Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War

  • By Dexter Hoyos
  • Oxford University Press
  • 327 pp.
  • Reviewed by Bret Mulligan
  • April 1, 2015

This lively retelling of the Punic Wars takes aim at the myth of inherent Roman supremacy.

In 241 BC, the leaders of the hilltop Italian town of Falerii made a ruinous decision: When their 50-year truce with Rome expired, they declared war. Six days later, Roman soldiers razed Falerii and forcibly relocated its survivors to the nearby plain, where they could never again challenge Rome’s dominion.

From the secure perch of history, the revolt of Falerii may strike us as the worst sort of folly. How could this insignificant town have imagined it could defeat Rome, which had just fought and won a 24-year war against Carthage, then the preeminent military and economic power in the western Mediterranean?

It may be easy to dismiss the Falerians as fools. Yet to do so is less a testament to their imprudence than our difficulty in imagining a world when Rome was still “becoming,” before its conquest of the Mediterranean seemed inevitable, before its empire became legend. To understand Rome, we must understand how its first empire was forged — and nearly lost — in its generations-long struggle against Carthage in the Punic Wars. It is this story that Dexter Hoyos tells and tells well in Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War.

The book explores why and how two republics with a history of commercial, diplomatic, and military cooperation fought three savage wars. At their conclusion, Carthage lay in ruins, while Rome had been transformed from a marginal power — the kind even small Falerii could hope to defeat — into the oncoming master of the Mediterranean basin.

The Punic Wars were a series of complex, sprawling conflicts waged across the Mediterranean Sea and in Sicily, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Africa over 120 years. But Hoyos unfolds the story of these wars and their combatants with acumen and restraint.

He does not seek to prove a grand theory of why Rome triumphed and Carthage failed. His brisk, lucid account remains fixed on assessing military events and decisions in their immediate context. It is a daring kind of history precisely because it refuses to force order on the messy, anarchic world of the past. With insight gained from a career spent untangling the history of these conflicts, Hoyos peers behind the myths that have grown around the wars.

For Hoyos, the Punic Wars must be understood as three distinct conflicts, none inevitable in their origin or outcome, yet each a component of an interconnected struggle for supremacy in the western Mediterranean. A “story blended of calculation and (just as often) miscalculation, heroism, cruelty, stubborn resolve, and the unexpected.”

In the first war (264-241 BC), mutual misunderstanding and opportunism transformed a trivial dispute between two Sicilian cities into a sporadic yet brutal war of attrition fought in and around Sicily.

The Second Punic War (218-201), a war of choice launched by Carthage to check Rome’s ascendency and ensure Carthaginian hegemony over the western Mediterranean, saw Rome threatened and then emerge triumphant after unprecedented carnage. In the first two years of the war, Hannibal’s army killed one in every six Italian males of military age. A half-century later, a dominant Rome annihilated the diminished city of Carthage after a brief but surprisingly hard-fought siege (149-146).

Hoyos resists the temptation to reduce this multigenerational conflict to a clash of personalities, as compelling as the duels between Hannibal and Fabius or Scipio might be. Likewise, he refuses to cast the Punic Wars as a struggle of west versus east or an inevitable clash between cultures, modes of government, or ethnicities.

For Hoyos, Rome’s victory was neither preordained nor the inevitable result of an inherently superior military or political culture. Instead, these were wars fought by “two western powers each under the powerful, and constantly growing, influence of the Hellenistic east.” Carthage’s successive defeats were born of “miscalculations and wrong decisions, exploited by better Roman choices.” Stripped of familiar tales of Rome’s inexorable triumph, we are left with an exhilarating freedom to consider how history might have swerved.

Shunned, too, are breathless accounts of the dusty, cacophonous terrors of ancient battle or many of the anecdotes that loom large in our popular imagination. One will search in vain for Hannibal’s infamous oath of eternal hostility against Rome. Yet Hoyos’ admirable — audacious even — resistance to sensationalizing history does not mean his account lacks spectacle.

There are countless moments that fire the imagination: the largest naval battle in history; the second-bloodiest day of fighting inflicted on a western army; the improbable appointment of a brilliant 31-year-old to lead Rome’s invasion of the Carthaginian homeland; and Roman soldiers breaching Carthage’s walls as her sybaritic last tyrant sneaks away and his abandoned wife immolates herself in the flames of the doomed city.

While Hoyos avoids spectacle for spectacle’s sake, there are moments in his history that may surprise. In his account, Hannibal was not a plucky underdog when he crossed the Alps in 218 (a feat dismissed as pedestrian), but the leader of a formidable state at least the economic and demographic equal of Rome. His invasion was not a brilliant roll of the dice, but a tactical and strategic disaster. His losses in the transit from Spain to Italy were inexcusable, and his belief that the Italians would welcome his invading army as liberators a staggering and foreseeable blunder.  

Hannibal’s efforts in the Second Punic War were not sabotaged by a lack of support in Carthage, where his partisans were firmly in control, but by the incompetence of nearly every other Carthaginian general and the superior initiative displayed by Roman generals after Cannae. It can be bracing to encounter such criticisms of one of the sacred cows of military history.

Hoyos wears his resistance to biographical or mythologizing history lightly. One finds ample criticism of ancient sources — Livy in particular comes in for a hard time — but one has to turn to the slender footnotes to find explicit evidence of rival modern historians.

Overall, the result is pleasing. We read an expert’s judgment untroubled by academic squabbles. Mastering the West offers a fluent introduction to the wars that set Rome on the threshold of a Mediterranean-spanning empire. It will also spur those who think they know these wars to reappraise long-held notions about Rome and her deadliest enemy.

Bret Mulligan is an associate professor of classics at Haverford College, where he teaches Greek and Roman literature and culture. He recently edited Nepos’ Life of Hannibal for Dickinson College Commentaries.

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