Hannibal - Ross Leckie I was leaning toward a 2-star review before getting to the second half of the book, which began (however tentatively) to explore Hannibal as a human being but it was too late and too facile to raise the book beyond a 2.8, at most.

I'm going to assume that anyone reading this review knows at least the basic outlines of Hannibal's career: Carthage was Rome's great bete noire during the Republic's rise to "great power" status in the Mediterranean. Hannibal, the son of Carthage's chief general Hamilcar Barca, supposedly swore an oath to his father to destroy Rome and, spurred by this overbearing desire for revenge, launched the Second Punic War and very nearly succeeded. Despite inflicting two of the greatest defeats in Roman history on her legions, Hannibal was unable to take the city or, indeed, to sway many of Rome's allies in Italy, and spent over a decade fruitlessly ravaging the Italian peninsula until recalled to Africa to meet a Roman counter-invasion and defeat at Zama. True to its nature and usual foreign policy, the Roman Senate was unable to rest without a completely cowed enemy and eventually hounded Hannibal into exile and death. The Romans tracked him to the kingdom of Bithynia, whose king betrayed Hannibal. Always one step ahead of the Romans, however, Hannibal managed to commit suicide before they could take him (in Leckie's version, Hannibal slits his own throat; the story I'm more familiar with is that he takes poison - in either version he gets the last word).

All of our sources for the Punic Wars and pre-Roman Carthage are Roman. The Republic was extremely thorough in wiping out any memory of its hated enemy after the final war in 146 BC (the Carthage of the Empire, Augustine and Boniface was a Roman colony). Thus, a modern author has a relatively open playing field in which to speculate on just what sort of man Hannibal may have been.

Ross Leckie's Hannibal conforms fairly closely to the idea of a man driven to obsession to destroy Rome for all the injustices it has heaped on Carthage; he sacrifices friendships, wife and son on its altar. It's only after his wife's brutal rape and murder at the hands of Roman legionnaries that he realizes how empty his life is and spends several years in a "funk," unable to finally settle affairs with Rome yet equally unable to retrieve anything worthwhile from the situation. Eventually, he returns to his obsession but too late to fulfill it. After fleeing Carthage, Hannibal spends the last decades of his life advising the Eastern kingdoms that are falling under Rome's hegemony in their resistance (particularly Antiochus).

Leckie does a good job capturing the flavor of the era, especially its brutality. It may be off-putting to modern sensibilities but the extremes of violence and the morality of the period ring true. And, to be honest, are we all that much better? What are we to make of the rape and murder of the 14-year-old Iraqi girl and slaughter of her family by US troops only a few years ago? How is this different from the Romans' rape and murder of Hannibal's wife, Similce, and Hannibal's response in butchering the pregnant Roman captives?

Another point in favor of Leckie's abilities as an author is his thorough grasp of the sources and of ancient warfare. It's also one of the weak points of the novel, which at times reads as little more than filler to get us from one decisive battle to another. Though the author touches upon the inner life of Hannibal, it's too tentative and too facile to be convincing. We're told of Hannibal's obsession, of his overwhelming love for wife and son (though not so overwhelming that he balks at taking them over the Alps in winter), of his sudden realization of revenge's futility, etc.

As an action-packed novel about Hannibal, this book succeeds but it lacks the power and insight of Renault's series of novels about Alexander or the faux autobiography par excellence, Yourcenar's Hadrian but it's a good diversion if you're interested in the period and the genre.