well. Hannibal thought little of Antiochus’s military abilities. From the king’s point of view, the advice his guest dispensed was always a variation on the same theme: war with Rome should be taken to Italy. It was as if Hannibal wanted to rerun his career. The king paid no attention and gave him only second-ranking jobs.

The ancient historians report that in 193 Scipio, now called Africanus in honor of Zama, was among an embassy the Romans sent to Antiochus. He and Hannibal met at Ephesus and had a conversation on the subject of generalship. Scipio asked the Carthaginian who in his opinion was the greatest commander of all time. Hannibal chose Alexander and placed Pyrrhus second. And the third? inquired Scipio, rather nettled but expecting that he would at least be given third place. Hannibal unhesitatingly chose himself:

Scipio laughed and asked, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” In this way, Hannibal continued his self-praise, but delicately flattered Scipio by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.

It is a good story, but (probably) too good to be true. Scipio seems to have been in Carthage at the time that he was supposed to be in Ephesus.

As we shall see in Chapter 15, Antiochus lost his contest with Rome, and Hannibal was obliged to set off on his travels again. He sought refuge in various corners of the Middle East, eventually ending up at the court of Prusias, king of Bithynia, on the Black Sea coast. Rome had a long memory. When a former consul came calling, he criticized Prusias for sheltering Rome’s great enemy. The king took the hint and made some necessary dispositions.

Hannibal knew that he would always be on the run, and had arranged for his house by the sea in Bithynia to have seven underground exits; if necessary, he should be able to make a swift and secret getaway. The arrival of a Roman envoy meant that it was time to escape, but he had left matters too late. He found the king’s guards in all the passageways. His only remaining option was suicide if he was not to fall into the hands of his lifelong foe. He wound his cloak around his neck and ordered a slave to plant his knee in the small of his back and simultaneously twist and tug at the cloak as if it were a rope. In this way, he choked to death. According to another account, he took poison; but most poisons known at that time were slow-acting, and Hannibal would have needed something that killed quickly.

Plutarch gives the Carthaginian some famous last words: “The Romans have found it too tedious and difficult a business to wait for a hated old man’s death. Let us now at last put them out of their misery.” Whether or not this is what he actually said, it is surely what he would have liked to say. When the news of Hannibal’s suicide reached the Senate, many thought the former consul’s behavior had been odious and officious, for Hannibal was “like a bird who is too old to fly and has lost his tail, and who is allowed to live on tamely and harmlessly.” Others took the view that the Carthaginian’s hatred of Rome was ingrained and that, if ever he were given the chance, he would be as dangerous as ever.

One thing was certain: the little boy had been true to the oath he swore in the temple at Carthage nearly half a century earlier, although it cost him a failed life and a lonely death.

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