Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, relates his eventful life to his long lost son in a letter in which his love of family and sense of humour become clear. His remarkable, knowledgeable and inventive character become evident in this letter, illuminating the highlights of his enthralling life.
He reached the walls of Rome with an encircling army, and, for generations after his death, Roman mothers would frighten their children with the cry “Hannibal is at the gates!
My son…Alcibiades, the physician, has arrived.
Like most of the king’s advisors who are able to read and write, this tall, spare man with greying hair and an obsequious stoop was not born here, in Bithynia. People of this country take great care not to be better educated than their ruler, who is almost illiterate, always suspicious and predictably jealous of any success but his own. So they are well schooled in only the practical sciences of farming, fishing and flattery. Medicine, like astronomy, is a mystery whose god they choose not to worship. In this they are similar to animals… and most of the Gauls whom I led years ago.
Bithynians, as a race, are free of cant, their feet are firmly planted on the ground, and their virtues and vices are plain to see. Consequently, after a few days they cease to be amusing, and boredom, that state of mind that I, like all but the very simplest of men flee from as if it were the plague, threatens.
In addition, the errors I have seen come about in this court, as in others in which I have taken refuge in the past, reveal that stupid men all too often hold sway as long as they shout louder and know how to curry favour. That illogical behaviour must inevitably come to grief has shown me that it is better to be kicked by a wise man than kissed by a fool. Time and again this has proved instructive if temporarily unpleasant…and is usually entertaining in retrospect.
But I have been safe in this wilderness until now, having made a point of being useful by offering advice about war, siege and defence, those arts upon which my reputation rests and which have paid my way for several years. The conduct of diplomacy, that necessary evil, Prusias manages well enough for he is naturally duplicitous. I am not.
When I was chief suffete, tasked with arranging the reparation payments to the Romans after our loss in the Second Punic war, diplomacy was the one field in which I lacked finesse. I am too direct and do not suffer fools gladly, the legacy of being a general in command of thousands.
The Hundred, oligarchs who ruled Carthage while I was harrying our enemy, opposed me at every turn (as they had always done) and played on my shortcomings. And why? All to preserve their wealth. My actions before, during and after the war cost them gold and slaves. Victory would have meant repayment with profit, but since we were beaten this did not happen. The rich and powerful take loss personally so they looked for a scapegoat, and found me.
Here is the proof. The Hundred offered to send me, the only Phoenician general whom the Senate feared, in chains as a captive to Rome. They thought this would appease the Romans and secure safety for themselves and their treasures.
It may be true that the destruction of Carthage was inevitable but our foes would have paid dearly for victory if I had still been on African shores. As it was it cost the Romans nothing and the Hundred, and the Phoenicians they led, everything, as a helpless Carthage was razed to the ground and salt sown into its fields. The Oligarchs fulfilled the Greek saying that those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.
Alcibiades is a Greek who crossed the Hellespont to escape from his enemies, as I did. I was told that when he disembarked here, from the merchant vessel on which he had taken passage, he thought he was in Egypt, because there were none of the usual cryptic messages in his native tongue scrawled on the harbour wall. These are to be found in all the ports of the Middle Sea except for those under the hegemony of the Pharoah, whom Prusias admires and apes.
Since the protracted dell knell of my world, I, Hannibal Barca, the general of the Phoenicians, have disembarked in many harbours to escape long Roman reach. It is part of my arrival ritual to spend a few moments reading hastily composed instructions that Greek travellers leave for their loved ones, or even for members of their family. Messages such as:
“Odysseus, third house after the citadel. Remember to bow.” Or,
“Laopidus, as before. Be quick, be soon, be true a little longer.” Or,
“Love is like a cow’s udder, warm, giving and full of promise.”
That last notice is to be found in every port and I should be used to seeing it, but each time it brings me up short and makes me laugh. I thought there was no rhyme or reason for its presence until I realised that it identified to a watcher those travellers who could speak Greek and had a sense of humour. I have my tutor, Argan, to thank for the former, and an ancestor unknown for the latter.