Pride of Carthage
by David Anthony Durham
This epic retelling of the legendary Carthaginian military leader's assault on the Roman empire begins in Ancient Spain, where Hannibal Barca sets out with tens of thousands of soldiers and 30 elephants. After conquering the Roman city of Saguntum, Hannibal wages his campaign through the outposts of the empire, shrewdly befriending peoples disillusioned by Rome and, with dazzling tactics, outwitting the opponents who believe the land route he has chosen is impossible. Yet Hannibal's armies must take brutal losses as they pass through the Pyrenees mountains, forge the Rhone river, and make a winter crossing of the Alps before descending to the great tests at Cannae and Rome itself.
David Anthony Durham draws a brilliant and complex Hannibal out of the scant historical record–sharp, sure-footed, as nimble among rivals as on the battlefield, yet one who misses his family and longs to see his son grow to manhood. Whether portraying the deliberations of a general or the calculations of a common soldier, vast multilayered scenes of battle or moments of introspection when loss seems imminent, Durham brings history alive.
Booklist (Starred Review): Durham, the author of Gabriel's Story (2001), has crafted a grand recounting of the second Punic War. Fresh off a victory in Arbocala, Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian warrior, has set his sights on Saguntum, an ally of the growing Roman Empire. An attack on Saguntum will ultimately bring on a war with Rome, but this is what Hannibal longs for. Aided by his brothers, envious Hanno, pleasure-loving Hasdrubal, and shrewd Mago, Hannibal manages to sack the impenetrable city and with the blessing of Carthage begins the long march to Rome that will take him past treacherous Gauls, forbidding mountains, and inhospitable marshes. Durham depicts the great general as a fully rounded, complicated man: he's both a larger-than-life hero, propelled by his great ambition, and an ordinary man, who longs to be by his wife's side and regrets missing his beloved son's childhood. To give the reader a fuller picture of the war from all sides, Durham does not short-change the lesser players in this great war: he develops characters such as Imco Vaca, a young man in Hannibal's army, who is ill-equipped for war; maimed Tusselo, seeking revenge against the Romans who enslaved him; and Aradna, a much-abused young woman who shadows the army. Durham's epic is truly a big, magnificent, sprawling story complete with a sizable cast of compelling characters, intricately drawn battle scenes, and fluid, graceful prose. Kristine Huntley. Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review): Known for his novels of African-American life in 19th-century America (Gabriel's Story; Walk Through Darkness), Durham leaps continents and centuries to tell the epic story of Hannibal and his march on Rome in this heady, richly textured novel. After Hannibal assumes command of the Carthaginian army in Spain and conquers the Roman city of Saguntum, Carthage refuses to accept Rome's demand that it abandon the city, precipitating the Second Punic War. In 218 B.C., Hannibal begins his daring march toward Rome, leading an army of upward of 100,000—complete with elephants and cavalry—over the Pyrenees, across the Rhone and through the snowcapped Alps. Ill prepared for the frigid weather, pummeled by avalanches and harassed by Celtic tribes, the army arrives in Italy reduced to perhaps 30,000. Against all odds, Hannibal brings his soldiers through the tortuous marshes of the Arno, and traps and massacres a large Roman force at Lake Trasimene and again at Cannae. The novel's grand sweep is balanced by intimate portraits of Hannibal, his family, his allies and his enemies, as well as by the stories of two humble characters: Imco Vaca, a soldier, and Aradna, a camp follower, who meet and fall in love as the saga moves inexorably toward an account of the beheading of Hannibal's brother and Hannibal's eventual defeat at the gates of Rome. Durham weaves abundant psychological, military and political detail into this vivid account of one of the most romanticized periods of history. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.
Library Journal (Starred Review): The name Hannibal evokes ancient Rome, elephants crossing the Alps, and, ultimately, tragedy. In a dramatic change from the 19th-century American settings of his previous novels (e.g., Gabriel's Story), Durham's latest offers a rich, exciting, and panoramic view of the legendary Carthaginian general who almost conquered Rome. Hannibal is portrayed as heroically devoted to the North African city of Carthage, Rome's biggest rival, yet also as a man with human weaknesses. Life was brutal and bloody, and the novel does not gloss over the savage side of Hannibal and his peers. Along with detailing various members of Hannibal's large family, Durham also depicts ordinary soldiers and does not forget the Roman perspective. An epic tale well told, this will be easily understood even by those with limited knowledge of the period and may conjure thoughts of Robert E. Lee's battles against the Union in the Civil War. Highly recommended for most historical fiction collections. Robert Conroy, Warren, MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
A Ride with a Noble Warrior
by Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
There's a double-edged surprise that comes with the publication of the latest novel by young American writer David Anthony Durham. His first two novels, "Walk Through Darkness" and "Gabriel's Story," were deftly narrated and quietly entertaining. Both opened an aperture onto such historical matters as slavery and life on the Western frontier and demonstrated the early accomplishment and promise of a writer who was singled out with an award from the Hurston/Wright Foundation.
