combat writing
badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

The Grace of Baal

It was on a morning in April, the cruelest month, over two-thousand years ago when three massive warships of the Empire of Rome bore down on a small African vessel sailing peaceably off the Numidian coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It was Consul Appius Claudius Pulcher who had launched this unprovoked attack despite the worst of all possible omens: the Sacred Chickens had refused to eat. But Pulcher was a stoic philosopher and impatient with superstition. So he ordered these absurd animals thrown into the water.

"If they will not eat," he commanded, "let them drink."

Although the common sailors under his command were appalled at this gross act of impiety, they nonetheless knew the coming battle was a foregone conclusion. But as they bore down on their target, they were bewildered to find that these strange Africans were neither firing arrows nor throwing spears. Instead they were hurling pots at them as though kitchenware would cause a Roman soldier to leap into the sea.

And yet, oddly enough, this is precisely what happened. Splashing about helplessly in their armor, the Romans were easy targets for the African archers. And the mop-up detail, finishing off their warship rowers was too easy, just icing on the cake.

There was nothing personal in these executions, of course. It was just, you might say, pagan etiquette – art for art's sake. But only after artfully piercing every Italian breastplate and brilliantly cutting each rower's throat, did the African sailors themselves realize what had happened.

The Latin fleet had had the bad luck to pick a fight with the inventor of biological warfare, one Hannibal of Carthage, or as his name ran in his own tongue, the Grace of Baal. And it was the Grace of Baal who had thought to send along the pots, pots filled with poisonous serpents.

Poison came naturally enough to Hannibal. The atmosphere into which he was born was soaked in it. The wars with Rome seemed at that time as though they would never end, and it was unclear in fact when they began.

We know of an early quarrel over Sicily, in which a Roman Tribune behaved dishonorably, arresting a Carthaginian commander whom he had invited to parley. If this was the original dispute, then Rome was then what she was in every subsequent conflict with Carthage: the aggressor.

The Roman view was that there was every reason for her to be aggressive. The Italian Republic was there first, after all, the earlier port on opposite shore of the inland sea. This was entirely wrong, but to the Roman mind Carthage was the intruding newcomer. In fact Carthage, by way of translation, meant New Town. Carthage was the newest outpost of the Phoenicians, whose adjectival form is Punic, which came to be applied to New Towners as well. The Phoenicians themselves were originally Canaanites, the sons of Ham, worshippers of Baal, the Lord, Yahweh's bitter rival, the Demiurge against whom the whole Old Testament thunders.

But Baal was alive and well despite all the holy commotion. And it was Carthage in whom He was well pleased. New Town prospered almost as much as Rome coveted her prosperity. And there was a whole lot to covet. With the seamanship of her Phoenician heritage, Carthage had built, under Rome's baleful gaze, the greatest civilization the world had ever seen, a trading center having a larger population than any city-state before it. New Town so excelled in commerce because it inherited the Phoenician alphabet; the first ever invented, used to keep track of myriad transactions written on their newly discovered papyrus which had displaced the cumbersome clay tablets. As the first culture really able to keep books, this Phoenician daughter city grew to become a practical, mercantile state, the world's greatest power.

New Town was fond of boasting with iron assurance that no man could wash his hands in the sea without the leave of Carthage. And the only obstacle to even greater power and even more rapid progress, it seemed, was that the Punic nobility was jealous of personal talent and would never allow a man of low birth to rise – unlike the Romans who sometimes did so inadvertently. But a genius can come from anywhere – even the executive class – and it was into this caste, during the worst period of the first Punic war, that the infant denoted Grace of Baal was born.

When Hannibal was still a boy, his father, the supreme military leader of the Carthaginians, placed his son's small hand upon a sacrifice to make him swear eternal vengeance against Rome. And this ritual was repeated with each of his brothers who were together known about New Town as the Brood of Lions.

Cub Hannibal was a natural. He was supreme at fighting and had a complete disregard of danger. His horsemanship was superb. He could endure extremes of heat and cold, hunger and fatigue. He was tireless in mind and body. He drank no wine and, rather perversely, was content with only one woman.

With all the consequent time on his hands, he developed a real genius for tactics and leadership. True leadership, he found, had little to do with brutality. It consisted of precisely the opposite: a kind of gentleness, bold and competent gentleness, together with the paradoxical ability to stand with and apart at the same time.

In his clothing, Hannibal showed no rank consciousness and wore the ordinary dress of an officer. He did not sleep in a bed. He slept among the sentries covered only by his cloak.

