Following the rebuilding of Rome, which had been sacked by the Gauls, there was a long period during which the plebeian nobility rose in power and influence, and Rome steadily came to dominate the Italian peninsula. It was, though, coming under increasing threat from Greece and Carthage.
When Rome was at war with Tarentum, in the ‘heel’ close to the west coast of Greece, its people appealed to the Greek king Pyrrhus to defend them, so that he could rule them too. Pyrrhus was persuaded to give them support, and sent forces in advance. When the king tried to cross the sea, though, their ships were scattered by a storm from the north. Eventually the whole of his army reached Tarentum, only to discover that its citizens would do nothing in their own defence, and Laevinus the Roman consul was on his way with his army.
In the protracted battle that ensued between Pyrrhus and the Romans, Pyrrhus himself was wounded, but the Romans were eventually defeated, with the loss of as many as 15,000 of their men. The Romans did not accept this as a defeat of their army, but blamed its leader, Laevinus. Pyrrhus sent Cineas as his representative to Rome, but he was unable to persuade its senate to accept any proposals for peace. Instead, the Romans demanded that Pyrrhus and his troops leave Italy, or they would continue to fight him so long as he remained.
Rome then sent Pyrrhus an embassy led by Caius Fabricius, who was held in high esteem in Rome but was exceedingly poor. Pyrrhus showed the Roman great hospitality, and offered him gifts of gold as a mark of friendship and respect. Caius Fabricius declined them.
This is shown in Ferdinand Bol’s Scene from Ancient History: The Incorruptibility of Gaius Fabricius from about 1650. Pyrrhus is the old, bearded man sat on the throne at the right, as Caius Fabricius (standing, in helmet and armour) declines the large gold plates and vases being offered to him.
Next, Pyrrhus tried a different tactic. Like Hannibal, he used elephants in battle, so the following day, he had one of his war-elephants concealed behind a large drape near where he met to speak with the Roman. When Pyrrhus gave the signal, the drape was removed, unveiling the huge elephant, which raised its trunk and emitted a fearful cry.
As Bol shows in his second painting, of The Fearlessness of Fabricius in the Camp of Pyrrhus (1655-56), the Roman turned calmly to Pyrrhus and told him that neither the gold nor the elephant made any impression on him.
Pyrrhus and Caius Fabricius (who later became consul) developed great mutual respect, but found no acceptable solution. After Pyrrhus dealt with a threat to his life, he engaged the Roman army again at Asculum, where he was eventually able to deploy his elephants with effect. However, casualties were heavy on both sides, and when Pyrrhus was congratulated on his narrow victory, he said: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined” – the origin of the phrase Pyrrhic victory.
Pyrrhus then sailed to Sicily, where he hoped for and got easier pickings. From success there, he briefly turned his attentions to Libya, where he was less than successful, so returned to Italy. His next battle was against Roman forces under Manius Curius at Beneventum, where Pyrrhus’ army was finally routed, and forced to return to Greece after six years of victorious but ultimately unsuccessful campaigning in the Pyrrhic War. When the Greek king was later killed in battle, Tarentum surrendered to the Romans, who then ruled the whole Italian peninsula.
Rome and Carthage had been allied against the Greeks, but with them out of play, disputes arose over Sicily and its control over the local sea.
Marcus Atilius Regulus was a Roman general and consul for a short period in 267 BCE. He was successful in the First Punic War against the Carthaginians, but in 255 BCE was defeated by them and taken prisoner. He was released so that he could return to Rome to negotiate peace, but then urged the Roman Senate to refuse any such proposal.
One of the most famous of JMW Turner’s paintings of classical history is his Regulus (1828, 1837), one of three narrative works painted and exhibited in Rome in 1828, and reworked before exhibition in 1837. Interestingly, this is the painting which Thomas Fearnley painted a sketch of Turner working on during a ‘varnishing day’.
Turner appears to have depicted Regulus leaving Rome in a dusk view referring strongly to the landscapes of Claude Lorrain. When he returned to Carthage, he was tortured to death; one account claims that his eyelids were excised and he was exposed to the North African sun until he was blinded by it.
One problem which already arises in this association is that, while Turner is known to have been familiar with the account given by Horace of Regulus’ story, that did not include details of his torture and blinding, which in any case took place after Regulus had left Rome. Nevertheless, it has been claimed that the dazzling low sunlight in this painting is a reference to Regulus’ fate.
The painting has an abundance of figures, none of which stands out as being a Roman general whose name is its title. John Gage has claimed that Turner puts the viewer in the position of Regulus, so that its dazzling light is intended to mimic the suffering which he experienced. This is supported by the fact that an engraving of this work gave it the title of Ancient Carthage — the Embarkation of Regulus.
Unfortunately, even if this painting were to represent Regulus departing from Carthage, he had not at that time been subject to mutilation to his eyes, nor does reference to that later act make any narrative sense at this stage.
Furthermore, unlike Rome which sits astride the River Tiber, ancient Carthage did not straddle any river of this nature. This view could have been obtained from looking along the length of its harbour, but that runs due south and could not show the sun low in the sky at any time of day.
When Turner tells us that his painting is narrative, reveals the story in its title, and still leaves us debating how to read it nearly two centuries later, we should be very cautious about trying to read in narrative when all the signs point to a regular landscape.
The Romans finally drove Carthage to settle for peace, at the end of the First Punic War, and exacted a high price which included the surrender of all Sicily to the expanding republic. To compensate for its loss of that island, Carthage turned to southern Spain. This led to the start of the Second Punic War, in which Hannibal used his gains in Spain to march his army of around 100,000 over the Alps into northern Italy. For painters, this has been marked by scenes of the Carthaginians’ 37 war-elephants.
Jacopo Ripanda devoted an entire room of frescoes in the Palazzo del Campidoglio in Rome to the Carthaginians and the Punic Wars. Among them is this detail of Hannibal Crossing the Alps from about 1510.
This canvas of Hannibal Crossing the Alps on Elephants has been attributed to Poussin, and dated to 1625-26, but is no longer considered to be by Poussin’s hand.
One of JMW Turner’s most radical early works, showing Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), must have been influenced by the artist’s own firsthand experience of crossing Alpine passes. This is also radical in that the famous elephants are downplayed almost to the point of being invisible under Turner’s extraordinary storm sky. In fact, in the centre foreground, under a scarlet sheet, is what appears to be the black form of an elephant lying on the ground.