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Ross Leckie

Scipio Africanus: The Man Who Defeated Hannibal
Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1998

Reviews:

'Can you imagine what it is like to be born a Roman, and a Scipio?' This, the second in Ross Leckie's trilogy of the Second Punic War, tells the story of Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal and in so doing laid the foundations of the Roman Empire. The first, Hannibal, was published in 1995 and the third Carthage, is forthcoming. An old man awaiting the verdict in his trial for crimes against the state, Scipio passes the time dictating his memoirs to his faithful secretary Bostar, formerly Hannibal's mapmaker and, presumably, the genius behind the Carthaginian army's spectacular winter crossing of the Alps into Italy (although Bostar himself is far too modest, or too circumspect, to take any credit for this). Embittered, believing himself betrayed by the Republic in whose service he has spent his life, Scipio soothes his wounded pride by dwelling on his ancestry and his achievements. But Bostar cannot resist peppering his master's dictation with revealing asides of his own. The result is a double narrative of penetrating and often poignant insight. Scipio portrays himself as he would have wanted to be remembered: the worthy scion of a distinguished family, the creator of a powerful army, an aesthete, a great general under whose hand Rome mastered the world. But through the eyes of Bostar, who loved him in spite, or perhaps because, of his faults, we see him as the humane but deeply flawed character he probably was, 'a casualty of war...a boy denied his youth and as a result a man of great intellectual, but no emotional, intelligence.' We may not thereby be justified in excusing Scipio his arrogance and cupidity but in the light of Bostar's own emotional intelligence, Scipio's flaws as well as his achievements are revealed to us as the results of a headlong flight from himself, from his own inability to relate to others, or to come to terms with his own sexuality. (Ross Leckie is careful to avoid modern jargon, but surely the problems it defines are not confined to the modern age.) By turns lucid, enlightening and thrilling, this is the historical novel at its best. As well as the psychological insights, we experience in these pages the visceral fear the Romans must have felt as Hannibal, The Unexpected One, bore down on them, inflicting unheard-of defeats on what had hitherto been an invincible army; we witness through Scipio's young eyes unimaginable atrocities; and we are plunged with him into the appalling carnage that was Cannae. Perhaps there are longueurs. Ross Leckie dwells at length on Scipio's upbringing and education, and the early part of the narrative is often interrupted by philosophical asides on the making of a patrician, on freedom, education, language, intelligence and government. Some readers might find these digressions tedious, the more so since this leisurely opening pace makes the author's later treatment of Zama and Scipio's subsequent victories in Asia Minor seem perfunctory by contrast. But, taking the novel as a whole, these early insights enrich it greatly, for by them we come to understand not only what the Romans did to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Hannibal, but how and why. The courage, the resourcefulness, the sheer, dogged persistence and unquestioning self-belief that were the essence of Scipio's greatness were also the presiding virtues of the mistress he served so well. 'Can you imagine what it is to be born a Roman, and a Scipio?' In Ross Leckie's inspired hands, yes, we can. - Sarah Cuthbertson From The Historical Novel Review (1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Sarah Cuthbertson, 12/2/2005


