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The delegation arrived in the capital of the Roman Republic during the waning days of the Mediterranean autumn. They had traveled from the city of Saguntum in eastern Iberia to beg an audience before the Senate. Once they were granted it, a man named Gramini spoke for them. He looked about the chamber with a clear-eyed visage, voice strong but somewhat lispy. The Romans had to crane forward on their benches and watch his lips to understand him, some with hands cupped to their ears, a few with grimaces and whispers that the man's Latin was unintelligible. But in the end all understood the substance of his words, and that was this: The Saguntines were afraid. They feared for their very existence. They were a jewel embedded in a rough land, rife with tribal conflict and turmoil. They were sheep living with a mighty wolf at their back. The creature's name was not new to them, for it was the ever hungry Hannibal Barca of Carthage, the son of Hamilcar, avowed enemy of Rome.
The delegate explained that Rome had neglected Iberia to the Republic's detriment. The African power had taken advantage of this to build an empire there. It had grown into a stronger foe than it had ever been during their earlier wars. He wondered aloud whether Romans had forgotten the lessons of history. Did they not remember the damage Hamilcar Barca had inflicted upon them during the last war between Rome and Carthage? Did they deny that he had gone undefeated and that the conflict had been decided by the flaws of others beyond his control? Did they remember that after this reversal Hamilcar had not only prevailed over the mercenary revolt in his own country but had also begun carving into Iberian soil? Because of him, the Carthaginians grew even richer on a harvest of silver and slaves and timber, a fortune that flowed daily into the coffers of their homeland.
By the benevolent will of the gods, Hamilcar had been dead some years now, but his son-in-law, Hasdrubal the Handsome, had stretched their domain farther and built a fortress-city at New Carthage. Now he, too, was dead: Thankfully, an assassin's knife had found his throat as he slept. But Hamilcar had been resurrected in his son Hannibal. He had set about completing their mission. Altogether, the three Carthaginians had defeated the Olcades and destroyed their city of Althaea, punished the Vaccaei and captured Salmantica, and made unrelenting war on the tribes of the Baetis and Tagus and even the Durius, peoples wilder and farther removed than those of Saguntum. Even now, Hannibal was off on a new campaign against Arbocala. If this proved successful—as the emissaries feared it might have already—most of Iberia would lie under the Carthaginian heel. There was only one great city left, and that was Saguntum. And was Saguntum not an ally to Rome? A friend to be called upon in ill times and likewise aided in Rome's own moments of calamity? That is why he was here before them, to ask for Rome's full commitment of support should Hannibal set his sights next on them.
The senator Gaius Flaminius rose to respond. A tall man among Romans, Gaius was self-assured beneath a bristle of short black hair that stood straight up from his forehead as if plastered there with egg whites. He joked that the Saguntines could not be mistaken for sheep. They were a mighty people in their own right. Their fortress was strong and their resilience in battle well known. He also added, a bit more dryly, that there was one wolf of the Mediterranean and it resided not in Iberia but upon the Tiber. He did not answer the Iberians' questions directly but thanked them for their faith and urged patience. The Senate would consider the matter.
Gramini bowed at this answer but showed with his upraised hand that he was not yet finished. He wanted it understood that the danger Saguntum was in related to its allegiance with Rome. Should that allegiance prove to be of no substance, then a grave injustice would have been committed against a blameless people. Saguntum had every intention of staying loyal to Rome. He hoped that Rome would likewise honor its commitment, for there were some who claimed Saguntum was foolish to put so much faith in a Latin alliance. He ended by asking, "Can we have your word, then, of direct military assistance?"
"You have yet to be attacked," Flaminius said. "It would be unwise to conclude a course of action prior to understanding the nature of the conflict." He assured the Iberian that in any event the Saguntines should return to Iberia in good spirits. No nation had ever regretted, or would ever regret, making a friend of Rome.
