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.
The battle of Zama, supposedly waged in North Africa in 202 BCE, between the armies of Hannibal Barca and the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio, was the final military engagement of the Second Punic War, and a decisive turning point in the history of the Mediterranean cultures and the rest of the world. The traditional accounts of the battle, based practically in their entirety on pro-Roman sources, paint a strange and highly unlikely picture of the conflict and its outcome. Let us first examine the reasons for the distortions presented by the classical record, and the circumstances leading up to the battle. In a following article I will attempt to reconstruct what actually happened on that fateful day, looking through what can only be characterized as smoke and mirrors in the standard sources.