Hannibal: Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane

Book Review by Caldrail

Warfare is a part of the human condition. It can erupt into bloody conflict because of greed, envy, aggrandisement, sometimes simply because there are too many people in one place. There remains however one cause above all others that has men flocking to the colours to bear arms against the other side. Hatred.

Hannibal Barca was brought up by his father to hate Rome. So passionate was this hatred that Hannibal deliberately picked a fight. It seems remarkable that more than two thousand years later, a man so determined to wage war upon a rival empire is regarded in such glowing terms today.

The reason of course is Hannibalís march across the Alps with his elephants, and his ensuing victories on Italian soil, one of which remains the most studied battle ever fought. For although Hannibal ultimately failed to conquer Rome, he won something far more persistent. Fame.

This then is the backdrop for Ben Kane's Hannibal: Enemies of Rome. The story focuses on a cast of characters dragged into the conflict. We read of impetuous youths, indignant slaves, callous masters, vengeful fathers, capricious barbarians, and wayward daughters. In fact, Hannibal himself doesn't appear until a third of the way through the story. He's never the focus of the tale but rather a sort of puppet master figure whose decisions impact upon the lives of the characters we follow.

Reviewing this book was never going to be an easy task for me. I have an unremitting dislike for historical fiction as a genre. This is mostly inspired by our incessant need to paint the past in modern colour. Instead of asking what these people were like, what they did, what kind of world they fought over, all too often we ask how much like us were they? In fairness, the author doesn't worry about such niceties. He avoids archaic phrases and concentrates on making the book readable for an audience of less well informed readers.

Ben Kane has done his research and throws period detail at the reader at an astonishing rate. It does lend a necessary air of authority to the setting, which for a book of this kind, is probably no bad thing. However, the fact we need to learn so much about the environment is something that makes me a little uneasy. Storytelling is not a new science, but an art practised since our earliest ancestors, and I note the tales that survive the longest are those driven by personality. The setting is unimportant. What matters is drama, emotion, the decisions and actions that bind a person to their fate.

If this book deserves any criticism, it's about personality. The characters themselves seem curiously unable to grow and develop. Certainly they're affected by the events unfolding around them, but there's nothing emerging, nothing nurtured, no inner substance lurking beneath the surface to be revealed at a moment of high drama.

Am I being too harsh? This is a tale which isn't really about the various fortunes of those involved, nor for that matter Hannibalís invasion of Italy, but rather a subtle account of love versus hatred. Of course it's easy to criticise, and presenting a tale within the narrow boundaries of history can't be all that simple. Neither for that matter is it an easy task to tell stories from multiple viewpoints. Not for nothing was traditional storytelling done from a third person perspective.

Nonetheless, I have to confess that despite my misgivings, there is something tangible in this story. The author has a well defined style and manages to create an atmosphere all of his own. There is a sense of being swept along by the tide of war, something hinted strongly at the beginning, becoming ever more intense toward the climax as we reach the battlefield of Trebia and its aftermath.

By the way, I spotted two deliberate errors. I'm sure there might be others lurking in the text. I'm also sure the majority of readers won't notice any and enjoy the book for what it is. And enjoy it they should.

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