The Fall of Carthage - Adrian Goldsworthy

The Fall Of Carthage
The Punic Wars 265-146 BC
Adrian Goldsworthy
Cassel Military Paperbacks
ISBN: 0304366420 (Amazon link)

Time for more Roman history to help me tell fact from fiction when reading historicals.

In a rare moment of forward planning I picked up The Fall Of Carthage to complement other reading. I've been half-reading H.H. Scullard's From The Gracchi To Nero for a few weeks, but keep getting distracted from it, and have decided to cut my losses and just start it afresh - Scullard's opening line refers to the fall of Carthage. Next on the fiction list is John Maddox Robert's alternate history Hannibal's Children; I'm never too fond of alternate histories for the simple reason that I usually don't know the real history well enough to enjoy the What If? being explored (although obviously for something like John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting that's not enough to stop me enjoying the book anyway). The Fall Of Carthage seemed like the obvious thing to turn to before denting my reading list any further, and besides, it looked very interesting in its own right.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about the Punic Wars - I didn't even really know why they were called 'Punic'. I was familiar with Carthage from the backdrop to later Roman history, but apart from the schoolboy stories of Hannibal's elephants my knowledge of it was basically culled from backstory mentions in fiction works like Mary Gentle's Ash. Lately however, references to the Punic Wars seem to have been popping up every time I turned on the TV - from passing mention of Scipio Africanus in Ridley Scott's Gladiator to the battle of Cannae in Time Commanders, and a few assorted documentaries half watched on history channels over dinner. I now wish I'd read about the Punic Wars earlier as they tie together a lot of history I was familiar with as well as being fascinating and terrifying in their scale.

The Fall of Carthage promises to be accessible, but seems more suitable for the amateur armchair historian than general readers, assuming a broad familiarity with the ancient world and the basics of ancient warfare. The back cover promises "a colourful supporting cast of treacherous chieftains, beautiful princesses, scheming politicians and tough professional warriors." but Goldsworthy shows an academic's caution in playing up any of the dramatic elements - sources are always cited, specific numbers are debated and facts are only firmly presented as such when there is sufficient supporting evidence. As I have a scientific background I can't help but regard most popular histories as very unreliable ("But how do you know?"), so I'm quite happy with this prose style, but I could understand complaints that it reads a little dryly.

The material presented is certainly thorough, but the emphasis is generally on the military aspects - Cassel seems to be mainly a military history publisher - and while I've always had a certain disdain for armchair Napoleons I have to admit that the dissection of the set piece battles is fascinating. I would however have preferred a little more about Carthage proper, there is only a sketch of the city and culture presented. Another minor quibble is the lack of illustrations - several points in the text could have been clarified a lot with a picture, although perhaps there were colour plates in a hardback edition? The illustrations that accompany the discussion of battles are adequate, but again, for those of us not familiar with military history a couple of extra diagrams, or explanations of specific manoeuvres would have clarified matters. In a couple of places I also found the prose slightly unclear, I had to re-read to understand what subject the follow-on sentences referred to. In the same vein, I felt the editor should have tidied up follow-on sentence confusingly referring to a person by a different name than in the preceding sentence - especially when there are multiple Scipios and Barcids in the history!

Overall though, this is a very readable account of some very dramatic history in which Goldsworthy doesn't dumb down the use of sources, and the problems of interpretation. Definitely worth a look if you're interested in the period, even if it is only to enhance your enjoyment of trashy alternate histories...

Posted: Sat - December 27, 2003 at 01:34 PM