There has been a quiet rebirth in the historical novel in the past 15 years– Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane, Harry Sidebottom etc. Most are Sassenachs (i.e. Englishmen) who have a Roman fixation.
I picked up David Gibbins Rome Destroy Carthage at a Dollar General store last week for $3.00 in the paperback rack. I thought why not? “Total War” with a trademark symbol is above the title so there are probably others in this series by other authors. Gibbins seems to write techno-thrillers on the lines of Clive Cussler.
The novel is about Scipio Aemilianus, the general who destroyed Carthage in the Third Punic War in the 2nd Century B.C. Much of the novel is from the perspective of Fabius Petronius Secundus, friend of Scipio and later centurion in the Roman legions.
The novel starts with the Battle of Pydna in Macedon in 168 B.C. Gibbins does a fair job with the battle but seems to downplay one important aspect of the battle. The Roman legionaries got under the 16’ Macedonian sarissa (pikes) to cut down the phalanx in windrows.
The novel backtracks then to a military academy for training of future Roman military tribunes. There is some anachronism with one student messing around with gunpowder and theorizing about cannons.
There is a period spent in Spain with the war with the Celt-Iberians. The Romans were involved in a very long guerrilla war there. Roman Praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba massacred and enslaved 10,000 Lusitanians in 151 B.C. This is not mentioned in the novel though a massacre of Celt-Iberians by legionaries under the command of L. Licinius Lucullus is off stage. Scipio fights a Celt-Iberian chief in single combat for terms of surrender of one oppida.
The novel leaps then to North Africa where Scipio and Fabius are with the Numidians. Gibbins attempts to build a conspiracy of a resurgent Carthage with Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt against Rome.
Scipio and Fabius even infiltrate Carthage in disguise to find out Carthage’s strength. They find the Carthaginians are engaged in predatory commercial practices that will eventually bankrupt Rome. Some corrupt Roman senators are even making money with the Carthaginians.
The novel jumps again to the siege of Carthage. This is strange as Scipio performed well in command of cavalry in the Third Punic War. He saved two maniples cut off and threatened with annihilation. It was his competency and bravery that got him the command in Africa. None of this is in the novel.
Gibbins makes a half-hearted attempt to make the Carthaginians villainous with child sacrifice and public torture of Roman prisoners.
The result is a novel that is well told but lacking. There are some details that rubbed me the wrong way. He has the historian Polybius wearing an old-style Corinthian Greek helmet while a cavalry man. That is a helmet for hoplite infantry warfare. He also mentions the gladius hispaniensis being picked up after Scipio’s deployment in Spain. Everything I have read is the Roman legions took up the gladius hispaniensis during the Second Punic War which was fought over 50 years earlier. Gibbins also has some anachronistic telescopes being used to view Carthage. The single action scenes were not bad but the big battle’s seemed often rushed and vague.
I have a tough time viewing the Romans as the good guys. My Celtic ancestry leaves me with less than a laudatory view of the Roman Empire. The Roman were brutal, boorish, bullies that stuck their nose in other’s affairs, but were good engineers and builders. They made great ruins.
The Carthaginians were no model of civilization either. They had a vicious side such as crucifixion of defeated generals that made the Romans look mild in comparison. Brian Caven has this to say in The Punic Wars:
“The Carthaginians were hardly an attractive people. They did not have it in them to be the standard-bearers of a higher civilization. Selfish, parasitic, money-grubbing, corrupt and, when it cost them nothing, oppressive, they could never have provided the means by which all that best in Hellenic culture.”
It is sort of like watching Hitler attack Stalin.
Hannibal had to have been an inspiring leader to accomplish what he did with a heterogenous army of Africans, Spaniards, Gauls, Greeks, and Bruttians.
Gibbins also portrays the Thracians as consistently villainous. The Thracians like the Celts and Illyrians had the boot of Rome come down on them. They enlisted in the armies of Rome’s enemies including Macedon, the Seleucids, and Mithradates of Pontus. They were viewed as barbarians but who did the civilized states look to for soldiers? Tough Balkan hill men. Give the Thracians a break.
To be fair, the Carthaginians tried to head off war but the Romans were determined to destroy Carthage. It is hard to glorify this in a novel.
Someone might like this novel more than I did if they did not know much Classical history.