Across the wild Alps

I demens, et saevas curre per Alpes…

(Go, madman, and race across the wild Alps…, Iuvenal)

This has been a while in the making. I’m now finally happy with the lineart. I felt I owed Hannibal an epic, A3 sized crossing-of-the-Alps painting. To be watercoloured.

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Whenever I think of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, I think of the description in the novel by Gisbert Haefs. Pathos? Yes. Muchly. But on the other hand, what achievement in history deserves pathos as much as this one?

“The army turned into a twitching, bleeding body that threatened to fall apart and was held together by one iron band alone. Hannibal. He was everywhere, surveyed everything – from the back of Syros, from horseback, from a rock; where he put one of twenty collapsed men back on his feet, the other nineteen would rise; where he appeared with a handful of nuts, ten half-famished men would march on; where he sat down, a hundred men lying prone would sit up; where he cracked a joke, thirty lifeless men would cast off their despair and go on living; where he slept – but he didn’t sleep. He seemed to need no sleep. Whenever a pass had been taken, the mountain-dwellers fleeing, the army sinking into snow and ice to rest, he called together the commanders, took care of provisions, gave orders to secure the heights, commands for the next day… He was heart and brain and helm and girdle of the twitching and sore body and a god to the warriors; at one point, Hasdrubal the Grey said, “Lucky China. Against him, Alexander’s men wouldn’t have mutinied at the Indus; they’d have kept going.”

Gisbert Haefs, Hannibal. Der Roman Karthagos. (My translation; doesn’t quite capture the poignancy of the original.)

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Well-rested, well-fed, well-oiled

Late December 218 BC. Hannibal’s army has recovered from the ordeal of crossing the Alps, and unwritten laws of ancient warfare say that this is the time to move to winter quarters. Hannibal, however, can’t – he’s in enemy territory; neither is the Roman consul Servilius willing to wait for warmer weather. He wants a military success before his term ends, and he is not overly worried about the Carthaginian army, thinking the weather is worse for the Africans than it is for the Romans. Hannibal, with his inferior numbers, plans to make good every tactical advantage he can, and to force the Romans to fight tired, hungry, and frozen to the bone. Romans and Carthaginians are encamped at opposite banks of the river Trebia.

Just before sunrise, Hannibal went on a walk around the camp with Maharbal. Several units still looked bleary, cursing the cold, but most were already at breakfast, and wherever Hannibal appeared, the men did their best not to cut a bad figure before their commander.

The Numidians were in the process of rubbing themselves with oil that Hasdrubal had distributed among them the previous night. They would cross the Trebia to draw out Sempronius, and bait him across the river. They were sitting around fires, huddled under blankets, and did their best to drown out their chattering teeth with the loudest and self-assured banter possible.

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Warning: terrible proportions.

“The only g-g-good thing,” one of the men shouted to Hannibal and Maharbal, “is that the river c-c-can’t be any colder than the Alps!”

Hannibal grinned as he joined them at the fire. “I hate to tell you this, Gaia,” he said in Numidian. “But I’m afraid this’ll be colder. At least you’ll have something to do to get warmed up again this time.”

“Hurry up with your breakfast over there!” another man shouted to the Punic camp as he was pulling his chiton back over his head. “We’ll get you some Sempronius for afters!”

“No unnecessary heroics, Gulussa,” Hannibal warned. “Draw them out and get them to follow you into the river, but don’t let them get you.”

“No worries,” Gulussa replied. “They can’t get us, we’re too slippery.”

They all laughed, and Maharbal added, “Be careful not to slip off your horse, Gulussa.”

Maharbal turned away with a suppressed grin, and Gaia roared with laughter. “Too much information.”“I can’t!” the man chuckled. “I didn’t oil my thighs on purpose. That’s where my horse’ll keep me warm.”

