This review is about the first book that was published in 2009 and 2010. On the back cover of the paperback version the author is presented in this way: "Michael Pitassi is an independent scholar." Not exactly a long and detailed biography. On the Amazon website there is a bit more information: "Michael Pitassi is a retired lawyer with a lifelong interest in naval warfare and Roman history."
Chronology dominates this book from the first to the last page. In the beginning of the book there is a chronological table of major events from the foundation of Rome in 753 BC to the end of the Roman Empire in the west in AD 476. At the end of the book there is a chronological table of Roman kings and emperors which covers the same period.
The main text between the two tables is divided into nine chapters which follow a chronological line from 753 BC to AD 476. In each chapter the text is broken up into several shorter sections by subheadings, which is very reader-friendly. Notes with references and additional comments are placed at the end of each chapter, which is not so reader-friendly, because you have to flip back and forth between the text and the notes to read both.
At the end of the book we also have several appendices about practical and technical matters plus a bibliography and an index. What about illustrations? There are two types of illustrations in this book:
** Type # one = 40 illustrations in black-and-white are scattered throughout the book: maps and line drawings. Apparently, they are all produced by the author himself. This is quite impressive.
** Type # two = 14 colour plates placed in one block in the middle of the book between pp. 196 and 197. All plates (except # 14) are pictures taken by the author himself. This is also quite impressive.
The hardcover version was well received by "Choice." On the back cover of the paperback version there is an excerpt from a review in this publication: "Both welcome and useful... This is a narrative history as well as a focused study of the development of the ships, officers, and crews and the overall naval establishment. Recommended."
Michael B. Charles - from Southern Cross University in Australia - reviewed the book for the online magazine "Bryn Mawr Classical Review" (2009.12.22). In this review he says: "It must be pointed out that this is not a particularly academic book... Despite this, the underlying scholarship is quite sound overall, though largely derived from other studies, and mainly Anglophone at that." For one exception, a book in French, see below (part 2).
Later, Charles states that "the book ... reads as a straight historical narrative, with very little room for analysis and reflection - which is a bit of a pity, since there are glimpses of interesting independent analysis scattered here and there."
As you can see from these quotes, there are positive as well as negative elements in his review. I agree with his evaluation (to a certain degree). Regarding the positive elements I would like to mention two:
# 1: The author emphasises that the crews (the rowers) on Roman warships were free men and not slaves (chapter 1, page 24 with note 32; see also chapter 6, page 187 with note 4; the cross reference "Chapter 1 note 28" is inaccurate). The famous scene in the "Ben Hur" movie, where the rowers are slaves who are chained to their benches, is based on a gross misunderstanding of Roman history; perhaps inspired by the conflict between blacks and whites in the US during the 19th and 20th century.
# 2: The author explains how long it took to build a Roman warship: two-three months (pp. 48-50). A shipyard could build five ships in one year. With five shipyards, you could build 25 ships in one year. But during this time you would probably lose five ships: two were too old, two were lost in a storm, and one was lost in a battle with an enemy or captured by pirates. So the net increase in one year was 20. To build a fleet of 100 ships would take five years.
Regarding the negative elements, I think there is more to be said than Michael Charles indicates in his review, because flaws are found in every part of this book. They can be divided into six categories. In what follows I will discuss them one by one.
PART ONE: THE INDEX The index covers 12 pages. At first glance it appears to be comprehensive and helpful. But a closer inspection reveals that it is not as helpful as it could and should be, because there are no annotations, only a list of pages.
As an example, take the entry for "Misenum." The index refers to 26 different pages, but this does not give me what I am looking for. I want to know: Where can I find a map of this place? Where can I find background information about this place? In this case the index does not help me at all. The reader faces the same problem with other locations, such as "Ostia" (listed 28 times), "Alexandria" (listed 22 times), and "Ravenna" (listed 19 times).
Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, is listed nine times. The first eight references are in order, but the last reference to page 232 is not to this person: on this page we have another person with the same name, because he is active around AD 45, while Mithridates VI died in 63 BC.
The author is not always sure how to spell ancient names. We have "Bithynia" (right) with reference to pp. 139, 151, and 185; but we also have "Bythinia" (wrong) with reference to pp. 153 and 154.
Lucius Scribonius Libo (consul 34 BC) is mentioned several times. On page 170 his cognomen is Libio; on the next page it is first Libio and later Libo; on page 172 it is Libo. The false spelling, Libio, is repeated in the index.
