Hannibal: The Life and Legend
Eve MacDonald
Yale University Press
352pp, 10 black & white illustrations
Paperback, £12.99

As the implacable and vastly gifted foe of Rome, the Carthaginian military commander Hannibal Barca established his place as one of the most illustrious figures of antiquity. His astonishing daring, military genius and singular achievements have awed succeeding generations. Yet the man behind the myth remains relatively obscure. Little wonder, perhaps, as our accounts of him form part of the Romans' renditions of their rise to power, and few disrupted it as masterfully as Hannibal.

His story is that of one man's epic struggle against the reshaping of the ancient Mediterranean and Hellenistic world. Beginning the third century BC as allies, Rome and Carthage finished it as bitter enemies. From boyhood Hannibal lived in the eye of the storm. Born into the ruling elite in Carthage – one of the great trading powers of the Mediterranean – Hannibal was the son of the redoubtable Hamilcar whose remarkable military prowess was displayed during the First Punic War.

Hamilcar later led the Carthaginian expansion into Iberia, taking his three young sons with him and famously forcing them to swear an oath never to be a friend of Rome. Several years after his illustrious father's death, Hannibal assumed the military command in Iberia. There, he soon displayed the strategic brilliance, outstanding organ-isational ability and charismatic leadership that were so pivotal to his success and his longevity as a military commander.

In her gripping biography, Eve MacDonald, Lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University, convincingly conveys the tremendous upheaval of the period, the boundless energies and talents of the Barcid family, the brutality of the Iberian conquest and the sense of foreboding of the tumult to come. With both Rome and Carthage intent on expansionist policies in the Mediterranean arena, a second titanic conflict between the two appeared inevitable. Hannibal determined to take the next war to Rome and embarked on his legendary march to Italy over the Alps, a stunning achievement of breathtaking audacity. Once in Italy, he famously inflicted devastating defeats on the Roman forces, the most catast-rophic of which occurred at Cannae in 216 BC.

Consumed by panic, the Romans resorted to such measures as human sacrifice to appease the gods they believed had deserted them. But here, they also showed their mettle. Refusing to make peace, they fought on with Hannibal in their midst for over a decade, avoiding pitched engagements with him and learning from his strategies. The question of why Hannibal never attempted to seize Rome has generated continuing discussion. Yet, by remaining in Italy, Hannibal had prevented larger Roman forces being deployed in Iberia and Africa. MacDonald deftly handles the continuous political machinations and military endeavours of Hannibal's ensuing long years in Italy.

The account of his last years there make for sobering reading. The defeat and death of his brother Hasdrubal, who had been coming to his aid, MacDonald says, shook Hannibal to the core, and according to Livy, 'he now saw clearly the destiny of Carthage'. Following his recall to Carthage in 203 BC, his inferior forces were crushed by Scipio Africanus at the battle of Zama, which signalled a forlorn end to his illustrious military career. When, at Rome's request, he was outlawed at Carthage, Hannibal fled to spend the remainder of his days in exile in Asia Minor. Most accounts of his death aged 65, circa 183 BC, maintain that he committed suicide to prevent capture by the Romans. Some 36 years later, Carthage was comprehensively destroyed by the Romans. Until the 11th century Hannibal's tomb was a place of pilgrimage. A monument to him (built by Ataturk in Gebze 35 miles east of Istanbul) is believed to lie near the site. MacDonald provides a compelling account of the life and career of one of the most important figures in antiquity. Few challenged the nascent supremacy of Rome as Hannibal did. Little wonder, then, that the Romans both admired and feared their peerless foe.

Diana Bentley