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The less well known First One,
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This review is from: The First Punic War: Military History (Paperback)
There are currently a relatively large number of books on Rome’s Punic Wars, although these generally deal with all of them in a single volume. However, this book is probably still the only one to examine the First Punic War on its own, although it was first published in 1996.
The main advantage of such an approach is to deal with it on its own merit and in detail, rather than treating it as prelude to “Hannibal’s War” (the title of Lazenby’s second volume), which is what most other books tend to do. It is also more historically accurate to do so and it does it more justice, as the author clearly shows in both cases.
Another merit of this book is to show how and why Rome, which was then very much the up and coming power, not to say the upstart, finally won. Some of the reasons, Roman relentlessness, its demographics and its ability to count on its Italian allies, as opposed to what seems to have been a more limited pool of manpower on the Carthaginian side, are well known. Both Rome and Carthage committed huge numbers, especially for the fleets, and sustained huge losses, with the former losing several fleets at sea.
However, their importance, despite being significant, needs to be both explained and qualified by other elements, seen from the Carthaginian side.
A major and fascinating point made throughout this book is that Carthage seems to have been reacting to Roman initiatives during most of the war, and leaving the initiative to its enemy. When reading the book and the various events and campaigns that it describes, one cannot help the feeling that the Carthaginians were somewhat waging a half-hearted war, at least at times, and that they were not fully and entirely committed. A related factor outlined by the author is that while the Romans seem to have had ideas as to how to win the war, their opponents seemed content with resisting and staying in the field without necessarily “going for the jugular”, as the Romans tried to do when they invaded Africa.
As the author mentions, it is interesting to note that they never seem to have even tried to invade Southern Italy and win over Rome’s allies. Instead, they limited themselves to desultory coast raiding, and did not even try to capture and hold bridgeheads on Italy’s coast. The impression here is that Carthage was fighting a defensive war to preserve his hold on Sicily, whereas Rome was fighting a more aggressive conflict to defeat its opponent. Even in 249 BC, after having destroyed the Roman fleet, Carthage did not exploit its advantage to the full, perhaps because it was exhausted, and perhaps because it was also expanding its Empire and fighting in Africa.
A couple of other interesting points are made throughout the book. Although the qualities of Roman and allied legions are well-known, Romans commanders do not seem to have been any more talented than Carthaginian ones. On both sides, they seem to have mostly competent (which a couple of exceptions, here again on both sides), rather than brilliant. Also, Carthage’s mercenaries do not seem to have let her down in any major way during the war, and the progressive losses in Sicily can be explained by Roman victories, but also by the limited Carthaginian commitment, with relatively few reinforcements being sent over the last fifteen years or so and a largely defensive strategy instead of focusing on reconquering lost territory and defeating the Roman forces in the field (one example being the recapture and raising of Agrigente/Acragas that the Carthaginians did not try to keep and defend).
In the end, as the author clearly makes out, “Rome deserved to win”. It was, however, a victory by points, as opposed to a knock-out, and both opponents endeed the war exhausted.
Also very valuable is the way the sources are carefully analysed and the political and military events and their causes clearly presented and analysed in detail, including numbers and battle tactics. This is a strong four star book (or even four and a half) and probably the most valuable reference on the First (and less well-known) Punic War.