Saturday, October 23, 2010

From the shelves of the Paco library

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.’

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.
The more things change…

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.


mojo said...

The Romans were, as a rule, lousy sailors. The Phoenician-derived Carthaginians were not. Their effective ownership of the Med sea lanes (and the tons of money they brought) were what the fight was about.

Boy on a bike said...

OT - been out for a spin, have you?

Paco said...

B on a B: Drool!

RebeccaH said...

Thanks for the tip, Paco. I loved the Steven Saylor books so much, I'll definitely look for this one.

Steve Skubinna said...

Odd, I'm just now reading The Ghosts of Cannae by Robert O'Connell. Nonfiction, specifically about the Second Punic War but of course it has to deal with the run-up. During the First War, the Romans probably lost more lives to storms at sea than to Carthaginian military action. On the other hand, their dogged tenacity in creating a fleet from scratch and beating Carthage at their own game is impressive.

The most interesting part of the book, to me, is the focus on the gross misunderstandings the Carthaginians had of Roman culture and why they had no hope of defeating them however many legions Hannibal chewed up.

It also makes the point that the Second War was probably more the result of the Barcid's hatred of Rome than of Carthaginian state policy. The first was, simply enough, a struggle for control of Sicily. It was that island's unsuitability for legion based warfare and plethora of fortified coastal cities that convinced the Romans that their only way to beat Carthage was to break their hold on the sea lanes.

History geek? Me? Surely you jest.

RebeccaH said...

Thanks, Steve S. Another book to look up.

Yes, I love ancient history, the real thing first and foremost, but also fictionalized stories of people who might have lived in those eras.