A Small Spark


In the epistle of James we find a rather interesting description of the tongue:

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.[1. James 3:5-6 NIV]

James would have us understand that something as seemingly insignificant as the tongue can have devastating consequences, as much as the smallest spark can burn down a great forest.

But James goes even further, describing the tongue as corrupting the entire body and setting the entire course of one’s life on fire. In other words, the things we say can bring about the most destructive effects.

One might be tempted to chalk this sort of talk up to hyperbole. After all, we all have experienced the consequences of our words and those of others, but surely James is going a little over the top?

Perhaps not. At least if your name is Hannibal.

But let’s back up a little.

Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, was the commander of the Carthaginian land forces in Sicily during the First Punic War with Rome, which occurred between 264 and 241 B.C. Although a brilliant commander with the ability to organize and command disparate forces under his leadership, he was essentially hung out to dry by the Carthaginian politicians and was forced to conclude a peace treaty with the Romans. It was a humiliation he would never forget.

Despite his failure in Sicily, Hamilcar Barca was recalled to duty by the Carthaginians following the ending of hostilities with Rome. Given the failure of the troops to secure victory, the politicians were unwilling to pay the army, which consisted primarily of foreign mercenaries. None too happy with these events, the mercenary forces began to mass for attack. Hamilcar was brought in to fight the very same soldiers under his command in Sicily.

Hamilcar was able to bring the conflict to an end two years later in a ruthless fashion by luring the mercenary forces into a gorge outside of Carthage. There he employed elephants with outstanding success, and crucified any remaining survivors.

Carthage, still reeling from the loss to the Romans and the mercenary uprising, saw its prominent position in the Mediterranean fade away. The Romans had begun to expand East, and so the Carthaginians saw their only chance to rebuild in the West in Spain.

Hamilcar had come from a wealthy family which was extremely influential in Carthage. His political friends were able to secure him as the leader of Carthaginian forces in their expansion into Spain. His disdain for the Romans still as fiery as ever, he intended to use Spain, rich in resources and manpower, as an eventual staging ground for his future revenge against Rome.

This hatred became driving force of his life and actions, and he was determined to pass it along to his four sons. When Hannibal was only nine years old, his father had him swear an oath that he would perpetually be an enemy of the Romans. Hatred, the father taught his young son, was appeased only with the blood of one’s enemy.[2. John Prevas, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, p. 41]

Hannibal learned his father’s hatred as well as he learned his tactics. Following Hamilcar’s death in 229 B.C. (in which he displayed a love for his sons as deep as his hatred for the Romans) his son-in-law Hasdrubal gained control and continued to consolidate Carthaginian power in Spain. By the time of his death in 221 B.C., Carthaginian dominance in Spain was nearly complete and Hannibal assumed command at the age of 25, ready to carry out his father’s venomous revenge against an enemy he had never faced.

Before Hannibal was sent to Spain to assume command, the Carthaginian senate debated the move. Hannibal was still young, and it was feared that sending him to Spain where his family held almost autocratic control might corrupt and poison him. Hamilcar’s original motives for Spanish expansion were not unknown, and many felt Carthage was simply not ready for another prolonged war with Rome.

Hanno, one of the leaders of a group opposed to Hannibal’s appointment, knew the hatred of the Barcas for Rome and worried that the young boy, a small spark, might one day kindle a great fire.[3. John Prevas, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, p. 47.]

Hannibal’s first meeting with Romans was two years later when a delegation from Rome arrived to ensure that the treaties from the resolution of the First Punic War would be honored. Hannibal seethed with anger and was obstinate, and the Roman delegation found him unreasoning and full of violent anger.[4. John Prevas, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, p. 51] Hannibal was determined to have his war and to fulfill his father’s vengeance. It was as if his life was set on fire by his father’s words, destined only for destruction. The Roman delegation left to prepare for the inevitable conflict.

The rest, of course, is history. Hannibal rallied his army and made a surprise crossing over the Alps which, although it took an enormous toll on his forces, caught the Romans unprepared. Always the brilliant commander, Hannibal was able to achieve outstanding victories against superior numbers, so much so that it forced the Romans to avoid pitched battles with him. Hannibal was even able to march against the city of Rome itself in 211.

Eventually the tide of the war turned as the Romans were able to make headway in Spain, finally achieving total victory under Scipio the Younger. The Romans finally landed in North Africa and prepared to attack Carthage itself, at which point Hannibal was brought back to defend the city. Scipio defeated Hannibal and the Second Punic War was brought to an end in 202 B.C., one of the costliest wars either Carthage or Rome ever fought, precipitated by the words of a father to his son.

Hannibal died in 183 B.C., committing suicide rather than submitting to capture by the Romans he despised so much. Still seething in anger, his final words ring with the sound of his father’s voice: Let us now put an end to the anxiety of the Romans who could not wait for the death of this hated old man.[5. John Prevas, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, p. 218]

Thirty seven years later, the Romans had had enough of Carthage. Hannibal had left an indelible impression on the psyche of the Roman people. It was as though the Romans needed to erase a trauma from their own collective consciousness: a time when Carthage lay not at their feet but at their throats.[6. John Prevas, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, p. 1]

Hatred breeds more hatred, and for the Romans Carthago delenda estCarthage must be destroyed– became the rallying cry. Cato the Elder is said to have concluded every speech with this phrase, even when the speech had nothing to do with Carthage.

Hamilcar’s small spark had kindled a great fire, but not in the way he intended. In 146 B.C. Roman forces penetrated the defenses of Carthage and made good on their threats.

The city was burned to the ground.

The stones of the buildings and streets were broken apart and strewn about.

The soil was said to be sown with salt so that nothing could ever grow there again.

A once great city and civilization was wiped from the face of the earth.

As the Greek historian Polybius would later relate: All that happened to the Romans and the Carthagians was brought about by one man: Hannibal.[7. John Prevas, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, p. 2]

Truly, it would seem, can the tongue set the world on fire.


As I was looking back on the image I chose for this post, I noticed that the artist was either unaware of or took liberties with the historical narratives as related by Polybius and Livy. In the upper right hand corner the reader will notice an elephant plunging over the cliff edge to its death. On the contrary, both Polybius and Livy are agreed that despite Hannibal’s severe losses of manpower, supplies and animals during the crossing of the Alps, miraculously all of the elephants survived the journey.

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