History is written by the victors. Nowhere is this dictum truer than in the case of the three wars waged between Carthage and Rome (264-241, 218-201, and 149-146 BCE). Even the name by which these conflicts are known reflects a Roman bias: Punic Wars. Surely historians in the maritime and mercantile city-state of Carthage would have referred to the conflicts as Roman Wars. As it is, historical records that were produced by the Carthaginian side have been totally obliterated or lost, and most of what we have was penned by pro-Roman sources. Of these sources, the two most important ones are the accounts of Polybius and Livy (Titus Livius).
Polybius was Greek. He lived from approximately 200 to 118 BCE, and thus was alive only through the course of the third war, which he was able to witness first hand. A military man, he was enslaved by the Romans, was eventually freed, and came to serve the Cornelian/Scipionic family, becoming friend and mentor of Scipio Aemilianus, the destroyer of Carthage. He wrote about 50 years after the battle of Cannae (216 BCE), and his works are generally regarded as more reliable than those of Livy, although some parts of his work have been lost. He apparently made an effort actually to retrace Hannibal’s steps over the Alps and interviewed survivors of the second war. His motivation in writing his history of Rome was to explain to his fellow Greeks how and why the Romans had become the dominant force in the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless, his objectivity and accuracy are suspect when he writes about members of the family he served. It is likely that he revised facts that would have shown his employers, the Scipionic clan, in an unfavorable light.
Livy (Titus Livius) lived from 59 BCE to 17 CE (or, according to some sources, 64 BCE to 12 CE). He had no military experience, no first-hand knowledge of Hannibal’s route, and he wrote 200 years after the events. Livy was essentially a Roman moralist and propagandist, whose historical accounts, although beautifully written, contain many fictionalized incidents, such as speeches (which he pretends to quote verbatim) and various anecdotes, clearly invented to embellish the record and provide an inspirational and patriotic narrative for his Roman audience (all acceptable within the tradition of Roman historiography). By modern standards closer to a novelist than to an objective chronicler of the past, his history of Rome and the Punic Wars is less reliable than that of Polybius, and should be used only with great caution and reluctance to fill gaps in the incomplete Polybian account.
What are the other primary sources? From the Carthaginian side, none are extant, save possibly some small fragments. Silenos, a Greek from Kale Akte, Sicily, accompanied Hannibal during the second Punic War and wrote an eyewitness record of Hannibal’s campaigns, but no copies of his work survive. His account appears to have been known to Roman historians, such as Coelius Antipater (but only fragments of Coelius are extant), who in turn seems to have influenced Livy. Another Greek, Sosylos, a Spartan who was probably Hannibal’s tutor in Greek literature and his companion during the campaigns, also wrote an account, now largely lost. The library of Carthage, which in all likelihood was extensive, perhaps rivaling the fabled library of Alexandria, was utterly destroyed in the holocaust and orgy of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Romans in 146 BCE. Naturally, it would have contained Carthaginian records of the wars with Rome. Sadly, if any copies of the Carthaginian chronicles escaped and were preserved at Alexandria, they perished in the great fire that consumed its great library centuries later.
On the Roman side, a number of additional sources exist, but all were written many years after the events, and none by an eyewitness. Cornelius Nepos wrote a very brief biography of Hannibal (in which he mentions Silenos). Plutarch’s “Lives of Famous Romans,” includes Hannibal in his accounts of Fabius and Marcellus. Fabius Pictor’s work is mostly lost, while the long poem of Silius Italicus, “Punica,” is derivative and adds little that is credible. Hannibal also appears in the incomplete narrations of Appian, Cassius Dio (some lost fragments available only through the 12th century Byzantine chronicler Zonaras), Diodorus Siculus (in Greek), Pliny, Pompeius Trogus, Valerius Maximus, Florus, Eutropius, and a few others. Cicero and Juvenal also refer to Hannibal, but do not contribute new information.
We are left, then, with Polybius and Livy as our main sources. As we attempt to reconstruct the life of Hannibal and the events of the wars between Carthage and Rome, we must always keep in mind the nature and biases of the extant accounts, and remember that these cannot be accepted uncritically. The evidence suggests that a campaign of disinformation and propaganda existed on the Roman side, aimed at maintaining an image of Rome able to foster patriotic feelings in its populace and facilitate the oppression of subjugated peoples. It is the scholar’s challenge to see through lies and deception, and piece together what actually transpired during that fascinating period of ancient history. Fortunately, there are enough contradictions and inconsistencies among the pro-Roman narratives, hinting at what really transpired, and modern archeological findings, including carbon dating, that provide important clues and help to reconstruct past events. Additionally, psychological assessments of the primary protagonists of that ancient struggle, coupled with logical consistency and careful analysis, may also facilitate the unraveling of the truth. It is my hope that my own humble contributions will add some insights to this quest.
Over the past 15 years, research into Hannibal and the so-called Punic Wars has become my consuming passion. Some of the things I have discovered and some of the conclusions I have reached after careful examination of available evidence are at variance with the traditional accounts found in many textbooks and contradict the classical record. I will present to you my findings and my arguments in a series of articles prepared for the History Herald, and I will let you be the judge of their validity. Perhaps together we can open a new understanding of a fascinating chapter of the human story.
© 2012 by Yozan Mosig
- Hannibal: Victories of the Great Hero from Ancient Carthage - December 19, 2018
- Alexander the Great and Hannibal Barca: A comparison - March 9, 2017
- A Note on Hannibal’s Losses During the Crossing of the Alps - July 18, 2016