Contents: Greek historian Polybius records the rise of the Roman superpower from one hill besieged by Gauls in 390 BC to an empire spanning the known world, concentrating on the First and Second Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, but also describing contemporaneous events in Macedonia, Egypt, and Syria, providing a ‘world history’, notably for the years from 264 to 201 BC.
Originally in 39 books, Polybius starts in earnest with the events leading to the First Punic War. Having conquered the Italian peninsula, the Romans came into conflict with the Carthaginians (also known as the Punics) from north Africa (modern Tunisia) over adjoining Sicily. The Carthaginians were the greatest sea power of their time, and their land forces also had the added advantage of war elephants trained to advance and crush enemy infantry. Yet the Romans quickly developed a navy, the ability to navigate across seas rather than hug the coast, and a revolutionary grappling tool known as ‘the Raven’, which dropped onto opposing ships and allowed the Romans to pull enemy ships close and board them. Despite several disastrous naval losses by both storms and superior Carthaginian strategy, the Romans eventually became the victors and took control of Sicily.
Despite a truce that Carthaginian armies in Spain would not cross the River Ebro, Hannibal amassed an army and invaded Saguntum, a city allied with Rome but still on the Carthaginian side of Ebro. Hannibal’s hatred of Rome inherited from his father and the settlement terms of the First War urged him to continue onto Italy, with his famous crossing of the Alps with an army including 37 elephants. The crossing took its toll, both from ambushing tribesmen and the narrow and snow covered path, which combined to rob Hannibal of large numbers of soldiers and pack animals, and half his elephants. Once he reached northern Italy, he allied with some of the local Gauls and won several battles against the Romans. He stayed in the field in Italy for seventeen years skirmishing with the Roman forces, and at one point reached within 5 miles of the walls of Rome.
Carthage and Rome were vying for the whole world in this Second Punic War, and the brilliance of the young Roman general Scipio who took the fight to Spain and then Carthage itself eventually settled the toss.
My copy was the Penguin classic edition translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (ISBN 9780140443622), which contains most of books I through IV, with sections of books V-XII, XIV, XV, XVIII, XVIX, XXXI, XXXVI and XXXIX. 😉
My thoughts: Polybius seems even handed in his portrayals of both Roman and Carthaginian forces, and gives credit or blame wherever they are due, with high praise for both Hannibal and Scipio. However he is not as enamored with the other races, and is quite scathing in describing some of their treacherous acts.
Polybius wanted to show his readers how Rome became an empire, but he also offers a whole world view of history – showing how other wars at the same time in Greece, Illyria and Egypt provided opportunities or impacted on the strategies of the Romans.
He does interrupt his history at certain points to also discuss Roman government and military arrangements, which was useful background information, including pointing out a government model with an early version of the separation of powers : part monarchy (two consuls appointed on an annual basis), part oligarchy (a Senate controlling finances) and part democracy. But Polybius also spends my reading time attacking other historians, notably Timaeus. However, some of his own descriptions of the use and behavior of the elephants is a little suspect as well – the difficulties in getting them to cross a river (after all, elephants can swim) and their disastrous panic in the final battle (unlikely for trained war animals) just don’t ring true.
Favourite lines/passages: One of the best stories (and quite unexpected) was the role Archimedes the famous mathematician played in saving his home city of Syracuse from simultaneous attack by both the Roman army and navy, designing catapults to fling stones and iron darts at the enemy, and grappling machines to lift and capsize warships from the safety of the city walls (pages 366-368). Formulas to work out the area and volume of geometric shapes, or even the accurate calculation of pi, just don’t seem so impressive in comparison.
Diversions and digressions: The fascination of Hannibal’s use of elephants in his early and last campaign captures the imagination throughout the book. Where did he get them from : sub-Saharan Africa, in which case they would be the large and tempermental African elephant, or from Asia, perhaps trading with Persian merchants? How did the Carthaginians transport these elephants across the seas to Sicily to fight in the First Punic War if they had such difficulty getting them on rafts to cross the Rhone in the Second?
Personal rating: 5/10.
Kimmy’s rating: Kimmy was not as keen on the elephants as I was, and as for the Romans killing dogs in the captured cities!! No stars awarded there.
Next : In my excitement to start reading the Latin classics, I overlooked some Asian works. So back a century or so to discover the Buddhist verses outlining the path to Nirvana, in The Dhammapada.