Rome's First Great War
J. F. Lazenby, The First Punic War: A Military History (Stanford University Press, 1996)
Polybius begins his history of Rome's rise to domination of the Mediterranean with the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.), and he was no doubt right about its significance. For the first time, Roman forces ventured outside of Italy, fought at sea and invaded another continent. By war's end, the City had added Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica to its sphere of influence and could no longer be ignored by other Mediterranean states. It had also acquired a relentless enemy in defeated Carthage and, especially, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca. For two decades after peace was declared, the Barcids devoted their energies to building a new Punic dominion in Spain to support their dreams of revenge, dreams that were almost fulfilled by Hamilcar's son, Hannibal.
One would like to, but cannot, trace so important a conflict in at least moderate detail. Polybius, our fullest source, merely summarizes events as a prelude to the Second Punic War, and his narrative is a blend of two lost authors of uncertain reliability, without the eyewitness evidence that undergirds the main portion of his work. To fill the gaps in Polybius, all that survive are fragments, epitomes and the summaries of late compilers like the 5th Century Orosius and 12th Century Zonaras.
The patchiness of the sources is frustratingly apparent in the last period of the war. In 249 Rome lost virtually its entire fleet to a battle and a storm, just at the moment when Carthage's handful of remaining strongholds in Sicily seemed on the verge of collapse. At that point fog descends. We are told that Hamilcar Barca conducted a brilliant guerilla campaign for the next eight years. Polybius calls him the best general on either side, and the Carthaginians awarded him their most important post-war commands. But what he did to earn that reputation is a mystery. Equally mysterious is the apparent passivity of both combatants. Carthage devoted its military energies to subduing its African neighbors, making little effort to regain its Mediterranean position, while Rome waited seven years to construct another navy. What was going on, and why? We will never know.
Incidents are not all that the record lacks. The institutional background is hazy; both cities changed between the first and second wars, but we do not know how or how much. The statesmen and generals are little more than names. Motives and strategies are largely guesswork.
At the most basic level, it is hardly possible to form a clear notion of how battles were fought. Professor Lazenby remarks that "we do not even know exactly what a quinquereme was". He is too optimistic. We do not even know approximately what a quinquereme was, except that it was the principal warship on both sides and had a name derived from five somethings having to do with oars. Obscure in a different way is the "crow", a Roman invention that combined boarding bridge and grappling hook. Polybius credits this "wonder weapon" with negating Carthaginian superiority in seamanship, enabling the inexperienced Roman navy to sweep all of its early battles. Yet the device looks easy to counter; strong men with poles should have been able to fend it off while their vessel backed oars and slipped out of reach. Moreover, the Romans, after supposedly using the crow successfully for 15 years, abruptly gave it up, and no one ever employed it again.
For undertaking what many would call an impossible feat of reconstruction, Professor Lazenby deserves kudos. He assembles a lucid outline by sifting and comparing the ancient sources, laying out his reasoning in meticulous but rarely exhausting detail. His operating assumption is that virtually all of the recorded facts go back to something that really occurred rather than just to imagination. There are some limits to this principle. He rejects out of hand the romantic story of the consul Regulus' self-sacrifice. But he defends Polybius' enormous figures for the numbers of ships and men engaged at the Battle of Ecnomus (256 B.C.) and lost in the storm off Camarina (255 B.C.). Many readers will probably be more skeptical, but at least they are given a fair accounting of the data.
The product of this effort is not vivid and exciting, but that is not the author's fault. Only fiction could hope to bring the dry bones to life. What can be faulted is the absence of good maps of the theater of war. Roads, topography and ethnic allegiances of Sicilian towns would all be welcome, though they may have fallen victim to budget constraints.
The reader does not need to bring to this book any specialized background knowledge, but the specialist should not find it superficial. More could probably not be said in twice the pages. As the only modern English history of the First Punic War, it will be appreciated by those interested in either ancient military affairs or the development of the Roman Republic.