174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

174. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Books XXI-XXX (The War with Hannibal), by Livy (c.19 BC)

Ten of the surviving books from Livy’s multivolume history of Rome, these deal with the Second Punic War, pitting Carthage against Rome and initiated by Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps into Italy.

“War was coming, and it would have to be fought in Italy, in defence of the walls of Rome, and against the world in arms.”   (page 39)

My copy was again the Penguin Black classic translated by Aubrey De Selincourt and edited by Betty Radice (ISBN 014044145X)

My thoughts: I had already read about the First and Second Punic wars in Polybius’ history, but Livy goes into much more detail, and is less flattering to Hannibal, describing him as not only “reckless in courting danger … superb tactical ability … unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field” but also displaying “inhuman cruelty, a more than Punic [Carthaginian] perfidy, a total disregard for truth, honour and religion, of the sanctity of an oath and of all that other men hold sacred” (page 26)

Livy as rendered here by De Selincourt and Radice is very readable and also dramatic, and while I did not retain all the detail, it was exciting to read and not as diary-like as the previous Livy books – perhaps because there are more events to describe in a shorter space of time (17 years in 676 pages) and they are by their nature more dramatic.

The greatest mystery is why Hannibal and his men, having survived the Alpine crossing, harsh winters, disease and famine, and causing the almost complete destruction of three separate Roman armies, did not immediately march on Rome but spent years in minor battles around Italy.

“Assuredly, no one man has been blessed with all God’s gifts. You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory”     (Maharbal, Carthaginian commander of cavalry, to Hannibal, page 151)

Indeed towards the end Hannibal is quoted as berating himself over this very same failure to press his advantage home upon the very target he set out to capture. Certainly in the early years of his campaign he seems to lose more men to weather and terrain than in battles.

“It was the horses, more than anything else, which created havoc … they were soon out of control … In the confusion many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below”   (page 58, Crossing the Alps attacked by mountain tribes)

“Heavy rain and a violent wind right in their faces made progress impossible; they could not hold their weapons, and if they tried to struggle on, the wind spun them around and flung them off their feet … all they could do was turn their backs to it, crouching on the ground … blinded and deafened and benumbed with terror … So intense was the cold that followed that of all that miserable heap of prostrate men and beasts not one … was able for a long time to raise himself from where he lay.”   (page 85)

The Romans were very superstitious, and Livy reports on evil portents each year – raining stones and milk, children born with animal faces, animals born with extra limbs or talking, rivers and lakes filling with blood, etc.) and the need to make appropriate sacrifices to appease the gods, including ‘the strewing of the couches’ (a banquet laid out for images of the gods reclining on couches).

After the Carthaginians led by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal defeat two more Roman armies in Spain (led by brothers Publius Scipio and Gnaeus Scipio); Publius’ son Publius Cornelius Scipio (later nicknamed Scipio Africanus) convinces the Romans to allow him to command the new army to be sent to Spain. After capturing New Carthage where the Carthaginians were holding all their Spanish hostages, equipment, supplies, weapons and money, Scipio goes on to defeat the three Carthaginian armies, then pushes on to land on the African coast and eventually force Hannibal to retreat from Italy in order to protect Carthage. The last chance of a peace is shattered and Scipio defeats Hannibal’s forces at the battle of Zama.

There is so much more detail – I haven’t mentioned the Numidian kings Masinissa and Syphax, and their competition for both the throne and the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba;  or the vicious and brutal treatment of the citizens of Locri by the Roman garrison and their commander Pleminius.

Favourite lines/passages:

Has to be the Campanian civilian’s reckless taunt of the Roman commander who has captured his city :

“Order my execution too, so that you may boast of killing a much braver man than yourself”  (page 375)

Personal rating:   Very readable. 7/10

Kimmy’s rating: Still not keen on those elephants.

Other reading: Two books coincidentally having the same title initials

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. Several short stories linked together. Jeeves’ stories all sound similar but are still excellent entertainment.  4/5

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. Two dogs and a cat travel hundreds of miles to be reunited with their owners. A great job of telling an animal story without OTT anthropomorphism, and providing beautiful descriptions of the Canadian wilderness.  5/5

Next :  The Epistles of Horace, including the Ars Poetica

 

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