5.03.2011

Hannibal Bin Laden

Sometime between the years 181 and 183 BC, in Libyssa (the city now known as Gebze on the entrance to the Black Sea), there was an old Greek palace. Libyssa was a city in the now long forgot kingdom of Bithynia (interesting, also, in the later life of Mithridates, another fascinating character), which at that time, was wrapping up a long war with the nearby kingdom of Pergamum, an ally of the Roman Empire. The war was a difficult one, and in those days, for most countries, there was no standing army of any substance, so for professional soldiers, the king, Prusias, had turned for help to mercenaries, including a man who, though in the winter of his life, was without a doubt then (and in many ways still today) the most famous military leader of all time - Hannibal Barca, the general of the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War.


Most people know Hannibal for his famous march through the Alps on the backs of his famous war elephants, or perhaps know the famous phrase "Hannibal at the Gates!", meaning that danger is imminent. During his life, Hannibal was, by most Romans, the most terrifying man alive. After marching through the Alps, Hannibal proceeded to spend 16 years marching up and down the length of Italy, turning most of Rome's allies in the region to their side, and systematically beating the Romans over and over - the historical records (which several of Rome's greatest historians kept) seem unanimous: Rome was, quite simply, incapable of winning a battle against Hannibal. And Hannibal's victories were not simply crushing feats of superior manpower. In the most scathing battle, Hannibal marched into the field of Cannae, near Rome, with 50000 soldiers, against a force of 86000 Romans. Hannibals group was a ragtag mixture of a wide swath of different Celtic tribes, and a core force of Carthaginians far away from their homeland. The Romans were close to their own city, defending their families and livelihoods from what was, truly, a mortal threat. At the end of the day, about 6000 Carthaginians were dead, as opposed to 50000 Romans. And additional 5000 were captured. To put that in perspective, literally 1/5th of the male population of Rome had died, in a single battle, on a single field, on a single day. The number is large enough, for me, to really have no meaning: think of it this way - the Roman's losses on that single day, were nearly equivalent to the death count of the US Army through the entire Vietnam War. And this in a nation whose native population was about half that of the Omaha metropolitan area.

Beyond this, Hannibal's tactics were, in and of themselves, completely foreign to the Romans. The Romans learned their tactics from the Greeks, in large part, who fought, essentially, like a football line: a long row of soldiers, perhaps 10 deep, lines up in straight rows, and marches forward to smash against the other army. Hannibal did not - Hannibal took part in what we now call 'unconventional warfare'. Caught in a narrow valley at night, for instance, with Romans surrounding him on most sides, Hannibal took a herd of cattle, and lit their tails on fair, then pointed them (as much as one can point a herd of burning cattle) toward one of the passes out of the valley. The Romans, watching from the outskirts, suddenly saw a mass of fires running toward one of the exits, and of course, assumed this was the torches of Hannibal's army, trying to escape the valley, so they naturally moved their forces to block the exit the cows were approaching. Hannibal left via the other exit, now left wide open.

The Romans hatred for the Carthaginians had many roots, of course. One was the materialistic one: Carthage was a rival, with interests in Sicily, which is awfully close to Rome. This is, without a doubt, the reason the wars were fought. Aside from this, though, one of the interesting threads of the real antipathy the Romans felt for the Carthaginians was cultural and religious. The religious of the Carthaginians, to the Roman mind, was primitive, barbaric and cruel. In many ways, we would probably think of it the same way today: the Carthaginians, most infamously, would sacrifice their own children on their altars, a fact that was considered a fable made up by the Romans to demonize their enemies for a long time, but now largely confirmed by considerable archaeological evidence. And beyond this, by the time of Hannibal, their was a considerable historical antipathy - the first Punic War had, particularly for the Barca family, created a situation where the Romans dominated the Carthaginians, making of them what was, if not in name then in reality, a colony, and a fairly cruelly taxed one at that. Hannibal, as a very young man, was taken to an altar (possibly where the child sacrifices were occurring, though opinons on this differ, I am led to understand), where he placed his hand on the altar, and his father had him swear an oath to hate and fight the Romans, for the rest of his life, on principle. In short, we tell the story of Hannibal now with sufficient historical distance that we can feel like both sides have their heroic moments. There is, I would say, even a tendency to like Hannibal more - he's the underdog, and the genius, people want to cheer for that. It's difficult for us, then, to reall completely internalize how quintessentially threatening Hannibal was at the time. Hannibal was the force of destruction and dissolution, a force that felt not simply like a war enemy, but a threat to the very culture of Rome at the time, the personification of the threatening other. And this perception was not, entirely unfair - given the choice,  Hannibal's history seems to suggest, Hannibal would have been quite happy to see Rome ended, razed to the ground, the earth salted (in much the way, ironically, that Carthage was treated at the end of the Third Punic War).

