Mastering the West
by Dexter Hoyos
The Punic wars have always captured my imagination, for those of you who haven't run into the term before, the Punic Wars were a trio of conflicts between the emerging Roman Republic and the state of Carthage. They were fought mostly in the western Mediterranean with the 2nd Punic war being the biggest and most hard fought. Rome was of course centered in Italy, this was for the most part before the creation of the Roman Empire as we think of it, but during the period where Rome was the hegemon (ruling state) of Italy. It's interesting to note that at this point in time Rome was not directly ruling most of the Italy but instead the peninsula was divided into subordinate colonies and allied city states. Carthage was a city in northern Africa, in modern day Tunisia. It was an older power then Rome, focused mostly on trade and commerce but ruling Libya and other parts of North Africa. The clashes ended when Rome destroyed the city of Carthage at the end of the 3rd Punic war and became the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean and in many ways set the course for Rome's rise to Empire and its position of glory, horror, and fascination in our history books. In case you're wondering my position tends to be that the Roman Empire was both great and terrible, as just about every empire tends to be. Some will lean more towards the great and others more towards the terrible but just about everyone will admit that the Roman Empire in many ways lay the foundations for the modern world as we know it. Certainly if Carthage had won those wars, we would looking at a very different world today.
The standard narrative I heard growing up (mostly from library books or from going over a trio of Ancient history books my Father had) was that the growing power of Rome and the established power of Carthage started rubbing each other raw and it was inevitable that the two would crash together in open warfare. The rivalry and dissatisfaction grew and simmered until the Romans, deciding it was best to start the war on their terms, invaded the island of Sicily to create a pro-Roman buffer state and the rest is history. Professor Dexter Hoyos suggests that the narrative might be incorrect and in fact might be people applying hindsight to history. When they're not outright fabricating propaganda. Let me talk a bit about Professor Hoyos before I get into that however. Born on the island of Barbados when it was a British possession, Professor Hoyos received his PhD from Oxford University in 1971 after completing courses at McMaster University in Ontario and BA: U of Jamaica. He then took a teaching position in the University of Sydney in 1972 where he taught until retiring in 2007. He's written a number of books about Rome and Carthage, with Mastering the West being published in 2015.
Mastering the West covers each war separately as well as the inter-war periods between them. It also provides a good amount of information on what was going on other than the battles and political maneuvering. That said Professor Hoyos doesn't really delve into the details of either the Roman system or the Carthaginian one beyond giving a general sense of how they worked. This is a shame because the first two wars were in a very real sense a test of two different military systems. On the other hand, the governments of Carthage and Rome weren't that different, both being Republican governments where power was controlled by a small elite class made up of wealthy families but with a limited amount of input by the common people that couldn't be ignored if those same elites wanted to stay in power. The book does focus more on Carthage's government system, which I was honestly happy about because just how Carthaginian society and government worked was something of a mystery for me. Finding out that they weren't all that different in government from Rome was interesting and the differences while not explored as much as I would have liked were very interesting. While the book only really covers the military system of both nations in passing really, it's enough to highlight the differences. Rome depended heavily on citizen soldiers, men drawn from the citizens of Rome and its allies. The mainstay of the Roman military was it's heavy infantry, at this time the legionaries that everyone is familiar hadn’t been developed yet. Rome was using a three line system of infantry (two sword and shield, one of spear and shield), with a screen of light infantry and some cavalry. While Carthage did have citizen soldiers of it's own, it appeared loathe to deploy them, preferring to use mercenaries when possible and depending way more heavily on their cavalry arm, supplemented by the legendary war elephants that even Hannibal would rather not do without. I do want to note this was also a time period where troops were expected to provide most if not all of their own gear. This meant that the lower classes were often locked out of the high loot generating parts of war in some ways. That said if you could afford a shield and some javelins, with some luck you could get enough loot while serving with a victorious general to jump a couple tax brackets.
While I grew up with the idea that the Punic Wars were deliberate acts of policy, Professor Hoyos suggests that the first Punic War might have been something of an accident. In the first Punic War, Rome invaded Sicily. In theory to support a city state ruled by mercenaries who rebelled against their employers who had appealed to Rome for protection and to throw Carthage out of the island. Professor Hoyos notes that if the goal was to throw Carthage out of Sicily the Romans went about in a rather odd way. Rather than fighting the Carthaginians, they focused on warring with native states and often tried to avoid fighting Carthaginian armies until several years into the war. For that matter, the armies of Carthage aren't presented as being all that eager to slug it out with the Romans here. What's frustrating about reading this however is that Professor Hoyos avoids explicitly saying that the first Punic War was the result of events getting away from everyone and declines to outline a real case for it but instead rather coyly points out things that would seem to support his case but doesn't dive in. That said after a couple years the Romans and the Carthaginians got over their shyness and did start slugging it out. The first war would remain a very limited one, with the battles only being fought in the ocean and on Sicily. Rome as you may have guessed won that war, causing Carthage to withdraw from Sicily and Sardinia and by terms of the treaty paying Rome a war indemnity.
