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Good overview, despite some glitches...,
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This review is from: The Carthaginians 6th2nd Century BC (Elite 201) (Paperback)
This is a mostly good overview of "the Carthaginians" or, more accurately, of their armies from the 6th to the 2sd century BC, despite some "glitches", which are mostly approximations or simplifications, rather than mistakes. One feature which is quite striking at the outset when looking at the select bibliography is that the authors and the artist have cast a rather wide net. They have listed some 34 "modern works" or secondary sources in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian.
To me at least, it is fairly obvious that they have also researched their topic in depth.
Second, the authors are careful to define quite precisely the scope of their book in their introduction. The purpose is to try "to represent how Carthaginian warriors might have looked, according to the current state of our knowledge based on a comparative synthesis of the main archaeological finds and the iconographic and literary sources." This is what the book achieves, rather well in my view, and this is what the references included in the bibliography mentioned above reflect.
This is where a (mild) criticism may be in order with regards to the bibliography because it contains very few references for further reading for anyone which may have a wider interest than what the "Carthaginian warriors" - which, as the book shows quite clearly were mostly non-Carthaginian mercenaries. In particular, I was expecting to find at least Richard Miles' major book on Carthage ("Carthage must be destroyed", 2010) which, with its 34 pages of bibliography, would by itself have been enough to satisfy even the most dedicated "fan" of Carthage. Besides, since the scope of Miles' book covers the whole of Carthage's history from foundation to destruction, it would have been a rather nice fit with and complement to this one.
In practice, however, the book goes well beyond "how Carthaginian warriors might have looked". As most other Elite Osprey titles, it also provides sections on the historical background, the historical reputation of the Carthaginians, a chronology, organisation, tactics, arms and equipment, clothing and physical appearance, a section on the navy and a few selected campaigns and battles thrown in to illustrate.
To start with the last item, it should be notes that the authors and artist have taken the trouble to select less well-known battles and come up with the associated narratives and plates. So you get (rather superb) plates on the (naval) battle of Mylae (260 BC, during the First Punic War), on the little-known "Mercenary Revolt" (240-237 BC, and which in fact involved more than the mercenaries fighting against their former employer which had literally "short-changed" them) and the battle of Trasimene (217 BC, rather than much less original scenes of the battles of Cannae or even of Zama). More precisely, the latter plate depicts the last moments of Consul Gaius Flaminius Nepos, shortly before he was killed by a Celtic/Gallic chieftain. This plate, which happens to be the one selected for the cover of the book, is probably my favourite, with the aspects of the three main characters being derived and closely following the written and archaeological sources. One little quibble perhaps is the rather exaggerated form of the helmet worn by the Celt. Such helmets have indeed been found in graves, but whether they were actually worn in battle as opposed to being only ceremonial is debatable, if only because they could have been rather impractical.
The introduction, which provides much of the historical background, is quite remarkable, because it manages to present a rather good overview of the whole period in only four pages, including the Three Punic Wars, while making all of the main points (or, more modestly and accurately, all the ones that I could think of!). There was only one point that I was a bit doubtful about and that was when the authors listed Tarento alongside Alexandria as "one of the main centres of the Hellenic (or Hellenistic?) World. I would have expected to find Syracuse listed instead of Tarento.
The next section is an annotated and detailed chronology. It largely makes up for the brief historical introduction and manages to include a lot of information in as little space as possible. Since space is a rare commodity for Osprey authors, this is something of an achievement. However, I have two "quibbles" with the text included in the chronology, because, in their efforts to be both concise and as informative as possible, there are perhaps two areas where the authors have somewhat over-simplified.
One is a statement mentioning that Pyrrhus of Epirus, when fighting against them in Sicily, was "unable to defeat Carthaginians". While not incorrect, the statement is somewhat imprecise and could, for instance, lead the unformed reader to believe that one or several indecisive pitched battles were fought, with no clear winner. In fact, the Carthaginians were wise enough to avoid any battles against Pyrrhus and may anyway not have had sufficient troops in Sicily to offer such a battle. Accordingly, the King was forced to besiege and take the Carthaginian fortresses one by one. This is what he did, although it was both time and resources consuming, and the King only had a limited supply of both. If I remember correctly, he took all but one of them, before being forced to return to South Italy and face the Romans once again in battle. Accordingly, the statement is factually correct, even if potentially misleading, because Pyrrhus was both unable to bring the Carthaginians to battle in order to defeat them in the field and he was unable to take all of their strongpoints so that they were able to make yet another "comeback" as soon as he had to leave.
