Tuesday, November 9, 2010


A review of Sir Nigel Bagnall’s The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage, and the Struggle for the Mediterranean (1990)

(Rating 5 of 5)

This book was the first of two works by Sir Nigel Bagnall, who had been a field marshal in the British Army to which this book is dedicated. I had reviewed his later work, about the Peloponnesian War, a short time ago. I was not a big fan of the other piece of history that this writer produced but I really liked this book. The Punic Wars is an incredible tale of two great civilizations that went on a collision course against each other that would result with one becoming a world power and the other completely annihilated. When writing about each of the three wars Bagnall focuses on one theater at a time, telling each theater’s story rather than proceeding in complete chronological order. This helps the book flow better and does not harm the general narrative.

Bagnall starts of by giving the reader a bit of background of the two major civilizations; we know more about the Romans of course because they were not destroyed as thoroughly as they destroyed Carthage. He traces the rise of the two cities from mere cities to the heart of minor empires in the Mediterranean, one a land power and the other a sea power. Both cities have to adapt when they fought each other in the First Punic War. Rome would create a navy that would overtake Carthage, and Carthage would also learn how to use its natural military advantages such as trained elephants and a diverse Mercenary army composed of its subject peoples.

(Rome vs. Carthage)

The Second Punic War focuses on the great general, Hannibal Barca. His training under his father, Hamilcar, and his rise in Spain are covered. Hannibal crosses the Alps and, for years, ravages Italy and nearly destroys Rome. The famous Fabius Maximus creates what is known as the ‘Fabian Strategy‘ in order to defend against Hanibal, that is do not fight him directly only indirectly by cutting supply lines and forms of harassment. The book covers how Rome had a hard time sticking to this strategy until the rise of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus who would ultimately beat Hannibal.


“On taking up his appointment, Scipio faced the task of welding a disparate lot into a cohesive fighting force: there were the dispirited survivors of the defeated legions, the raw reinforcements fresh out of Italy, and Spanish mercenaries of uncertain loyalty. No light task for a young man, especially one whose close relation had so intimately associated with disasters. But Publius Cornelius Scipio (later given the cognomen Africanus) was remarkable. As Polybius says, he was ‘perhaps the most illustrious man of any born before the present generation’, and one of his first acts was to show his trust in Marcellus, the man who had striven so hard to rally the survivors of the two Scipios’ shattered army, but who could now well be regarded as an awkward rival.” p.206

(Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus)

The Third Punic War would be the end of mighty Carthage. The city would be defeated, raised, and destroyed by Scipio's grandson. The impact of Carthage, fulfilling the dream of Cato the Elder, would be erased even though another one of Scipio’s own grandsons would try to argue against it.

“He pleaded that though Rome’s position as the dominant power should be preserved, Carthage should not be destroyed as a rival. Were this to occur, there would be no check on Rome’s arrogant disregard for the legitimate interests and the concerns of smaller states. She would lose all sense of shame when there was nobody of stature to pass judgment on her conduct and stand up for the rights of others. Moreover, in the absence of any external threat, the Roman Confederation would be in danger of disintegrating as fractious political and social groups pursued their own self-interested ends.” p.307

(Carthage Destroyed)

I highly recommend this book to anyone. It is a thrilling read involving one of the greatest struggles in the history of the world: Rome and Carthage. Not until the Cold War would the world see another quite like it. This work of Nigel Bagnall was much stronger than his later work on the Peloponnesian War; however I leave open the possibility that the reason for his Punic Wars being easier to understand maybe due to the fact the the Punic Wars are an easier conflict to understand compared to the Peloponnesian War.

{Carthage destroyed image taken from this incredible site. Video is from the history channel series Battles B.C.}




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