Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hannibal starring Alexander Siddig

Oh dear.

Again, I wasn't watching this as closely as I should have been, as I was taping it as well - but I managed to put the wrong tape in, and it ran out, so I can't go back and watch it all properly. Never mind, I doubt it would be worth the effort. I did catch things like the younger Scipio's opposition to Fabius Maximus' policy of non-engagement, and Hannibal's assumption that an attack on Rome would be unnecessary. Now, neither of these is impossible. Scipio's clash with Fabius is not backed by evidence, but I suppose it's not impossible given Scipio's links to the Aemilian faction in the Senate. And people do often find it hard to imagine why Hannibal should not have attacked Rome after Cannae - personally I find rather more plausible the notion that he knew he couldn't besiege the city and take it. The trouble is, the authorial narration that this film had makes people think that this is how it is definitively known to have happened - this is backed up by an opening caption that the film is 'based on actual events ... recorded by the historians of the time, verified by scholars of today'.

In which context, the misrepresentation of what happened in Spain is unforgivable. From this film, one would assume that nothing happened in Spain until the younger Scipio arrived to take over in 210 BC. This is not true. Scipio's father in 218, when he found out that Hannibal was heading for Italy, had returned himself, but sent his army with his brother on to Spain. The film acknowledges that Scipio did not take his army back to Italy, but raised a new one (actually took over two legions that were already there), but does not say where the army went. When the younger Scipio arrived, he was taking over a campaign that had already been going on for eight years under his father and uncle, who had both just been killed, not launching a new initiative as the film implied.

The elder Scipio is, I feel, always undervalued. His decision to continue the war in Spain (he went out to take command in 217) arguably resulted in Hannibal losing the war. (Given that Hannibal has a line in the film about invading Italy in order to protect Spain, you might have thought it was worth mentioning that his strategy didn't work.) The film's failure to mention this strips context away from the Carthaginian Senate's decision to send reinforcements to Spain rather than Hannibal. This wasn't purely jealous pique (though Hannibal probably believed it was) - there was a genuine threat to Carthage's territories that had to be faced.

In the end, this was not that much better than Channel 5's documentary from last year, which I've written about before.


Edited two hours later to add: Well, the film may have distorted the chronology of the Spanish campaign, but at least it didn't leave it out altogether. Which is what the accompanying documentary did. You can't discuss the Second Punic War and leave out the Roman campaigns in Spain - it's like providing an overview of the Second World War without mentioning the Eastern Front.

It's a shame, because up to that point the documentary had been fairly sensible. It did reveal that the notion that Hannibal expected the Romans to roll over after Cannae is that held by Adrian Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is a pretty sensible historian, but I'm not sure this reading of Hannibal's motives can be demonstrated. He certainly hoped that Rome would give up or that Rome's allies would desert if he could humiliate the Roman army. But he may have realized that this was a gamble. It might not have been a surprise that Rome didn't give up after Cannae - but there wasn't much else he could do about it.

2 comments:

Matthew said...

Not knowing much about Hannibal it has fired me up to find out
more, a postage stamp could probably contain my knowledge of
him up to seeing this docu/drama. Whereas the Russian front
and WW2 in general is my deep interest.

I think the old adage that if you know anything about a subject
then tv will always get it wrong somewhere rings true. I find
myself shouting at the screen at some of the howlers I've
seen about WW2 before now. But then you get a meticulous piece
of television like the recent Laurence Rees Auschwitz and you
realise it need not be so.

I hate to use the phrase "dumbed down" because, statistically,
the dumb have always been with us; it's just that they can be
mobilised more effectively than the rest of us to bolster
the ratings. Quantity wins out over quality. re Sherman vs
Panther/Tiger.

What really struck me was that Hannibal used the same tactics
over and over again because they were successful. He didn't feel
the need to improve and here is where the similarity with the
Eastern front comes in. After 18 months or so from the German
invasion the Russians knew what the Blitzkrieg pattern was
and knew that if they could disrupt one element of it then the
rest would generally fall apart. The time scale though for
Hannibal was somewhat longer. Success is the breeding ground
for failure.

Tony Keen said...

One of the things that annoys me about this sort of programme is that it would only take a line or so of dialogue to put across what actually happened. I presume that the assumption is that the story must be kept simple, but does that mean it must be so simple that you end up telling a lie?

I agree very much that it need not be like this.