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In Our Time: Hannibal

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 12:59, Friday, 12 October 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Hannibal. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI



Of the first half dozen people I met in the House of Lords this afternoon, three of them said "there weren't enough elephants". I don't know whether they were referring to the lack of forces in Hannibal's army or the lack of reference to elephants. It is very strange, isn't it? That Hannibal, regarded by so many generals over the last 2,200 years as one of the - if not THE - greatest of them all, should be remembered not for his 22 battles on the Italian mainland (not one of which he lost), nor for his subduing of Spain and the Gallic tribes and restoration of the glories of Carthage, nor for attempting to take a huge army across the Alps, but for the elephants. I suppose their effect in northern Italy was shock and awe. They have certainly been a limpet to his reputation ever since.

After the programme I said that I wished we'd had time to talk about his character. But then somebody pointed out that Polybius of Megalopolis, the Greek historian, wrote "you can't know anything about his character because he was riven to do things against his character". He used to put on disguises and wander round his own camp to find out what the mood of the army was about him and about the enemy. When he returned to the Carthaginian Senate for a while, he behaved so roughly, i.e. like the soldier he was, living with armies from the age of nine, that the aristocrats of that ancient city were most disturbed. He was also very stingy, or thrifty as might be better put, which was extremely helpful for the replenishment of Carthaginian coffers, but not quite the thing when you were an aristocrat and a leader and a famous figure in the known world.

After the programme I came back to the office and talked to two ladies from Canterbury Cathedral about a conference that they are going to have next year. Nowadays you don't just turn up to give a speech, you are interviewed about it beforehand, you are filmed saying what you are going to do months before you've given the speech, and so the trick is to try to think of what you're going to say in the speech. This publicity has now become a 360 degree industry.

Off then, out into a wet Soho with glistening pavements and a little forest of umbrellas, and all the usual pavement jostling and murmurs of purpose that you get in that forever odd and vivid little square mile. I went through Chinatown and made a note of a building that I've passed many times. It is the Exchange and Bullion Office, 1798, no bigger than a small Georgian townhouse, and there it still stands, above the Nippon and Korea Centre, and also above a Chinese medicine shop.

This evening I'm off to the British Library to listen to Hunter Davies talk about John Lennon and his letters, and see some home movies, and then watch the tribute band which will bring the past into the British Library, where McCartney's lyrics are celebrated in a scholarly fashion. Who would have bet on that in the 1960s?

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS In 1978, when I began the South Bank Show, I ill-advisedly wrote a manifesto saying that I wanted to analyse and celebrate the arts across the whole waterfront, from pop music to Wagner, from television drama to classical painting. To show I was serious I began with Paul McCartney, although the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Shakespeare Company were in the wings ready to be transmitted. A certain section of the press dumped on this, expressing the view that the Beatles could never be art, and that I was completely mistaken in this doomed venture. About 33 years later I ended the series with a programme on Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. Nothing but acclaim, rightly.

Last night at the British Library, Hunter Davies's book on John Lennon's letters was given pride of auditorium. There's an exhibition of John's letters in the library. There is close textual attention, and the Quarrymen played for us all. A week before I'd introduced Carol Ann Duffy at that same library, in the same venue, with the same measure of attendance and enthusiasm. As the poet said, "The times they are a'changin."


  • Comment number 1.

    The Carthaginians were a colony of the Phoenician peoples from Tyre in Lebanon, whose contribution for mankind was the alphabet.They were seafarers,merchants and middlemen.They were a poorly understood and unsympathetic people,who left little material remains or written culture,to counteract the Greco-Roman accounts which heartilty detest them.Their art was meagre.They were mercenary,materialistic,an impression left by their religion,with evidence of infant sacrifice.They built a trading empire in the western Mediterranean.

    One of the founding myths of Rome is the destruction of Carthage.In The Aeneid the conflict between Rome and Carthage is divinelyordained. Aeneas crushes Dido in order to fulfil his divine mission,so too will Rome crush Carthage in its pursuit of empire.

    Rome is like the Eukaryotic cell that takes over another cell, Mitochondria(Carthage)turning it into an energy machine.Carthage played a role in the development of the Roman Empire,benefiting from the appropriation of the political and economic infrastructure that Carthage had previously put in the central/western Mediterranean.

    The Romans lionized Hannibal and made statues of him long after his death.

    Hannibal supposedly had a dream that gave him divine sanction to pursue a war with Rome,confirmed by the approval of Jupiter/Zeus and has a divine guide(Hercules). Rome is represented by the many-headed Hydra Hercules was commanded to kill.Hannibal was like Hercules and Rome a monster destroying it allies’ territory.

    Hannibal’s reaction to divination,normally a matter of great importance: when told that he could not begin a battle because the entrails were unfavourable,is said to have retorted:’Do you put more faith in a slice of veal than in an old general?’

    The reaction of the tribes Hannibal crossed,subdued,absorbed in his enormous task were gambling to stay or go,the hunch was who(Rome or Carthage) would be winners?The Italians who joined him in Italy had to pay a heavy price later.

    It seems he fluffed the major decision to take Rome and paid for it ultimately.

  • Comment number 2.

    Please, BBC, never use Anna Maxwell Martin again to read Book of the Week. She may be a good actress, but that does not mean that she can correctly read aloud for others.

    I had been looking forward to hearing the biography of Nancy Astor, read by AMM as this week's Book of the Week, but it was so bad that I had to give up. AMM puts in pauses in places where they make no sense (e.g. "when, within a few short weeks (long pause) of the British Expeditionary Force being...") and seems to think that emoting is required when reading. It is not. She ruined the programme for me.

    When I am enjoying a reading, I frequently listen twice - in the morning and again in the evening. This week I have been driven away. Radio 4's loss has been Radio 3's gain.

  • Comment number 3.

    The very plasticity of narrative is its redemption for having pitched Hannibal and anon's marvels of deployment and wonders of reluctant submission into the benign footfalls of his alpine jumbos, he's now being prised out to not only glisten like Soho's pavements but glitter too.
    Not good news for the elephant,et al.


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