Authors & Reviews
Reviews:Hannibal is best remembered for leading his army of mercenaries and elephants over the Alps in the middle of winter to do battle with his sworn enemy, the Romans. Now in Hannibal, Ross Leckie tells this epic story for the first time in an autobiographical narrative of breathtaking range and power. Leckie presents not only a vivid re-creation of the period, his novel also probes deep withing the psyche of this great military genius, whose undying hatred of Rome led ultimately to the loss of all that he held dear. -Borders
- Borders, 12/2/2005
Hannibal tells his own story from his boyhood to just before his death, reported in a brief epilogue. The narrative is organized chronologically in ten chapters: Carthage; Mercenaries; Spain; Command; War; March; Italy; Delay; Defeat; Death. We first meet the young Hannibal as he joins his father, Hamilcar Barca, suffet of Carthage, who is about to send Regulus back to the Roman people - minus a nose and a tongue, which Hamilcar hacks off as his two sons, Hannibal and Mago, watch - after Regulus has urged the Roman senate to continue the war. Hamilcar then shows the boys the back of his own high steward, Hamilax, whom the Romans had treacherously flayed with hot sand before returning him in exchange for ten Roman captives. Hamilcar tells the boys never to trust Roman faith. Hannibal studies literature and history (especially about Alexander the Great) with Silenus, his Greek tutor, and we follow him as he tours Carthage. The mood abruptly changes when news of the defeat of the Punic fleet arrives and its admiral, Hanno, is publicly crucified for the loss. Hamilcar is then charged to negotiate peace with the Romans. and he does so. On his return home, he goes to inspect his estates. Most of this section is invented by Leckie. Unfortunately for Carthage, their mercenaries have not been paid for some time, and they are being mustered out near Carthage. They revolt, and there is copious bloodshed and savagery on both sides in the Truceless War. Only the return of Hamilcar saves Carthage.Leckie sometimes follows the same lines, in event and character, as Flaubert in Salammbo (without the princess/priestess, Salammbo Barca) and sometimes differs. Most of this gritty section is not Leckie's invention but is drawn from historical sources (mainly Polybius) or Flaubert. In the chapter "Spain," Hannibal learns not only how to fight but also how to organize logistics and to plan campaigns. Here he gains his favorite horse in a scene that mirrors Alexander with Bucephalus. He loses his father, but he strikes a bargain with his efficient but greedy and power-hungry brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, to let him succeed to Hamilcar's civil position while Hannibal takes over the army, whose forays are described in the chapter "Command," at the end of which Hannibal meets the Spanish chieftain's daughter, Similce, who is to become the love of his life - a theme developed more fully in the succeeding chapter, "War," in which Hannibal acquires the accomplished Egyptian map-maker, Bostar, a major character in the novel and one of the narrators of the sequel, Scipio Africanus. Similce is beautiful, loving, brave and enduring, and she wins Hannibal greater loyalty from his Spanish troops, who all love her. In addition, she has knowledge of healing, which she uses almost immediately to correct the misguided treatment of the foot fungus of the elephants. Similce gives Hannibal excellent advice about the commissariat. and he decides to take her along on his campaigns in Spain. Their relationship is very like that of Theseus and Hippolyta in Renault's The Bull from the Sea. Leckie develops admirably the characterizations of Similce, Silenus, Hasdrubal (whom we are not intended to like) and Bostar. Leckie's Hannibal is very concerned about his men, and he looks after their welfare as much as possible, for personal and military reasons alike, following the well-known example of Julius Caesar. Thelongish chapter "March" features a vigorously told account of Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, with all the attendant problems caused by the weather, terrain and hostile tribes. Hannibal's determination takes them through, despite a huge loss of men, animals and supplies. In this chapter, Hannibal learns from Bostar about the organization and tactics of the Roman legions (though some of the details are questionable). He also insists that his men should single out the Roman trumpeters and kill them, since upon them depends the Roman ability to execute on the field the commands of their leaders. Bostar warns Hannibal that although he may defeat the Romans, they will keep coming back, immutable as rock and loath to surrender. Hannibal replies that he does not intend to allow them to surrender. Killing Romans is his prime task, inherited from his father. He leaves his brothers Hasdrubal and Mago back in Spain to carry on the war there after learning that the commanding general facing them will be Publius Cornelius Scipio, the son of a Roman admiral whom Hamilcar had fought in the previous war. We know that the name will recur later. Hannibal draws on all his knowledge and experience to force his way through natural barriers in the Alps and to overcome the tribes who oppose him. He