Some persons are not listed at all: Claudian, whose name appears on page 304, is not listed in the index. For a bit more about this person, see below (part 6).
PART TWO: THE BIBLIOGRAPHY The bibliography covers five pages. All items listed here are books published in English, with one exception: a book written by two Romanian historians and published in French in 1996: "Les Forces Navales du Bas Danube et de la Mer Noire aux 1er-6eme Siècles" by Octavian Bounegru & Mihail Zahariade.
One of the items listed is "Piracy in the Ancient World" by Henry A. Ormerod. According to Pitassi, it was published in 1997. This is correct, but it is a reprint. The original version of this book was published in 1924, and this fact is not indicated.
Some of the items listed do not belong here, because they cover Roman history in general. On the other hand, several items which are highly relevant for a book about the Roman navy are not listed, for instance:
** "The Mediterranean in the Ancient World" by John Holland Rose, 1933, 1934, reprinted 2014
** Roman Britain and the Roman Navy by David D. P. Mason, 2009. This book was published in the same year as "The Navies of Rome." Pitassi could not have included it. I will mention it anyway, because it is relevant for the topic.
PART THREE: THE END NOTES The end notes (1 or 2 pages per chapter) often provide an additional comment when you are hoping to find a reference. When a reference is given, it is often incomplete. References to modern works include only the last name of the author and the title of the book. There is no reference to a specific page or even a specific chapter in the book. References to ancient sources are sometimes complete, but not always. Here are some awful examples:
In some cases, the reference must be a total mistake because it is completely off the mark. On page 236 we are told that Nero had his mother Agrippina killed. This is followed by note 28 which is a reference to "The Piercebridge Formula" by Raymond Selkirk (1983). This does not make any sense, since Agrippina is not mentioned in this book.
On the next page (237) Pitassi says: "The new fleet was some forty ships in strength." This is followed by note 31 which reads: "Selkirk, the Piecebridge [sic] Formula, quoting Horace on his journey along it." Horace is mentioned three times by Selkirk. Each time with a reference to Horace's famous poem about his journey from Rome to Brundisium (present-day Brindisi) (Satires, I.5). But this does not make any sense here. As far as I can see, Pitassi does not mention Horace anywhere else in his book.
I wonder why the publisher allowed these incomplete references to stand.
PART FOUR: THE CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE The chronological table of major events at the beginning of the book covers 13 pages. Unfortunately, there are several mistakes here:
"151 BC - Start of Third Punic War." In fact, this war began in 149 BC, as stated in the main text.
"71 BC - Slave revolt in Italy." He should say: Slave revolt in Italy ends. He should add a new entry for 73 BC and say: Slave revolt in Italy begins.
Several entries from 44 BC to 27 BC - the name "Octavius" should be changed to "Octavian." The same mistake appears in the main text.
"AD 132 - Jewish revolt." He should say: Jewish revolt begins. He should add a new entry for AD 136 and say: Jewish revolt ends. The same mistake appears in the main text.
"AD 285 - Diocletian emperor." In fact, this emperor ruled from AD 284. The same mistake appears in the main text.
"AD 311 - Galerius dies. Constantine defeats Maxentius." Galerius died in AD 311, but Constantine defeated Maxentius in AD 312, as stated in the main text.
"AD 406 - Honorius moves [the capital] to Ravenna." In fact, the emperor moved to Ravenna in AD 402.
PART FIVE: THE COLOUR PLATES The 14 colour plates are placed in a block in the middle of the book, between pp. 196 and 197. The plates are excellent, but there are no cross references from a plate to a specific page in the main text or the other way: from the main text to a specific colour plate. In other words there is no connection between the main text and these illustrations. Since they are not used to support the main text, they end up as beautiful decorations.
Plate # I shows a statue base of Valerius Valens, who was Prefect of the Misenum Fleet around AD 240. The upper register has ten lines in Latin, while the lower register has four lines in Greek. Pitassi translates the Latin text as follows:
"To the great god, and to make good. Valerius Valens, most perfect gentleman; Praefect of the Misenum Fleet, erected in his lifetime, cordially fulfilled his vow."
This translation is partially right and partially wrong. Before giving a better translation, I will provide the Latin text, line by line, as it is carved on the statue base:
01 DEO 02 MAGNO 03 ET FATO 04 BONO 05 VALerius VALENS 06 Vir Perfectissimus PRAEFEC- 07 TUS CLASSIS 08 MISENsis Piae Vindicis 09 GORDIANAE 10 VOTUM SOLVIT
In English: "To the Great God and to the Good Fate. Valerius Valens, most perfect gentleman, Prefect of the Misenum fleet [which has the honour title] Pia Vindex Gordiana, has fulfilled his promise."
