November 02, 2017


Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy. By John Prevas. Da Capo. $28.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities. By Bettany Hughes. Da Capo. $40.

     Hannibal and his elephants are known to many people who have no real idea of who Hannibal was and what the elephants were all about, and “Hannibal crossing the Alps” is one of those known phrases from antiquity – along the lines of “Caesar crossing the Rubicon” – that retains currency even among people who are not sure what it means. Hannibal himself is known to have been so brilliant a military strategist that some of his campaigns continue to be taught in military academies. And the cry of Carthago delenda est still has some currency in modern times, at least in academic circles, even among people who do not know the phrase’s association with Cato the Elder and may not realize that the phrase in this form is not found in any reliable source. All these remnants and revenants of ancient conflicts trace to a greater or lesser degree to the fanatical determination of Hannibal to overcome Rome, and Rome’s equally fanatical determination to destroy him and his city-state. There have been many biographies of Hannibal and many works about the three Punic Wars that eventually resulted, indeed, in the destruction of Carthage, but they have generally been scholarly in orientation and weighty, even overweighted, to such an extent that reading them outside academic circles can be something of a chore. One very positive thing about John Prevas’ Hannibal’s Oath is that it is not comprehensive or all-encompassing; another is that it puts an interesting economic spin on the repeated wars in which Hannibal took part. For example, Prevas suggests that the First Punic War ended above all for economic reasons – in a way that enabled Carthage to rebuild quickly and again become a sufficient power so that there was soon enough to be a Second Punic War. Actually, the end of the first war went very poorly for Carthage, which depended heavily on mercenary troops that did not take kindly to being out of a job, and which showed their displeasure through widespread rapine and murder. The war’s end was especially humiliating for Hamilcar – who was Hannibal’s father. Prevas shows how Hamilcar’s defeat had a great deal to do with Hannibal’s unremitting hatred of Rome, and how Hannibal’s crude but effective understanding of economics – he basically bought the support of the Carthaginian government by looting the gold of Saguntum in Spain – made it possible for him to begin his history-making five-month-long crossing of the Alps. That crossing gets its due in Hannibal’s Oath – the general lost half his army, although his elephants survived – and so does Hannibal’s tactical brilliance, the way he “always retained the initiative and would determine when, where, and how he would fight.” Hannibal was basically an outside-the-box thinker, an especially meaningful way to think about him in light of the boxlike strategies used by the Romans in both offense and defense. Yet Hannibal, like many great later generals – Robert E. Lee comes to mind in U.S. history – eventually found that being superior at command was not enough. Rome had far greater resources than Carthage did, far more fighting men and far more ships and a far deeper economy. Like the North wearing down the South in the U.S. Civil War, Rome wore Hannibal down over time, even though none of Rome’s generals retains the level of military respect still accorded Hannibal after 2,200-plus years. Hannibal’s Oath is a fine read in and of itself, and also a fine introduction to Hannibal and his campaigns for readers unfamiliar with them and with the Punic Wars. Prevas brings history vividly to life in this book – and in the process brings to life the places where history was made, through finely detailed descriptions of the mountain passes, rivers and battlefields where Hannibal made his reputation but eventually lost out to Rome’s superior military manpower and materiel.

     Hannibal’s story is that of a man more than that of the city-state on whose behalf he fought long and hard. In contrast, Bettany Hughes’ Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities is the story of a city that looms far larger than any one individual, or indeed any group of individuals. In a sense, this too is a story involving the Roman Empire, for the city now known as Istanbul, and originally as Byzantion (hence the “Byzantine Empire” and the notion that something of vast over-complexity is “byzantine”), was named Constantinople by the Roman emperor Constantine in 330 C.E. Indeed, after Rome fell – overrun in part by tribal groups that had moved into the footprint of destroyed Carthage – the Byzantine Empire remained for a thousand years, until Muslims under Mehmed II conquered it in 1453 and changed it from a Christian city to a Muslim one. That was the 13th Muslim attack on the city, a string dating back to just after the death of Muhammad. Yes, this is a city with a long history. Indeed, as Hughes explains, its history dates back at least 8,000 years, thanks to its position on the narrow straits connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara – the crossroads of Europe and Asia, as we now think of the area. Hughes writes of the city as a place of constant reinvention, some of its own making and some imposed from without. In a series of mostly short and mostly entertaining chapters, in a style whose breeziness is at odds with the usual approach to writing history and at times is even a trifle overheated, Hughes writes of the many, many magnificences and depredations for which the city, under any name, has been known. Just one example, an especially notable one: the Roman emperor Justinian and his notorious wife Theodora are the ones who built the magnificent Hagia Sophia, a still-gorgeous church transformed by the Ottomans into a mosque and by Kemal Atatürk into a museum at the establishment of modern Turkey and the city’s renaming as Istanbul. This is a vast, even sprawling book – 800 pages, while Prevas’ on Hannibal runs fewer than 300 – and as a result has plenty of time for anecdotes, of which there are indeed plenty. Some of the more salacious ones are omitted (including those about Theodora), but there is the story of the sultan’s wife asking Queen Elizabeth I for makeup, and there are tales of sex and eunuchs, and white slavery, and of many archeological discoveries and their significance. There is information here on monuments laced with ancient graffiti, on many-hundred-year-old buildings whose elaborate hydraulic systems were used to keep their owners cool, on beautiful silk clothes, and also on the reasons that Lloyd George, early in the 20th century, characterized the city as “the source from which the poison of corruption and intrigue has spread far and wide.” Hughes’ exploration of the ins and outs of Istanbul over the millennia comes to a somewhat unfortunate end in 1923 with the city’s renaming, the modern era being passed over quickly and somewhat superficially, in an approach at odds with that of the rest of the book. And some of Hughes’ focus is a trifle odd: in an apparent attempt to redress the balance of the usual war-focused and thus male-focused history books of old, she gives plenty of space to slaves, refugees and women of all sorts – not only empresses and queens but also nuns, female slaves and lower-class women. She also dwells not only on the city’s primary religions but also on others, including paganism and Judaism (Jews were at various times welcomed and persecuted). Many of these less-than-usual approaches work well, but others seem forced and somewhat arbitrary – although the extended discussion of eunuchs and their importance to Christian and Muslim governments alike is a fascinating sidelight. Likewise, Hughes’ treatment of the harem and her explanation of its function in Ottoman times are fascinating. Istanbul is actually a tale of more than three cities – it has been known not only as Byzantion, Constantinople and Istanbul but also as Byzantium, Konstantinye , Asitane, Stambol, and Islam-Bol. At the same time, and this is really Hughes’ point, this is a tale of one city, a city that has changed dramatically (although usually in gradual fashion) over a great deal of time, and one that continues to evolve today while retaining its strategic importance and its wide-ranging cultural significance for people of many heritages, many faiths and many beliefs.

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