I don't think it's a stretch, then, to draw parallels between Hannibal and the Carthaginians to Rome, and Osama Bin Laden and the extremist Islamic fringe in groups like Al-Qaeda to the United States. In both situations, you have a group whose cultures seem to be predisposed to clash. The variety of Islam that the extremist fringe espouses (not Islam in general, just the variety) feels, I think, to many like an attack on the best parts of modern culture (whether this is true or not, or the relationship between the perception of this difference and the actuality is irrelevant to this topic, though an interesting question on it's own). In both cases, there is a certain horror in our culture of the tactics themselves, a sort of consciously irrational feeling that the other side is 'cheating'. Of course, that's silly to some extent. Terrorism, at least from my ability to define it, is entirely a function of one's point of view. But the feeling is strong - the feelings we have about terrorism are fairly easy to match up to the feelings Rome had about Hannibals method of warfare. The feelings we have about 9/11 - a strange mixture of horror and denial and blood fury and patriotic pride at our ability to survive it - are very similar to those the Romans had after Cannae. And in many ways, the attacks on Carthage that eventually led to Hannibal's defeat and exile, are much like America's war in Afghanistan.

Particularly this is true when it comes to the results, with Hannibal himself - the object of the attack on Carthage was to defeat Hannibal, yes, certainly, much like the American object in Afghanistan was to overthrow the Taliban, but beyond this, it was for many Romans, to catch Hannibal, to drag him back to Rome, to try him, and to kill him. To see justice done, on the one hand, and to remove the man who had become the definition of secret fear for Romans, on the other. Hannibals escape, and his subsequent career of acting as a mercenary for Rome's many enemies was a crushing, terrifying thing for the Romans. Hannibals power was broken, at some practical level, of course - his home was gone, his army taken from him. But he was still there, and after all, just like we now live in a state of continual fear of devastating terrorist attack, despite the fact that there has been essentially no change in the intensity of the actual threat (its probably decreased in fact), the knowledge of the threat is sometimes worse than the threat. Terrorism, or Hannibal, or the adult equivalent of the Bogeyman - there is no situation in which the Bogeyman can be proven to not be a threat, no matter what color the threat alert light is.

So, it was, in Libyssa, that Hannibal sat, and waited, knowing the end was at hand for him. The Romans were a huge force in the world, by then, and had finally intimidated Prusias into letting them come in and take Hannibal. Hannibal was no fool, he had secret tunnels and exits throughout the home he had in Libyssa - but someone had betrayed him. Each of these exits was guarded that day. Hannibal knew what was coming, and he knew, now, finally, there was no escape. He took poison, and left a note behind, reading something that could just as well have been tauntingly offered up by Bin Laden, if he had made one final of his infamous videos, knowing that he had been surrounded:

 "Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man's death"

I do not know what happened when Hannibal died, immediately. I could guess. I'm sure that it was heralded through Rome, that there were celebrations, that it was the talk of the empire. I'm sure there was a feeling of relief, I'm sure there was some unpleasantness.

The interesting thing to me, though, is that we have such a history of him. The history the Romans left was first written by a man named Polybius, who in fact had the family of the general who defeated Hannibal as a patron. The history was detailed, and historians believe, remarkably accurate, and the interesting part to me: it presented Hannibal as an extraordinary leader, and told much of the story following Hannibal's armies, not Rome's. Hannibal was not made into the hero of the story - he was, without a doubt, a villain, someone who had done Rome great harm, and who would have destroyed it. But, he was who he was - a human being, and a, for lack of a better term, worthy foe. A Roman, reading Polybius, could sympathize and understand Hannibal, could learn from Hannibal, and at the same time, still feel glad that, in the end, he was defeated.

Watching the last few days, since the death of Osama Bin-Laden, I've been frustrated (though not surprised) to see none of this. Osama Bin-Laden is the butt of jokes, his death is hardly even a serious thing. The painting people make of him is a coward, a madman, a monster. I don't like Osama Bin-Laden. I'm not an apologist. I think his theology and his actions are wrong, and should be opposed. I am glad that he has been caught, and while I would on principle always rather someone be captured and imprisoned than killed, I can accept with peace the manner of his death, burial, etc, as far as I understand them. This was a dangerous man. 

