cover image The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage, and the Struggle for the Mediterranean

The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage, and the Struggle for the Mediterranean

Nigel Bagnall. Thomas Dunne Books, $29.95 (347pp) ISBN 978-0-312-34214-2

The Punic Wars, which lasted from 264 to 146 B.C., transformed Rome from a small, loosely aligned federation into a Mediterranean superpower. It's a story worth retelling, but because the wars unfolded often simultaneously and across such a vast region-from the Balkans to North Africa, from Spain to the Peloponnese-it is also a story difficult to tell. By treating each campaign separately, rather than in strict chronological order, the book offers a clear and well-organized military history. Bagnall, a former British Army Chief of the General Staff, is an expert on Rome's military innovations, such as their changes to the Greek phalanx and the introduction of the corvus (a naval boarding bridge). He excels in analyzing the spectacular military victories of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, but the book fails to rise to the epic grandeur of its subject. Hannibal's crossing of the Alps is conveyed swiftly in workmanlike prose, and the battle scenes lack the vivid details necessary to give a visceral feel for the events described. Scant attention is paid to the leading personalities of the story, which is unfortunate because they include some of the most fascinating of ancients, including Xanthippus, the Spartan general whose ragtag army repulsed a Roman invasion of North Africa, and Archimedes, the great mathematician who died designing Syracuse's defense system. Only Cato, the venomous Roman Senator who demanded Carthage's annihilation, is accorded more than a passing description. Military history buffs may overlook these shortcomings and find this work of great value, but readers in search of a full narrative history should look elsewhere. Seven maps.