Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Dexter Hoyos, Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War. Ancient warfare and civilization. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxi, 337. ISBN 9780199860104. $29.95.

Reviewed by Fred K. Drogula, Providence College (

Version at BMCR home site


Dexter Hoyos is a leading authority on ancient Carthage and its wars with Rome, and his numerous works have advanced our understanding of these subjects.1 In Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War, Hoyos takes up the daunting tasks of giving a detailed narrative of the three Punic Wars and their intervening periods, of analyzing the catalysts and motives driving critical events in these wars, of drawing attention to problems in our evidence, and of working through those problems to present the best reconstruction possible. Hoyos also asks several larger questions in his work, such as why the three Punic Wars (and related Macedonian Wars) began, how Carthage and Rome were able to sustain the immense costs of the wars, and why winning the wars did not leave Rome enfeebled. In all of these areas he has succeeded admirably, and has produced an engaging and highly readable work that will attract a wide readership.

The book is organized into four parts: the first introduces Rome and Carthage, and explains their respective military resources and early histories, while each of the remaining parts examines one of the three Punic Wars. The two periods separating the Punic Wars (241-218 and 201-149 BC) are covered in parts Two and Four, and Part Four ends with a section of general conclusions. A number of maps and plans of battles are included in the introduction, and the end matter includes an appendix on the sources, a detailed timeline, a glossary of special terms, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

Part One consists of two chapters introducing Rome and Carthage from their respective foundations to 264 BC, with special attention given to describing and comparing their military practices and capacities. These chapters are detailed and yet concise, providing the general reader with all of the background information necessary to follow the main arguments of the book.

The first Punic War (264-241 BC) and its aftermath are covered in four chapters making up Part Two. Particular attention is given to examining the traditional causes given for the outbreak of the war. Rejecting the common position that the expansion of their respective spheres of influence made war between Rome and Carthage inevitable, Hoyos argues that neither side wished to attack the other in 264 BC, and that "the Punic Wars began almost out of the blue" (278). He believes Rome's invasion of Sicily in 264 BC was aimed specifically at Syracuse, and that war between Roman and Carthaginian forces only became unavoidable when the Roman army—seeking plunder—moved into Carthaginian-controlled western Sicily (30-40). Hoyos clearly lays out the stages of this twenty-three-year-war and provides a critical analysis of the actions taken by each side. He highlights mediocre commanders and decision-making on both sides, and he points out strange puzzles, such as why it took the Romans so long to build a significant battle fleet, and why Carthage often hesitated to capitalize on its major victories. Hoyos not only gives a clear narrative of the often awkward progress of this war, but he carefully links together the different stages and shifting strategies to give greater insight into the reasons why the war developed as it did. In his discussion of the first interwar period (241-218 BC), he draws special attention to Rome's seizure of Sardinia as an event that made long-term peace between the two states unlikely (76-7), and he gives a thorough analysis of the sack of Saguntum and its role (or lack thereof) in the outbreak of the Second Punic War (88-94).

Part Three treats the great Second Punic War (218-201 BC) in five chapters, which together comprise nearly half of the book. The chronological narrative of the war is told from both Roman and Carthaginian perspectives, and provides critical discussions of important points throughout, which will give even experts on the period much to consider. For example, Hoyos gives lengthy attention to the effectiveness of the Roman armies in opposing Hannibal during the years after the Battle of Cannae, showing that Hannibal's fatal problem was his inability to protect those Italian cities that joined him (132ff. 145, 186, 189-90). Hoyos also returns several times to the inexplicable delay of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal in bringing reinforcements from Spain, which could have turned the tide for Hannibal (115, 145, 151, 154, 170, 179, 196, 223). The military genius of P. Cornelius Scipio (Africanus) and the tactical abilities of his soldiers are emphasized as critical Roman innovations (172-83), and the complicated chronology of the peace negotiations before the Battle of Zama is well analyzed (204-14). Hoyos is careful with his sources, and draws attention to many inaccuracies and problems, including erroneous legends about Hannibal's crossing of the Alps (105-7), errors in Livy's version of Hannibal's treaty with Philip of Macedon (135), problematic chronology in the invasion of Spain under the Scipio brothers (165-71), and he points out that the climactic Battle of Zama was not actually fought at Zama (213). The final chapter of Part Three ends with an assessment of the Second Punic War, in which Hoyos points out that the two sides were fairly matched at the start of the war, and therefore neither side was preordained to win (221-2). He identifies Hannibal's chief error as the miscalculation that "a sequence of heavy defeats would be enough to overturn Italians' support for their hegemon and compel the Romans to peace on Punic terms" (222), although he also points to a number of second-rate Carthaginian generals and a number of mistakes made by Hannibal himself (222-3). Rome is also credited with a number of errors, in particular calling off the planned invasion of Africa in 218 BC, but the appointment of Scipio Africanus to the Spanish command in 210 BC and the Roman victory in the Battle of Metaurus in 207 BC are noted as critical events that tilted Rome towards victory (224-5).