Hannibal gave Gulussa a clap on the shoulder. “Think a few warm thoughts, but keep them to yourself. I’d like to keep my breakfast to myself, too.” He wiped his hand on his cloak. “Bah. Yes, I think the Romans won’t get you. Good luck.”

Mago’s victory report in Carthage

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Livy reports that, after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal’s brother Mago was sent home to Carthage to report of his brother’s great victory, pouring out “three pecks and half” of gold rings on the floor of the Carthaginian council. These rings had been taken from knights and senators who had fallen in the Battle of Cannae.

(Long historical rambling following. I had this thought today, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it voiced, so I need to pin it down before I forget it).

Usually, this gesture is seen as nothing but “Look at my bro’s awesomeness!” and its flourish is well enough in keeping with what we know of Hannibal’s general conduct, so that was most likely the overture. Mago then proceeds to demand support (money, grain and reinforcements) for his brother.

I actually think that the rings episode was one of Hannibal’s more brilliant ideas, and if anything could have worked, it was this. Alas, it didn’t, as so many other things after that time.

Why do I think there was more to it than a joyful victory report and a mandatory plea for reinforcements that was never implemented in a way that actually made a difference for the war?

Firstly, Livy says Hannibal did not send Mago straight away. The reason he gives is that some peoples in Italy had declared for Hannibal during that time, but there’s something else, something incredibly important, that happened in that time. Hannibal’s envoy he’d sent to Rome for negotiations was denied entry to the city. This must have been the instant in which Hannibal realised that his entire concept of the war threatened to collapse in itself. According to every rule of war in the Hellenistic world, Rome should have capitulated. It did not.

Secondly, Hannibal sent Mago. Perhaps his closest confidant after Maharbal. Granted, he couldn’t have known that Mago would never join him in Italy again; that the council would send him to Spain where he would never do much good. But the fact that it was Mago makes it clear that Hannibal wasn’t just reporting home. Mago had something important to say, something that Livy, in the speech he puts in Mago’s mouth, doesn’t record, but it’s highly likely that it was these three main points.

(I) My bro is awesome. Yes, there’s no way around that.

(II) These are the rings of senators. Old men in their fifties, who, as opposed to you, don’t sit in a council and debate on how many men to send where, who actually get on their horses or stand in ranks in a bloody field and die in their dozens.

(III) This is what we’re up against. We’re up against a nation whose very leaders bleed and die on the battlefields. A nation that, after its entire army has been annihilated. closes its city gates to peace talks. A nation that will not surrender unless it is crushed even more decisively than it already has.

And this is the point where we can’t really find fault with Carthage, or with Hannibal. Hannibal had played his hand. He saw affairs rather plainly. He might still hope to bring over Rome’s associates, and it’s highly likely that his successes in that regard fooled him and Carthage into believing it might be enough. But he knew that this Rome would not surrender in one battle. Had Carthage sent more men, it’s even possible he might have attempted a siege. But we can’t really fault Carthage for not sending as many as Hannibal would have needed (we’re talking at least another fifty to seventy thousand). Carthage could never have matched the insane numbers of soldiers that Rome sent into the field, and Carthage must have thought the very idea of it was completely insane, and that it had to be possible to win the war in another way.

Later, after the war, Hannibal’s political opponents put him on trial for not attacking Rome itself, and thereby losing the war. Hannibal defended himself by saying that Carthage itself had brought about its defeat by not sending him enough reinforcements. Both sides have been criticised – the council for leaving Hannibal hanging through ignorance or malice; Hannibal for originating such a stab-in-the-back-legend. The truth is that both acted as they had to. Hannibal probably had a clearer idea of the threat Rome posed – and its nature – than any of his contemporaries, while it would have been impossible for Carthage to grasp this idea. And even if they did grasp it, who can fault them for not resorting to the same means that their Roman counterparts employed?

Hannibal had been brought up far from Carthage, on his father’s Iberian campaigns. War was second nature to him, much more than to most other Carthaginians, and much more than any of the men sitting in council. In that, he probably understood Rome better than most of his fellow citizens. And he probably also understood this too – that he would not be able to make his fellow citizens see this, and act on his understanding.