In the period between the first and second Punic wars, I was actually surprised to learn that Rome actually ended up providing Carthage a fair bit of support. In the wake of their surprise defeat, a number of their vassal and client states in Libya and elsewhere in Africa rose up in revolt. This was called the truceless war for the rather savage and unrelenting way it was waged. Interestingly rather than support the rebels, which would make sense if the removal of Carthage as a rival and powerful state was a Roman goal, the Romans sent money, food and mercenary troops to help Carthage reimpose their control of North Africa. Here Professor Hoyos does a much better job of outright stating his case and providing a supporting argument, where he states that there was no deep well of cultural hatred or driving desire to see Carthage removed in Rome. Pointing out a number of sympathetic Carthaginian characters in Roman entertainments at the time and growing links between the two elite classes. That said there was one family in Carthage by the name of Barca that wasn't going to accept the new way of things lying down. Most of my readers may know them from the most famous member of that clan, a career general with a few famous victories to his name, a gentleman by the name of Hannibal. The rise of the Barca clan and the Second Punic War take up the bulk of this book. Hannibal's father Hamilcar would respond to the loss of Carthage's empire by turning to Spain and forging a new empire for his city in the then silver rich hills of Iberia. By the time of his death Hamilcar and his family's works had made Carthage richer and even more powerful than they had been before the First Punic War. Which made some parties in Rome nervous.
The Second Punic War, was an epic confrontation with battles raging in Spain, Italy, in the east north of Greece and in North Africa. Because of Hannibal's march Rome is forced to devote a great fraction of its armies to fighting an enemy and rebels in its own homeland. Carthage makes alliances with ambitious kings in Macedonia who are eager to push Rome out of its eastern holdings. By the end of the second War, 1 out of 3 military age males will be under arms in the Roman State. An amazing feat of organization and sheer bloody mindedness as Rome repeatedly refuses to surrender even when a number of their Italian allies switch sides and they have entire armies practically wiped out. It's here we see Rome's real advantage over Carthage, it is simply able to maintain a higher level of commitment for a longer period of time even in the face of massive losses, where the Carthaginian system didn't have that ability to absorb losses or keep going at so high a tempo. Additionally, throughout Professor Hoyos writing we see that Hannibal, while a tactical mastermind lets a great number of strategic opportunities pass him by to force Rome to terms. Strategic dithering in fact seems to inflict the entire Carthaginian officer corps, whether it's Hannibal's brother’s strange refusal to leave Spain and reinforce his brother or Carthage's main admiral’s refusal to do anything useful with his navy for the entire war. We also see the rise of Scipio Africanus (this isn't his birth name but the one awarded to him for beating Hannibal in North Africa) Scipio’s career starts poorly, being present at the age of 15 serving with his father at a massive Roman defeat. By the time he's 25 and leading the armies in Spain however, he's shown to be a tactical battlefield leader who is easily Hannibal's equal and better then him on a strategic level. By the time of their fateful confrontation in Zuma, Hannibal is written as basically standing there poleaxed as Scipio’s army simple tears his apart (I'm left wondering if maybe Hannibal wasn't suffering something like a nervous breakdown at this point?).
The book does cover the final war, the 3rd Punic War but it's practically an epilogue to the book. To be fair, at this point Carthage had been reduced to a demilitarized city state and Rome was the greatest empire in Europe. The conclusion was foregone and it seems that the Romans fought the war just to get it done and over with so they would never have to deal with Carthage again. At the end of the 3rd Punic we see the city of Carthage destroyed and left in ruins with the last remains of the Carthaginian state simply annexed and made a province of the growing Roman Empire.
Mastering the West is very informative, especially if you have questions about Carthage but also if we're going to be honest, its written in a very dry style and is at points frustrating to read. There are points where Professor Hoyos seems about to make a case against the traditional understanding of the war, only to shy away from any real argument over it. Instead preferring to airily wave everything away by pronouncing our sources are terrible so nothing can be really known for sure. Now I'll admit he ain't really wrong on this, as the Romans would spend a lot of time clouding the history with stories meant to make themselves look better, while pro-Carthage writers would cloud things the other way. Still trying to parse this stuff is kind of part of his job and I would think if you were going to spend the time and effort to write a book like this you would try to stake out things a little more clearly, or at the very least explain why you think things happened the way you think they did. I'll admit I may be asking too much but between a writing style that’s bare bones and awfully dry about some of the most epic things in history and the refusal to make a real case on some assertions I was left frustrated. I'll freely admit I am not qualified to argue with Professor Hoyos on the events of ancient history and I'm not going to. I am fully qualified to say that this book could have been written a lot better though and I am going to do that. That said I did enjoy examining Hannibal's campaign in greater detail and learning in depth about Scipio. If you think you can put up with dry writing and you're willing to deal with a writer who doesn't like making definitive statements on his arguments then this book will work for you a lot better then me. I'm going to have to give Mastering the West by Dexter Hoyos a C+ however.
Next week... Screw it we're going to Grand Central Arena. Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen