An Exciting Introduction
Silius Italicus, who turned Livy’s History into an epic poem, opens his account of the battle of Zama with a scene where Jupiter and Juno decide on the fate of Hannibal and Carthage:
I suspect that most teenagers reading Hannibal's and Scipio's speeches at their 'conference' before the battle of Zama will see them as long-winded and boring.
Actually, they go to the core of what Livy was doing in his History.
Be Hannibal o’ercome, as fates ordain,
And let the dust of Troy in Carthage reign.
Both Polybius (unusually for him) and Livy (as we would expect) present the battle of Zama in terms of high drama. At Zama – or so they would have us believe – the fate of the world was being decided.
There are other accounts of the end of the war which do not place such terminal focus on Zama. Livy mentions Valerius Antias’s account of a major battle (not mentioned by Polybius or Livy) in which 12,000 Carthaginians were killed. And Cornelius Nepos states that, after Zama, Hannibal ‘drew together, in a few days, a numerous force … and continued to act, as well as his brother Mago, in Africa’.
But Polybius wanted to focus the glory of victory on his patron’s grandfather, and Livy wanted to end his third decade with a bang, and Zama gave them both the vehicle to do so.
Polybius, therefore, starts with a short summary of what was at stake:
The war began afresh [with] more bitterness than the original one. For the Romans, thinking that they had been treacherously attacked, set their hearts on getting the better of the Carthaginians, and the latter, conscious of their guilt, were ready to suffer anything rather than fall into the power of the Romans...
Even more, Livy takes an entire chapter (300+ words) to set the scene. Again as we would expect, Livy’s account is much more focussed – not on the general culmination of the war between the two cities – but on the two protagonists, exploring the Romans’ ‘terror’ of fighting Hannibal in his own land, and the Carthaginians’ fear of Scipio – ‘their bogeyman, a figure of dread, the agent of Fate, a general born to bring them to destruction.’
Now, however, all eyes were turned on Scipio and Hannibal, getting ready for the final showdown.
We have seen Livy doing this before. When he exalts Hannibal, he by inference further-exalts the Romans who defeated him. His presentation of Scipio as an exemplar of Roman virtue is typical hyperbole. But, in this context, he is also concerned to set these two superhumans against each other in order to heighten the drama of the coming climactic confrontation.
And it is into this highly-charged setting that both Polybius and Livy drop their account of a personal conference – which Livy then cranks up further by his description (not in Polybius) of their meeting:
At first neither said a word, as if each was awe-struck at the sight of the other, each lost in admiration of his opponent.
These are simply literary techniques to give his account energeia.
Did it even happen at all?
Historians have debated whether the meeting ever actually took place.
• HH Scullard (1939) thought it did, on the grounds that Polybius was a Scipionic client and ‘more than a Greek historiographer aiming at the dramatic’ – i.e. he would not have included it if it did not happen. Hmmm.
• Frank Walbank (1965) thought that it was ‘possible’ … but accepted that Polybius may have embellished a vague reference by Ennius of a personal meeting between Hannibal and Scipio.
• Richard Gabriel (2008) thought that it is ‘probably a fabrication that serves to explains why Hannibal chose to stand and fight at Zama’.
• Ronald Mellor (1999) simply declared it ‘fictitious’.
We will never know either way. What we can say is that there was a strong tradition of such a meeting in Roman literature – it is mentioned also by Nepos, Appian and Florus. And there were evidently different versions of the story – Livy mentions Valerius Antias’s version that, after his defeat, Hannibal ‘went in company with ten delegates to Scipio's camp’ – but whether that makes its actual occurrence more likely or less likely is moot.
What were Polybius and Livy trying to achieve?
Remember that, in classical historiography, authors used ‘speeches’ like plays do – as a vehicle to convey how their subjects were feeling, or to summarise a range of arguments, or to weigh up opposing positions ... or simply (as in this case) to put across their own Weltanschauung.
You will see it written in some studies that Livy based his account on Polybius. I’m not too sure – there are significant differences throughout their accounts. Maybe they used different sources. But even if they didn’t, Livy has taken the opportunity to significantly reinterpret Hannibal's speech to convey his personal interpretation of the situation, and of the two generals. Actually, in a similar way, Polybius before him had also re-fashioned his sources to present his personal portrayal of the protagonists.
Therefore – whilst it is impossible ever to reconstruct what the two men said (even of they did meet) – it IS possible to analyse how Polybius and Livy wished to portray Hannibal and Scipio.
Contrasting Portrayals – Polybius’s account of Hannibal’s speech
• Hannibal starts with a condemnation of the aggressive imperialism which had tempted the two nations to anger the gods and go to war.
• He warns Scipio of the dangers of ‘fickle τύχη’ – which he had learned not to trust – and which his own reversal of fortune belied.
• He presents the decision of battle as a choice between good and evil, and urges Scipio to avoid the risk of defeat.
• He then offers terms - which he calls ‘secure for the Carthaginians and most honourable to you and to all the Romans’ ... but which were in fact more lenient than the treaty Scipio had already signed, and which the Carthaginians had broken.
