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The best introduction and overview of the Punic Wars?
on 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.