Roman Conquests: North Africa – Nic Fields

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 Ghosts of Cannae – Robert L. O’Connell

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman...

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). Marble, 1704. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is subtitiled Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic.  It is built around the battle of Cannae, Rome’s greatest defeat.  It follows Hannibal to the battle, and then follows the ‘ghosts’ of the battle for the rest of the war and even beyond.

At the start of the Second Punic War, Hannibal led an army into Italy and inflicted defeats at the River Trebia,  and again at Lake Trasimene.  For a year Fabius Maximus, the “Delayer” avoided defeat by avoiding battle.

This didn’t suit the Roman character well, and in 216 BC they decided to create the largest Roman army ever formed, some 80000 men, to eliminate Hannibal.

At the end of the day at Cannae, 60000 or more of these men were dead, Rome’s allies in the area were defecting to Hannibal, and few doubted that the war would end.

Nobody told the Romans, though.  Showing how different they were from other nations, even this disaster did not make them give up.  The survivors of the battle were exiled to Sicily, never to be disbanded or allowed to return home.  They went back to avoiding battle and managed to subdue the defecting cities under Hannibal’s nose, and took away his base in Spain.  The war began to turn in their favor.

By 204 BC, Scipio Africanus was ready to invade Africa himself, and used the Ghosts in Sicily as the core of his new army.  Hannibal was still in Italy, but after Scipio was camped before the city of Carthage he was recalled to face Scipio.

At Zama, in 202 BC Scipio and his ghosts defeated Hannibal at Zama, ending Carthage as a threat for good.  For this, they were finally allowed to go home after fifteen years of exile.