The Final Act Cover

Hannibal’s Oath

The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy

John Prevas

Da Capo Press, Boston, 2017, 336 pages

Book Review published on: February 1, 2019

In 218 BC, Hannibal Barca, a military governor in Spain, exploited Rome’s fear of Carthage as a peer competitor and created a crisis to give pretext for his invasion of Italy and the Second Punic War. Carthage and he perceived Rome’s new alliance with the ancient walled Greek colony of Saguntum as an incursion into their sphere of influence. A pro-Roman Saguntum in Hannibal’s strategic support area created vulnerabilities to the success of his future aspirations. Hannibal laid siege to the town. After eight months, it fell. He donated the spoils to the treasury in Carthage that inured political support for his upcoming endeavors. The Carthaginian Senate equivocated with Rome’s envoys who requested the surrender of Hannibal for violating a treaty limiting expansion. Carthage’s commercial domination of the Western Med, profits from expansion, and exploitation in Spain, plus Hannibal’s success and offering of loot, emboldened the elders. They claimed that neither party had “ratified” the treaty and offered to let Rome select whether to accept the fait accompli or march to war. Rome chose war.

In Hannibal’s Oath, John Prevas leverages classical sources and presents Hannibal as a tragic Homeric hero. The book has three major strengths. First, Prevas provides an easily readable story that captures the reader’s attention. Second, he presents both the conventional wisdom and contrarian accounts when classical sources differ, analyzes accuracy and bias, and provides his perspective. Third, the author augments his narrative with sufficient and relevant historical information to provide perspective without detracting from his goal to depict Rome’s greatest enemy.

The prologue portrays the sixty-four-year-old general, now military advisor, in self-imposed exile in Bithynia, approximately twenty-seven miles southeast of the Greek colony of Byzantium, where he commits suicide to prevent his capture and extradition to Rome. The book then proceeds to tell Hannibal’s life in chronological order. Prevas sets the stage. Rome violated the First Punic War peace treaty and seized the former Carthaginian possessions of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. This elevated the importance of Spain’s natural resources and manpower. During a religious ceremony to bless the assignment and departure of Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, as military governor of Spain, nine-year-old Hannibal requests to join the expedition. Hamilcar consents on the condition the lad pledges to the deity that he will always be an enemy of Rome and anyone who supports her.

With Hannibal’s oath made, the author relates how Hamilcar conquers southern Iberia, expands Carthaginian influence, builds a fortune, and raises Hannibal plus his younger brothers Hasdrubal and Margo to despise Rome and seek revenge. The chapters flow: Hannibal assumes his father’s mantle as commander, initiates hostilities, marches and crosses the Alps in 218 BC, defeats Roman armies at Trebia, baits and ambushes them at Lake Trasimene, and chooses not to march and lay siege to Rome but move south and east, setting the stage for the double envelopment at Cannae.

As they appear, Prevas addresses the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. Readers focused on strategy learn about political military issues that range from politics of the city-state elites, tribal allegiances, and shifting regional and Italian peninsula alliances. The author posits that Hannibal’s end state was the diminution of Rome’s power through the severance of her coalitions, not necessarily her physical destruction. Operational challenges appear as Hannibal conducts intelligence, factors engineering and logistical challenges, decides on an invasion route, considers whether to lay siege to Rome or remain mobile and continue into the interior, awaits resupply, debates the types of winter quarters, and suffers from lack of reinforcement and replenishment. The author inserts his observations, gives a terrain analysis, and describes ancient combat from experience walking the mountain passes and battlefields; all of which provide insight to the tactician.

For those not familiar with Hannibal and the Second Punic War, Hannibal’s Oath provides an easily readable account of Rome’s premier antagonist, plus the events and characters with whom he interacted. Concurrently, Prevas weaves into the narrative sufficient relevant cultural and historical information to provide perspective. The historian may lament the lack of information on the First Punic War, or in depth coverage of the contemporaneous events in Rome. However, those additions would detract from the focus of an engaging work that addresses Hannibal’s role in the clash of two peer competitors for control of the littorals and waters of the western Mediterranean Sea.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Robert D. Spessert, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Gordon, Georgia