The Punic Wars and the Culture Wars
My good friend Ben House has written a wonderful essay on the long-forgotten Punic Wars. I am so captivated by his approach and so delighted by his style that I could not resist reprinting it here:
Americans rarely ponder the Punic Wars. In the midst of a host of spiritual, political, social, economic, and intellectual problems, we probably should not lament this negligence of the ancient conflict. But I am in the midst of teaching Ancient History, so the Punic Wars are more relevant to me than the overdue Spring weed-eating job beckoning me outside.
The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought by the then up-and-coming expansionist Roman state against the mercantilist Carthaginian empire. Rome was a land power, interested only in whatever lands were adjoining their own property lines. Given time, this would place Roman legions and tax programs over a huge expanse of land stretching from Britain to Egypt. Carthage, an offshoot of the Phoenician trade empire, was the Ancient World’s equivalent of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Wholesale Clubs. If it could be bought, sold, or traded for, the Carthaginians wanted it. The Punic Wars, which took place between the years 264 BC. and 146 BC, mainly centered on the question of “Whose pond is the Mediterranean Sea?” The final answer was either “Rome” or “Rome,” take your pick.
The most commonly remembered image and story of the Punic Wars is Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants. It really happened; it was an ordeal to move an army of 50,000 men with horses and elephants through the passes between snow banks and landslides, across rivers, and over mountain crags. To make matters worse, the locals weren’t too hospitable. Hannibal had to fight both natives and nature to cross the Alps. The elephants did not fare too well; along with about half Hannibal’s army, a number of elephants perished in the making of that historical drama.
Hannibal is the most fascinating figure out of the Punic Wars. The son of a great general, Hamilcar Barca, and the brother and brother-in-law of other great Carthaginian generals, Hannibal pledged his life from his youth to opposing Rome. For fifteen years, he roamed up and down the Italian peninsula turning Roman armies by thousands into spaghetti sauce. For fifteen years, little children had the spadittles scared out of them by the whispered words “Hannibal ad portas”—“Hannibal is at the gates.” For fifteen years, he dominated the local gossip and political news as his armies alternately won allies, creamed disloyalists, pillaged wheat fields, and ravaged the land.
Hannibal was one of history’s all time great military leaders. Whatever characteristics we associate with Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Cortez, Robert E. Lee, or Douglas MacArthur that made them military geniuses can be found in Hannibal. He was courageous, tactically brilliant, innovative, sneaky, recklessly bold, ruthless, and most often successful. He typically drew the Roman army onto ground of his own choosing. At the Battle of Lake Trebia, he ambushed an entire Roman army. At the Battle of Cannae, he succeeded in a textbook-perfect double envelopment of the Roman army’s flanks. In that one engagement, he slaughtered 40,000 plus Romans.
Whether bribery or threats, diplomacy or intimidation, cavalry raids or set battles, Hannibal was the master of the art of war. Years after the Punic Wars, Scipio Africanus (the only Roman to truly defeat Hannibal on the battlefield) asked Hannibal to name the three greatest military leaders in history. Hannibal gave first place honors to Alexander the Great, second place to Pyrrhus, a king of Epirus, who invaded Italy in 280 BC, and third place to himself. “And what if you had defeated me?” Scipio asked. “In that case, I would place myself as number one,” Hannibal replied.
Yet, despite his greatness on the battlefield, despite his perseverance, despite his unswerving dedication to opposing Rome, Hannibal joins the losers of history. He is a brilliantly attractive loser, but still a loser. There are no second place honors on the battlefield.
With that in mind, we should focus a bit of attention to the winners; that is, we should look at the Roman generals and Roman system that did triumph in that war. Hannibal will not lose his attractiveness as a historical figure, anymore than will other losers like Napoleon or Rommel, the Desert Fox of World War II fame.
G.K. Chesterton, in his wonderful book The Everlasting Man, makes the point that the defeat of Carthage and the triumph of Rome was a great blessing to the world. The Baal religion of the Carthaginians was, he said, much more pagan and oriented to human sacrifice than were the Roman idolatries. The Carthaginians were Phoenicians, of whom we read in the Bible, and Hannibal’s very name meant "the grace of Baal." The victory of Rome helped prepare the Ancient World for the advent of Christianity—when the fullness of time was come.
