The Punic Wars - Adrian Goldsworthy 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.