War Elephant
Sunday, January 25, 2009


Livy—The War With Hannibal

This is books XXI through XXX of Livy’s history of Rome. I’ve finished book XXIII, and while there’s food for thought, it’s not as instructive as books I through X.

One thing that is brought out early in Livy’s narration is the folly of divided command. In one instance there is opposition between the dictator Fabius and his Master of the Horse (Magistri Equites) Minucius that results in splitting the forces between the two. This proves to be a bad thing when Fabius is engaged by the Carthaginian forces.

The Romans also had not a divided command, but an alternating command at Cannae. This was as absurd then as it is today. It is almost as if Eisenhower had command in Normandy one day, and Montgomery the next. In any case, the Consul Paullus and as many as 70,000 Romans and allies were killed in one day.

Cannae, was a near perfect entrapment, one which many have tried to emulate, including Norman Schwarzkpf during Gulf War I. Cannae was also a strategic failure, much like the aftermath of Meade’s victory at Gettysburg. In both cases the victorious army failed to give pursuit and complete the destruction of the enemy. Meade may have been exhausted after the three day effort, and the psychological effect of so much death. Hannibal, according to Livy, stayed to plunder. It may also be, as the Wikipedia article on Cannae says, that it was impossible to successfully attack Rome.

In XXIII, 2 we get a passage about Calavius, “a scoundrel certainly, though not absolutely of the worst sort, as he preferred to exercise power in a state which had not politically disintegrated, and believed that no state could be politically intact if was deprived of its deliberative council.”

In XXIII, 6 we get Vibius Virrius, who suggests to the Campanians that they, “make a treaty with Hannibal on any terms they pleased, and there would be noting to prevent the control of all Italy being left in their hands, when after the war, the victorious Hannibal left the country for Africa and took his army with him.” This fool presumed that Rome would be so weakened that his city could move into the power vacuum. He had no idea that Hannibal would actually leave, or that he would be victorious.

In XXIV, 1 we get a passage about an assembly: “In the course of it the light-weights expressed the usual frivolous preference for change and the new alliance….” Sounds rather like the woman from Chicago who was not named to replace the junior senator. Also a bunch of others who were carried away with the awesomeness of “The One.”

Update February 26, 2009

I’ve been slacking off a bit, so we’ll try to pick up with XXIV, 5.

In XXIV, 5 we have a story about a man who gives a false confession while under torture. As a result a number of innocent men were executed. At this point, the liberal reader is no doubt exclaiming “Ah ha, proof that torture doesn’t work.” The problem though is that torture extracts both false and true information, and the true still has to be sifted from the false.

At XXIV, 25 we have this insight: “the mob is either a humble slave, or a cruel master. As for the middle way of liberty, the mob can neither take it nor keep it with any respect for moderation or law.” This is said in the context of a call to execute the family of Hiero in Syracuse.

At XXV, 40 we find the rape of Syracuse. Much as the Germans carried away the treasures of France and the other conquered countries, the Romans looted Syracuse in 212 BC. “This is undeniable [that the reputation of Marcellus was enhanced]: but at the same time he removed to Rome the beautiful statues and paintings which Syracuse possessed in such abundance. These were, one must admit, legitimate spoils, acquired by right of war; none the less their removal to Rome was the origin of our admiration of Greek art and started the universal and reckless spoiliation of all buildings sacred and profane which prevails today, and which ultimately turned against our own Roman gods, beginning with the very temple which Marcellus so splendidly adorned.”