On one occasion during the Spanish campaign, when his cavalry was cut off from him, he swam a raging, freezing river just to encourage them across and in doing so inspired them with that same audacity. Since they saw he would do anything for them, they wanted to do anything for him, and, as the world would soon see, they did.

The face that inspired this devotion was caught in the image pressed on a silver double shekel minted in 220 BC. Hannibal had a strong forehead, a straight nose and a bright open expression. This impression, after centuries of wear, even captures a twinkle in the eye.

But twinkle as he might, Hannibal had eccentricities, which, as a military man, were of grave concern to the Punic Senate. He could read for one thing, and he could write for another. In fact he even wrote in Greek and had even published histories in that slave language. How could a man like that be trusted? But trust him or not, the practical New Towners were forced to swallow hard, because the man just kept on winning.

The Greeks and the Sicilians had been fighting vaguely on the European side against the African city. But Carthage defeated Greece and crushed Sicily and then planted herself firmly in Spain. And between Sicily and Spain Rome was contained.

But Hannibal, for no strategic reason anyone could imagine, subdued more and more of Spain, rolling over one adversary after another until he reached Gaul, the barbarian frontier. The Roman scouts who followed him there could not believe what they found there.

They found nothing.

Hannibal had vanished utterly and inexplicably – which meant he was not turning back. But that could mean only one thing, a thing that could not be comprehended, that it was his intent to attack Italy by land which he could only do by taking his entire army, elephants and all, his whole ponderous train of armaments, across the stunning solitude of the Alps.

To this day we do not know how he did it, what route he took or even more amazingly how he solved the problem of logistics. But we do know that just getting to the mountains took some doing.

The Gauls held territory on both sides of the Rhone and absolutely refused to let him move any farther. And there were lots of Gauls in Gaul. Great big ones. And they were a very bad lot when fighting, they believed, for their homeland.

It was a problem without a solution until the Grace of Baal looked the situation over. Hannibal sent his brother Hanno twenty miles upstream, where he could cross unopposed, and then find the rear of the barbarians. When Hanno was in position, he sent up a smoke signal, and Hannibal ordered his men forward.

The Gauls fell on the Africans as they emerged exhausted from the Rhone and had a high-ho time for themselves, butchering them like livestock, until Hanno hit them directly in the rear. The Gauls didn't much like being hit from the rear. It had been a lot more fun to attack than it was to be attacked. It was more blessed to kill than to be killed. And since these Africans weren't going to fight fair anyway, the time had come to make a quick end to this senseless bloodshed. And what better way to bring the conflict to a quick conclusion than to make a flat out sprint for survival?

During the Gallic panic, the Carthaginians were able to get their animals across by herding them onto rafts which Hannibal had covered with earth to give the appearance of dry land. By this ruse the entire animal contingent reached the east bank in safety and in time to overtake the barbarians, who by now had thrown down their spears, which they found only interfered with their desperate thrash for freedom.

Killing men has always held a special charm for elephants. But killing unarmed men, cornered against a bluff, was the stuff of dreams. The bulls made great sport of it, attacking in pairs, ripping the Gauls limb from limb whereas the less theatrical cows simply squashed them. After a few hours of witnessing this terrifying spectacle, the survivors were overjoyed at being impressed into Carthaginian service.

With an even larger army now, Hannibal moved to the foothills, the Baronnies, fighting back every savage tribe he passed, not having the time to stop and destroy them properly.

And it was there that Hannibal found even viler barbarians, the cannibal Allobrogs, but they were too busy killing each other, in a bloody civil war, to bother about a motley bunch of foreigners except as a novel international cuisine. When the Carthaginians made it crystal clear they were first-class soldiers and not long pig on the half shell, thank you very much, the war-weary Allobrogs on both sides begged Hannibal to arbitrate. This he did by driving out a younger brother and restoring the rightful heir to his throne. The elder was so grateful he provided Hannibal's entire army with badly needed footwear, although a second offer of rations was politely declined.

But there was still the matter of the defeated Allobrogs, deprived of their rightful birthright and unjustly banished to the Alps, where frostbite was commoner than a square meal, all because a bunch of Africans wouldn't mind their own business. Growling low in their throats, the rebels bided their time dreaming of Punic guts in the gumbo. Hunger had made them cunning. They took position not so far above the Carthaginians that they could not shoot arrows into them at will, but far enough above so that they could not be easily killed from below. It would have been a problem without a solution, had the Grace of Baal not looked the situation over carefully and anticipated the reaction of the losing side. Hannibal had stationed some of his men even higher up than the Allobrogs with orders not to aim at the barbarians but at their pack animals. The wounded horses, tied together and maddened with pain, knocked their man-eating masters from the peaks.