Having received this answer, Gramini retired and was soon making the arrangements for his return voyage. The Senate, for their part, did engage with the questions the Iberian had posed, in depth, in heated debate, that afternoon and all of the next. They agreed to send a messenger to this Carthaginian, Hannibal Barca. Let his cage get a good rattling. Let him remember the power of Rome and act accordingly. Beyond this, however, they could come to no firm consensus. They had other foreign issues to deal with, in Gaul and Illyria. The resolution of this affair with Carthage would have to wait.
Each afternoon since arriving in Iberia two weeks earlier, the youngest of the Barca brothers, Mago, had taken a long, vigorous ride through the countryside. On returning each afternoon he paused at the same vantage point and stared at the physical manifestation of his family's legacy. New Carthage was breathtaking. It sat at the far end of a long isthmus, like an island tacked to the continent by an arm of the land that refused to let go. From a distance its walls rose straight up out of the water on three sides, only that narrow stretch of earth connecting it to the continent. The harbor carved an almost perfect circle around the city, with fingers of jutting rock that all but closed its mouth. Two thirds of its water sank into a blue-black no different from the deep water offshore; the other third, on the south side of the city, shone a wonderful turquoise blue, lit from below by a shallow bed of rock and coral that caught the sun like the inside of an oyster shell.
The fifteenth time he took in this view, he knew something had changed. It was a minute detail and he took a moment to spot it: The flag normally flapping above the citadel had been pulled in. No longer did the red standard of campaign snap in the breeze. Now, even as he watched, a new flag climbed into position. It shivered, curled, trembled, and never stood out clearly, but he knew what it was: the Lion of Carthage. His family's symbol. It meant his brothers had returned from the insurrection they had gone to put down in the north. Messengers had brought word of the army's approach earlier in the week, but they must have made better time than anticipated.
A rider sent out to find him met him near the southern gates to the fortress. Hannibal asked that he come without hesitation, the messenger said. When Mago dismounted and headed toward the palace the man said, "Not there. Please follow me."
The walk took a further few minutes. The messenger led him at a trot across the main courtyard, down several flights of marble stairs, through a series of tunnels, and then up a sloping ramp onto the wall itself. Beyond it, Mago caught sight of the returning army, coming in from the northern approach. His steps slowed as he took it in.
The long, wide column flowed over the rolling landscape, receding into the distance and still visible on the farthest ridge of the horizon. The infantry marched in loose formation, in their respective companies and tribal affiliations. The cavalry rode out to either side of the army. They circled and wheeled and galloped in short bursts, as if they were herdsmen at work with a great flock. The elephants strode in a similar deployment but spaced at larger intervals. He could see the nearest of them in detail. They were of the African breed, so their drivers straddled them just behind their ears. The riders' heads and torsos swayed with the slow rhythm of the creatures' strides. They talked to their mounts and smacked them with rods, but these seemed automatic gestures, for the creatures saw the fortress and could already smell the feed waiting for them.
Mago turned and sped off behind the messenger, pushing his way through a growing, joyous crowd. He had to move quickly to slip between them. By the time the messenger slowed his pace and looked back at Mago, they had again dropped down to the base level of the city. They walked down a dark hallway. It was rank with moisture, cooler than the exposed air. Old hay had been swept out and piled along one side of the corridor. The acidic bite of urine made Mago walk with his head turned to one side. He was about to ask the messenger which this was—a joke or a mistake—but then caught sight of a head glancing out from a room toward the end of the hallway. A body emerged after it: his older brother, Hanno, the second after Hannibal. Mago pushed past the messenger and jogged toward him, arms upraised for the greeting he expected.
Hanno shot one arm out. His fingers clamped around his brother's bicep and squeezed a momentary greeting. But then that was done with. He pulled Mago's eyes to his own and fixed his lips in a stern line. "Romans," he said. "They arrived just before us. Not the homecoming we expected. Hannibal is just about to speak with them. Come."