At the same time, I think that we, as a culture, both demean ourselves, and lose the value of this event, by simply pretending he was an inhuman monster. Osama Bin Laden was a man, a man who, I honestly believe, did not think he was being evil. HE was a man fighting for what he believed was right. He was resourceful, and intelligent, consistent in his devotion to his cause, and intellectually honest. He did what he did for a cause that I do not wish to see win out in the world, but one in which he believed, as strongly as we believe in our own causes. He was a terrible man, a man who did terrible things, but he was a man. He was, for lack of a better word, a worthy adversary, one who should inspire with his death, not an effort to denigrate him - his actions are wicked enough to denigrate themselves - but a serious searching inside of our hearts, to discover where such men come from, and why they succeed against us. This is a lesson that history has a way of repeating to us until we learn it - or fail to learn it. And its not, entirely or even mostly, a military or a political lesson. It's a human one. 

4 comments:

Trapunto said...

I expect there were Hannibal jokes and a rash of lewd Hannibal graffiti among the Romans right after he died. It's a release of tension. People start laughing and joking as they are riding away in the tow truck, not at the scene of the accident, not when they are sitting at the kitchen table describing what happened, and certainly not years later when they are telling their kids about it. So, it seems to me it's not that we take a different attitude toward our enemies than the Romans, just that we are closer in time to the figure being discussed. Polybius was writing as a historian, not a journalist. (He is also an amusing minor character in I, Claudius. I think you would really have fun with that book!)

"There is no situation in which the Bogeyman can be proven to not be a threat, no matter what color the threat alert light is"--love how you put that.

Jason Gignac said...

I quite agree, and perhaps should have highlighted that earlier - I have no doubt that there was more than one pillar in the alleys of room the read "Hannibal can ***** my ****" or whatever else. I'm sure people made jokes, just like the ones that are being made now. I just hope that's not ALL we do with it, or that we eventualyl STOP doing it. I certainly don't mean to lionize the Romans! More, I think it is a difference of pace - in a year, noone will be thinking of Osama Bin Laden here, anymore. We do not have time, in our country, for digestion. We write our histories as the events are occuring, and within ten years, they feel ancient. This isn't becausewe're bad people, I don't think, just the limitations that come with our blessings?

Marshabar said...

Osama bin Laden was no Hannibal. He was an angry, spoiled ideologue who ultimately hid behind the young woman he bought to serve him just as his "troops" hide behind women and children every day. I wish with all my heart that there was a single man whose death would defeat these religious zealots who wish to destroy western culture.

Loved the article though, the look at history.

Has anyone EVER been able to make things better for Afghanistan? Has their culture ever experienced an enlightenment?

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Marshabar - I think, actually, the things you mention are rather close parallels in some ways. Hannibal was a scion of a wealthy family. Ideologue would not have meant the same thing then as now, but Hannibal was certainly a fanatic in support of his own cause, which was largely (much like extremist terrorism) fueled by negative hatred of his perceived enemy. Hannibal snuck out of his country to hide when it was clear that the battle was lost. The Romans would have considered his hiding behind the hospitality of a host as cowardly as we generally consider hiding behind an innocent, now. And from the Roman's point of view, he did want to destroy WEstern Culture - the world, if it had been ruled by the Carthiginians instead of the Romans would be unimaginably different.

On the other side of things, the word 'Renaissance' is of course a matter of perspective, but yes, actually, Afghanistan was at one time a very important crossroads of the Silk Road. Marco Polo, for instance, made some very vivid descriptions of the riches and trade that went on there. I believe (though I'm on shakier ground in terms of my knowledge, here) that it was also one of the hotbeds of Sufi poetry, and a few years ago when the Taliban destroyed an ancient Buddha statue that wasin the mountains of Afghanistan, it was heartbreaking in part BECAUSE it was part of a rich cultural and artistic heritage. Afghanistan was a meeting place of many different cultures. Like most of the mideast and central asia, its progress slowed considerably through the imperial period, and then became a pawn in the powerplays of the two great world powers during the Cold War (its worth remembering that we helped to fund the Taliban, after all). ITs poverty and social problems, now, were not in any way inevitable, they were the result of historical events. IT's very sad :/.