Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.11

J.F. Lazenby, The First Punic War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. Pp. xvii + 205, 9 figures. $45.00. ISBN 0-8047-2673-6.

Reviewed by Hugh Elton, Trinity College, CT,

It might seem baffling that the First Punic War, a war lasting 23 years (264-241 BC), involving what is arguably the largest naval battle in history, has not been the subject of a monograph before now. But we know remarkably little about a war which lasted so long, and this, not a lack of interesting or important events, explains why the First Punic War has had so little attention paid to it. Now we have a book, nicely produced, with clear maps and virtually no misprints.1 It's also cheaply available in paperback for which the publishers are to be congratulated.

Lazenby (L.) approaches the subject in a straightforward fashion. Chapters on sources and state structures are followed by a narrative, closing with a conclusion and an epilogue. The first chapter, concerning the sources for the war, sets the tone for the whole book. The major source is Polybius, who is to be trusted 'unless there is a very good reason to take the contrary view' (6, cf 45-46). Polybius is supplemented by Livian derivatives (the Periochae, Eutropius, Orosius, de viris illustribus), fragments of Diodorus Siculus and Cassius Dio (via Zonaras). The last major source is the triumphal descriptions. Archaeology is of no help here.

The state of the source material means that we are forced to interpret events through Polybius, regardless of whether we can confirm anything he says or whether we can compare him with any other source. At the same time, the paucity of information means that L. is reluctant to dismiss anything. An analysis of Polybius is followed by an analysis of Diodorus, then an admission that either might be right, no strong commitment to either, but a general tendency to follow Polybius. It's not L.'s fault, however, that there is little source material, and Polybius faced similar problems. Polybius could not interview participants, as he did for his account of the second war and had to rely on two main sources, Philinus and Fabius Pictor. But Pictor probably used Philinus, and Diodorus certainly did. Livy used both Pictor and Polybius and his account was then recycled into the derivatives. This means that many of the usual tests of source material, comparing one against another to determine the most trustworthy tradition, have far less value: we are rarely able to know which material is derived from which tradition, particularly with the loss of Livy's original text, and all our sources depend to some extent on the lost Philinus.

The second chapter outlines constitutions and military structures of both Rome and Carthaginians in the mid-third century BC. This is brief and clear and provides a solid basis for what follows. The assertion that the pilum was probably introduced before the war (14), is made on the grounds that 'it is difficult to believe that soldiers would have been trained in the use of essentially different weapons in the midst of a war'. He may be right about the date of introduction, but I find it hard to accept it had to be brought in before 264, given both the simple nature of the pilum and the time-consuming cycle of raising armies and transporting them from central Italy to Sicily which would have given time for the training needed.2

The next eight chapters cover the war in a chronological narrative, based on Polybius, probably the best way to write a history of the war. Each chapter consists of a detailed discussion of the source material for the episodes covered, several of which are usually problematic. This means that there is very little narrative flow to these chapters, while the discussion is frequently inconclusive. Thus in the third chapter, there is a long discussion (37-41) of what the arguments in the senate might have been for Rome to go to war with Carthage, none of which seem well-proven, even to L., who concludes 'we are simply not in a position to know even what was actually said in the Senate and before the People, let alone what was really going on in the minds of the speakers' (41). L. is right, of course, about this, but in every section, all available sources are discussed and L. is extremely reluctant to dismiss any of them. In discussing numbers, for example, although he clearly prefers Polybius, he repeatedly forces himself to make a series of arguments that could lead to using other numbers, usually from Diodorus (124 for one example).

Other problems are smaller. Our sources only enable us to discuss operational matters so we can never discuss in any detail events on a battlefield, or the reasons why certain operational decisions were taken. L. insists throughout that the Romans should not be seen as having any intelligence or scouting ability (84, 90), though in making this a priori assumption he is as guilty as those he blames for arguing there was such an ability.3 The context of warfare in southern Italy before the 270s is mostly ignored. There is a brief discussion of Pyrrhus, but nothing on the Carthaginians in fourth-century Sicily, and very little about Agathocles. L. even argues that the idea of using their fleet against Africa did not occur to the Romans until 256 (73, 81), and uncertainly suggests a complete ignorance of Agathocles (81) and Pyrrhus' plans, something that strikes me as unlikely. Discussions with Tarentines or the Syracusans would arguably have passed on such news, while L. himself attributes basic understanding of the new realities of naval warfare to one of the Roman commanders of 263 Valerius Messalla (54 and c6 n1). L. continues to trust Polybius implicitly, even where P. suggests (1.20.10) that no one in Italy had quinqueremes (63-4). One wonders how far behind the Italians might be in naval affairs, since both the Syracusans and Carthaginians (like all eastern navies at this point) had quinqueremes. The Romans probably saw them in 279 when Mago's fleet sat off Rome (33).4 In the same vein, more could be said on the role of Syracuse and the other Sicilian allies after Hiero's surrender.5 Syracuse had much to offer Rome and it seems unlikely that she was completely ignored.

