Friday, December 20, 2013

Second Punic War

Fig.1: Long, drawn-out fight scene directed 
by Peter Jackson.
Most of the time when you go see a sequel to one of your favorite films, you end up walking out of the theater saying, "It was alright, but not nearly as good as the original." But then there are those glorious moments where the sequel actually tops its predecessor, allowing you to nerd out and buy a brand new set of action figures (I know that's what I did for Crocodile Dundee II). This was the case for the Second Punic War between the powers of Carthage, based on the African coast in present-day Tunisia, and Rome, based where at least one person you know is currently "studying" abroad. It amplified everything good about the First Punic War: large-scale land battles, cutthroat naval engagements, political intrigue, constant reversals within the chain of command, huge shifts of momentum, and (best of all) nonstop, gratuitous, family-unfriendly violence.  But what the original lacked in overall character development, the sequel came through with one word: Hannibal.

But first, some necessary backstory! I could just write about the First Punic War and its outcome right here, but it's a lot more fun to do it this way:

Anyway, 23-year-long story short, the Romans defeated Carthage for control of the region, stealing much of their territory, slapping a heavy indemnity on them to pay for the war, and initiating a Mediterranean-wide "Carthage sucks" chant just to humiliate them further. It was in this climate that Hannibal Barca lived out his childhood. Son of the lead Carthaginian commander during the first war, Hannibal learned quickly that Rome was to blame for the misfortunes of his civilization. The sources say that as a very young boy, he promised his father, "I swear so soon as age will permit...I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome!" which is exactly what I said to those bullies in middle school who always shoved me into my locker. (I'm hoping age will permit me when we're eighty, cause it will be a lot easier to arrest their destiny when they're old and senile.)

But don't feel too bad for Carthage. After the war, they colonized much of present-day Spain and enriched themselves once more with silver mining and betting on fĂștbol matches. This frightened Rome to no end, and they forced Carthage to sign a treaty stating they would not occupy any land north of the Ebro River (a classic example of "Stay on your side of the room" diplomacy). By the time Hannibal took command, he used this to his advantage in 219 BC to lay siege on the Greek colony of Saguntum, allies of Rome but located south of the Ebro. The Romans called foul on the play, but Carthage refused to give them the ball for their free throws. Eventually Roman diplomats traveled to the African city to settle the issue; as told by later Roman historian Livy, Quintus Fabius lifted two folds of his toga to the Carthaginian senate and said, "Here, we bring you peace and war," referring to the cloth in each hand. But when the senators began laughing at his Dora the Explorer boxers, Fabius angrily threw down the fold representing war. It, as they say, was on.

Fig.2: Map of Europe in 218 BC at the start of the Second Punic War, 
detailing the territories of Rome (red), Carthage (blue), and the 
lost city of Atlantis (burnt sienna).
Just like in the First Punic War, Rome naturally assumed the war should be fought on Carthaginian soil. So the main force of the Roman army packed their bags and headed out on a cruise across the Tyrrhenian Sea towards Spain, complete with a complimentary buffet, a luxury spa, an on-deck waterpark, and a special appearance from washed-up rock group Cheap Trick (retail value: $8,999!). But Hannibal had other ideas. Ignoring his friend Boromir's advice that one does not simply walk into Italy, he led a huge force of 50,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, over 30 war elephants, 4 hobbits, and a wily old wizard into the daunting peaks of the Alps. The exact route he took has never been pinpointed, but he somehow made it through the highest mountain range in Europe, known for its adverse weather conditions, inhospitable Celtic tribes, and a grumpy balrog, with at least half his army intact. By the time the Romans landed in Spain, it was too late; Hannibal was bringing the fight to Italy, hellbent on coating the dough with his special marinara sauce of blood! (That's the tagline for the sequel.)

Although his army did take many losses in the Alps, Hannibal was easily able to replenish his numbers through the recruitment of friendlier Celtic peoples that inhabited Northern Italy. Rome had subjugated the clans earlier in the century in the typical Roman way of being big fat jerks about it. As you can imagine, Hannibal didn't need to be a skilled door-to-door vacuum salesman to convince many of them to go along with his army:

Hannibal: Hey, would you like to kill some Romans?
Celt: That does sound like a lot of fun...
Hannibal: Then come and join our ranks!
Celt: I don't know. I kind of have a thing later.
Hannibal: Is your thing more fun than killing Romans?
Celt: No, I guess not. Let me go grab my sword.

