Wednesday, March 26, 2003

My dad majored in History. One person he taught us to love as children was Hannibal. I think his admiration for Hannibal was partly due to the fact that Hannibal was black, partly due to the fact that Hannibal stood up to and beat the snotty Romans and partly due to the fact that Hannibal did this cool thing of taking elephants over the Alps.

My dad also taught us that Jesus was black. He claims not to remember this. His argument was: “Israel is in Africa. People in Africa are black. Even though there are no pictures of Jesus, he still had to be black.”

We are Catholic so when I repeated this in Catholic school a few people took the trouble to refute my view and a few people seemed more than a bit bothered by this idea. I am amused by the memory of one girl telling me that she had lived in Saudi Arabia and in Saudi there are desert dwellers with blue eyes and blonde hair. (The Circassians I realized later from watching Lawrence of Arabia for the 30th time.) I guess that shows there is a .0001 percent possibility Jesus had blue eyes if you care about that kind of thing?

In my innocence, I assumed the vehemence of those denying the possibility of a Black Jesus stemmed not from the very idea of a black savior but from some other source.

In my mind, Jesus is still black. I don’t really have a specific picture of Jesus in my head—when I think about it though, Jesus looks like a black guy.

As a child I imagined a kind of light-skinned (well, fairly swarthy but not black) baby Jesus who turned into a black grown up Jesus. Black babies are often light skinned at first. So it isn’t completely impossible.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if someone will dispute my father’s claim that Hannibal was black also? Or does that not bother people the same way?

At the age of nine, Hannibal swore a vow to his father that his only goal in life was to hate the Romans, to punish them and to be victorious upon them.

The story of the Punic Wars is not as good as the way Thucydides tells the story of the Pellopenesian wars.

But it's hard to forget Hannibal.

Hannibal makes more sense to me than the Spartans. We can break him down into an anti-colonialist warrior. The Tupac Amaru of Carthage. It makes sense that he should spend his life hating and fighting the Romans—revenge, payback, a valiant struggle for justice and freedom against oppression. Who knows what Alexander the Great’s problem was or why the Spartans were the way they were? We might have difficulty imagining being Hannibal but it’s easier to project our idea of a good reason to fight onto him. He wanted the Romans on their knees. From what we know about the Romans, can’t we just imagine they deserved it?

Hannibal swore his oath in 238 B.C. Rome conquered Carthage in 241 B.C. Again, it was technology that made the big difference. The Romans built ships based on a beached Punic vessel they found designed to beat the faster galley ships of Carthage. They stole the technology from Carthage and used it against them.

The story of Hamilcar--father of Hannibal is also remarkable—a warrior, popular leader and foe of the Carthaginian oligarchy. When he was killed by an assassin and Hannibal’s elder brother was killed Hannibal took command of the army at the age of 26.

Hannibal spent the next 17 years fighting the Romans. He's blamed even now for the fact that Southern Italy is poorer (he destroyed it). He took elephants and an army of over 11,000 over the Alps, eventually making it to the gates of Rome. He could not take Rome--he didn't even try that hard.

His engagement with the Romans was often very bloody and horrible. The battle at Cannae killed 50,000-70,000--he was close to triumph over the Romans and perhaps could have taken the city but chose not to. He turned back and the Romans pursued. In Zama, 75 miles Southwest at Carthage Scipio Africanus began to defeat Hannibal. By 202 B.C. Hannibal was on the run. In 183 B.C. near Istanbul Hannibal took poison to avoid capture. In 146 B.C. the last Punic war destroyed Carthage. It was burned to the ground and the smoldering ashes sown with salt.

Polybius quotes the adopted grandson of Scipio as he weeps over Carthage: "All cities...must, like men, meet their doom."


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