His new novel, "Pride of Carthage," stays within the realm of history, but it is hardly quiet. Horn blasts and the trumpeting of elephants rise from its pages as it takes us much further back in time than the first two books -- and to another geographical region. And it calls upon the writer -- with the force of a horn blast at the outset of a battle between two antique armies -- to face squarely the conventions and demands of first-rate historical fiction. Choose a world historical figure, as the classic works in this vein suggest to us, and invent based on your research; bend time lines here and there when you need to enhance the dramatic action, create secondary characters who come alive with as much force as the historical figures, make the past itself come alive in such a way that ultimately the book inspires us to brood on the questions that haunt us in our own time.
There have been very few serious modern American fiction writers who have successfully accomplished this feat -- that is, made novels about figures from the past, whether near or distant, who stay with us. But now along with Willa Cather's Bishop Lamy of old Santa Fe, Gore Vidal's Lincoln and George Garrett's Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower of London, Durham's Hannibal Barca, the great African general, can be added to the list of historical figures with whom they have kept great company.
"(B)rown-faced and black-eyed and handsome in a way that has nothing of feminine beauty in it." That's how we first see Hannibal, at ease, in Spain, through the eyes of one of his itinerant soldiers, when the battles against the Romans and their surrogate armies have not yet wounded him and worn him down -- before the heroic passage of his enormous army through the Alps and before the years away from his home city and his Spanish wife, Imilce, and his son, Hamilcar. It is a time when his powerful brothers and many brothers-in- arms still stood tall, and his dream of taking Rome and its tributaries and making the world an African possession still remained alive in his mind.
Hannibal is a man apart, as Durham describes him, a military man showing "a clear conscience in the face of pain, torture, death ... a cool head though his command was of life and death over thousands" and temperance -- never drinking more than half a goblet of wine, never eating until satiated, preferring "lean meat to fat, simple clothing to elaborate, the hardness of the ground to the luxury of his palace bed" and "his wife over all other women, a true aberration in a man who ruled with complete power over slave girls and servants and prostitutes, the wives and daughters of the adoring, or ambitious. " He bore himself "with a silent stillness at his center that was neither joy nor contentment nor pride but something for which he had no name."
This is the Hannibal whose campaigns we follow through Spain and across the Alps on that famous trek, with elephants and a huge army made up of Carthaginians, Libyans, Iberians and Gauls. We go with him into Italy to the various battles -- on the lake at Trasimene and to the slaughter in one afternoon of 60,000 Roman soldiers at Cannae -- and all the way to the very gates of Rome, where, in a spectacular interface of cultures, bone whistles, hand rattles and African drums sounded in the ears of classical Europe. And that all happens in just three-quarters of the story, which, because of the deft way Durham manages all of Hannibal's gargantuan military movements and how seriously he draws his main character, should be the envy of Oliver Stone, who spent millions of dollars failing to conjure even a fraction of the credibility in his embarrassing disaster "Alexander" that this gifted novelist creates throughout nearly 600 pages.
And it's not just Hannibal and his warrior family that Durham has given us; he has delivered some of the best battle scenes on the page since Michael Shaara's Civil War fiction. His stage is broad and encompasses characters high and low, including several generations of Roman generals and politicians, North African kings and princes, foot soldiers and former slaves. And he can work effects as broad as some of those aforementioned battles and as intense and personal as the awkward correspondence between the great general and his illiterate wife back in Carthage.
It took about 40 pages or so before I could feel at ease in the odd and unfamiliar time and setting of the Punic Wars. Flaubert tried it in "Salammbo" and made it arch. When a young American writer tries it you can only hold your breath and wish him well. But fairly soon I was breathing in concert with Durham's many characters and was immersed in his broad and measured scenes of war, in the spearing and hacking, the arrows flying, the elephants trumpeting and trampling, the gory and feverishly violent activity of ancient combat.
But even amid the savagery, some of the participants find a certain beauty. As when one of Hannibal's major opponents, the young Roman general Publius Scipio, finds himself at Cannae, where 90,000 Roman soldiers, soon to be reduced to only 30,000 living soldiers, are completely surrounded by Hannibal's lesser force in only a few hours. As Durham tells it: "The late hours of the afternoon found him ... cutting a bloody path through a line of Iberians three deep." And then, "(f)or a moment in the fighting Publius was taken by a vision of beauty -- that of the splashes of blood on the Iberians' white tunics, every possible variety of swirl and slash, a million variations on red and brown and dark almost to black. He had a notion that he would like to keep one of these tunics as a souvenir, a wall hanging to be viewed at leisure, a story to be read through close study."
In David Anthony Durham's masterly rendering of antique Mediterranean -- and world -- history, that's exactly what we have, and a fine story it is.
