Hannibal's Oath

The Life and Wars of Rome's Greatest Enemy

nolead begins By John Prevas

DaCapo. 336 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Allen Barra

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'On a windswept and desolate hill," writes John Prevas in Hannibal's Oath, near the tiny port of Gebze about 40 miles east of Istanbul, lies what is thought to be the grave of the greatest general of the ancient world. Hannibal Barca never claimed that title for himself - he would have awarded it to Alexander the Great, who, like himself, was the product of a powerful father and who, like Alexander, thought himself a Homeric hero - but his victories, most notably crossing the Alps to surprise Rome with an attack from the north, live on as among the greatest in military history.

The Hannibal revealed in Prevas' compact and exhilarating life may not have been the greatest of ancient generals - besides Alexander, some historians would place him perhaps a notch behind Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who finally defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama around 202 B.C.E. But for sheer imagination and audacity, he is one of the great figures of the classical world.

Happily, much of what is thought to be true about Hannibal really is. He was born in 247 B.C.E. to a wealthy family in the north African city of Carthage. "The Carthaginians," writes Prevus, "sacrificed infants and the occasional adult to appease their gods in a systematic, institutionalized practice" that could be traced "to their Semitic origins in the biblical land of Canaan." After his people were defeated by the emerging Roman powers, the boy Hannibal was compelled by his father to take an oath to destroy Rome. He never forgot that oath.

Working from Carthaginian bases in Spain, he began what seems in retrospect an almost insane campaign. Amassing, through sheer charismatic force, an army from disparate nations, he gouged his way through the Alps into Italy across paths that are still in dispute. Sustaining more casualties than he ever would in battle, Hannibal nonetheless annihilated a huge Roman army at Cannae, a battle that remains in military textbooks to this day "as an example of the 'perfect victory.' "

Unable to break the Romans' spirit or marshal sufficient forces to scale the walls of Rome itself, he nonetheless achieved fama et gloria by terrorizing the Roman countryside for nearly 16 years before the Carthaginian Senate gave up and called his army home in 203 B.C.E. Within a year, Carthage's power was broken, and Hannibal spent most of the rest of his life as a general of fortune, hiring out to despots of kingdoms from Greece to Central Asia before the Romans, suspecting he was mounting opposition to them, pursued him to an isolated castle on the Asian side of the Bosporus, where he committed suicide. "There is no archeological evidence," says Prevus, "that links the castle directly to Hannibal - just a long local tradition and the author's perhaps romantic notion that it has the right feel."

Prevus, whom you may have seen talking about subjects like Hannibal on the History Channel, seems torn over whether the great general was genius or madman, and he provides plenty of support for either view. He has been called by scholars " 'an unrivaled success,' at the same time . . . a man of 'colossal failure' " A great leader, yes, who led men "divided by language and culture . . . from Africa, Spain, Gaul, and even Greece," Hannibal "molded them into a unified, coordinated, and effective fighting force that remained fiercely loyal to him for sixteen years." Yet he "is remembered today more for the rules of conventional warfare he broke than for those he followed."

But to what purpose? In the service of his city-state or to simply seek revenge on a hated enemy? Incapable of compromise and consumed by hatred, he never got the opportunity to prove himself a builder of empire or a man of vision. It might have amused him, though, to know that today his name is associated not with his ultimate failures but with his most extraordinary, if absurd, accomplishment, leading a huge army across the Alps for reasons we no longer understand.

Allen Barra writes about books for American History, the Daily Beast, and Truthdig.com.