I am on a bit of a reading spree and have another book to share. I was looking for something to pass the time until some library holds came through and happened upon The Pride of Carthage, by David Anthony Durham. Published in 2005, this is a historical fiction written about Hannibal Barca and the events of the Second Punic War, fought between Carthage and Rome from 218 to 201 BC. I really don’t need to worry about spoilers do I?
The novel opened on the Iberian peninsula with Hannibal and his army preparing to take the city of Saguntum, a Roman ally isolated in Carthaginian controlled territory. After a prolonged siege, Hannibal’s forces prevail and in short order Rome issues its formal declaration of war. From here on out the book is the story of that war, largely from Hannibal’s perspective. It covered Hannibal’s famed overland march from Iberia to Italy; a journey in which his army of 100,000 soldiers marched over the Pyrenees, through territory held by war-like tribes of Gauls, and finally up and over the Alps to wage war on Roman soil. We are then given accounts of some of the key battles in Italy before concluding the story with Hannibal’s defeat.
Rather than present only the historical record, the book also sought to portray the thoughts and feelings of the people involved in the conflict. While Hannibal was the main focus of the book, it also spent a significant amount of time on the military campaigns of his brothers and the lives of his sister and wife through whom we get a glimpse of how the war is perceived back in Carthage. Later on, we are given more of the Roman perspective as Publius Scipio becomes a point of view character as well. Woven into the larger narrative there was also a storyline involving the lives of a rank and file soldier named Imco Vacca and a camp follower named Aradna.
While on the whole I liked the book, I do think it had a few flaws. Perhaps the biggest thing for me was that it was difficult to get a sense of the timeline or scope of the story. I do not recall any specific dates being mentioned, and often more minor points would get just as much page time as major events. I also found myself wishing that visual aids had been included. There were times a map of the local region or a depiction of battle formations would have enhanced the experience for the reader. I really get into stuff like that and was minorly disappointed to not have any of that in the book.
To supplement for this, I started looking up information about certain events, locations, and battles from other sources. In doing so I uncovered a number of (not entirely unexpected) historical inaccuracies in the book. To be clear, I understand this is a necessity in telling a story like this and the author makes it explicitly clear in his acknowledgments at the end that some things are purposefully done for the sake of clarity and brevity in the story. However,the decision to take certain liberties with the Barca family tree and some other historical figures did throw me off a bit once I became aware of them, mostly due to my interest in getting further into the actual events.
I was also not entirely sold on the development and depth of the book’s cast. While the author did a good enough job describing people and locations, he didn’t quite do enough to give the reader a chance to get into characters’ heads. I felt that they came across as fairly one-dimensional and many references were made too much with a modern reader in mind, making it harder to get a real sense of the historic context. Also, while I did appreciate the idea of including the perspective of everyday characters, the story of Aradna and Imco Vacca never developed in a way that added anything interesting or meaningful to the overall narrative. It felt like filler for space that could have been put to better use, like a point of view section from one of Hannibal’s political opponents in the Carthaginian government.
Fairly or not I couldn’t help but compare the book in my mind to different historical fiction that I think skewed my view of this one. Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, a seven book masterpiece spanning the years 110 – 27 BC, provided in abundance the things I wish had been included in this novel. It offered numerous maps, battle diagrams, and an extensive reference section complete with a huge glossary and footnotes to explain terms, concepts, and mention how certain sections were compiled based upon her research. Taking advantage of all these extras, McCullough also incorporated a lot of Roman terms and phrases in ways that really helped the reader jump into the world through her expertly crafted and fully fleshed-out characters. This made for a much denser and more in depth read, but also one that I found significantly more satisfying.
My criticisms aside, I did have fun reading this book and was able to enjoy it for what it was. That I have an interest in the subject matter was surely a key part of that, but I did appreciate the light and easy to read style in which it was written. While I wasn’t blown away, the novel was interesting and I had no problems getting through the nearly 600 pages in short order. While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this in light of my criticisms above, I wouldn’t warn anyone to stay away either; it really depends on what you’re looking for in the genre. If you prefer to keep things light, keep this book in mind. If you prefer something a bit more dense and detailed, I’d say skip this and go check out that Colleen McCullough series.