The Punic Warsby Adrian Goldsworthy Published 30 Jun 2001
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An impressive new historian of Roman warfare--highly praised by John Keegan--has written a thoroughly engrossing account of the greatest conflict of antiquity. It will grab the attention of military buffs and general readers alike. The struggle for supremacy between Rome and Carthage encompassed the First (264-241 B.C.) and Second (149-146 B.C.) Punic Wars; both sides suffered casualties exceeding that of any war fought before the modern era. Its outcome had far-reaching consequences for the Western world, too, as it led to the ascendancy of Rome. In grand narrative style, follow the fighting on land and sea; the terrible pitched battles; and such generals as Hannibal, Fabius Maximus, and Scipio Aemilianus, who finally drove Carthage into the ground. A Main Selection of the History Book Club.
"The Punic Wars" Reviews
The Fall of Carthage is a very readable account of the three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. The Second War takes up most of the narrative, as it was the most dramatic and bloody episode, but the other episodes are also given their due according to their relevance. Sources are limited of course, and all from the Roman or sometimes Greek perspective, but overall this is a very accessible book on the conflict for supremacy in the ancient Western Mediterranean.
The Punic Wars and Ancient History in general are not well known by the general public these days, but even those with only a slight interest will immediately mention Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants (though someone in my personal circle keeps thinking Hannibal crossed the Bosporus – I assume it’s a false association he just can’t shake). There is something legendary and almost mythical about history that old, and events on such a scale. There is spectacle, and the rise of Rome as the main power of the Mediterranean – something which was not a given at the time, although it may seem only natural to us. There is lots and lots of blood, and some anecdotes which were to become the staple for histories of the ancient world, like Appius Claudius throwing the ‘holy chickens’ in the sea to drink since they refused to eat the grain reserved for the ritual to ascertain divine favour for the coming battle (a battle which was of course lost), the Roman ambassador giving Carthage a choice of letting slip either war or peace from the folds of his toga, Hannibal managing to pass Fabius Maximus’ army in the passes of the Apennines by stampeding a herd of oxen at night and following up on them, the Carthaginian senate showered with golden senators’ rings taken from the dead of Cannae, Rome refusing to treat with Hannibal after said tremendous defeat, Cato with his ceterum censeo, Carthaginem esse delendam and dropping ‘Carthaginian’ figs from his toga (again the toga), and Scipio Aemilianus crying at the destruction of Carthage.
Goldsworthy analyzes and discusses the reasons for the conflict, the sources, and the events that took place to shape the narrative. The author is well known for his books on the Roman army, so he’s right at home here. He has a strong grasp of the sources, and takes the time to point out why X or Y is to be preferred without bogging the narrative down in academic detail. One does note, however, that although Goldsworthy warns us that Livius (as a traditionalist and moral critic) and especially Polybius (in favouring the Scipiones and Aemiliani because he was a member of Scipio Aemilianus’ inner circle) are not always reliable, he still paints a very rosy picture of Scipio Aemilianus in the Third War. Perhaps he just wanted to finish, or he simply chose to go with the sources we have, as there are no Punic sources left (and nothing to replace the unreliable ones with). Maybe a minor fault, but it made the part about the Third War read a bit like a cheap novel. Alternatively, Scipio Aemilianus could have been a Roman Superman – he certainly was a better politician that Scipio Africanus, who had trouble getting by in the Roman senate after his successes as a general.
Sectioning in the book in three parts (one for each installment of the war) makes sense, because the three wars were very different. The First War was centered around the fight for Sicily, with only a few battles on land, including a short and unsuccessful Roman excursion into Northern Africa and a number of naval battles. Control of Sicily was all that was at stake. The Second War was a war for control of the Western Mediterranean, with battlegrounds in Spain, Italy, Africa and even Greece and the Balkans. This was a war for dominance, and for survival. The Third War however was the result of Roman unease about an enemy not meek enough and plain opportunity.
Goldsworthy does a good job of pointing out how we should interpret what actually happened, and gives a strong analysis of especially the Roman strengths and weaknesses (the Punic ones are far harder to grasp, again because Carthage was utterly destroyed and there are no Punic sources left). Where there are gaps in our sources or narrative, Goldsworthy tells us what he thinks is most likely to be what happened, giving his reasons for us to consider for ourselves. He also keeps from imagining about the more prosaic, or romantic aspects that earlier historians have inserted, and warns us when all we have is Roman propaganda. All in all I think this is a great read, both for those unfamiliar with the subject who want to learn, and those who are familiar and want a good modern approach of a monumental topic of the Ancient world.
