Monday, November 12, 2012

The Saguntum Outrage and the Causes of the Second Punic War

You have learned five 'causes' of the Second Punic War – but whom do you BLAME?

Don’t mention the war!
There is an excruciatingly embarrassing episode of Fawtly Towers in which Basil (John Cleese) – finding he has some Germans staying at the hotel – is unable to stop himself making allusions to the Second World War … much to the distress of his German guests.
Eventually they ask him to stop.  The dialogue goes:

Basil Fawlty: Is there something wrong?
German Guest: Will you stop talking about the war?

Basil Fawlty: Me? You started it.

German Guest: We did not!

Basil Fawlty: Yes, you did. You invaded Poland.
At this point, if he had been alive, Polybius would have intervened and pointed out that – although the Nazi invasion of Poland may have been the beginning of the war, it most certainly was not its cause:
Some of those authors who have dealt with Hannibal and his times, wishing to indicate the causes that led to the above war between Rome and Carthage, allege as its first cause the siege of Saguntum by the Carthaginians and as its second their crossing, contrary to treaty, the river whose native name is the Iber.  I should agree in stating that these were the beginnings of the war, but I can by no means allow that they were its causes… These are pronouncements of men who are unable to see the great and essential distinction between a beginning and a cause, these being the first origin of all, and the beginning coming last… (Book 3, Chapter 6)

The 'Wrath of Hamilcar'
It is clear that – even in the time of Polybius – there was debate about the causes of the Second Punic War. 

Many people seem to have blamed, somewhat unfairly, the long-dead Hamilcar.  
And Polybius tells us of the Roman senator and annalist Fabius Pictor, who   apart from the Saguntum Outrage (Greek word ἀδίκημα – adikema, meaning intentional wrong or error)  ascribed the war to Hasdrubal’s ‘ambition and love of power’. 

Polybius himself identified three causes – the Roman seizure of Sardinia, and the confidence which success in Spain gave the Carthaginians but, most of all, ‘the wrath of Hamilcar’ (Ἀμίλκου θυμόν – Amilcou thumon) after the first Punic War:
Unvanquished in spirit by the war for Sicily, since he felt that he had kept the army of Eryx under his command combative and resolute until the end, and had only agreed to peace after the defeat of the Carthaginians in the naval battle, he maintained his resolve and waited for an opportunity to strike (Book 3, Chapter 9).
Talk like that, said the British historian HH Scullard in the Cambridge Ancient History (Vol. VIII, 1930) ‘should be rejected as part of the anti-Barcid tradition’.  Similarly Professor Walbank regarded it as ‘a later invention, designed to establish a long-cherished Barcine plan of revenge’ (although, inconsistently, he did not question the authenticity of the anecdote about Hannibal being made to swear everlasting hatred of Rome at the age of nine, which is part of the same tradition).

Carthaginian Responsibility
There was clearly a tradition in Rome by the time of Livy that the Carthaginians caused the war – Livy is absolutely explicit that Hannibal was merely executing a war into Italy which Hamilcar had planned all along.  
In the (probably apocryphal) meeting between Scipio and Hannibal before the Battle of Zama, Scipio is made to say: ‘We did not start the war in Spain … it was the sack of Saguntum which drove us to take up arms in [a just and holy war].’   And Hannibal accepts the blame: ‘It was I who first began this war against the Roman people.’ 

After a war, it falls to the victors to write the history, and it is not rocket-science that the Romans were going to blame the Carthaginians.

Indeed, it would not be impossible, moreover, to build from all this a case which parallels the Second Punic War with post-Versailles Europe, with Carthage in the role of a former-day Germany – an army smarting from the politicians’ surrender when it had not in fact been defeated; a people angry with a peace treaty which imposed a huge indemnity and loss of land; above all, a nationalist element smarting from defeat and itching for revenge (part of which being a rapid GroßeKarthagisch expansion in Spain).  From the Treaty of Versailles to Hitler's invasion of Poland, 20 years; from the Treaty of Lutatius to Hannibal's crossing the Ebro, 22 years – in both cases just short of a generation to recover, regroup, and have ‘another go’, seeking the ‘right’ outcome second time around.

The Saguntum Problem
But what would the Carthaginians have said if they had won the war?