loses his infant son to the cold, and in the next chapter, "Italy," he also loses Similce, who is gang-raped and violated with a legionary standard while he pursues a fleeing Roman general after the battle of the Trebia. Hannibal remorselessly buries alive four hundred Roman prisoners at her gravesite, impales the Roman townspeople of the nearby town, and disembowels and leaves to die eight pregnant Roman women. Clearly, Hannibal is not someone whom the reader is intended to find appealing, though he is understandable in terms of his upbringing and personal experiences in battle. After Hannibal's brothers write him about their victories in Spain, Hannibal easily routs the Romans, who are trapped in a valley at Lake Trasimene, killing fifteen thousand of them, including the consul Flaminius. He refrains from marching on Rome because he believes he cannot take by siege a capital that can be resupplied through Ostia, since Carthage still refuses to send Hannibal a fleet. (Might he not have devised some way of impeding upriver transport, even at the cost of making some of his troops stationary targets?) Hannibal respects the strategic wisdom of the dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, in avoiding pitched battles with him despite his constant torching of the Roman countryside. But then Hannibal goes to Cannae, where he learns that Fabius is no longer dictator. Hannibal gives very few details of the Roman disaster there, since, he says, everyone is familiar with that battle. He ends the chapter by saying, "Italy was mine." At the start of the next chapter, "Delay," Hannibal becomes philosophic and Leckie unclear: "... because I had won a great battle, I could not go on." Hannibal's men and officers demand to march on Rome, but Hannibal refuses. His best friend, Maharbal, says of him, "You know how to win a victory. But you do not know how to exploit it." At this point he talks with Bostar about his fears and, especially, his own ignorance about governing a world: "What would I do with a world without Rome?" So he marches up and down Italy, trying to find a port or cities willing to open their gates, but only Capua does. Carthage again refuses to send the ships he requests and orders him home. But Hannibal becomes bogged down in petty details and suffers desertions - at least in part because he cannot pay his troops. Philip of Macedon looks like a promising ally, but the Romans anticipate this and burn Philip's fleet. In chapter IX, "Defeat," Hannibal gets moving again. At the battle of Petelia, he kills another Roman consul and his entire legion and receives word from Spain that his brothers have defeated and killed Gnaeus Scipio. He finally marches on Rome, only to withdraw after three legions come to its relief. While he waits for reinforcements from Spain, the severed head of his brother, Hasdrubal, is tossed into the camp at night by the Romans. Then Hannibal is seriously wounded by a Roman pilum in a minor skirmish near Crotona, and Leckie spouts purple prose. After weeks of recovery, Hannibal hears that Scipio has invaded Africa and defeated the Carthaginian army there. Hannibal admires Scipio's tactics in that battle, noting that the young man had repudiated centuries of Roman tactics. "It was simple, brilliant, brave. ...I knew our fates were joined. He had learned from me, but also fromhimself." Earlier, at the battle of Ticinus, Hannibal had described how he attempted to kill the wounded consul, Scipio, whose troops held fast until the younger Scipio arrived with two maniples to fend him off. Hannibal reflects that young Scipio saved his father's life, whereas he failed to do so for his own father. This praise of Scipio will recur when Hannibal actually meets the man face to face. Racial animosity among his men prompts Hannibal to return to Africa, after first killing the four thousand Celts and Gauls among his soldiers who otherwise would either mutiny in Africa or, if left behind, be caught and crucified by the Romans. Bostar remains behind, for no clearer reason than that Leckie wants him to narrate part of the sequel, Scipio Africanus. The day before Hannibal and Scipio are to fight, Scipio asks to meet with Hannibal to sue for peace. Hannibal replies that it is not his to give nor is it in his nature to do so, so they talk about Plato's Symposium and then fight the next day at Zama. Scipio wins, and Hannibal retreats to Carthage, where for the next two years he attempts to make peace. But blaming Hannibal for killing the envoys who were bringing peace terms to Rome, Rome refuses to consider peace until the Carthaginians surrender Hannibal to them. So, Hannibal takes his father's hidden wealth and leaves Carthage secretly. The last chapter, "Death," briefly chronicles Hannibal's solitary wanderings to Knossos, various Greek islands, Antioch, Ephesus, Armenia, and, finally, Bithynia, where he is writing the last part of his story as the Romans come to take him. His dagger (contrary to Polybius' assertion of poison) is at the ready, to be used on himself. "I dreamed of Rome's destruction. It is not shameful to have failed. When men think of me, let them remember this." In a brief epilogue, a letter of the Roman commander to the senate tells of his finding the body of the ugly, old man amidst gold bars and precious