Ancient History & Civilisation


Silenus therefore presented Heracles–Melqart as companion and guide to Hannibal and his army on the long journey that the god/hero had himself undertaken with the cattle of Geryon.38 The similarities between Silenus’ account and the work of Timaeus was not lost on Polybius, who criticized the former for suggesting that some unnamed god or hero had actually aided Hannibal, and the latter for bringing accounts of dreams and other superstitious nonsense into his work.39 Silenus’ work was, however, in many respects an explicit rejection of the Timaean position. The Heracles that appeared in Silenus’ narrative, as on Hannibal’s coinage, was not the Greek colonial adventurer, but the product of an equally old Sicilian tradition, the syncretistic figure of Heracles–Melqart. This strong emphasis on Hannibal’s close association with the god was clearly designed to present the Carthaginian leader as the saviour of the old West, with its long history of cultural interaction between its Greek, Punic and indigenous populations. That history was now under terminal threat from a dangerous interloper, Rome. Silenus thus turned on its head the old Timaean thesis, which had used the wanderings of Heracles through the West as a vehicle for promoting a Greek–Roman cultural and ethnic axis against Carthage. Hannibal was presented as the champion of a central-Mediterranean world that had existed before Rome had taken the stage, and whose passing was now increasingly regretted in diverse quarters.

Among the western-Greek intelligentsia, the Timaean view had never completely held sway. One important dissenting voice had been another Sicilian Greek, from Acragas, Philinus, who had written a history of the First Punic War that was sympathetic to Carthage. Indeed, Philinus was well respected by his peers, and his work was used by a number of later scholars, including Polybius.40 One of Philinus’ main themes, which appeared in a number of later Greek writers, was that it was the Romans’ acquisitiveness and greed that had led to their assistance to the Mamertines and the subsequent outbreak of hostilities with Carthage, rather than any noble desire to protect the underdog. Indeed, this may have been a commonly held view among Sicilian Greeks, who must have looked with some cynicism towards the intentions of both the Carthaginians and the Romans. Diodorus reports that Hiero, king of Syracuse, said that by coming to the help of the Mamertines ‘it would be clear to all of mankind that they [the Romans] were using pity for the endangered as a cloak for their own advantage.’41

One identifiable theme in Philinus’ history is the focus on those Greeks who had fought on the Carthaginian side in the First Punic War, which might be seen as an implicit rejection of the ethnic divisions propagated by Timaeus.42 Many western Greeks may now have looked back with a certain nostalgia to the days when it was they who had vied for supremacy of the central Mediterranean with Carthage. Now the cities of Magna Graecia had been firmly under Roman control for over half a century. Moreover, the decades after the end of the first conflict between Carthage and Rome had definitely shown that there was to be no renaissance of Greek Sicily. Hiero’s Syracuse was both prosperous and powerful, but, although it was nominally an independent sovereign realm, it was in reality little more than a Roman client state. And, after years of relatively light Roman government, in which Sicilian cities were effectively left to their own devices in the western section of the island, 227 BC saw the strengthening of Roman control with the appointment of two new praetorships, senior senatorial posts, with special authority over the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.43

Polybius’ trenchant criticism of Rome’s annexation of Sardinia from the Carthaginians (an act which, as we have seen, he described as being ‘contrary to all justice’ and for which the Romans had no ‘reasonable pretext or cause’) demonstrates that it was not well received by some in the Greek community, who must have seen it as a sign of Roman intentions to take the whole of the central Mediterranean under direct control.44 Even in Syracuse (supposedly a staunch Roman ally), the subsequent realignment of Hiero’s successor Hieronymous with the Carthaginians demonstrates a good deal of disillusionment with Rome among Sicilian Greeks.45 Silenus’ portrayal of Heracles–Melqart as Hannibal’s divine companion was thus designed to send out a message to the western Greeks that it was the Carthaginian commander who represented their last opportunity to restore their diminished freedoms.46

The influence of Sicily on the Hannibalic propaganda campaign can also be seen in that campaign’s strongly euhemeristic tenor. During the late fourth century BC the philosophical tradition of euhemerism –which maintained that gods were deified human beings, and that mythology was based on traditional accounts of real people and events –had developed on the island. The figure of Heracles had played an important role in that development, not only through his ability to transcend the boundary between humanity and divinity, but also as a powerful syncretistic figure who, through his long-standing association with Melqart and Sicilian deities, brought the diverse constituencies on the island together.47 Indeed the euhemeristic emphasis on the permeability between the temporal and the celestial worlds would surely have been attractive to Punic as well as Greek populations, particularly in relation to the religious rites connected with Melqart. Euhemerism had thrived in the Hellenistic world, where Alexander and his successors had worked hard to blur the boundaries between the temporal and the celestial in their efforts to prove a heavenly sanction for their rule.

