Gareth C. Sampson
(Pen & Sword, 2016) 278 pp. £25.00
Turning his attention a few centuries before the material for his previous book on the defeat of Rome against Persia at Carrhae, Gareth Sampson finds a profitable area of study for this thoughtful and excellent work on the territorial expansion of Rome and Carthage between the First and Second Punic Wars, managing to put the behavior of both Rome and Carthage in their proper context rather than seeing everything done during this period as simply a prelude to Rome’s war against Hannibal. A rare book-length treatment of this period, the author succeeds in bringing to life a forgotten and obscure part of Roman history and encouraging readers who are so inclined to take a glimpse at the scanty primary sources for the period.
The author’s seriousness about critically but faithfully examining the source material at hand can be gathered from the way that the mostly Roman and Greco-Roman sources are treated in the book. In the main body of the book itself the ancient sources are cited frequently, even where their accounts are apparently contradictory, and require delicacy in handling. After the main body of the book, which is slightly more than 200 pages, the author spends several pages discussing the extant and lost sources on both the Roman and Carthaginian side concerning this important but obscure period. After this the author provides a list of rulers of various areas of importance the narrative, not only Roman consuls but also the kings and queens of the Ardiaei, Epirus, and Macedon as well as the Barcids responsible for Carthage’s imperial expansion in Spain, discusses the possibility of a re-emergence of the Tribunate of the Plebs during this period, and examines the contentious matter of Rome’s manpower strength from Polybius.
The main contents of the book are no less worthy of interest among students of the military of the Roman Republic. The first two chapters give an account of Roman expansion in Italy and beyond before and after the First Punic War, showing Rome’s slow early growth and its opportunistic expansion into Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica immediately following the First Punic War. After this the author discusses the Gallic and Ligurian Wars between 238 and 230 BC, Rome’s first attack across the Adriatic in the First Illyrian War, and Carthaginian expansion in Spain and Rome’s response from 237 to 226 BC. Four chapters discuss the pivotal but often neglected Gallic War of 228-218 BC, where Rome’s initially tentative and fearful attitude towards the hated Gauls gradually changed into military dominance of northern Italy. The last two chapters of the book treat the consequences of expansion in the Second Illyrian War in the east and the Roman response to further Carthaginian expansion of Spain resulting in the outbreak of the Second Punic War.
Readers who appreciate a historical work like Robin Waterfield’s Taken At The Flood will likely find much to appreciate here as well, with a similar and similarly thoughtful examination of Roman grand strategy or its absence, the way that military and political factors influenced each other, and how the actions of Rome are not to be looked at in a vacuum but rather as part of a larger context including rival imperial powers like Carthage and Macedon as well as smaller city states and alliances of cities and where each war brought consequences and repercussions that led to further conflicts with old and new foes alike. In providing a serious and worthwhile narrative of the time between the First and Second Punic Wars, the author furthermore manages to avoid mentioning Hannibal until well into the book’s material, which is understandable given the tendency of many students of Roman history to view Hannibal as a man of destiny around whom the history of the age revolves, rather than a talented but originally peripheral character within the thoughts and ambitions and plans of Rome’s contemporary political and military leadership.
Among the author’s more worthwhile insights is a reappraisal of some of the forgotten leaders of the Roman Republic during this time, especially the brave and heroic L. Aemilius Papus, whose leadership led to the destruction of the myth of Gallic invincibility and even superiority in the course of a single massive battle at Telamon. Yet the author, as a profound student of Roman military history, shrewdly points out how the nature of the Roman political order with its short term of leadership and its rising tensions even at this early era between Senatorial and plebian interests led to Roman generals seeking personal glory at the head of armies or detachments at the occasional risk to damage or loss for the Roman Republic as a whole. Furthermore, the author’s discussion does not neglect a discussion of trade and economics as well as demographics and logistics, showing himself to be more than merely a student of battles.
The result is a book that is well worth reading for the student of classical Roman history. Both as a critical reassessment of the reputation of Rome’s obscure leaders during this period and as a book with considerable interest in military, political, and diplomatic history, this work has a lot to offer students of the Roman Republic for its research value as well as its pleasures as a book on a narrative level. Sampson shines a light on a dark corner of Roman history and finds Rome existing in a complicated world where it is rising from an Italian power to a regional power recognized and feared by others, and whose actions in order to defend the safety and security of its own realm and deal with its own political tensions lead to countermoves on the part of neighbors and rivals, making for a complicated picture of unintended consequences leading to decades of constant warfare and to the sudden and lasting rise of Roman influence around the Mediterranean basin, a subject which may very well be a future area of Sampson’s writing, given his clear interest in addressing the military history of the Roman Republic in enjoyable and well-researched books such as this one.