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Customer reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

TOP 100 REVIEWERon 25 June 2014
This book, while perhaps not perfect and containing some questionable statements, is probably the best introduction, overview and starting point for someone wanting to get to grips with the Punic Wars. It is also an excellent introduction to Rome’s dominance of the Mediterranean and of Roman imperialism, more generally, with these elements, and the “Roman way” of waging war, being the author’s real speciality.

Perhaps the main merit of this book is to clearly identify why Rome won the first two epic and lengthy wars according to Goldsworthy. As the author shows, Roman commanders and their legions and allies were not necessarily and inherently better than their Carthaginian opponents either on sea or even on land. What really made the difference was Roman relentlessness and the extraordinary level of commitment to fighting wars to the finish backed by a much larger manpower pool that they were willing to use until they had achieved a total and unquestionable victory. This included the ability to suffer appalling losses in both wars, and still refuse to make peace. This attitude that was very much at odds with that of any Hellenistic State, or any other state for that matter, in the Mediterranean, Carthage included.

The author also put emphasis on the fact that the Carthaginians not only expected Rome to admit that it was defeated, something that did not happen, but also on several occasions did not take full advantage of their victories and did not prosecute the war as aggressively as the Romans. This was evidenced during the First Punic War, with the author following Lazenby in showing that Carthage essentially reacted to Rome’s aggressiveness and never seem to have taken the initiative. This was particularly the case after their naval victory at Drepanum when they neither carried the war to Italy, as the Romans had invaded Africa a few years before, nor did they even seek to reconquer lost positions in Sicily, for instance Panormus (modern Palermo). Something similar happened during the Second Punic War during which Hannibal received almost no military reinforcements or support from Carthage during his very long presence in Southern Italy, with a single exception.

A related point is the almost total absence of the Carthaginian navy during the Second Punic War, something that the author explains by the lack of bases in both Sicily and Sardinia, since both had been lost to the Romans. While there were Carthaginian attempts to take them back, the general impression given in the book is that these were somewhat half-hearted and not fully prosecuted.

While the narrative of events is well told, and the main land and sea engagements are well-described, even if largely reliant on previous authors (Lazenby in particular, whose separate books on both the First and the Second Punic War are more detailed) it is because of these higher level strategic points that this book stands out, and it is because of this that it is more than simply an introduction and overview of the main events.

There are however a few “glitches”, although they may be relatively minor and peripheral to the main narrative. One of the most obvious ones is the author’s tendency to present the Roman victories against the Kings of Macedon and the Seleucids as almost “easy”, which was simply not the case. In particular, the Romans almost lost the battle of Magnesia and only triumphed because the Seleucid King did not properly exploit his successful cavalry charge which had broken one of the Roman legions facing him. Another related point is to present the Roman armies as being made up of “non-professional” citizen militia while curiously portraying the Hellenistic forces as made up of “professionals.” In both cases, this is rather misleading, given that the Roman forces on the 190s included a large proportion of veterans of the Second Punic War while the Hellenistic phalanxes were made up of soldier-farmers, in other words, they were also “citizen militias” (with the exception of the Royal Guards and, in the case of the Seleucids, the Argyraspides).

One last point is the narrative of the Third Punic War, which I found remarkable in several respects. As mentioned by the author, while the outcome of the war was never really in doubt, the Carthaginians did this time display outstanding determination since they were, quite literally, fighting for their survival and that of their city, homes and families. The rather desperate, dramatic and often successful efforts to stave off the inevitable outcome contrasts with what the author’s presents as the poor discipline of the Roman forces that their commanders, the younger Scipio included, seemed somewhat surprisingly either unable or unwilling to curtail.

I could not help wondering to what extent this last point, according to which the quality of Roman armies somewhat deteriorated once the generation that had fought during the Second Punic War was replaced, may have been somewhat exaggerated by the author and even questionable.

A close look at the Third Macedonian War that saw the demise of the Macedonian Kingdom or at the endemic conflicts and the major difficulties that Rome encountered in Spain shows that the Romans did not have it all their way. The author seems to have chosen to explain this by their lower performance. It seems to have also been because their adversaries were far from being “easy targets”, contrary to the impression that the author tends to give at times. What does seem clear, however, is that to the extent that the Romans kept up their relentless attitude towards war, any adversary that did not have both the same level of commitment and a pool of manpower as large as that of the Romans was bound to lose against them in the long run, even if imposing the “Pax Romana” could take almost a couple of centuries, as it did in Spain. Four solid stars.
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on 19 January 2015
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on 1 June 2017
Goldsworthy writes with excellent knowledge of his subject from both the Roman and Carthaginian angle. A good detailed description of both armies and political structures is given to allow the reader a clear understanding prior to the conflict sections on each war.