Reading the speech, the reader is tempted to exclaim – in much the same way as Polybius presents Scipio as actually doing: ‘Get real – if that’s all you can offer, there’s no point in talking’.
Which – of course – is exactly the reaction Polybius WANTED! Some historians have suggested that the speeches at Naragarra are ‘imaginary reconstructions of the arguments likely to be used on such an occasion’ (Scullard, 1939). They write as though Polybius was trying to invent ‘the kind of thing Hannibal would have said’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
At this critical moment of his narrative, Polybius was making Hannibal say things which would bring his history to a climax and convey the message of his writing.
Remember why Polybius was writing his history – to warn the Greeks about the true nature of Roman imperialism. The message of his book was that Roman imperialism was a bad thing, but that the Romans were intent on conquering the world ... so you might as well resign yourself to it!
Consequently, at this key moment, he makes Hannibal speak in terms which would be familiar to the Greeks. He laces Hannibal’s speech with allusions to Homer and other Greek writers. And he makes Hannibal say the very things which his Greek readers were saying – that Roman imperialism was bad; that peace was good; that human affairs were subject to τύχη and the Romans might lose; and that surely the best solution would be an honourable accommodation.
These were unachievable pipedreams of course – the Romans were ALWAYS going to steamroller you – but, by putting these unrealistic statements into Hannibal’s mouth, Polybius allows his Greek readership to think such, and in thinking it realise it … and in realising it, to change their own response to Rome.
Livy’s account of Hannibal’s speech
Livy’s account of Hannibal’s speech was very different – but, then, Livy had a different intended outcome. He, too, had a number of messages which he wished to convey, and he makes Hannibal say things so as to convey them. Broadly, the speech covers similar points to Polybius … but it is in the detail that key differences occur.
Some of them are pretty obvious. Hannibal starts and ends his speech by admitting responsibility for causing the war:
It was I that first began this war against the Roman people … I was responsible for this war.
He then declares himself glad to be surrendering to Scipio, and smiles at the irony of surrendering to the son of the general he had first fought against.
Later in the speech he admits to Carthage’s ‘Punic faith’:
… because we lacked sincerity in seeking peace and patience in waiting for it when offered. The integrity of any peace agreement much depends on those who seek it.
One of the themes of Livy is Hannibal-as-antihero – Hannibal as the man of ‘inhuman cruelty, treachery worse than Carthaginian; nothing of truthfulness, nothing of reverence; no fear of the gods, no respect for oaths, no sense of religion’. So when we see these admissions of fault, of lies, we can see them as sops for his Roman readers along the lines of: “You see! He even admitted it himself!”
And when Hannibal compares his invasion of Italy to Scipio’s ‘roar of a Roman camp outside the walls of Carthage’, one assumes that most of Livy’s Roman readership would have responded with a proto-Churchillian ‘if-you-reaped-the-whirlwind-it-served-you-right’ attitude.
Another anti-Carthaginian character-smear is in the way Livy has Hannibal propose his terms for peace:
But perhaps we Carthaginians deserve to propose some penalties for ourselves. We are willing to concede that all the territories for which we went to war belong to you: Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and all the Mediterranean islands lying between Italy and Africa. Since that is how the gods have ordained it, we are content to be confined within the boundaries of Africa and to see you an imperial power ruling over foreign kingdoms by land and sea.
In fact, the peace terms in Livy are the same as the peace terms in Polybius, but in Livy’s account they slide imperceptibly out of Hannibal’s reflections about Fortuna, and they are presented as a concession not a necessity. Here Livy’s stereotyped representation of Punic trickery descends into pantomime, and you can almost hear his Roman readers shouting at the page to warn Scipio of the attempt to trick him: ‘New lamps for old! He’s behind you! Don’t do it!’
In the speech, Hannibal comes across as badly as a slimy telesalesperson. On the surface he is SAYING nice things, stroking Scipio’s ego … under the surface, however, lies a cynical nastiness.
‘Remember Marcus Atilius Regulus who once stood victorious on Carthaginian soil,’ Hannibal is made to say when warning Scipio of the dangers of tempting Fortuna:
My ancestors sued for peace, which he refused. He rode his luck to the limits and failed to rein it in; it galloped away with him.
It was not a pleasant exemplar for Hannibal to raise. Livy’s readers would indeed remember Marcus Atilius Regulus, and yes he did refuse peace and then find himself defeated by Xanthippus. But any Roman would also remember that, failing to persuade the Senate to honour his promises, Regulus chose to return to Carthage where he was tortured to death. Livy has Hannibal use Regulus as an example of the ‘chance of battle’ – fully knowing that, for his readers, Regulus was an exemplar of Roman honour and virtue ... whom the Carthaginians brutally murdered.
Much the same can be said about Hannibal’s less-than-diplomatic celebration of his successes – Trasimene, Cannae, and the deaths of P. Cornelius and Gnaeus Scipio – which were achieved, of course, at the cost of untold Roman suffering.
But Livy is doing other, less obvious, things in the reported speech he has invented for Hannibal.