The sequence of events of the slide to war in 218bc is fairly clear:
1.  In 219bc, Hannibal besieged the Iberian town of Saguntum.
2.  The Saguntines now (perhaps even earlier) appealed to Rome for help.
3.  The Romans sent an embassy to Hannibal, demanding that he leave Saguntum alone, for it had placed itself under Rome’s protection; Hannibal sent them packing.
4.  The Roman ambassadors then went to Carthage, demanding that the siege be ended, and Hannibal handed over for imprisonment; despite a long speech by Hanno recommending appeasement, the Carthaginians refused to do so.
5.  Upon the fall of Saguntum, the Romans sent a final ultimatum to Carthage, which was also rebuffed, whereupon the Romans declared war:

The oldest member of the [Roman] embassy, pointing to the folds of his toga, told the [Carthaginians] that it held both war and peace for them: therefore he would let fall from it and leave with them whichever of the two they bade him.  The Carthaginian Suffete bade him let fall whichever the Romans chose, and when the envoy said he would let fall war, many of the Carthaginians cried out at once, "We accept it."
6.  Hearing this, Hannibal assembled his army and crossed the Ebro.

The Ebro Treaty and the alleged 'Alliance' with Saguntum
Now it seems that, in about 226bc, the Carthinginians had agreed a Treaty promise NOT to cross the Ebro.  As usual, it is Polybius who is clearest on this issue:
The Romans, seeing that Hasdrubal was in a fair way to create a larger and more formidable empire than Carthage formerly possessed, resolved to begin to occupy themselves with Spanish affairs.  Finding that they had hitherto been asleep and had allowed Carthage to build up a powerful dominion, they tried, as far as possible, to make up for lost time…  Accordingly, [they] sent envoys to Hasdrubal and made a treaty, in which no mention was made of the rest of Spain, but the Carthaginians engaged not to cross the Iber in arms (Book 2, Chapter 13).

All this talk about the River Ebro as the justification for war, however, raises a problem since – at the time of the Roman embassies and declaration of war in 219bc  – Hannibal had not yet crossed the Ebro!
The truth is that it was the siege and capture of Saguntum which caused the Romans to declare war, and the Roman declaration of war which caused Hannibal to cross the Ebro.

So why were the Romans trying to link the war to the crossing of the Ebro?

There have been various suggestions:

1. It is quite clear that some Roman historians (e.g. Appian) thought that Saguntum was north of the Ebro, and that by attacking the town, Hannibal was in fact crossing the Ebro.  This is wrong – even LIVY knew that Saguntum was south of the Ebro and therefore within the Punic sphere of influence.  In 1961 the historian Jerome Carcopino argued that the ‘Iber’ was not the Ebro at all, but the river Jucar (south of Saguntum); but no one really accepts this.

2.  Some historians have suggested that a Roman protectorate of Saguntum was explicitly included in the Ebro Treaty.  At one point, Polybius seems to suggest this:

The Romans protested against his attacking Saguntum, which they said was under their protection, or crossing the Ebro, contrary to the treaty engagements entered into in Hasdrubal's time (Book 3, Chapter 15)

3. However, the justification that Polybius eventually seizes upon is that ‘it is an acknowledged fact that the Saguntines, a good many years before the time of Hannibal, placed themselves under the protection of Rome’.  Although there is no evidence whatsoever for this apart from this single (very imprecise) sentence, by the time of Livy the Saguntines have become Rome’s ‘allies’.  And thereby the modern historian Serge Lancel (1995) feels able to describe Saguntum as a ‘the pro-Roman enclave .. a thorn in the flesh of Punic Spain’.

The Need to Justify the War
Do you believe any of it?  Even if you accept the existence of the Ebro Treaty (and the Carthaginian ‘Mighty Ones’ denied all knowledge of it), as Professor Walbank points out, a Roman alliance with Saguntum is absolutely irreconcilable with the spirit of the Treaty of Ebro.  The whole muddled, half-baked mess of different justifications has the feel simply of post-hoc special pleading.

The big problem is that, with the destruction of Carthage, so disappeared the Carthaginian point-of-view … which leaves us trying to piece together the Carthaginian side of things from hints in the universally-anti-Carthaginian Roman literature.

Who was to blame?
Even so, two millennia of undisputed propaganda are unable to disguise the culpability of ROME in the slide to war.