What I found most interesting compared to other books on the subject are the organisational deficiencies in the Roman army. Many of the Roman losses were due to their own poor planning, approach and organisation, in addition to Hannibal's excellent generalship. This is something thats hard to believe when compared to later generals. History only knows what the world would be like if Hannibal had finished the job on his arrival in Italy.

Well worth a read if you like ancient military history.
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on 4 August 2017
Interesting reconstruction of the lives of a number of fascinating characters in history, with an insight into the inner workings of the administrative, political and economic systems which drove the behaviour of individuals and explains both the how and the why the fortunes of individuals and empires waned over time. A good intro to Scipio and Hannibal
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on 1 April 2010
Almost, but not quite is how I would describe this Adrian Goldsworthy history of the three Punic Wars. Saying that, you won't get better at the moment.

The fact that at the time the wars started Carthage was actually far more powerful than Rome is something to think about. The sorry fact is that because Rome destroyed the city at the end of the Third Punic War means that any history of Carthage will always be very one sided. Even today we can get first hand accounts of the German or Japanese perspective in the Second World War, but Rome wiped Carthage off the map.

The three wars are covered elaborately, and you walk away feeling you have been well educated. For a similar 'lesson' get Goldsworthy's book on Julius C - excellent.

He also uses several historical sources to get a better idea of what did happen, as obviously because the Romans won so overwhelming there is a lot of 'propaganda' showing the Romans in a better light, and Goldsworthy leads us through this. Did they 'salt' the earth after razing the city? Well, it's doubtful they actually razed the city RIGHT to the ground in the first place.

For me this only feels short of five stars in two areas.

The first in during the descriptions of the Second Punic War he splits the war into Land and Sea campaigns, so you read about the naval battles first THEN the land battles in a seperate section. It may have seemed easier but to the reader this can mean thumbing back to the naval section when a casual reference is made to a sea battle during the land war chapters. I'd have just preferred going in order from one to the other.

The only other issue is that in this book he just seems to have trimmed the 'niggly' details. Let's face it, some of the atrocious things and the shocking moments are what keep us coming back to history, but in this book Goldsworthy just seems to have left things out or described in a short sentence something that might have needed some elaboration.

It is the book that I will judge any history of the Punic Wars by, but I felt at the end of it that it could have offered that little more.

I still would not hesitate to buy it again, though. Excellent stuff again Mr G!
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on 11 January 2014
I recently read the Leonard Cottrell book, and wanted a slightly more scholarly treatment of the Punic Wars. This isn't it. It's essentially just another reworking of the ancient historians, mainly Polybius. True, in the absence of corroborating evidence Goldsworthy occasionally reminds us to take some of their assertions with a pinch of salt; but he doesn't have any alternative interpretation to offer.

It particularly bothers me when he repeats the claimed army sizes, which seem colossal for the ancient world. It's notorious amongst proper ancient and medieval historians that eye-witnesses always massively inflated the sizes of crowds they saw; so how reliable are these figures? There's no discussion of it. And since there are no surviving Carthaginian sources, this is as usual the story told from the Roman point of view.

When I saw Goldsworthy's BBC film about Hannibal, though, I was no longer surprised by the lack of rigour here. He talks an awful lot of rubbish in it: eg about the supposed 'terror weapon' of elephants, which in fact played little or no part in Hannibal's success; about Rome's 'new way of thinking' (if anything it was Hannibal who had a more modern, 'diplomatic' outlook on warfare); and continual use of the anachronistic word 'superpower' with its raft of inapplicable connotations.

So if you simply want a re-telling of Polybius, I'd stick with Cottrell.

It's a shame there isn't more detailed information extant about the heroic final siege and destruction of Carthage. It has the makings of as epic a tale as the fall of Constantinople; even as it is, told through sparse fact, it's pretty moving.

(Sorry if that spoils the ending for anyone...)
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on 11 September 2017
Good introduction for the non-specialist.
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on 18 April 2016
someone recomended this book and I feared it to be too difficult, because I am 71, however I liked it inmensly, even if your school days are far behind you, in short, i loved i
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 April 2011
I think that Adrian Goldsworthy is the best popular historian on Rome working today. While he has a beautiful writing style, he also is thoroughly versed in the scholarly issues, which he brings into the discussion without the excesses of academic proofs and oneupmanship. It is a very difficult balance to strike and the author does it to perfection. This book is at the undergraduate level, for those seriously interested in the three Punic Wars. Rather than make comparisons with the present, the author's purpose is to explain the wars in historical context, from a strictly military point of view; in this way, to his great credit, he refuses to make fatuous generalizations of relevance to the twit pundits who have way too much to say about things they know way too little about.