Fig.3: Coach Hannibal, with 
his lucky campaigning hat.
With recruiting over and all the scholarships/under-the-table-freebies given out, Hannibal was ready to lead his team into the 218-217 BC season. Carthage scored a huge victory out of the gate at the Battle of the Trebia, with Hannibal making Rome look like a D1-AA team after convincing them to play without eating a balanced breakfast and crossing a freezing river. Freshman moves right there. That win was followed up with another at the Battle of Lake Trasimene after an impressive second half performance where they repeatedly coffin cornered the Romans against their own endzone and kept them trapped with a vicious man-coverage. Rome opted for a change at the helm, hiring Quintus Fabius as the new head coach. After studying some game film, Fabius determined that a defensive, conservative approach was the best way to end the Carthaginian winning streak. While successful in keeping games close, the Roman media was unhappy with the strategy and called Fabius names like "Cunctator" ("Delayer"), and Carthage's fans often distracted him with crude cardboard signs referring to his pink Dora undies. In the end, Hannibal escaped with a narrow victory, and set his sights on the illustrious Burlington Toga Factory Bowl located in Rome. (That paragraph was for you sports movie-lovers out there. This sequel has everything!)

Rome canned Fabius and elected two consuls with anger issues to lead the armies, with one claiming that he would "eat Hannibal's head for breakfast!" (quoted in Livy, Book 23, section 7). They engaged the Carthaginians at Cannae on the eastern coast of Italy, with the Roman forces nearly twice the number of their enemy, and their commanders with five times the steroid intake. Hannibal, the calm tactician, employed the perfect plan to negate this disadvantage (as seen in figs. 4-9).

Fig.4: The Roman and Carthaginian infantries and cavalries line up for the traditional snarl at each other before the battle.
Fig.5: The Romans, led by their uber-aggressive commander, blindly charge into the Carthaginian center. The two cavalries exchange fisticuffs as well.
Fig.6: The Carthaginians fall back, making the Romans think they're going a good job. The Carthaginian cavalry chillaxes after making easy work of their Roman adversaries.
Fig.7: The Carthaginians begin to envelop the Romans, with their cavalry coming from behind to literally stab people in the back.
Fig.8: Roman numbers deplete rapidly as Carthaginians encircle them and sing "Ring Around the Rosie."
Fig.9: With victory complete, Carthaginians decide to play pong with the head of a Roman infantryman.
By the end of August 2, 216 BC, as many as 70,000 Roman soldiers lay dead on the battlefield of Cannae. Hannibal achieved a decisive victory, and everything started to collapse on the Romans. Many of their allies throughout Italy abandoned them for the soft caressing arms of Hannibal. The Macedonian rulers of Greece signed a treaty of alliance with Carthage just to gang up on Rome. Nearly 20% of eligible fighting men in the Republic had been killed in the war so far. Worst of all, Rome's love interest found out about the thing, and now she's all upset and stuff (that sums up the middle of every romantic-comedy ever). Before long, the Carthaginian army showed up outside the city walls, a sight so alarming that parents would use the veiled threat that Hannibal was coming to get them in order to manipulate their children into picking up their toys and going to bed for centuries to come (no joke!).

However, Hannibal completely checked out after Cannae. He camped outside the Servian Walls of Rome for a little bit (stocked with plenty of chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers), but said he "just wasn't feeling it" and moved on. Yeah, he lacked the proper siege equipment to take the city and may have needed to recruit more allies before even attempting to attack, but senioritis seems to have crept into his previously-diligent brain. Instead his army moved further south, getting fat on stealing crops and livestock and terrorizing citizens over to their side. The Romans would then come in and terrorize them until their allegiance returned, so residents kept the jerseys of both teams stocked at all time. This annoying game of tug-of-war took 13 years, embodying that part of the movie where the plot stalls on something stupid and you know it's a good time to hit the restroom.