Now Hannibal’s journey from Spain to Italy was connected with what appears to have been a euhemeristic account of Heracles’ journey with the cattle of Geryon. Such euhemeristic treatments of the hero’s tenth labour and return to Greece exist in two later Greek texts, of which one and perhaps both can be connected with an earlier Sicilian Greek tradition. 48 In the fuller of these two accounts, which appears in the work of the Greek teacher of rhetoric Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who worked in Rome during the last decades of the first century BC, Heracles was transformed from Greek superhero into ‘the greatest commander of his age’.49 At one point Dionysius suggests that Heracles’ main aim was the subjugation of the peninsula; however, as the story unfolds it is clear that the aim is in fact the liberation of its inhabitants from tyranny:50

[Heracles] marched at the head of a large force through all the country that lies on this side of the Ocean, destroying any despotisms that were grievous and oppressive to their subjects, or commonwealths that outraged and injured the neighbouring states, or organized bands of men who lived in the manner of savages and lawlessly put strangers to death, and in their room establishing lawful monarchies, well-ordered governments and humane and sociable modes of life. Furthermore, he mingled barbarians with Greeks, and inhabitants of the inland with dwellers on the sea coast, groups which hitherto had been distrustful and unsocial in their dealings with each other; he also built cities in desert places, turned the course of rivers that overflowed the fields, cut roads through inaccessible mountains, and contrived other means by which every land and sea might lie open to the use of all mankind. And he came into Italy not alone nor yet bringing a herd of cattle (for neither does this country lie on the road of those returning from Spain to Argos nor would he have been deemed worthy of so great an honour merely for passing through it), but at the head of a great army, after he had already conquered Spain.

Dionysius then proceeds to describe how Heracles pacified the barbarous Ligurians, who had tried to block the Alpine passes so that he could not proceed into Italy.51

In Italy, Heracles clashed with Cacus, who in Dionysius’ story was ‘an exceedingly barbarous chieftain reigning over a savage people, who had set himself to oppose Heracles . . . and on that account was a pest to his neighbours. He, when he heard that Hercules lay encamped in the plain hard by, equipped his followers like brigands and, making a sudden raid while the army lay sleeping, he surrounded and drove off as much of their booty as he found unguarded.’ Afterwards Cacus was besieged by Heracles’ army and his forts were stormed and demolished before he himself was killed and his land given to a group of Greeks and indigenous inhabitants of the area under their respective kings Evander and Faunus.52 Dionysius identifies one of the main reasons for Heracles’ success in Italy as

his practice of carrying along with him for a time on his expeditions the prisoners taken from the captured cities, and then, after they had cheerfully assisted him in his wars, settling them in the conquered regions and bestowing on them the riches he had gained from others. It was because of these deeds that Hercules gained the greatest name and renown in Italy, and not because of his passage through it, which was attended by nothing worthy of veneration.53

Some obvious correspondences with Hannibal’s Italian expedition immediately present themselves. First, there is the heavy emphasis on Heracles’ role in defending and indeed saving states that were being attacked and taken over by tyrannical neighbours, a situation analogous to the subjugation of Magna Graecia and the rest of Italy by Rome. Second, there is the reference to uniting Greeks and barbarians under the banner of the hero, which once more reflects a central tenet of Hannibal’s campaign in regard to Greeks and Carthaginians. Third, there is the focus on Heracles crossing vast rivers and cutting a route through seemingly impenetrable mountains, which are both themes that appear in the narrative of Hannibal’s journey to Italy. Finally, the confrontation with Cacus, the robber chief, becomes a far more conventional ground war in the euhemeristic account, with battles and sieges, and is followed by Heracles’ release of prisoners of war and their resettlement on recently conquered land. Heracles’ generous treatment of his captives mirrors similar methods later used by Hannibal to attempt to detach the Italian allies from Rome (cast here as the evil Cacus).

The numerous correspondences between Dionysius’ euhemeristic story and the Hannibalic campaign are thus too obvious to be ignored, and would surely have resonated with contemporaries. While the precise origin of Dionysius’ story is unfortunately unknown, an account told by Diodorus points tantalizingly towards a Sicilian origin, most probably from the period of the Second Punic War, when (as we have seen) contemporary Sicilian writers and Carthaginian coin-makers made similar associations. Hannibal’s message was, however, not aimed exclusively at Greeks, for other important communities on the Italian peninsula had strong links with the hero. The cult of Hercules, the Italian interpretation of Heracles, was particularly strong in the central Apennines and Samnium, and the Samnites had a notoriously difficult relationship with Rome and might become useful allies.54 If Hannibal took the fight against Rome to Italy, then these groups would be critical for providing bases, supplies and other logistical support, as well as much needed reinforcements.

