A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Historical Note: Hannibal and Qadhafi

Mu‘ammar Qadhafi named one of his sons Hannibal, presumably because he identifies with the greatest military leader North Africa ever produced, the man who so shook Rome that for centuries Roman mothers would threaten their children with Hannibal ad portos: Hannibal is at the gates. Qadhafi is probably the only person who has ever seen much resemblance between himself and the man who crossed the Alps and ran rampant in Italy.

As Qadhafi threatens to "burn" Libya and "cleanse it house to house," he might think a moment about the last years of his presumed role model. After the end of the Second Punic War and Hannibal's defeat at Zama by Scipio Africanus, he rose to political leadership in Carthage, but seven years after Zama, Rome., alarmed by his growing popularity, insisted he be exiled. Rather than risk the security of Carthage, Hannibal voluntarily exiled himself. (Qadhafi would have more problems, given his lack of friends. He had to go out of his way to deny he was in Venezuela a couple of days ago, so Chavez might take him; Daniel Ortega called him with words of support; and of course he's been good pals with Berlusconi, but Berlusconi has problems of his own right now.)

Not only did Hannibal voluntarily exile himself, but after providing military advice to the Seleucids and other eastern Mediterranean rulers, Rome's eastward conquest eventually brought him into their purview once again. As Rome sought to capture him, he took poison, reputedly saying, "Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man's death." Perhaps some encrusted legend has attached, but it is a better exit than burning your own country.

A little more Qadhafi-esque ego, however, turns up in a famous ancient anecdote told by Livy and most likely apocryphal, but which I'm going to tell anyway. According to the story, the victor of Zama, Scipio Africanus, was visiting the eastern court where Hannibal was then employed, and encountered his old nemesis. (There's no other historical record of such a visit by Scipio, but why ruin a good story with fact?) I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but the story is that Scipio supposedly asked Hannibal, military man to military man, who he considered to be the greatest general who had ever lived. Hannibal responded, Alexander the Great. Scipio then asked, who did he rank second? Hannibal said, well, I consider myself second to Alexander. Scipio then said, but, I defeated you. And Hannibal responded, "If you had not defeated me, I would have ranked myself even above Alexander."

Though the anecdote is probably not historical, the ego is the only thing Qadhafi shares with Hannibal. The difference is that Hannibal won the battle of Cannae, while all Qadhafi ever took was the radio station in 1969. Having named a son for Hannibal, he might pay more attention to Hannibal's greatest moment, his graceful exit to save his native country. Instead, it appears to be Qadhafi himself, not his country's foreign foes, whose motto is Libya delenda est.

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