‘You know how to win a battle, Hannibal; you do not know how to use the victory!’
Two implacable enemies whose great power was matched only by their hatred for each other; a vanquished people daring to attack their conquerors; a son determined to carry on the war started by his father. As well as being one of the most exciting episodes in history, the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) was a decisive chapter in Rome’s emergence as a great power. Rome’s victory over its ancient rival Carthage would signal a rise to dominance over the Western world. No wonder then that Livy, when he set out to tell the story nearly 200 years later, described it as ‘the most momentous war ever fought’.
The Romans had defeated Carthage in the First Punic War, capturing Sicily and Sardinia. Hannibal was just nine when his father Hamilcar had made him swear enmity to Rome on a sacrificial altar. Soon after succeeding his father as commander of the army, Hannibal invaded Spain, and continued through southern France towards the foothills of the Alps to fulfil his destiny as avenger. The Romans, hardly able to believe the audacity of their foe, incurred terrible losses at the battle of Lake Trasimene and at Cannae, but a fatal mistake on Hannibal’s part would lead to his eventual downfall.
The power and elegance of Livy’s oratorical prose was unprecedented in Latin historical writing, praised by Quintilian for its lactea ubertas or ‘nourishing richness’. As a storyteller Livy is unrivalled, and his protagonists are unforgettable: the brilliant and charismatic Roman leader Scipio Africanus; the rash and doomed Gaius Flaminius, and Hannibal himself, courageous, cruel and arrogant: ‘I am the man who brought Spain and Gaul to heel, and conquered not only the peoples of the Alps but – a much greater achievement – the Alps themselves. Am I then to compare myself with this six-month commander, with this deserter of his own army?’ This Folio Society edition includes newly commissioned photography and an introduction by historian and novelist Alessandro Barbero.