As it turned out, being shot at by cannibals was to be the high point of the crossing for the Carthaginians. A week later, on a ridge path, they encountered a gigantic boulder, an impassable obstruction, which column after column of men could not – after three days – break apart with clubs. They could not go back. They could not go forward.

It was a problem without a solution until the Grace of Baal looked the situation over and ordered the rock covered with vinegar so that it would fry when a fire was built. The trace ice within the great rock eventually boiled. And after the explosion, the Africans passed on.

They passed on to blizzards and avalanches and fear-stricken elephants, to wild men in every valley, to starvation and disease. On finally reaching Italy, half of them were dead, and the survivors were in a terrible state. Hannibal himself had lost an eye.

A story, that comes down to us through Livy, brings their journey home to us and sums up their suffering like no list of obstacles ever could.

A Carthaginian diplomat caught in Rome during the outbreak of war managed to bribe his way out of prison and through the gates of Janus. He rightly assumed his public-spirited sons had joined the mad march; so he made his way north and stood along side as the Carthaginian army passed by. His two older boys were dead, but the third called weakly to his father. "My god," asked the ambassador, "which one are you?"

His youngest had no time to reply. The Romans were upon them. The legionaries had correctly guessed the shape Hannibal's men were in, and had rushed to meet them. For a full hour they attacked the Africans at will until Hannibal's left flank hacked its way into a canyon just as dusk had fallen. But having reached safety the Carthaginians quickly realized they were trapped – the whole train, men, armaments, elephants, horses, and oxen – all trapped, surrounded by a blood enemy in an elevated position.

It was a problem without a solution until the Grace of Baal looked the situation over. And a vision came to him, clear, perfect and unprecedented. And had Hannibal not received it, it is unlikely that anyone else would have – short of Odysseus. Certainly no one has had one like it since.

Hannibal kicked awake his captains and ordered them to tie torches to the horns of the oxen. Then the terrified animals were driven at the sleeping Romans who threw down their weapons and ran for their lives.

At daybreak Hannibal and his army slipped through unmolested. A week later a granary was betrayed to him for sixty pieces of gold, and his men were saved. But to no end. All the horses, without which there could be no cavalry, no slingers, no army, were dying of mange.

It was a problem without a solution until the Grace of Baal looked the situation over and ordered them bathed in old wine. The Punic army, saved by Grace, turned now toward the monster Rome.

But before the Carthaginians could get started they had to deal with another annoying difficulty: some Ligurian prisoners, enslaved after the crossing, for some inexplicable reason, resented being held in bondage. The Carthaginians had spent weeks instructing them in the new religion, patiently teaching them a slave's duty to Baal, and were bewildered by their ingratitude. Religion had never failed before.

It was a problem without a solution until the Grace of Baal looked the situation over carefully. He ordered the prisoners brought before him and asked, with great courtesy, whether they were willing to fight each other, two and two, to the death, the victor thereby gaining his freedom, a horse and weapon, to fight as an equal in the Carthaginian ranks.

Well, sure. Yeah.

But as the swords were distributed to them, the Ligurians first armed already had an opponent picked out: namely, the little fellow still waiting for a weapon, or, even better, the little unarmed chap with his back turned. But there was a competition among the larger Ligurians over who would get to pair-up with a sweetheart deal, and these quarrels themselves led to duels. The Carthaginians found themselves witnessing an uncommon sight, perhaps the only such battle of its kind in history: everyone was fighting everyone else so that when this murderous free-for-all finally ended, only one in ten was standing instead of the expected one in two. But this ten percent was Gidean-bad and bred to kill anything that was not themselves. But, even these natural selections, although Hannibal was able to shape them into soldiers of a sort, were still a little more concerned with capturing women than in killing men.

But before they could prove themselves in either direction, Hannibal addressed his own soldiers telling them that what they had just witnessed was not, believe it or not, entertainment. Instead it was a parable of their own position. These prisoners had accepted and fought because there was no other choice for them but victory or death. This was precisely their own situation in Italy, wandering in a foreign land without access to a port, surrounded by the hated Romans who had deprived Carthage of her rightful possessions, Sardinia and Corsica, when she was powerless to prevent it.

But Carthage was far from powerless now as Hannibal led her war machine to meet the Romans, a few miles west of Placentia to the river Trebia.

The Grace of Baal looked the situation over carefully.

