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October 19, 202 B.C.:  The Battle of Zama

On this day in 202 B.C., Hannibal had the character-building experience of losing a battle…and a war. If only Hannibal had read “War and Peace” (and since the Second Punic War lasted sixteen years, he might have had the time), the Carthaginian general would have known that his military genius was only as good as his men. Unfortunately, at Zama, his men really stunk.

Carthage had an all-volunteer army: in other words, mercenaries. Prior to Halliburton stock options, mercenaries usually were compensated by loot. It is a wonderful incentive when you are on the attack, rampaging through Italy. However, when you are on the defensive, protecting Carthage, looting the employer is discouraged. In those circumstances, Hannibal was not getting the best resumes.

Worse yet, the Romans had outbid him for all the available cavalry. After all, working for Rome, the North African horsemen now would be entitled to loot Carthage. Hannibal hoped to compensate by using elephants, whose charging tonnage presumably would flatten the legions. Since the fearsome beasts were not really maneuverable, the tactic only worked if the Romans remained patiently still. For some reason, they wouldn’t. When confronted with a charging elephant, the Romans simply stepped aside and let the pachyderm pass.

(Despite the elephant’s tactical futility, the Italians evidently were impressed by such overblown, lumbering theatrics and would eventually invent opera.)

Hannibal lost the battle, and Carthage was at the mercy of Rome. Mercy was not a Roman trait. The Carthaginian empire was reduced to the city limits. Hannibal, however, did retain his reputation. Even twenty centuries later, the young Sigmund Freud regarded Hannibal as a hero. Battered by the blond schoolyard bullies, Sigmund loved the idea of a tough Semitic guy who could scare the id out of the foreskinned crowd.

The same solace may have occurred to Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

  1. Pam Beddard says:

    Steady on. Zama may have been a bad day for them, but elephants were much rated for their courage, tenacity and power by warriors in many war zones from around the 8th century BC to the 1500s AD – a tad longer than the average shelf life of any modern armaments. Their poop also left battle sites in far better shape than, say, napalm, Agent Orange or cluster bombs – a Weapon of Mass Fertilization.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Pam,

      First, welcome.

      Second, I love animals–well, at least most mammals–and I certainly would be grateful to the elephants if they did inspire Italian opera. (The animal totem for German opera might be a flatulent tortoise.)

      Finally, and if Zama now is the garden of Tunisia, as much credit could be given to the contributions of the Numidian horses. One might even thank the Roman legionaries; all that olive oil might produce a certain fluency.


  2. SwanShadow says:

    Only you, Eugene, could manage to get Hannibal, Freud, and Superman to the same table.

    I would hope that if the Last Son of Krypton was indeed circumcised, the deed was done back home before little Kal-El crash-landed on Earth and gained his legendary invulnerability. Otherwise, that bris would have been a mohel’s worst nightmare.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Hello, Michael.

      I thought that you would have realized the etymological similarity of kryptonite and kreplach. The sole difference is that kreplach is always deadly.


  3. Cindy Starks says:

    The “pachyderm pass” and “the foreskinned crowd” are my two favorite “Finnerisms” in the blog. You do have a way with words. And, as Groucho Marx might have retorted, “and they’d like to have their way with you.”

    But I digress. No, you have not insulted the Church today, but you have managed to insult Italians, of which I am one. (My maiden name is DiTallo). I got that crack about the opera, Finerman.

    At any rate, you retain your flair for the dramatic and the amusing.

    Carry on.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Please call me Gino. Remember, my ancestors were Roman citizens too–(and it took only them three lost wars to reconcile themselves to being paisanos.)
      I actually like Italian opera. The Verdi and Puccini Fan Clubs are always welcome here. A similar invitation will not be extended to the Wagner bund.

      And congratulations on your victory at Zama.


  4. Hal Vincent says:

    From Latin class, I remember Hannibal had a brother Hasdrubal. Clearly, their Dad, Hamilcar, had a sense of humour re: names – but perhaps this rather amusing idiosyncrasy was lost on the vanquished.

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