Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pride of Carthage - David Anthony Durham

I'm a little behind on my reading again so I moved an older piece to this blog. This review was written in October 2008, a period in which I read more historical fiction than I do at the moment. I did some minor editing as usual, it needed less than most of the stuff I wrote back then I'll be back next week with a fresh review of Black Hills by Dan Simmons.

David Anthony Durham recently ventured into fantasy with his book Acacia: The War with the Mien and its sequel Other Lands. Before that he wrote a number of historical novels, making him a very interesting writer for a reader likes me,who likes both fantasy and historical fiction (and hybrids thereof). Pride of Carthage tells the story of the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) and Hannibal’s campaign against the Roman republic. A decisive moment in the history of Rome. I haven’t read any of Durham’s other books but after reading this one I may have to put one or two on my to read list.

After Carthage’s defeat in the fist Punic war it takes the Carthaginians several decades to rebuild their strength. The loss of their fleet in particular is a severe blow to their pride and power. Wealth keeps flowing into the city however and soon Cathage expands its influence again. Under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca the empire expands into Iberia, where its sphere on influence brushes with Rome’s once again. The tension mounts and when Rome declares the city of Saguntum, well within Carthage’s sphere of influence, a protectorate. War is beginning to look more likely by the day. Hannibal, by that time in control of the Iberian possessions of Carthage, decides not to wait for the Roman invasion. Still lacking a fleet of decent size he sets out on an epic march across the Alps into the Roman republic itself.

The book follows Hannibal’s exploits in Italy, his victories at Trebia and Lake Trasimene and of course his most famous victory and Cannae in 216 BC. A battle during which Hannibal’s smaller force managed to encircle and butcher a large Roman army. It is one of Rome’s greatest defeats and a tactical masterpiece that is still studied by soldiers and historians alike. The road to Rome lies open, the republic is in a state of panic, visions of the sack of Rome at the hands of Brennus in 387 BC haunt the Roman citizens. Lacking reinforcements from Carthage, the leaders of the city appear displeased with Hannibal’s initiative to start a war with Rome, he decides not to besiege the city but continue to fight his war of attrition on Italian soil. The wisdom of this decision is still debated but it did mark the turning point in the second Punic war. From then on Rome would gain the upper hand until Hannibal’s ultimate defeat by one of Rome’s greatest generals, Scipio Africanus, at the battle of Zama in 202 BC.

Durham tells the story of Hannibal’s war from a number of different points of view. From the great general himself to his brothers and wife, but also from several Roman points of view and those of ordinary soldiers and camp followers. In doing so Durham ensures the readers gets a detailed look at what ancient warfare entailed. The author describes it in harsh detail in fact. Although Hanibal himself does not come across as a brutal or cruel man in the book, he orders the destruction of complete Saguntum and he accepts the fact that a large portion of his army will not survive journey to meet the Romans in battle on their own soil. The battle scenes are plentiful and detailed and a lot of blood was spilled even for the standards of the time in Hannibal’s war. Durham captures the frantic, often desperate action of these battles very well.

Despite all this action I thought the book was a bit slow in the beginning. The first part of the book deals mostly with the situation in Iberia and the rising tension between Rome and Carthage. The author takes his time setting the stage. Once Hannibal starts moving the pace rapidly increases though. Durham has divides the book in 5 parts, each about 100 pages long and dealing with a specific phase in the conflict. I prefer shorter chapters or parts, whatever you want to call them, simply because I don’t like to stop reading in the middle of one. I’m not always in the position where I can sit down and read a hundred pages in one go. Durham doesn’t provide many points where you can put the book down easily. Of course this became harder as the book progressed anyway.

The author follows history closely as far as I can tell. Historical material on Carthage is pretty scarce. Decades after the Second Punic War, Roman senator Cato the Elder spoke the famous words “Carthago delenda est” and, after repeating them in the senate every chance he got, Rome agreed. In 146 BC the city was completely destroyed, it’s citizens sold into slavery or killed and the historical record destroyed. Oddly enough there seems to be a lack of material from the Roman side as well. Most of it dates from well after the events themselves. And Romans had the tendency to make much of their enemies after they had defeated them (see Micheal Curtis Ford's The Last King for an other example of that). The picture the author paints of Hannibal is one of a sympathetic man in a way. One who is slowly worn down by the responsibility he carries. Probably not the way a Roman would have described him but I found it plausible enough. Durham has certainly put in a lot of effort in getting the details on life in ancient times right. The details of life in the various places the novel is set and those of the campaigns in particular give his book a very realistic feel.

One could say the ending of the books is a bit abrupt I suppose. Hannibal’s career doesn’t end after Zama. He will be an important factor in Carthage’s political scene for several years after than until he is eventually exiled in 195 BC. His military brilliance seems to have ended after Zama though. He faces Roman armies in battle as a mercenary general during his exile but never with much success. I that light it certainly makes sense to end the book there. Pride of Carthage is an interesting retelling of Hannibal’s tale. I enjoyed reading it a great deal but if you consider reading this book keep in mind that it is pretty heavy on military action.

Book Details
Title: Pride of Carthage
Author: David Anthony Durham
Publisher: Anchor Books
Pages: 568
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-385-72249-4
First published: 2005

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