David Anthony Durham Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

David Anthony Durham
Gudrun Johnston

David Anthony Durham

An interview with David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham explains his interest in Hannibal, the protagonist of his first novel, Pride of Carthage; and refutes the historical concept of him as a brutish barbarian.

I met the protagonist of Pride of Carthage while I was still a boy in elementary school. I'm not sure just who it was that brought tales of Hannibal Barca into my house, but whoever that forgotten relative or family friend was I owe them thanks. He or she filled my head with images of armies riding elephants over snow covered mountains, of great battles and triumphant heroes. I was fascinated by the exoticness of Hannibal's war, by the bravery and barbarity of ancient battle, by the notion of such a titanic clash of African and European powers. It's the first instance I can remember of being enthralled by a distant historical event and by the persons who featured prominently in it. I never forgot this initial enthusiasm.

It was with considerable excitement, then, that I began to write the story of the Second Punic War several years ago. Beginning the novel I was aware that the same things that attracted me to it where the things that might do me in. How would I capture the polyglot diversity of Carthage's army? How would I write of an event like at Cannae, when seventy thousand Romans were cut, stabbed, trampled and suffocated to death in the dusty heat of summer afternoon? How could I convey the largeness and complexity of the political turmoil of the time while still maintaining a narrative drive? And from where would I find the wisdom to breath credible, multi-faceted characters like Hannibal Barca and Publius Scipio (the man who eventually defeated him) back into life?

The answer is strangely simple and potentially anticlimactic… I just dug in and did it. For about two and a half years I got up every morning, turned on the computer, paced from one side of my tiny cottage to the other, looked out at the changing Scottish landscape (I lived in Dunkeld, Scotland, while writing this), and then I sat down and imagined myself into a different time and place. I had the pleasure of a taking several extended trips to the Mediterranean. I drove and walked as much of the territory of the novel as I reasonably could. I also read everything I could find about Hannibal, the Punic Wars and the Ancient Mediterranean World. In terms of other fiction, I was influenced by Mary Renault's work, like The Persian Boy and The Bull From the Sea, by some of Gore Vidal's historical epics, like Creation, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Spartacus, by Gustav Flaubert's Salammbo, as well as by novels considered more commercial in objective, like Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. Those are all set specifically in the ancient world, but there were other novels that I looked to for inspiration in a more general sense of historical fiction. Beloved by Toni Morrison, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Madison Smartt Bell's novels on the Haitian Revolution: all of these are epic works of literary fiction that served as models for what was possible from a historical novel.

At the heart of it all, of course, is Hannibal Barca himself. I believe you'll find the Hannibal of this novel to be a complex character composed from a variety of known facts and imagined possibilities, a person more interesting than either the villain or the hero that some camps wish to reduce him to. Most of the serious works on Hannibal make it clear that he was a military genius, a well educated man, a multi-lingual, talented orator, loved by his troops, feared by his enemies, respected by military figures ever since. I've written Hannibal as living by a code that he would've thought of as innately fair and honest - even though he's also a cunning killer who used any and all means at his disposal to achieve his goals. Some believe that Hannibal was driven by simple, unbridled hatred of Rome. But his actions throughout the campaign suggest that his ultimate goal was primarily to see Rome reduced in power - to see them remain a city-state just like any of the other city-states in Italy. He and his father recognized that Rome was gearing itself up to build an empire, and he knew Carthage could not remain as prosperous as it was if Rome had its way. His offensive can be seen, I believe, as a preemptive strike. Hannibal believed Rome was going to attack Carthage eventually, so he decided to do it on his time frame instead of waiting for theirs.

But Pride of Carthage is about more than one man. Instead of writing it as a limited first person account I chose a cinematic third person voice, one that tells the stories of a myriad collection of characters. Thus the novel follows the Carthaginian foot soldier, Imco Vaca, and also tells of a Numidian horseman, Tusselo, and of a Greek scribe, Silenus, and of the camp follower, Aradna, and it recounts the tale of Masinissa, a young man who enters the story a prince, looses his throne part way through, and yet perseveres to become one of the classical world's most prosperous kings. The women of Carthage are also important players. Sapanibal, Hannibal's older sister, is a strong-willed women who would have made a fine soldier. With her husband dead and with no children, she finds herself exerting influence behind the scenes, both within her own family and in dealings with Carthage's aristocracy. Hannibal's mother, Didobal, is a wise older woman who knows a great deal about the trials of war and fate of nations. Imilce, Hannibal's wife, is a foreigner sent to live in Carthage. She's dropped into an alien society of women that she has difficulty navigating. And in Hannibal's youngest sister, Sophonisba, I found the story of one of antiquities greatest, most tragic love affairs.

