Book Review: S. Lancel’s ‘Carthage’ and E. Luttwak’s ‘The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire’

Groningen, 03-12-2017 AD*,

Over the last few weeks I read in sequence two books about two ancient Mediterranean countries. Lancel’s ‘Carthage: A History’ provides us with a summary on everything we know about Carthaginian (a.k.a. Punic) history known up and to the time of writing (1992). The book therefore spans the centuries from 800BC to 146BC (the year Carthage was destroyed by the Roman legions of Scipio Africanus the younger). Luttwak’s ‘The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire’ does not address the Punic Wars, as it specifically focuses on the Roman army of the Empire, so it starts with Augustus and it ends with the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century. Luttwak provides us with a thorough elaboration of the grand strategy of the Roman Empire, both in terms of its goals, and the military strategies and tactics that followed from those goals.

S. Lancel — Carthage

What we know of Carthage is perhaps the epitome of history being written by the victors, as most of our elaborate written sources on Carthage are Roman. While we know a lot about the Punic (Punic, as Carthage initially was a Phoenician colony) language, we know much less about how Carthaginians viewed the world and their place in that world. Unfortunately, we do not have many literary sources, either in Punic or translated into Latin or Greek, from Carthage. Also, the thorough destruction of Carthage by the Romans in 146BC, and the subsequent Roman urban planning means that we also lack enough trustworthy archaeological sources to have a more thorough understanding of Punic history.

Nevertheless, this book is a very readable and interesting summary of everything that was known of Carthage in 1992. Lancel clearly knows his subject, and as a good historian he always explains why he interprets the literary or archaeological sources in a certain way. This provides the read with an overview of the different interpretations of Carthaginian history, as much unclarity persists. Lancel guides the reader through Carthage’s history, starting with its foundation in the 8th century BC by Phoenician colonists, the subsequent rise of Carthage as a prosperous commercial city, its first engagements with the Romans, the construction of an empire in Africa and Spain and several Mediterranean islands, and the dramatic fall of Carthage.

Doing so Lancel does manage to bring Punic society to life once more to a certain degree, he addresses the funeral rites, religious beliefs and Punic art, and he generally shows the Punic side of Mediterranean ancient history. Moreover, he addresses how the peculiar geography of a city in the middle of the Mediterranean shaped Carthage’s military and commercial foreign policies. While at first Carthage paid tribute to the African lords in the area, the city grew in terms of population and wealth. This allowed it to found outposts elsewhere in the Western Mediterranean, which grew into a naval empire. After the defeat in the first and second Punic war, Carthage started subjecting Northern Africa and southern Spain, thus trying to gain strength in areas outside Roman reach. Alas this was to no avail.

My main critique is the lack of attention for Carthage’s economy. As a commercial city much must actually be known about its economy, especially because we do not solely have to rely on Carthaginian archaeological sites, but can also rely on Greek, Roman, Egyptian and other sites. While Lancel does give a short overview of what Carthage exported and how its agriculture functioned (large estates, lots of slaves), I would have been very interested in how exports changed over time, what technological innovation took place in Carthage, and literally anything that is known about the institutions that governed its economy.

Nevertheless, this is an amazing book, which gives a great overview of Carthaginian history, a history of the ultimate losers, but also of a commercially minded city with a long history, in which it knew great glory and prosperity. Yet, it is clearly a work of history (as a discipline), so do not expect juicy stories and outrageous claims. Rather, Lancel’s goal is to find the truth, even if it is less juicy boring than what ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about the Carthaginians. As a work of history it is a great book, but it is less suitable for reading in bed to wind down, perhaps.

E. Luttwak — The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

The basic thesis of Luttwak’s book is that the Roman Empire used three different strategies with different goals throughout its existence. During the first century of the Roman Empire, starting with Augustus (27 BC) and ending with Nero (68 AD). In this era the Roman Empire mostly copied the security system also used by the Republic before. This system relied on two main pillars, firstly the Roman legions, secondly on the client states. The former provided the Roman Empire with the military power to defeat any power in its vicinity, to the degree that after the Roman Empire had stopped expanding, for a good 2 centuries there was no single power left to fundamentally threaten it. The legions were also important to keep in control of the client states, who performed the role of limiting low-intensity violence in the Roman border areas. That is, the client states protected the Roman border from bandits and minor incursions by those outside the hegemonic sphere of the Empire. Moreover, the client states functioned as a buffer which could absorb larger attacks from outside. The great advantage of this system was that the client states knew that the Empire would always defeat them in a war, so the Roman Empire did not need to use its army constantly, because the client states stayed loyal out of fear of reprisal. However, the client state system did have major disadvantages, as the Empire could not levy taxes in those areas, and client states did require constant management.

During the second stage of the Empire, starting with Vespasianus (69AD) up and to Marcus Aurelius (180AD), the strategy changed to a system in which the client states had been incorporated into the Empire, and through offensive tactics the Empire defended its borders. So, rather than defeating small raids and major attacks after they had crossed the border into the Empire, small patrols would prevent minor raids and major forces would prevent major attacks beyond the border. This provided a degree of safety and property rights protection unheard of until much later again in history. However, this system was much less flexible, as the Empire constantly needed to have armies at the ready at the borders. This meant that almost all legions were stuck in their specific border areas, which meant that as soon as the Empire faced a grave threat elsewhere it took much longer for troops to assemble, and withdrawing troops from one border to bring them to another immediately caused a grave security treat at that first border.

The last stage of the Empire in Luttwak’s scheme is less defined by a specific timing, except that it started after Marcus Aurelius. Moreover, while the other strategies were applied quite rigorously, except perhaps in time of civil war, the Empire had become so much weakened that the use of a particular strategy was not always feasible. The main strategy used, however, was one of in depth defense, using forts and fortifications in the border area. This strategy used castles and fortified cities, villages and even farm houses to slow down incursions into the border area, allowing the Roman army to march towards the threat, while using these strongholds for safety and food supplies, which those strongholds at the same time could withhold from the enemy. While this system allowed the Empire to survive for another century and a half, it wreaked havoc on the individuals living in, and the economies of the border areas. Moreover, the recurring internal warfare in the 3rd and 4th century often led to the total collapse of this strategy, as the Army was often elsewhere fighting for possession of the Empire, thus being far too late to defend the border areas. The collapse of the provision of safety in those  areas probably reduced the need that people felt for being part of the Empire. It still levied taxes, but what did the Romans still ever do for those border areas? This may well have contributed to the disintegration of the Roman Empire.

My biggest point of critique is the uneasy tension between historical sequence and categorization into different themes. For instance, the chapter may start with introducing the different ways in which the Roman dealt with problems like incursions/raids by Germanic tribes, and then later go through the historical sequence and discuss these issues again. But rather than elucidating the arguments, the historical examples on which the arguments are based often confused me, as it was often hard to follow whether Luttwak was introducing a new thesis, or merely providing historical evidence for an argument introduced thirty pages and 2 topics back.

Nevertheless, this book provides a good overview of how Roman commanders at different times in history had different goals and used different tactics and strategies to achieve those goals. Moreover, Luttwak provides much literary and archaeological evidence to support his arguments. All in all, just like Lancel’s book, this is a great work of history.

*Out of respect for the civilian casualties who fell during the atrocious massacre of Carthage the date is in the Gregorian calendar instead of the usual Roman calendar.

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