Watercolour, 2013

You need to get that treated

In spring of 217, the year after Hannibal’s arrival in Italy, two new consuls are closing off the Apennine passes to stop Hannibal from leaving the north of the country. Hannibal has chosen an unguarded road, but due to flooding of the area round the river Arnus in Tuscany, his army is having a hard time getting to drier ground. Hannibal himself suffers from ophthalmia. Maharbal (right), the chief commander of his cavalry, has just returned from an extensive scouting mission.

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Maharbal returned just before sundown. Despite the late hour, the men weren’t setting up camp, instead standing where they were, some sitting on their packs, trying to catch some rest until an officer walked by and shouted at them to get their gear out of the mud. Some were too tired to shout. The only dry places where a man might sleep were dead mules. Many of the remaining pack animals and horses were in a bad way, and the men weren’t looking any better.

He found Hannibal with Hanno and Mago at the rear of the column; the strategos wore a bandage around his head, covering the inflamed eye. He looked terrible, even the left eye reddened from lack of sleep. Syrus, the last surviving elephant, stood close by, looking almost unperturbed in all the misery around him, but his flanks were sunken, the small ears beating pointlessly at the flies and mosquitos.

“Ah, finally. How much further?” Hannibal asked as he saw Maharbal approach.

“Five to seven hours. Probably closer to seven,” Maharbal amended, dismounting.  “There’s a place called Faesulae ten miles ahead, but we found a few estates on dry ground close to the swamp. The town is small and far enough away not to bother us. My men are taking care of the estates. The barns are well-stocked, and there’s enough cattle to keep the army fed for a while. We ought to be able to rest there for a few days.” He cast Hannibal a beseeching look at these last words.

Hannibal nodded, apparently oblivious to the plea. “We’ll march in an hour. Mago, you stay with the rear. Hanno – ride up to the van and tell the men we’ll be on dry ground before dawn; that’s as much comfort as they’re going to get here. Take Sedoc with you, so he can tell the Celts as well. I’ll be coming after you on Syros.” He grimaced and rubbed his eye under the bandage, watching as his nephew mounted a bedraggled-looking horse and laboured his way up the column again. “You’ve been thorough?” Hannibal finally asked Maharbal, who was watching his friend with worry written across his face. “Any news on the consuls?”

“Thorough? You know me. – Hannibal, you need to get that treated.”

“I am getting that treated, but look around. – The consuls?”

Maharbal caught Mago’s look that said, How many times do you think I’ve told him that? “Servilius is still in Ariminum,” the cavalry commander reported at length. “A couple of men from Faesulae we captured yesterday are definite that Flaminius is still in Arretium – perched on the road to Rome like Iuppiter Stator in person and wondering when and where we’ll be crossing the Apennines.” He grinned. “Baal Hammon, I wish I could see his face when he finds us right in front of him.”

“Enemy scouts?” Hannibal wasn’t smiling, his voice clipped in pain.

“None. Not a horse’s tail in two days. It seems our friend Flaminius doesn’t believe in such Punic treachery as ambushes, or scouting. A fine, stout Roman. Bah.”

“Perfect. Servilius is completely out of touch and Flaminius isn’t expecting us. We need to make sure it stays that way. What have you found out about the terrain?”

“Bad terrain for cavalry. Hills and woods for at least twenty miles, beyond Arretium.”

“Bad for cavalry, but an ambush might work,” Mago said. “Especially against a commander who doesn’t do much scouting.”

Hannibal nodded. “We’ll see about that. Tell your scouts to keep their eyes open.” He cursed under his breath and vigorously rubbed at the bandage, his face contorting in pain.

“Once we’re out of here, a couple of days’ rest will fix that up.” Mago didn’t sound convinced in the slightest.