He found a place on his side of the river for his brother Mago to hide with a detachment of two-thousand men. Then he ordered his Numidian cavalry to cross the river at night and attack poorly defended Roman outposts at first light. They were to withdraw when reinforcements arrived and recross the river as best they could.

The Romans went for it, hook, line and sinker, and were quickly worn out from chasing these strange black men, who were amazing horsemen and even more amazing slingers – who fought a deadly accurate rear guard action as they rode back to the river with a whole Latin legion after them.

The legionnaires were chilled and numb when they emerged from the icy Trebia, and, of course, they had not eaten breakfast.

The winter weather would have been even less suitable for the Africans had Hannibal not already served his men an early morning meal and ordered them to warm themselves at fires after covering their bodies with oil. And they were fresh, after a good night's sleep, as the gasping Italians struggled out of the Trebia.

Hannibal felt confident enough to drive his elephants not at the Romans but at their Gallic auxiliaries who dropped their weapons and jumped back into the water, having no notion that elephants could swim. Unconcerned by this betrayal, the legionnaires pressed on until they reached the Punic troops. At that instant Mago and his army charged into their rear with such fury that just a remnant of Romans managed to slash their way back to the Trebia, only to find those accursed Numidians again – on rested horses – who this time were making no attempt to run from them. The Roman army was utterly destroyed.

Rome refused to pay ransom for the few dozen survivors, explaining that she had no use for such poor soldiers. Any other pagan general would have executed prisoners he could not afford to feed, but the Grace of Baal looked the situation over carefully.

Although he did let his men use the Romans for target practice – fair's fair, after all he spared the other Italians and sent them away to their homes. Rome's allies now knew Hannibal was as good as his word: he had not come to make war on Italy, only Rome.

In a remarkable coincidence, the cities of Arpi, Salapia, Herdonia, Uzentum, and Apulia reported to Rome that, because of hard economic times, they regretted that they could no longer afford to pay tribute. And after parleying with Hannibal, the city leaders even opened their gates to him. And now the record becomes truly amazing. Such was Punic charm that they themselves proposed to send their sons to fight beside him in his next campaign. And these young men would not have long to wait.

At Lake Trasimene, Hannibal caught the Romans in an even bigger trap, pinning them down so completely that there was no room at all for them to maneuver.

The Roman general Flaminious, as a hardheaded realist, had ignored the series of bad omens: the Sacred Chickens had refused to eat. (Philosophers apparently never learn.) And on mounting before the battle, Flaminious was thrown by his horse into the soldier holding the totem of golden eagles. The bearer managed to get to his feet again, but he had clung to his standard in an attempt to keep his balance and had somehow driven it into the ground. It could not be lifted out and had had to be cut off. And then there was the fog. No one could see in the fog.

But Flaminious, in order to impress his men with his unconcern, actually led the infantry charge into the pea soup before him, only to impale himself expertly on an enemy spear.

After the Punic rout, Hannibal ordered a search made for the general's body. It was his custom to give enemy commanders honorable burial. But Flaminious had run into the pike of Ducarius, a Gaul fighting on the Carthaginian side. Ducarius had recognized the Latin flailing before him as the devastator of his country six years before. Consequently the Carthaginians recovered only a few pieces and not one of them large enough to honor.

The fate of Flaminious had a sobering effect on the Roman leadership. So the location of the next battle was chosen very, very carefully. It was to be at Cannae where the size of their home forces gave Rome an insurmountable advantage. The Carthaginians would be outnumbered two to one. Furthermore, Cannae was a vast plain where Hannibal couldn't pull any more tricks.

It was a problem without a solution until the Grace of Baal looked the situation over carefully.

His first tactic was psychological. He visited each division to offer what encouragement he could in the face of overwhelming odds. Plutarch wrote that even Gisgo, Hannibal's bravest commander, looked out at the Roman army with its superior numbers, and could not help regretting the disparity.

"There is one thing, Gisgo, that you have not noticed," Hannibal replied.

"What is that, sire?"

"In all that great number of men opposite, there is not one whose name is Gisgo."

The roar of laughter that followed was a tonic to both the rank and file. Consequently, when Hannibal and his brother, Hasbudral, rode in front of the green auxiliaries to steady them, even the Ligurians didn't run, although they did bring back more camp followers than scalps.

