“Go for it, Skippy. See how that works out for you”. I can just hear his voice with a hint of sarcasm. I can even see the look in his eye. It’s an “I dare you” moment, old to young. History brought to life. It’s my paraphrase of a pre-battle parley between Hannibal and the Roman General Scipio, captured by Roman historian Livy. The conversation takes place on Hannibal’s home turf in Carthage (Tunisia) just before the famous showdown at Zama. It’s high noon. What’s with the sudden need to talk?
You can read the full text of the conversation here. Hear it dramatized on YouTube, here.
There is a lot you could write about the Punic wars between Carthage (North Africa) and Rome. But to me, the most fascinating element, is the two personalities illuminated in that conversation. Here we have legendary adversaries, stating their case before the final chapter where only one will emerge the victor.
After dogging each other to Rome and back, these two finally want to meet and size each other up. It’s like the meet-up before a MMA battle. A chance to trash talk, to eyeball your enemy, and to peacock your abilities. Do it well and you will psych out your opponent. And this is what Hannibal was hoping for. Think of a Mike Tyson fight. He famously suggested, that meeting his opponent before a fight, he would look them up and down, and know in about ten seconds if he was going to win the fight. The battle is at least half psychological.
Scipio was already good at this. He had messed with Hannibal’s head a few times. When Hannibal harried Rome, famously coming over the Alps with a herd of war elephants, Scipio bought a field right in the pathway of battle. He had it notarized, and let the word get back to Hannibal that he was not at all worried about the price of real estate.
Before the battle of Zama, Scipio intercepted Hannibal’s spies. Rather than detain or execute them, he showed them around, let them see all there was to see, and sent them back to Hannibal with his compliments. It was a show of confidence, or perhaps a hint that he had things up his sleeve. Either way, I am betting it gave Hannibal pause.
Hannibal had been a brilliant war strategist, but he made a mistake using the same old tools that had worked before. He brought 80 war elephants to the battle of Zama, a tactic intended to intimidate the Romans. War elephants were unstoppable. Like tanks, they would crush everything in their path.
Scipio however, had a cool head, and analyzed what had gone wrong before. He was open to change. He also took the attitude that he simply would not accept defeat. Learning from the past, he brought in an energized cavalry contingent, even going so far as to hire mercenaries to up the number of experienced horsemen. He had seen how the agility of a man on horseback could change the tide of battle at his first crushing defeat at Cannae where he had barely escaped with his life.
Scipio adjusted his basic battle formation, to accommodate the elephants. Usually a Roman battle line was staggered like a checkerboard. There would always be a man in the gap. But Scipio wanted an open pathway this time. With a space opened before them, the elephants charged in and were promptly taken down by strategically placed spearmen. The remaining elephants turned tail and stampeded back, crushing the Carthaginian troops. Hannibal’s own can of whoop ass was turned against him.
And so the battle went to the Romans because Scipio was flexible and persistent. The pre-battle meeting between the two old foes, had been to discuss whether it might be better to pack up and call it a day, to go home and see their children, and to retire on the front porch instead of fighting. Hannibal thought this would be a good plan, and suggested to Scipio that fortune was an unfaithful mistress. Did he really want to roll the dice? Scipio did. For him it was a matter of principle, and a moral imperative. Hannibal could not be seen to tweak the nose of Rome and prosper. Scipio said that the battle must proceed, no matter the outcome.
Now all of that is ancient history, including the conversation transcribed for our ears. The two personalities are fascinating - one old and bent from battle, the other an upstart who was barely shaving. We like to size up opponents. It’s why people take wagers before any sports event. We see ourselves in their battles. In life, we are all gamblers.
The tale of any man and his nemisis can be full of twists and turns. Scipio, recognizing Hannibal’s abilities, did not drag him back to Rome in chains. He handed him the worst fate possible for an old warrior. He made him a civil servant. Hannibal was to administer the Carthaginian territory for Rome.
Both men ended up betrayed by their own constituents. Rome thought Scipio was too ambitious. He had enemies. Complaints also went back to Rome about Hannibal. He was too good an administrator, which bothered his fellow politicians. And so, in the end, fate is truly capricious. Both men betrayed by the people they were fighting for at home, and both destined to die in the same year.
Scipio was buried far from Rome, with the inscription “Thankless country, thou shalt not possess even my bones” on his tomb. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all, is that even the bravest and most honourable of warriors can be taken down in the end by the schemes of a few mediocre politicians. Now that, is truly something to think about.