At XXVI, 2 we have the election of Gnaeus Fulvius, and this comment. “No one going to record his vote really understood as yet to what sort of man he was entrusting the command of an army.” Let it suffice to say that Fulvius was an unpleasant character. Here, in an older translation is what is said about Fulvius, "Now no man, when he is going to vote, takes sufficient trouble to find out what sort of a man it is to whom he is entrusting the supreme command of the army. Think of the difference between Tiberius Sempronius and Cn. Fulvius. Tiberius Sempronius had an army of slaves given to him, but in a short time, thanks to the discipline he maintained and the wise use he made of his authority, there was not a man amongst them who when he was in the field of battle gave a thought to his birth or his condition. Those men were a protection to our allies and a terror to our enemies. They snatched, as though from the very jaws of Hannibal, cities like Cumae and Beneventum and restored them to Rome. Cn. Fulvius, on the other hand, had an army of Roman citizens, born of respectable parents, brought up as free men, and he infected them with the vices of slaves, and made them such that they were insolent and riotous amongst our allies, weaklings and cowards in face of the enemy; they could not stand even the war-cry of the Carthaginians, let alone their charge. Good heavens! no wonder the soldiers gave ground, when their commander was the first to run away; the wonder is that any stood their ground and fell, and that all did not accompany Cn. Fulvius in his panic and flight. C. Flaminius, L. Paulus, L. Postumius, and the two Scipios, Cnaeus and Publius, all chose to fall in battle rather than desert their armies, when they were hemmed in by the foe. Cn. Fulvius came back to Rome as the all-but solitary herald of the annihilation of his army. After the army had fled from the field of Cannae it was deported to Sicily, not to return till the enemy had evacuated Italy, and a similar decree was recently passed in the case of Fulvius' legions. But, shame to relate, the commander himself remained unpunished after his flight from a battle brought on by his own headstrong folly; he is free to pass the rest of his life where he passed it in youth - in stews and brothels - whilst his soldiers, whose only fault is that they copied their commander, are practically sent into exile and have to undergo a service of disgrace. So unequal are the liberties enjoyed in Rome by the rich and the poor, the men of rank and the men of the people." (Trans. Rev. Canon Roberts, Everyman Library. See http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy/Livy26.html for additional information.)

At XXVI, 17 we have the story of how Hasdrubal used negotiations as a tactic to evacuate his men and keep on fighting.

At XXVI, 49 Livy remarks “There really is no limit to historians’ lies.” He’s writing in the context of disagreement about weapons captured during an operation, but it has applicability past that. Historians, particularly those at universities, should be the gatekeepers who evaluate the past on an independent basis. I’ve read so many reviews by historians, including on who put in a bit of Bush bashing in every review, that were biased, or downright false that I no longer trust university professors. I say this even though I once aspired to be a professor. My local paper, The Freelance Star, published an op-ed in which an historian , Steven Conn, or Ohio State University, claimed “Most important, with the passage of Social Security in 1935 future generations of American workers could look forward to a more secure old age.” I’m afraid that claim is false. Social Security was dependent upon a small group of retirees, who would die young, and a large group of workers, who would support them. As life was prolonged, and the rate of population growth shrank the top of the pyramid, retirees, grew, and the base, workers, shrank. So that money that was paid in went not to my future retirement, but to my father’s or grandfather’s current retirement. That is why there is a Social Security crisis.

In XXVI, 50 Scipio says, “If you think I am a good man as the peoples of Spain have already found my father and uncle to be, then I would have you know that in the Roman state there are many like us and that there is no nation in the world today which you could less wish to be the enemy of you and yours, or more wish to be your friend.” The Marines express the same sentiment more succinctly, “No better friend, no worse enemy.”

In XXVII, 17 we have a nice little commentary on post-modernism and deconstruction: “The Roman replied that he would do as they asked, adding that he could not give the name of deserter to men who believed that no association was valid in which nothing human or divine was held sacred.”

At XXVII, 48 we have this comment, which echoes down to comments on Gallic behavior post-9/11: “Gauls, to be sure, always lack stamina.”

At XXVII, 51 Gaius Claudius Nero, who should not be confused with the emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus of 37–68 AD, defeats Hasdrubal. “Nero on his return to Canusium had Hasrubal’s head, which he had carefully preserved during his march, flung on the ground in front of Hannibal’s outposts.”

At XXVIII, 19 Scipio urges his men to avenge themselves upon a town that had proved traitorous, “The time has come to avenge the brutal murder of our comrades and the treachery which would have awaited us too, if we had happened to seek refuge here; we must make an example of these traitors, and fix unalterably in men’s minds the knowledge that no one may ever consider a Roman citizen and soldier, however desperate his plight, as fair game for insult and injury.” Such fierceness seems so unmodern in comparison to letting captives stew for 444 days, or bugging out of third rate African countries after 19 men are killed. Not quite up to our gentle, post-modern standards.

In XXIX, 10 the Sibylline books are consulted. The Romans were, by our standards, extremely superstitious. Anybody that believes in sacred chickens can hardly be said not to be superstitious. Since the books were only consulted by a group of 10 or 15, and no one else had any knowledge of what they said, it is highly possible that much of what was said to be prophetic utterance was simply concocted on the spot.

In Book XXX, Scipio meets Hannibal, and Livy gives the story of their conference, and the breakdown of their attempt to negotiate a settlement. The battle of Zama, ensues, and Carthage is ultimately forced to sue for peace.

Next up, I’m taking a break from Livy, and will be doing The Apprentice by Lewis Libby.

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