Because Hannibal had the reverse set of values, he was actually able to find an advantage on the field. On his left flank his brother led a cavalry of eight-thousand mounted men. The Consul, Aemilius Paullus, on the Roman right, led a cavalry of only two-thousand. Hannibal immediately ordered a head-on collision, and the Latin horsemen were crushed. Hasbudral's squadrons were then able to get behind the Roman's right flank. Meanwhile the Numidians cleared a swath through the Roman left flank which was manned only by Gallic allies, who after realizing they were being efficiently picked off by the slingers, broke and fled.

The two Punic forces fought their way towards each other and managed to meet in the Roman rear. Meanwhile the Roman infantry at the front had attacked the Carthaginian Gallic and Spanish divisions that Hannibal had placed in the center, knowing full well they would have to fall back before the well trained legionaries. The Roman commander, Varro, excited by this effect, threw more troops into the hole. But the men behind the Punic auxiliaries were Carthaginian regulars, and these stood like stone.

But Varro was possessed and kept sending in more and more infantry, and in doing so deprived his legions of their most valuable asset: maneuverability. The now completely surrounded Romans couldn't raise their arms above their heads, much less fight. The Latin cavalry had already been driven from the field by Hasbudral, and so the Carthaginian horsemen were able to attack the enemy perimeter at will. And the slingers were having a field day, eight legions, a double consul army was unable to move.

The killing began at noon, and an average of a hundred men died each minute until nightfall. The Romans lost seventy-thousand men, a number exceeding the population of Capua, the second largest city in Italy. The Carthaginians lost a few hundred.

Hannibal still wasn't satisfied because he had learned there were still a little something left of the Roman army in the field, fourteen-thousand men marching through a wood to the north, where it would be difficult to run them down in a retreat.

It was a problem without a solution until the Grace of Baal looked the situation over. The next day these Romans found themselves pinned in on all sides, not by men but by trees. Anticipating the enemy's position, Hannibal had ordered trees half sawn through the day before and then caused them to fall.

Every Roman soldier was dead now. Every trained man in the field had been spent. All dead.

The only recorded instance in history in which a pagan warrior expressed shock instead of pride at what he had wrought occurred the next day. Hannibal was visibly shaken when he reviewed the three bushels of gold rings that had been collected to be sent back to Carthage, all torn from the hands of the slain Roman knights.

The Romans had no more men to command, and only two surviving commanders: Fabius and Scipio. But Hannibal was still not finished. In a ploy, matchless in the history of psychological warfare, Hannibal destroyed all the properties surrounding the country villas of these two generals, leaving their estates intact, to fan rumors of treason.

All the towns of Lucania, all those in Bruttium, the Picentes, the Hirpini, the Samnites, all of them, deserted the falling cause of Rome. And then finally Capua – Capua, the one powerful confederate upon which Rome was sure she could rely, turned against her sister city. But there was even more to come.

At Cannae, the Consul Pallus had fallen, and Hannibal was now in possession as his royal Roman seal, which he used to order the city Tarentum to open her gates. And, in rode Carthage, easy as you please.

But there was still one more detail.

The Greek town of Metapotum went over to the Punic side, along with Thurri, which was taken by another breathtakingly intelligent treachery. Italy was in Hannibal's hand. Only the depopulated Rome was left to conquer. And Rome was hysterical.

Patrician women, in a complete loss of decorum, ran shrieking through the temples. Aristocratic ladies, forgetting their stoical training, wept publicly at the wreckage of their country estates and wailed against official incompetence. A sympathetic mob broke into the military ordinance to find thousands upon thousands of bows and arrows and not a single bowstring. With nothing to defend themselves, and with the whole universe without determined to annihilate them, so from within, the Romans began to kill each other in the streets.

But this was nothing new. We imagine today that the Latins had created a society that was the model of order and obedience. But the truth was the very reverse.

It has been said that the gates of Janus were never closed because of the legionaries forever marching to subdue a rebellion without. It is just as true to say that there was an eternal revolution within from the first Plebian riots to the last Servile Wars. The state that imposed peace on the world was never at peace. The rulers themselves were rebels.

The Republic was founded on a tyrannicide, which avenged an insult to a wife, and the Tribunes of the People were reestablished after another emperor-murder to avenge a daughter's disgrace.

The reason for this everlasting civil strife can be found in the domestic nature of the Roman religion. Both the Greeks and the Romans multiplied gods. But whereas the Greek gods stood in the distance on a cloud or a mountain, Roman gods hung out on street corners. There was a god of corn, not a god of trees. There was a god of cattle, not a god of wildlife. Every home had household gods swarming around like bats: a god of eves, a god of gateposts, a god of doors, even a god of drains.

