I’ve only gotten half-way through this book, but I’m already prepared to recommend it without qualification. Ship of Rome, by John Stack, is the first in what appears to be a promising new series in the genre of nautical fiction, centering on the struggle between Rome and Carthage. Stack has created a compelling duo of heroes – Atticus, captain of a warship in the nascent Roman navy, and his friend Septimus, a centurion of marine infantry – and set them in the forefront of the war in Sicily, where Carthage’s impressive naval superiority vies with Republican Rome’s highly disciplined army for control of the island.
Stack has given substance, as well, to certain real-life characters: Hannibal Gisco, the ferocious Carthaginian admiral; Hamilcar Barca, representative of the governing council of Carthage; and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, the ambitious senior consul of Rome. The world in which they live is harsh, the times violent and the ultimate stakes in this clash of powers enormous, as it becomes evident that one or the other must and will be destroyed.
The author has a comprehensive understanding of the history of the period and a fine grasp of the nautical technology and military strategy and tactics peculiar to the Punic Wars. He has also woven a number of subplots into the story, including Atticus’ burgeoning love for Septimus’ sister (which affair strains the friendship of the two men to the breaking point, as Atticus is of Greek extraction, and Septimus and his family are natives of the city of Rome). One minor, but amusing, aspect of the story is the age-old rivalry between soldiers and marines.
While the battle action and the desperate preparations for war are among the strongest features of the book, I couldn’t help but smile and shake my head as I read this passage on the author’s description of Senate deliberations:
’And so, my esteemed colleagues of the senate, I now call for a vote on my revised proposal, I call for a division of the house to settle the matter.’The more things change…
Scipio sat down and surveyed the crowded chamber with inner disgust. The senators were having mumbled conversations with those around them at this new call to vote. Scipio had estimated that it would take a week for the senate to decide on a course of action to defeat the Carthaginian blockade. He had been wrong. The debate was now in its tenth day and the seemingly endless rounds of debate and voting, over ridiculously minor points, had frayed his patience to a thread. On the fifth day the senate had finally decided that a fleet was needed. The following two days had been taken up with a decision on the size of the fleet and two days after that on how the fleet would be financed. Only now were the senators debating the command of the campaign.
In my bookish way, I am quite excited by the appearance of this new series, and am certainly enjoying the first volume. You may, too.