Setting the Stage
From the disastrous Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, few Romans escaped. Among them was Scipio Africanus, then only a Tribune. The two Roman Consuls who oversaw the battle foolishly took their places on the left and right flank, seeking glory in the cavalry battles and lending no eye to the heart of their army.
Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, born in his father’s tent on campaign, deployed his army with a weak center to encourage the Romans to take ground. Lacking strategic supervision the Romans charged through Hannibal’s center, only to find themselves enveloped and eventually completely surrounded. What took place following the blunder was a mass execution of 20% of Rome’s male fighting population. For comparison, France and Germany both lost a smaller percentage over the entire course of the First World War.
As miraculous a loss it was, venerable Rome raised more armies to wage war. Chief among all Romans, the model of that Republic’s values, was Scipio. He not only wished to carry on fighting, but would raise his own army and head for Africa. Nearly 20 years later at the Battle of Zama, he earned his title “Africanus.”
By way of Roman historian Livy, we already have a dramatization of their parley at Zama but I have decided the epic moment is worthy of a reboot. Like most reboots, I fully expect this to be the worse, but it won’t keep me from expressing my admiration for the two Homeric heroes of their age.
The Parley of Millenia
Scipio rubbed some of the warm North African sand between his hands. He wanted to feel it once before it turned into the familiar crimson sludge. As he mounted his horse, he reassured himself it would run red that day.
Across the flats in Hannibal’s camp, the aging man was struggling to understand why he had called a parley. Had he really lost so much of his youthful spirit that he would bend his knee like Priam as the senate asked him to? Would another battle really make or break his name?
But there was little time for thought. After a short ride, Scipio dismounted and the decades’ old mistake stood before Hannibal. At Cannae the green Roman would have only watched the Generals’ parley from among the foot soldiers, comfortable the Triarii would have his back. Today he stood upright with the dignity of a man who was all the talk of the known world.
They stared intently at each other for a few moments, undoubtedly noticing one another’s scars. One each across cheek, arm, calf. Were they to remove their breastplates, probably across the chest too, right above their noble hearts.
The advisors and guards gathered around and joined in the silence, taking in the uncanny experience: first meeting between the generals who could be father and son. If only for their eyes of ambition, loyalty, and boldness; if only for their scars, it was difficult for the onlookers to distinguish which general was theirs.
Hannibal, despite his profession, was never one for bad blood at a parley. In fact, Hannibal even admired Scipio and his daring so he decided to open amicably, “Before we speak of terms…would you tell of your escape from Cannae?”
Scipio was surprised to hear such a question from the general and, hoping to lightheartedly set the tone that he would not consider peace, obliged through cliche, “I had business to settle with Carthage, as you know.”
The Romans laughed but Hannibal, unsure whether Scipio was being braggart or humorous, tightened his gaze.
The Roman had not come to piss off an illustrious veteran before battle though. “No.” Scipio continued, “That campaign season, I had taken a liking to one of the consuls’ horses. I remember feeding him every night, at great risk mind you, when the consul went off to his tent. During the battle, my dear friend found me, a mortally wounded consul hanging over him. The old fool collapsed at my feet.”
Hannibal chuckled with the room at the unbelievable escape, finally getting an answer after all the years. In good spirit he asked, “And even then, you were general enough to know the day was lost without him? Why did they not let Tribune Scipio ride the horse that day?”
Flattered and surprised at the veteran’s manner, Scipio could not help but let out a short chuckle of his own before returning to the reality that this parley was only for blood. On the other hand, the advisors enjoyed the laughter and took up with hope that an agreement might be arranged.
But Hannibal, like Scipio, turned business-like and carried on, “It’s odd though, you’ll allow me, that my father thought he would have the honor of finishing business with Rome. And I recall the war cries of his army and my own childish inventions: I hoped Rome would be my war someday, Scipio.”
He stood meditatively as Hannibal closed, “But the difference between my father and I, between you and I, Scipio, is that I was only a boy then. Today, as the elder man, I call for us to put away our dreams and speak consequentially. As far as this parley goes, the Carthaginian senate thinks it the sensible option for both Rome and Carthage that we consider peace. What say you?”
Yet Scipio’s response fell on the room with the reality there would be no talk of peace from him. He spoke slowly and manneredly as if telling an old friend how he had let him down, “If only for the oddity that General Hannibal now speaks of consequences, the war on his side of the sea.”
Hannibal, gesturing up at what might have been his father’s campaign tent and then at Scipio, matched his pace, “Of course. But allow me to remind you of your side of the sea.”
All the tent took direction from Hannibal’s hands and listened attentively to what the old soldier had to say, “The senate cannot be swell with your private army, Scipio. They fear the man with the markings of a tyrant, your private army the grossest mark. Yet perhaps you ought to consider your place on this side of the sea as well. Today we have the numbers we didn’t have at Cannae. But believe me, every veteran from Cannae joins us today. It would be senseless to leave so much to fate.”
Scipio was at peace with fate however. The gods wouldn’t have spared him if he were not fated to win the day. And as he planned to please Mars, he believed he would please the senate, “Destiny today will make the senate swell.”
“Well, I assure you plenty of other arrangements might make them swell. We have yet to even discuss terms of peace,” Hannibal added to no avail. Scipio stood in silence, his head down but still determined to win his as Hannibal had.
The Carthaginian looked down in thought and back up at Scipio, at the uncompromising and ambitious look of a man seeking glory and vengeance. As if accosted by Athena, in a moment Hannibal felt his old spirit and decided not to try for peace anymore. He hoped no one would let the senate on that he did not try so hard to convince Scipio. “So there is nothing for it then?” Hannibal asked.
Scipio held his reply for a few seconds to convey his respect and consideration, “Nothing for it but the gods.”
Sure now that he would wield his old sword but utterly accepting and unafraid, Hannibal inquired, “So be it. But assure me you won’t personally be routed again today?”
And now the Carthaginians had their laugh.
Scipio reflected a second on that day, the late afternoon lending the Carthaginians such long shadows that all his comrades perished in the dark, “Even noble Hector ran from the wrath of Achilles at first.”
The Carthaginian smiled in mischief, “If I am Achilles in your comparison, we should have a battle for the ages.”
All the young men now looked after Scipio, unsure whether the parley might have fair closure, even if they were to give battle later that day.
“A battle for the ages,” Scipio finally gave him with a nod.
Business seemingly closed, the men awaited dismissal but the two generals still stood looking at the other as if in admiration. Inquisitive old Hannibal had one more question to break the silence, “Before you are off, you must let us know if you still have that old horse?”
Scipio smiled at the thought, “My fateful horse? He lives the idyllic life of a retired Roman soldier. He’s probably out grazing the countryside now.”
And the old general let out a sigh, seeing the want of that life on Scipio’s face, thinking of all the years of war and the battle before him, “Believe me, I envy the old horse myself…”
So in only a few minutes the parley was bygone, perhaps one of the shortest in history. But the two old enemies channeling the character of Hector in only a few minutes, it remains the parley of Millenia.