The debate over the depiction of Hannibal by the History Channel

The travesty that is the History Channel deserves its own dedicated discussion where historical accuracy seems to be reduced at the expense of Hollywood computer generated images, celebrity hosts and reality television. I recent saw the History Channel’s Hannibal of Carthage episode of the Barbarians Rising series where several historical inaccuracies were portrayed.

Of course the term barbarian is a loaded term, more of a historical slander, where “In former times, barbarians were people from other countries who were thought to be uncivilized and violent.” This perception of being uncivilized could tell more about the civilization describing another as barbarian than about that civilization itself.

Now it is true that many of the “barbarians” featured in the series are comparatively less civilized that the “civilized” societies featured in the series such as the ancient Britons and Germanic tribes versus the Roman Empire. This is not the case with regards to the Carthaginians which were descendants of the Phoenicians, a people who actually developed the Phonetic alphabet, and the Carthaginians themselves had a sophisticated and wealthy trading empire which was competing with Rome for the domination of the Mediterranean. Many academic research books have been written about the Phoenician and Carthaginian civilizations and as far as I know, no historian has described them as barbarian or uncivilized but quite the contrary.

Now one of the more contentious topics of historical inaccuracy that was even more debated was the race of Hannibal. In the History Channel series he was portrayed by a black actor. On one hand some black/African culture commentators celebrated this, beholding Hannibal as a black African hero, and deriding a possible racist bias by white historians. One commentator wrote “white history buffs are crying foul over the ‘historical inaccuracy’…There have been debates over the race of Hannibal. This debate still continues to this day.”

Are there racist historians? Yes. Have historians predicated their own historical facts on their own personal beliefs? Yes. Have there been debates over the race of Hannibal that continue to this day? As far as I know, no. There seems to be consensus that Hannibal was Punic, meaning of the Phoenician peoples who settled Carthage in modern day Tunis and North Africa. The Phoenicians themselves were a Semitic people who originated in what is modern day Lebanon. Images produced by others who came into contact with them and by themselves depict them as having traditional Mediterranean features including having fairer skin.

Do we have a picture of Hannibal that might settle this debate? Well, the answer is that we’re not sure. What we do have is Punic coins, minted by the Punics, featuring Punic figures including a coin minted during the time of Hannibal which many believe to be him. These coins should function as historical attestations as they were domestically produced. They feature busts of people with traditional Mediterranean features including wavy hair, pronounced noses, and generally finer features not unlike depictions of Greeks and Romans.

The coins seem not to have conclusively closed the issue. One black history commentator has offered an unreferenced coin supposedly showing a very black African Hannibal. Of course without knowing who made it, when and where it is very hard to respond to the claim which is contrary to all the other Punic coins we have. This issue seems to have encompassed more than just historical accuracy. To further support his claim the commentator quotes the 1961 work of French Historian Gabriel Audisio who said “Hannibal to be neither a Phoenician, nor a Carthaginian, nor a Punic, but a North African… The majority of the Punic populace seems to have had African, indeed Negroid, ancestry.”

This is a relevant point. Those Phoenicians settled a place where certainly other peoples already lived and they would have likely mixed with those people. The question then comes to who lived there. It is erroneous to assume only black people inhabited Africa and we do know that the Berber people inhabited much of central and western North Africa just as non-black African Copts inhabited Egypt. Berbers themselves are considered a mixed Afro-Asiatic population however they are not black Africans and part of their origin likely hails from the Near East and possible even Iberia.

The previously mentioned commentator concludes “Whether described as Carthaginians, Phoenicians, or Punics of North Africa, according to Audisio’s research they were certainly a mix of aboriginal North Africans that included the native Berbers, Moors and other groups.” Unfortunately his conclusion is incorrect, or at least partially so, as the term Moor refers to an ethno-religious group, in this case North African Muslims, who did not exist at the time of Hannibal or the Punic people.

This is further evidence for the loaded discussion and how it is moving away from historical fact to revisionist history. One person commenting on the article even said “Hannibal was black. The painting in Egyptian pyramid’s show black people but the thieving arabs have repainted them yello or brown..[sic].” Claiming Arabs repainted Pharaonic monuments is ridiculous especially considering that many of those monuments were already buried with sand by the time the Arabs arrived in Egypt, some were only discovered (unearthed) in the past century, and it would be easily provable that it was done; I’m not going to say more. Unfortunately history is no longer driven by research but by belief.

Returning to the History Channel, it is unclear what the motivations, if any, for their historical inaccuracies were. The History Channel website seems to be devoid of any information of their historical academic and research methodology or if they even undertake such an exercise at all. If this inaccuracy was the result of negligence, I find that very serious, and the History Channel should be held accountable. If they can’t or won’t provide historically accurate information, may we dare call it fake history, then they should change their name as History Channel suggests they are providing historically accurate history.

The image is that of Hannibal in the History Channel series Barbarians Rising.

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One thought on “The debate over the depiction of Hannibal by the History Channel”

  1. Mike Markowitz of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington DC just published a presentation on Academia.edu on Carthaginian coins and what is apparent is that the depictions of the Carthaginians in coins from Carthage, North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Spain are quite consistent and portray them with classic Mediterranean features. The presentation can be found here: https://www.academia.edu/3455640/The_Coinage_of_Carthage_An_Introduction?email_work_card=title

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