Book Review: The Fall of Carthage by Adrian Goldsworthy

Reading ancient Historians like Livy and Polybius is enlightening and fascinating for anyone who wants to get an understanding of how people saw the world in ancient times, but it can be slow going. Livy frequently goes into long discourses about prodigies that were seen at critical times and the religious rites that were undertaken to expiate them. Polybius goes off onto tangents about the deficiencies of rival historians. He characterizes one historian’s work as, “little better than barbershop gossip.” (Interesting that the barber shop in Polybius’ day had somewhat the same social functions as in more modern times.)

For those who have a serious interest in the Punic wars, but would prefer not to take the time and trouble to plow through the ancient sources, The Fall of Carthage, by Adrian Goldsworthy is an excellent alternative. Goldsworthy covers the entire history of all three Punic wars in considerable detail. Goldsworthy is strong on military history and his analysis of how the cultural differences between Rome and Carthage affect the eventual outcomes of the three wars is compelling. At the beginning of the Second Punic War, Rome lost four successive battles to Hannibal. With time and experience, however, the Roman military, both leaders and troops, improved steadily and dramatically. Goldsworthy explains it this way:

“The Roman militia system produced armies which were far more homogenous in terms of language, command structure, drill and organization. This made it far easier to integrate legions from different commands into the same force. Prolonged services increased the effectiveness of a Roman army, but the process occurred far more readily than with a Punic force of mixed nationalities. The legions in the Second Punic War served far longer than any Roman troops before this date, so that by the latter stages of the war, many were as well-trained and confident as any professional soldiers. The tactical flexibility shown by the Romans at Metaurus, Ilipa and Zama was the tangible evidence of this. Both men and their officers were now capable of feats unimaginable in 218. Such armies were far superior to most Punic forces and could defeat significantly more numerous enemies, as Scipio was to demonstrate. As the war progressed, the disdain which the Romans had shown for all Carthaginian armies and commanders apart from Hannibal began to be based more and more on reality.”

The history of the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage is well worth knowing and Goldsworthy tells it well. There are a few minor errors in the book, for example, the ancient sources make it clear that Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus was the second son of Aemilius Paullus, not the fourth. He and his brother Quintus Fabius were the children of Paullus’ first wife, Papiria Masonis, whom he divorced. Paullus had two sons by his second wife, both of whom died before reaching puberty at around the time of Paullus’ triumph for defeating King Perseus of Macedonia in 167 B.C. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this book to anyone desiring a strong background in the Punic wars.


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