The official reference is CIL, vol. 10, # 03336.
The word "Gordianae" in line 9 is a reference to Emperor Gordian III (who ruled AD 238-244). Pitassi translates this word as "cordially," but this does not work. Pitassi seems to think the letters P and V in line 8 stand for POSUIT VIVUS, and translates "erected in his lifetime," but this does not work, either. Incidentally, the honour title "Pia Vindex" is mentioned on page 269, but Pitassi did not make the connection between the title and the inscription.
Valerius Valens is never mentioned in the main text. Two times Pitassi comes close: on page 201 he mentions inscriptions on tombstones of Italian sailors; and on pp. 203-204 he presents the harbour of Misenum, but even though he is so close, there is still no cross reference to Plate I. A missed opportunity.
PART SIX: THE MAIN TEXT As stated earlier, chronology dominates this book. This means there is "very little room set aside for analysis and reflection," as Michael Charles explains in his review. Pitassi is aware of this problem. He tries to get around it by using several sidebars - printed on a grey background and always placed on a right-hand page - to present practical and technical issues that do not fit into the chronological narrative, but it does not really solve the problem. In chapter one almost every right-hand page is a sidebar (or part of a sidebar that is longer than one page), because the author wants to mention so many practical and technical matters right from the beginning. The long line of sidebars is is rather annoying, because it breaks the flow of reading.
Here is what the author should have done in order to solve the problem. He should have divided the main text into three parts:
** Part 1 = a chronological approach ** Part 2 = a topical approach, e.g. different types of ships ** Part 3 = a geographical approach, i.e. different locations
There is more: despite the title, this book is not a naval history. It is a military history of the Roman Empire with focus on naval affairs. This account comprises three elements. The first: Roman history in general. The second: military history, i.e. battles on land. The third: naval history, i.e. battles at sea. These three elements are intertwined. You have to read the first and the second in order to get to the third. While this combination may appeal to the beginner, it will probably annoy the expert or the scholar who already has a basic knowledge of Roman history.
In addition to the structural problems, the text is marred by factual mistakes and unfortunate statements. Regarding this issue, Michael B. Charles says: "It is to be expected that a book of such a breadth would contain an error or two. Most notable is the description of Claudian, the late Latin poet and writer of rather nauseating panegyrics, as a 'historian' (page 304.)"
Pitassi may be familiar with military and naval aspects of Roman history, but it seems he is not so familiar with the literary aspects of Roman history.
Charles adds two further examples. But that is all. If you ask me, there is much more to be said on this issue. Here are some examples:
** On page 66 Pitassi mentions a consul of 253 BC, calling him "Cnaius Sempronius Blaesus." The first name of this man is Gaius, abbreviated with the letter C. The wrong version of the name is repeated in the index.
** On page 84 the author talks about a consul of 229 BC, calling him "Cnaius Fulvius Centumulus." The first name of this man is Gnaeus, abbreviated with the letters Cn. As far as I know, there is no Roman praenomen spelled Cnaius. And the cognomen of this man is Centumalus. The wrong version of the name is repeated in the index.
** On page 112 (about 203 BC) Pitassi writes: "The main Carthaginian fleet however, had been laying somewhere to the west off Utica..." Since Utica is located on an eastern coast, the Carthaginian fleet must have been waiting somewhere to the east off Utica.
** On page 128 (about 190 BC) the author says: "At the same they frustrated every attempt by the Rhodians to envelope the Romans..." Something is wrong here. This sentence should read: At the same time they [i.e. the Rhodian allies] frustrated every attempt by the Syrians [i.e. the enemy] to envelope the Romans.
** On page 137 Pitassi writes: "The following year (148 BC) widespread trouble broke out in Greece once more. The Romans therefore overran the rest of Greece and sacked Corinth." The reader must think that all of this happened in 148 BC. But this is not the case: Corinth was not sacked until 146 BC, as stated in the chronological table for chapter 4.
Roman imperialism can be interpreted in different ways. As you can see from the preceding quote, Pitassi seems to view the Romans as "reluctant imperialists." He never makes an explicit statement (he does not discuss any theories). But there is indirect evidence, for instance a passage on page 123: "The Romans, having settled affairs, evacuated Greece by 194 BC." And a passage on page 130: "Once more the Romans evacuated Asia Minor." Finally, a passage on page 132: "The war was ended in 167 BC ... Greece was otherwise left independent and Roman forces once again withdrew."
The theory of the "reluctant imperialists" is rejected by most modern scholars, because it is not supported by the ancient evidence and because it is used to justify Roman expansionism. For more information on this issue, see War and Society in the Roman World edited by John Rich and Graham Shipley (1993, 1995), in particular chapters 6 and 7.
** On page 141 Pitassi writes: "In 130 BC Pergamum became the new province of Asia." In fact, this happened three years earlier. When King Attalus III died in 133 BC, he donated his kingdom to Rome. The same mistake appears in the chronological table for chapter 4.
** On page 153 the author says: "One of the consuls for 79 BC, Lepidus, raised an army and marched on Rome; the Senate appointed Pompeius to lead the loyal forces, who defeated Lepidus' rising." Many things are wrong here. The consuls of 79 were Publius Servilius Vatia and Appius Claudius Pulcher. The Lepidus mentioned here - Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (129-77 BC) - was consul in 78 BC. His colleague was Quintus Lutatius Catulus, but the two consuls did not get along, so Lepidus was sent to Gaul. The following year, 77 BC, he returned with an army. He was defeated by his former colleague Catulus in a battle on Campus Martius. Forced into exile, he died later that year.
** On page 154 (about 73 BC) Pitassi writes: "The consuls for the year were sent east ... Gaius Aurelius Cotta to Bythinia [sic] and [Lucius Licinius] Lucullus to Cilicia and Asia." The first name of the person who was sent to Bithynia is Marcus, not Gaius. Moreover, Marcus and Lucullus were consuls in 74, not 73. Incidentally, there is a Gaius Aurelius Cotta. He is the elder brother of Marcus and he served as consul in 75 BC.
** On pp. 155-156 (about 71 BC) Pitassi writes about Pompey and Crassus: "The Senate had to appoint them both to be the consuls for the year..." The chronology is wrong: Pompeius (known in English as Pompey) and Crassus were appointed to serve as consuls for the next year, 70 BC.
** On page 156 (about 67 BC) the author talks about "the Senator Aulus Gabinius." At the time, Gabinius was a tribune of the people (tribunus plebis). He was a magistrate, but not a member of the Senate, which represents the Roman elite.
** On pp. 156-158 (about 67 BC) we are told Pompey cleared the Mediterranean Sea of pirates in just three months. This is what Pompey wanted the world to believe. His propaganda seems to be working well, even today: Pitassi believes it. For a sober analysis of this case, see "Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World" by Philip de Souza (1999, 2002). As mentioned earlier, this book is not listed in Pitassi's bibliography.
**On page 159 the author says Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, "committed suicide in 63 BC." In fact, we do not know exactly how this person died.
On pp. 164-165 (about 54 BC) Pitassi writes: "... when the empty ships plus the some of the new replacement ships tried to return to Britain..." The article "the" between "plus" and "some" should be deleted.
** On page 183 (about 44 BC) we are told: "Gaius Octavius learned that he had been adopted as a son by Caesar and named as his principal heir." From this moment until 27 BC the young man should be called Octavian, to mark his new status as an adopted son of Caesar. But Pitassi still uses the name Octavius. The same problem appears in the chronological table for chapter 6.
There are, however, two exceptions: on pp. 185 and 198 the name is suddenly changed to Octavian (without any explanation). On page 198 we have arrived at 27 BC when the Senate offered him the title Augustus. From that moment the problem disappears.
** On page 184 (about 42 BC) the author mentions a fleet commander called Murcus. On the next page (185) his name is changed to Marcus. Who is this person? The answer: Lucius Staius Murcus, who worked with Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus for a while. Later, he joined Sextus Pompeius, who had him killed in 40 or 39 BC. In the index he is listed as Murcus. Neither first nor family name is given.
** On pp. 199-200 Pitassi describes the expedition of Aelius Gallus to the Red Sea and Arabia Felix from 26 to 25 BC. He says: "... the army took towns in its path and achieved its objective." This description is highly misleading. Pitassi fails to tell us that this expedition was a total disaster.
** On page 260 we hear about the wars against Dacia which began in AD 101. The author says: "Three pontoon bridges were built across the river for the campaigns, although no attempt was made to build permanent bridges and the pontoons were dismantled after the war."