Part Four treats the interwar period from 201-149 BC and the Third Punic War in two chapters, with a final section for general conclusions. Hoyos starts by laying out the rapid expansion of Rome's empire in the second century BC, and explains the complicated dynamics between Carthage and King Masinissa of Numidia during this interwar period. He points out that Rome protected Carthage from its aggressive neighbor for over three decades, but around 162 BC this changed as Rome—fearful or resentful at Carthage's financial recovery—began allowing Masinissa to seize Carthaginian territory. The war itself (149-146 BC) is explained in detail, emphasizing Rome's initial over-confidence, the problems with its siege of Carthage, and finally its victory under Scipio Aemilianus. Hoyos includes a lengthy analysis of the causes for this third war, discussing the motives provided by ancient and modern sources (270-6). He concludes that—in spite of Cato the Elder's statements to the contrary—no Roman could have believed that Carthage's recovery was a serious threat to Rome's empire, so the war was more likely motivated by greed for plunder, although he notes that Rome did not extract as much profit from its victory as it could have done (273). In his final conclusions, Hoyos notes that Rome and Carthage were both heavily influenced by Greek culture, raising the question of whether western civilization would have been substantially different if Carthage had been the victor in the Punic Wars (297).

On the whole, Mastering the West offers a great deal to its readers. It is a careful narrative of the Punic Wars, and Hoyos' expertise in Carthaginian history enables him to approach the topic from a perspective that is sympathetic to both Carthage and Rome. This makes his account much fuller and richer, as he is able to identify and correct errors about Carthaginian government made by ancient authors (e.g. 61, 219, 223-4, 238-42, 249-50). He critiques both sides equally, and points out when ancient sources tried to whitewash Roman mistakes or immoral actions. For example, he points to Rome's unjust seizure of Sardinia in 237 BC as killing any chance that Rome and Carthage could co-exist peacefully (76-7); he notes that the deaths of the two Scipio brothers in Spain and the destruction of their armies in 211 BC was caused by their own overconfidence (170); he argues that Scipio (Africanus)—not Hannibal—was responsible for breaking the peace treaty that Rome and Carthage had agreed to shortly before the Battle of Zama (211); and he emphasizes that Cato the Elder lied about the danger posed by Carthage in order to incite war (251 and 271). He is equally unsparing of the Carthaginians, many of whose leaders receive blistering criticism for their errors or inaction—he suggests that Hannibal's "once-sharp military skills seemingly lost their edge" after the Battle of Cannae (222), and Bomilcar is dubbed "Carthage's worst admiral in history" (162).

Hoyos also takes the time to explore interesting tangential questions that greatly enrich the book, such as occasionally pausing his narrative to discuss important problems of topography and place names, and to correct mistakes of geography in the accounts of ancient authors. Similarly, he explains how the Romans used specially marked timbers to mass-produce their first fleet starting in 261 BC (41); he argues that—contrary to romantic tradition—Masinissa was probably willing to sacrifice his new wife Sophoniba to protect his alliance with Rome (206); and he even explains the origins of the erroneous tradition that Scipio Aemilianus sprinkled salt on the ruins on Carthage in 146 BC (269). Hoyos manages gaps and conflicts in the evidence well, positing likely solutions when possible, but also noting when we lack sufficient information to draw conclusions.

The book itself is well produced, is virtually free from typos or other errors, and is written in a lively style that will engage both the general reader and the expert. The use of endnotes is kept to a minimum, but the book itself is well researched and the notes are useful.

Mastering the West offers its readers the fruits of Hoyos' expertise in both Carthaginian and Roman cultures. With sympathy and criticism for both sides, he skillfully leads his reader through the complex history of the Punic Wars, reaching beyond the maneuvering of armies to explore the motives, catalysts, and decision-making that lay between the battles. This will certainly become a fundamental text for studying both the Roman Republic and Carthage.


1.   His books include: Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars, (Berlin and New York 1998), Hannibal's Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 BC, (London and New York 2003), Truceless War: Carthage's Fight for Survival, 241 to 237 BC, (Leiden and Boston 2007), The Carthaginians, (London and New York 2010), and he is the editor for Oxford's A Companion to the Punic Wars, (Malden [MA], Oxford and Chichester 2011) and Brill's A Companion to Roman Imperialism, (Leiden and Boston 2013).

No comments:

Post a Comment