Patrick N Hunt
Simon & Schuster,
384pp, nine maps
Hardback, £18.99

The Stanford historian Patrick Hunt follows the method of Polybius, the ancient historian who, attempting 'to match text and topography', visited the sites about which he wrote. For more than 20 years, Hunt has followed the trail of Hannibal, the Carthaginian soldier who, in the second of the three Punic Wars (218–201 BC) became the first general to defeat the armies of Rome. Hannibal is the summation of Hunt's researches, and an accomplished synthesis of research and narrative.

Hannibal is one of those obscure legendary figures whose deeds stand for his motives and personality. He was born in Carthage (modern Tunis) in 247 BC, the son of the general Hamilcar Barca, who was away at the time, fighting the Romans in Sicily. According to the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, Hamilcar, a veteran of the First Punic War, boasted that his sons Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Margo were 'lion cubs reared for Rome's destruction'. Other Roman sources record that, as a child, Hannibal accompanied his father on campaign in Spain and that, before departing, he swore allegiance to the Carthaginian deity Ba'al.

The Carthaginians were of Phoenician origin; their language and alphabet, Punic, were, like their gods, Semitic. For centuries, they dominated Mediterranean trade – until the rise of Rome. Carthage was a mercantile power, and planted colonies like Cartagena ('New Carthage') and Akra Leuke (now Alicante) in Spain in order to secure their trade networks. Rome expanded because of its agricultural needs, and Romanised its subjects to secure its food supplies.

The Roman victory in the First Punic War was considerable enough to threaten Carthage's mercantile wealth, but not conclusive enough to create a new balance of power. After Hamilcar's death in 229 BC – drowned in the Tagus River, Hunt writes, during an ambush – Hannibal prepared Carthage's pre-emptive revenge. The Second Punic War remains one of the great military campaigns: the march with Iberian war elephants from Spain, across southern France, and up the Pyrenees in winter; the ambushes in the mountain passes by the local Celts and the 'logistical supply nightmare' of feeding an army that moved faster than its pack animals; the ascent of the half-starved, frozen Carthaginians over 'the wind-swept treeline, where only a few blizzard-blasted scrub trees clung to the rocks'; and the descent towards battle with the armies of Rome.

Hunt thinks Hannibal is like Odysseus, a cunning soldier. His victories at Trebia, Lake Trasimeno and, especially, the double envelopment with cavalry at Cannae, in 216 BC, were masterpieces of strategy. But he lacked the siege engines necessary for an assault on Rome, itself. Pushing into southern Italy, he occupied much of the peninsula. The Romans adopted an attritional strategy, and eventually defeated Hannibal at Zama near Carthage in 203 BC.

The 'disaster' at Zama imposed a heavy indemnity on Carthage and turned Hannibal into a civilian. He won an election as Carthage's suffete (chief magistrate), but he was a 'marked man', too powerful and popular for the oligarchs on Carthage's Council of Elders, and began to move his wealth out of the country. In 195 BC, he jumped before he was pushed. In an Odyssean ruse, he threw a party for the sailors at Cercina, persuaded them to use their sails as awnings at the feast, then slipped away to Tyre, to fight as a mercenary.

Hannibal died in 183 BC at Libyssa (near modern Istanbul), betrayed by his patrons, but he eluded the Romans once more, by taking poison. Apart from 'terrifying' the Romans, Hunt writes in concluding this gripping biography, Hannibal had 'taught a reluctant Rome how to wage war'.
Dominic Green