The book starts off pretty dry, with a long discussion of the states of Carthage and Rome at the time that the conflict began. While I was very interested in the political systems of both states and the tidbits that Goldsworthy includes on their civilizations, his dissection of their military machines was a bit too much for me. The Romans relied primarily on a reservoir of manpower from farm owners in Italy, which included extremely loyal Latin and Italian allies in addition to some Spanish mercenaries. They were driven by patriotism, were governed in accordance with the yearly elected consuls of the Republican system, and were essentially amateur soldiers. With their reservoir of human capital, their great advantage lay in the application of overwhelming brute force, which they applied until their adversaries were exhausted. Politics was inextricably linked to military action, though the consuls were patrician aristocrats seeking glory for parochial political motives and hence also military amateurs. Up to this point, there was little refinement or subtlety to their tactics and diplomacy.

In contrast, the Carthaginians had a dispersed empire that spanned the western Mediterranean in a C-shape. There was a core of Carthaginian aristocrats that controlled all of the myriad ethnic groups under their influence, mainly for purposes of trade - mostly maritime - and only secondarily for military use; they excelled at nuanced diplomacy and negotiation. In addition, there was a caste of professional military officers, who managed a huge mercenary army and various allies that operated in relatively separate units (i.e. wings even in a common army, which fundamentally effected their cohesion). With their experience from an early age, the military leader caste operated more from intelligent tactics and highly developed specializations, in particular in naval maneuverability, the use of elephants to overawe their adversaries on land, and flexible military formations.

The first Punic War broke out over control of Sicily, which was a patchwork of Carthaginian, Greek, and Italianate city states. After many indecisive skirmishes, Rome sent troops - the first time they left the Italian peninsula! - and built its first navy. In time, after many disasters, some natural others via lack of experience, the Roman navy beat Carthage by attrition as did the Roman Army. Carthage sued for peace, agreed to pay massive indemnities (which they did), and gave up Sicily and many other possessions for the promise of peace as subordinates.

Hannibal, of the Barca military clan, was assigned Spain, which he consolidated for Carthage to the growing disquiet of Rome. It was clear from the outset that he was an extraordinary military talent, though little is known about his character or psychology, though his motivation was to weaken Rome as a prelude to negotiation rather than destroy it. As tensions built, in 218 BCE - after more than 20 years of peace - at 26 years of age, Hannibal moved a massive army across the Alps into Italy, an unprecedentedly massive movement of troops, complete with elephants, and attacked Rome at its heart. He gathered many followers along the way (in a scale of tens of thousands, of SPaniards and Gauls, but, significantly, rarely of Latins or Italians) that he had to feed, arm, and inspire. This he did by winning early significant victories, ravaging the countryside, and stealing what he could while vainly attempting to recruit southern Italians.

The Romans had never faced such a threat, from a strategist and leader of genius who adapted his tactics to their weaknesses, e.g. Cannae, where he enveloped and attacked from behind a massive Roman phalanx that could only march forward and hence unable to regroup and reform, resulting in a slaughter of nearly 50,000 Romans, or 1/10 of the entire potential military manpower in Italy. In all later military literature, Cannae became a touchstone noun. Against their military culture, the Romans voted in a dictator for 6 months, Fabius Maximus, who harassed but would not engage Hannibal in any decisive battles (named the Fabien strategy). It bought Rome time to regroup and attack in N. Africa, once again bringing its adversary down by superior force. Never defeated in Italy, Hannibal had been ordered to defend Carthage - his only failure - and was exiled soon after the defeat. Rome emerged with a far better trained army under its own military genius, Scipio. This was the true beginning of the Roman Empire. The third Punic War was shamefully manufactured by Rome and consisted of a siege of Carthage, which was completely destroyed in 146 BCE.

The difference between the 2 Empires was that, contrary to the expectations of Carthage, Rome regarded the fight as one to the death: the Roman republicans refused all compromise and instead of giving up, resolved to fight on no matter what the sacrifice, even at the risk of total destruction. This explains why in the end, when they had the means in spite of Carthage's behavior as a good subordinate power, the Romans resolved to annihilate any rival power. Rome then went on to completely dominate the entire Mediterranean, the undisputed power of the ancient world for the next 600 years or so, in large part from what it learned from the conflict with Carthage. This is military history at its absolute best.
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on 27 June 2017
Great book for people who love ancient warfare
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