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Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Mommsen On Hannibal and Scipio Africanus

I consider Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome to be a more convincing account of the Roman age than Edward Gibbon’s History of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Unlike Gibbon, Mommsen does not develop his history with a bias towards the Enlightenment notion that the Roman Republic was better than the Roman Empire and that the rise of institutionalized religion (christianity) led to the Empire’s decline and fall—Mommsen demythologizes the Roman Republic and shows why the Roman Empire was not just inevitable but also necessary for the survival of Roman culture. 

Today I finished reading the volume three of Mommsen’s History of Rome, in which he describes the Punic Wars and the contest between Carthage’s Hannibal and Rome’s Publius Cornelius Scipio (Africanus). Mommsen views Hannibal as a general of great genius who commanded such devotion that even in the worst of times his troops never deserted him. But Mommsen is not kind to Scipio, who, he says, was motivated by the ambition of proving himself to be the primus inter pares among all Romans. Scipio was victorious and Hannibal was defeated, and Rome, in the words of Mommsen, subdued the East “as the tempest overpowers the ship that has no one at the helm.” 

The end of Hannibal and Scipio came in the same year: 183 BC. Soon after his defeat at the Battle of Zama, Hannibal had been on the run to save himself from his Roman pursuers—one day he noticed that his house was surrounded by assassins, and he killed himself by consuming poison. Scipio spent his final years on the coast of Campania; he was disappointed because he felt that the Senate was not acknowledging his military success. He was only fifty-three, but he had become a bitter man. In his will, he instructed his relatives that his remains should not be buried in ungrateful Rome.

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