I don’t care whether it’s reliable or not. One of the greatest stories of the ancient world is that of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus meeting before the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, and their subsequent meeting in Ephesus years later when Hannibal was in exile under the protection of Antiochus III King of Syria. As part of a diplomatic embassy to Syria, sometime around 194 or 7 BC Scipio talked with Hannibal, the Roman asked the Carthaginian who he thought the greatest general in the world was, the answer is priceless, and at the same time extremely gracious. If it is true, then it shows the respect these two great Generals had for one another, if not, then it’s still a great story.
“Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general of all time. Hannibal replied: ‘Alexander, King of the Macedonians, because with a small force he routed armies of countless numbers, and because he traversed the remotest lands. Merely to visit such lands transcended human expectation.’ Asked whom he would place second, Hannibal said: ‘Pyrrhus. He was the first to teach the art of laying out a camp. Besides that, no one has ever shown nicer judgement in choosing his ground, or in disposing his forces. He also had the art of winning men to his side; so that the Italian peoples preferred the overlordship of a foreign king to that of the Roman people, who for so long had been the chief power in that country.’ When Africanus followed up by asking whom he ranked third, Hannibal unhesitatingly chose himself. Scipio burst out laughing at this, and said: ‘What would you have said if you had defeated me?’ ‘In that case’, replied Hannibal, ‘I should certainly put myself before Alexander and before Pyrrhus – in fact, before all other generals!’ This reply, with its elaborate Punic subtlety, and this unexpected kind of flattery…affected Scipio deeply, because Hannibal had set him (Scipio) apart from the general run of commanders, as one whose worth was beyond calculation.
Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXXV.14″
The Historian Appian also tells this story in his History of the Rome.
” It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia.”
To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus,” because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible,” he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these.”
Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “To myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Spain and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules. I invaded Italy and struck terror into all of you, laid waste 400 of your towns, and often put your city in extreme peril, all this time receiving neither money nor reinforcements from Carthage.”
As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a delicate manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.”
Hannibal was a man of dry wit and great intelligence. And it fits his charachter to reply in such a subtle way. For he names Scipio as a greater general than Alexander by not mentioning him. Had I defeated you I would have been greater than Alexander says it all. Yet Livy may have wanted it to read that way, Hannibal would never have put a Roman above himself which gives the story credibility, yet between the lines he admits to Scipio’s greatness, which would doubtless please a Roman audience. Why be so subtle? Well if it’s just a story, then it’s because the Romans had a grudging respect for Hannibal, they saw in him a worthy opponent who had brought out the best in them, by bringing them so low, and outright slander would have been seen as unworthy.
So there is a case for both reality and fiction, given that ancient writers almost never quoted actual words, rather they took the basis and embellished from it, we will probably never know. But for me, it happened and it’s one of my favourite stories of the ancient world.