Book Review: Total War. Destroy Carthage by David Gibbons

I knew I was in trouble when I read the dramatis personae of this book and found that Scipio Aemilianus was married to a fictional person named Claudia Pulchra (or Pulchradina, as the author puts it.) It is well known that Scipio Aemilianus was married to Sempronia Graccha, the daughter of Cornelia the Mother of the Gracchi, and her husband Tiberius Gracchus. She was also the granddaughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. (Actually, there were two well-known Claudia Pulchras during that era. They were both daughters of Claudius Pulcher, a bitter rival of Scipio Aemelianus. Claudia Major was a Vestal, and Claudia Minor was married to Aemilianus’s brother-in-law, Tiberius Gracchus.) What other surprises awaited me when I read this book? There were just a multitude of things that were either inaccurate or distorted. This book is closer to fantasy than to historical fiction.
The Greek historian Polybius is a main character in the book but the writer gets a lot of things wrong. For one thing he has Polybius as a prisoner in Rome before the battle of Pydna, and working as a teacher in a fictional military school for patrician boys that was established by Scipio Africanus. At the time of the battle of Pydna, Polybius was Hipparch of the Achaean league and had offered his services, along with 1500 cavalrymen to Aemilius Paullus. This is where Polybius met Paullus’ second son Scipio Aemilianus, then about seventeen years old. Polybius did not come to Rome as a hostage until the following year when Rome decided to clamp down on Greek independence. Polybius made the best of a bad situation, becoming tutor to Aemilius Paullus’ two sons Quintus Fabius Maximus and Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus. Gibbons portrays Polybius as avid for the Roman destruction of Carthage. It is likely that Polybius was ambivalent about the matter. He was, indeed, a close friend of Aemilianus, who was his student and ultimately his benefactor. It was Aemilianus’ intervention that enabled Polybius and his fellow surviving hostages to return to Greece after seventeen years, and out of friendship, loyalty, and the opportunity to witness history in the making, he went to Carthage to advise Aemilianus on siege tactics and to record the events of its destruction. But concerning this destruction he later wrote “The ruin of Carthage is indeed considered to have been one of the greatest of calamities.”
Gibbons would also have us believe that Aemilianus’ adoptive grandfather, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus considered Carthage “unfinished business,” that he would have destroyed it himself but was prevented from doing so by the Senate in Rome, and would have been proud of his namesake for finishing the job. I’ve seen no historical evidence to support this notion. Scipio Africanus never saw eye-to-eye with Cato the Elder on anything, and I doubt that he would have agreed with Cato on this issue.
I could go on and on about the historical inaccuracies in this book, but that would get tedious. My main problem was the author’s assertion that the destruction of Carthage was necessary because Carthage was rearming and becoming a military threat to Rome. His only real argument for this notion is that Carthage built two internal harbors that were capable of housing war ships. This is likely true, having been gleaned from archeology, but it is not known that these harbors were actually used for war ships, and, if they were, whether the war ships might not have had a benign purpose such as defending merchant ships from pirates. The author asserts that Carthage was the aggressor in the war with Masinissa, when ancient writing say that Masinissa periodically encroached upon Carthaginian territory. The Carthaginians would send delegations to Rome to complain and Rome would almost always side with Masinissa. The author also asserts that Carthage was recruiting mercenaries. After their defeat in the Second Punic War, Carthage could no longer recruit mercenaries from their traditional sources such as Numidia, the Balearic Islands, and Spain, so where would they have been recruiting from? Gaul, the author asserts. Sounds like a bit of a stretch.
Scipio Aemilianus (the real Scipio Aemilianus, not Gibbon’s caricature) personally witnessed the devastating defeat of the Carthaginian army by Masinissa’s tribesmen in 150 B.C., so how could he, or anyone else, have considered Carthage a credible military threat to Rome? The fact is, the last thing the Carthaginians wanted was another military confrontation with Rome and they were persuaded to do all kinds of humiliating things to forestall such a confrontation, including totally disarming and sending 300 high born youngsters to Rome as hostages. It was only when the Romans insisted that they abandon their city and move at least ten miles inland that they were driven to resist.
If you’re looking for some interesting discussions of ancient military strategy and tactics, and a lot of battlefield blood and gore, this book is for you. If you’re looking for an accurate portrayal of the events and personalities involved in the Third Punic War, this book is not for you.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.