History remembers Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, not because they were unique in their motivations, but because they were the absolute embodiment of the citizen-State symbiosis that bound the family and State together…
That which binds a people together is ethos; some might call this culture. Of antiquity, this ethos might be understood as a triumvirate of family, State, and self: one did not exist without the other, and each was a reflection of the other two. This triumvirate manifested itself in the Classical world principally through gloria (glory) and dignitas (worth), each of these being founded further on a self-reinforcing sense of moral piety, which itself cyclically sprung from the self-reinforcing ethos. That is, Classical antiquity was a closed system in which the family, State, and self were one; glorifying one was glorifying all, and failing one was failing all. The legends of antiquity embodied this self-reinforcing ethos through both their familial relationships and individual conquests for the fatherland, since, of course, the two were identical.
An analysis of two Classical legends—Hannibal and Scipio Africanus—and their historical intersection might both illuminate this triumvirate and act as a marker for the potential failure of any ethos not bound by such moral piety.
Many consider the greatest military minds of antiquity to be Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, and Julius Caesar. Of these, perhaps the least is known of Hannibal, the Carthaginian legend.
Most of what is known about him has been written by his enemies, the Romans, and consists of their struggles against his mighty forces and brilliant tactics during the Second Punic (Phoenician) War (c. 219 BC). What little is known of him, though, lists great virtues amongst, according to the Romans, the basest traits. Hannibal was intelligent yet dastardly, fair yet vicious, attentive yet unforgiving, etc. In short, he was a man of strong will, keen insight, and a very definite set of morals. Writing in c. 25 BC, Roman historian Livy said this of the Carthaginian general:
Under his leadership the men invariably showed to the best advantage both dash and confidence. Reckless in courting danger, he displayed superb tactical ability once it was upon him. Indefatigable both physically and mentally, he could endure with equal ease excessive heat or excessive cold; he ate and drank not to flatter his appetites but only so much as would sustain his bodily strength… Mounted or dismounted he was unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, that last to leave the field.
But what was the foundation of his character?
When he was nine years old, his father, the commanding general of Carthage’s forces in Spain during the First Punic War, asked little Hannibal if he wanted to accompany him on a Spanish expedition. The boy quickly accepted his father’s invitation. But before he would let his son come, he ushered Hannibal to a sacrificial altar and, laying the boy’s hand on the victim, made him “swear never to be the friend of the Romans.” Hannibal never forgot this oath, and he made it his life’s mission to destroy the civilization that ultimately killed his father.
Hannibal achieved unparalleled success against Rome. Both his tactics and strategy were as brazen and sweeping as they were effective, yet Hannibal’s history is not written by Carthaginians; it is written by Romans. Why?
In their histories, the Romans blamed Hannibal for instigating the Second Punic War, for he “unjustly” attacked Saguntum, a city allied with Rome deep in Carthaginian territory. Hannibal, while of course acting on behalf of the Carthaginian State, was ultimately fulfilling the oath he swore to his father. And in so doing, raised the ire of Rome and launched himself into history—but history was not on his mind, his father was.
After suffering numerous military setbacks in both Sicily and Spain and following Hannibal’s incursion into Italy, the Romans called on two brothers to command the army sent to meet Hannibal at Italy’s northern Alps: Publius and Gnaeus Scipio. In 211 BC, the brother-generals were killed in battle. Feeling the shock of not just losing two of its generals but also the impending doom of defeat, the Roman senate rushed to replace its army’s leadership. The most likely candidates all refused generalship—by then they were well aware of Hannibal’s skill and ruthlessness (in one of his largest victories, Hannibal laid waste to more than 44,000 Romans in the deftly fought Battle of Cannae just five years earlier). Only one man, just twenty-four-years-old, volunteered to command Rome’s forces against the feared Hannibal: another Publius Scipio, the fallen general’s son.