gems, and throwing it into a cesspit. The story moves along well, and is historically accurate, by and large, though Leckie invents some characters and develops others who are merely mentioned in the sources. But there are some problems with historical detail. It is unlikely that a Carthaginian would see death as "going to Mithra," whom he wouldn't have known about yet and who wasn't quite that sort of savior god, anyway. Bostar's detailed account of the Roman army combines true third-century Roman organization and tactics with much that is Marian or later. Bostar speaks of the Roman organization into cohorts, a practice which became common only after the Punic Wars, and he misleadingly describes centurions as men who were paid to serve. All soldiers after Veii were paid modest amounts, but no one joined the army for the pay, and there were regular levies as well, so most men would not be enrolled for "long service". Moreover, pilum blades of that time did not have soft metal behind the points to make them buckle on impact. If they had, Marius would not have had to make the innovation of replacing one of the two metal pins with a break-away wooden one or leave the shaft behind the blade untempered so that it would bend or buckle. It is difficult to tell how much of the mercenaries' revolt or the description of Carthage Leckie took from the sources (mainly Polybius) rather than from Flaubert's Salammbo or his own imagination, although none of it seems implausible and much is attested. The jacket blurbs speak about Leckie bringing history to life in all its blood, battle and atrocity, and I concur. The reader will not find a narrator whom he will invariably admire, because he will often encounter gratuitous cruelty, but he will find a vivid, interesting character, as Hannibal certainly is in his own right and, especially, as described and developed by Leckie. Hannibal was, after all, one of the world's greatest generals. Had Carthage supported him more fully, he might have destroyed Rome altogether, and the ancient and modern worlds might have been radically different. High-school teachers need not keep this book from their students because of the relatively minor descriptions of sex or use of indelicate language, but the level of violence and graphic detail may pose a problem, although no more so than the Iliad. If you are not disturbed by the carnage, then I recommend the novel to you. You will come away with a much improved grasp of the events of the Punic Wars and with a clearer sense of the immense influence of one man, Hannibal, upon historical events. Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck) 8/2001
- Fred Mench, Michael Wells Glueck, 8/1/2001
Hannibal was a Carthaginian, his family being descended from the Phoenicians. As a young boy, he was sent with his father's High Steward to live apart and to be educated for his future as a warrior and a leader. Returning to Carthage, he was taught Latin and Greek by the wise old Silenus. Apart from being compelled to witness a brutal punishment - of a Roman - his childhood was happy, if short. Another hideously cruel act followed not long after...and how many more between? This was an era of war, of intense brutality and imaginative cruelty. It is appalling to read about and Ross Leckie spares us nothing in bringing it to life. One need read no further than the brief prologue to realise that his language is elegant, restrained. His choice of plain words well used paints pictures as vivid as any artist's brush: an artist armed with a pen is formidable indeed. Yet beautiful writing cannot smother truth nor hide the ugliness of war, and clearly this writer makes no attempt to do either. And there is, even in war, much to admire: courage, loyalty, strategic genius. Hannibal, apart from his ferocious, passionate hatred of Rome, had two practical objectives: to defend Carthage and to protect land and valuable mines in Spain. But his overriding obsession was the defeat and destruction of Rome. This novel contains so much of both beauty and tragedy: dragonflies, olive groves and orchards; cypresses, myrtles and cedars; screaming, trampling elephants, colourfully painted; the wedding of Hannibal and the lovely Similce; the trek across the Alps in the grip of winter when men and elephants died by the score of cold and hunger. Hannibal's infant son dies too, as does his wife, hideously. And behind it all lies the driving force of Hannibal's need to conquer Rome. Leckie paints a fascinating portrait of a complex man. Trained in war from the age of twelve, was Hannibal hero or madman? Later he himself came to doubt his own sanity. Facts are cleverly collated and the story brilliantly told. Did the author play war games to help him maintain his grip on the many battles, I wonder? As the story draws to its close, the tension does not slacken. Just - there is a subtle change. Leckie admits to having taken liberties with history 'as novelists are generally allowed'. One concerns Hannibal's suicide. According to historians, he took poison; here the manner of his death is different. One wonders why? -Kay Sylvester From The Historical Novel Review (August 1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.
- Kay Sylvester, 8/1/1998
For Comments or questions regarding this web site, contact Fred Mench