The Roman Hannibal by Claire Stocks
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
Hannibal was famously the greatest, most deadly enemy that Rome ever faced. However, as classicist and academic Claire Stocks points out, we only know Hannibal from the Roman perspective. Hannibal, the cruel, the cunning, the master general and war-leader is seen today through Roman eyes. In this book, the Roman eyes belong to Silius Italicus, a writer of the first century AD whose only surviving work is the seventeen books of the Punica, an epic poem telling the saga of Hannibal's war with Rome.
One could describe The Roman Hannibal as something between an academic thesis and a commentary on the Punica. The author's argument is that for Silius Italicus, Hannibal embodies that set of warrior values which were fast vanishing from Roman society at the time the Punica was written. So although an enemy of Rome, Silius Italicus' Hannibal is – as the writer says rather too often in the text – a Roman Hannibal. Where Hannibal deviates from the ideal, for example in his love of cruelty, or in fighting for personal motives rather than patriotism, the text neatly illustrates how Hannibal is on these occasions the exact opposite of what the ideal warrior-general should be. He becomes a sort of mirror image of the ideal, reflecting what he should be precisely by what he is not.
If that sounds a bit convoluted, then be warned that the above is relatively straightforward compared to the author's own prose which is written with the classical scholar in mind, and occasionally slips into downright academicese. For a typical example:
The death of Podeatus – the youth killed before his time – echoes the fate of Parthenopaeus in Statius' Thebiad (e.g. 9.852-74, 877-907). So too, the use of improba (14.508), in reference to the distance that Podaetus could run, befits Parthenopaeus who was known for his improba virtus (Theb. 4.319) and so recalls the improba virtus (1.58) of Hannibal in first youth.
Note the use of 'echo' and 'recall' in the above quote. Dr Stocks is a highly learned scholar who readily finds associations between the text of Silius Italicus and other classical texts with which Italicus was undoubtedly familiar. Therefore she makes connections with these texts in ways which Italicus may or may not have intended. Each of these connections and the reasoning behind them is documented in extensive footnotes of which there are several on each page, sometimes taking up to half the text.
It is important to be aware that this book is not simply about Silius' Italicus' interpretation of Hannibal – it is also very much the author's interpretation of Silius Italicus. Therefore opinions stated as though undisputed fact in the text are actually the author's own reading and interpretation of the Punica, with which other classical scholars might not agree.
Rather usefully, the author has provided a translation for each gobbet of Italicus' poem which she quotes at any length. However, as with any Latin translation there is room to dispute some renderings into English – for example on p.28 she translates 'fortuna nostri nominis' as 'the fortune of my name'. Debatable, as Hannibal is talking of himself and his brother here, and 'nostri' means 'our'. This is not just a slip, because the book shows very well how Hannibal and his name slowly separate over the course of Italicus' poem, with the legend of the man growing even as Hannibal as a person becomes diminished. The name of Hannibal is of key importance, for in the Punica we see Hannibal as a man fully aware that he is a legend in his own lifetime.
The author shows this well in Hannibal's final speech in the epic, in which the defeated Hannibal declaims
non ullo abolebis Iuppiter, aeuo/ You will not erase Cannae in any age, JupiterHannibal and Italicus got that right.
decedesque prius regnis, quam nomina gentes/ and you will fall from your kingdom before mankind
aut facta Hannibalis sileant/ are silent on the names and deeds of Hannibal.
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To summarize, this is a book about Hannibal. However it is not recommended for anyone wanting to know about the man or his achievements. This book is for those intimately familiar with both these things and who want to go on to discover how Hannibal achieved his definitive image in later Roman literature.