When Scipio first joined the fight against Hannibal in the war’s second year, he was barely eighteen years old. In a clash near Tincius in Italy’s northern Alps, Scipio, then still a teenager, saw Roman forces taking heavy casualties against the determined Carthaginians; his father, Publius, leading the now disarrayed forces, was in peril. Scipio, comprehending the weight of the situation, took charge of the melee and rushed in to save his father. This impressive feat, uncommon for hardened soldiers, let alone a teenage boy, won Scipio the respect of his fellow Romans and renown throughout the Republic. Fate, however, pits death against us all eventually, and the elder Publius would yet be claimed by Hannibal’s warriors.
Years later, after consistently earning the adoration of his peers, subordinates, and superiors, the twenty-four-year-old Scipio would take command of Rome’s final hope against the Carthaginian onslaught. In Spain, the same land where Hannibal once swore his familial oath to relentlessly pursue to Romans to his dying day, Scipio, avenging the memory of his slain father, dealt Hannibal’s forces their first substantive blows. Hannibal, meanwhile, had deepened his incursion into Italy, coming a mere six miles from Rome itself. Scipio, however, having studied Hannibal’s tactics through the war and having divined his strategy, sailed for Carthage, expecting to lure the city-state’s leader away from Italy; his plan worked. Hannibal’s pride would not suffer homeland defeat, and he left his Italian campaign to save his beloved Carthage from the Roman scourge. His attempt was thwarted, though, by not just time and distance, but also Scipio’s own brilliance. Carthage’s rearguard fell easily to the young Roman, and once Hannibal’s main contingent arrived, it was too little too late. The legendary thorn in Rome’s side had finally been defeated by Scipio, the brash Roman, soon to be christened Scipio Africanus: savior of Rome, conqueror of Carthage.
What is it that finally links these two legends of antiquity? Certainly, their efforts on the battlefield and their devotion to their fatherland. But isn’t there more? What determined their course in life? Family. Whether a sworn paternal oath or a courageous volunteering in the face of heavy odds, both Hannibal and Scipio defined themselves both in relation to their fathers and their respective State. There was no difference between the family and State; and a slight against one was a slight against the other. What man asks of his son an oath to defeat the enemy of his homeland except a man who defines his actions through the lens of the State? What man fights alongside his brother and son against enemies of his homeland except a man who understands only the State? What man commits his life to fulfilling an oath he swore to his father at just nine-years-old if not a man who dedicates his life to family bonds? What man avenges his father’s death in the face of perilous odds if not a man drawn into action by familial love?
These are histories and questions worth pondering because they not only help us understand the past but also our present and future. History remembers these two men, not because they were unique in their motivations, but because they were the absolute embodiment of the ethos of their time and place. This ethos bound family and State together because there was no reason to separate them. Theirs was an ethos of glory (gloria) and worth (dignitas); theirs was an era of citizen-State symbiosis.
Yet like Carthage, the Roman Republic, too, would one day fall. Unlike Carthage though, there was no external threat to conquer her. Instead, a declination of morals and ethos were marked as the signposts to civil strife and republican decay. Livy and “all the major Roman historians, including Sallust, Tacitus, and Ammianus Marcellinus, viewed the events they were depicting from a consistently moral point of view.” This is because, like the family unit, the State should be understood and judged by its fruits according to a moral code, or that which stands as the foundation for a people’s ethos. And ultimately, these historians, like many of the Roman citizens themselves, are arbiters of history and not mere conveyors of it. The ethos of family-State-citizen symbiosis pervades not only their interpretation of history but their living of life, just as it did the lives of all the legends of antiquity. Glory for the State is glory for the family is glory for the self, and vice versa; each leg of the triumvirate is a reflection of the other two: this is the defining link of Classical greatness; it is the measure of all dignitas. Without it, there can be only decline and fall, just as any two-legged tripod is destined to fail.
When Rome finally fell, her citizens were concerned principally with their own selves. The Republic gave way to bickering, to gridlock, to corruption, to indulgence, to individualism. Abandoned was the triumvirate, that which our legends embodied: family-State-self. This is a warning of history. This warning should concern the greatest republic since Rome—America. The conservative roots of American colonialism have degraded into partisan bickering, gridlock, corruption, selfish indulgence, and individualism. And just as Rome had her Caesar to overcome decay, so too will America have hers.
Human nature is not just our will; it is our destiny.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.