“I told you, I don’t have a couple of days,” Hannibal said, his voice raw. “You heard Maharbal. We know Flaminius is eager to meet us, and we want to draw him along before Servilius realises what’s happening. Flaminius will be happy to tackle us without his colleague – more laurels to him – but if Servilius gets wind of where we are, he’ll move. The terrain might allow us an ambush of one consular army, but not two. Any delay may well get us crushed between hammer and anvil. We can’t risk that. Not now. Not if we can take out one of them without much trouble.”

Maharbal exchanged a glance with Mago. Hannibal’s logic was impeccable, but the unspoken question was whether the defeat of Flaminius would come at the price of the strategos‘ eyesight. He didn’t dare to voice it.

Pencil version:

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Watercolour, 2013

Faces of war

Marcus Fabius Buteo (in other accounts, Quintus Fabius Maximus – it seems the gentleman in question didn’t want his name associated too clearly with the declaration of war after the effect) arrives in Carthage in late 219 BC, at the head of a Roman delegation. Their goal: Make Carthage either hand over Hannibal, or accept the guilt for war. When the Carthaginian council is neither willing to extradite their general nor to accept the blame for the crisis, Fabius grasps the folds of his toga and shouts, “Here we bring war and peace, choose whichever pleases you.”
The Carthaginians tell him to give them whatever pleases him. He shakes out the toga and declares that he gives them war.

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Following Hannibal’s unexpected arrival in Italy after crossing the Alps, the first full-scale battle is fought only a few weeks later. It was the only battle in Italy in which Hannibal’s elephants played any role – they’d survived the Alps, and some survived the battle, but none but one survived the winter.

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In 216 BC, Rome fielded the vastest army that had ever stood on Italian soil. 86,000 legionaries opposed just over half that number of Hannibal’s army of Africans, Spaniards and Celts. On the plain of Cannae in Apulia, on a wide open field to forestall any Punic treachery or ambush, Rome meant to end the menace from the Carthaginian strategos. They advanced with a massive phalanx, meaning to crush Hannibal’s centre so that his cavalry superiority wouldn’t avail him anything.

Hannibal’s centre slowly retreated before the advancing legions, drawing them into a trap which they didn’t see until Hannibal’s cavalry, having driven off the enemy horse, appeared at their backs.

By nightfall on that 2nd of August, between fifty and seventy thousand Romans lay dead.

Hannibal had fought with the Celtic mercenaries in the centre, knowing that his presence would be needed there most to keep the Celts from routing, leaving his officers to do what had to be done on the rest of the field.

At the end of the day, when after hours of incredible slaughter it became clear just how complete the victory was, he must have thought the war would be over now, that, according to every rule of war of that time, Rome would accept his offer for peace.

Rome didn’t even let his emissaries into the city, determined to fight until it was either reduced to rubble or the war was won.

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More Hannibal

I’m gradually warming to the idea of doing more with this – a Hannibal graphic novel; now that would have been a childhood dream of mine…

I’ve just come back from five days with my parents, which were largely spent drawing. First up, a dump of some sketches – Hannibal in the Alps, an age-up trial of Hannibal at 28 and at 64, an elephant, and a Numidian.

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Hannibal says good-bye to his wife Imilce and child before he leaves for Rome. History never talks of her again and it’s likely that she and the child died before the war ended.

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In the command tent after midnight, Hannibal fine-tunes tactics. (If you’re familiar with ancient warfare, the battle line might look familiar – it is to become the Battle of Cannae. (“I think I’ll move the center forward – that will lure the Romans in…”)

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Hannibal on horseback, on the march to Italy. I’m having an almost indecent amount of fun mixing and matching Greek armour, Iberian saddle and tack, Hellenistic head piece, and Iberian and Punic design elements on clothing.

The scar on his thigh was from the siege of Saguntum.

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Hannibal, 15, sees his first Romans. They come to his father in Spain, demanding to know what the Carthaginians are doing in the country. Hannibal clearly feels this question is none of their business.

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