The second imprecision is about the numbers in Hannibal's army as he set out from Spain to invade Italy. The authors mention 50000 foot and 9000 horse. Other references mention up to 90000 foot and up to 12000 cavalry. In addition to having used different sources, the differences in numbers can be reconciled through three different factors. The lower numbers may correspond to those that Hannibal set off with, while the higher ones would be the total for all Carthaginian forces in Spain before his departure. Moreover, the differences can also be explained at least in part if one considers that the two sets of numbers may not be determined in the same way at the same moment. For instance, the lower number may only include warriors and soldiers whereas the higher one could also include squires, camp followers etc... Also, the lower number may reflect the size of the force that crossed the Ebro whereas the higher one could reflect the army swelled by the various and numerous Gallic contingents that had joined on the way as the army was just about to cross the Alps. Needless to say, the authors were not going to engage in this kind of discussion because of the space constraints that they were subject to and considering that this issue was of secondary importance given the scope of this book.
The section dealing with the Carthaginian armies' organisation is a bit of a misnomer because it addresses, in fact, it addresses its multi-ethnic composition and examines the main contingents in sequence, just like the older Osprey title on the Punic Wars by Terence Wise does (and at times using the same wording...). Again, this is a fact, but perhaps also a criticism, although the authors do take the trouble to mention what little is known of army organisations every time they get a chance to do so.
There is, however, a bit of a problem in the section on tactics. This is because the authors are rather unclear as to what exactly is meant when using the term "phalanx" to describe the close-order formation of Carthaginian infantry. While they do mention hoplite-style formations, and the Carthaginians clearly started the period with these, references about pikes having to be held with both hands leads the reader into believing that Hannibal may have used a Macedonian-style phalanx or even a force on infantry armed partly with long thrusting spears and partly with pikes. This ambiguity echoes debates among historians on this issue, with some wanting to see the Carthaginians, and their Greek mercenaries equipped with pikes although there is little evidence to support this.
There is simply nothing else to do than to applaud the sections on arms and equipment and clothing and physical appearance, with these being the best, the core of the book and perhaps its most valuable component (together with the plates). There are at least two reasons for this in my view. One is that the authors are careful to be specific and introduce up-to-date findings that can be particularly interesting. One example is the discovery of Gallic swords of uneven quality (and different composition) in various sites. This goes some way towards explaining the apparent contradiction between the high reputation of Gallic smiths in Antiquity and the statements of Polybius about Gallic swords bending after a couple of blows and having to be straightened out in the middle of a battle.
Finally, there are a couple of rather "technical" glitches in the section on the Carthaginian navy. One is the statement that the Carthaginian invented both the "fours" (quadriremes or tetreres) and the "fives" (quinqueremes or penteres and NOT penteconteres, which were the older 50-oars warships that had been prevalent up to the 6th century BC). While modern authors (and the Ancient sources) do credit them with the invention of the quadriremes, it seems to have been the naval engineers of Dyonisus of Syracuse which came up with the first designs of a quinquereme which is first attested in the sources in about 390 BC. Having mentioned this, both rivals quickly adopted and improved upon the designs of their rival in what was one of Antiquity's most notable "arms' race". The second "glitch" is a drawing on page 49 which shows a quinquereme with a single bank of rowers and five rowers for each row. Instead, and since "fives" were a development of the trireme, they seem to have had three banks of oars, with two rowers for two of the banks and a single rower for the third. Those interested in the technical reasons for this can look it up in either "The Age of the Galley" (editor Robert Gardiner) or, even more recent, William Murray's "The Age of the Titans" by William Murray which is especially about "big ships" ("fours", "fives" and above) and contains a detailed annex for each of these two types of warships.
To conclude this over-long review, and contrary to the assessment of another reviewer on the UK site, this is, despite a number of mostly minor "glitches" a good and valuable title which I would rate four stars.