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Scipio Africanus - Greater Than Napoleon by B. H. Liddell Hart

Book Review by Divi Filius

“That Caesar’s work is known universally, and Scipio little more than a name to the ordinary educated man, is a curious standard, for one inaugurated the world dominion of Roman civilization, while the other paved the way for its decay…”(202)

This is one of the many other statements in Liddell Hart’s biography of Scipio Africanus titled Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon that completely betrays it as a shameless aggrandizement of the man. Similar to this we see other exaggerated statements proposing the idea that somehow the empire might have survived longer had it followed an ideology of Scipio’s that is based entirely on the assumption of the author. Here Hart feels himself free to take any small comment of Scipio’s and to glorify it, giving it some prophetic meaning. These are taken from speeches which often actually come from the mouths of the famous Roman historian Livy, writing nearly two hundred years later. He finds himself almost unable to accept any negative aspect of this character, which while reading I almost found myself unable to call human.

A decorated and knighted captain and author, to those learned in military strategy Liddell Hart has been seen by many as one of the first to lay forward the theory later termed the Blitzkrieg. Writing during the twenties Liddell became a big advocate of mobility and speed in the art of warfare after seeing the disastrous effects of trench warfare during the First World War. Scipio Africanus is one of the biographies written by Hart to illustrate and recognize those he thought influential to his ideas.

With this in mind we now move to the actual book. Greater then Napoleon can be considered the first book to delve into the military career of Africanus and this is rather easy to see when one reads the book. At times it will feel like a recital of the two main references on Scipio’s career, Livy and Polybius. It’s brevity, while largely due to the short career of Scipio (a man who died at the age of 54 and peaked at 35), also reveals the weak amount of study available. There are no references in the book outside of the first hand sources that are provided in the edition containing Michael Grant’s forward. In the preface Hart tells us that the only other biography of the man, in English, was one written by a priest, completely ignoring his military exploits.

Through this book Hart puts forward his theories on warfare, often times placing them wrongly and without any kind of precedent, into the mind of Scipio. It is a way for him to prove their superiority by linking them to Scipio’s successes. Throughout the book he will constantly relate the general’s various actions and attribute them in a tactical way of thinking that has little historical credibility. Whether it’s a peace treaty or some political move, Hart will praise it using a state or mind and mentality, which he seems to personally harbor.

Yet another fault of the book is the sycophantic mentality, which Hart holds for Scipio. He seems utterly unable to ever give any kind of criticism towards the man, whether it is that Scipio simply will forgo a call to trial or an emotional outburst. This is done to such an extent that it even overshadows Theodore Ayrault Dodge’s shameless hero worship of Hannibal in his own book. The praises reach an unbelievable peak which propose the idea that somehow, had Rome followed an international policy which Scipio, he believes, carried it could have somehow defeated the barbarian invasions and held off the Dark Ages. This is something which occurred 600 years after the events at hand and which proposes an international policy which there is no evidence of Scipio holding. It is by far one of the weakest aspects of this book.

Yet another problem is that Hart has a nasty habit of taking words completely out of the mouths of the two main historical accounts of the war, Livy and Polybius. The book is filled with their quotations and more often than not Hart will take many of their speeches that they wrote for Scipio’s mouth completely at face value. Other times he will recite a major passage from their books making you think you’re reading some comparative study rather then a biography. Add this failure to the general brevity of the book, lacking as it does any real contemporary study.

However, there are positives. Being a military man himself he is best at what he excels in. If you can put aside his glorification of Scipio you will find his overall military review is actually quite adequate. Overall his degradation of other, more renown, generals can be dismissed as simply a way for Hart to bring more attention to Scipio, but it will be up to the reader himself to take what he reads at face value or to do further inquiry on the subject and make a decision thereafter.

Unfortunately even today, books on Scipio Africanus are few and far between in a world crammed with those men who changed the world in far more controversial ways. This remains one of the most widespread studies on the man, something, which is indeed, a sad fact considering it lacks much in terms of a proper critical study. However it is still a fun book to read and one that will take very little time out of one’s hand. Those with little knowledge of Scipio’s deeds will be very much entertained by this book, others who have gone through various other books on the Punic Wars will find that this book leaves much to be desired.

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Book Review of Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon - Related Topic: Scipio in Africa


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