The American classicist Andreola Rossi (2004) has pointed out the synkrisis (parallelism) in Livy at this point. Many Roman writers (most obviously Plutarch) wrote their histories so as to explicitly draw parallels between their subjects, and Hannibal’s speech in Livy is replete with them – Rome v Carthage, past v present, Hannibal v Scipio. Rossi suggests that, where this happens, it is so that the Romans can rehearse their superiority, and this is clearly obvious in Livy’s account:
You are basking in success; we are in the depths. Peace is yours to give, and the rewards will bring you many blessings; peace is ours to beg for, and for us there are no honourable rewards - we beg because we must.
Thus every word of Hannibal’s speech can be interpreted as a re-affirmation for Livy’s readers of their superiority ... of the superiority and unstoppable triumph of the Virtus Romana.
There is another message in Livy-Hannibal’s treatment of Fortuna. Rossi dismisses this as ‘a rather somber and lengthy reflection on the fickleness of fortune (Polybian in tone and theme)’. But – if I might dare to challenge a Harvard Classics Professor! – I think there is more going on here than that. Just as not everybody who uses the word ‘salvation’ is necessarily Christian, talking about Fortuna does not make Livy ‘Polybian’.
As we have seen, Livy was much more ‘religious’ than Polybius, for whom history was generally rational. When he uses the word τύχη, he is sometimes referring to the broad, unstoppable ‘movements’ of history, or sometimes the inexplicable ‘paradoxes’ of accident and chance. Reading the speeches of Hannibal and Scipio, however, one is left with the feeling that, for Livy, Fortuna was much more than random forces in history.
For Livy, Fortuna was a goddess who took an active interest in what happened (one is reminded of Silius Italicus’s account of the discussions between Jupiter and Juno). And whilst Livy’s Hannibal rambled on about how Fortuna had deserted him – raising him up then crashing him down – we need to remember (with Livy’s readership) that these were the uncomprehending muttering of a pagan who didn’t understand what he was talking about!
Success and failure have long since taught me that philosophy is a better guide to action than any reliance upon Fortuna.
This is the statement, not of a true Roman who understood Fortuna, but of an atheist who had angered the gods.
Concurring Portrayals – Scipio’s speech in Polybius and Livy
Given his role as a Scipionic client, Polybius’s account of Scipio’s speech is strangely mundane (which might mean, of course, that it IS a summary of what Scipio actually said – Polybius was certainly in a position to have found out).
Polybius DOES manage to get in a comment that his hero was ‘awake to the fickleness of τύχη and as far as it was in his power he took into consideration the uncertainty of human affairs’ – essentially Polybius’s definition of the perfect general!
But, otherwise, Polybius-Scipio simply rehearses Punic blame, asks a string of rhetorical questions along the lines of ‘what am I expected to do’, and then concludes that if Hannibal is not prepared to put anything new on the table:
‘Of what further use then is our interview? Either put yourselves and your country at our mercy or fight and conquer us.’
The whole is delivered in a resigned, tired register which – actually – rings true for a war-weary general. If you asked my opinion, I would probably be prepared to believe that Scipio actually said it.
Perhaps indeed because an accepted account of Scipio’s speech did exist, Livy’s account of Scipio’s speech is very little different to Polybius’s, which he paraphrases fairly much line-for-line – apart from a lovely little passage in 31.8 when he uses the language of Roman law-courts to describe how he had had to ‘join hands with you as with an unwilling and tricky defendant’ (in which the Latin phrase manu prope conserta has a perfect double-entendre of ‘join hands’ (in court) and ‘join battle’ (in war) .. one assumes that Livy simply could not resist the literary flourish.
The only significant difference between the two speeches comes in a reference to Fortuna, where Scipio adds:
There is no need to lecture me on the power of Fortuna … Justice and the laws of heaven gave us victory in Sicily; they have given us victory in the recent war; and they will do so again if we fight here.
We have seen that, in his comments about Fortuna, Livy-Hannibal revealed himself for the godless, wicked pagan that he was. By contrast, Livy-Scipio is presented as the exemplar Roman, who knows the key. Fortuna is not fickle. Fortuna is a goddess … and how stupid can you be not to realise that she is on the Romans’ side!
Closely connected to this, South African historian Gottfried Mader (1993) has interpreted Hannibal’s speech as ‘repented hubris (pride)’. For, as every Roman reader would know, Fortuna had not deserted Hannibal because she is fickle, she deserted him because he had been BAD … because he was proud, because he did not show Virtus Romana. And THAT was why, by contrast, Hannibal could say that, for Scipio, ‘Fortuna never let you down’ - because Scipio was good ... because he was Roman!
Ultimately, the message in all this was not about Hannibal and Scipio AT ALL, but it was Livy’s belief that ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ and that, unless they repented, the Roman people of his own day were 'cruisin for a bruisin’. Just as he used Scipio as the very exemplar of a perfect general, Livy was in every word tainting Hannibal – out of his own mouth – as a dire warning of what happens when you lose the virtues that make you such.
Livy uses the speeches at Naragarra, yes as a high-drama setting for the opening scenes of his climactic battle, but also to deliver a moral essentially religious in its nature – if you want to be ‘on the victory side’, then you need to abandon the ways of Hannibal, and be like Scipio.