The Greatest General.

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. Of course there is another interpretation. Arrian says that Hannibal noticed Scipio’s jealousy, so was this incredibly generous reply instead a sarcastic barb? You greater than I? Yeah, right!

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.


How many Mules does it take…?

Knowing my grasp of maths and arithmetic this will probably go pear shaped. But here’s some thoughts on Roman legionary supply trains from around the 1st Century AD.

There were 9 contubernium in each Century.
And that means 9 tents per century and one Centurion’s tent so 10, there’s no evidence where the Signifer or Optio slept, Goldsworthy say’s that The cramped leather (waterproof goatskin) tents used by the Contubernium’s where carried by Mule’s, which where tethered to the rear of the tent when in camp, assuming that “Marius’ Mules” carried all their personal equipment on their back’s They would probably have needed two real mule’s to carry the tent and poles for them and the centurion and heavy equipment such as axes, pickaxes, mallets, spades, turf cutters and quern stones for grinding grain, and possibly the large caltrops (tribuli), and Cowan say’s that the mule’s was taken care of by muleteer’s (military slaves called Calones). I gather then that each century would have a considerable baggage train.

So let’s have a go at breaking it down here.
1 Century has 10 tents, carried by 18 Mules based on two Mules for each contibernum in the care of either 9 or 18 muleteer’s (calones) who where probably assigned by the, prefect Castrorum.
Providing that enough animals where available, a nightmare of a job no doubt, this means that on paper one cohort of six centuries would have a baggage train of 108 Mules and a similar or double number of calones.
A legion of 10 cohort’s thought to number over 5,000 men, would have some 1,080 Mules and similar number of Calones coming after it. That is some supply train when you consider an army could consist of over three legions, plus double that number of auxiliaries. This also bearing in mind that Marius reformed the army so that each soldier carried more equipment on his back to cut down the amount of mules required, hence the soldiers were nicknamed with customary Latin wit, “Marius’ Mules”


In A Roman Country Garden.

Garden Fresco from the Villa of Oplontis

 “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Marcus Tullius Cicero.  

It’s almost beginning to look like Spring outside. And with any luck we will soon have Daffodils on the verge’s and Poppy’s in the hedgerow’s, and since Daffodils are thought to be one of our most famous Roman imports, and this thought happened to coincide with my reading Pliny the Younger’s Garden Letters, I thought; “Why not do a post about Pliny’s Garden.” but let him tell you in his own words. Continue reading “In A Roman Country Garden.”

Dinner at Pliny’s.

Ever wonder what a well off Roman might dine on during the 1st Century AD?
In one of his many letters Pliny the Younger details a rather high end dinner, while at the same time ticking off a friend for not appearing to eat it. Bad show! Since Pliny had gone to some expense to provide food and entertainment for the dinner party, no small feat, for Pliny was not a man who enjoyed excesses, the least Septitius Clarus could have done was put in an appearance. Continue reading “Dinner at Pliny’s.”

What’s Your Civ?

Call it an experiment, call it a game or call it a random thought conjured up from the languid torpor of an absent moment, now used as a weapon to annoy travellers, call it what you like but let me ask you a question: Given the choice of three ancient civilisations which one would you choose to be a part of and why? Continue reading “What’s Your Civ?”


Though I haven’t yet written about anything prior or past the 17th or 18th Centuries AD I just want to make something clear about my reference to dates in Antiquity.

At some recent time, I don’t know when (ha ha), the traditional way of identifying time prior and post a certain date changed from BC and AD to BCE and CE (or sometimes ACE which I think you will all agree is a word not an abbreviation). Why I don’t know and frankly I don’t care, all that I care about is that you should know that were applicable, on this website all dates will be prefixed or postmarked Before Christ or Year of Our Lord (As the comment below says, After Death, is a popular memory hook, my thanks).

If you being fond of the newer appellations feel vexed about this then I’m sorry,  you will just have to go through the same irritation that I have to every time I read a book with your favoured distinction in it. Call me what you like, say,  your one of those guys who would wear a T shirt reading “When I was a Kid Pluto was a Planet” well I don’t have one of those shirts but it’s quite true nevertheless. Just as true as the fact that when I was a kid we used BC and AD and I like them.

Well having wasted enough of your time on my hang up, I’ll let you get on with your life. The author breaths out a long freeing sigh and relaxes.