One of my last forays on a stage was to play the double role of Beatrice of Bar and a peasant girl in a historical play about Beatrice’s daughter, Mathilda of Tuscany – the great lady of the Italian Middle Ages.
It wasn’t exactly my idea – but the company was one Beatrice short after a last minute forfeit, and the peasant girl was thrown in for good measure, and I’ve never been terribly good at saying “No”…
Anyway, to make a long story short, I was there when Mathilda – Woman and Countess, was played, very appropriately, before an 11th Century church originally funded and founded by Matilda herself.
We had someone really good taking care of the lighting, and a suitably windy night – enough to stir the many cloaks, but not enough to mess with the mikes. So the play was lovely to look at, and we were all rather happy with the result.*
And after it was all over, I stood there with the director (who had also worked with my Carthaginian play) watching the lovely romanesque façade, as the crew took down the lights. It was a beautiful sight.
“See?” the director asked, pointing. “Your Hannibal, he left behind nothing of the sort.”
Which – as I admitted then, and have no trouble admitting now – is absolutely true. Hannibal didn’t leave behind anything of any sort, when it comes to brick-and-mortar – except perhaps the town of Artashat, that he may have designed for a king of Armenia, but even supposing it is true, the ancient Artashat now is less than ruins.
And this, theatre-wise, makes Hannibal by far the most interesting of the two – or, at the very least, the more tragic.
Come to think of it, there are similarities between Hannibal and Mathilda. Both were born to rank and privilege, both soon proved exceptional, both took on their roles very young, both had remarkable fathers they lost early and far exceeded, both played pivotal roles in the clash between the two great powers of their time, both left no heirs…
But Mathilda died leaving a reasonable approximation of peace and all kinds of tangible legacy, and having accomplished much of what she’d set out to do, after reigning for many years. Hannibal, on the other hand, died a defeated, hunted, betrayed exile, took his own life to avoid capture, and left… nothing.
Nothing except a name that even his worst enemies admired – if grudgingly. Nothing except tactical notions that are still studied in military schools all over the world. Nothing except, and here is a paradox, the greatness of his enemies – because it was with the II Punic War that Rome graduated from power to Power.
And so, I’m sure Mathilda was a very remarkable lady – but my heart and my imagination root for the man who, defeated and with no monument to leave behind, managed to throw his name across more than two millenia – out of sheer, burning, titanic greatness.
* Well, with the possible exception of the author – another playwright, who never forgave me for saving the performance by stepping in at the last moment… But this is another story.
- Lecture | Patrick Hunt: Hannibal’s Secret Weapon in the Second Punic War (rogueclassicism.com)
- In Carthage (lrb.co.uk)