Away from the grand narratives of trans-Mediterranean diplomacy, Hannibal’s association with Heracles–Melqart served a more pressing day-to-day purpose in creating cohesion among the disparate ranks of his soldiery. The figure of Heracles–Melqart was already powerfully emblematic for the Barcid army, and Hannibal endeavoured to maintain that association between the god and his troops through the issue of large quantities of coinage bearing the god’s head.55 The fiercely contested conflict ahead, however, would naturally involve large-scale casualties and the necessary recruitment of large numbers of reinforcements–men who would need swiftly to be integrated into Hannibal’s force. The multivalent symbol of Heracles–Melqart provided a potent shared symbol not only for the culturally diverse troops who already comprised the Carthaginian army, but also for potential new recruits.

The Heraclean image attributed to Hannibal by his propagandists may well have created cohesion among the Carthaginian army not only by its diverse appeal, but also by the sense of divine favour that it conveyed. An ancient-Greek military strategist, Onasander, writing 300 years after Hannibal, made the following observation: ‘Soldiers are far more courageous when they believe that they are facing dangers with the good will of the gods; for they themselves are watchful, each man, and they look out keenly for omens of sight or sound and an auspicious sacrifice for the whole army encourages even those who have private doubts.’56 As Gregory Daly has recently pointed out, ‘Hellenistic armies apparently developed their espirit de corps based on the mystique of their leaders who could be seen as having almost “supernatural powers” as they were granted triumphs by the gods.’57 The claim to divine endorsement was a key element of Hannibal’s campaign against the Romans, and certainly played to the expectations of Hannibal’s Celtic allies, whose chieftains were often accompanied by bards who eulogized their deeds in song.58 In the writings of the later Roman historian Cassius Dio, the equation between successful leadership and divine sanction is made explicit. Dio attributes Hannibal’s ability to predict future events to the fact that ‘he understood divination by the inspection of entrails.’59 At those critical moments when confidence in their mission had begun to ebb away from his troops, Hannibal seems to have ensured that some evidence of divine favour was presented by which the stocks of Carthaginian self-belief were replenished and the troops were reminded that they were literally following in the footsteps of Heracles and his army. Indeed, when a late-Roman military writer, Vegetius, mistakenly claimed that Sosylus served as a military tactician under Hannibal, he was only partly wrong. The role that Sosylus and other writers within the general’s circle played in propagating Carthaginian propaganda was central to the early success of the campaign.60

On the eve of the army’s departure, Hannibal journeyed to Gades, that first great Phoenician bridgehead in the West and the supposed site of Geryon’s home island of Erythia. There he made solemn vows at the altar of Melqart.61 It appears that this episode was Silenus’ work, and it is surely no coincidence that what has survived from his account is a description of the Heracleium, a sacred spring located in the sanctuary of Melqart. Thus, once more, the extent to which Heracles–Melqart, along with Hannibal, was the central character in Silenus’ narrative is highlighted.62 For Hannibal himself this visit was far more than a public display of pious devotion, for the rites that he performed in the sacred precinct marked the first steps of a carefully choreographed journey.

The Heraclean association forced home by Silenus can also be seen in another famous anecdote concerning a supposed dream of the Carthaginian general. Below is the version supplied by Cicero, which is thought to be the most accurate rendition of Silenus’ original:

The following too is found in the Greek history of Silenus, whom Coelius follows and who gave a most thorough account of Hannibal’s career. Hannibal (he says), after taking Saguntum, dreamt that he was being called away by Jupiter into a council of gods; when he arrived, Jupiter ordered him to invade Italy, and gave him one of the assembly as his guide. He had begun the march together with his army, under the guide’s leadership; then that guide told him not to look behind him. He could not carry that through, and borne away by desire, he had turned to look back, and saw a vast monstrous wild beast, intertwined with snakes, destroying all of the trees and shrubs and buildings wherever it went. Staggered, he had asked the god, what such a monstrous thing could be. ‘The devastation of Italy,’ answered the god; ‘go forward and do not worry about what is happening behind your back.’63

Although other versions of this episode were adapted by their Roman authors to place Hannibal in a sinister and ultimately flawed light, the original story appears to have hailed from the sympathetic pen of Silenus.64 The pro-Hannibalic tint of the initial version is indeed confirmed by the hostile reaction of the Roman writer Valerius Maximus, who described it as a ‘definite prediction, hateful to any person of Roman blood’.65 Indeed, the fact that it was so widely reported and discussed would suggest that it had a considerable impact. The main emphasis of the dream is that Hannibal has divine sanction to pursue a war with Rome, a sanction confirmed by the approval of Jupiter/Zeus and his provision of a divine guide (who must surely be Hercules/Heracles).66 The beast that Hannibal sees wreaking the ‘devastation of Italy’ has been variously interpreted, but most plausibly as the Hydra, the many-headed serpent which Heracles was commanded to kill as his second labour. The problem in fulfilling that task, so it proved, was that the beast’s heads would spontaneously reappear once severed–a problem eventually overcome by cauterizing the wounds to prevent regrowth.