Maybe Chesterton was right; he quite often was. His defense of Rome against Carthage is entertaining and thought provoking. But whether the Carthaginian paganism and commercialism (which does not sound all that foreign to us) would have aided or inhibited the later spread of the Gospel is a question of speculation only. God is His wise providence predestined that Carthaginian strip malls and human sacrifices would be buried under Roman sandals, salt, and sand. Meanwhile, the Gospel would travel through the cultural conduits devised by crafty Greeks and controlled by imperialistic Romans.
How did Rome win? Obviously, they did not have anything like the modern American media broadcasting defeatism and pessimism while Hannibal and his multi-national army terrorized Italy. Rome had its peace-at-any-price party, as did Carthage. But Rome had enough of a long-term commitment, enough of a stable structure, enough of an eschatology of victory (to borrow a title from Marcellus Kik), that it sustained over a decade of defeat before it decisively defeated Carthage. Rome survived battles like Cannae, which destroyed not just the flower of their youth, but a large number of political and military leaders. Rome survived economic disasters that make the American Great Depression look like a bull market. Rome even survived an inept political system that put two rulers in at a time for a period of one year, giving them divided, often incompetent leadership. Thus Rome survived political incompetence of a magnitude that can only be found in a gathering of Democrat presidential hopefuls every four years in Iowa. Rome survived a terrorist attack on their soil for a decade and a half; Rome did not have a 9-11; Rome had a 218-203.
Rome obviously never knew such alternative courses of action as those made famous by an unnamed Gallic nation in the second half of the Twentieth Century that has its capital located in a town called Paris. Had they known such, they could have opted for any one of the following responses: Retreat, surrender, collaboration, adoration.
Two men of the Roman army presented different, yet complementary, approaches to the threat that Hannibal posed. These two men were Quintus Fabius Maximus and Publius Cornelius Scipio. Fabius became known as ‘the Cunctator’ or ‘the delayer.’ From Fabius, we get the term “Fabian tactics.” Unlike his more bold predecessors and successors, Fabius avoided direct confrontation with Hannibal and thus avoided allowing himself and his army to be ‘the delicate feasting of dogs, and all birds.’
Ernle Bradford said, “The one thing that Fabius had to do, he realized, was avoid defeat.” Just like the Russians in their later campaigns against the French and Germans, Fabius practiced a ‘scorched earth policy.’ Every field, every delicious animal, every warm shelter, and every farm that lay within the reach of Carthage’s mercenaries was destroyed. Fabius was dedicated to the long-term, gradual wearing down of Hannibal’s army. Just like President Bush’s campaign against Iraqi terrorists, Fabius’ campaign came under severe criticism. But he avoided his critics, just as he avoided Hannibal.
While Fabius never won the acclaim and honors of the battlefield victor, his methods worked. He made use of resources that Hannibal did not have: Time, supply sources, patience, and long-term objectives. Bradford says that Fabius ‘had done more than any other to teach the Romans the way to wear down and finally defeat’ Hannibal.
In later centuries, Fabian Socialists borrowed Fabius’ name and methods to ‘successfully’ bring about a socialist evolution in Britain. ‘Fabian Tactics’ refers to the use of methods of slowly wearing down the opposition.
The other and more prominently successful Roman was Scipio. Unlike Fabius the Cunctator, Scipio was confrontational. Like all great men, Scipio studied his enemy. He had plenty of opportunities. He saved his wounded father on the battlefield during one of Hannibal’s early battles in Italy. Later, he fought in and survived the Battle of Cannae.
Like all great men, Scipio figured out the vital, but weaker chinks in the armor of his enemy. Scipio’s early successes were not against Hannibal himself, but against the Carthaginian army fighting in Spain. He tilted the military fortunes in Spain toward Rome. The loss of Spain to Carthage meant the loss of money and metals. The metals were used to forge weapons and the money was used to pay armies. Carthage, as implied throughout this essay, depended on a hired band of assorted warriors. After turning the war in Spain to Rome’s favor, Scipio began to draw away Carthage’s key ally, the North African Kingdom of Numidia.