Carthage Must be Destroyed those most famous words were spoken by Marcus Porcius Cato in the 2nd Century BC. In this new book on the Punic Wars by Adrian Goldsworthy we are taken back into this most fascinating period of history. We follow in the steps of Hannibal, Hasdrubal, Hamilcar, Scipio Africanus and many more famous and infamous commanders and leaders as the Roman Legions and the soldiers and sailors of Carthage clash in this gigantic struggle of the Ancient World.
Each of the three wars are described in as much detail as possible bearing in mind the lack of primary sources for some periods. We follow the stalemate in Sicily during the First Punic War (264-241 BC). Then the more famous struggle in Spain and Italy during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), followed by the final Roman victory in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC).
The author provides details of all the famous battles, Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae and of course Zama. He also follows the lesser-known campaigns in Spain, Macedonia and Sicily. I found the author to be very fair in his assessment of the commanders and their decisions and offers comments on the sources used in his book and others.
I would compare this book favourably with Nigel Bagnall's 'Punic Wars' and both books sit proudly in my library. The author took the time to explain the military traditions, training and tactics of the two opponents, which assisted greatly when it came to follow the battles. 16 maps are provided to assist in the narrative and all where of a decent standard however, no illustrations were to be found in the book.
The book was easy to read and the narrative flowed along faultlessly. Overall this is a very decent one-volume account of the Punic Wars and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys decent history or who has a love for this period.
Reading The Punic Wars, I was reminded of Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, which I had read just prior to this book. Both are largely straightforward and well written accounts of epochal wars and both have to do with campaigns in North Africa and Italy (if one were to stretch the comparison to include Atkinson’s Day of Battle, his account of the Allied invasion of Italy). The only reservation I have against the current book (at least the edition I read) is not one of content but of editing – there are far too many easily caught typos, at least two instances where battle sites are confused (the one I noted because I was near pen and paper at the time was confusing Cannae with Zama), and they misspell the North African city of Hadrumetum as “Hadrumentum.”
The Punic Wars were a series of conflicts between the rising state of Rome and the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean, the Phoenician city of Carthage. It comprised three officially declared wars and lasted from 264-146 BC. Naturally enough, Goldsworthy divides the book into three parts corresponding to the three wars, and I will follow suit in this review.
First though, as in all histories of the Ancient World, a note on sources – or, better, their lack. We truly have only a handful of sources, and the closest in time to the periods under discussion (Polybius) breaks off at Cannae and only survives in fragments thereafter. Beyond that all surviving sources are Roman or pro-Roman (though we know of at least two histories written by Greeks who traveled with Hannibal). Unfortunately, archaeology is of little help since the politics of the period, the organization of armies, the economies, and all that other interesting stuff is not preserved in the rock strata. Despite these handicaps, Prof. Goldsworthy does an admirable job of synthesizing what we can know and reasonably speculating about what we can’t.
1st Punic War (264-241)
The first war happened almost by accident; there’s little evidence that Carthage and Rome’s relations were particularly hostile prior to 264. Nevertheless, both sides found themselves drawn into a direct confrontation over the disposition of Sicily. Goldsworthy argues that the escalation was largely the result of the nature of Roman politics. (pp. 74-5) Consuls served for only one year and, before these wars, pro-magistracies (extensions of authority beyond the stipulated term) were rare. Thus to win glory and honor, magistrates were compelled to move quickly, and the consuls for 264, Claudius Caudex and Fulvius Flaccus, saw opportunities in Sicily. I won’t begin to narrate the course of the first war but what emerges from Goldsworthy’s account are two distinct differences between the foes, which proved decisive in all three wars. The first was the nature of the armies involved. The Carthaginians relied almost entirely on mercenaries, primarily Spanish, Numidian and Libyan. In fact, it’s only the final army that faced Rome in the third war where a sizable Punic contingent is noted. While individual units may have been well-trained and led, the armies as a whole were composites where communication between units was difficult and coordination awkward. One of the factors in Hannibal’s success in the second war was that he managed to forge a unified fighting force but only after years of preparatory warfare in Spain. In contrast, the force he led at Zama had only been marshaled recently, lacking the esprit de corps that his Italian army enjoyed.
Roman armies, on the other hand, though made up of citizen conscripts and allies, were far more homogeneous and spoke related languages so communication was easier. Beyond that, they were highly trained to work together.