On a more positive note, the interpretation of the evidence, while often labored, is always clear and almost invariably correct (the argument from an indirect speech at 87 is most unusual). Evidence is always interpreted in the spirit of 'what really happened?'. In this respect, one of the major strengths of the work is L.'s wide awareness of military history (1, 42, 111, 186n5). Thus the story of how a Roman ship was able to cross a harbor chain is corroborated by an example from 19th century British naval history -- Polybius need not be inventing this (147 and 190n4). The only point at which I felt any doubt about this was in the description of the battle of Ecnomus (91). L. argues that the Carthaginians had to have seen the Roman deployment in order to make their plan work, although the plan attributed to the Carthaginians (to surround the enemy (94)), hardly needed such detailed knowledge. They only needed to know that the Roman fleet would be hugging the shore. Otherwise, his interpretations are sure-footed, and there are several wonderful insights, as in the description of the defeat of Regulus in Africa in 255, where L. suggests that Xanthippus may have seen Pyrrhus use elephants outside Sparta in the late 270s (103).

Though interesting points are often raised, the rigid chronological format does not lend itself well to discussion of problems or practices. One problem of great interest is how much of the Roman army wintered in Sicily. If all troops stayed in Sicily over the winter, then there would be a continually growing Roman force pool, but this seems not to be the case. Conversely, if all troops went home for the winter, then the strategic situation would be renewed every spring. Again, this did not happen. Although L. refers to this problem on several occasions (51-2, 54, 74, 85-6, 116), there is no single consolidated discussion which might have shed some light on Roman campaigning practices. The Carthaginians seem not to have been concerned about bringing men home.

A second area of interest is the occasional suggestion that political and military ideas ran within Roman families (40, 63, 82). Although this should probably be rejected (and L. himself does not show a great deal of confidence in it), it does prompt questions on a bigger issue, of how strategy (i.e. how wars were fought) was determined. Although there is a large literature on why the Republican aristocracy fought, less attention has been paid to the mechanics of strategic decision making (20 cf 98). In this respect, the omission of Eckstein, A.M., Senate and General (Berkeley, 1987) from the bibliography is baffling, given that Eckstein devotes some 60 pages and 3 appendices to the events of the war.

It is not until the conclusion that L. has a chance to stand back and make some large-scale interpretative points. The most important point here is the weakness of Carthaginian strategy -- they seem always to be reacting to Roman initiatives. This may depend on our sources, but L.'s comment (168) 'To Rome, wars ended when the Republic dictated its terms to a defeated enemy: to Carthage, wars ended with a negotiated settlement' goes a long way towards explaining eventual Roman success, both here and in other wars.

Lastly (and a small point), I wonder how successful this book will be in finding its audience. Academics will appreciate the detailed end notes and frequent source citations, but will miss the thematic analysis. They may still need to refer to Walbank occasionally, but L. quotes from the text where needed and on average devotes twice as much space as Walbank to issues. L. is also more concerned with military affairs than Walbank. On the other hand, non-academic readers will appreciate the carefully written introductory chapters and the narrative approach, but may find the frequent source-discussions and the presence of numerous references in the text itself off-putting. However, both groups will find the paperback edition pleasing. Overall, as one would expect from L., this is a solid work of military history that covers most of what there is to say about the war. This is not a book which will need to be written again.


  • [1] Note L.'s own article in International History Review is 9 (1987).
  • [2] Cf. Bishop, M. and Coulston, J., Roman Military Equipment (London, 1993), 50 for possible fourth-century BC examples and archaeological finds.
  • [3] Unfortunately, the most recent book on Roman military intelligence, Austin, N. and Rankov, B., Exploratio (London, 1995), starts with the Second Punic War.
  • [4] Agathocles' fleet with 5s and 6s, DS 21.16.1, cf. DS 22.8.5, a royal 9. Pyrrhus must have had at least one 7, since Hannibal's flagship at Mylae was a 7 captured from him (70).
  • [5] Eckstein, A.M., "Unicum subsidium populi Romani: Hiero II and Rome, 263-215 BC", Chiron 10 (1980), 183-203.