In this sequel to Leckie's Hannibal (which I have not read), the amanuensis Bostar recounts his own fortunes after (evidently) leaving the service of Hannibal, and those of Scipio. The narratives are intertwined, though for what reason remains unclear since they have no impact upon one another, and the life of this Bostar is not all that interesting, or plausible (a Carthaginian, with a very Punic sounding name, successfully passing himself off as a Bithyninan teacher from Chalcedon in the midst of Hannibal's invasion?). The Scipionic tales are told by Scipio himself in flashback as he awaits the results of the "trials" of the 180s. Leckie's Scipio is in a morose mood as he tells his life story, the details of which here seem amazingly dull. The trials themselves are glossed over as broadly damning to Scipio and his brother (who here commits suicide) but are not explored in detail. We are treated to intimate details of the young Scipio's sexual fantasies, but none of the mature Scipio's reported tendencies to commune with the gods (most notably Neptune and Jupiter). The depiction of the important battles is interestingly done, but the events of the war (especially the Spanish campaigns) are so drastically telescoped that they bear little resemblance to the tale as it is best known. Part of the problem resides in the countless small and large errors introduced by the author into the narrative. He does not know what a patrician is, for example, so Cato becomes one along with Scipio. He has evidently confused Fabius Pictor, the historian, with Fabius Maximus the general; at any rate, Pictor gets a lot of credit for senatorial policy and Maximus is not mentioned once in a book about the Hannibalic War. The opening campaigns are quite inaccurate, though once again the battles are well drawn. And the entire scope of the Roman war plan is drastically and unnecessarily compressed. There are also recurring and annoying mannerisms, such as a tendency to quote famous aphorisms, some ancient, some not, by putting them achronologically into the mouths of the characters. Most annoying of all is the portrayal of Cato, who becomes a virtually illiterate country bumpkin who speaks bad Latin with a hideous accent and has presumptions beyond his years and station (at the age of 17 or 18, for example, he is already giving Scipio and others a piece of his mind): he reminds me of the very young Widmerpool in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time (though Widmerpool is better and more plausibly drawn). Over all, anyone familiar with the characters and the era is unlikely to admire this book. Perhaps those less familiar will find characterizations and episodes to enjoy. James Ruebel, Professor, Foreign Languages & Literatures, Iowa State University, Ames, IA

