I can still pinpoint the start of my interest in classical history fairly precisely. It was in the spring I was in Grade Three, when Mrs. Charlewood, the school librarian, in a desperate effort to direct my rapid consumption of the library, suggested I try a book called Hannibal’s Elephants.
I didn’t know who Hannibal was, or why the Carthaginians might be at war with Rome, but I was enthralled. If I remember correctly, the story was narrated by a teenage boy who marched with Hannibal, and possibly had some responsibility for the elephants. At one point early in the story, someone sang a song that began:\
Across the Alps and Apennines
In battles far from home,
His elephants lunge at trembling lines
When Hannibal conquers Rome.
At least once, I had a dream in which a woman with a malicious smile started to sing the song, which for some reason I dreaded hearing.
The book ended, of course, with the defeat of Hannibal’s Italian campaign and his recall to Carthage. But I was left with a burning question: how did Rome finally fall? I knew that it must have, since I had a vague idea that the Middle Ages were between Rome and my day, but I wanted to know the details.
I went to the librarian, who didn’t know. She asked a Grade 7 girl who was helping to with restacking books, who said that she wasn’t sure, but she thought that the “Greeks rose to power and destroyed them.”
Even at eight, I could sense that the girl was improvising and knew only a little more than I did. I realized that I would have to find out for myself, so that was what I started to do, reading all the Greek and Roman history and mythology I could find in the school and civic libraries. I remember that in Grade Four, after the teacher taught us about butterflies and metamorphosis, I showed her a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, suggesting there might be a connection, only to receive a sniff for a reply – possibly because she thought Ovid too racy for me, but more likely because she was unprepared for the subject.
Fortunately, at that age I was not very aware of nuance, and continued reading history, branching out into the Egyptians and Babylonians at one end of the Classical era and The Middle Ages at the other.
As an adult, I’ve made some half-hearted efforts to track down the book that inspired me. The only possible candidate is a book by Alfred Powers that was first published in 1946, and just might have lingered long enough in a school library for me to have read it. So far, though, I’ve resisted the effort to purchase it online. I doubt – and worry – that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. Anyway, unlike Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth or Robert Lancelyn Green’s Robin Hood, I value the book for the lifelong interest that it started more than for itself.