Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
24 June 2011
Review by Jonathan Marwil, The University of Michigan
By Robert Garland
London: Duckworth, 2010. Pp. 168. ISBN 978-1-85399-725-9.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, Antiquity, Punic Wars, Biography Print Version

Robert Garland's Hannibal is part of a new series of short biographies ("Ancients in Action") intended to introduce major political, military, and literary figures of antiquity to the general reader. In selecting the authors for the series, the editors presumably wanted fresh perspectives. Garland (Colgate University) is not a military historian, and by his own admission had not previously given much thought to Hannibal. But once he began examining a career "compounded … equally of unrivalled success and colossal failure" (11), he developed a "boundless passion" (164) for his subject. The result is a book of intelligence and wit. What other biography of Hannibal includes drawings from an 1852 comic history of Rome, one of which shows the hero blowing his nose while crossing the Alps on an elephant? Experts are, indeed, not necessarily the best guides.

The gaps in our knowledge of Hannibal (247-182 BC) are considerable. Little is known about long periods of his life, even less about the character of the man himself. He did not write a memoir; contemporary accounts of him—two by Greeks who accompanied him during his campaign against Rome—survive only in fragments, and we have no Carthaginian testimonies. Thus Garland, like other biographers of Hannibal, has had to depend largely on the histories of Polybius and Livy, both very Roman in their sympathies. He has also drawn on a wealth of modern accounts, discussed in the valuable bibliography appended to the volume.

Garland has divided his book into twelve chapters, the middle three covering the years 218-216 BC, when Hannibal made his fame by crossing the Alps and destroying Roman armies in battles at the Trebia River, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae. Like some others, both ancient and modern, who have studied Hannibal's career, Garland sees the failure to move against Rome after Cannae as the Carthaginian's "most critical error" (155). For Rome was able to recover and eventually defeat its most threatening adversary at the battle of Zama in 202 BC. Hannibal, who never gave up his hatred for Rome, spent much of the rest of his life seeking allies to help him fulfill his ambition. Those years lead Garland to a final judgment applicable to many other warriors and statesmen: "The ultimate tragedy, both for himself and, arguably too, for Carthage, is that he did not die at the peak of his powers" (158).

Garland's view of Hannibal as a political actor may surprise some readers. Back in Carthage after his defeat at Zama, Hannibal was elected to be a suffete, a position similar to a Roman consul but one without a military command. During his one year in office, he introduced reforms in the Carthaginian economy and worked to pay off the huge debt accumulated in the long war with Rome. Specifically, he tried to "eradicate the abuses of the wealthy, who were off-loading the majority of that debt upon those least able to bear the burden" (157). In composing that sentence Garland must have known the contemporary resonance it would have for his readers. Even more provocative, perhaps, is the following: "It might in fact with justification be claimed that he was much more successful as a politician than he had been as a general" (157). What Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, who "revered" Hannibal (144), might have thought of that judgment is anyone's guess. But that Robert Garland has the courage to offer it says much about the value of his wise and sprightly book.

Purchase Hannibal
Site News
MiWSR Farewell
A note from the editor.
Contact Us
Around the Web
Michigan War Studies Review
© 2005-2023 Michigan War Studies Review