No fan of Hannibal
When radio stations ask me to contribute to classical programmes, I tend to say yes unless there is very good reason not to. (Television is another matter. There you have to look nice: what I call, the frock problem. You also need to give up something like an hour off your time for every minute they transmit, which raises an obvious effort/reward issue).
But when Irish Newstalk e-mailed me to ask if I would join in a discussion about Hannibal, my first reaction was to say no. Two problems. First, I don’t have all that much to say about Hannibal (except that, if the criteria of good generalship is actually winning, then Hannibal falls down my rankings pretty quickly – along with Spartacus, Napoleon and a whole lot of other blokeish heroes). Second, I am in Los Angeles – and I am doubtful that the phone line is good enough to do a radio discussion with Dublin.
Newstalk, however, was confident that I would be nicely audible – so I agreed to do a live discussion, going out 7.00 pm in Dublin (my 11.00 am). In truth, I was only just up…and I actually did it from bed.
My learned discussants (Philip de Souza, from University College Dublin; and Gregory Daly, author of a book on Hannibal’s victory at Cannae) tended to admire Hannibal’s strategic brilliance. He managed to defeat the Romans in battles in which he was vastly outnumbered, he had scored the PR victory of getting an elephant or two across the Alps, and he had seen that the Achilles Heel of the Romans was their potentially disaffected allies – and so set about winning them over to his side. So far, so good. But, smart tactician that he was, it’s clear that he didn’t have a Plan B.
Finally, when the Romans put into practice their un-glamorous but effective scorched earth policy (master-minded by the truly brilliant Fabius Cunctator, ‘the Delayer’), Hannibal really didn’t know what to do.
I was left thinking that Hannibal was made into a hero by his Roman enemies. The Second Punic War was, in a way, the Romans’ Dunkirk – a brilliant victory partly because it was by the skin of their teeth. No-one wants a victory over a feeble enemy. It suits national identities to score a narrow victory over a flawed but worthy enemy. Indeed the Romans spent the rest of their history investing in Hannibal’s near genius . . . and, in Virgil’s case retrojecting the enmity of Rome and Carthage back into the time of myth.
I was also left thinking that it was very relaxing doing a radio interview from bed. I am used to driving down to Radio Cambridgeshire, sitting inside a small and lonely studio and communicating through headphones which always threaten a distracting echo. I am not sure about the quality of sound through my Los Angeles apartment phone, but there was something very enjoyable about chatting away to the live listeners, as if 'phoning a friend'.
Maybe lots of radio interviews happen this way. After all, how would you know?