The second factor that ultimately led to Rome’s success was how both sides viewed war. Carthage’s view was the quintessential Hellenistic one – wars were fought between rival states to secure advantages. They often boiled down to a single, decisive battle (after much maneuvering), and the subsequent peace treaty left both sides intact and didn’t change the nature of their relationship. For Rome, though, war was “total.” The only conceivable outcome was unconditional victory for Rome (the enemy being destroyed or reduced to dependency) or her utter defeat. The idea of a “negotiated settlement” between equals was foreign to Roman ideas of diplomacy. Thus, what was a standard, Hellenistic style war to the Carthaginians was an existential threat to the Romans. The difference is clear in Rome’s response to defeat in battle – They lose a fleet? They rebuild it! They lose 50,000 men at Cannae? They recruit younger and older men and reconstitute the legions! Hannibal appears before the walls of Rome? They have a land sale, which includes the ground he camps on!
The first war was fought and won at sea. From a solely land-based Italian power in 264, Rome became a formidable naval one by 241 and dictated harsh terms to the Carthaginians. Rome was still not powerful enough and its political constitution and military organization not flexible enough to fully exploit its new found dominance. Despite Carthage’s defeat, it remained a power to be reckoned with. Though it was forced to abandon its designs in Sicily, Carthage immediately began to exploit opportunities in Spain.
The Second Punic War (218-201)
The second war is one of the relatively best documented periods in ancient history. Hannibal was the “devil” of Roman nightmares and Scipio Africanus, who defeats him at Zama, one of Rome’s greatest generals. Hannibal started it deliberately when he marched out of Spain, across modern-day Provence and down into Italy, where he terrorized Rome and her allies for the next sixteen years. (Even at the end, cornered in Italy’s boot heel, no Roman general relished confronting him so they sent legions to invade Africa instead.)
Unfortunately for Hannibal’s efforts, Carthage was still fighting a Hellenistic war and he received almost no support from the city and, despite a potentially powerful fleet, there was never any serious attempt to contest Rome’s mastery of the seas. With any other state any of Hannibal’s three great battles – Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae – would have brought both sides to the negotiating table. Instead, Rome dug in her heels, raised more legions and avoided engaging Hannibal in battle. As Goldsworthy points out, forcing unwilling armies to fight was extremely difficult. Most battles were fought between commanders who felt they enjoyed the upper hand and wanted to do so. Absent this attitude, most wars settled into maneuvering to control towns, disrupt supply lines, and win allies. All conditions which favored Rome. Adding to the Punic general’s woes and critical to his eventual failure in Italy was the political situation among the city-states that defected to his side. Though anti-Roman, they weren’t necessarily pro-Carthaginian and they proved unable to work together (indeed, freed from Rome’s oversight, some went to war with each other).
More so than the first, the second war fundamentally changed Roman society and set it firmly on the path to empire. Among other things, I’ll mention two notable developments. First, the army evolved into a highly professional organization. Under Scipio, it achieved miracles that would have been unthinkable in the first war and at the start of the second, and impossible in the Carthaginian ranks. Second, the heavy losses amongst the ranks of the Roman elite changed the makeup of the legions – unpropertied and poorer men in the ranks (at the lowest ebb, even slaves) and the promotion of middle-ranking citizens to the senatorial class. That, combined with the increasing custom of multiple magistracies and pro-magistracies, sowed the seeds that would bring down the Republic 150 years later.
The Third Punic War (149-146)
The third war was almost an afterthought. As a political power and threat to Rome, Carthage was impotent. So why the war? Goldsworthy argues that Rome “needed” the war because her position in the Mediterranean was slipping. It had been over 50 years since Rome’s legions had so thoroughly triumphed at Zama. The veterans were all dead and the legions’ professionalism was long gone. Roman prestige was at stake, and it was not helped by the arrogant, rapacious and brutal policies of its politicians and soldiers.
Despite its weakness and because of Rome’s ill preparedness, Carthage mounted a doomed but effective resistance for three long years before admitting defeat. Rome enslaved its citizens, razed most of the city (there’s evidence the harbor remained in operation after 146) and incorporated Africa into its growing network of provinces.
For Goldsworthy, the legacy of the wars was threefold:
(1)Overall, it marked Rome’s emergence as a world power and arbiter of foreign affairs throughout the Mediterranean.
(2) It accustomed Rome to long-term commitments of troops and resources overseas, and made an already highly militarized society even more so.