And it is only men, to whom the home is sacred, who will ever have a standard by which to criticize the state. They alone can appeal to something holier than the gods of the city, and these are the gods of the hearth.

Hannibal also worshipped gods, Greek gods. And that is why this best representative of Carthage was least representative of Carthaginians, because his fellow Punics did not worship Greek gods, not by a long shot.

These sophisticated, highly educated people who had created a civilization of energy and expansion, a culture abounding with so many refinements and luxuries, the first city-state to reach one million in population, the first to circumnavigate Africa, the first in the world to have a really confident, commercial outlook, the first to seem like us – would invoke the blessings of their Heaven by throwing hundreds of their infants into a fiery furnace.

There has always been a feeling among practical people that the spirits of compulsion and darkness actually do things with no nonsense about it. That is why hardheaded pragmatists call on Archeron in despair of moving the gods because businessmen know better than any of us that demons really come when you call them.

The spirits of fire came when Carthage bade them. They were set on all sides of Rome and consumed the hillsides. And this burning of Italian cornfields and the ruin of Italian vines was something far more than actual. They were allegorical. They were the withering of what was human before something that was far more terrible than the very human thing of Roman cruelty. And all of Italy, apart from these Roman loons, had been reasonable enough to wither as well.

But Rome was not merely being unreasonable – she was barking mad, a decapitated chicken, more profane than sacred, that would in just another moment realize she was dead. The city had been completely contained between the conquered Greece and Spain. Carthage ruled its share of the sea. And now, by a military miracle, that the door of the Alps had been beaten down, she had not a friend left in the world. All she could really count on from here on was death and destruction, hell and damnation. And that is all Romans could see over their walls, hell let loose:

Ligurians looking for love. Allebrogs looking for lunch. Elephants shaking the earth like mountains, gigantic Gauls in their barbaric panoply, dark Spaniards girt in gold, strange Numidians on their desert horses, darting, thrusting, naked Celts painted blue, howling, humming, howling, whole populations of deserters, traitors, mercenaries, and miscellaneous peoples – and the Grace of Baal went before them.

G.K. Chesterton takes a perfect portrait:

          Roman scribes wrote that in those days the earth gave forth unearthly prodigies, of nature herself becoming unnatural, of stars falling like hail exploding into the river marshes, of the entrails of a sacrifice reorganizing themselves into a sexual organ, of a child born with the head of an elephant. And though we may smile at the self-delusion of these educated stoics, these men had a far better philosophical grasp on what was really happening than a modern scholar who can see nothing here but a conflict between commercial rivals because this was no scramble for a market or a squabble over a warm water port. This was the duel between death and daylight. This was the war of gods and demons – an alien moral atmosphere had descended upon their Republic on the Tiber like some foul savor.

          Because it was not Hannibal who was looking with his only eye at the eternal city of his eternal enemy, it was Moloch who was gazing with his appalling face upon that plain. It was not the Grace of Baal, it was Baal who was beating on the trembling gates of Rome, come so that men might have death and have it more abundantly – brought with his bride, Tanit the Invisible, with her trailing veils who circled the city walls whispering words of love more horrible than hate.

Every demon in Africa was swimming the Tiber. All the ghastly goblins in the Gallic and Persian parthenons were laughing at the little household gods hiding under the eaves, crouched in the cupboards, down the drains because there was no one to man the walls but boys and slaves who could not even hope to fight a human being – they were fighting a wizard from the swamps of Trebia and the whirlpool of Cannae. The legions were lost. The eagles were broken. His noble birthplace, Polybius wrote, had become a city of women praying to chickens.

Rome wasn't dying. She was dead.

Effectively dead. Not quite every woman of Rome was a powdered, pampered patrician lady. Early one May morning, 215 years before Christ, a prostitute was observed sweeping a holy shrine with her hair. Inspired by her example, others of her calling joined her, and by evening, there were roaming gangs of marauding tarts murdering atheists in their beds, and then suspected atheists, and then their families. On these occasions, why take a chance?

Even so, the strumpet brigade wasn't quite finished. After consulting the Sibylline texts, they discovered that a recent sacrifice to the god of war had been indifferently offered. So every orphaned animal of the slain freethinkers, all the livestock and each pet, was herded into a Martian temple and butchered – ritually, piously butchered with attention paid to every Pharisaical detail. Rome was now washed in the blood and so completely purified that by morning, on each wall, there were covens of holy whores cursing Moloch in the face.

But to what end? A Carthaginian would have asked what we ask. What practical value did all this bigoted bloodshed have? What material benefit did it bring to the fallen cause of Rome? In the score card of battle, wasn't Rome merely down a few hundred heretics, men she could not spare?

