Hannibal's Children - John Maddox Roberts

Hannibal's Children
John Maddox Roberts
Ace publishers
ISBN: 0380977885 (Amazon link)

I've read quite a few of Robert's SPQR Roman mystery novels, and was intrigued to see an alternate history by him. Hannibal's Children takes one of the most famous turning points of the Punic Wars and wonders What If ... Hannibal and Philip V of Macedon had marched on Rome after Cannae? In our timeline, Philip V & Carthage was all talk, and he never actually committed any troops, and Public Fabius Cunctator ("The Delayer") stymied Hannibal far from Rome for long enough for new legions to be raised.

For once I was perfectly prepared to read an alternate history, having just finished a history of the Punic Wars. I have to admit that this made this novel a lot more interesting than I might otherwise have found it, as I was able to appreciate the research that Roberts has obviously put in. In Roberts' version of history the march on Rome is only the beginning - outside the walls of Rome, at the head of a massive army and fresh from a devastating victory, Hannibal offers an archaic alternative to open battle. Rome can accept 'national exile', where a defeated nation can pack up and clear out of the conquerer's territory for good. I was more than happy with the alternate history so far, but found this alternative a little startling to accept, my suspension of disbelief was stretched thin as the Romans packed up their goods and headed north out of Italy, asking only that their holy places be left undisturbed. I prefer alternate histories to be somewhat subtler, to diverge from the real history step by small step.

The novel starts afresh a century later, with Roma Noricum now established in, well, historical Noricum (in the Alps, south of the Danube, west of Vienna). The city is well established and controls the surrounding country, but is without walls. The Romans have decided that protection lies in their fourteen Legions, not in walls, and have become a military society much closer in spirit to Sparta than the original Republic. This is remarked on at several points in the text, as parallels are drawn between the Romans and the Spartans, but I'm getting ahead of myself as this doesn't become important until late in the plot.

The Senate is dominated by two loose factions - the Old Families, those of Roman descent, and the New Families, those local to the region who were granted citizenship in return for their help in setting up Roma Noricum. (I goggled a little at the thought of checked togas.) Marcus Cornelius Scipio (yes, those Scipios) is Old Family, currently a legionary commander campaigning against marauding Celts, he holds the relatively junior office of Tribune when he is called back to Roma Noricum. Once there he finds out two things; firstly that certain omens indicate that the time has finally come to end their exile and retake the Seven Hills and that secondly, he is going to be commanding a little scouting mission south... "What we are discussing here is neither war nor diplomacy. It is an ostensible mission of trade and exploration, but actually a spying expedition, to get the lay of the land, find out how powerful Carthage is these days, who their allies are, if any, that sort of thing."

There is a fly in the ointment though, Titus Lucerius Norbanus is to be Marcus' second in command. Scipio and Norbanus share an simmering enmity, having competed with each other for honours their entire life, but never openly in contention. Annoyingly, Roberts uses too broad a brush here, clearly marking the rest of the novel as Scipio vs Norbanus. Norbanus is New Family, and is fiercely proud of his local heritage, regarding his royal lineage as more honourable than Scipio's peasant farmer ancestors. Norbanus is a politician, smoothly charming, impossibly handsome, and a gifted orator. Both he and Marcus are painted as competent in their fields, but while Marcus is a bluff, honest soldier, Norbanus is shown to be greedy and ambitious from the start.

Together a small expedition sets off into Italy, only to find that most of the country is unoccupied by the Carthaginians. The military might of Carthage seems concentrated in Sicily and Carthage itself, and they soon find themselves riding through Rome unopposed. The first Carthaginian encountered is in the port of Tarentum, where the provincial governor Hanno is quick to assess them as potentially useful mercenaries for the war with Egypt that his Shoftet, Hamilcar II, is currently planning. Hanno also has an eye for scheming, and after sending the Romans onwards to Carthage proper, he pens detailed missives to the Princess Zarabel, high priestess of Tanit.

Naturally, the Romans are delighted to get such detailed reconnaissance, and proceed onwards to Carthage where they are drawn into the intrigues between Hamilcar, high priest of Baal-Hammon and king, and Princess Zarabel, his sister. I'm torn about whether I like the way Roberts paints Carthage - on the one hand he has some nice touches, like having the culture becoming increasingly Hellenic, with Zarabel representing a conservative faction, but on the other he overdoes it a little, describing a fantastic city of such stupendous wealth and achievement that even Herodotus would have been worried it wouldn't be believable.

Remember that during this period there is a balance of power between the Selucids in the east, Carthage in the west, with the various Greek kingdoms squabbling in the middle. And then there is Egypt, with which Carthage is about to go to war. Scipio is quick to seize upon the fact that Egypt, with its heavy crops of exportable grain, is the key to power, but that the Roman general who were to conquer Egypt would instantly become a great king, and like the Spartans abroad, be seduced by his power and wealth and no longer be trusted, or indeed, Roman.

The basic plot is neat here; Scipio decides Rome can play both sides, with the aim of re-populating Italy with Roman troops, forming a chain of supply to Carthage of course, while ensuring that Egypt doesn't exactly roll over. After the war is finished, Rome will then be in a nice position to form up with Egypt and revenge itself upon Carthage.

I like this plot a lot, and in the terms of ancient history, and ancient warfare, it makes a lot of sense. Sadly, I don't think Roberts is enough of writer to make full use of it. He's a good enough writer, but he's what I think of as a journeyman and can't make full use of his canvas. What could have been a sweeping epic of alternate history, rich in political scheming and skullduggery - and remember that the real history of the region is colourful in the extreme - is reduced to an adventure story, strongest in small scale scenes centred on military detail. I didn't find the simple political scheming terribly interesting, but enjoyed the author's version of the Marian reforms of the legions for example. I think there are two reasons why the novel doesn't work overall: firstly, the characters are fairly flat, and never really come alive beyond their use to the plot, but more importantly, Roberts strains suspension of disbelief again by introducing some fantastic elements to a plot which doesn't really need it.

During the Punic Wars Archimedes was supposed to have devised fantastic engines to help defend the harbour of Syracuse. In Hannibal's Children Carthage and Egypt both benefit from his longer life and have novel siege engines and artillery. The problem is that once Scipio sees these things, he is an excuse for the author to commit that most annoying of plots - genius engineer invents a slew of devices, including the submarine. My suspension of disbelief broke at this point. Especially given Scipio's often stated opinion feeling that the strength of the Roman army is in its men and their discipline.

Still, Hannibal's Children remains an enjoyable alternate history, even if I feel a stronger author could have made an awful lot more of it. However, as I neared the end of the book, the military action was still piling on, and the stage felt too crowded. On the one side we have Italy being re-occupied by the Romans, in Carthage we have Norbanus being seduced by the trappings of power with the help of the manipulative Zarabel, in Egypt we have Scipio cosying up to Selene with a plan to rewrite history. And then I realised the horrible truth: this is only book one of a series.

I hate that. Time to invoke the Novak Clause again:

Dear Ace,

I note with some dismay that this is the first in a series of undocumented length. This is not noted on the interior or the exterior of the dust jacket. It is not noted at the end of the book. It is not noted on the first title page.

Stop doing this.

There. I feel better now, and Google managed to turn up some hints that the sequel is to be called The Seven Hills. Overall? Fun alternate-history, well-researched but let down by thin characters and over-ambitious invention. Worth a look in paperback.

Posted: Sun - December 28, 2003 at 01:32 PM