Names and Strange Descriptions

[In reading this post the reader will find that it has no exact ‘point’ per se.]

Mu’amar al-Qadhafi called his fourth son Hannibal after the Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca who shocked Rome by marching with his men and war elephants across the Pyrenees and the Alps in the Second Punic War. Hannibal’s father Hamilcar commanded Carthaginian forces in the First Punic War and Hannibal grew up under the shadow of the harsh treaty Carthage was forced to sign after being defeated by Rome in that conflict; Hamilcar had a nasty reputation, perhaps exaggerated by Roman historians, for brutality against his enemies, Polybius called his war against the mercenary uprising in 240 BCE a ‘truceless war’ without comparison in terms of brutality and ruthlessness (the mercenaries, he wrote, castrated 700 Carthaginian prisoners, breaking their legs and chopping off their hands before dumping them in a mass grave; the Carthaginians tortured their Libyan prisoners to death). But his performance in the First Punic War and the Mercenary War, despite their complications (losing the first war and losing control of Sardinia to Rome without a fight in the second) won him and his line prestige in Carthage. He groomed Hannibal as his successor and passed to his son a burning hatred for the Roman enemy. Hannibal prepared his whole life for an epic confrontation with Rome. Hannibal was of course defeated by Scipio Africanus in battle at Zamma in 202 BCE. Hannibal remains a fixture in military and world history partly because the (three) wars fight between Rome and Carthage, and their political fallout, were so important in Roman identity and history that they wrote extensively on them we have many narratives about Hannibal as a menace in the face and psyche of a European imperial power (little is left of the Carthaginian side of the story) and (perhaps more so) because they cemented Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean.

One might assume that Mu’amar al-Qadhafi might name one of his sons after a character out of Carthage, given his anti-colonial mindset and obsession with defiant figures in North African military history, like the ‘Umar al-Mukhtar who led the Libyan resistance to Italian colonial occupation till his capture in 1932. Having named one of his sons Hannibal one wonders how closely Qadhafi identifies with Hamilcar; one considers this especially given his past treatment of Berbers and other non-Arabs in Libya (whom he treated with utterly aggressive contempt; note also that Hannibal and Hamilcar were Punics, from what is now Tunisia who conquered and ruled Libya from the outside). Certainly Mu’amar al-Qadhafi saw himself as an African Arab although one can easily see him admiring Hannibal’s siege of Rome, the ancient ancestor of Libya’s old brutal colonial occupiers in Italy. Looking at it this way an observer might find a theme of wrath and revenge in his sons’ names (one of them is called Seif al-Arab and another Seif al-Islam; the other sons’ names lend less support this assertion) and that this may reveal something to the layered complexes (they used to say he suffered from a hubris-nemesis complex) that help make up the psyche of a man like Qadhafi. A tragic figure like Hannibal fits well into an antagonistic nationalist myth, especially ones held by paranoid, ambitious and shameless men. Carthage had far greater geopolitical significance in its time than Qadhafi’s Jamahiriyyah ever did; Qadhafi’s death and the fall of his experimental regime is the end of a cruel invective against the human spirit running in a stream of consciousness over forty two years. 

For a brief period your blogger was positively fascinated with all things Carthaginian. This was partly the result of being forced to translate short stories on the Punic Wars (meant to teach Latin grammar and vocabulary) and then long passages from things Livy and Appian left to torment Latin students. It was also partly part of his natural fascination with old things and North African things. Descriptions of Punic Carthage very quickly draws comparisons with how Tunisia and Libya were governed until recently, an oligarchy run by a vicious and brutal dynasty. The Barcids sound much like Ben Alis or Qadhafis, even when one accounts for how propagandistic most Roman accounts are and how little we know about them at all. Eventually the ‘mercenaries’ became more interesting; the descriptions of Africa in The Aeneid are quite exciting, especially if one has been to what is places the used to be called ‘Numidia’ or ‘Cirta’ or the like (there are parts of Sallust’s description of the war with Jugurtha where he describes rivers which can leave the reader thinking: Since when are there rivers there?) in the same way reading about Gaul in Ceasar’s commentaries can be exciting for a young person who has spent time reading about Hannibal to actually visit the Alps and imagine elephants dressed for war lumbering (probably sadly and hungrily) through them. In any case, this blogger read a nearly folkloric paragraph describing Tuaregs allegedly fighting for Qadhafi as

fiercely independent of all five governments. They are renowned as crack desert special operations fighters with extraordinary stamina, who can subsist on 100 grams of dried dates and a half liter of water for 24 hours while covering 100 kilometers on foot. They don’t need to carry water because of their hereditary knowledge of the Sahara’s hidden springs.

Well then. The situation in southern Libya aside (many things are brewing among the Tuaregs in Libya, Niger and Mali for sure; they are probably not so closely tied to the Qadhafi angle as they might seem or have seemed of late), these extraordinary details reminded this reader of two descriptions of ancient North Africans. The first is a passage from The Aeneid where Virgil has Dido describing Carthage’s African neighbors:

This little spot of land, which Heav’n bestows,

On ev’ry side is hemm’d with warlike foes;

Gætulian cities here are spread around,

And fierce Numidians there your frontiers bound;

Here lies a barren waste of thirsty land,

And there the Syrtes raise the moving sand;

Barcæan troops besiege the narrow shore [. . .]

This is from Dryden’s famous translation. Quite poetic, of course. ElsewhereNumidae infreni usually seems to be translated literally as ‘unbridled Numidians’ rather than ‘fierce Numidians’ or something else (like ‘without saddles’ or ‘barebacked’ and whatnot); another translation:

Here the Gaetulan cities, a folk unsuprassed in war,

And unbriedled Numidians hem you, and perilous Syrtis;

On that side of a region of desert and far-ranging Barcaeans. [. . .]

Infreni (infrenis means ‘unbridled’ or ‘unrestrained’; bridle being freno) gets at how Numidian cavalrymen were said to aggressive and bold riders who literally rode their horses without bridles and more indirectly at their status as fierce warriors whose passions and conduct was also ‘unbridled’. The other peoples referenced in the passage are other North African and island peoples who made up much of Carthage’s mercenary armies. The Romans gave this kind of description for many of the numerous tribes of Africa. Roman history has Jugurtha as a wild man, full of primitive cunning and prowess (uritus), who mocks Roman public virtues and standards but a skilled warrior nonetheless. The second description Debka’s report on the Tuaregs brought to mind was Sallust’s vague background note in his Bellum Iugurthinum on the Gaetulians, a desert people who fought with Jugurtha against Rome.

Initially Africa was held by the Gaetulians and Libyans, rough and uncouth peoples whose food was the flesh of wild animals and fodder from the ground, as for cattle. They were ruled neither by customs nor by law or anyone’s command; wanderers and rovers, they took whatever abode night compelled them to have.

(As a side note, Brett and Fentress have a fine section  on the politics of the ancient Berber kingdoms in The Berbers in a chapter easily called ‘Berbers in Antiquity,’ which includes an interesting section on Jugurtha and various struggles among Berber nobles in Numidia and elsewhere which the Romans eagerly exploited for their own gain. (Another chapter deals with the Berbers under Roman rule, ‘The Empire and the Other: Romans and Berbers’; this is very much worth reading).)

Your blogger has encountered precisely three different men calling themselves Yagurten or Jugurtha. A name like Jugurtha represents a similar kind of defiance as Hannibal. Both of these names have stories more exciting and more in-your-face than names like Hamilcar (Hannibal’s father) or Masinissa (the founding king of Numidia). On the one hand these are names of men who defied and bloodied the noses of invaders and bullies, Romans (Europeans), even if they were both defeated in the end. Names like these represent a kind of unrelenting rebelliousness, self-proclaimed legitimacy and a tendency to seek malice in defeat and revenge in victory. In this sense they are similar to names used by Algerians called Abdel-Qader after the leader of the struggle against the French invasion though they reach further back and speak to a generalized resistance across North African history rather than to a specific, nationalist one. They are boastfully tragic. On the other hand Jugurtha and Hannibal are also names of pre-Islamic leaders which speaks to a sense of rootedness beyond the Arab conquest; names like Jugurtha and Masinissa (one finds many young men and musicians with this name as with Jugurtha in Algeria, if not more) are purposefully Amazigh names that cannot be mistaken for much else, not even Punic or Arabic ones. Not only that but these are Amazigh names representing autonomy and independence from outside imperial control; Masinissa through the Second Punic War Masinissa was sometimes an ally of the Romans or Carthaginians ultimately fighting with Scipio at Zama. After the war he unified the Numidians in a single kingdom with Roman backing. Masinissa and Jugurtha are not the names of conquerors or the sons of conquerors, though a tight look at how Masinissa consolidated Numidia might push things in that direction. Since there are only scantly bit to go on one has some freedom in constructing these ancient folks. These are hometown heros where names based on great Carthaginians or Arabs or the like, to North African parents of a certain mindset, are invaders and conquerors. (A note: On some level there was a Jugurthine quality to episodes from Qadhafi rule; his miserable speech at the UN General Assembly after his pitiful and artless ‘rehabilitation’ in the west is one prominent example.) It is likely that beyond the Qadhafa the only folks using a name like ‘Qadhafi’ to show their fidelity to ‘resistance’ or ‘struggle’ or ‘survival’ will be gangster rappers or violent eccentrics.


2 thoughts on “Names and Strange Descriptions

  1. HE really ill treated & brutilized his people ,& left in poverty, iv seen this with my own eyes when i went to visit my sister in benghazi .IT was a pity that he died that way,libyans were very hurt at heart ,members of their familys vanished ,or killed wtout a trail ,but in end who are we to jugde,he was far better alive to stand trail to give accounts of his brutality against his people.

  2. it is good to have an eye witness account to his brutality. Otherwise, people are left to wonder. Those who pursued him, were educated enough – determined to see him gone – motivated by injustice, and in the end, it was as it should be. Let the people begin their independence without all the legal wranglings, politics, etc. Let the healing begin.

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