Rather than fielding an army in Italy and adding to the ever-increasing list of deceased warriors for Rome near Rome, Scipio ported his army across the sea to the outlying areas near Carthage. By whatever methods of contact available, Carthage ‘e-mailed’ Hannibal and said, “Please come home. Now.” At this time, Hannibal’s raid into Italy was in its fifteenth year, and his near invincible army’s heyday had long since passed. Whatever ragtag troops he was able to load onto ships then went with him back to Carthage.
Amazingly, Hannibal the Carthaginian was geographically disoriented back in Carthage. He knew Italy better than his home turf. Meanwhile Scipio had used his time in North Africa to build up his army, win allies, and bruise the locals. Before actually confronting Scipio on the battlefield, Hannibal tried to wheedle a peace agreement out of the Roman general. In doing this, Hannibal in effect revealed his vulnerabilities. Scipio used even the negotiations to his advantage by drawing up his allied units to the battlefield while he and Hannibal talked.
So, in 202 BC at the Battle of Zama, the world changed forever as Scipio defeated the Carthaginians and Hannibal. The tactical elements of Scipio’s success consisted in arranging his army in such a way that Hannibal’s front line of elephants proved ineffective. After the confused and injured elephants lumbered off the battlefield, Scipio hit Hannibal’s flanks with the skilled Numidian cavalry units, which once served under the Carthaginian flags. As lines of Romans and Carthaginians converged with the clashing of swords, spears, and shields, the Carthaginians slowly got pushed back. When they realized that the enemy cavalry had flanked their army, a rout ensued. Hannibal escaped death both death and capture. He lived on to rule Carthage for a time, until later pressures sent him into exile. Scipio, for his accomplishments, was given the title “Africanus,” the only Roman given a name of the land he conquered.
What, if any, are the ‘lessons of history’ for us? Personally, I tend to want to find my lessons from Hannibal. He’s a historical loser, an underdog, and a brilliant man who is bested by a bureaucratic organization. But for the Christian in today’s culture wars, we would be better served by observing history’s winners. Christ promised us that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church. We tend to read it as though it says that we shall not be totally defeated by the enemy who is camped at our gates. Jesus issued a victory-oriented image, not a defeatist or underdog or loser image.
Christians need to learn from Fabius (and even from the Fabian Socialists). We need to fight long-term battles, avoiding foolish defeats, destroying enemy resources, and using time and patience to our advantage. Why battle for prayer in public schools? The Fabian approach would be to build a Christian school and concentrate on changing the next generation or the one after that.
Wear down the opposition. Preach, pray, evangelize, build churches, and support Christian education, read Christian books, live Christian lives. Abortionists and homosexual unions and hedonists and atheists cannot produce either families or culture. Don’t despair if unbelieving modern-day Hannibal’s are camped outside the gate. Hannibal never got inside Rome’s city limits and Christ’s church will never succumb to His enemies.
Aim toward producing Godly grandchildren. Have a long-term vision of victory. Be Fabian, be Augustinian, be Medieval, be anything, but impatient. Focus on Cathedral building and be multi-generational in expectations.
Along with this, Christians need to learn from Scipio. Study about and from our enemies. If unbelievers develop better universities, write better novels, create taller skyscrapers, and make more money, learn from them. Anything they do right, they accomplish because they have stolen from God. Take back the technology and artistry.
Find the sources of the enemies ‘metals and money’ and win it back. Again, Christian schools are battlefields for confronting the enemy—both short-term and long-term. Mel Gibson’s movie has done more to draw the enemy out of Italy and back to North Africa than anything else Christians have done in decades.
Whether it’s Hannibal’s elephants or Mordor’s oliphants, the bloated enemy forces are vulnerable. It may take a few more arrows than usual, but big ugly things die when punctured enough times. Fascism and Marxism did not last out the last century. Darwinian Evolution, Freudianism, Nietzsche’s notions, unbelieving Existentialism, Humanism, Feminism, Abortionism, Homosexual fanaticism, and whatever other deviations are lined up for battle, are all easily outflanked or directly defeated by a vigorous Christian confrontation with faithful doctrine, life, and culture.
Victory is often simply a matter of not having a culture of defeat.