In Silenus’ tale, therefore, as Hannibal is represented by Heracles, so Rome is represented by the Hydra, the self-perpetuating monster which the western hero is called to overcome. Indeed, one of Pyrrhus’ advisers had once likened Rome to the Hydra precisely for the city’s extraordinary capacity for self-renewal. The original story therefore signified not only the divine sanction and Heraclean quality of Hannibal, but also Rome’s monstrous nature and destruction of its allies’ territory.67 The message of Silenus’ vignettes may therefore have been that the great god/hero of the old Mediterranean world had risen once more and called the faithful to muster, for now the time had come to civilize the barbarous and drive the Roman monster into the sea. Other scholars have argued that Coelius had deliberately doctored Silenus’ tale, omitting an important detail about a terrible storm that appears in the versions given by Livy and Cassius Dio. They contend that Coelius’ intention was to change the location of the dream from its original place–as Hannibal’s army crossed the Alps–to earlier, just after the final fissure with Rome. This would mean that, in its proper context, the point of the dream was to encourage the Carthaginian army in their efforts to keep moving forward and to master the difficult conditions and terrain that faced them.68

Both Polybius and Livy acknowledge a Hannibalic propaganda campaign which attempted to surround the Carthaginian general with divine associations. In fact their complaints serve as confirmation of just how successful Hannibal’s literary entourage had been in pushing the idea of the expedition as divinely sanctioned. As the stories of how Hannibal had tamed this wild land and its even wilder peoples multiplied, so his claim to be heir to Heracles became ever more sure. Thus Polybius condemned certain anonymous writers because

While . . . introducing Hannibal as a commander of unequalled courage and foresight, they incontestably represent him to us as entirely lacking in prudence, and again being unable to bring their series of fabrications to any conclusion or issue they introduce gods and the sons of gods into the sober history of the facts. By representing the Alps as being so steep and rugged that not only horses and troops accompanied by elephants, but even active men on foot would have difficulty in passing, and at the same time picturing to us the desolation of the country as being such, that unless some god or hero had met Hannibal and showed him the way, his whole army would have gone astray and perished utterly, they unquestionably fall into both the above vices.69

Livy, in turn, has a Roman commander exhort his troops before battle against the Carthaginian general to find out ‘whether this Hannibal is, as he gives out, the rival of Hercules in his journeys, or whether he has been abandoned by his father to pay tax and tribute and to be the slave of the Roman people’.70 Indeed, the heavy emphasis that Livy places on the impiety of Hannibal throughout his account of the war is probably connected with the disquiet that the Carthaginian’s association with Heracles–Melqart engendered in Rome.71 What made Hannibal such a potent threat was not merely his military might, but the challenge that he presented to the previously successful Roman model of territorial conquest and incorporation. The relentless divine associations attributed to the Carthaginian general by his literary entourage represented something far more potent than mere selfindulgence.

Hannibal was intent on setting out a clear alternative not only to Roman political hegemony, but also to the Roman mythology by which that hegemony was justified. The Romans’ own promotion of the cult of Hercules had provided a much-needed mythical and historical affirmation for the huge territorial gains in Italy and in the old Carthaginian colonial possessions in the central Mediterranean. Hannibal’s appropriation of Heracles placed a large question mark over such claims. Hannibal appears to have been determined to wrest from Rome not only the military but also the propagandistic initiative. The Romans found themselves recast by Hannibal’s literary entourage in a new and unfamiliar role: as the agents of a tyranny from which the great hero was destined to liberate Italy. Rome, it appeared, was the new Cacus. In attempting to unite the Punic, Greek and Italian communities under the banner of Heracles–Melqart, Hannibal was attempting to drive Rome out of the god/hero’s ancient realm. Timaeus had underlined the ‘historic’ ties that supposedly bound the Romans and the western Greeks against the Carthaginians, but now his heirs embarked on a bold project to dismantle that proposition. From the outset, Hannibal’s assault on Rome aimed not only to reduce the city’s present formidable power base in the central Mediterranean, but also to undermine increasingly confident Roman claims to a distinguished past that foretold Rome’s emergence as a regional superpower.

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