Hannibal – Patrick N. Hunt

Hannibal Book Cover Hannibal
Patrick N. Hunt
Simon & Schuster
July 11, 2017
384 pages

From the outset here, I'll forgive you for questioning why a book about Hannibal is being reviewed on a podcast about maritime history. Initially I wasn't even sure that there would be a substantial connection between the great Carthaginian general who led an army across the Alps and the topic that we've most focused on in the podcast here, the naval and merchant navies that made Carthage great to begin with.

Surprisingly enough (for me, at least) there is a very intriguing maritime connection made within the pages of this book, so for that reason alone I think it's worth the read. Even without the maritime connection this book is well worth the read, especially for the descriptions of the personalities that led the conflict known as the Second Punic War.

The book is written by recognized Hannibal-scholar Patrick Hunt, a professor at Stanford University when he is not busy in the field. The fact that Hunt spent numerous trips scouting and observing the routes that Hannibal and his army covered during the famous marches and battles is apparent in the descriptions that populate the book's pages, a strong point, and the reader will get a good grasp of the terrain and how it affected the military strategy and outcome of the conflicts in question.

The book is approached as a biography, so there is a heavy focus on the motivations and possible intentions of Hannibal and the various Roman generals he faced. This approach brings the study to life more than a simple jaunt through the ancient sources would do. However, Hunt also does a wonderful job of sourcing all of his points in the ancient authors from where they originally came, so this book comes complete with a detailed and useful endnotes section. This is a strong point in my mind, and for anyone seeking a ready primer on Hannibal and his exploits this book will serve as a good overview of the various schools of thought on debated topics, while simultaneously serving as a good springboard for anyone wishing to delve into the source material, such as the writings of Livy, Plutarch, or any of the other numerous ancient writers.

Land-based military strategy is of course a major focus of the book, as most of Hannibal's long-lived recognition has derived from his genius as a military strategist in battles at Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae. Military strategy is an important facet of a well-rounded study of ancient history, but in a broader sense the entire study of the Second Punic War and the conflict between Rome and Carthage is rooted in points related to maritime matters, so here is where this book becomes relevant for our purposes.

As a youth Hannibal was imbued with his infamous hatred of Rome, motivating him to vow eternal enmity with the eternal city. The root cause of this hatred is traced to the Treaty of Lutatius, the treaty that brought an end to the First Punic War. Hannibal's father had battled Rome on Sicily, but at the end of the war Carthage was forced to leave Sicily altogether and pay heavy indemnity. After losing a key island in her trading empire, Carthage saw her navy reduced while Rome's navy expanded rapidly. The loss of her maritime trade empire was then a large reason why Hannibal took the fight to Rome in the Second Punic War, a connection that is always beneath the surface of the events recounted in this book. The Roman navy is alluded to a number of times, as her naval superiority allowed Rome to ferry troops around the western Mediterranean easily, while Hannibal and his other generals were forced to march around Europe, a distinct disadvantage for Carthage.

The underlying thread connecting Hannibal and the Second Punic War to maritime matters can perhaps best be seen in this line that describes the aftermath of Hannibal's defeat at Zama: "Many of the Carthaginians wept as their ships were burned in the gulf in plain sight of the city, with the whole populace watching the primary means of their trading wealth go up in flames, possibly in the presence of Scipio and his army."

Beyond the underlying  ties to maritime history, there are a few cursory mentions of the naval fleets that Hannibal later commanded during his exile from  Carthage. Few details are relayed concerning these battles, through no fault of the author though, since few details of these battles are contained in the ancient sources.

In sum, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the personalities and forces at play during the Second Punic War. The author does a great job relating what we know from ancient sources while still drawing a line between what is likely accurate, what is potentially biased toward Rome, and then filling in the gaps of our knowledge with likely possibilities based on similar situations. Anyone seeking a well-researched and comprehensive overview of the life of Hannibal and his role in fighting Rome need look no further; this book will either tell you everything you need to know or it will point you in the direction of where to find deeper discussion.

  1 comment for “Hannibal – Patrick N. Hunt

  1. August 15, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks, Brandon, for your keen observations on maritime connections – especially considering Punic / Carthaginian mercantilism plying the sea lanes – exactly as you surmise and not so subtle or esoteric for underlying Roman fears given they renamed the Western Mediterranean as MARE NOSTRUM, “Our Sea”. Much appreciation too your kind words. One of my favorite lecturing opportunities is at the US Naval War College (venue for so many NATO War Games), where they obviously see this strategic connection too. Keep up the excellent and relevant historical insights!

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