The film compressed the events of the Second Punic War, which took sixteen years, into sixty minutes. Inevitably there would be some details passed over rapidly. But that is no excuse for the utter distortions. Hannibal was betrayed by his fellow Carthaginians not immediately after Zama, but six years later. The younger Scipio did not get his extraordinary command in the immediate aftermath of Cannae, as the programme implied - it came six years later. Scipio did not lead an army to Spain after Cannae, and the Roman invasion of Spain was not launched across the sea. The truth is that the Romans were already there even before Cannae.
The elder Publius Cornelius Scipio was consul, and at the beginning of the war had been sent to fight Hannibal in Spain (this was not, as the programme suggested, him being picked for command, but as elected consul it was his responsibility to lead Rome's forces). As his army advanced through Provence, he learnt that Hannibal had slipped behind him into northern Italy. He could have decided at this point to turn his army round and chase Hannibal, and this indeed is what the programme implied he did. What he actually did instead was to decide that his duty as consul meant he must return to face the Carthaginian invasion, but that, despite the fact that Hannibal was no longer there, the Roman invasion of Spain should still go ahead. So he handed the bulk of army over to his brother Gnaeus Scipio. This was undoubtedly the correct decision. Hannibal had invaded Italy in order to seize the strategic initiative, and prevent the Romans fighting the war the way they wanted to. By carrying on with the invasion of Spain, the Scipios ensured that Hannibal was only partially successful. The Spanish campaign tied down Carthaginian troops that might have reinforced Hannibal from that direction. And this fighting sucked in further troops from Africa. Because the Iberian peninsula had to be fought for. Spain was the basis of Carthaginian power, just as Italy was Rome's, so each enemy was striking at the other's heart. And in the end, the Romans did so more successfully, for the Second Punic War was decided in Spain, not Italy. Effectively, even before Hannibal had won a single victory, Scipio had taken the step that would win the war.
The programme was a pretty conservative look at Hannibal's career, as one could tell from the selection of talking heads, that favoured authors of popular history over university academics. It presented a viewpoint that Hannibal was foolish not to march on Rome after the victory at Cannae. But many scholars believe, and I think rightly, that Hannibal knew he did not have the siege equipment to take Rome, and could only succeed if the Romans surrendered in shock. There was a possibility that might have happened, but it was equally, if not more likely, that the Romans would defy him, and then his essential powerlessness against Rome's fortifications would be exposed. All the propaganda gained from the victories of Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae would have been undone. This view was given no screen time. In fact, though a stunning tactical victory, Cannae was a strategic failure. Some areas in southern Italy did desert Rome, but not enough to break Rome's power. To bring more desertions, Hannibal needed more set-piece victories, and Cannae had persuaded the Romans that engaging Hannibal in set-piece battles was the worst thing they could do. Instead they retreated behind the walls of their colonies, a network of fortified cities throughout Italy, about which Hannibal could do nothing.
One view that was given screen time was that the Carthaginian state betrayed Hannibal, that after Cannae they decided that Hannibal should be deniable, and that the war was his own affair. This was propounded by Professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University. The trouble is, the theory doesn't hold up. For a start, a mere two years previously, the Carthaginians had gone to war with Rome rather than give up Hannibal. Why not decide then that he was deniable?
And it really is a misrepresentation of the strategic situation facing Carthage after Hannibal's victory at Cannae. For one thing, Hannibal had got himself in a position where he was very different to reinforce. He was bottled up with his Greek allies in the southern part of the Italian peninsula. The obvious route to reinforce him was by sea from Africa - but this was blocked by Roman naval power. That left the land route from Spain. Making the journey across the Alps had cost Hannibal nearly half his army, and any reinforcements would have to traverse Roman-controlled Italy. The Romans were scared of Hannibal, but they were not afraid of any other Carthaginian forces, judging correctly that Hannibal was a one-off.
And reinforcements from Spain could only come if they could disengage from the Roman forces there. This was not easy, and the one serious attempt to take troops from Spain to Italy was an act of desperation after Iberia had been effectively lost. Those troops did manage to cross into northern Italy - where the Romans annihilated them.
There were other demands on Carthage's resources than Hannibal. These other campaigns are often presented as sideshows, and this is very likely the way Hannibal himself felt. But that is not fair. As already noted, Spain could not be abandoned without effectively losing the war. The Carthaginians also sent troops to Sicily. This, to my mind, demonstrates a commitment to Hannibal that is not always acknowledged. Yes, there was an issue of pride concerned; the Carthaginians wanted to regain control of the island they had lost at the end of the First Punic War. But if they succeeded, it would then become much easier to reinforce Hannibal, sending troops across the relatively short sea-crossings from North Africa to Sicily and from Sicily to Italy, reducing their exposure to Roman sea-power.
The one area that could be seen as a 'sideshow' was the campaign in Macedonia and Greece. There was no particular strategic value to Carthage in this. But by bringing Macedon into the war against Rome, the Carthaginians could drag in far more Roman forces to face Macedonian manpower than they would have to commit. So the Macedonian campaign reduced Rome's ability to fight Carthage effectively. The Romans realized this, which is why the First Macedonian War was ended in 205 BC with a peace that was favourable towards Macedon.
The truth is that after Cannae, Hannibal became the sideshow. He stayed in Italy for another thirteen years, but achieved very little. The war was won and lost on other fronts, principally, as I say, Spain.
One last point. Five's publicity talks about the programme "Exploring the latest archaeological discoveries, ancient historical sources and cutting-edge DNA technology" - but of the first and last there was no evidence. As the Sunday Times preview suggested, stick with Channel 4's two programmes on Carthage from 2004, which, though not without their faults, were much better than this.
This entry is dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Lewis, from whom, twenty years ago, I learnt much of what I know about Hannibal.