(3) And the need for such long-term military service destroyed the small-farmer class of citizens that had formed the bulk of the legions. By the end of the Republic they had been replaced by the vast, slave-worked estates of the Roman elite and a professional army was increasingly estranged from the State, becoming personally loyal only to its generals.
Enthusiastically and most definitely recommended to any interested in the period.
The study of history is dead. That may seem an odd assertion, given that I am reviewing a very good work of history, Adrian Goldsworthy’s "The Punic Wars." But books like this are read by a tiny audience—hard to say how big, but I would be shocked if more than ten thousand people had read this book, and it is by a known author. As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in public life, whether in politics, the media, popular entertainment, big business, or even most of the academic world, knows anything about actual history.
Sure, most “educated” people generally know about Hitler. He was bad. And maybe they can distinguish, more or less, between World War I and World War II. Perhaps they know that Japan was involved in one of those, because it keeps getting brought up in the context of nuclear weapons. Those are bad too. There are exceptions—as a result of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, many people know, for now, something about Alexander Hamilton. He was good (if you’re not a Jeffersonian). But there is so precious little discussion of real history in most people’s lives that even if they once learn the history of a particular era or event, they forget it, since the knowledge is never reinforced by any other reference to it. Goldsworthy’s Preface touches on this problem. “Until well into the twentieth century Greek and Latin language and literature lay at the heart of Western education, and the major events and personalities of the Graeco-Roman world, especially those described by one of the great ancient authors, were familiar and frequently alluded to in art and literature.” It is this frequent allusion that makes it possible for most people to absorb and use history. Without allusion and consequent reinforcement, reading history is just a way for those blessed with good memories (which does not include me) to win trivia competitions.
This loss of knowledge removes a central pillar from society. It is not like forgetting how to play canasta (a card game of the 1950s, of which I have only heard because my mother taught me how to play in the 1980s). Such ephemera are merely part of the constantly changing surface of a culture, which has little to say about the culture itself and each example of which is replaced by something else (video games, say, replacing canasta). History, or lack of history, is another thing entirely—it seems to me that you cannot run a society if its ruling class, and the educated classes more generally, no longer know or care to know any history. True enough, it does not matter if the lower classes know any history. Lack of the type of knowledge that characterizes the educated, ruling, classes is one reason why they’re the lower classes. But the study of history has always been deemed a matter of critical importance for the formation of those who dominate a society. Until now—or, perhaps, until 1975 or so, for reasons that appear complex, but certainly are related to the broad attack in the West on all social norms that gained traction around that date.
The historian Niall Ferguson, a popularizer like Goldsworthy (though more famous, more academically connected, and, not coincidentally, a tireless self-promoter), offered insights on this topic in 2016, when accepting an award from an academic organization. He noted that only a tiny fraction of American students (1.7%) major in history as undergraduates; and that the percentage has dropped by about 20% in just the past five years. And what they are studying has also precipitously declined in value. The problem is not just that the vast majority of courses offered at top schools are worthless on their face, except as amusement, such as Stanford’s “Madwomen: The History of Women and Mental Illness in the U.S.” The problem is, as Ferguson points out, that almost zero courses on actual history are offered at any college. A student, through his university, simply cannot acquire what would until recently have been regarded as the very basic elements of a history education. There is essentially nothing taught of American history, British history, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or any similar topic—or even of the World Wars. All classes are mere fluff like Stanford’s class about crazy women, or wholly politicized offerings of pseudo-history, mostly focusing on oppression and emancipation (not the Proclamation—instead, putative emancipation of those supposedly oppressed today, an ever expanding group of embarkees on the ship of fools).
The very few substantive courses that are taught focus on extremely narrow areas (e.g., “the makeup of various Caribbean ethnic groups in the areas of Brooklyn that made up the West Indian Day Parade in the 1960s”), so that the subject matter fails to offer what the study of history is meant to offer, which is the ability to contrast and compare any given period, especially today, to other periods, earning lessons and insights. Or, as Ferguson cites R. G. Collingwood, “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act.” If we cannot see clearly, we cannot act competently. Looking around America for the past twenty years or so, I’m pretty sure there’s a tight correlation between ruling class failures and lack of historical knowledge. And I suspect that in China students destined for the ruling class still learn a lot of history, and hard-edged, substantive history at that. Failure to study history is not a winning strategy. This may not be our biggest ruling class problem we have today, but it’s not the smallest.
