In the winter of 220/219, things between Rome and Carthage are headed for confrontation.
Here’s my interpretation on what happened at that meeting, based on the accounts of Roman historians and some corrections by contemporary historians, such as Zimmermann, Seibert, Hoffmann or Christ.
Carthage: Karchedon in Greek, Carthago in Latin, Qart Hadasht in Punic. To make matters confusing, Qart Hadasht is the Punic name for both Carthage (in Africa) and Carthagena (in Iberia).
Ebro: a river in Spain, agreed on as a border north of which Punic forces are not allowed to cross.
Saguntum, Zakantha in Greek, an Iberian city south of the Ebro.
Torboletes: an Iberian tribe living next to Zakantha.
strategos: Greek for “commander”, the title that Hannibal holds among his Iberian allies.
Messana: modern Messina, a city in Sicily over which the First Punic War broke out. in this text, obviously, from a Carthaginian perspective, it’s called the Roman War.
The Roman delegation, Hannibal was told, had been put up in the byrsa. His brother Hasdrubal told him they had been growing impatient at Hannibal’s prolonged absence, sensing a deliberate slight.
“You told them, I hope, that I had a revolt to put down and couldn’t wait on the needs of a delegation from Rome.”
“Not in such plain words, but… yes. Somehow, they still didn’t seem delighted.”
Hannibal pondered. “Send them word I will receive them in two hours.” That was barely enough time to get cleaned up and presentable, and barely enough time to consider the situation. It did not take much imagination to work out what a Roman delegation was doing here in Qart Hadasht. The quarrels with Zakantha – which the Romans named Saguntum – had escalated over the previous year, as they all had known they must, and the situation had quickly come to the attention of the senate. This, too, had been plain from the start.
“Two hours?” Hasdrubal asked, his eyebrows raised. “They’ll think it another slight.”
“The alternative is receiving them in arms and smelling of horseshit. We’d have a war before dinner.”
The Romans did not appreciate the long wait after Hannibal’s arrival, but Qarthalo had finally made them see that the strategos wished to receive his guests in a state that would not cause an international incident all by itself.
Two hours later, Hannibal entered the council room, together with his brothers Hasdrubal and Mago, Qarthalo, who spoke Latin as well as Greek and Punic, and Sosylos, Hannibal’s former tutor and present advisor. The Roman delegation had been studying a large wall painting of the map if Iberia, and turned at their arrival.
Yes, thought Hannibal bitterly, look at it closely. I don’t know about map-makers in Rome, but in Iberia, we know that Zakantha is south of the Ebro. Does that surprise you?
There were four of them; two consuls of the previous two years, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, and Marcus Minucius Rufus, as well as two praetors, Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Quintus Fulvius Curvus. Fulvius Curvus had lived in Qart Hadasht for ten years as a prisoner during the Roman War and acted as translator for the Romans when needed. Marcellus, a powerful, fleshy man around his fiftieth year, spoke Greek well enough to make translators unnecessary for the most part. He still used Latin names in his speech, pasting the Greek inflections to the Latin words, and Hannibal, deciding to give a little show of education, stuck to Greek. He noted Sosylos hiding a grin as he caught the strategos’ intention. Hannibal wasn’t sure the Romans did, but it was worth it just as a private joke.
“Our allies,“ said Marcellus, after the niceties had been observed, “are worried about your… ah, activities around their territories.”
“I understand,” Hannibal replied, not batting an eye. “And your allies would be in…?”
“Saguntum,” supplied Rufus. “As you very well know.” He managed to make his Greek sound even harsher than Latin, if that was possible.
“May I remind you, Minucius Rufus,” Hannibal answered, “that Saguntum, or Zakantha, is south of the Ebro. Within the limits your senate so graciously granted my predecessor Hasdrubal.”
“It is a friend of Rome,” said Geminus.
“Is that why Zakantha has attacked my allies this past autumn?” Hannibal demanded. “Because it is a friend of Rome, and feels bolstered by its protection? Or are they so emboldened by the fact that Rome has executed members of the Karchedon-friendly party in the city?”
“Saguntum has reacted to transgressions on the part of Torboletes,” Marcellus said sharply. “The Senate has been called to help settle a dispute in Saguntum. Would Carthago have acted otherwise?”
There it is, Hannibal thought. A second Messana. As we knew it would be when it became clear Rome had suddenly found a new friend south of the Ebro. And just like Messana, Zakantha will be made a bone of contention first and a bridgehead into Iberia second, unless I prevent it.
“Karchedon aids its allies,” Hannibal said pointedly. “Zakantha has moved against my allies, in my territory. I would be a faithless strategos indeed if I left my friends to their fate.”
“Rome will not tolerate it if you threaten one of her friends.”
There, finally. Plain words. He had half-hoped for them. Ten years of Roman interference in Iberia; they had put up with it. His father had reacted with smugness, his brother-in-law with diplomacy. Both had been men over forty; in the eyes of the Romans, equals in terms of age. Here he stood, barely twenty-seven, most of his staff twenty to thirty years younger than the toga-clad dignity on the other side of the room, and they obviously felt he would watch helplessly as they slowly wrested Iberia from his grasp.
Enough was enough. No more smugness, no more diplomacy. “And I will not tolerate it if you threaten mine.”
There was a drawn-out silence in the room, as both sides assessed the meaning of those words.
“You would risk Rome’s goodwill so easily?” Marcellus finally said.
Hannibal head Mago’s sharp intake of breath behind him.
“Rome’s goodwill?” the strategos repeated, very slowly. “Tell me, Marcellus, what exactly constitutes Rome’s goodwill? Is it the theft of foreign colonies, the continued interference in foreign territory, the execution of people supporting Karchedon, or the instigation of aggression against me under my very nose?”
Both Geminus and Rufus looked to be on the verge of angry words, but Marcellus stayed their retorts with a hand. “Are these the words of Hannibal, or of Carthago?” he asked, his mouth a thin hard line.
There’s the catch. As he very well knows. “In this case, the two are the same.”
Marcellus nodded. “Then Rome will hear the answer of Carthago.”
As soon as they had left the room, Rufus gave an incredulous snort. “The whelp thinks himself a conqueror,” he said, immediately reverting to Latin.
Geminus raised an eyebrow. “The whelp has conquered a larger portion of Iberia in less than two years than his predecessor did in eight. If he thinks himself a conqueror, he has good reason for it.”
“Don’t quarrel,” said Marcellus, cutting short Rufus’ reply. “He is young and imprudent; the impetuousness of youth. He will soon find that Rome will not be cowed as easily as Iberian tribes. But it does not do to underestimate him.”
Gnaeus Servilius Geminus, Consul 217 BC. Died fighting Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC.
Marcus Minucius Rufus, Consul 221 BC, magister equitum 217 BC. Died fighting Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC.
Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Consul 222, 214, 210, and 208 BC. Nicknamed “The Sword of Rome”, fought Hannibal in Italy for several years and conquered Syracuse before he fell in a skirmish against Hannibal’s troops at Venusia in 208.
Some sketches of Roman togas from several views:
Togas are cool. Sorry Hannibal, but… togas are cool.