The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage, and the Struggle for the Mediterranean Hardcover – 1 Jul 2005
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Here are a few examples: when the Romans commit some form of atrocity such as the sacking of allied cities to Carthage it is described as blood lust and wickedness, whereas if it is done by the Carthaginians it was done out of tactical necessity and no malice was involved...give me a break. The sacking of Roman cities described by the author's idol Hannibal, are always glossed over but the author never misses a chance to characterize Roman sackings as acts of folly and blood lust. Not to mention that the author gleefully tries to remind everyone that the Romans used slaves while he never states the fact that the Carthaginians also used slaves as well. The message is clear : white man bad...ethnic good.
Furthermore during the first Punic War the Roman navy suffered greatly from storms that destroyed their fleet on several occasions. This also happened to the Carthaginians during the Second War. The author states that for the Carthaginians this was ill luck and unfortunate, but for the Romans he states that it was incompetence. This is just one of the examples of double standards he applies to his much loved Carthaginians. The author is clearly one who wants to break with the image that Romans were mighty warriors (after all they conquered a vast empire) and he wants to install a revisionist notion that the Romans were in no way superior to other soldiers as was stated in previous historical works.
The author does, on the other hand, repeatedly drool over the supposed incredible prowess of the Numidian cavalry. The author gives an impression that the Numidians are the ultimate warriors. If that were so then how come they did not carve out a vast empire of their own? At the end of the Third Punic War the Numidians did have a small kingdom on the North coast of Africa that was united under one King. When this king died his kingdom fragmented when his sons fought one another to control it. The author somehow manages to try and blame the Romans (evil white men after all) for this because they were in negotiations with one of the sons for an alliance. Wouldn't it be the Numidians fault if they were fighting amongst one another instead of cooperating? How was this the Romans fault? The author could just not resist blaming the white man I guess.
These are only a few examples of the author's ethnic worshipping...there at many other examples throughout the book. If the Romans truly were as ungifted as the author tries to have us imagine then they would never have gone down in history as a great empire.
If you can't get enough of ethnic hero worship and have low self esteem then by all means get this book. Otherwise get another version of the Punic Wars.
He starts with an overall survey of the two combatants with a précis of their respective histories, constitutions, military forces and religions. It's a good backgrounder although the relevance of the religions isn't made manifest in the book. His survey of Sicily is particularly good with an emphasis on Syracuse as a counterbalance to Carthage's power in Sicily and the chapter also presages his take on the causes of the First Punic War by arguing there were no overwhelming strategic reasons for the land-bound Rome to go to war with the maritime Carthage. The reasons sprang from unstable politics in what could be called a neutral zone in eastern Sicily between Rome and Carthage. The Roman move in Messana (which included evicting the Carthaginian garrison) which started the First Punic War is argued by Bagnall to be an act of short-term opportunism against a Carthage that posed no threat to Rome. Here I think Bagnall overlooks what Rome would've perceived as the importance of the Syracusan counterweight as a Carthaginian foothold there could've blocked off any future Roman intervention against a future move against Syracuse.
His narrative of the First Punic War sets the tone for the whole book. The narrative style is lucid and engaging and interspersed with his expert military analysis. One good example on a tactical level is Xanthippus correcting the earlier Carthaginian error of defending on broken ground which nullified their advantage in cavalry with an open-ground battle at Tunis where he crushed the Roman army.
His analyses are the strongest draw. His extended commentary (a whole chapter after the close of the First Punic War) breaks down, for the uninitiated, the difference between the strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfare. His analysis of the Roman and Carthaginian efforts will follow that breakdown. Strategically, he asserts that the opportunistic nature of Rome’s move into Messana also meant that they started with no coherent strategy. Carthage arguably missed a strategic opportunity in not using its naval assets to go on the offensive in Italy, something which Hannibal would rectify. Bagnall’s speculation that Carthage chose a more defensive strategy because of early reverses that led them to a permanent sense of tactical inferiority against the Romans is a good one. Again, this is something that Hannibal would rectify in the rematch. Rome also made the mistake of diffusive initiatives and failed to develop an effective cavalry arm. They would pay a far higher price for that in the next conflict.
He even subjects the conflicts of the entr’acte to this analysis, for example faulting the Illyrians in the losing war against Rome with objectives that their force structure couldn’t support. In fact, a strong point of this book is a close look at those conflicts with the Carthaginian conquest of Spain being particularly important for future events while Rome’s essentially shaking down a weakened Carthage for Sardinia and Corsica does much to explain Carthage’s desire for revenge.
Bagnall also does a fine job with the Second Punic War. He highlights Hannibal’s successful use of maneuver and mobile forces in his three epic victories at the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae and overall illumines how much of Carthage’s effort in Italy owed to Hannibal’s genius. He explains Hannibal’s strategy as being fundamentally political. Hannibal didn’t expect to be able to take and burn down Rome, but he could break its political hold on its allies but repeatedly smashing Rome’s armies. This required that he exploit his superior operational and tactical mobility. However, as Bagnall observes, once Hannibal acquired allies which defected from Rome, his need to protect them smothered that flexibility.
His take on the Spanish and African campaigns of Scipio Africanus illustrates another argument of the book which is that victory would go to the party that could best move away from its preexisting doctinres. For example, Scipio’s willingness to bypass the Carthaginian armies to effect a coup de main against the Carthaginian base at Nova Carthago. Likewise, his brilliant victory at Ilipa was a function of his ability to wrong-foot the Carthaginian’s through a change in the disposition of his army.
The Third Punic War isn’t given as much coverage but it’s still done well. Bagnall’s epilogue is a good summing up of the strategic/operational/tactical lessons learned but I thought his attempt to analogize those to contemporary (for 1990) politics was awkward and misplaced. There are surely better ways to address the idea of NATO military preparedness, for example, then drawing attention to Carthage’s lack thereof at the onset of the First Punic War.
Although Bagnall became a fellow at Oxford's Balliol College after retirement, he was not a professional historian and this work is more of a narrative book than a scholarly one. You won't find indications of original research, there are no foot/endnotes and only a limited bibliography. On the other hand, where the classical sources conflict, his comparative analyses are plausible. It is a fine work nonetheless and I'd certainly recommend it as an introduction to the subject especially as it covers all three of the Punic Wars at once.