Born in India in 1927, Sir Nigel Bagnall served as Chief of the General Staff in London for the British Army in the late 1980s. In his survey of the Punic Wars between the rival city-states of Rome, and Carthage he bestows upon the reader notable erudition of the subject paired with the employment of his vast practical experience as a soldier in the British Army. The blending of his learnedness in both capacities lends to manifest an uncommon narrative of the life and death struggle among the two ancient superpowers – with Rome emerging as the ultimate victor. Bagnall likewise intercedes his own narrative with a chunk of commentary following the telling of the events of the First Punic War, and it is in this commentary that the book sets itself apart from other histories.
“When comparing the constitutions of Rome and Carthage, Polybius concludes that Rome was at its zenith when the Senate was at the height of its power and that its decisions were usually sound because they were being made by the best men available. Carthage on the other hand, because its strength and prosperity had preceded that of Rome, was past its prime by the time of the Punic Wars, and the people had gained too much power. In making this assessment, Polybius, however appears to have only considered the constitution as it affected a city state and to have overlooked the wider fact that, whereas Rome had forged a confederation of states which held together even when gravely threatened, Carthage had merely created a feudal empire with no sense of corporate loyalty.
“Although there will admittedly never be any way of determining exactly why Carthage and Rome went to war, there are nevertheless two clearly identifiable factors which made such a war more probable. First, that the Romans saw an opportunity to advantage themselves, and second, that because they saw that the Carthaginians were unprepared militarily they succumbed to this temptation. Nothing appears to have changed in human nature during the last twenty centuries. Whether as individuals, or collectively, most of the human race displays an unfortunate proclivity for opportunism unless deterred by the threat of sufficiently painful consequences.
“Although the terminology is today’s, it will still be helpful at this point briefly to distinguish between the three levels of war:
Strategic Level The definition of the strategic objectives to be achieved in fulfillment of government policy.
Operational Level The planning and execution of military operations to achieve stated strategic objectives.
Tactical Level The planning and conduct of battles in pursuit of the operational aim.
In nontechnical language: having decided what you want to do, you plan how this is to be achieved and coordinate the actual battles to be fought in its fulfillment.
“The effectiveness of Hannibal’s administrative and constitutional reforms, however, is demonstrated by the continuing rise in Carthaginian prosperity even after his flight. In 191 BC, Carthage offered to pay off the whole of the war indemnity, while supplying large quantities of grain to provision the Roman armies – offers which either for reasons of hurt pride, or from a desire not to end symbols of Punic subservience, were disdainfully declined. No more than the fulfillment of her treaty obligations was expected of Carthage. But how far Carthage was prepared to go in order to placate the Romans and show her loyalty as an ally is indicated by the presence of Carthaginian contingents fighting alongside them in their wars against Philip, Antiochus and Perseus.
“Following the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus endeavored to ensure that Rome’s attitude to Carthage was one of moderation. But he did not survive the political infighting, and with his departure came a reversion, under the leadership of Cato, to the earlier policy of vigorous confrontation with Carthage. After being threatened and having disarmed to demonstrate their willingness to placate Rome under almost any circumstances, the Carthaginians were obliterated. The lesson here is writ large and clear. It is the longterm predisposition of states which should govern our relationships with them, not the ephemeral appearances of some charismatic leader.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage and the Struggle for the Mediterranean, Nigel Bagnall, Pimlico.
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