Fig.10: Scipio was so hip, 
if his bust had pants they 
would be halfway down 
his waist.
But exciting plot points were happening over in Spain. The western front of the war had been the least exciting of the Two Towers, but that changed with the death of Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio. After his son of the same name (fig.10) huddled over his body and completed the obligatory "NOOOOOOOOO!" he submitted his name to become the new lead commander of the legions there. Since he was only 25, many senators scoffed at the youngster with his baggy toga and Vulgar Latin, but no one else wanted the job. Luckily, he used his youth and virility to win key battles against Hannibal's brother and best man, Hasdrubal. While Hasdrubal was able to escape Spain and head through the Alps with the intent to reinforce his bro, he was killed at the bottom of the bunny slope by another Roman legion, and his head sent to Hannibal along with a Snoopy sympathy card. By 206 BC, Scipio had control over the Iberian Peninsula, and was promoted to the big screen to take on Hannibal.

Scipio came up with the brilliant idea of bringing the war to Africa, forcing Carthage to defend their homeland instead of messing up everyone else's. Of course the Senate was against this plan due to something about young wippersnappers and kids these days, but Scipio distracted them by turning on Wheel of Fortune and sailed south across the Mediterranean with his army anyway. This convinced Hannibal to finally get off his lazy butt and head home to stop the invasion. Both armies were reinforced; Scipio made friends with the local Numidians, who were excellent horsemen that previously fought for Carthage, and Hannibal raided a local circus for more elephants and cotton candy. The epic showdown that would take up the majority of the special effects budget was finally here.

Fig.11: The effects on that elephant are amazing!
On October 19, 202 BC, the two men met on the sands of Zama where Hannibal's rock beat Scipio's scissors for the right to attack first. Hannibal's elephants charged the Roman lines, but Scipio had his trumpeters play like they were in fifth grade band camp to scare the beasts backwards into the Carthaginians! The Numidian cavalry took care of their opponents, while the Roman infantry fought tough and wouldn't even allow Carthage to take their union-mandated break. By the time the Numidians returned and made the Carthaginians feel uncomfortable by awkwardly standing behind them, Hannibal knew it was all over. In the end, as many as 20,000 CGI Carthaginians were killed, with another 20,000 captured and sold into CGI slavery (aka: being extras in the next crummy Shrek spinoff movie).

Carthage had no choice but to surrender. All of the gains made by Hannibal in Italy over the course of 17 years were lost in one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Just like at the end of the first movie...I mean...war, Rome forced Carthage to pay an indemnity, but this one was more expensive than Jay-Z's crib and needed fifty years to pay off. Rome also took Carthage's possessions in Spain, and allowed their Numidian allies to steal as much land in North Africa as they pleased (which turned out to be all of it except for the square mile or two around the actual city of Carthage). Hannibal would be forced to leave his home city for the Greek kingdoms of the east, and couldn't help but fight the Romans once more time when they became entangled in the petty fighting there. Unfortunately he was defeated one last time, and decided it was best to take his own life (an inglorious end for one of the most ballin' characters in history).

As for the Romans, everything was looking good. They survived the biggest threat to their existence to that point, and a foreign power would not come close to touching Rome for another 600 years (notice I said "foreign power," since the Romans would get pretty good at invading themselves). Scipio would be forever honored in Rome and given the name Scipio Africanus, or "Butt-kicker of Africa." His adopted grandson, Scipio Aemilianus, would lay siege and finally conquer Carthage for good in 146 BC during the Third Punic War, which really ended the trilogy on a boring note. Nevertheless, the final conflict with Carthage set up Rome as a dynasty that would conquer the Mediterranean, as well as the box office and our hearts, over the next few centuries. So is the Second Punic War the greatest sequel in military history? I should probably call it a close second before I get those rabid World War II fans goosestepping to my door.

*That's the end of Season One for The Records of the Canned Historian. Sima Dave will be back towards the end of January with more of his awe-inspiring histories! In the meantime, reread some of his past work, follow all of his social media hoopla, and spread the word of this incredible blog to all of your friends and strangers (preferably with a megaphone on a crowded street in your underwear). See you next year!

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