- James Ruebel, 12/2/2005


Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus the Elder (235 -183 B.C.) provides wonderful material for a historical novel. Enough is known about him and the Rome of his day to reconstruct a solid factual framework, but there is plenty of room for careful speculation and invention. By making Scipio the central character, the author lets us know that this is not pure fiction in the genre of, say, "Ben-Hur" or "The Robe" but a story revolving around a very real person and a critical period in Roman history. By birth Scipio belonged to the very elite of Roman society no one was more aristocratic than a Cornelius Scipio; he welcomed the arrival of Greek culture; his philhellenism distinguished him from many of previous generations and his own; in the field he was a successful and resourceful military hero, the man who defeated Hannibal. Scipio's social standing and innate abilities allowed him to rise to positions of command at a young age, and victories in Spain led to a consulship when he was just 30. His only serious rivals for prominence in the Second Punic War were two men of the old, narrowly Italian Rome, Quintus Fabius Maximus "the delayer" and Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the pair whom Plutarch dubbed the shield and sword of Rome. Neither of them lived to see Scipio's victory over Hannibal at Zama. Hannibal ambushed and killed Marcellus in 208 and Maximus died in 203, about the time Scipio's invasion of Africa compelled Carthage to recall Hannibal. Marcus Porcius Cato was Scipio's contemporary (born in 234) and in many ways the embodiment of Scipio's political rivals, but as he lacked Scipio's brilliance and "connections" he was not particularly prominent in the Hannibalic War. Indeed, Cato was never primarily a military man; his heydays were the 190s and 180s, and he outlived Scipio by some 35 years. Leckie has an intriguing and attractive approach. The novel takes the form of Scipio's memoirs dictated to one Bostar, said to be a Greek from Chalcedon in Bithynia who had served as Hannibal's cartographer and secretary but had left him when Hannibal evacuated Italy in 203. Ironically, Hannibal died in Bostar's native land. Bostar interweaves his own life story with Scipio's; he made it through the war-ravaged South of Italy, became tutor to the household of a wealthy magistrate of Capua, and eventually wound up in the service of Scipio. Scipio dictates his reminiscences from his sickbed at his villa at Liternum where he awaits the verdict on his trial on a variety of politically-motivated charges which his opponents, led by Cato, had brought against him and his brother Lucius. In other words, the novel is an overview of Scipio's life. There are three sections: "Forming" (to Hannibal's invasion in 218), "Proving" (to the Roman disaster at Cannae in 216), and "Doing" (to Scipio's triumph at Zama, 202). From a promising beginning the book deteriorates rapidly. The arranegment makes for slow development: over two-thirds of the pages only take us to the year 216. Roman incredulity that Hannibal could cross the Alps with an army emerges very well and Scipio's father is a sympathetic if a bit blustry figure. The final section skims so rapidly over Scipio's career in Spain and the African campaign that readers do not appreciate his brilliance and how Scipio represents something new in Roman political life. The most important period receives the least coverage. Leckie never explains the trials which are the backdrop to the "memoirs." Perhaps these criticisms represent a reviewer's biases, and a reviewer ought not to fault an author for failing to write the book the reviewer feels should have been written. So, perhaps, never mind. Likewise, who cares if a character remarks that "Celtiberia is a country where large armies starve ... and ... small ones get beaten" a remark dating to the Peninsular Wars of the Napoleonic era; and if Hannibal says "You Romans make a desert and call it a peace" thereby anticipating the Calcagus of Tacitus' "Agricola" by 300 years. The novel is a good read until readers notice errors of fact infiltrating the pages. One dismisses the first mistakes as minor or goofs that slipped through the proofreading, or as technical points which won't bother most readers, and that's fair enough. For instance, on p. 20 Scipio explains that "Cornelius" is his "cognomen". Wrong; it's his "nomen" and "Scipio" is the "cognomen." Leckie uses "patrician" as the equivalent of "noble" or simply loosely "upper class" (pp. 102, 218). The great Carthaginian base in Spain, appears as "Carthagena" which is neither the ancient (Carthago [Nova]) nor the modern (Cartagena) form of the name (p. 176 and elsewhere). An excursus on why Rome had two consulships with one reserved for patricians and the other for plebeians (pp. 104f.) is confused. Traditionally, there were two consulships from the beginning of the Republic, but in 367/66 a law specified that a plebeian had to fill one of them. Readers frequently encounter something called the "triconium", a sort of initial exposure to political life in the forum and Senate (the "t. fori") or in the army ("t. militiae"): p. 84 and frequently thereafter. There isn't any such word: the term is "tirocinium", from "tiro" a recruit or beginner. The non-word occurs so often that one can only conclude it is not a slip or typo but ignorance. Nor was there a coin called a "solidarius" (p. 284); the "solidus" dates to the Late Empire, centuries after Scipio's day. It's no wonder that Roman armies fared poorly in the war if their generals thought they were leaving on the Via Flaminia through the Porta Capena (p. 118); the Via Appia led southeast from the Porta Capena and the Via Flaminia left the city for the north through the Porta Flaminia. If the Fabius Pulcher (no Fabius was a "Pulcher") "father of the house" (p. 1 and elsewhere) is meant to be the Princeps Senatus, that person from 199 on was Scipio himself, and Valerius Flaccus replaced him on Scipio's death. Authors who employ and explain technical aspects have the obligation to get these point right. The chronology of 218-217 seems muddled. After a while readers realize that errors have invaded page after page and overwhelmed the novel. When you mark corrections, "NO!"s and frowny-faces in rapid succession, you know the cause is lost. There is no excuse for this, no reason to narrate counter to what is well known. As examples: Scipio's father and uncle look to have been killed in 216 (pp. 285ff.) but in fact their deaths came in 211; Tiberius Sempronius Longus, consul in 218 with Scipio's father, was not killed at the Trebia (pp. 207f.), but died in 210; Caius Terentius Varro, consul in 216, was not killed at Cannae (esp. p. 245), and his career extended to 200; there is no evidence making Scipio's younger brother Lucius a cruel drunk who committed suicide (pp. 195ff., 265), and Lucius acquired glory at Magnesia in Asia Minor in 190, not at Cynoscephalae in 197 (p. 327); the Mucius Scaevola of the story is not some upstart nobody who suggested abandoning Italy in the dark days after Cannae (pp. 221, 250), but a representative of one of Rome's most ancient families; an ancestor earned the cognomen "Scaevola" when defending the city from Lars Porsenna in 508/07. Equally inexcusable, Leckie has conflated the famous Q. Fabius Maximus with the obscure historian/annalist Fabius Pictor who was at best a client of the great patrician Fabii Maximi. In sum, this is a prime illustration of bad historical fiction. A successful historical novel cannot cast aside known facts and re-write the past. Teachers should not let their students read this book unless they want to make it an exercise in spotting errors. -Thomas H. Watkins 8/99

- Thomas H. Watkins, 8/1/1991

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