Hanno motioned for his brother to enter the room behind him. Though swept clean of straw and filth, the room was simply a corridor, lined along one wall with stalls. It was lit by a mixture of torchlight and the slanting gray daylight from a passage that opened onto the horse-training fields. Several soldiers of the Sacred Band lined the walls. These were guards sworn to protect the nation's generals. Each was clean-shaven on the cheeks and upper lip, a carefully trimmed knob of whiskers at the base of his chin. They stood one before each stall, arms folded and gazes fixed forward.
In the center of the space, a chair had been set, by itself, straight-backed and tall, with wings coming out from either side that hid the profile of whoever resided in it. Which is what it did for the man now seated in it. His arms rested dead upon the armrests, the knuckles of his hands large and calloused, the brown skin stained still darker by some substance long dried and caked against it. Several figures bent close to him, speaking in hushed tones. One of them—half hidden behind the body of the chair and visible only as a portion of the head and shoulder—Mago recognized. When this person looked up he saw the bulky, square-jawed face and the thickly ridged forehead, topped with a mass of wavy black hair. Though his face was grim, the man flashed a smile upon seeing the newcomers. It was Hasdrubal, the third of the Barca sons. As Mago had known from the start, the seated man was his eldest brother, Hannibal.
Mago stepped toward them, but Hanno caught him by the arm. He nodded toward the mouth of the passageway. Five men had appeared in the space. They seemed to stand considering the corridor, looking one to another and sharing thoughts on it. One of them shook his head and spat on the ground. Another made as if to stride away. But yet another stayed them all with a calming gesture of his hand. He pulled the crested helmet from his head and tucked it under his arm, then stepped forward into the passageway. The others fell in a few paces behind him, five silhouettes against the daylight.
"You and I will take a position to the right of him," Hanno whispered, "Hasdrubal and the translator to the left. This is a strange greeting, yes, but we want you to stand as one of us."
The two of them slipped into position. Mago still could not see his eldest brother's face, but Hasdrubal nodded at Mago and whispered something that he did not catch. Then they all turned toward the Romans in silence, still-faced and as empty of expression as possible.
The leader of the embassy halted a few strides from the chair and stood with his legs planted wide. Though he wore no sword, he was otherwise dressed for war. His skin tone was only a shade lighter than the Carthaginians', yet there was no mistaking the differences in their origins. He was half a head shorter than most Carthaginians, bulky in the shoulders and thick down through the torso. One edge of his lips twisted, an old scar, perhaps, a wound slow in healing and left imperfect. His eyes jumped from one to the other of the brothers, studying each and finally settling on the figure enclosed by the chair.
"Hannibal Barca," he said, "commander of the army of Carthage in Iberia: My name is Terentius Varro. I bring you a message from the Republic of Rome, by order of the Senate of that Republic."
He paused and glanced over his shoulder. One of the men behind him cleared his throat and began to translate Varro's Latin into Carthaginian. He was cut short by a single, small motion that drew all their eyes. Hannibal had raised a finger from its grip on the armchair. His wrist twisted in a motion that was at first unclear, until the digit settled into place, a pointer directed toward one of the men standing behind him, his own translator, a young man dressed in a simple cloak that covered him entirely save for his head and hands. He conveyed the introduction.
"Welcome, Terentius Varro," Hannibal said, via his translator. "Let us hear it, then."
"You will have me speak here, in a stable?" Varro looked around. One of the men behind him exhaled an exasperated breath and checked the bottoms of his sandals for fouling. "Let me say again, Hannibal Barca—"
"It's just that I was told you were anxious to speak to me," Hannibal said, breaking in with his Carthaginian. "I've just returned from the siege of Arbocala this very hour, you see. I am tired, unwashed. I still have blood under my fingernails. All this and yet I've paused here to listen to your urgent message. Once you've given it you can mount and take my answer back to Rome. And do not worry about your sandals. We can provide you new ones if you like."
From the Hardcover edition.