This is not true. The Syrian architect Apollodorus of Damascus was commissioned by Trajan to design and build a permanent bridge across the Danube River at the Drobeta ravine where the river is at its narrowest. The bridge consisted of 20 stone piers which were connected by wooden arches and carried a wooden road. The total length of the bridge was 1,135 meters. It has been described as "the largest bridge ever built anywhere in the world to that time." For more information about this project, see Roman Bridges by Colin O'Connor (1993).
In a later passage about Emperor Constantine, on page 297, Pitassi suddenly remembers the bridge when he says: "He rebuilt Trajan's bridge across the Danubius and in AD 336 attacked the Sarmatians..."
** On page 262, Pitassi presents Lucius Flavius Arrianus (Arrian), governor of Cappadocia around AD 131, and his (partial) circumnavigation of the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus). While I am happy to see this case mentioned, I am sad to discover that there is no reference to the ancient text. Note 22 on this page does not provide a reference but merely an additional comment. Here is a reference: an English translation published in 1805 was reprinted in 2010: Arrian's Voyage Round the Euxine Sea. A new English translation was published by Bristol Classical Press in 2003: "Arrian: Periplus Ponti Euxini" (edited by Aidan Liddle).
** On page 263 the author mentions "a Jewish revolt in AD 132." In fact, this episode, which is known as the Bar Kochba Revolt, lasted several years, from 132 to 136. The same mistake is found in the chronological table for chapter 8.
** On page 270 Pitassi talks about "the accession of Diocletian in AD 285." In fact, this emperor ruled from 284. The same mistake appears in the chronological table for chapter 9.
** On page 303 (about AD 392) the author says an emperor was murdered and succeeded by "an usurper." The article "an" is wrong. It should be: a usurper.
CONCLUSION How many stars does this book about the navies of ancient Rome deserve? Perhaps it depends on who you are. A beginner will probably like this book and give it four stars. Since I already have some knowledge of Roman history, I expect more and I cannot be so generous. While the colour plates are beautiful, there are not many of them and they are not connected with the main text in any way. The unfortunate structure of the book is a big problem. The chronological approach leaves little or no room for analysis or interpretation. In addition, flaws are found in every part of this book, as I have demonstrated above.
How could this happen? How could the author go wrong in so many ways? How could the publisher fail to help the author improve a product in which he obviously has invested a lot of effort and time? On the back cover of the book we are told this work is "the result of over a decade of study."
For me as a reader it is not important if the author has worked on the book for a month, a year or a decade. The only thing that counts is the result. In this case I am afraid the negative elements are too many and too serious. For these reasons I cannot give this book more than two stars.
PS. The paperback version is much cheaper than the hardcover version. This is a welcome fact, but the book tends to fall apart while you read it, because the binding is not solid enough. You have been warned!
This is an excellent and readable study of the subject.
The chapters are: P001: Beginnings: Foundation to the First Punic War, 753 to 264 BC P043: A Great Naval Power: The First Punic War, 264 to 218 BC P083: Interbellum & The Struggle Resumed, 218 to 201 BC P119: The Growth of Empire, 201 to 86 BC P151: The Road to Civil War, 86 to 44 BC P183: The End of the Republic, 44 to 13 BC P219: The Early Empire, 12 BC to AD 70 P253: Apogee and Nadir, AD 71 to 285 P285: Renewal and Decline, Ad 285 to 476 Appendices, Bibliography & Index - pp315-348 40 maps and illustrations, 14 colour plates
I really don't have much to say in comment; this is a comprehensive narrative history of the Roman navy, with interspersed "boxes" covering specialist details such as layouts of oar-banks and number of rowers, ship-board artillery and even shield-patterns. It is well-written and readable, although, especially in the late-empire period, it does dwell in great detail on the land campaigns - usually when there is not much naval activity - so this is actually a military history of Rome but from a naval viewpoint.
Further reading: See Hellenistic and Roman Naval Warfare 336BC - 31BC for a discussion of pirates in the ancient world - one man's pirate was another man's merchant adventurer, which might account for the speed with which Pompey cleared the seas, and why the vast majority of pirates were allowed to surrender unharmed; not the behaviour you would expect from the Romans...
Detailed descriptions, well written, author with great skill, strict cronological, but likely based on too many uncertain assumptions from roman literary sources. Would like a more critical discussion. Many descriptions in detail of sea battles, which I doubt is possible or justifiable from available sources. If you don't trust the author and his references - there goes the fun of reading!