So, back to this book, or on to this book, since my monologue has had little to do with it so far! Until very recently, the Punic Wars (between Rome and Carthage, taking place between 265 and 146 B.C.) were regarded as offering critical historical insights. Naturally, as with all history, the Punic Wars offer illustrations and principles, not cut-and-paste solutions. But, for example, there are clear parallels between the restart of hostilities in the Second Punic War and the restart of hostilities in World War II. Goldsworthy does an excellent job of drawing out of his detailed, yet readable, history basic principles about the protagonists, especially the Romans. It is not that he applies those principles to today; he does not regard that as his job. But to know, to take what is perhaps the author’s most emphatic point, that the Romans were unique in their time and place in their approach to warfare, seeking decisive and permanent victories rather than negotiated peace, regardless of risk or cost, gives us insight into Rome’s later history, and offers us further insight into that attitude as a possible choice today.
For a ruling class, history does not have merely an instrumental purpose tied narrowly to foreign policy. Yes, if you’re Henry Kissinger, you care about history mostly because it informs your choices and the advice you give your masters. But history offers moral lessons for broader society—not just George Washington and the cherry tree, but George Washington and how he approached, and formed, the office of the Presidency. Or, in this book, how the consul Marcus Atilius Regulus was captured by the Carthaginians, and was released to negotiate peace, on oath to return to Carthage. He went to Rome and urged the citizens (peace treaties had to be approved by the Centuriate Assembly) to reject peace in favor of a war to the finish, which they did. And then he returned to Carthage, to be tortured to death, and also to be held up for two thousand years as a model of civic and personal virtue. Sure, maybe the story is made up or exaggerated. That’s not the point. The point is that moral lessons, of what to do, and of what not to do, come from historical actions of men and women as seen by us today. No history, no moral lessons, at least none with any punch or staying power.
As Goldsworthy notes, we know little about the Carthaginians. The Romans won decisively, and while they did not try to destroy Punic culture as such (that’s a modern innovation), just Punic power, in the natural course of things little historical memory remained. We are missing details for most of Roman history, and have lost most of the writings of Rome, so it is no surprise we have essentially no knowledge about Carthage, other than that gained by archaeology and that reported by their enemies. We do know that the Carthaginians engaged in evil practices, including massive amounts of infant sacrifice, by burning alive, and that “the proportion of sacrifices where a lamb or other animal was substituted for the child decreased rather than increased over the centuries.” The modern revisionist attempt to claim that child sacrifice was a myth has been crushed by archaeology (just like the myth that the Maya were peaceful flower contemplators, a myth I was taught as a child, although I suppose they still were by comparison with the ferociously bloodthirsty Aztecs). Maybe this was exaggerated by the Romans, or maybe not. But even on less controversial topics, such as Carthaginian political organization, we know little other than the broad outlines—which are not wholly dissimilar to Rome, in that Carthage had “a balanced constitution combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.”
What the Carthaginians did not have was an effective citizen military or, in general, competent military leaders (a fact masked by Hannibal being the only military leader we remember). The Romans had citizens who served in the field, along with reliable allies. When tens of thousands were killed, as at Cannae, they raised more legions from the citizenry (and by offering slaves freedom). The Carthaginians relied almost exclusively on mercenaries and on allies of highly dubious loyalty, such as the Numidians, with Punic citizens only fighting in desperate circumstances. To them, and most of the Hellenistic world by this time, war was a calculation, where money was spent to achieve goals, and where if you lost, a peace not to your advantage, but not crippling, would be signed. The Romans assigned senior magistrates as military leaders—not professional soldiers, but invariably men with military experience, unalterably loyal (like Regulus) to the State, but rarely punished for failure. The Carthaginians seem to have picked military chieftains based on the politics of the moment, who were often crucified if they failed. On balance, the Roman system worked a lot better—but the Carthaginians were rich enough and lucky enough to engage in more than a hundred years of war.
Goldsworthy begins with an overview of Rome and Carthage, in particular their political and military organizational structures (his knowledge of the Roman military and its practices over time is voluminous, and particularly on display in his later book, How Rome Fell). Here he introduces some of his common themes. He rejects the idea that, in any meaningful way, Roman politics was divided into political parties of the type with which we are familiar. Rather, extended family and patron/client groups were what mattered, and elections were often, or even usually, decided on the basis of the prestige and past deeds of a family, with the assumption that the current generation could be relied on to uphold and extend those past deeds. All politically active citizens of Rome, and all military leaders, were unswervingly loyal to the State—unlike in Carthage, the idea of a turncoat general was essentially unthinkable. The poor, with limited political power, were still active participants in and supporters of the State. And “even the most politically advanced ancient states went to war frequently and with enthusiasm, especially when they expected to win and eagerly anticipated the benefits victory would bring.”
