Reading Polybios

Having been re-reading Polybios on the origins of the Second Punic War (also known as the Hannibalic War), I am struck by a number of inconsistencies which may hint at a concealed history and I will attempt to lay these out below.

Polybios is right that the origins of the war as opposed to the cassus belli  lay in the revisions to the treaty which ended the First Punic War, when Rome threatened war during the Mercenary War (when some of Carthage’s mercenaries revolted over lack of pay) and took another 1,200 talents and Sardinia as indemnities. This was regarded even by Romans as monstrously unjust and the embarrassment felt can be detected in Polybios’ account. However this does not mean, as Polybios and the Roman historians state that the Barcids then determined that they would take revenge on Rome. Rather it was taken as proof of Roman infidelity and the need for strength against future Roman aggression.

The pattern of Roman diplomatic behaviour between the two wars comes across as arrogant and self-assured. Roman power, unlike Carthaginian, rested upon the superiority of Roman armies in the field. War with Carthage must have brought significant immediate and medium term wealth into Rome with the war indemnities as well as control of trade and the fertility of Sicily and Sardinia.

One wonders at the possible state of Roman internal politics after the war. One hundred years later, Tiberias Gracchus was proposing to redistribute foreign gold to the Roman poor in the form of land relief. Was it possible that a faction in Rome moved to extract more wealth from the still prosperous Carthaginians to relieve poverty caused by the war? Could this be a (partial) cause for Roman embarrassment over the origins of war? A breach of treaty motivated by a partisan faction would induce thoughts of hubris bringing about nemesis during the dark days of 216-215 BC. Nonetheless the eventual victory in the war would have suppressed memories of the Sardinian episode and confirmed (or created) thoughts of manifest destiny for Rome.

The years following the loss of Sardinia saw the Barcid family expand Carthaginian imperial domain in Spain. These successes replenished the treasury, built a huge powerbase and more than compensated for the loss of Sicily and Sardinia. The critical period for analysing the origins of the Hannibalic War is the period between 230 and 220. In this time, an undertaking was agreed with the Barcids that Carthaginian domain would not extend beyond the Ebro and Rome fought a hard but brief war against the Celts of the Po Valley, culminating in the Battle of Telemon. By 221, the bulk of southern Spain was ruled from New Carthage.

At this point, Polybios reports that Hannibal was arrogant, war-like and over confident, which if we follow the rules of Greek literature, should have meant he was guilty of hubris. Yet, following the declaration of war, it was Hannibal who stepped into the role of Nemesis, invading Italy and almost defeating Rome. This leads me to the possibility that the Roman Senate had decided that once a cassus belli could be found, a swift war could be fought, Spain taken from Carthage and wealth and even more importantly to Roman senators, political prestige in the form of triumphs and clients could be had. Given the known superiority of Roman arms over anything the Carthaginians could field, the Senate would have been justly confident of success in a preventative war for they would have justified this as preventing a war of revenge by Carthage for the Roman sin of Sardinia.

The shock came when Hannibal was able to defeat Roman armies with a regularity which shook Roman confidence to the core. Patrick Waterson has an excellent theory that following the Battle of the Trebia and then Lake Trasimene, Hannibal began not only rearming his veteran Libyans wholesale with captured Roman weaponry but also drilled his Libyans, Spaniards and Celts to fight in Roman fashion with supporting lines of relief and not committing to impetuous charges. Following this theory, Carthaginian armies were much efficient against Roman armies in the second war because they fought much more like Romans.

We are informed by Polybios that the cassus belli was the attack by Hannibal on the Roman allied city of Saguntum. Hannibal would have known that this would cause the war with Rome which his father, his uncle and himself had spent the years in Spain avoiding. We know that the Romans had intervened in Saguntum to remove a pro-Carthaginian faction. Was it possible that Rome intended Saguntum to be used as the base for the conquest of Spain? We know that Hannibal commenced siege operations against Saguntum in August 219 and these were successfully concluded by March 218 (eight months). It is hard to believe that Rome had previously warned Hannibal away from operations against Saguntum and then proceeded to do nothing – not even send a delegation for eight months while their erstwhile allies were besieged, the defenders massacred and the population enslaved.

I do not believe that Saguntum was a ally of Rome. I suspect that the leading factions in Rome were in favour of a future war and that the Roman delegation had arbitrarily ordered Hannibal to leave Saguntum alone or face the wrath of Roman arms. The story of the alliance with Saguntum was invented as a retrospective justification to put Hannibal in the wrong.

Given that Rome waited eight months to declare war on Carthage after demanding that the Barcid officers be either handed over to Rome (for execution) or punished (put to death) by Carthage herself, this tells the reader that either Roman policy was monumentally inept which seems unlikely given the leisurely pace of preparations for war or that the Senate had decided upon using the fall of Saguntum as a pretext (cassus belli) for war with Carthage. Rome did not need allies, since the Socii were effectively subject peoples, not allies as we would understand it, so it had no need to do more that observe the diplomatic forms. The retrospective justifications were required to avert the accusations of hubris and protect the reputations of the Cornelii and Sempronii families. It is also noteworthy that the consuls for 218 were P. Cornelius Scipo and T. Sempronius Longus.

The consular armies set out for Spain in August 218 both with strong warship contingents. If war was declared between March and June 218, how quickly had it taken the Roman state to raise and train these armies? The matter of concern is to train the armies. If it took longer than two or three months to gather the armies, organise logistics and the two fleets, then it is probable that the Romans had started war preparations during the siege of Saguntum.

As it was, Hannibal overthrew much but not all of the Roman war strategy by an overland invasion of Italy. It is noteworthy that Rome persevered with its war strategy of conquering Spain and finally landing in Africa, excepting the defence of Italy. But the political strategy of war almost overthrew Rome itself and this was never forgotten. I believe that the memory of this strategy impelled the Roman aggression against Macedon, Greece and the Seleucids as a series of successful attempts to prevent any other people or kingdom being able to do what Hannibal had unexpectedly almost done to Rome.

Finally, it must be noted that the destructive tendencies which tore the later Republic apart may well have been present in the period after the First Punic War. Arrogance, greed and a confident assertiveness based on military prowess gave Roman politicians the incentives to pursue war as a means of political success. The Cornelii may have been central to this drive. Polybios was a client of the Aemilii (related to the Cornelii) and would not have criticised them in his history, instead relating the stories which incoherently sought to blame Carthage and the Barcids in particular for war to exonerate the ambitions of the Roman patrician clans whom instead could be credited in Scipo Africanus in saving Rome from Hannibal.


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