It is such an interesting and yet impossible activity: to imagine how much different a place this world would be had something that occurred in the past been different. We love thinking of those tipping points when fate or destiny or luck or whatever force that flows through time made one thing happen or the other with the result influencing the rest of history. Alternate histories form a wonderful avenue for authors and readers alike to explore the world of “what might have beens”.
Much of Western- and therefore to a large extent today- global civilization has drawn its roots from Ancient Rome. Starting with language-the script that most Romance languages use are derived from Latin. English derives a large part of its vocabulary also from Latin. You can think of a lot of other things that we have Rome to thank for including things like our legal system. And yet it was not always a given that Rome would turn out to be the Empire it did. In fact at no other point did it seem more vulnerable than during the Second Punic War when Rome was almost brought to knees by Hannibal- a skilled Carthaginian commander. Rome could have been annihilated at it’s worst or confined to a small city/ country status at best for the rest of history. How different would the world have been if Carthage and not Rome had been the stronger power emerging out of nearly 100 years of conflict?
That was the main stream of thought that was in my mind as I finished “The Fall of Carthage” by Adrian Goldsworthy. This was the first book I read for 2015 (as part of my “bust the backlog” initiative where I dig up old books that I forgot I purchased and finish them). Goldsworthy’s book sketches the three Punic wars all the way over more than 100 years between 264 BC and 146 BC. Until I read his book even I did not quite realise the massive scale of the wars (this despite my having read “In the name of Rome” by the same author which talks about a number of notable commanders from the Punic wars).
The Punic Wars happened because the Mediterranean was too small a place to accommodate two growing powers who had to collide at one stage. Carthage was a rich state with a vast network of trade routes and riches. Rome was primarily a land based power but one that was ambitious and beginning to look outwards. It isn’t quite hard to see where this was heading. Clearly nobody was surprised that this conflict arose. What made it so different and Goldsworthy does a great job of sketching this out – was the difference in attitude that Romans had to war as against that of almost every other political entity in the Mediterranean (or probably even the ancient world).
To most countries/ kingdoms/ city states at that point wars were a natural part of the political lifecycle. People went to war, made peace with the people they were warring with and then got back to life as usual before the next war popped up again. Nobody really expected the enemy to disappear. The expectation was that you made peace to live and fight another day. However the Romans thought differently- to them a victory had to be complete. And that meant the complete subjugation and (if possible/ desired) the complete annihilation of an enemy. Carthage just happened to become one such enemy because it was a prosperous and well established state when the war began and the Romans could not countenance Carthage becoming quite so powerful once again. “Delenda est Carthago” (translating to “Carthage must be destroyed”) a famous catchphrase sounded repeatedly in almost all his speeches by Cato the Elder prior to the third Punic wars.
In short the first Punic war was fought mainly over control in Sicily- a majority of the battles were sea-based. The Romans who had little or no naval force to begin with, had a top class navy by the end of the decades of war. What is quite amazing and fascinating as you read the accounts is the amount of energy and resolve the Romans threw at getting things done and in a short span of time. From building a fleet of 100 ships within 2 months to copying and innovating on enemy designs and perfecting them the Romans did everything they could. When they were defeated they didn’t sue for peace, instead they went back to the drawing board and came back with an even larger force. This repeated until Carthage sued for peace
The second Punic war is what is remembered by most people as it involved Hannibal’s journey across the Alps and his decade long battle with the Romans in their own homeland. Hannibal was a military genius and he did the unthinkable and took the war to the Roman turf. He inflicted massive defeats on the Romans- including the battle of Cannae where casualty figures for the Romans were estimated anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people. That coupled with the fact that the Romans had already suffered multiple defeats meant that it was a complete catastrophe. And yet the Roman Senate refused to sue for peace. They went back to remobilising forces- reducing property restrictions for enlistment into the army, repopulating the senatorial class that was decimated and so on. Here is where Goldsworthy highlights the other unique nature of Romanness-virtually nobody from the Senate or the influential classes ever thought about betraying Rome to the enemy and coming back to rule it. Instead senators still vied for magisterial positions and elections- in short- business as usual even in the middle of the worst ever threat that Rome had faced. Eventually Rome recovered and landed up with victories led by another military genius- Publius Cornelius Scipio aka Africanus. It is true that great crises produce greatness for only the crisis brought on by a Hannibal could have produced a scenario that led to the emergence of a brilliant military genius like Scipio. Scipio was definitely not a political animal and under normal circumstances he would have hardly thrived in the Roman political system.
The last Punic war was just more of Rome stepping on and crushing an already weakened enemy and I won’t talk much about it.
A number of things made the Punic wars so important and memorable. I’ve already touched upon how life as we know it may have been different had Carthage won. Also, the Punic wars set the stage in terms of military development for Rome. If Rome had not fought the Punic wars, it may not have developed into the Empire it did. The wars not only brought in a vast amount of wealth (thereby making senators vie with each other in terms of more lavish displays of largesse to attract the vote bank making politics ruinously unaffordable- one will remember the huge amounts of debt racked up by Julius Caesar needing to be bailed out by Crassus) but it also brought Rome suddenly into contact with a larger world. It could also be argued that the Punic wars eventually led to the collapse of the republican political system that was more adapted to a city state than a burgeoning empire. Adrian Goldsworthy touches on all of these points in his book and this more than the account of the wars- which does at many many places get confusing especially with the large numbers of Hannos and Hasdrubals and Scipios and everybody else floating around- does not help that I cannot visualise battle formation descriptions from text- so things like triplex acies didn’t mean zilch until I image googled them.
All in all the book was a great and enlightening read. I certainly did not intend to write 1200 words about it but did it anyway.