It is Livy which gives us the clearest insight into the war-hysteria in Rome prior to the declaration of war:

At almost the same time the ambassadors who had returned from Carthage brought back word to Rome that all was hostile in that quarter, and the fall of Saguntum was announced.  And so great was the grief of the senators, and their pity at the unmerited doom of their allies, and their shame at having failed to help them, and their wrath against the Carthaginians, and the fear for the safety of the commonwealth – as though the enemy were already at their gates... (Book 21, Chapter 16).

And thus it is hard to disguise the FACTS that it was the Romans, not the Carthaginians, who were making the running for war:

  • It was the Romans who had taken advantage of the 'Truceless War' to annex Sardinia.
  • It was the Romans who, alarmed by the growth of Carthaginian power in Spain, had extracted from Hasdrubal a promise that Carthage would not expand beyond the Ebro.
  • It was the Romans who then grasped the opportunity offered by Saguntine appeals for help as a pretext to confront the growing Carthaginian power in Spain.
  • It was the Romans who presented Carthage with an ultimatum and…
  • It was the Romans who declared war.

We have come a long way from the interpretation of the Carthaginians as proto-Nazis, seeking to overturn the Treaty of Lutatius.

I suppose that, at base, the underlying cause of the Punic Wars was that they were an imperial, economic and cultural death-struggle between two competing empires.

But it is difficult to see the Second Punic War as other than a decision by a nervous Rome to ‘pick a fight’ with Hannibal.  Though he might well have been expecting and even hoping for it, Hannibal crossed the Ebro because war had been declared on him, not as a pre-emptive act of aggression.
It was the Romans who decided to take the Saguntum Outrage as an excuse for war … who ‘started it’.

... which left their apologists rather scratching around for justifications after the war.

1 comment:

pashatom said...

Hello, I live in Portugal and have been investigating the whole Carthaginian story here in the Iberian peninsula. Quite by chance I have discovered some amazing things, in particular about the Hamilcar story and the movements of the Carthaginians prior to the outbreak of this war. (I don't have room to put them here)

To my complete amazement, historians have been looking always on the Eastern side of Iberia and never on the Western side, which is where they were and had been building up their base. I am very confident I have found the lost city of Akre Leuka, no it's not over in Alicante (most historians know this anyway). It's an amazing story and my overall impressions are that the Carthaginians were genial at strategy, especially Hamilcar. One ancient Portuguese historian says that he had taken a Lusitanian wife and so Hannibal was of Portuguese descent. His superiors in Carthage were so pleased with how his strategy was working (friendship and building a confidence) that they sent him to have more children here. They were popular here, so much so that Livy tells us that hasdrubal was voted to govern over all the Iberian tribes.

After his father's death, Hannibal continued with his brother Hasdrubal, and they were building up a strong and powerful army here in 'Lusitania' almost exclusively with Lusitanian celtic tribal confederations.

Hannibal was fed-up of hanging around in what he later termed as 'the barren hills of Lusitania' as he put it 'chasing wild cattle'. It's a barren place, but rich in metals and minerals and they had built up a crack army which Hannibal was anxious to take on the move. There really was no way out, he was set to go, to avenge his father's death, and to fulfil his life's mission of going to Rome. He really was an amazing man, with great personal discipline and an ability to focus and to command second-to-none. So he said goodbye to Lusitania and the barren hills of Beiras and stopped off in Salamanca the capital of the Vettones who had killed his father with his Lusitanian friend Viriato, and gutted the city.

Coming to the point of who was to blame for the start of the war, I really like your perspective. The Romans hated anything Carthaginian and placed the blame on them. Technically you are right, there is a discrepancy in the Polybius account. However, I think there was no stopping Hannibal. He had had nearly twenty years of hanging about in barren Lusitanian hills, he had done his job training the celtic recruits who were the backbone of his army. He felt ready and was a man with no apparent fear, and one who, like his father before him, had vision and the courage to match it. The rest is all written.

I am excited to be living in Hannibal's shadow. I feel him every day here. In Portugal today there are many people called Hannibal (Anibal), Hasdrubal (Asdrubal) and Hamilcar (Amilcar) even to this day. There are geological spots called 'Barca's this, Barca's that', there are bridges called 'Ponto de Barca'. He was here on the West. If only historians would stop searching over in Spain and realize that, while Portugal is a poor country, it is rich in history and has nearly all this particular one.

Tom Hamilton