Rome wasn't dying. She was dead.

Effectively dead. There was some Consul or the other, the only one not drunk at his desk, who was a little embarrassed by the example of the women and who made a last mad dash to Metaurus, killed Hannibal's brother and then flung the head with Latin fury, in a wild ride-by, into the campfire of the Grace of Baal.

But it was precisely such mad acts of that sort that showed how truly desperate the Romans felt about their cause. It was inconceivable that these excitable Italians would wish to continue to fight when the Carthaginians had no more wish to fight.

In New Town there was still the solid shrewdness of great men who manage big enterprises. There was still the broad, sane outlook of practical men of affairs. There were still sound business principles to consider. And so Rome could still hope. Wars after all cost money. It was enormously expensive to support that extravagant train following Hannibal, who could read, it must be remembered, who could read and write. The war was over. It was obviously hopeless for Rome to resist any longer and inconceivable that she should resist when it was hopeless.

And why did the Carthaginians, at that critical moment, regard spiritual power as insignificant? They did so because they were, like most people, primarily inspired by their religion. And their practical faith compelled them to march their little ones into the waves of flame because death was stronger than life – because dead things, gold and silver, could buy a victory. And this victory had been bought and paid for a hundred times over.

And so this is why Carthage then fell as nothing has fallen since Satan.

She fell because no one bothered to explain these impossibilities that to the little Latin boys who crept out into the night to cut Mago's throat as he slept and to burn Hannibal's siege equipment, nor to the shorn courtesans who had given their tresses for bowstrings.

Other Italian cities, inspired by Rome's example, overpowered their occupying troops, shut their gates again and invited a second Punic siege. Hannibal could not punish them without dividing his forces. And he had no competent leadership to do so, what with one member of the brood of lions after another being torn to pieces by these Latin hyenas. In fact, he was having enough trouble just dealing with these wretched Romans, who were by now taking strong measures.

Weeping and wailing were prohibited by law. Temples were turned into armament factories. Anyone of whatever rank trying to leave the city was publicly executed. Ten-thousand slaves were bought from their owners and pressed into service.

The Roman general Scipio had not deserted the cause of Rome. He had taken the war into Spain and then into Africa itself. Hannibal was forced to return to protect his homeland, and outside the gates of his golden city, the Grace of Baal fought his last fight and lost it.

But Carthaginians lost because they believed, like pragmatic realists all over the world, that mediocrity is safe and genius a gamble. That is why she was led to starve and abandon that genius at the school of arms whom her dreadful gods had given her in vain.

In Chesterton's words, Carthage fell because those who do not believe in the soul end up not believing in the mind.

Rome believed in the mind, a mind whose chief waking thought was Delenda est Carthago, Carthage must be destroyed.

When Rome at last recovered, she reacted like a modern Mafioso whose children had been gunned down by a rival. Her sons were dead, and her gods were gasping, but her slaves would fight, with a promise not only freedom but citizenship. They would fight.

Appian wrote that every Carthaginian, who had read the Roman armed service manual on the proper conduct of seizes, took poison or set himself on fire in a temple. There is no way he could have known this was so, but it is certainly true that every intelligent one did.

In 146 BC, after a three year siege, as Roman engineers succeeded in building a ramp to the outer wall, and Carthaginians watched in despair, legionnaires dropped inside their city. The great streets leading from the market place to the citadel were lined on both sides with magnificent six-story homes, from which the Punics pelted the legionnaires. And the Romans didn't much fancy being pelted. So after taking the first houses, they made bridges of planks to cross over to the next where they flung the defenders down to the streets below to be caught on spears.

But this rooftop advance was so successful it actually became an impediment. It was the Roman way, in a siege situation, to kill every living thing until the surrender was offered: men, women, children, livestock, pets, rats, bugs. With so many carcasses piling up, the advance of the infantry came to a halt.

Appian left this horrific account:

          Auxiliary troops had to be brought in to clear the way, shoving both the dead and living into pits using axes and crowbars to clear the thoroughfares. Some were thrown head down in the gullies, legs protruding above the ground writhing for a considerable while. Some fell feet down, their heads above the surface, their faces to be trampled by galloping horses.

The New Towners would then have loved to offer a surrender had they been able to find anyone who would stop butchering them long enough to accept it. When someone was finally found, only ten percent of the population remained alive.

All male prisoners were executed, and all the young women violated. The children of the elite were chopped apart so that their guts might be explored for precious stones. The rest were sold into slavery. Within a decade not even their language remained.

