Top critical review
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Flawed, again! But also very exciting
on 1 February 2011
When rating this book, I hesitated between 2 and 3 stars. It finally got 3 because historical fiction based on the First Punic War is uncommon and the book is a real page turner: I finished it in less than 48 hours one early morning sometime between 2 and 3 am. Having said this, the book is also flawed in many respects. You probably will not mind (nor care) if you are just looking for an exciting story to read.
However, if you like your historical fiction to be grounded in facts and realistic (and if you happen to be a bit fussy about details, like I tend to be!), you may find this book annoying or even exasperating, at times, and you will be diappointed. If this is the case, then read this book with a "pinch of salt" and complete with a book on each of the two following topics:
- Naval warfare under oars. Read, for instance, The Age of the Galley (Robert Gardiner editor), which is a collection of studies on naval warfare in Antiquity and during the Middle Ages. Contrary to Master of Rome's assertions, you will learn that the trireme was faster than both the quadrireme and the quinquereme. You will also see that it is simply impossible to add extra rowing teams below decks on a trireme (simply no space!). Besides, the additional weight would have in effect made the ship SLOWER instead of allowing it to keep up an highly improbable 12 to 14 knots per hour, a speed that NO ship during Antiquity or the Middle Ages EVER managed to reach, by the way. The reason for thiks is that the trireme would have become that much heavier (say 70 kilos per rower times the number of extra rowers and bearing in mind that a trireme's displacement was about 50 tons) without any addition in the number of creewmen that were actually rowing at any point in time. There are a number of other mistakes as well, many of which can also be found in the two previous volumes
- A history of the First Punic War (pic either Lazenby's book, or either the one from Bagnall or the one from Adrian Goldsworthy, both of which cover all three Punic Wars, and not only the first one). In addition to the author's historical note, you will learn that Hamilcar Barca was NEVER captured, let alone made part of a Roman triumph. In fact, as commander of Carthage's troops in Sicily and it's somewhat unclear as to whether he had overall command or was one of the generals), he never formally surrendered and was never decisively beaten. Needless to say, and for "narrative purposes" (dixit the author, meaning to play on dramatic effects), the author has taken quite a few liberties with history and historical facts:
- they were numerous Carthaginian commanders as opposed to Hamilcar Barca
- Roman commanders tended to change every year (at most every two years), following consular elections, which might have not been very helpful for the performance of Rome's armies
- the hoplon (the real Greek name being aspis and this was the shield carried by Greek heavy infantry - hoplites) was in fact a circular shield of 1 meter diameter, often in oak and faced with bronze. It was rather heavy and it is somewhat unrealistic to believe that this would be more helpful than the Roman scutum when considering boarding an ennemy warship.
However, one of my main grips is with the concept of "Barbarus" which the author has the Romans applying to Greeks. This is hardly possible. As a matter of fact, the word is Greek (Barbaros, with the "b" being pronounced as a v) and probably originated in Athens sometime in the 5th century BC, when it became the most cosmopolitan city of the Mediterranean. It was applied by Greeks to ALL non-Greeks (Romans included, of course) and has given our "barbarian". Initially, it was used to make fun of foreigners who could not correctly pronounce certain Greek words and sounds. It then acquired some of the negative connotations that are still associated with the word "barbarian" nowadays (uncivilized, uncouth, unsophisticated, brutal, bad mannered etc...). When the Romans took over this term, and given that they were in fact "upstarts" when compared to Greeks, they applied to all others except themselves AND Greeks. So there is no chance whatsoever for a Roman to have called Atticus a barbarus - simply impossible (although Atticus, whose latinized name seem to suggest that his ancestors came from Attika - Athens - and settled in Locri Southern Italy, could perfectly well have called ALL Romans "Barbaros".
A related point is the indignation expressed by Romans when discovering that Greek mercenaries had been used by Carthage against them. As a matter of fact, Greek mercenaries had been a rather numerous component (thousands of them fought for Carthage - or for anyone else - for pay) of most of Carthage's armies in Sicily for at least a couple of centuries before the First Punic War broke out. They fought alongside Africans, Gauls, Spaniards, Balaric slingers and Carthaginians. Greek mercenaries (whether Italian Greeks, Sicilian Greeks or Greeks from Greece) had also been fighting against Carthage for about just as long. So their presence in the conflict between Rome and Carthage (with some possibly fighting on each side, as Greeks from Southern Italy might also have been fighting as Roman Allies) should not have surprised anyone.