Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars, 264-146 BC.

(Essential Histories series) London: Osprey Publishing, 2002.

The century of wars between Rome (then in its “adolescent” phase) and the great Phoenician mercantile empire based at Carthage is not a major area of study among today’s history students, but as an undergrad Classical History major (an academic strategic error I later corrected), I spent an entire semester sorting out what all happened, and why, and what the immediate and long-term results were. I sure wish I’d had this book.

The author had a long and varied career in the British army, ending up as Chief of the General Staff, and was subsequently a Fellow in military history at Balliol. And it’s clear he knows his stuff. He carefully lays out the historical background of the two contending cultures and the strategic geography with which they had to deal, and also their very different attitudes toward military action. Each of the three wars (separated by brief periods of breath-catching if not actual peace) consisted of simultaneous operations in different theaters, but Bagnall prefers to follow the fighting in each geographical zone from beginning to end, and then to backtrack a bit for the next one. Given the complexity of the whole contest, this was probably the best approach. While giving full attention to the personalities involved — especially Hannibal and Scipio Africanus — he’s really more interested in the social and political forces behind the war.

This more recent series by Osprey is longer than their others, running to 96 pages. It departs from their earlier practice of putting all the color plates in one signature (a production decision based on economics) and has spread color illustrations throughout the volume. Unfortunately, those which reproduce present-day photos of battle sites (as opposed to photos of paintings and sculpture) tend not to be very well reproduced, which pulls down the overall quality of the work. There are also way too many typos and questionable spellings and dates, which could have been avoided by closer attention to copyediting. Still, Bagnall has done an excellent job of providing a concise introduction to a complicated subject, which is exactly what Osprey aims to do in all its series. And there’s a brief but thoughtful bibliography into which the interested reader can sink a great deal more time. The author’s work, then, is first-rate, but he hasn’t been especially well served by his editors and production staff.

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