For the rest of the book, Goldsworthy marches through the three successive Punic Wars. The First Punic War often gets short shrift; we have the least information about it and its conclusion was somewhat equivocal. The author tries to correct this by both offering a complete analysis and tying it to the later conflicts. This war, which like so many wars was mostly stumbled into as a result of pre-existing tensions and inherent conflicting aims, centered around Sicily, with extensive naval battles in the surrounding seas. These included what may have been the biggest naval battle in history, the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, where as many as 300,000 men may have fought, and the Romans used a new invention, the corvus, a boarding bridge mounted on a swivel, with a metal spike head. There was a little land fighting in Africa, but none of it decisive, and in 241 B.C. the war ended in Punic defeat, with the Carthaginians expelled from Sicily (most of which they had controlled) and paying a substantial indemnity to Rome.
Over the next few decades ill-will simmered, with the Romans unhappy that Carthage was not just not wholly subordinated, but clearly growing in wealth and power. Low-level conflicts occurred over places like Sardinia. In 218, this erupted into the Second Punic War, when Hannibal attacked a Roman client city in Spain (an area into which both the Romans and the Carthaginians were expanding). This is the war most of us think about when we think about the Punic Wars, involving Hannibal Barca (although every third Carthaginian seems to have been named Hannibal), elephants going over the Alps, the Battle of Cannae (probably the most disastrous Roman defeat of all time), the delaying tactics of Fabius, Scipio Africanus, and the eventual final defeat of the Carthaginians at the Battle of Zama, near Carthage. (I also learned that there was a battle in Italy at “Narnia,” and Wikipedia tells me “The imaginary land of Narnia, described in the works of C. S. Lewis, was named after the town of Narni [Narnia in Latin] after he came across the name in an atlas as a child.”) And, finally, it ended with the total defeat of Carthage and its reduction to a rump state under the domination of Rome.
Over the next fifty years Carthage stabilized and showed some signs of resurgence, as well as some signs of overly much independence of action and thought. It was this time period that Cato the Elder kept demanding “Carthago delenda est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”). Which it ultimately was, just because the Romans thought it would be a good idea, although sowing the site with salt is a later invention. This was the Third Punic War, which was more of a siege and destruction of Carthage than anything else, and the outcome was never in doubt (unlike the Second Punic War, which could easily have resulted in Rome’s destruction).
All this, of which I have only scratched the surface in my summary, makes fascinating reading. Many interesting lessons are contained within, both for today, and for tomorrow. To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in history, but history is interested in you, and reading books like this is invaluable in today’s uneducated world. Not to mention that, as the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind is king, the educated man in the uneducated world is more likely to be able to make himself king.
I had the urge to learn more about Carthage and its enmity with rome and, as a couple of people had recommended Adrian Goldsworthy to me, thought this would be a good place to start. I have to say that I was disappointed.
Goldsworthy says in the preface that he is a military historian, and it is largely this focus that failed for me; the author focuses on the battles themselves and, within them, on the minutiae of tactics and technologies that made the opposing sides feel like miniatures on a gameboard. I got no real sense of the generals involved - although he does mention them and their supposed attributes this is not done in a way that brings them to life at all. I read thoroughly through the introduction and the first section about the combatants, and then on into the chapters on the First Punic War, hoping that this was leading to more analysis and depth, but soon I found that my eyes were glazing and I was skim-reading, forcing myself to remain interested.
It is not that the history of a conflict cannot be written interestingly, giving a thorough idea of the way the battles themselves were fought whilst bringing to life the cultures, and even the characters, involved - take, for instance, Persian Fire, about the attempted invasion of the Greek peninsula by mighty Persia, including the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon. And, perhaps, this is the main difference; I didn’t think Goldsworthy a very good writer. Aside from being peppered with dry academicisms (“In this chapter we shall see…”) the writing itself is often clumsy (the word “began” used three times in two consecutive sentences) and, I’m afraid, just not engaging. The big disappointment, though, is that I was left feeling I learnt little about the cultures fighting this conflict which would set one up to be amongst the greatest powers the world has ever seen and utterly destroy the other.
The best book, fiction or non-fiction, about the Punic Wars.