Carthage had been destroyed under any ordinary definition of destruction, but the Romans had just begun. Rather than colonizing the greatest city on earth, they leveled it, pulling down the houses from roof to foundation which they then consumed with fire. They tore down the temples, the citadels, the aqueducts and the ziggurats, the outer and inner walls, and then dumped the rubble into the sea.

Carthage was flattened, nothing left at all, but there was still the ground, the unholy earth upon which it once had stood. At enormous expense, the Romans plowed up the topsoil and threw it into the Mediterranean, and then poured salt upon the loam. Before slaughtering them, the Romans marched the captured elephants around to collapse the drains. A curse was then pronounced with the utmost solemnity on whosoever would build again on this blighted place, and the desert that remained was consecrated to the infernal gods. And whereas Lidice, Dresden, and Hiroshima are today thriving, Carthage is only a name.

Moloch, as good as His word, had eaten His children.

But when the legions returned from their celebrations of diversity, they marched in no procession. The Roman population did not turn out to honor or even to welcome them. It may have been true, yes, that these new citizens had saved them from certain death, and, yes, they may very well have removed the only impediment to world domination – yes, yes, all was true enough – but it had been reliably reported that one of the regiments – although it had won the day – had not fought with ample valor.

The regiment was decimated – one in ten ordered killed by the other nine, and the remaining ninety per cent banished for all time. And the whole army was for one month made to eat its evening meal standing up.

The Romans were not soft.

But you could see the victory in the eyes of former slaves who still labored away for the pampered rich but not without a citizen's right to pay. You could see it even more clearly a decade later when these same men taught their own sons to turn a plow on a small Sabine farm that would never again be trampled by gods with feet of stone and with hearts of beasts.

And that, with the exception of two small postscripts, is the end of the story.

First of all, there was still the little matter of Capua, the one ally upon Rome was sure she could depend on that had gone over to the Carthaginian cause. There was still some unfinished business there.

However, the Consuls of the Roman Senate promulgated a generous decree that if the Capuans would only open their gates, their lives would be spared and they could retain all of their property.

Open your gates, Capuans. Open your gates. What's past is past. Let bygones be bygones. Were we not sister cities? Were we not brothers-in-arms? Never mind that you clung to us in times of crisis and then sold us out for a song when the African star was ascendant. We won't bother about little details like that. We forgive you. Open your gates, Capuans. Open, open.

Like bloody hell would the Capuans open their gates to the salivating mobsters without, but even before the winter solstice, starvation had swung them wide, and then Moloch devoured His stepchildren as well.

But, last of all, dessert was still to be served. And it seemed at first an odd choice for the great Baal who had thus far been so discriminating: He chose an aging scam artist, who muttered to himself incessantly and stank abominably. A Roman soldier, annoyed by this old man's insolence, ran him through during the campaign to recover Syracuse from the Africans.

But this homicide was not, in face of all the evidence to the contrary, a public service. Far from it. It is true that this old fellow, Archimedes, had been circulating false results for years, but only after wearying of thieves claiming his work as their own. And he did indeed speak ceaselessly to himself, but only because he could find no peer. And it is also true that he had to be forcibly taken to the baths, but just because he would not suffer his dreams disturbed.

Beautiful dreams.

We now know from recently unearthed parchments that the calculus was invented in Greece by this reeking prophet two-thousand years before it was rediscovered in England and France. This senseless delay was Baal's final bequest.

Within two-millennia, human beings will undoubtedly colonize the nearby stars. And very likely, had Moloch not slouched towards Syracuse back then, we would already be sporting out there today.

However, it is the purest paradox that we must be grateful to the Latins, after all is said and done, for ending this delay by concluding – with so many collateral horrors and appalling finality – the conflict between the New Town and the New Republic, the battle of demons and gods, won by the eternal city of Rome – which not only came back from the edge but has come back from the dead – and has come back to tell us all.

[authorial note: the author carries a staggering debt to both the style and substance of G.K. Chesterton, of Gavin R. DeBeer – not to mention the ancients]

by David Choate
... who is a professor of mathematics with no combat experience outside of the classroom or beyond the halls of academe. His poetry ("Easter Island", "Ode to an Academic", "Song of Sums") has been published in Amelia and Defenestration; his science fiction ("The Kid Catcher", "There Came Forth She Bears") in Starwind and Space & Time; and his "Christianity and Cannibalism", a philosophical essay, in Sophia. Some of his other fine works have previously appeared in this literary magazine.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones