There are ways around this, of course. The writer can take a leaf from Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, choosing a relatively minor figure and dividing the life into two. Alternatively, the book can portray the famous, about whom pretty much all is known, through the eyes of the real protagonists, as Mary Renault does in her wonderful novels about the adult Alexander and the Athens of Socrates and Plato. Other less scrupulous historical novelists have simply invented love affairs, illegitimate children, mysterious deaths, in an effort to sex the whole thing up.
Ross Leckie, in Hannibal (Canongate, UK, 2008), has chosen a more difficult option. There can be few readers who don’t already know that Hannibal tried to conquer Rome by leading his army, complete with elephants, across the Alps in winter, and that he failed. And, really, that’s all there is to it. So it’s a pleasure to be able to say that Leckie, with great skill, has taken this basic story – the Carthaginian leader’s campaign against the Roman empire – and created a novel that works not only as a picture of an unutterably foreign world and time but also as a page-turner.
The world the novel portrays, vividly and with impressive detail, is Hannibal’s, from his childhood to his death. Hannibal’s world is war, and the violence of the novel, gruesome, unrelenting and explicit, is rooted in the logic of war. From the opening scene, in which a Roman envoy loses his nose and tongue, to the almost off-hand way in which Hannibal slaughters more than 4,000 of his own men for their own good; “Without me, they would have been crucified by the Romans”, the novel never loses its power to shock.
But what transforms the book from a mere account of a bloody and doomed campaign, however adroitly written, into something more solemn and more terrible is Hannibal’s gradual awareness, as he loses his child, his wife, his closest friend, his army, that he doesn’t know what he’s fighting for. More to the point, he doesn’t know what war itself is for. His driving force, finally, is hatred, of Rome and, later, of Carthage, and the measure of the man is that he knows this is not enough.
At a memorable moment early in the novel, Hannibal has the chance to choose between gory revenge and mercy; between the world of Carthage and another, more human world represented by Silenus, his Greek tutor. He chooses Carthage. What makes the moment significant is that he knows the weight of his choice and the extent to which he is diminished by it. It’s to Leckie’s credit that Hannibal, despite the final futility and wastefulness of his life’s work - a futility of which he is all too aware himself - emerges from this novel as a figure of stoical, appalling grandeur.
One small complaint, addressed not to Leckie but to his publisher. Surely a novel that deals with an epic journey from Carthage, via Spain and southern France, across the Alps, to the toe of Italy could have been supplied with a map?