This is yet another in the Pen and Sword series of books. Like the others, it is a well put-together book on a subject that few cover. And Nic Fields seems to know his subject well. There is a lot of good information about the Punic Wars and the war against Jugurtha.
But organization is a problem. There’s an old Monty Python joke about memorizing the lines in a play where the director says “Sounds like you have all the words in there, now to get them in the right order”. Now for a historical work, you’d think that the text would start at the beginning and move forward chronologically. Nor does he work thematically. Instead there are sections that move through a period, then the next section moves through the same period again with a slightly different emphasis. There is a flash forward to an episode in the Civil Wars 200 years or so in the future, but then the war itself is never covered. This is in a chapter giving background on the Numidians so it might be forgivable, were it not the second chapter on the subject successively.
Near the end of the book is a diatribe on Sallust and his accusations of bribery against the Senate. Mr. Fields has a more charitable opinion of the Roman Senate than I do, and his defense fails painfully. Sallust is our major source, and I’ve never heard anyone in the last 2000 years and more go on record as questioning his accuracy. And he’s pretty much the only game in town on this war, so calling him a liar is undermining your own account.
Since the fellows Sallust indicts were, in fact, convicted of bribery at the time leads me to think he might been right. And this chapter is another case of revisiting the same incidents – we had just finished with the Jugurthan wars and here we are back before they had started. He could have put it in an appendix – there are two fat ones included, although why they are in an appendix and the other, similar, discursive chapters are in the main text is a question.
So unlike the others in the series, my opinion on this one is a bit mixed. There is a lot of interesting stuff there, but it really hasn’t gelled into a good book. I suppose if I thought of it as a collection of essays I would have a better opinion of it.
The Soldier’s Eye View of Civil War Battles
This is an interesting book. It takes a single moment in a battle, and attempts to give you a feeling for how it was by examining it in great detail through quotes from the men who were there. This microhistory is then repeated for several battles:
- Burnside’s Brigade at First Bull Run
- 57th NY in the woods at Fair Oaks
- CSA Artillery at Fredericksburg
- Union Artillery at Arkansas Post (attacking a fort)
- Cavalry vs Cavalry on the third day of Gettysburg
- Attacking Fort Sanders, Knoxville
- The attack up Missionary Ridge
- The 7th South Carolina at Darbytown Road
These have the additional advantage of not having been done to death before.
The author moves between description and analysis of the overall tactical lesson smoothly in each story, and hearing the soldiers in their own words is nice. It gives a zoomed in view of a few battles that can be used with other books to get a better feel for how combat as a whole was in other battles.
This book is a description about the kinds of people who you don’t often hear about in history – not the generals and kings and emperors, but the regular man and woman. It is in many ways successful, but has a few problems.
One quirk that pops up in a few places is placing modern values back onto the ancients rather than taking them on their own terms or putting them in a broader perspective. One amusing quirk was the author’s squirming description of the impurity of the Roman bath. But compared to western societies up to about 1900s, the Romans were on the whole far cleaner – and it isn’t even close. There is also the routine decrying of the lack of a ‘vote’ or a ‘career’ for women of the periods, and how those women lacked some kind of social conscience for not letting that bother them. But in the text, without noticing, he mentions that women routinely ran the large force of slaves owned by the family, produced the clothes they wore, made items for sale, and raised the children. And in the middle classes if the family had a business, the wife helped run it, and if the husband died, ran it alone after that. People outside of academia are often too busy making a living to worry about trifles – and it isn’t like men outside of a tiny upper class in a single city participated in politics either.
Also amusing is the assumption that what our upper class sources said about sex is what actually happened anywhere. Even today “nice girls” aren’t supposed to do a lot of things that seem to get done a lot. And the final chapter, where he uses playwrights to get a feel for the life of bandits and pirates is even more comical. I can see him next using the “Pirates of Penzance” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” to get a picture of pirate life in the 1700s, and finding that they sung most of the time, had buxom co-pirates and had a lot of adventures.
But aside from these, it does give some light on how normal folk got along in between the palace coups and civil wars that we read about. I would have liked some discussion of the differences between provincial, and country life and the life in the captial. Here they seemed to be lumped together to try and boost the record. Was life in Egypt just like the stewpots of the capital?
But in between the quirks, the book does give a lot of information about daily life, and has quotes from the sources to support the general analysis. It is quite a bit less dry than some of the other books on the subject I’ve read.