Pride of Carthage is my first offering of the style of novel I want to build my career on. When the reader turns that last page I want them to feel saddened that the book is over. I want them to have been so involved with these character's fates, so familiar with them and their struggles that they feel a loss at not being able to spend more time with them. In my own life a few books have given me that feeling - although not in a while. It's mostly the books that I read as an adolescent that did that for me, fantasy-adventure books like The Lord of the Rings or The Mists of Avalon or Dune. I'm not writing fantasy here, but the story is on such a scale that rarely can fact-based material be so grandly plotted. I wanted to regain some of that lost enchantment with the majesty of a complex story unfolding in epic form. From page one of this book I'm writing about human beings caught up in the swirl of one of history's greatest conflicts. The things these characters witness are triumphs and calamities beyond what any of us are likely to experience in our lives. There are love stories of Shakespearian complexity within these pages, twists of fortune, tales of retribution, personal tragedies, and lessons on the virtues and follies of war. I fortunate to have been able to put this episode of human history into words. The material was all I could have asked for and more. I feel it's improbable that I'll ever find another story so grand. But I'll try. I will certainly try.

Misunderstanding Hannibal
A note on discovering the virtues of one the West's most notorious enemies
by David Anthony Durham, author of Pride of Carthage: A Novel of Hannibal

A quick search for information on Hannibal on the internet provides an array of perspectives on his character and legacy, many of them negative. It never takes long to come across the declaration that Hannibal was driven only by hatred, or that he sacrificed children, or that he wanted to destroy Rome completely. He was a brute, a barbarian, an ogre that we should be thankful Rome saved civilization from. Quite often I've heard his accomplishments belittled by those who wish to point beyond all his successes to highlight his ultimate defeat and promote his victor, Publius Scipio, as his superior.

As I began the research that led to my novel, Pride of Carthage, I didn't have definitive refutations of these claims. Hannibal simply drew me toward his story, and I assumed telling it would require a sometimes uncomfortable partnership with a man of considerable ill-repute. During the course of my readings, however, I found none of these negative claims to have much validity. I found him to be a nobler character than I expected, grander of vision, driven by complex emotions, often exceeding the norm in terms of acts of benevolence. And I was not looking outside the traditional sources on the subject: the ancients Polybius and Livy, and the many contemporary scholars working comfortably within the academy. Why then does the understanding of Hannibal that I reached seem to differ so greatly from much of the popular, censorious rhetoric surrounding him? I think the answer lies firmly on one particular factor: the effective use of propaganda

Almost everything we know about Hannibal and Carthage comes either from Roman historians or from Greeks writing under the sway of Roman authority. These scholars had the unenviable task of explaining why their patrons eventually sieged, overran, and sacked Carthage in a door-to-door killing spree that left only fifty thousand survivors out of an estimated population of seven hundred thousand. No, the Roman and Greek sources were not--by any modern standard--reliable. They certainly weren't fair and balanced. Yet they are the only source through which the identity of Carthage and its heroes was passed to the world.

Hannibal was, of course, a man of his times. And a warrior. As such it goes without saying that he orchestrated the deaths of a great many people. In this he's no different than any of the historical figures of the period. But what truly fascinated me--and what informs the novel--was my discovery of a great many virtues in this often demonized man. To name a few of the many details the public may find surprising about Hannibal:

  • Hannibal did not declare war on or preemptively attack Rome. He tricked Rome into declaring war on him in a manner that betrayed their own imperialist aspirations.

  • Hannibal did not seek to destroy Rome the way Rome eventually destroyed Carthage. In fact, he didn't even march on Rome until he'd already been on Italian soil several years. His intent was clearly to defeat Rome's troops on the field of battle, to convince the city's allies to abandon her, and then to answer Rome's eventual pleas for peace with harsh measures that would curtail her expansion.

  • Hannibal's army was not made up solely of mercenaries drawn from North African tribes. In addition he brought with him Celtic Iberians, Gauls from Southern France and Northern Italy, and he all but completed a treaty that would have brought the Greek kingdom of Macedon into the war on his side. In truth, Hannibal convinced vastly different groups from among Africans and Europeans that Rome was a threat to them all.

  • Hannibal did not sacrifice children. Most historians agree that if Carthage did practice infanticide--and there's growing debate on whether they even did--they'd stopped doing so before Hannibal's time. On the other hand, Livy is forced to mention that the Romans publicly and officially sacrificed humans as they grew more desperate and confused by their inability to defeat the Carthaginians.

Such are just some of the details I discovered in the process of writing about this remarkable figure. It still surprises me that there have been so few fictional treatments of Hannibal, and that those there are have often reaffirmed old prejudices while selectively ignoring aspects of the historical record that suggests he was so much more. Pride of Carthage is not an attempt to turn/revise Hannibal into a hero. The novel is, however, an effort to bring to life a man who has been both seen and unseen, spoken of and misunderstood for two thousand years. I'm hoping the book will help, in a small way at least, to kindle a debate about this man and the history he influenced, a discussion that any desire for a fair understanding of Western civilization demands that we undertake.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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