The Germans have a wonderful expression for culpability in war: Kriegsschuldfrage. Who is to blame for the initiation of war and its concomitant horrors? Related to this question is the determination of whether a war was justified or not. A “just war” is often regarded as one waged in self-defense, as when one nation repulses invasion by another, but the matter becomes slippery when pre-emptive aggression is labeled “just.” As for the notion of a “good” war, I would argue that war is never good, as it invariably produces carnage afflicting the innocent. In recent times some historians have referred to WWII as “the good war,” arguing that it was so because it countered the menace of Hitler, but history is never that simple. Even in that conflict, the “good” side committed horrendous crimes against humanity, such as the incineration of innocent civilians in the fire-bombing of Dresden, or in the holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the atom bomb. No, there is no “good war,” but a war may be “just,” and that matter often hinges on the determination of the Kriegsschuldfrage.
Pachyderms are an inseparable part of the image of the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, although they took part in a lot fewer engagements than most people familiar with his story assume. But let us examine three incidents involving elephants in order to evaluate the accuracy of the classical sources.
Hannibal’s hatred of Rome is so well known that it has become proverbial and allusions to it abound in literature. How many times have we read that a character was possessed of “a hatred like Hannibal’s” or that “he hated with the intensity of Hannibal”? When hyperbole is sought, as in the description of Captain Ahab’s feelings toward the great white whale, we read that “his hatred was greater than Hannibal’s.” But is there actually any factual basis for this Hannibalic stereotype?
The second so-called Punic War between Carthage and Rome came to an end in 202 BCE. Rome had prevailed and a peace treaty was signed in 201 between the two Mediterranean powers, with heavy concessions and indemnity to be paid to the victor. The deciding factor, according to the classical record (composed almost exclusively of pro-Roman accounts, the Carthaginian reports having been conveniently lost or destroyed), was the Battle of Zama. Hannibal, probably the most brilliant military genius in history, after remaining unvanquished for 16 years on enemy land, facing overwhelming odds and receiving almost no reinforcements, was allegedly decisively defeated by the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio, who would be awarded the title Africanus in recognition of his great victory. Is this really what happened? A number of problems, inconsistencies, and paradoxes suggest otherwise.