Novelist Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for National Public Radio.
Book Sense February 2005 Pick
"In Pride of Carthage, history is brought to life with a realistic blend of fact and fiction depicting Hannibal's march on Rome. Shrewd and engaging, Durham brings humanity and great depth to one of the best historical novels of the decade!" — Emery Pinter, Chapter 11, Atlanta, GA
Maybe Hannibal Wasn't So Horrible
By Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
The brief prologue to David Durham's new novel inspires all the faith needed to march through the next 500 pages. We meet a reluctant young warrior whose division is laying siege to the city of Arbocala (now Tordesillas, Spain) in the 3rd century BC When the wall finally collapses, he mounts the rubble in time to take an arrow through his palm and get trampled by the soldiers following behind, but he survives. That evening, a humbly dressed officer enters the soldier's tent and commends his bravery with a lavish tribute. For one of ancient history's forgotten millions, it's a moment filled with awe. For us, it's an introduction to the benevolent side of the world's most formidable warrior: Hannibal.
Of course, the scene is pure speculation. What we do know about Hannibal is that he was born in Carthage, a vast power in northern Africa that challenged Rome's supremacy. Tradition has it that at 9, Hannibal swore to throw off Rome's oppression. At 26, he took control of the Carthaginian army and tried to fulfill that promise with a series of brilliant and brutal attacks that almost succeeded.
The risks were formidable - for the general and the novelist. The logistics of both enterprises are staggering. Elephants resist crossing snowcapped mountains; readers balk at wading through ancient history. But Hannibal and Durham are masters of persuasion and imagination. For the young commander, it was a matter of assembling a rainbow coalition of enemies against Rome. For the novelist, success rests on his ability to move from epic battles to private moments that capture the doubts and joys of individuals caught in this earth-changing clash.
Durham's Hannibal is a temperate man of strict self-denial. He sleeps on the ground with his troops and has no taste for the carnal excesses of the men he leads. Having come of age during his father's defeat, he's motivated by twin desires for justice and revenge.
Durham shows a commander who knows how to motivate his "African furies," how to enlist potential allies by sympathizing with their grievances, and how to demoralize enemies with tactical creativity that's as dazzling as it is deadly. Marching through Northern Africa, Iberia, and myriad Roman colonies, he collects strange, disparate armies by highlighting the contrast between his honor and Rome's perfidy. Again and again, he countermands orders of more expedient generals who would win over opposing cities by skewering all their children. Oh, he's not above murdering recalcitrant populations, but he understands that the battle against Rome must also be a battle for the hearts of her oppressed subjects. (Something for Americans to keep in mind.)
But how deadly he is! "Pride of Carthage" is soaked with blood - "a choreographed sacrifice of massive proportions." In one spectacular scene after another, Durham throws together tens of thousands of men churning the ground in mile-wide swaths as they kill one another in a sickening variety of ways. Hannibal's attacks on Roman forces twice the size of his own army are awesome and desperate, full of cries and fire; armor and limbs; elephants, horses, and dogs - oh my!
But Durham is also remarkably attentive to individual lives and moments between heaves of battle. Hannibal, "the child of a thunderbolt," is worn by doubts and melancholy, desperate for the company of his wife and baby. He constantly feels the horrible burden of destiny. "At moments," he says, "I look down and realize that I'm seated on a monster fouler than anything I could have conceived."
His brothers adore him, but they labor under a sense of inadequacy that saps their initiative and leads to fatal errors. His wife, mother, and older sister present fascinating pictures of the complicated, compromised position of smart women in an ancient, patriarchal culture.
On the other side, we catch glimpses of Roman leaders who vacillate between arrogance and panic, unable to fathom this barbarian's next move. And at the other end of the social spectrum, we see the beggars, slaves, and prostitutes who follow behind these giant armies, supplying and reaping what they can without a care for who wins or loses.
Durham warns in his acknowledgments that "this book is a work of fiction and should only be read as a novel," but the historical records that survive are hardly models of modern academic objectivity. The Romans never managed to kill Hannibal, but they did write the only surviving history of his life. There are no extant Carthaginian sources.
In fact, there's almost nothing left from Carthage. At the conclusion of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Rome carried out what may have been the largest systematic execution of noncombatants before World War II, killing all but 50,000 of its 700,000 inhabitants and burning the entire city to the ground. Cato's much-repeated demand, "Carthage must be destroyed," was finally carried out.
Much that was lost is revived here in all its glory and gore, but ultimately what's more stunning is Durham's imagination, his sensitivity to the cost and exhaustion of war. It's a brilliant exploration of the tension between private destiny and historical force, as full of the sweep of geopolitics as the quiet intimacies of a marriage. He so clearly creates the hopes and fears of these people removed from us by time and culture that we can recognize our tragic, common heritage.