Even when Durham stumbles, narrative momentum sweeps the reader past, just as the soldiers barely offer a second glance at the heaps of mangled bodies strewn across the battlefields.
Alternating between scenes of domestic melancholy and roiling military engagements, Pride of Carthage presents Hannibal as an insatiable warrior, a restless but dedicated family man, and an aggrieved believer in destiny.
For those who may think of Anthony Hopkins instead of 3rd century BC warfare when the name Hannibal is mentioned, Durham offers historical context without being pedantic. Front- and back-leaf maps remind the geography-challenged that Carthage was in North Africa; in the novel, Durham provides gritty portraits of the Punic Wars, replete with spears, javelins and bloated corpses turning blue, purple, black and yellow as their exposed entrails draw the attention of parasites human and otherwise. No reader will emerge from these tales longing for the good old days.
Save a galling insistence on referring to Hannibal's son, Hamilcar, as "Little Hammer," which plagues us with flashbacks of "U Can't Touch This," Durham does a remarkable job of bringing the commander's family to life.
His three brothers struggle in Hannibal's shadow, plagued by doubts that often doom them to disastrous decisions in battle. Imilce, Hannibal's wife, as well as his cunning sisters and determined mother, present realistic portraits of strong women living in a male-dominated world.
As any skilled documentarian realizes, legends are humanized, in part, by their interactions with commoners. Here, a supporting cast spanning corpse robbers, whores and low-rung soldiers — including Imco Vaca, a reluctant infantryman who stumbles across the occasional battlefield — lifts Hannibal from caricature to character.
Early in the novel, Hannibal's father, the man responsible for expanding Carthage's empire into Iberia, vows utter disdain for the Romans, whose empire, in places, intersects with his. Upon his father's death, Hannibal exacerbates tensions between the military powers by taking Saguntum, an Iberian city aligned with Rome.
Having provoked Carthage's enemy already, Hannibal decides on an audacious encore: He'll attack Rome before it can attack Carthage — and do so with an unfathomable land march.
With an army of 100,000 men and several dozen elephants in tow, Hannibal begins what is to become a years-long engagement in a gruesome campaign to cripple the Roman Republic. Before reaching Italy, Hannibal loses 70,000 men to harsh winter conditions, illness and mishap as his army of Libyans, Gauls, Numidians and Iberians makes its way through the Pyrenees, across the Rhone and, at last, over the mighty Alps.
Despite a string of early battle successes in Italy, Hannibal anguishes over Rome's lack of interest in discussing terms of settlement. Even after Cannae, devastated and panicked, the Romans snub the mere notion of capitulation.
The Carthage commanders speak of Pyrrhic victories not as metaphors, but as vivid examples. Hannibal broods, telling his counsel: "Rome replaced its soldiers like the Hydra replacing heads. That's what Pyrrhus never understood. Rome always has more men."
In the end, Hannibal is as prophetic in seeing his doom as he is assessing military matters. On the battlefield, young Roman general Publius Scipio proves the only man capable of challenging Hannibal's rumbling war machine.
Carthage itself would smolder in ruins just several decades after Hannibal's death but, in Durham's hands, the sheer audacity of the legendary warrior and his army remain electrifying. Pride of Carthage may not be as exhausting or exhilarating as leading elephants across the Alps, but it's a hell of a ride nonetheless.