The ancient Mediterranean was a multilingual place. Although a few languages were in common usage—Phoenician, Greek, Aramaic, Punic, and Latin, in different times and places—many other languages were spoken, including Iberian, Gaulish, Etruscan, Oscan, Hittite, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Numidian. Many people, especially in the great port cities like Carthage, Rhodes, and Alexandria, would have encountered numerous different languages in their daily lives. It is no surprise that this experience of a polyglot world was reflected in classical literature. The ways in which ancient writers represented multilingualism and language barriers offer some useful models for us as speculative fiction writers today.
In 218 BCE, the Carthaginian general Hannibal led an army across the Alps into Italy, touching off the Second Punic War. On the question of exactly where Hannibal crossed the Alps, there’s always been a lot of, for lack of a better term, horse pucky. The ancient sources are vague and of dubious reliability. In the absence of solid evidence, numerous distinct schools of thought on the question have emerged. There are the military professionals who argue that Hannibal must have taken the easiest, most straightforward route open to him. There are the romantics who insist that Hannibal’s army must have taken a difficult and dangerous route befitting such a momentous expedition. The folklorists are persuaded by local legends in the Alps while the textualists wrangle over which of the literary sources is more reliable. Now some literal horse pucky may be getting us closer to an answer.
The whole route hangs on the identification of two specific points. One is an area called the “island” somewhere in the valley of the Rhone river. The other is the pass by which Hannibal’s army crossed the Alps. While the “island” is still uncertain, recent archaeological work may have identified the Alpine pass. As reported in Archaeometry in March, 2016, a large deposit of horse manure and disturbed soil near the Col de la Traversette indicates the passage of a large number of horses dated to the period of the Second Punic War. If this finding stands up to further scrutiny, it may allow us to pin down Hannibal’s Alpine crossing.
Identifying the Traversette as the pass Hannibal’s army took would have some interesting implications for our interpretation of the war as a whole. Although favored by some scholars (notably Sir Gavin de Beer), the Traversette has usually been dismissed as too high, narrow, and difficult for Hannibal’s army, especially when several lower, wider, easier passes were available within a few days’ march. The military-history school in particular has argued that Hannibal would not have set out on his march without good advance intelligence about the Alpine passes and that intelligence would have persuaded him never to attempt the Traversette. If Hannibal did indeed take his army by the Traversette, it suggests that his advance intelligence was not as good as modern historians imagine (whether because Hannibal didn’t know enough about the available passes or because he allowed his army to get into such desperate straits that he had to take a pass he knew was a bad choice).
If Hannibal’s intelligence-gathering was less than optimal, that would also help to explain the major strategic failure of his campaign: overestimating the central Italian cities’ readiness to cast off Roman hegemony. Hannibal’s strategy against Rome depended on stripping Rome of its allies and conquests. While he found ready support in the areas of northern and southern Italy that had only recently been conquered by Rome, very few cities in Rome’s core central Italian territory were willing to join him.
It’s always important to take new findings with caution. Further research may cast doubt on this new evidence. For now though, the poop looks promising.
Post edited for clarity
Image: Tarentine didrachm struck during the Second Punic War, photograph by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia (c. 212-209 BCE; silver)
Tor.com published an article online today about diversity in Hannibal’s army written from the point of view of historical wargaming. It is a interesting article and well worth a read, but unfortunately it misses the opportunity to really address questions of racial and cultural diversity in ancient warfare. Here is a quick attempt to address some of the things that were lacking.
Race and culture
Race is a term with a lot of baggage, as we are all painfully aware, but it means different things in different contexts. In modern parlance, it describes a socially-constructed division of human beings into more or less arbitrary categories, largely on the basis of skin color and other physical features. In a fantasy context, it refers to distinct species of intelligent creatures like Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, and so on.
The unaddressed problem in the Tor.com article is the conflation of race and culture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, overtly racist theories of history posited that people of different genetic backgrounds naturally had different qualities. Many of these stereotypes still linger in our popular culture: the stoic Indian, the mischievous Irishman, the passionate Italian, etc. This belief in racial character was encoded in early classic works of fantasy like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which gave us the stubborn Dwarf, the ethereal Elf, the vicious Orc, etc.
Even as we struggle to root out this conflation of race and culture from our modern life, it lingers on in works of fantasy and science fiction: the logical Vulcan, the boisterous Klingon, the decadent Centauri, the proud Dothraki. As we look back at history, we have to think of the people of the past not in terms of racial qualities but in terms of cultural contexts. People of different origins often do behave differently, but those differences are explained by the cultures they lived in, not the races they represent.